Travelling on a shoestring? 5 principles for making your money go further.

It’s sad but true that those of us who love to travel often have to scrimp and save to be able to afford it, and to keep our costs down while we’re away. It’s ironic, particularly in developing countries, that local people may have the attitude that every foreigner they see is “rich”. I suppose, relatively, that’s what we are! Maybe I’m carrying a digital camera and an iPad? How many months would a local day-labourer have to work to buy those?

Anyway, the first principle for budget travelling is to sort out how you are going to get hold of local cash. Obvious, isn’t it, but not something we generally give much thought to.

It’s best to avoid carrying large amounts of hard currency around, and any currency exchange booth in a developing country should carry a health warning in your mind. I am careful and cynical, and even I got caught in Bali by a currency trader with truly magical fingers.

So before you leave home you need to research your other options for getting hold of cash. For most Westerners, the best strategy turns out to be using a particular credit card that charges no commission on foreign transactions, and to use it to withdraw cash at ATMs. I can also use it of course, for larger transactions where credit cards are accepted, such as buying flight tickets. Provided that I pay the credit card bill in full every month my effective exchange cost, even for cash withdrawn from an overseas ATM, is 1.2%. Depending on where your home is, and your age and financial status, you need to do the sums and find out what’s best for you.

The second principle relates to how you pay local costs in cash. Don’t flash too much cash around when buying things, because you’ll emphasise how rich you are, reduce your bargaining power, and make it more difficult to get a reasonable price. Instead, collect a pile of the lowest value, grubbiest notes in use wherever you are, and use them for buying the essentials. If the local custom is to haggle, then you do it too. You might not be as good as the locals at it, but you will lose respect if you don’t.

The third principle is “When in Rome” …do what the locals do. Use public transport, buy at market stalls and eat where local people eat. You’ll probably pay a bit more than they do, but you’re “rich”, so get over it. Don’t buy imported stuff, do drink the local beer, and if you like the look of food cooked on a street stall, choose a stall that’s got a queue of local people waiting to be served. It will be fresh and completely safe to eat, most likely taste wonderful, and be really cheap.

Fourth principle- look for deals on accommodation. Sometimes you can find absolutely ridiculously cheap on-line deals on posh hotels, and once in a while it can be nice to have a little splurge, can’t it? So don’t neglect the hotel sector when you are researching where to stay.

But, if you find yourself in a nice hotel don’t eat there (except the complimentary breakfast), do carry your own bag up to your room, and don’t even think about opening the mini-bar!

Researching where to stay could be a principle all by itself. Maybe you like the feeling of being a free spirit, arriving in a new place with no room reservation? But it’s a bad idea, really. It means that you get the room no one else wants, at a price determined by how desperate you look when you knock on the door. And you need to make instant decisions because the only room available is in a dodgy part of town. Don’t do it! Use Tripadvisor, Hostelworld, or one of the other booking and rating websites, and have at least your first night covered. If necessary take your time the next day to check out cheaper alternatives.

My fifth and possibly most important principle is about sharing knowledge and costs. The fellow travellers you meet are a wonderful source of knowledge about what’s good, what’s good value, and what to avoid. In some countries it can also be a great idea to travel in a group, sharing the cost of a man with a van to do things that the local public transport system does not make easy. So take every opportunity to meet travellers like you.

In Jakarta you’ll find that Six Degrees, the city’s newest and best hostel/B&B, is the place to meet travellers, and to get information from the knowledgeable folks who run it. It’s in a fascinating (not at all dodgy) part of town, it’s unbeatable value, and if you book it for your first night in town you won’t want to stay anywhere else!