Traveling On A Budget: Why Spending Too Much Will Make You See Too Little

by Sebastian Scholl

I first experienced budget travel as an 8-year-old. My mom felt like taking a road trip, so over the next eight months, my siblings and I ended up living out of a white Chevy suburban.

I’m not sure if it was out of necessity or part of a greater plan to impose a frugal mentality upon us kids, but over the course of that trip, I recall spending what seemed to be very little money.

I stuck with low-budget travel during my teen years without being aware of it, likely because it was all I had known. The communities to which I was attracted mostly included extreme athletes who lacked the resources necessary to travel in style, so I played along.

If they wanted, my family could have afforded me a more fashionable level luxury on my trips, but they never did offer, nor did I ask. They were often the ones pushing me to go further into the bush.

Let me make clear that I categorize travel and vacation very separately. A person assumes a completely different mindset when on vacation than the mindset that is necessary for travel. Travel, when done properly, demands a certain level of alertness that vacation does not. When traveling, a person must be reactive.

There is a much greater value to be gained from low-budget travel than simply saving a few bucks. I don’t claim to be some sort of travel expert.

Yes, I have traveled on what I deem to be a low budget, though I’ve often encountered others who seem to do so with more conviction and result. However, I hope that my thoughts resonate with the wanderlust that lives somewhere inside of you.

Interestingly, too much money is often preventative to a person having an authentic and meaningful travel experience, as is too little money. It’s easy to see why too little money is limiting. But, how is too much money limiting in travel? Wouldn’t it allow you to do more?

Truly authentic and cultural experiences (at least the ones I’ve come to value) aren’t those with price tags. By cultural, I do not mean eating grilled beef kebabs at a Jamaican resort while some Guatemalan guy spits fire and a chorus of Kenyan men smile and slap drums.

Immersing oneself into a community is crucial to really experiencing its culture. Immersion cannot be accomplished by looking through a hotel window. Only by engaging in the very activities that the people in that culture can afford to do will you understand where you are.

I promise you that the majority of people in most cultures do not have big budgets. Anything your big budget enables you to do is definitely nothing to which the locals are dedicating their leisure time.

When you give yourself too large of a budget, you'll be focused on what that budget, or lack of one, will be able to afford. Instead of taking a chance on a hole-in-the-wall eatery, you’ll choose a restaurant with the menu in six-languages. Instead of a hostel, couch or other accommodation that forces you to intermingle with locals, you’ll book the Four Seasons.

By doing so, you will allow your budget to effectively distance you from the very culture you traveled to experience. It’s a psychological shift, a different way of thinking.

If I were to hand you a thick stack of cash and say, "Have fun," you’d ask yourself, “What are all the things I can get with this money?” The shift that comes when you start thinking low budget is, “What are all the things I can do without, or with just a little of this money?”

On a side note, we become passive when we pay for something – especially at the premiums that tourists pay – because we feel that we’ve done our part at that point. On a vacation, you expect everything to be taken care of after you’ve paid the resort.

Having that passive mentality will inhibit you from ever discovering most of what the world has to offer, not just when it comes to travel.

Almost all experiences do have financial elements to them. Whether you plan to couchsurf your way through South Africa or fish for all of your food in Indonesia, a plane, boat or bus ticket will need to be purchased and other expenses must be accounted for along the way.

It is important, though, that you never allow that financial element to limit your vision to only those experiences in which it plays a role.

So, in as few words as possible, here is the core lesson to be learned from low-budget travel (when combined with an adventurous spirit): Never let money limit your experiences only to those that money can buy.

Photo Courtesy: We Heart It