If you consider every part of the trip as part of the adventure, then you are in a position where you have more time than money so act accordingly. You're still going to be a tourist, sure, but if you allow yourself to try something a bit different, you'll have so much fun and it's a much more personal experience.
So how do you start traveling so cheap? You simply have to stop doing certain things. Just don't do them.
My one caveat is this. Do all of this at your own comfort level. Sometimes I try to go as cheap as I can and other times, I want a little more comfort so spend a few extra dollars for things like a private bathroom.
No Hilton For You!Don't stay at a fancy hotel.
Do check into budget lodging.
In populated areas, you can almost always find an expensive hotel if you try. But why would you choose to spend more money rather than less? The hotel is not the destination, the country is.
I'm not saying you have to stay in a roach-infested hovel, but there are budget accommodation options just about everywhere that are really decent and even nice! My friend and I shared a room in in Mexico at the Hotel Xbalamqué for $30/night that had a cabana boy bringing us poolside drinks, and Wild Orchid Villa in Bangkok even added a pool!
Budget hotels go by many names depending on what country you're in. Hostels (which are not only bunk beds by the way - many have private rooms, too), hospedajes, guesthouses, pensions, backpacker's, and now private rentals (think Airbnb) are popping up all over. There are some gross places and unfortunately more and more places with bed bugs so always ask to see the room first.
To save the most money, skip the air-conditioning since that will always cost you extra. Some places include breakfast, some have cooking facilities (a good $ saver and a fridge to keep your beers cold!). You can be a hermit or you can meet other friendly travelers also on a budget.
A bed in a dorm will typically cost you anywhere from $5 - $15 USD and you should be able to find a private hotel room for $10 - $30 USD. In Tanzania we found some wonderful rooms with aircon for $10 per room with private bath and hot water! Yeah private bath and hot water will be little luxuries you come to cherish. Hostal Zócalo in Mexico City has nice clean private rooms for $26/night for 2 people.
How to find budget lodging? With the internet being so widespread today, you can find lodging almost anywhere on sites like Booking.com or Airbnb. A quick internet search or a look in Lonely Planet will guide you to the right neighborhoods.
Sort By Price is one of your best tools and many Airbnbs will offer weekly discounts. I got an entire house on the beach in Zancodo, Costa Rica through Airbnb for $550/month! For hotels and hostels, I personally prefer walking around to find a room rather than booking ahead online. If you are staying multiple nights you can barter for a better deal and many of the real budget options are still not online ... thankfully.
Public TransportationDon't take taxis, tourist buses, or hire private drivers.
Do take local buses and trains.
Transportation can eat up your budget fast. Some countries just don't have good public transportation, but most do. In fact in many countries, that's the main method of transportation. Most people don't own cars.
Here's a perfect example. You arrive at the airport after a long flight, you just want to hop in a taxi and get to your hotel. Au contraire mon frère. Here's where your adventure begins! Almost anywhere you land, you can either take a taxi from the airport to your hotel. Or you can walk just outside the airport to catch a local bus. The savings can easily be 10x.
Another example is when we were in Roatan (I'm almost embarrassed to say it) on a cruise. Because I had spent a decent amount of time in Roatan as an independent traveler, I knew not to take the same $30 taxi that everyone else was taking. We wandered through town a short way to the pickup point, got to see some of the local goings on, and paid only $1 each to take the colectivo into West End.
Public trans might take more time than just hopping in a taxi, but traveling as the locals do is so much more interesting. It becomes part of your trip. What is that saying? The journey is half of the ... oh wait, that's admitting you have a problem. Well you get the idea. It's also dirt cheap. A public bus in Bangkok costs around $0.10 USD and a 24 hour train in India $15 USD (and you save the cost of a hotel).
It can be quite an interesting puzzle asking for help from locals and trying to figure out how to get from point A to point B using the variety of public trans options at your disposal! From rickshaws to trains to bemos to songthaews to ferrys to buses so full that there are people sitting on the roof - oh it's fun!.
By the way, traveling light really helps you hopping on and off buses and such. If you have a big suitcase, there just plain won't be room for it! Well it might end up on the roof of the collective (where 20 people are shoved into a van meant for 12) or under the dusty bus but expect to have your bag crammed in with you. Don't lug around any more than you can easily carry.
In Belize, the tourist transpiration costs $45 USD from San Ignacio to Belize City whereas the local bus costs $3. Also, I have to say that you gain some iota of respect from the locals. Instead of being a "rich tourist" in your air-conditioned private vehicle, you are riding with everyone else and are even taking the extra effort to learn their system.
Okay, so after all my preaching about no taxis, sometimes a taxi is your only option (at certain airports or if you are dropped off somewhere in the middle of the night) and sometimes the tourist transportation is not a horrible option. Just check your options.
Eats and DrinksDon't eat at the tourist restaurants or American chains.
