Help for a first time international traveler
July 18, 2010 3:35 PM   Subscribe

I'm considering taking an international vacation next summer. I've never been outside of North America and I have very little disposable income. Besides saving and obtaining a passport, what can I do in the next year to prepare? Is there anything I can do now or soon that will make my trip less expensive? What are some great budget travel locations?

Additional details- I speak some Spanish and have been learning Farsi, but would be open to travel experiences outside of my language comfort zone. I could probably be gone for about two weeks in early August. I would be fine going alone, but might be able to find a friend to go with me.

I'm keeping an eye on this thread, but 1) I am on a VERY tight budget, and 2) I'm interested in the planning aspects as much as the location, since I've never done this before, and don't know what I don't know.
posted by emilyd22222 to Travel & Transportation (17 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
You should go to Buenos Aires - your dollars will go incredibly far, it's a European city, except it's in South America, the food is unreal, the ice cream will make your tongue vibrate, the people are delightful and you speak the language. Go there, you'll be happy you did!
posted by dbiedny at 3:39 PM on July 18, 2010

Once you have a location work out if there are any recommended vaccinations and work out when you need to start getting them.

When you do your budget consider the vaccinations, visas and as well as travel insurance.
posted by koahiatamadl at 3:46 PM on July 18, 2010

There are a ton of cheap places in the world (though some are expensive to get to in the first place). Where do you want to go? What sort of travel experiences appeal to you--culture, nature, beaches, mountains, jungle, music, etc.?

From most of North America you can access Mexico pretty cheaply and Central America for not too much more.
posted by LarryC at 3:56 PM on July 18, 2010

If you want to go to Europe, save up and go to Europe. Go to Buenos Aires because you want to go there, not because you can't afford to go to Europe.

Last fall I was in kind of the same place as you are now. I knew I wanted to take a substantial international trip, but didn't know where I wanted to go. I was also quickly able to narrow down my budget to about $1500-2000 for the whole thing.

Then this is what I did:

I went to the travel section of a big Barnes & Nobles and grabbed guidebooks to any part of the world I could feasibly see myself going. I think the list was something like Vietnam, Argentina, Peru, Berlin, Amsterdam, Tibet, Mexico, Egypt, Mali, Russia, Morocco, and Turkey.

In the book store I flipped through the books looking for what there generally is to do in that city/country, how long people tend to spend there, what the high and low seasons are, visa issues and immunizations, safety/political situation, as well as to get an idea of the day to day costs on the ground. I was able to narrow my list down, without leaving B&N, to Argentina, Peru, Mexico, and Egypt.

I then went home and got on to see what airfares would be like for the remaining places on my list. That knocked out Egypt, because it would be much more expensive to fly there than the other destinations. I was down to Mexico, Argentina, and Peru.

I narrowed it down to my ultimate choice, Peru, based on costs as well as things like weather, how interested I was in the various cities and tourist sites, etc. I had a great time and was able to stay on budget for the most part. I totally recommend this approach to planning, and if I didn't have a bucket list a mile long would probably continue to do it this way in the future.
posted by Sara C. at 3:59 PM on July 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

I find the Travel Independent website very helpful for picking general destinations and planning trips.
posted by ikaruga at 3:59 PM on July 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

I would recommend combining Kayak's Explore website with AirBnB (which I just posted on the blue).
posted by dobbs at 4:08 PM on July 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

If you're planning on going somewhere for several weeks, especially if you're going to be moving around within a country or region, I wouldn't book your accommodation in advance beyond the first city or the first few nights. Especially if you decide to travel to a "budget" destination like Latin America or Southeast Asia. You'll usually find the cheapest places to stay by just dropping in and asking if they have a room.
posted by Sara C. at 4:18 PM on July 18, 2010

This previous thread posted by a first-time traveller might have some useful advice for you.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 4:32 PM on July 18, 2010

you might want to consider couchsurfing, if it suits your personality (if you have an easy time socializing with strangers and are a low-maintenance, flexible houseguest). if you join now and begin hosting guests, you can build up your profile so that you are a more "reliable" choice for hosts when you eventually want to couchsurf in a new place yourself. There are lots of benefits to couchsurfing besides it being a cheap way to travel - meeting new people, learning about a new place from locals or sharing your own insights and secret favorite places with guests to your own city.
posted by scrambles at 4:35 PM on July 18, 2010

Seconding Couchsurfing.

