In part one of our guide on ultralight traveling, we discussed things like what to take, how to deal with money and some tools to budget with. Today, we’re going to cover how to get there, where to stay and a couple of advanced tricks to maximize your trip.
Tips and Site for Cheap Flights
The single most expensive item of any ultralight trip is flights. If you are looking to save money, look at traveling during off-peak season. For example, Europe in the summer is a complete shitshow of young backpackers, thus, the flights from the U.S. reflects as much. Flying to Europe is much cheaper in late April or early May when every early twentysomething is popping Adderall and guzzling Red Bull as they gear up for finals.
And then, of course, there is my secret weapon.
Scott’s Cheap Flights scours the internet algorithmically and can find some serious deals. These are not last-minute deals. Rather, Scott’s uses their software to notice and exploit glitches in the airlines pricing systems. These fares disappear quickly, sometimes in a matter of hours, so Scott’s lets you set up alerts that land directly in your inbox whenever cheap flights appear.
So, if you are looking ahead, fair hawking five to six months out, you can pounce the minute the airline makes a mistake. Scott’s is perfect.
The other great thing about Scott’s over some other sites is they don’t focus on a specific airport. Rather, they focus on a region. If you live in Raleigh, NC, you will still see that you can save $800 on a flight to Thailand if you leave from DC. Even with a $99 Southwest flight into DC, you come out way ahead.
Scott’s has both a free newsletter - which is what I used pre-trip - and a paid service. For $39 a year, Scott’s will spit out results on deals that expire much quicker and also give you a much more robust set of search functions. I upgraded post-trip, which was totally worth it.
Another really powerful search engine tool and my preferred way to look for cheap flights when I have to do the work instead of Scott is Kiwi.com. Both the site and app were my preferred late/last minute flight searches as I made my way around the world.
In addition to allowing you to search inside a date ranges you set (which is pretty standard), Kiwi has worked many of the Euro discount platforms like GotoGate into their search. It’s truly an international search tool. Kiwi did a great job for me of finding solid deals.
Finally, just like Southwest here in the U.S., Ryanair (Europe) and Air Asia (Do I really need to say where Air Asia operates?) sites can have some amazing proprietary deals for their own routes.
NOTE ON BUDGET AIRLINES: As of the writing of this article (Oct 2018) we are in the middle of a massive contraction of budget airlines in the European market. Two have shut down in the past month alone. Ryanair and WOW are both on solid financial footing, but many of the others are either known to be shaky or are private companies that don’t have to report. If you’ve never heard of the airline offering that seemingly insane deal, do a little due diligence before you buy. The last thing you want is the company to shutter a week before you are set to fly and leave you at the mercy of business-class pricing.
Buses, Boats and Trains
While it might be the fastest way to get there, traveling by air is also the most expensive. And it’s not just the cost of the ticket, either. Since most airports are on the fringe of major metropolitan areas, you are going to also incur the additional cost of getting to and from the airport, regardless of where you are.
It is significantly cheaper to take a bus, train, or a boat (for places like Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, etc).
All through Asia, the buses are faster and easier to use than the trains. Also, there is almost always a night bus option. You can not only save your lodging budget for the night, can travel as you sleep. It’s a win-win.
The only caveat here would be Cambodian and Vietnamese sleeper buses. These overnight buses are designed to let you lay down and sleep en route. Cool, right?
The size of the compartment is slightly smaller than a full-sized bed and it’s somehow meant for two people. If you don’t buy out the compartment (which would have cost me $32 from Siem Reap to Phonm Penh) they will pair you up with some random stranger. Ladies, if there is not another lady, you’re SOL. Guys, it’ll almost certainly another dude, and it will be weird. Buy out the compartment if you take these buses, people. Learn from my mistake.
If you are in and around island nations, the big shuttle boats are treated the same as the bus lines. Cheap, relatively quick, and an interesting way to see the area.
In Europe, the train is still a great way to get around, but it has lost some of its luster because of pressure from all the budget airlines. If you are willing to commit to the train system, the Eurail Pass is an economical way to get around. You are going to trade some time for the discount, but even after doing it for almost two full months, I still enjoyed staring out a train window at the passing European countryside.
A couple of notes, however:
- In Eastern Europe, take the Ryanair flight. Jariko and I about murdered a group of London medical students on our fourteen-hour train from Budapest to Bucharest. The ride was too long, the train was ancient and had no wifi. It was all just too much. The ride from Bucharest to Sofia wasn’t much better.
