Travel Journal

How to See the World on a Budget

Since her mid-teens, designer, curator and nomad Ali Madigan has been jumping on planes, crossing continents, and making friends from Shoreditch to Shibuya--all without a trust fund or corporate expense account to pay her way. Because she's my friend and an all-round excellent human being, she agreed to tell us how. Read and learn.

FLYING 

TRAVEL ON TUESDAYS

There’s a lot to be said about airfare because first of all you have to get to wherever you want to go, and that can be hugely expensive. I use Kayak, which is very popular and kind of obvious, but there’s a formula to it. I know that the prices fluctuate numerous times a day and that there’s a system: on the weekends, the flights are always much more expensive than on the weekdays. In fact, the cheapest time to buy an airline ticket is on Tuesday – Tuesday morning specifically – because flight prices drop significantly at that time. This is not to be confused with flying on Tuesday (although that’s actually less expensive too) but you should definitely avoid buying airline tickets on Thursday, Friday or Saturday, because you’re probably going to end up paying around 30% more. [Editor’s note: SkyScanner is also a great way to search for the cheapest flights.]

MAKE A BID

For last minute travel, I’ve found some amazing prices on flights throughPriceline bidding. So, a one way ticket through Kayak might be $400, but then I’ve gone on Priceline and scored, say, a Virgin America flight from San Francisco to New York for $180. It’s a gamble because they don’t tell you what airline you’re going to fly, or what time you’re going to fly out, but if you have that flexibility and you just need to get somewhere tomorrow, then put in a bid and see what happens.Bear in mind that once your bid is accepted, you can’t retract it just because you don’t like the airline or the time.

BUDDY UP

I have been lucky enough to get a long-term buddy pass (coupons that can be exchanged for an open seat on any flight) through a friend who works for an airline, so I guess I’m recommend that you have friends who work for airlines if you can! Failing that, lots of people who work for airlines sell their passes (even though they’re not supposed to). You can usually pick a domestic, one-way buddy pass for around $100 if you keep your ears open and ask around.

STAY OPEN MINDED

Be flexible. Look for flights without having a destination in mind. I’ve made a regular habit of going on airline sites and seeing what’s available. The reason I ended up in Japan is simply because I was looking at random flights one day and I was curious how much it would cost to fly to Tokyo from New York. So I put in the search and discovered a round-trip, nonstop flight for $600. I had no plans to go to Tokyo, but I just went on Facebook and asked if anyone I knew was out there – it turned out that I had a friend who was staying in the city so off I went! Most people look for flights with a city and timeframe in mind but if you’re able to be flexible and travel is your thing then just keep putting feelers out and see what you can find.

EATING & SLEEPING 

GROW YOUR NETWORK

The reason I was able to book that flight to Tokyo is because I knew I had someone out there to stay with. Having friends around the world has been a huge factor in the amount I’ve been able to travel. Keep your own home open and stay in touch with everyone you meet on the road. Eventually you’ll end up with a huge network of friends with homes you can visit, all around the world.

GUEST OF HONOUR

Be an amazing guest. If you’re lucky enough to stay with a friend for free then leave the house way cleaner then you found it. If you’re staying with someone for five days or a week then put aside $100 of your travel budget to buy them groceries or take them out for a nice meal. It will alleviate your guilt, provide a chance to experience the local food culture, and make your host much more likely to welcome you back.

USE TRAVEL TECHNOLOGY

If you don’t have anyone to stay with then Air BnB is always the best way to go. I once got the most amazing apartment in Paris for $60 a night, all to myself. I also use Priceline to bid on hotel rooms – in the past, I’ve managed to get 4* rooms for $100 by going in with a lowball offer – it’s worth a try! The Hotel Tonight app is also great for getting great, cheap, last-minute rooms, although I generally only use it as a last resort.

PACK YOUR BREAKFAST (OR LUNCH)

Buy a box of granola bars and put them in your suitcase. Seriously! I’ve just started doing this – I took a tiny carry-on bag to London for two weeks this summer and stuffed 20 granola bars in it! We laughed about it, but doing that saved me £10 on breakfast or lunch every single day. So buy high-protein granola bars before you travel and pack them wherever you go. They’re easy to carry, light, non-perishable and they will save you the price of at least one meal a day.

BRING A BOTTLE

Water is always so expensive, especially in airports, so I don’t leave the house without a reusable water bottle in my bag. It’s just a lightweight plastic sports bottle but it will save you $5 every time you go to the airport and half that when you’re out and about. [Editor’s Note: I use a bottle with an inbuilt filter that renders even gross airport fountain water drinkable.]

