A Backpacker's Guide to Saving & Spending On a Gap Year

The secret to long-term travel is knowing when and where to watch your wallet, and when to whip it out. Remember, you’re in for a marathon, not a sprint. Pace yourself!

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A Cautionary Tale

Last winter, I was traveling solo through the jungles of northern Kerala, in South India. One day, I realized that I’d had enough.

Monkeys had been bursting into my guesthouse room, tracking muddy paw-prints across my bed.  I was bored and restless, trapped in the middle of nowhere. 

Worst of all, the guesthouse’s food was totally flavorless. In India, there’s just no excuse for that!

In my rush to escape, I ended up blowing my monthly travel budget on a taxi from one end of India to the other. I was far from any city, and it seemed like the only option. (Luckily, it was the narrower end.)

After dropping my money on the all-day car ride – in a teeny, rickety, over-heated sedan – I found  that there was an air-conditioned, overnight bus. It would have cost me about the price of lunch!

When to Splurge

I won’t be repeating my mistake any time soon. Unless you’re torn between a one-hour flight or a nine-day jeep ride, long distance travel isn’t the time to bring out the big bucks. 

There are usually cheaper (and possibly even faster) options available.  And if not… hey, 30-hour bus trips can still be fun!

But, when it comes to knowing when to splurge, there are a few guidelines you can follow:

Tourists have major purchasing power, especially in developing economies. So let ethics be your guide. Pony up for the trekking agency that pays their porters fair wages, rather than the one touting suspiciously low prices. Pay more to stay at an eco-resort, and forget the cheap elephant safaris. Tip when appropriate. 

If it seems that you’re getting an insanely good deal, then it might just be too good to be true.

Splurge on unforgettable experiences. If you’ve come all the way to India, don’t balk at the entry price to the Taj Mahal. Enjoy a gourmet meal. Take a dance class. Buy an incredible piece of handicraft to take back home. 

Make sure that you’re taking time to treat yourself and to savor the experience of a new place, even if that means shelling out from time to time.

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When to Skimp on the Pennies

In a new place, getting to your next destination is half the fun. So consider taking local transit.

t’s not only cheaper, it guarantees you a more immersive experience. On long rides, walls between passengers come down. A few hours on the road, and people are ready to swap life stories while sharing food across the aisle.  

Be warned, as a foreigner, you’ll get your fair share of selfie requests. I’ve even had plenty of friendly old ladies invite me over to meet their grandkids!

Even better, traveling like a local also helps build emerging economies by keeping cash in local circulation. So try to keep it local when picking food, accommodation, and transport, and support sustainable businesses while also saving precious funds. 

Local eateries are a lot more memorable than familiar food chains, and homestays sure beat multinational hotels – even without those fancy little soaps and free slippers (they’re free, right?).

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