Things you can’t control
Before we jump into how I only spent $1,237 on my 2 week trip to India (yes including airfare from the US) I figured it’s important to understand a few unspoken tricks to buying cheap airfare, realize that you can spend much less by going to some countries than others, and how timing is important. If you are comfortable with all that then feel free to jump to The Cost to Travel Cheap part II of II to see how I spent my rupees during my trip in India. If not, or you’re just curious, let’s begin with the famous quote below:
“Dudeeeeee, it’s so expensive to travel!” -Some dude.
But really though, is it expensive to travel? Well, it’s really a combination of two components. Things you can’t really control and things that you can. Let’s begin.
There’s a lot of things in life you can’t control, like your girlfriend getting mad at you for something you don’t understand because there was no explanation or logical reason/some random thing you didn’t do but she dreamed about it so apparently its real and now your fault, or how delicious an affogato is. I mean, look at them affogatos. Fucking beautiful.
Now, we’re not here to question the laws of physics pal, we’re here to budget our trip. When it comes to traveling, more specifically the cost of traveling, the main things you can’t control are: Distance to Travel/Entrance Fees and Global Economics (Costs in each country & exchange rates).
Distance to Travel/Entrance Fees
This is obviously an easy one. It’s cheaper for Joe to travel from Rome to Paris than it is for Schmo to travel from Los Angeles to Paris. Both visiting a new country but Schmo has about 5,000 more miles to travel, thus, it’s going to be a tad more expensive. Is this always the case? Nope. It’s cheaper for me to fly to Moscow than it is to Paris from New York. However, on average, the farther you want to go the more expensive it will be. Are there hacks to pay less for airfare? Hell yeah there are. The obvious ones are by using travel points from a points reward credit card, which is what I did for India, or flying standby. Two not so obvious hacks that I’ve used before are what I call the Alternative City Hack and the Fear Hack.
Alternative City Hack
When I was in college I wanted to go to the equator and step one foot on the northern hemisphere and one on the southern hemisphere. Which better country to go than Ecuador? After all, they’re named after the equator aren’t they? So I started looking up tickets from New York City. Round trip to Quito, Ecuador was about $800. Hot damn that was a lot of money to check out one country so I started looking at cities around the area. For whatever reason, I found that it cost about $350 round trip to Bogota, Colombia! It was right next door and it was more than half the price. But what about Bogota to Quito? It was around $250. So you’re telling me I can either see one country for $800 or hit up two countries for $600? Yes, that’s exactly what I’m telling you and you better believe I bought that two round trip ticket combo. The first ticket was a 3 week round trip ticket from New York City to Bogota and the second was a 2 week round trip ticket from Bogota to Quito. I could have purchased my ticket where I would have spent no time in Colombia but I figured ‘why not?’ if I’m already in the neighborhood.
Also, don’t forget, you always have the option of buying two one way tickets from different destinations. Meaning, if you plan to travel from Madrid to Rome it might be cheaper to fly into Madrid and fly out of Rome. On average I’ve found that round trip tickets are cheaper but it doesn’t hurt to check.
This one may seem a little controversial so be smart about it. Basically, if there is any sort of crisis in a country that will deter foreigners from visiting then airfare will significantly drop. For example, after I graduated high school I wanted to travel around for a few weeks during the summer before 4 years of excessive homework, destruction of sleep and thriving poverty arrived (AKA college). But how to choose a place that will have a cheap flight? Well, the best way to choose a place is to turn on your TV to some mainstream media and see what new disease you’re supposed to be afraid of now. So let’s think back to the summer of ’09. Which disease were we supposed to be afraid of then? Swine Flu. Where was it located? Mexico. Where did I go in the summer of ’09? You got it, Mexico. I paid around $300 round trip from Washington D.C. to Mexico City at the time when it was normally over $500. In more recent news, 2015/16 what disease are we supposed to be afraid of? Zika. Where is it located? Brazil. Where did I go Feb ’16? Right again, Brazil. How much does a ticket from New York City cost to Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo? Around $1,000 and up. How much did I pay? $499 round trip, and yes, including taxes.
