8 Confessions of a Shoestring Traveler

I recently read a traveler bucket list article, and one of the items on the list was to live off of just $10/day.

I’m currently traveling for about five months. People always ask me, “how can you afford to travel?”

I realize if you are used to the spending style of a short vacation, you would think I have a lot of money for all this carefree wanderlust. The truth is, I’m just stretching each dollar to pay for long-term travels. So, I can mark this item off my bucket list because right now, I’m at about $4/day while traveling and teaching yoga in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic.

How? Well I’m doing this with some travel experience and savvy, some working skills and a bit of shameless frugality. And I’m not alone, I’ve met travelers everywhere who do the same.

First, I’ve got accommodation and meals through a work trade, an arrangement to live abroad and do work for someone in exchange for accommodation, meals or other non-financial payment. My work trade for a yoga and wellness center in the Dominican Republic includes a shared apartment (four girls, two bedrooms), wifi, bottled water, daily meals of veggies and tropical fruits, and a holistic treatment (e.g., psychosomatic shiatsu, applied kinesiology) once per week. This is all in exchange for teaching yoga classes and doing marketing for the yoga studio (mostly writing blog posts) for about 25 hours a week. Pretty fun, interesting and meaningful work!

Honestly, it’s not the ideal travel situation but shoestring travel is about sacrifices. I’m too old to be sharing a room with someone long-term, the apartment is a bit far from the beach and the food is basic (but healthy!). It’s a good temporary way to keep my travel costs down and enjoy the Caribbean. I am treated like family where I work. I love teaching yoga and helping my yoga students. I can stay as long as I’d like.

So, I have most of my expenses paid for, now it just takes a few frugal methods for everything else. But I suppose it’s for a good experience, what somebody deemed worthy of a bucket list.

So, here are some confessions from this frugal traveler, how I travel on a shoestring.

  1. Make up, hair, don’t care. Traveling, you have to be a little more careless with your personal upkeep. You can get away with looking a little rough when you’re sun-kissed in a faded bikini. I do look forward to cleaning up and using nicer products when I return home. As for clothing and shoes, tropical third-world countries have a way of ruining everything you wear. I’m walking through mud and dirty streets daily, so best to keep the wardrobe simple. You also don’t really want to do much shopping in these places, as the costs for quality clothes are more expensive than they would be in the states and the lower cost items where the locals shop are very poor quality.
  2. Simple food. Where I work, a simple healthy lunch is cooked for us (usually lentil soup), but we cook our own dinner with provided vegetables and grains. Sometimes boring, but this is cheap eating and at least it’s healthy. I do my best to pass up buying food out and eat what’s provided. Being vegetarian also keeps the food costs down, and honestly, in a lot of foreign countries it’s safer on the belly to forego the meat. 

  3. Free rides. Transportation can add up quickly, even when it’s just a $1 perilous motorbike ride. My roommates and I have gotten to know the local custom of “bolas.” That is, hitchhiking. Definitely don’t try this at home, kids. But now I’ve got some crazy stories to tell.

  4. Fewer drinks. Or more drinks, if they are free! Maybe I just have good drinking karma, but the free drinks have just flowed the few times I’ve been out. In any case, I only buy food and drinks out on rare occasion. I have work to do each day and drinking less is better for you anyway. But if they are free, that’s another story. Somehow, I’ve managed to drink plenty thanks to lots of kind people I have met.

  5. Beach bumming. The beach is free! For that matter, so are a lot of my other hobbies. I can play with my hula hoops or ukulele (yes, I travel with both!) by the pool and not spend any money. Working at a yoga center, I have a space to do yoga for free.

  6. Living local. We’ve discovered that night club covers for tourists are $60, versus $10 or $20 (depending on how many drinks you want) for locals. Avoiding the gringo line at the club offers a huge cost savings. Also, long-term travel gives you time to meet people and get invited to fun activities that you might otherwise have to pay for. My roommates and I have been added to guest lists at clubs and taken a free boat tour via new friends. We also get invited to dinners and parties with the locals. To me, this is a more unique and fulfilling experience than joining an expensive tour.

  7. Straight up mooching. I’m teaching yoga at all-inclusive resorts while here, which means I can take free coffee and pastries each day. I’ll also take a yogurt and a juice, please. Basically, I take as many free pastries and tea bags as I can shamelessly stuff into my bag each day to share with the roomies! I felt a little weird doing this, but no one seems to mind, and I’m assured by my roomies this is acceptable behavior (good enough).

  8. Less of everything. “Shoot, I only have a dab of sunscreen left. I’ll save it for tomorrow.” “Ew, I dropped my Q Tips on the nasty bathroom floor. Oh well, I’ll still use them.” “I hope I can make this toothpaste last 3 more weeks.” These are all random daily thoughts I have. Sure it would be easy to pop to the store for more of everything, but you don’t want to weigh down your luggage either. So it becomes this game, how long can you make everything last?

So what have I spent money on? Pizza and ice cream, a few grocery items (chocolate bars, nuts) and then a few meals, nights out, mojitos and even a yoga workshop. I’ve still spent less than $25/week. That would be impossible to do living at home, so I’m actually spending less money by traveling. And that explains how I can afford to travel for so long.

Yes shoestring travel is a struggle of willpower and self control and also a sacrifice of vanity and conveniences. Sometimes it involves shamelessly hitchhiking and accepting free drinks, sometimes it involves skipping a meal or eating toast for dinner. But I can say I’ve checked traveling on a shoestring off on my bucket list. More importantly, I know I can stretch my money and stay warm here in the Caribbean as long as I’d like to this winter.

Chel Rogerson