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Cheap Cities Equal Cheap Travel. (Ummm. Duh?)

Explaining Budget Travel…Again. Because Sometimes We Just Need To Hear Things Differently Than Before.

Have you ever had someone explain something to you and your response was “Wow, that totally makes sense, but I didn’t realize it”? Yeah. This is going to be one of those. Sometimes common sense ideas really aren’t common sense ideas until they smack you upside the head and make themselves known. But if you want to travel on the cheap, you should really start with finding out what places have the lowest cost of living and go from there. Kind of a budget travel basic, but often overlooked!

One huge travel hack that ninjas have been using for years is not being picky about where they’re going. They start with finding the cheapest flights, the shoulder seasons, the less-traveled places, and then they just go!

Taking the path less traveled

A lot of them don’t even care about the tourist attractions, since those are, well, too touristy and just crawling with crowds and misery. They’re just as happy to take a path less traveled.

I’m not particularly that drawn to the city life. I quickly get my fill of even the most unique urban setting pretty quickly, so my searches almost always entail finding the amazing outdoor gems within an hour or two. Last year I went to Vegas for five days and spent 3 of them traipsing around the desert in Red Rocks and the Valley of Fire.

Vegas baby…Vegas

I had my fill of the “real Vegas experience” on my 21st birthday, when my dad took me there to celebrate. You know, that’s the one that you see on TV; the one where they get you to spend or give them all of your money by the end and you go home broke and more stressed than when you started. Yeah, I ended up $1000 in debt after that… and he paid for the trip!

Thanks Dad! So now that I know how I like to travel and what really makes me happy, I’m smarter about finding the natural areas that fulfill me, and usually on the wicked cheap!

Here’s my process for figuring out a destination. Obviously mine has a good bent for nature, but I’ll throw in some mods for folks that might like the urban life a little more.

Hanging in Shenandoah National Park during my first vanlife experiment

Step 1: Lists, Lists, Lists

So first, you can pretty much do a web search for “low cost of living cities” and add the country of preference after that (for instance “US”), and get a smattering of different articles from this year or previous with 25-50 results. Start there!

Step 2: Check out the Map

For me, it’s as easy as going to Google Maps (or your map site of choice), looking up the city, zooming back, then looking for green. Those green areas typically signify a national or state park, or even a large local or regional park.

I can then quickly dig in, see the distances to those places, and check some websites to see how much there is to do. If you’ve zoomed out and it’s big and green, there’s likely plenty to keep you busy for days if you have them! (Modifications include doing a “nearby” search on the map and looking for museums, sports, recreation, etc., to your heart’s desire.)

Tip: Check out Roadside America for some awesome, off the beaten path stuff to do along the way.

A lot of the time there’s much more out there to see and do than you ever hear about from the paid advertisements or travel bureaus for a given destination, or even along the drive there!

Step 3: Flights, Cars, or Drive Time

Well, you do have to get there! Hopefully you’re using some airline miles if you’re flying, and getting a cheap rental with points, which saves you some loot up front. The reality is that if you’re heading to a city more off the beaten path, you’ll fly into a nearby airport, so you’ll have to drive a bit to get to your final destination. The other option is to just drive if it’s within a day, or potentially split the trip up and stop at another small city in between. (In that case, go back to step two, rinse, repeat.)

Step 4: Accommodations

My personal workflow usually goes: camping, hostels, Airbnb, Couchsurfing or Trust Roots, etc. Since I can actually crash in my Jeep, that’s also an option for me to cheapen the pot. Even if I am camping, I also sprinkle in some of those other options to get a couple of nights of more comfortable accommodations.

READ NEXT: Sleep in A Jeep Wrangler!? JKU Bed Platform & Storage STEP BY STEP HOW TO BUILD it!

For you, a motel or hotel might be in your comfort zone, but since you’re in a low cost of living city, at least you’re still starting with much cheaper options!

And the reality is that some of my options, like Airbnss or hostels, may not yet exist in smaller cities and towns.

Tip: Cook at “home!”

If you’re staying in an Airbnb, Hostel or even Couchsurfing or some other homestay, use the kitchen at least 1-2 times a day—the early meals for me—and then go out for one good local meal.

Cooking in a time or two a day will significantly reduce your costs over the trip. And you can still buy local and unique produce and items from the store and look up regional recipes to get your local infusion of flavor even when you’re cooking in!

Step 5: Book The Damn Trip!

Really, it is that easy, and I like to often bump this step up between steps 2 and 3 above. The reality for me is that if I know that there are nature-based or extremely inexpensive opportunities for me at a destination, I know that I can get my daily costs down pretty darn cheap regardless.

I’m usually targeting $60-$75 a day max all-inclusive in the US. That means that at the trip end I’m adding all of my spending, including getting there, and dividing by the number of nights. If you’re traveling with two people keeping it cheap should be even easier, since you’re splitting accommodations and often food costs to a degree. To be honest, $60/day seems expensive to me if traveling with a like-minded thrifty traveler!

Tip: Traveling solo, I was able to do Bend, Oregon for less than $100 a day, all inclusive. Bend isn’t really a cheap city at all, and the Airbnb scene there is up around $50/day minimum.

But as you can see, if I had another traveler with me, I would have been able to shave a good chunk off of my costs and get down to $50-75/day pretty easily!

Hope this little deep-dive helped! Cheers!
— Jason

Travel Planning Tips

Figure out where you are going & how are you getting there…
I suggest using at least 2 to 3 different travel search sites. Start with Skyscanner or Orbitz or Booking …or whatever aggregator site you prefer. Then when you see what airlines to use, check their respective sites for better deals or rewards flights.

Figure out where you’re going to stay…
If you’re interested in hostels, search Hostelworld or Hostelling International. For longer-term or more private digs, look at Airbnb, VRBO, or you can look for hotel rooms in the links from the search engines listed above. 

Get comprehensive travel insurance, or in the least, travel medical insurance if internationally…
Especially with Covid not going anywhere, get covered. Start with an insurance aggregator like Insure My Trip, or with SafetyWing, World Nomads, or another. Then decide what is important to you; trip cancellation, baggage coverage, medical, or all of the above. And get a yearly evacuation plan, since you’ll have to get home after your emergency! 

Need more resources? Click here!

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