Like I said at the beginning, be smart about it. I’m not telling you to take advantage of some international crisis. However, we all know that fear is what the mainstream media sells and is often exaggerated. My rule is, as long as the U.S. Government isn’t literally dropping bombs or involucrado in overthrowing a foreign leader/government *cough cough* oil/natural resource rich countries and they’re always involved *cough cough* then it’s fine to travel there. But that’s me, you do you.
Basically, a visa. A visa is just a big sticker on your passport granting you access to enter a country for a specific period of time. Whether you need one or not and the cost depends on which country you are visiting and your nationality. Most likely you’ll be getting a tourist visa. Some tourist visas are single entry or multi-entry. Multi-entry will probably cost you more so don’t get one unless you need one. If you have one nationality (usually the case) then you are stuck paying whatever the government of the country you are visiting says you need to pay. With dual nationality (lucky me) you can sometimes get out of paying for/needing a visa. For example, as of 2012 Peruvians don’t need a visa to enter to Russia but Americans still do. That means, I get to save over $100 and all that time wasted in filling out the visa form and getting an ‘invitation letter’ to go to Russia. For Americans, the best place to check if you need a visa is here: International Country Information. The website is great. All you do is pick the country you want and it’ll have a lot of useful information including ‘Entry, Exit & Visa Requirements’ and so much more.
This is all about the luck of the draw, to a certain extend. When I was 16 I went back to Peru after having saved up a few bucks with my first job and traveled a little bit around the country on my own dollar. At one point in my trip I went back to Huaraz, where I lived as a kid, and bought a shit ton of candy to bring back to the US to share with my friends.
“Do you have a stand?” The lady selling me the candy at her store asked, thinking I was buying in bulk.
“No, it’s all for me.” I replied and received a confused stare with raised eyebrows ensuring that I would get multiple toothaches with a sprinkle of ‘why are you spending all this money on candy?’ look. I brought all the candy back to my grandpa’s house and couldn’t get over about how cheap it was.
“It’s so cheap!!!” I went on and told everyone about how awesome it was to be able to spend so little on candy. Most people just smiled but my Uncle’s friend who was over for dinner spoke up.
“It’s cheap for you because you are making dollars in the U.S. For us it’s actually a bit expensive.” he replied. A simple statement that definitely changed my way of thinking.
Country Economics Comparison
Many times people travel to different countries and are like “Damn it’s so cheap!” (i.e. India or Vietnam). Sometimes it’s the opposite “What the hell? $50 for a pizza?” #brokeforlyfe (i.e. Norway). Yes, these statements are from an American perspective of how much an average sandwich, drink or even large pizza is #about12dollars. Now, we could do an in depth study and compare the cost of labor, wages by industry and education level, cost of several comparable basket of goods, the market for various products and services, mix in local taxation/laws and international trade agreements, toss a dab of inflation and exchange rates along with other economic factors to understand this phenomenon (which is all very interesting) or for now we can just make up a simple, but logical example to see what the impact is of traveling in a richer and cheaper country based on what you might be making and probably will be spending.
Lets compare the US and India since I’ll be writing about India in Part II. For the US, we’ll use a salary of $36,000 annually. Given that the average household income in the US is roughly $52k, I figure that $36k is fair, which is about $17 an hour. After taxes (using 25%) you’re left with $2,250 a month. After very minor research and remembering that a taxi driver in India said he makes 15,000 Rupees (~$230) a month, we’ll give them some extra cushion and use $300 as an Indian monthly salary. We won’t tax it because I read somewhere that at $300 a month the income tax is zero. Only the Income Tax Department of India knows if I’m right.
Now, you can get a good plate of food in India for the monetary equivalent of $1 and portion equivalent of a Chipotle burrito (~$9) #yesaddguac. With this no depth research but good enough ballpark figures we come up with the below graph:
This wonderful meal will cost an American 0.40% ($9/$2,250) of their monthly salary and an Indian 0.33% ($1/$300) of their monthly salary. Seems pretty fair and even when you spend your monthly salary in the country you earned it in.
