How to travel cheaply as a young professional or college grad

aka Traveling for college grads / young professionals

This blog post is targeted at people who are young enough to want to travel and old enough to spend their own money in achieving it.  You could be someone who graduated college recently or maybe you’re in a better position. Maybe you’re a young professional with a little extra money looking to go on an adventure.  Here’s how to travel cheaply and well.

First. If you are wondering why I’m qualified to advise on this, then this is why?

When I graduated college in 2001 and with very little money, I bought a plane ticket to Paris, France for an amazing low price of $450 round trip and spent 4 weeks traveling through many countries in Europe with someone I was with at the time.

My total cost for the 4-week trip was less than $1500, including the flights and the places to say – which I didn’t book beforehand and it was an adventure that helped mold my views and motivations for more deeply exploring the world.  Since then I both worked for a living and traveled when I could, many times by myself to faraway places, still on the cheap.  I learned how to stretch my dollar for the travel experiences I was after.  Eventually, I met my now wife who also had gone on lots of similar adventures but is now usually my travel companion.

Enough about me.  I was in your shoes once.  I know what you are thinking as you read this.  Let me tell you my perspective of traveling at this time of your life with a lower salary that can feel limiting and how to make it work.

While you’re here and revving up for a big trip, you will likely be interested in this info too:

  1. How to make friends while traveling
  2. Ways to stay safe while traveling

The most important thing about traveling as a young adult

If you are reading this blog post then the most important thing I can tell you is to GO.  If you can get someone to go with you, great!  If not, whatever.  GO.  My opinion is that when you are old and gray you are going to have the memory of being young and traveling through the world.  If nobody wants to do that with you, then screw them. 

Personally, I often traveled by myself in my 20s.  I did it because I wanted to see the world, I did it because I knew my life had limits and the future was questionable for a number of reasons.  I traveled alone at a time when I didn’t carry a cell phone on vacation when I needed to log into a computer at some horrible computer cafe to send an email – which I didn’t do often.  For me, I often was officially traveling alone.

But today, you have your phone.  When you travel alone you can still text and call people back home at your own whim.  You can share your location with them, you can send them a picture a day if you want to.  When you eat at a restaurant, you will optionally have your phone to keep you company.  Just make sure that you look around and strike up conversations with people every now and then.  The phone is a great distraction, so take your time to look around.

Cost of the Trip

First of all, if you travel right with a low budget, then the most expensive part of your trip will be the flight.  If you can cover that, you are well on your way.  And even better, once you have a destination in mind you can start researching what you want to do there, how you’re going to do it, and roughly how much it will cost you.

Where to Travel Cheap

Here are a few destinations to consider if you want things to be very, very cheap once you get there. Look each up and evaluate if it’s your style. But this list should not dictate where you go, simply help you to think about your cheap options.

  1. Thailand – More specifically, northern Thailand
  2. The Philippines
  3. Vietnam
  4. Cambodia
  5. India
  6. Mexico
  7. Vietnam
  8. Guatemala
  9. Columbia
  10. Bolivia
  11. Poland – Maybe not with the Ukraine war raging
  12. Bratislava – Maybe not with the Ukraine war raging

The trip itself

Choose where you want to go and where you can afford to go first then plan out what you want to do at that location.  Start with the big items, things you don’t want to miss.  Then add in other activities that look interesting to you.  I remember walking across huge cities when on my first trip, so I recommend trying to group your activities by day based on location within the city/town that you are in.  And if you meet someone along the way, your trip schedule may change dramatically… or perhaps not.  In addition to knowing your first city destination, you need to know how you will get from one destination to the next.  Knowing how to transition from place to place is a must and you need to know what the rough schedules of transportation are.  

The details of what you do at each location is actually less important.  Hit the big stuff, and the smaller stuff on your list, and explore what lies between them.  

For cheap places to stay, I recommend “hostels”, “pensions” or upgrading to a low-budget hotel. You can usually find a great location at a low price at the cost of rooming with a few other travelers who can become friends!

If your plan is to run around and see everything, make sure to build in the ability to take a day off and relax – to just enjoy where you are.

Remind yourself that you don’t have to do everything that you planned and enjoy the ride.

Solo Travel is a good option

Next, don’t be afraid to travel solo. I know how much you love your friends but if they don’t want to or are unable to go with you…. GO.  Yes by yourself.  Solo traveling is something I’ve done on many trips and I’ve met many fellow travelers doing the same.  I traveled through many countries in Europe by myself in a single trip, a second going through England and Ireland, a third in the Netherlands and the last notable solo vacation was in Papua New Guinea.    

