Monday, May 13, 2013

How To Travel on A Budget: 7 Tips

Many of my friends are surprised that a 3-day stay in Beijing cost only 20,000 pesos, or that our five-day trip to Busan and Seoul in South Korea came up to just around 30,000. But there's really no big secret behind it! Just good old planning, budgeting and lots and lots of street food. 

1. Watch out for Seat Sales

My favorite by far is Cebu Pacific's seat sales. Because they drop prices so low (as most Filipinos know, as low as 1 peso),  I've been able to book tickets for places like Beijing, China for only 3,500 pesos roundtrip, Busan, South Korea for  2,500 pesos round trip, and for Boracay -- 482 pesos, roundtrip.

Piso Fares 

This really slashes the cost of your trip drastically. Cebu Pacific usually times their seat sales during Philippine events, holidays, or special occasions. Our Busan tickets, for example, were the 11 peso promo fare that came out on November 11, 2011 (11.11.11).

EVEN MANNY PACQUIAO FLIES CEBU PAC. Taken in February 2011, as Manny and his entourage board a Cebu Pacific flight to Macau.

Timing Is Everything 

The airline also usually announces their seatsales on the eve of the special event. By experience, the best place to watch for it is through Cebu Pacific's Twitter account. Within seconds of a seat sale, the Twitter account would have it on its feed already.

Witty Titles 

On a side note, Cebu Pacific's promo fare titles never fail to crack me up -- here are some of the funny/witty ones recently:

Also: "Ina'y Ko Ang Mura!" (for Mother's Day), "Fares Love Never Dies" (for Valentine's Day) "MindaNOW or Never!" (for Mindanao promo rates), and "NiHOW Much?" (for seat sales to China). Plus "TruelaLOW" and "Ticket Nice and Low" -- just because they can.

2. Stay in a budget hostel 

When people think of hostels, they often picture, a small cramped space with smelly travelers, nasty bathrooms and tick-laden beds.

Best Deals

Of course there are some nightmare hostels that fit this description perfectly. But really, all it takes is a little bit of research and you could be staying in clean, comfortable quarters for a fraction of regular hotel prices. As an example, for our stay in Siem Reap Cambodia, my friend and I only paid the equivalent of 500 pesos per night in a hostel called Angkor Pearl.

Photo courtesy of Angkor Pearl Hotel 

Hostel Advantages 

Other advantages of staying in a hostel is that they allow for 24-hour check-in. I mentioned in a post on Beijing that we arrived at our hostel in the dead of the night on a cold winter's evening. But even at that unholy hour, there was someone at the reception desk, and she allowed us to quickly settle in our deliciously warm room. 

Most hostels also have a charming common area, where you can meet and connect with travelers from all over the world. As opposed to regular hotels, I find that people who stay in hostels are generally friendlier and more open to interaction.

The cool lobby of the Saphaipae Backpacker Hostel in Bangkok.

Trip Advisor 

The best place to scour for hostels is still Trip Advisor. For my trips to China, Korea, Cambodia and Vietnam, Trip Advisor was where we found such a good bargain. Just go to the site and click on the "Specialty Lodging" category.

On this site, you can read (mostly) real reviews of travelers -- providing you with a comprehensive feel of the good, the bad and the ugly.As a general rule of thumb, I always go for top hostel/s in the Specialty Lodging category, and so far -- City Walls in Beijing, Saphaipae Backpacker Hostel in Bangkok, Elysee Motel in Busan and Hong Han in Saigon have lived up to their reviews.

3. Pack only for a Carry-On

This tip might not work for everyone, but personally, I take a little bit of pride in the fact that I can fit everything I need for traveling in a backpack. I'm stingy in the sense that I don't want to shell out the extra cash for checked-in luggage, when I could very well use the cash  to "buy" more experiences in the destination I'm headed for. 

An Art Form 

There is an art (or a science) to packing, and --  I know I am in the minority -- I love, love, love to pack. There is something very challenging at the same time, therapeutic, about the process of fitting my entire life in a small, clearly defined space. 

Practicing the "One Backpack Rule" in Beijing
When I packed for the below zero degree weather in Beijing, I managed to stuff two heavy winter coats, two pairs of jeans, several scarves, and all my other things in a backpack. It was an experience very much like wrestling with a small calf, but when I zipped the last pocket, I felt that I had accomplished something. 

Packing It In
What really aided me in this feat was this super helpful write-up found on the Lonely Planet website. My boyfriend, Jotham and I swear by these rules and we've been using the rolling and stuffing techniques found here ever since. 

4. Budget, Budget, Budget

Aside from being a freelance travel writer, I am also a financial advisor for the oldest, and best financial services company here in the Philippines (love your own, of course!). And I cannot stress enough the importance of budgeting. In fact, my last two trips have been budgeted and planned for, one year in advance!

Scour the internet for  everything you want to do, and how much they all cost. List these down on an Excel file or in your notebook. This way, you know exactly how much to put away every month to build your travel fund. A principle we always tell our clients in Sun Life, is that when it comes to your money: 

Income - Savings = Expenses 

Also, having a budget allows you to maximize your travel experiences, by making sure that you don't get ripped off, you don't overspend on unimportant things, so you don't have to scrimp on what is important to you.

5. Use the subway and walk

Especially if you're doing a city tour -- nothing beats the subway/the underground/the train. It's cheap, fast, and efficient, and it compels you to be hyper-aware of your surroundings, instead of just cruising along on a packaged tour. 

The subway is the way! Korea's subway systems are elegantly laid-out and efficient. 

It also would be great if you could buy the subway card which, cumulatively, comes out cheaper than when you buy a ticket every time you board the metro. Plus, in countries like Korea, the subway card can also be used for their buses. 

Often these subway systems are so intricate and interconnected that everything is within easy reach. For example, from our "home station" Nampo-dong, in Busan, Kore --  sights like Haeundae Beach, the Gwangali Bridge, and the War Memorial Cemetery were all accessible.  

(On a side note: do you know how Koreans manage to stay so slim in a country where donut shops, pastry shops and cake shops are on every street corner? I think I know the answer: Koreans walk everywhere. They walk, walk, walk. Even ahjummas (elderly Korean women) hike up mountains like there's nothing to it. I've taken this lesson to heart, and I try to walk as much as I can -- even in hot, humid, polluted,  Metro Manila. Of course, I just take a long, leisurely bath afterwards). 

6. Find a good exchange rate

Change your currencies well in advance. Banks offer quite expensive rates, so research for places that offer good exchange rates to maximize your money's worth. 

Consult your friends, especially those who are citizens of the country you are going to. They will know the best exchange rates and where you can find them. Our friend Lucy, who is from Korea, referred us to a Korean travel agency in Ortigas, and we were very happy with the exchange rate that was quoted for us. 

7. Eat street food 

Street food is first and foremost, very, very cheap. For example, in Korea, which is known to be an expensive country, we ate several times at an area called Let's Eat Alley in Busan. It was practically a buffet with the wide array of food being offered -- we had chicken, sugar nut pancake, toppoki, chap chae and bibimdangmyeon -- all of which cost less than 200 pesos each.

The Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) Square transforms into a streetfood heaven at night

Street food is also a fantastic way of getting a taste of a country or city's authentic flavors (unless you want to crash at a residential home and eat dinner with a local family). Their setting, in bustling alleys and streets, the sound of cooking and frying, the sight of locals jostling at each other --  provides a raw, authentic experience that one cannot get in any air-conditioned, Michelin-star restaurant. 

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