GET YOUR VITAMIN B

Take your vitamins, specifically Vitamin B. Here’s why: trying out new restaurants when I travel is a huge thing for me, but eating out can get expensive. Vitamin B gives you energy and supposedly suppresses appetite, so you can go out to eat without feeling the urge to order a huge (expensive) meal. Similarly, if you’re walking around a city and you get hungry you can easily waste €10 on a little pastry and a coffee, so you’ll save a lot of money if you’re carrying vitamins and snacks on you!Vitamin B in an energy stimulator, so it’s also great for jetlagwhile also being a lot safer than getting crazy-buzzed on caffeine.

ASK A LOCAL

Ask around for tips on cheap eats – sometimes you just can’t find out that stuff on the internet. Tokyo is so expensive, maybe the most expensive place I’ve ever been, and I went there with $400 to last two weeks! You can easily spend that on one meal in Tokyo, but the friend I was staying with told me he lived off these amazing onigiri (rice wraps) from the local 7 Eleven. They were about a $1, so I literally survived on them for my whole trip.

STASH A FLASK

Buy a bottle of alcohol in duty free, and carry a hip flask with you at all times. You might be so broke that you can barely afford to buy a piece of pizza but if you go out and get drunk then you’ll be pulling out your credit card and acting reckless before you know it.

LOGISTICS 

IN TRANSIT

Travelling to airports can take up a huge chunk of the entire budget for your trip – you think you’re being all financially savvy and then you drop $100 getting to and from the airport because you forgot to do your research. My advice is to always spend time looking into the cheapest public transportation options before you leave home, because when you arrive at your destination tired, jetlagged and confused, that $80 cab ride into the city is going to be very appealing. It’s also easy to get ripped off when you’re in countries where you’re patently a tourist who doesn’t speak the language – if you can, get a local friend to book the cab for you in advance.

IN THE AIRPORT

Airports themselves are such big money drainers – you can fritter away $30 on pretty much nothing. I recently decided I wasn’t going to do that anymore, and it’s very easy to avoid if you plan ahead. Make a list of everything you typically buy in an airport and then just take it with you – water, snacks, painkillers, an eye-mask, a travel pillow… Basically, anything you might be tempted to pick up because you need it, or just because you’re bored and you want to kill time. That goes for books and magazines, too – I take a copy of The New Yorker because it’s light, easy to carry and contains enough reading material to last a week.

TRAVEL LIGHT

This tip is less about being a budget traveller and more about being a savvy traveller. When you travel light, you’re more comfortable and less likely to blow money on stuff (cabs, food, hotel rooms) to alleviate your discomfort. When you need to get around using alternative methods then you need to stay light on your feet – there’s nothing more ludicrous than lugging a body bag of a suitcase around a city when you can barely afford lunch. I literally travel with one, large carry on with a strap, which I prefer to a rollie suitcase because it makes me feel more mobile.Trust me, long haul travel with a carry on can be done – I survived Paris Fashion Week with two pairs of shoes.

BE CELL PHONE SAVVY

Think about your phone use before you travel. AT&T have a pretty good international plan but many networks don’t. If you can’t buy a phone and data bundle in advance then pick up a cell phone card when you arrive at your destination. Most people don’t realise that phone cards aren’t just for landlines: you can use them with smartphones too. Just be sure to get your phone unlocked wherever you buy your phone card (at any of those generic phone shops you find in major cities) or ask your network to do it for you – often they’ll be happy to oblige if it’s strictly for international use.

NEGOTIATE

If you forget to keep tabs on your data use when you’re abroad and come back to a horrendous phone bill then call your phone network and negotiate! Flat out deny it if you have the guts (there’s no way for them to know) or explain that you made a mistake and ask for them to reduce the charges. Everything is negotiable. [Editor’s note: I recently made the same mistake and also managed to talk my way out of a hefty phone bill by asking my phone network to retroactively apply an international data plan. That way, I paid an additional $30 instead of $300. Phew.]

TREAT YO’ SELF

Finally, when you’ve got budget brain drain, head towards the nearest gym and sign up for a free trial. When you’re staying with friends, sleeping on a couch and going out every night really wears you down. While I’m on the road, the gym is a piece of home, my little refuge and a welcome break from always feeling like I’m invading someone’s space. A posh gym trial is like having a spa day for free.

@alimadigan