It can be a great way to lower your costs (lodging is expensive) and you get to meet other people who are actually from where you are staying. It's likely they'll be able to provide tips on how to enjoy where you are without breaking the bank.
posted by elder18 at 5:13 PM on July 18, 2010

Location has been covered pretty well in the other thread. Logistically, the next easiest way to save the most money is to travel with friends or pick up buddies as you go - sharing a $10 room makes a lot of difference to your monthly budget. The next best things to consider are eating cheaply (avoid any touristy place, east out rarely and only at places where locals do, don't buy alcohol) and having lots of time (allowing you to take slower but more interesting local transport). Consider the costs of flights and visas - for short trips, they can take up a large chunk of your budget.
posted by turkeyphant at 6:35 PM on July 18, 2010

Flying to Europe is a lot more expensive in the summer.

Peru is the first place outside North America that I visited, and it's still one of my favorite places. Good luck!
posted by lukemeister at 9:15 PM on July 18, 2010

I would recommend combining Kayak's Explore website

Oh my word, that's a fantastic tool, thank you!

OP, you may want to check out the archives of the NYT's Frugal Traveller, which is all about setting a region-appropriate travel budget and sticking to it. He's travelling through South America on $70 a day at the moment. There's also some fantastic articles in the archives about having a frugal stay in expensive Western cities like Paris.
posted by Happy Dave at 2:08 AM on July 19, 2010

$70 a day is not "frugal" for most of South America.

I was just in Peru, which is about medium in terms of travel costs (things are very cheap, but there are also major attractions like Macchu Picchu which'll set you back), and I was able to do it easily on half that. Obviously spending a lot of time in Brazil or scheduling a trip to the Galapagos will be more expensive, but I wouldn't take that figure as as the actual cost of a backpacker style trip to an average South American destination.
posted by Sara C. at 9:33 AM on July 19, 2010

Well, DO NOT go to Italy in August. They have mosquitos and the whole country's off for the entire month, so there will be nothing of real interest open, trains and places to stay near beaches or other touristy things will be booked up, and very few places have air conditioning.

That said, if you really want to explore Europe and you're 26 or under, you can get a EurailPass and a good set of maps/train schedules and figure out which cities are approx. 10-12 hours apart, take overnight trains between cities and sleep while traveling. I did, and saved a crapload of money on hotels/hostels (the hostels I did stay in ranged from nice to "walk around the giant hole in the floor that drops into the hostel lobby" with 6 people packed into bunk beds per room).

For budgeting purposes, go and look now at the most expensive and least expensive airfare options, pick the one you can live with, and then try to save triple that amount. If you CAN, that is. If you do this, you'll have enough money for two weeks, for sure. (I realize this may end up being three grand, and if you can't, then consider what I suggested above to save on lodging.) I saved up 4 grand and bought the airfare and railpass, then lived on the rest for six months. There were days when I literally thought... "museum or food? museum!" but this is a short trip, so if you can get by on very little restaurant food and are willing to trainhop, you can see probably 6 cities in Europe during your trip. If you find one you really love, stay there longer and blow off the others.

Please get insurance on any tickets and make sure your health plan/credit cards/ATM provider are all aware of your trip. Check with your bank and find out where in your destination country you can withdraw money as cheaply as possible.

Make copies of your passport, health insurance card, and driver's license and give those COLOR copies to a friend/relative with your itinerary, should you get robbed/lose anything. Give this person the fax number and contact info for the local embassy, just in case something weird happens.

Practice packing until you can get the smallest amount of stuff you can live with into the smallest bag possible. If you intend to backpack/train it everywhere, you could end up carrying everything you fly with - including water for the day and any food (bread, mustard and cheese with a little fruit now and then will get you far and cost very little - but unless things have changed, each piece of fruit in Europe is roughly a dollar... EU citizens, chime in if I'm wrong about this). While in the US you can find lockers and storage places to stow your stuff sometimes (bus stations, train stations, etc.) these might not be available wherever you're going. Just a suggestion.

Take half the clothes you think you'll need and twice the underwear/socks. You can always wash those things in the sink... but you can't wash a pair of jeans and expect them to dry overnight.

Take ALL prescription meds with you in the bottles in the amount you need plus a few extra. If you speak Spanish and end up in virtually any Spanish-speaking country (or most of Europe, hopefully) you can get antibiotics and painkillers over the counter, but be careful and don't hurt yourself while traveling. Getting stitches overseas can really suck.

Check with your phone's service provider and see if you should bother to take it with you or buy a disposable phone in the country you're visiting (or forego it altogether... which is very liberating).

Choose your wardrobe wisely; comfortable walking shoes, light colors, nothing with English written on it. No white sneakers. If you want to blend in wherever you're going and not get harassed by pickpockets/eagerly approached by people wanting to practice English/avoid being targeted by those hawking their wares in public as a tourist, try not to look like one.