Do eat where and what the locals eat.
Most countries (including your own) has its local dishes and low-key places to get a good bite, a coffee, or an alcoholic bevy. What better way to get to know the local culture! If you go to the restaurants full or foreigners, you'll probably be getting non-traditional food at elevated prices.
Street food - this is how the locals eat; their typical dishes, sitting in plastic chairs along the roadside. You might not always know what you're eating and it can be more difficult for vegetarians, but man, you can get some really good food. Street food will cost you $1 - $2 at most. Pad Thai is around 30 baht ($1) even in the tourist areas, cafe sua da (OMG delish iced coffee) in Vietnam costs $.50, and I got an amazingly tasty dish in India for around $0.16!
If you're looking for a sit-down restaurant, look for the places that are full of locals. That's the good stuff and also the cheapest. Some places have menus, some don't. Some have a plate of the day, some bring food by and fill your plate. The local restaurants have their own name in some countries just like the budget hotels do. Comedor in Central America, warung in Indonesia, etc.
Another low-cost food option is the grocery store and it's super interesting seeing what they sell at the local market! Grab a yogurt or a pastry for breakfast or some nuts and fruit to take on a long bus journey. You'll also find people selling all sorts of snacks and drinks around (and in) public transportation which can be yet anther interesting crap shoot as to what you're getting.
Booze - yes I'll admit that I like to enjoy a drink or two or three. You can find imported liquor if you are looking for a taste of home, but it'll cost ya'. Once again, do as the locals do. There's usually some sort of local brew whether it's tuak rice wine in Borneo, a local beer, sadza in Africa, coconut wine in Comoros, or pitchers of wine in Italy. There's nothing like raising a glass with some locals and trying their local concoction (with caution of course!). Cheers! Also, save money by buying some cold beers at the supermarket or ubiquitous 7-11 to take back to the balcony of your hostel.
Just because you might be wealthy compared to the country you're visiting, doesn't mean you have to overspend. If a typical local meal costs $1 then great, eat the $1 meal. Don't go to a tourist restaurants just because it's still cheap compared to home. You just turned yourself into the "rich tourist" that burns money on vacation, you probably got non-authentic food (oh the amount I have spent trying to find decent pasta ), and you spent 5x more than you had to. That stuff adds up.
Independent TravelDon't go on packaged tours.
Do put together your own DIY tour.
Sure it's easy just to pay someone a fee and have them do everything for you. But you will far far overpay for this service. There are a few places (like some of the major sites in Belize) where independent travelers are simply not allowed in, but usually you can visit places on your own without a tour.
You can always check tour prices to see if there are any super deals, but do your research and figure out how to do it on your own. You will get a much better experience than being on a cattle boat and having limited time.
Take Chichen Itza in Mexico for example. You can book a day tour from Cancun to visit the ruins and the Ik Kil cenote for around $50 USD. It'll be an all day affair with only 2-3 hours at Chichen Itza and an hour at the cenote. Or you can pay $30 round trip on the ADO bus, spend the night in Piste, walk to the ruins in the morning, pay your $5 entry before all the tours buses get there and enjoy as much time as you want there. Then walk over to the Ik Kil cenote ($4). You may not have saved a ton of money (given the bus cost) but you will have a much better time and see more of the town and the ruins.
When to TravelDon't travel during peak season.
Do go during low or shoulder seasons.
Travelling during a destination's high season can have it's benefits (all attractions, transportation, restaurants, and lodging are open) but it's also more expensive. Prices for just about everything are raised during peak tourist times and everything is more crowded. And with all the extra tourists, your options can be limited as far as last minute bookings and finding available budget accommodation.
Travelling during off-peak times, you can get way better deals on hotels, tours, private transportation, and even food. People are either hurting for business or the prices have simply fallen back down to the norm/local cost.
But keep in mind that off season is usually off season for a reason, typically weather related. If a little extra heat and humidity in SE Asia or a bunch of rain in Costa Rica doesn't bother you, then you'll save a lot of money.
You do have to be prepared for the possibility of fewer dining, transportation, and accommodation options as things tend to shut down when business is slow.
Sometimes the quieter pace can be nice but sometimes the extreme weather may keep you from enjoying what you came there to experience (I can tell you that Hawaii in January is not worth it as the water is grey and rough). A little balance is in order.
The real trick is to travel during shoulder season; that month or so when the weather starts to turn and it's right before the bulk of the tourism hits. You can still get good deals, the locals are ramping up, and you can enjoy nice weather.
November in Thailand is when the temperatures drop to a bearable and even pleasant level, but before the rush of visitors in December. Springtime in Eastern Europe, the end of the rainy (green) season in Costa Rica, these are all your best bets. You can thoroughly enjoy the region without paying top dollar and you get the extra benefit of not having to share your space with the extra crowds.