Traveling by yourself can be a little awkward at times, but I can say from experience that it offers amazing opportunities to meet people and provides you with the freedom of choice.  On every trip that I took by myself I wound up hanging out with people for a portion of the time – sometimes one on one, sometimes in a group.  They were usually travelers like myself out for an adventure.  Here are some examples of people I met along the way:

  1. In Eastern Europe, the first hostel I stayed at I met a nice girl.  She hooked me onto my planned itinerary for a few countries and we traveled together, at a few nice meals together and a few that I’d rather forget, we roomed together in pensions and hotels splitting the costs, and damn we had fun.  Serena from Sydney Australia if you’re out there hi!  Miss ya!
  2. Also in Eastern Europe, we bumped into a group of Australians in Budapest.  We joined them on a cave spelunking experience as well as some hanging out in town.
  3. In London, I met a girl at my first stop – the Tower of London tour.  We were both on the tour of the place – provided with the cost of entry, which was about 6 people and one guide.  We didn’t talk during the tour but you could tell that our spirits were aligned.  Afterward, we got a drink and some food and hung out for a bit and checked out some additional culture spots – we tried to connect, but this was the year before smartphones so it was only a one-day thing.
  4. In Ireland, I went to Temple Bar – a big pub that is well-known in the middle of Dublin.  I met a guy and we spent 2 days together going to the sites of Dublin, parting ways in the evening.  That last evening I went back to Temple Bar and met a group of Irish people.  They were awesome!  We spent the night drinking and chatting and parted ways because I was headed to the airport in the morning.
  5. Also in Dublin, I met a group of locals again, at Temple Bar. We hung out for the entire following day.
  6. At my first hotel in Papua New Guinea, I met the only other single guy there.  He was eating dinner by himself so I struck up a conversation and we decided that we would eat together.  I learned that he hadn’t even left the hotel because he was there on business.  So immediately I was like, ok let’s go to the local market.  The market was just a fruit and vegetable market from the local tribes but there were a ton of local people there and since we were both white we got a lot of unwanted attention.  Although we did meet a group of people who wanted to teach us about betel nuts, I pulled my new travel friend away before we went into the hidden parts of the jungle with them – safety first.  We spent a few nights hanging out and then I was off.
  7. Final example –  In Bratislava when I was traveling with Serena we met these two Bratislavian gentlemen while walking around a castle.  We took them to dinner, shared some stories, treated them to a few beers which were super cheap for us, and just really enjoyed our night.

So even when I traveled “solo”, most of the time I met people along the way, people I still think about today.  People who helped to make my experience that much better.

Overcoming Family Objections on Traveling

Your parents and family will react once you start talking about it until you come back. 
Personally, my father and brother were always dead set against me going on any foreign vacation, often listing safety concerns and wondering why I just couldn’t go somewhere within my country.    However, my mother was at my back and proud that I was going on the trip and she was the first one to welcome me back and couldn’t wait to hear all about it.

My father and brother protested every trip I took. For me, it became a bit of a joke over the years but I ease their minds by reminding them of all the other places I’ve been and informing them about my itinerary.

How to handle Jet Lag

Wherever you choose to go, it is likely that you will experience jetlag.  Whether you travel to Japan, California, or Peru it doesn’t matter.  There will be jet lag.  How you handle it should be determined by your plans.  If you are going on a trip where you expect to be running from place to place from 9-5, then do that no matter how tired you are.  But at 5:30 you can crash the first day, just be sure to eat dinner before the restaurants close.

If you are making plans that focus more on the evening say 3-10 pm, then stick to that schedule.  If you landed at 5 pm then stay up until at least 10 pm.

There are all kinds of home remedies and odd recommendations you get for handling jet lag.  Simply, they don’t work.  Take a nap on the plane if you can, then gear up for a tough first day or so.  I admit that on some trips I felt like I never acclimated to the time zone.  When I was in Thailand I remember waking up every morning at 4 am but it didn’t bother me much.

Travel Safety

In regards to safety when traveling solo, you do want to be mostly safe.  Pickpockets exist in many urban areas so keep your wallet in your front pocket, not your purse.  Try not to bring attention to your accent by speaking loudly, speak quietly instead. If you need to study your map on your phone or a paper map, do so while casually leaning against a wall and not in the middle of the sidewalk. You’ll draw less attention to yourself, making yourself less of a target and giving pickpockets less ability to maneuver around you – or become much more suspect. 

Don’t go down that dark scary alley.  If something feels odd about a situation, trust your gut.  Get out of there – get a cab, walk away, more specifically walk towards other people, walk into a restaurant, a cafe, or a store of any kind and spend some time there.  Ask them to organize a cab for you if you’re still concerned.

Instagramers on vacations / social media on vacation

I know.  You’ve seen a few amazing places on social media that attempt to inspire you to go somewhere.  Some travel influencer has a thousand amazing photos of themselves doing something that looks interesting and cool at various locations around the world.

Most of what I see from “travel influencers” on social media is not what you expect it to be.

I was in the Galapagos and a social media influencer was on the trip.  They were not having fun.  They were looking for the shot.  They were looking for how they could put themselves into a shot that made it look awesome.

Meanwhile, they weren’t enjoying where they were.  They weren’t truly interested in snorkeling with the sea lions or sharks because they couldn’t get a good shot of it.

When you’re on vacation you’ll get a great set of pictures.  It just won’t be the ones that you see so curated and set up on social media.

Should you travel when you have very little money?

At the end the decision is up to you.  You need to decide what is right for your budget and what is not.  You need to decide what kind of travel you are willing to do and do it.  You need to decide if traveling in your country is the better option or whether traveling outside of your country would satisfy that travel bug.

The key here is “You”.  Do what you want.  Don’t prevent yourself from doing it because someone else doesn’t like the idea.