Now lets see what happens when our American and Indian friend spend their salary in each other’s country.
Looks great for the American. His meal went from 0.40% to 0.044% ($1/$2,250) of his monthly salary. He can now eat 9 meals for the same price! What about our Indian friend? Well, his meal went from 0.33% to 3.0% ($9/$300) of his monthly salary. At that price his salary is pretty much wiped clean if all he spends his hard earned rupees on is a burrito a day.
Fair? Of course not. This doesn’t even look at the round trip ticket from the US to India or vis a versa which we all know doesn’t discriminate on the average salary of the country you start at. This however, is a reality. A reality my boasting teenage self of how cheap Peruvian candy was, finally understood. Not from the simple statement my friend’s Uncle made, but the tired, kind eyes of where it came from. A fresh reminder of the absolute fact that no one chooses where they are born. However, we’ll save the discussion of how unfair the world is for another day. For now, it’s clear to see that our American salary can go a long way in India. Knowing the cost equivalent of food, housing and transportation immensely helps in planning your trip.
“Dude, 1 dollar is 2,220 Colombian pesos! If you go to Colombia you’ll be so rich!!!” -some other dude.
There’s always that one guy that thinks the exchange rate is one for one. He thinks that because one coke will costs you one dollar in the US then one coke will cost you one Colombian peso in Colombia, #false. The real question is: can you buy a coke with 2,220 Colombian pesos? Perhaps you need more, perhaps you need less. If today the exchange rate is 1 USD =2,220 COP and a coke is worth 2,220 COP then after you exchange your dollar and buy a coke, you paid the same thing you would in the US. But if tomorrow the exchange rate changes to 1 USD = 2,500 COP then you’re in luck. Go and exchange that other dollar you have, buy a coke and you are now left with 280 COP or about 11 cents. Sadly, if it had dropped to 2,000 COP the next day and you exchanged it then, then you my friend would actually have to exchange 1.11 USD to get your 2,220 COB to buy a coke.
Forex is the largest financial market in the world in which exchange rates depend on several factors, including but not limited to: interest rates, inflation, foreign investments and speculation. Regardless of what affects exchange rates, what does the exchange rate mean to you? Saving money broski. Just like this young happy fella after his shopping spree in Moscow last year:
But why so happy? Simple, exchange rates. I started traveling to Russia around 2007 in which the exchange had always been about 1 USD to ~30 Russian rubles. However, in 2014 the ruble began to skyrocket to hell and more than doubled, reaching ~70 rubles a dollar and up to ~80 rubles a dollar in 2015. What did that mean for me? It meant that when I went to my Russian best friend’s wedding in August of 2015 and took her fiancé and my Russian tovarish out to partake in a post cold war late night cultural exchange at some shady, underground bar in Moscow, drinks were on me.
The so called collapse of the Russian ruble made my dollar twice as strong. With my mighty dollar in hand and the clearance section at the Banana Republic in Afimall, I decided to do all my I just moved back to New York City and got a new job shopping in Moscow because shit is expensive in NYC.
The weak ruble is great and all if you are from the US or living in Russia and earning in USD which the majority isn’t. A really close and dear friend of mine works at an international company who does a huge amount of transaction in USD. Post ruble collapse, the conversion from USD to RUB showed some huge FX gains for the company. As we all know, international markets must always respond and prices for regular goods such as food become affected. I asked my close friend about how much she thought food prices increased by and she said probably around 15%-20%. How much do you think her salary increased to match the increase in food costs? Null, zero, zilch. ni-che-vo.
On an average day the change in exchange rates are not that severe. However, when they are, the amount that can be gained or lost is great. The instantaneous shock ripples into other markets and every day living is affected. The tricky thing is, there is nothing that you did to deserve the either fortunate or unfortunate outcome. Sometimes, the cost to travel cheap comes at no cost to you at all.
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