A lot of people talk about budget travel, but most have wildly varying conceptions of what the term means. Allow me to elaborate, but first a note of clarification. As is the case with so many terms in the travel universe (sustainable, eco-tourism, etc.) budget travel tends to be highly subjective and open to a wide degree of interpretation. This is my definition, but I don’t think I’m alone in my perceptions and I know that it is applicable to many people.
I work a traditional, 9-5 job and get three weeks of vacation a year. I represent the most prolific type of traveler – a tourist everyman, of sorts. There are other sites that write about backpacking and digital nomadism, which is great, but it is not relatable to the vast majority of people. Most people are like me, seeking to find the best way to travel, while not breaking the bank and on a fairly tight schedule.
That brings me to my definition. Budget travel is the ability to find affordable ways to visit the places you want to see and experience the world without spending a lot of money. This is not to be confused with finding the absolute cheapest option for everything you do, but rather finding ways to be comfortable and budget conscious.
For example, the cheapest lodging in any city would either be a hostel or a room rent/couch surf option. But for many people, the idea of sleeping in a dorm with 20 teenagers does not sound like a relaxing vacation. Instead, people usually identify two or three star hotels in the area of town where we want to stay.
Budget travel isn’t about living as a pauper while on the road, sacrificing any degree of comfort or enjoyment. Budget travel is about finding ways to be comfortable and experience travel destinations without going broke. That’s why I have a real problem when writers mislead the traveling public by publishing how to travel on $30 a day, or some such nonsense. While I’m sure this amazing example of financial acrobatics is possible, it’s not how most people want to live. The actual cost, per day, of a vacation for most people is much, much higher.
That’s why I use a different term to classify those of us in the middle class who are of a certain age and want to see the world, but not at $900 a night – pre-luxury.
Pauline Frommer recently tackled this subject in a speech about when to scrimp and when to splurge on vacation. According to Pauline, hotels are not a time to splurge, instead it makes more sense to find a safe, comfortable and quiet property at a reasonable price. I agree with this, but I also think that it is smart to be alert to special deals and opportunities that will allow you to experience a higher quality of service without paying for it.
A recent example of how we achieved this budget travel feat was a visit to the Hawaiian island of Lanai, where we stayed at the Four Seasons Resort. Normally, the Four Seasons can be quite pricey, with some of their properties featuring $600 a night standard rooms. Because of the somewhat remoteness of Lanai though, the average room there was around $220 in the off season. This is the same as we paid at a fairly generic hotel in Waikiki, but we received all the perks and high quality afforded to a Four Seasons guest anywhere in the world. Were there cheaper options? Yes, without a doubt, but by spending a little more, not a lot, we were able to have a true luxury experience at more affordable prices.
Another example of enjoying a high quality hotel without paying for it was a weekend getaway to the Inn at Perry Cabin, one of the best hotels in the world. This Eastern Shore, Maryland institution can demand extremely high rates in their peak season, but in the winter it is a relative bargain. Not only did we enjoy much cheaper rates but, because of the lower occupancy, we were upgraded to a full suite. We received a room that demands more than $700 a night in the summer, for the cost of an off-season standard room. Not a bad deal.
These practices are not the norm for us, many times we will just find well situated, two or three star hotels in our travel destination. But it is possible to have better experiences without having to pay for them. To return to Pauline’s statement about scrimping on hotels, I agree and I also agree with her advice to splurge on experiences. That’s why we travel after all, for the experiences; to see and do things of which we have always dreamt. To shy away from paying for a tour or an entrance fee is to deny yourself the reason for your travels in the first place.
My purpose in writing this budget travel manifesto isn’t to complain about irresponsible travel advice, it’s to help convince people that anyone can travel, with a little planning and budgeting. To see the world, one does not have to sleep on a park bench or eat saltine crackers for every meal. There is a wonderful middle ground allowing all of us the life changing opportunities to experience to world around us.