The 7 Rules of Budget Travel
I'm a big believer in the popular environmental mantra: "Think Globally, Act Locally." When it comes to saving the planet, that saying is as true as it is simple.
And when I travel, my rule of thumb for keeping it green and keeping it cheap is: "Think Locally, Travel Globally." You'll usually find the most eco-friendly and genuine travel experiences when you spend less — not more — and get local, no matter where in the world you're wandering. It's all about traveling independently (not in a tour group or packaged tour) and drilling down to the local level, getting a true sense of place by experiencing it as if you live there.
Consult a good, locally researched guidebook like those in the Lonely Planet series for basic background and logistical info before you travel, but don't use it to plan your every move, like where you'll stay, eat and hang out. By the time a guidebook recommends something, it's usually overrun with tourists (and overpriced).
Travel without reservations
Except for perhaps the first night or two when you're traveling overseas and going to be suffering from jetlag, avoid making advance reservations at hotels and other accommodations before you leave home. You'll generally pay a lot more for lodging reserved from overseas, and they're rarely the type of local, affordable places you can only find once you're there. Plus, advance reservations limit your ability to be spontaneous in your travels.
The "Three L's Rule" (Look for Lines of Locals)
If you're looking for a good meal or friendly place to have a beer, put away your guidebook and open up your eyes and ears. Looking for where the locals hang out and chatting it up with them is the best — and cheapest — way to travel.
Local transportation and short distances are best
To travel slowly, covering short distances, and staying places longer is the key to really getting a sense of place and people. Linger in places you've never heard of and where you don't see another tourist; don't plan an itinerary that's just one popular tourist destination (AKA "trap") followed by another. Taking public transportation, hiking or bicycling will give you a great opportunity to meet local people and see how they live. Plus it will save you a busload of traveler's checks.
Americans can travel to almost anywhere in the world and pay top dollar to stay in an American-style hotel, just like the ones back home. Why even bother to travel if that's what you want? Look for locally owned, "mom and pop" places to stay, pensions and public camping facilities (sometimes free). Check out youth hostels, couch surfing and house swapping for a highly affordable, and rewarding, travel experience.
Prepare at least some of your own meals
Sampling the fare in local restaurants is one of the joys of travel, but you'll sell your trip short — and spend a lot more — if you don't at least occasionally pick up some groceries from a local market and prepare some of your own meals. Maybe it's just simple breakfast foods or picnic supplies. Shopping for food where the locals shop is one of the most enlightening cultural experiences I know of when you travel, and it just happens to make travel much more affordable.
Keeping it green when you travel
Not surprisingly to this Green Cheapskate, a recent study commissioned by eco-friendly lodging chain Element Hotels found that 41% of the people they surveyed said that their vigilance about conserving resources is "due to the economy" (i.e. "It saves me money!"), while just 28% said it was "due to the environment." The upshot is that when people travel, their eco-conscious habits often slip; they're not as vigilant about things like turning off the lights in their hotel room, since they're not paying the electric bill. Don't leave your eco-ethics at home when you hit the road this summer, because you can't fool Mother Nature.