Traveling as a broke adult

When I started traveling as an adult I was just out of high school. I was broke. I would never have called myself a tourist. I was a backpacker. Now that I am a few years older I am still less broke but somehow that doesn’t make traveling any easier.

I learned all of this the hard way but I made a lot of good choices between the bad ones. Here are a few tips I strongly encourage you to follow if you want to travel the world as an over worked, under paid adult:

Spend your vacation time wisely


Right now I work more hours than I want to, have less vacation than I feel I need, and travel less than I want to. I’m lucky enough to get a few days per year as “paid time off” but you can even travel with a bad job that doesn’t give vacations.

How do I still get to travel with only a few holidays per year and very few vacation days? I don’t take time off for 3 day weekends unless a holiday falls on that week. I then travel to places that don’t observe that holiday! I save my money and my vacation time and travel on longer trips less often. For example, if you live in the United States then take the 4th of July off and visit Canada!

Drink less alcohol

Yeah, you heard me. How much do you drink now? Just drink less. You’ll see photos of alcohol around my website but that is when I travel. I choose not to drink very often at home because it is expensive and prevents me from traveling! Just do the math. If one alcoholic drink costs between $2 (at home) and $6 (drinking out) and you have 4 drinks per week that comes out to between $416 per year and $1,248 per year! It doesn’t sound like much but that is airfare to almost anyplace in the world! For many of us those 4 drinks are actually many more. Drink less and you will travel the world faster.

Don’t go to big western cities

Big cities are expensive but big western cities are the worst. They are far too expensive for budget travelers. They are more expensive than you can imagine if you aren’t from these places. Also, if you want to visit them then you have no choice but to travel like the rich and famous. That’s expensive. I have some tips for visiting some of these places on a shoe-string budget but honestly, avoid big western cities. If you think you can’t afford it then trust me, you can’t…

Cook for yourself

Don’t eat out unless you are traveling and even if you are traveling then try to eat like the locals. In many parts of the world the locals cook at home. If you are anything like me then food is your biggest expense after housing. Hopefully that means you can control it the more than anything else. Cook for yourself and make it a game. Make it fun! Make it a family activity! If you have children then they will remember cooking with you, if you are married you will have more bonding time with your spouse, and if you are single then knowing how to cook makes you a hot item in the dating pool. 😉

Don’t buy travel stuff you don’t need

This should apply to any part of your life but here are a few highlights:

  • Don’t buy new clothes to travel. Just pick stuff that is comfortable and socially appropriate where you are going. See my page on culturally appropriate attire.
  • Don’t buy new bags. If you want to travel on a budget then traveling with less is the first step. Use old school backpacks, old hiking backpacks, old duffel bags. Just use what you have.
  • Don’t buy fancy hiking gear if you aren’t a hiker. Don’t buy fancy camping gear if you aren’t a camper. Most of this stuff can be rented locally for less than the cost of buying it and for most travelers it will be cheaper that way.

Backpacker, Flashpacker, or Tourist?

Are you a backpacker? Are you a flash packer? Are you a tourist? What does it matter?

I only recently started asking myself this question. For years I was a backpacker. Everything else had a stigma to it. I thought tourists walk around New York with “I ♥ NY” shirts and telephoto SLR cameras trying to photograph the statue of liberty from a bobbing ferry. Now that I am older I realize backpackers aren’t the best kind of traveler for every situation either. Sometimes being a tourist is okay if you do it right. This is part of a 3-part blog about ethical tourism.

I only care about the difference because not every traveler leaves the same mark when they travel. Hopefully the places you visit leave a positive mark on you, but do you always leave a positive mark on them? Do you photograph people with their permission? Do you respect their culture? Do you make the time to meet your hosts and try to learn who they are? Do you know where your money goes when you buy something while you travel? Do you participate in fun behavior that has a negative impact on the local community?

Impact on the environment

When I say “ethical travel” I mean traveling to places and making choices that promote good. Personal enrichment is only part of the story. Does the travel respect and care for the environment? There are plenty of great articles about the ethics of traveling and question if we can afford the carbon footprint of plane travel at all. I’m not talking about that because sadly, we jet-setting is far too hard on the environment. I am only focusing on what impact we have locally when we travel.

Environmental footprint of travel

Traveling has an environmental footprint. No matter how hard we try, we can’t help but change the environment where we travel. Can the environment sustain our visits? This really comes down to where we travel, when we travel, and for how long.

  • Do you know where the local trash goes? Why travel to a tropical paradise when every napkin, plastic fork, plastic bag, and plastic water bottle gets buried in the back yard where tourists don’t see it. Travel to places that have waste collection. Avoid use of single use items or plastic. Travel with your own silverware and use that when you visit street markets.
  • Where is your bodily waste going? Most of us never consider it but on many, if not most beautiful tropical islands the human waste from our bungalows just runs to an off-shore pipe near the coral reefs that attracted us to the island in the first place. What can you do? Do research. Avoid over-populated tourist destinations like Phu Quoc, Vietnam and Koh Rang, Cambodia.
  • Eat local food and eat what the locals eat. If you travel to places where the locals can’t eat meat then you probably shouldn’t either. In many poor parts of the world meat makes a huge environmental strain on the local community. If people don’t offer you meat then don’t take it. It is entirely possible that you eating meat will prevent a local from having access to it. I’m saying this more for rural communities in places like Laos or Cameroon or Indonesia where poverty and childhood malnutrition are all too common.