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8 Truths about Midlife Budget Travel

Let’s face it, when you’re in your forties and middle age years, setting aside money to travel can be challenging. Maybe you’ve got a mortgage and kids.  Maybe you’re paying off your own student loans and facing a future of helping your progeny with theirs.  Perhaps you have aging parents that need your financial assistance. Do not despair! The Unbundled Traveler is someone who might have all of those financial responsibilities and can still fulfill their travel dreams.  As a single mom of three, friends often asked me how I am so lucky to be able to go on so many exotic adventures. I am here to tell you something.  It isn’t luck. It is planning and openness to try an outside the social norm type of travel.  But, be warned. Once you’ve traveled unbundled, you will wonder why you ever traveled any other way. I’ve put together seven basics to get you started on planning your adventure.

1.  Pick your destination last

Airfare is often the single biggest expense, and thus, travel deterrent, to adventurers on a budget. In fact, one of the main reasons I’ve ended up in some unusual (but fantastic) places is simply because the flights were lower to there than anywhere else.  A fellow traveler introduced me to skyscanner.com and it’s become one of the first places I look when planning a budget adventure. Skyscanner lets you enter your departure airport and then choose “Everywhere” as your destination!

Skyscanner

Skyscanner searches all the flights purchased over the past 15 days from your departure city to “everywhere”  for the dates you selected and shows the lowest prices by country. This past November, I was bugging to get out of the cold and had a few vacation days in the bank.  Skyscanner helped me settle on taking a five day getaway to Punta Cana, Dominican Republic for a mere $193 round trip from Philadelphia – over Thanksgiving break!

Punta Cana - Gary's Good Times

2. Flexibility is a requirement

So, you’ve spent the last month plotting and planning the great adventure.  The big day comes and you land at your destination.  Day one of your itinerary has you relaxing on the beach, toes in the sand, umbrella drink in hand.  Sounds great! The only problem? It’s pouring down raining. Or, even worse, you haven’t even arrived because your flight to Ireland was delayed causing you to miss your connection and the next flight isn’t for 24 hours. You are stranded at a bland airport hotel in Canada, miles from any action.

Are you an Agnes or an Audrey?  Agnes pulls out her Kindle,  crosses off going to the beach, and resigns herself to spending the day in her room reading about someone else’s adventure by the sea. Audrey pulls out her phone, sends a message out to her social networks (including couchsurfing) asking for ideas on how to spend the day, and ends up the guest of a stranger turned friend who is willing to escort her around Toronto to show off his City.

Toronto

Just one of the many reasons I love the Couchsurfing connections!

Agnes ordered room service and ate alone. Audrey ate at an inexpensive little hole in the wall that had the best  ______ she ever tasted while engaged in a robust conversation with a new friend discussing how life in Canada compares to life in the U.S.  Agnes wasn’t flexible.  Don’t be an Agnes.

3.  It is safe (and smart) to talk to strangers

When I was heading off to Central America for a two month backpacking adventure, a large majority of my friends and family cautioned me about how unsafe it was.  (Funny, I read the same thing about my hometown….) Anyway, I reminded my well-wishing naysayers that I was no more likely to go wandering down strange alleys at night in Honduras than I was in Harrisburg – and just as likely to come to harm in either place if I did! The point is, I know where not to go in my hometown, where it isn’t safe or has higher odds of delivering an unpleasant experience. When you are traveling it makes sense to tap into that type of local knowledge . But…it requires talking to strangers.  And not just about where not to go, but also about where TO go.  I generally believe people like to expose travelers to the best thing their town or country has to offer – not the worst.  When looking for places to visit, I often stop random strangers on the street or turn to a nearby table and ask – Where should I go? What should I see here?  On a recent trip to Lake Atitlan we saw a parade of school children dressed in traditional clothing.  After a quick inquiry to the vendor selling us licuados, we found ourselves knocking on the schoolhouse door and being invited in to watch the festivities. You won’t find that in a travel guide.

parade of kids - lake atitlan

Parade of Mayan school children celebrating their culture

4.  Hostels are not just for the young

When I first became acquainted with the word “hostel” I had an image in my mind that it was a lodging option geared toward the backpacking, party-minded, I-don’t-really-care-how-disgusting-the-bed-is-as-long-as-it’s-cheap, twenty-something traveler. How wrong I was! Many hostels these days target families and older travelers and offer amenities that compete with a much more costly hotel.

Hostel with pool in Colombia

The Dreamer Hostel in Santa Marta, Colombia

Hostels generally charge a per person rate.  The Dreamer Hostel (above) was $16/night per person. That’s right – sixteen dollars. Not all of them permit children, though, so do your homework. Read reviews from like-minded travelers on sites like hostelworld.com or booking.com and look for “family friendly” or “children welcome” labeling.

I actually prefer staying in hostels because the guests tend to interact much more than they do at hotels and some of the best people to ask about where to go and what to see are the ones who have just explored the town that day! Another bonus is that most hostels have a kitchen facility that helps keep your meal budget under control. It is a great cultural experience for yourself and for children to visit a local market to pick up the ingredients for a packed lunch or an easy one-pot dinner.