- For most international trains you need a reservation and will have to pay a small fee (usually €2-12 depending on the country). It’s not a big deal. But in France, it’s a €20 fee into the country and out. So, if the train is going to be your thing, get in, see France, get out without re-crossing the border. Otherwise, you’re really going to pay for the privilege.
- Also, check to see if there are any pending rail strikes on countries like Spain, France, Germany and Italy if you are traveling in a high-tourism season. I spent two extra days in France instead of Amsterdam because I got caught in a strike. Yes, they really do publish the dates and times they are striking.
- Bonus Tip on point 3: don’t try and logic-proof the customer service rep who is working to help you find a new train when he or she tells you the trains aren’t running because “we are on strike, no one works when we strike.” It’s just not worth it. Trust me.
Again, I’m cheap. Outside of my time in Bali, which I treated like a Western-style vacation for the two weeks I was there, I was always trying to maximize my cheapness for lodging and transport and roll the money I saved back into experiences.
As a solo traveler, I was in hostels for the vast majority of my trip. I loved it.
Excepting telling a drunken college student on holiday to pipe down a time or two, I didn’t really have any problems in the shared room situation. Also, you almost automatically have a built-in group of drinking buddies at each stop on the trip. Just walk into the common area and say hi.
On that note, when you read ratings, pay attention to the common area score. Look for hostels that rate highly in this category Also, if the hostel has a bar, do a TripAdvisor search on the bar. More than once I found some of the highest-rated bars in a given section of the city were all attached to hostels. Hell, in Hamburg I did an impromptu bar crawl around hostel bars with a couple of Aussies.
If you are traveling with at least one other person, the equation changes. When Jariko and I were in Eastern Europe, we found Airbnb most cost-effective. I also did Airbnb’s in Bali, both when my best friend was there for a week and when I was treating it like a vacation. I stayed in my own private villa with a pool and kitchen in Ubud, Bali for $40 a night.
If you want a little more comfort or are traveling with another person, Airbnb is a great option and will be equally cost-effective to a hostel most of the time.
I still recommend staying in hostels for part of the trip for the experience and built-in friend component, but in terms of cost you don’t need to.
Get a really good travel card and use it for your major expenses.
If you are going to be gone for at least a month and or you travel extensively for work, apply for a travel rewards card ASAP.
Both Jariko and I went Chase Sapphire Visa for ours. Jariko has a Preferred in his wallet, while I carry the Reserve. Of the four “travel sages” in my life, three have Chase Sapphire cards. It’s one of the few things I looked at in my trip prep and (unless you have an AMEX Black card) said: “this is the superior product on the market.” This isn’t a paid endorsement either, the card just fit my travel needs that well.
Enrollment automatically grants you lounge access across the Priority One lounge system, which saved me hundreds of dollars not having to buy shit waiting around in the airport and gave me a place to crash when landing at odd times on international flights.
The $95 yearly Preferred fee is in line with the AMEX Gold card and gets you more benefits. The $450 fee on the Reserve card really works out to $150 ($45 less than an Amex Platinum) if you are traveling because you get the $300 travel credit back.
Furthermore, you can link all of your airline/hotel/rental car program numbers to the card (a rookie mistake is not doing this), so you can double or even triple dip points and miles for travel purchases.
In the end, between the bonus sign-up points, points earned on what I spent, and the ability to link my AAAdvantage and SkyMiles programs to the card, I saved almost $3,000 on flights through the trip by using points instead of cash.
There are other cards out there like AMEX, Capital One Venture or Discover It, that are worth exploring. No matter what you pick, if you seriously want to travel you need to get a travel credit card. Most people I know find the Chase card the superior instrument from an American institution.
Sports, Hobbies, Certifications and Experiences
I had wanted to get my SCUBA certification since I was eighteen. While on this trip I got both my Basic (Koh Tao, Thailand) and Advanced (Hoi An, Vietnam) Open water PADI SCUBA certifications for less than what it’d have cost me to get my basic in Key West, FL.
I did yoga in Bali, meditated in a Buddhist Temple in Nepal, Myanmar and Bali, got to kickbox with a Dutch Kickboxing legend in Amsterdam and was able to train Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu all over the world.
As you prepare to travel your hobbies and interests are already there. Look to see where you can either train, do something you naturally love, or where you can pick up a new skill you’ve always wanted to try. There are a million opportunities to Die Living out there as you travel, and it’s absolutely worth building them into the trip.
Tom Amenta is a former Army Ranger who now fritters his days away as a bourbon swilling professional raconteur. He is Doug K’s 3rd favorite person on Earth, but only because he blackmails him for that status.