This article's orginal title was, "How I got by in New York City on $100 and Why You Should Never Take My Advice." There is a time and place for skimping out to save a buck, but your vacation is not always one of them. Learn from my mistakes as well as my successes. Continue reading for my Do's + Dont's of budget-friendly travel.
Whether we admit it or not, there is a hint of pride that comes with surviving a particularly rocky travel experience; be it a turbulence-riddled flight from hell, a blind wander through a GPS-free zone en route to Florida, or that hotel you swear is where they filmed The Shining, everybody loves a chance to be the One Upper.
I received my trip-from-hell survivor badge after my very first trip to New York City. This was a three day tour of America's top architecture firms with the College of Design. Formatted very similarly to the notorious America's Next Top Model "go see" episodes, I was required to show up at a certain address at a certain time with next to no supervision and absolutely no money allowance. This trip was completely out of pocket, and the pocket of a 21 year old college student is not exactly what one might call "fat."
Let the ill-advised budgeting commence! I took a $50 roundtrip MegaBus from Lexington, KY to NYC and back. Taking a red eye meant that I didn't have to pay for boarding the night before my arrival. It also meant I showed up to my first appointment fresh off a 13 hour bus ride spent live tweeting about the stranger sleeping on my shoulder. I booked a bed in a 12 person hostel where I paid a whopping $20 for my two night stay. I bought a $7 subway day pass, and I walked everywhere I could. Everyone feels cool walking in New York City. I will say I am a natural schmoozer, so I was able to swing a few free drinks, cover charges, museum tours, etc. on sheer charm and a cute haircut, but there are a number of ways to maximize a tight budget in an expensive city (and save some dignity doing so).
HAVE A GAME PLAN. A fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants mentality feels cool and Bohemian until you end up wandering the streets of an unfamiliar city until your 7 AM bus because you didn't want to pay the extra $20 for another night in a hostel (guilty).
ASK A LOCAL. Ask a waiter. Ask a friendly-looking subway passenger. Ask that guy handing out his mixtape in Times Square (again, guilty). Even in the most intimidating of cities, there will be a prideful local that wants nothing more than to show off the hidden wonders of the city that captured their heart.
TRUST PUBLIC TRANSIT. Relying on an Uber to get you everywhere will add up fast. Most cities offer some sort of public transportation with a day or week pass. Put on your headphones, blast "Hot Child in the City" and whip out those streetsmarts.
KEEP YOUR EYE OUT FOR DISCOUNTS. If you're a student (or still in possession of your student ID) you have an entire stack of coupons right there in your hand. Always ask about student discounts. Google "free stuff in ___" or check out Groupons in your area. Never miss out on opportunities like free Friday night admission at the MoMA.
READ THE REVIEWS. Keep in mind that a hotel's website will never reveal the security issues that come with staying in a shabby chic $10/night shared room. Trust that comment warning you that the $25 bus driver will be chainsmoking the duration of your 13 hour trip. If the cons outweigh the pros, maybe consider another option.
RISK YOUR SAFETY. Your travel itinerary and your place of refuge is not always the time to save a quick buck. A risky bus or hostel may make for a cool story one day, but I can say from experience that I would have rather paid the extra $50 for gas or a room with a lock. (Also maybe forget about my "ask that guy in Times Square" comment. Safety first.)
MISS THE FINE PRINT. That $25 Airbnb may seem to good to be true because it is. Don't get overcharged in sneaky hotel fees like bag storage, early check-in, facilities usage fees, etc.
WASTE A WEEKEND FOR A BUDGET. If you only have a small amount of money for a leisurely weekend getaway, consider rescheduling. Don't limit your palate to Mcdonald's in a city known for their gourmet dining. What fun is vacation without a little gluttony?
SWEAT THE SMALL STUFF. Spontaneity is the best kind of adventure. Expecting the unexpected when traveling is much more enjoyable with a flexible budget. You want to be prepared for the £40 tickets to Wicked in London, or the $10 charge for the front seat of a boat tour. Allow yourself to enjoy your experience without getting wrapped up in the impromptu spending.
Because life is a never-ending, unavoidable learning curve, this advice article will never teach what good old-fashioned experience can. Miss a flight? Now you're sure to show up 90+ minutes early. Book a particularly unpleasant motel room? Next time you'll read the Yelp reviews. Wear that experience like a badge of honor and grow from it. The most seasoned of travelers was once but a fumbling novice.