5.  “Street Food” (probably) won’t kill you

Don’t feel like cooking, but the sticker price for a sit-down dinner put your budget into an economic shock?  Street vendors are your answer, my friend. With the raging popularity of food trucks in the U.S., I would have thought more people would embrace buying food from similar type vendors abroad. But, for some reason, there is still a general hesitancy.  Granted, food trucks are held to the same hygiene standards and inspections as any restaurant in the U.S. and the same isn’t necessarily true for street food vendors abroad. And, you should use caution when purchasing fresh fruit, veggies (just wash them yourself with bottled water) or water based drinks in countries with questionable local water. However, I approach street food purchases with the attitude that if the locals are eating it, it’s probably safe.

Street food

Bonus: Street food vendors are super friendly, too!

So glance around, make a beeline for the vendor with the most patrons, and enjoy a delicious, traditional and inexpensive meal!

6. Love that outfit? (Great – you’ll be able to wear it twice (or three times) in one trip)

At $35+ dollars per bag, the term “checked luggage” has no place in a budget traveler’s vocabulary.  The average middle age traveler is generally vacationing for no more than two weeks at a time.  Therefore, with proper planning, you can fit everything you need into a carry-on bag saving your muscles and your wallet.  As an Unbundled Traveler not only do I unbundle my flights, accommodations, land travel and meals, I also unbundle my luggage.  Meaning – when it comes to bags, I take fewer bundles! Everything should fit into a backpack.

packed bag

Ready for a two week journey through Colombia!

Start with gathering everything you intend to take and then pare it down to the minimum. Pack only what you need to wear a new outfit everyday for five days. Put together outfits that can mix and match. Throw in a scarf or two. Pack pants that convert to capris or shorts. And for god’s sake, please do not take more than two pairs of shoes (one of which will be on your feet!). You will regret lugging around that fancy pair of heels that you never wore.  (True story: I packed a pair of cool black chunky heeled sandals.  After a week of lugging them around and not wearing them even once, I left them with a local woman!)

When you run out of clean clothes, drop a bag of laundry at the nearest facility and on return from your adventure pick up your clean, folded and wonderfully aromatic bundle of next week’s outfits.Trust me, your social media following friends will be too enthralled with your adventure to care (or notice) that you wore the same outfit to climb ancient ruins one day and again another day while feeding wild monkeys.

7. The world goes ’round in unusual ways

The Unbundled Traveler isn’t someone who buys costly packaged tours and gets staidly transported from site to site forced to bend to the tour guide’s schedule and destinations.  No, the Unbundled Traveler controls her own adventure! Want to visit the local nut farm where you heard the macadamia nut pancakes with fresh blueberry syrup are out of this world?  No problem! After a quick chat with some knowledgeable strangers and a few quetzales in hand, you’ll be climbing onto the chicken bus heading out of town. Heard the view from the top of the hill overlooking the city is amazing, but not in the mood to walk? That’s what a tuk-tuk is for!

Tuk-tuk in Guatemala

Common method of local transportation in Guatemala – the tuk-tuk!

Simply stated, a tour bus is about the most boring way ever to see…well, to see nothing. On a recent  Mommy-Daughter adventure to Guatemala with a friend and our two 11-year-old daughters we made it our mission to ride as many different forms of transportation as possible.  In a week’s time we rode in four airplanes, a taxi, two shuttles, five chicken buses, three tuk-tuks, a horse, a speed boat, a public boat, and in the bed of a pick-up truck filled with locals.  Que adventura!

8.  Pulling the kids out of school is not child abuse

I first began taking family adventures during the school year when my eldest was seven. For the budget traveler, it makes sense financially because flights are often cheaper outside of school holidays.  I was fortunate that my child’s school had an “educational travel” policy that permitted children to miss up to five (5) days of school for qualified travel. I was amazed by how many families did not take advantage of the policy and even questioned my judgment despite being enlightened about the policy.  “But, he’ll miss so much,” they said.  “Aren’t you worried he’ll fall behind?” “What about the perfect attendance award!?” “School is his job and it’s irresponsible to let him skip.”  And, on and on. Bah, I shrugged, to each his own and off we went.  It paid off.  When my kids studied U.S. Geography they not only knew where a state was, they were able to describe the Great Plains from personal experience.  Black History month – no problem – we rode the buses in Atlanta, Georgia and toured the Rosa Parks museum.  Missed the lesson on map reading? Worry not! The school skipper knows how to get around without Google Maps.

In all fairness, it is much easier to take a week long educational field trip during the elementary school years when the lessons aren’t as intense and homework isn’t as burdensome.  However, you do not need to use all five (5) days at once. Spring break coming up?  Pull them out of school the Friday before or the Monday after and save a bundle on airfare. Your kids and your wallet will thank you.

Would you ever try this type of travel? Have you already? Tell me about it!

3 thoughts on “8 Truths about Midlife Budget Travel

  1. Pingback: The Mayans and the MONEY! | The Unbundled Traveler

  2. Well written. I guess I am more of a bundled traveller. For example, I can’t imagine picking my destination last. But it sounds fun, and I will definitely use some of those tips in the future. I stayed in hostels as a youth, but never thought much about it since.

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