Traveling cheap has it’s own exhilarating kind of flavour. There’s something spicy about it, like you’re ninja-tricking the system. The system that wants you to work year round just to ‘earn’ your weeklong tropical vacation at the end of the year. Since I started traveling at 18, I’ve slept on airport floors and taken flight routes and stopovers that would make you weep. I’ve completely recalibrated my lifestyle to a bare minimum, owning only what fits in a suitcase and reusing clothes until they literally fall apart. I’ve traded my skills for accomodation and food. And in doing this, I’ve managed to see parts of Europe, Asia, the States and Central America. For the last four years I’ve spent a lot more time out of the country than not.
This is all based on the philosophy that you trade in hours of your life to get money.
And so when you spend your money, you are spending hours of your life, so you want to make extremely good choices about the things you buy. Nay? Working for a year just to get one cool tropical holiday a year just seemed kind of… dumb to me. Especially if you had one of those jobs where you sit in your car in the parking lot each morning counting down the minutes, dreading the moment you have to walk in and face another 8-10 hours of hell.
Through this, though, my default became ‘the cheapest option is always best.’
I am currently in Australia and when booking my flight back to Central America, where I live almost year-round, some family contacts were able to find me a super cheap flight home. The catch? I had to pass through Dubai. That would mean 11 hours from Perth to Dubai. 21+ hours from Dubai to Mexico City through Barcelona, then 2 hours from Mexico City to Guatemala. That’s over 34 hours flight time, and not even including the layover time. But, the cheapest option is always best, I repeated, and took the flight. It would be a good character building exercise, test my ability to be uncomfortable, strengthen the old resilience, etc.
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But this week as the fight drew nearer, I really sat down and thought about it. And I decided taking that flight was actually insane. I had started doing things on the cheap almost eight years ago to feel free. And sometimes it does. But sometimes always taking the cheapest option comes with its own shackles.
When you always take the cheapest option, you get what you are given. You must take what is available. And that can inherently mean giving your power away. When you have to just take the cheapest option over what you want, or even more, what you need, that can be extremely disempowering. It takes you out of the drivers seat of your own life and makes you vulnerable to a myriad of circumstances.
Also, it might make you stay in a live-in relationship where you’re treated like shit, simply because spending the money to splash out on your own is unfathomable or unattainable.
It might mean you opt to stay at your family house over holidays instead of getting an Airbnb. Even though you want to set your own boundaries for how long you see your parents, and under what circumstances, because maybe being around them for an extended amount of time isn’t great for your mental health.
It might mean you have to stay in a job that’s sucks the life force out of you.
While you’re traveling, it might mean you make poorer choices for your safety (i.e, walking home at night because you don’t want to pay for the Uber)
Not to mention when you travel to countries in the Global South as their costs are far cheaper, bargaining a meal or accomodation down to the last dollar with a local family who really needs it, is just a really ‘take, take, take,’ mentality to have. Especially when these places rely heavily on the tourist dollar. You are a guest in this country, you’re benefiting from the resources, the land, the country, the people… you should want to give some money back.
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And the reality is when you book cheap flights, you may end up spending more money anyway.
If you have an overnight stopover, you might have to pay for an airbnb or hotel, the transport to get there, food. Even if you have more time in an airport waiting for your next flight, sometimes you find yourself buying a bunch of food and crap just to pass the time. And when you arrive to your destination, you feel so bad, the first day or two of your holiday is a write-off anyway. In a way, booking cheap flights can be a false economy.
Finally, I cancelled the flight and booked myself a new one with a more sensible route and with an airline I love. I paid for the carbon offset even though I’m not even sure how legit that is. Sure, it was more expensive, but when I did it, I had the surprising by-product of feeling my self esteem rising a bit. There was something empowering about making that choice for myself.
Let it be said, I’m aware this is an extremely luxury problem.
And to have the resources available to me to make such choices and travel at all is a privilege. But young travelers who are into traveling cheap can often roll with the mentality that we don’t need much money to be happy, or money is dirty or belongs to bad people. For sure, often times we spend money on a lot of crap we don’t need, and a bigger house or car isn’t going to necessarily correlate to more happiness.
But when it’s the difference between a rough flight or a slightly more comfortable one? The difference between walking into a restaurant and being able to choose what you feel like, not just what your budget will allow? Or the difference between being able to support your friends businesses by paying for their services and products? The difference between being able to turn down a small freelance contract to use the time to surf instead, because you’re already stressed and stretched?
It all adds up. It all matters.
I’m now done with the philosophy ‘cheapest is always best.’ Does this mean I want to start fanning out dollar bills like a sweaty old man at a strip club? No. I still believe we pay for things with hours of our life and I want to be conscious of that. But I want to work with money to make good choices for myself and those around me. Not just creeping around corners and taking whatever crumbs I can get. Traveling cheap when it’s a choice, not a default. Otherwise, that’s not really freedom at all.