Tips + Trends

Money-Saving Travel Tips with a Bonus: Getting to Know Your Destination Like a Local

By  Jessica Rigg

A few simple tricks can help save your wallet. (Illustration: Yeji Kim)

There’s no doubt about it: Traveling on a budget can be tough. It requires diligent planning and research, flexibility, and a fair amount of creative thinking. But the good news is that the most budget-conscious options (from food to transportation) are usually the ones that allow you to best absorb the local culture.

If your goal is to truly experience a place and its culture, all while saving money, here are some need-to-know tips.

As always, check for travel guidelines and closures before planning your trip.

Get Outside the City Center

Cities certainly have their charms, offering the culture, diversity and energy that many travelers crave. But by venturing outside city centers (especially major capital cities), you’ll save money and likely get a more up-close-and-personal look at the way locals live.

Restaurants, bars and cafés in further-flung neighborhoods and beyond into smaller towns generally charge much less than what you’d pay for a similar experience in a city. And because of the relative lack of tourists, you’ll have a better chance of interacting with people who actually live in your destination.

Shop at Grocery Stores

Going to the grocery store in a foreign country is one of the most interesting experiences you could hope to have as a traveler — it’s every bit as enriching as checking out an art museum or attending a local festival. Grocery stores can tell you a lot about the way people live. After all, these are the places that stock items that people seek out on a daily basis, not places that cater to tourists.

You’ll also get an in-depth look at new-to-you products and produce. For example, Ecuadorean grocery stores and markets have a wide array of fruits that aren’t available in the U.S.

Plus, if you have access to a kitchen during your trip (for example, if you’re staying at an extended-stay hotel), buying fresh, local ingredients and making your own meals can be a real money-saver.

Eat Street Food

Not only is street food affordable and widely available, but it’s also a fantastic way to gain access into a local culture since you’ll get to experience the way that the majority of people prepare and eat food.

You may even find that a vendor uses recipes and cooking techniques passed down from generation to generation that help tell the story of a place. Stop at street carts where you see long lines of locals waiting, which is usually a reliable sign that the food is good.

Check Out Lesser-Known Museums and Galleries

While there’s certainly nothing wrong with visiting big-name museums when you travel (especially if you can take advantage of free days and nights), it’s often the lesser-known museums and galleries that offer cheaper admission prices and provide a more specific look at a place or culture.

Smaller and less-popular museums tend to collect local history as opposed to housing global collections and exhibits — think the Musée Carnavalet in Paris, which is dedicated to the history of the city, as an alternative to visiting the Louvre.

Spend Time in Public Parks

People-watching in public parks is free, totally enjoyable, and a great way to observe parts of a community that you might not otherwise see — especially if you visit small neighborhood parks and green spaces, which are often the beating hearts of communities.

You’ll likely have ample opportunities to strike up conversations with locals, and you’ll also get to experience the local flora and fauna.

Volunteer

Volunteering is a good way to travel cheaply while interacting with and giving back to a community. Just don’t fall for expensive, ineffective voluntourism programs; be sure to go through a reputable organization. AmeriCorps, Peace Corps, and Volunteers for Peace are all solid options.

Take Local Transportation Instead

Make it a point to use whatever form of public transportation locals use to get around. Ride the bus, take the metro or subway, or take a train. Not only is public transportation cheaper than renting a car, but it offers a rich, immersive look into everyday life.

Walk Everywhere, as Much as Possible

And of course, there’s no better way to soak up the sights and sounds of a new place than to walk the streets. Explore on foot as much as possible and you’ll feel your destination open up to you with every step.

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