As a female, I'd also suggest wearing nothing low-cut or too short. It's uncomfortable when you're packed on a sweaty bus/train, you will get too much attention from strangers, and in some places it's considered disrespectful (the Vatican, for instance, has a policy of no sleeveless shirts/shorts/etc.). If you are visiting anyplace with a different cultural background that dictates how women should dress (cover hair), make sure you know beforehand and respect that.

Get some Lomotil before you go. It'll save you literally from dying of dehydration if you get food poisoning on the trip.

If you pick one spot and want to do a two-week immersion, I'd recommend looking at renting an apt or condo or something through VRBO if you can. Try to convince some friends to do it with you and it'll be basically like you moved to another country for two weeks -- you'll have a private kitchen, bathroom and stuff you can't get in hostels or hotels on a tight budget.

If you're in a country where English isn't commonly spoken, even as a second or third language, and you are being harassed/mugged/followed by someone -- start yelling the word FUCK as loud as possible. It's the one word in English everyone seems to know, and it'll get people's attention a hell of a lot faster than help, police, stop, no, or anything else you can think of would.

If you are a vegetarian, I highly recommend printing out a card with pictures of animals on it (cow, chicken, fish, pig, deer, whatever) and draw a circle with a line through it over each animal. Does this sound stupid? YES. Does it work when you're visiting a country where vegetarianism is incomprehensible and you're not fluent in the language? YES. Otherwise, if you can make them understand you don't eat meat, you will likely be given a plate with a whole fish on it, head/eyeballs included. This should include all of Europe and quite a few Asian countries, too. Not sure about South America, as I've never been there.

My final suggestion sounds counter-intuitive to everything else, but... consider taking disposable cameras on the trip. Digital cameras are easily stolen, and too many people lose their entire trip's worth of photos and memories because they wanted to videotape things/keep a diary/forget to take out the SIM card every night. Or be really diligent. I had mine stolen out of a backpack I was SLEEPING ON after a day of walking through the Czech Republic and it still makes me sad!
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 12:28 PM on July 19, 2010

If you're only planning a two week trip, then the airfare is the key to cheapness. $30 a day in Vietnam is more expensive than $100 a day in London if the flight is $1500 versus $500. In addition to Kayak, two sites I like are ITA (login as guest) and the FlyerTalk Mileage Run forum. The first has the invaluable ability to search for flights within up to 300 miles of a destination airport assuming you know your travel days; by looking for "KRK;OSI;BUH" I can search for all of Eastern Europe at the same time. The second is very jargony and takes some time to get used to, but if you learn the key codes for airports in your target area, and check back often, you can get lucky, especially closer to your travel date. I scored a sub-$300 LA to Buenos Aires flight last year.

Having traveled to countries where my language skills ran the gamut from nonexistent to crash-course to rusty to current to fluent, knowing the language can provide better connection with people, but going somewhere you don't speak or read anything is a real trial-by-fire confidence booster. For a first trip, I'd go closer to the former and think the Hispanic world is probably your best bet.

For planning, consult your local public library. I tend to grab a half dozen Lonely Planets or whatever for potential target regions, and figure out:
- What there is to see and do; is it a 3 day city or a 2 week one.
- Are there expensive, hard-to-get or must-get-in-advance visas? Vaccinations?
- Any particularly good or bad times to visit.
- Travel time, cost and conditions between places.
- Anything particularly expensive that I might be interested in.
Those are the key issues I'm interested in for logistics. I tend to find the best model is where I stay long enough to have appreciated most of the place before moving on, rather than the blitzkrieg Rome is Tuesday Venice is Wednesday approach. I also recommend planning for variety; I get sick of two weeks straight of anything; cathedrals, museums, mountains. Three days of museums and cathedrals then three in the mountains is way better.

Two places to think about are Buenos Aires (although cool in August) and Guatemala (I've researched but not actually visited).
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 7:50 PM on July 19, 2010

Just to be a devil's advocate, I'm going to throw this out there:

I went to Italy in August, and it was still pretty damn awesome.

Of course, there are many caveats there. The biggest being that, while Italy in August was fun, Italy in September would've been much better. Additionally I will say that it was really hot, and planning around Ferragosto took both forethought and flexibility. It was also a more expensive trip, because in order to counter the vacations and closures we decided to go where Italians go in August and ended up on the Amalfi coast. Which also meant that we missed a lot of the major sights people go to Italy to see. We spent a few days in Rome, but the whole rest of the trip was beach bumming in Positano and taking day trips around Campania.

If you're dead set on Italy or France in August, it can be done But it won't be cheap and you'll have to tailor your trip to take August into account.
posted by Sara C. at 8:00 PM on July 19, 2010

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