The word “travel” has always carried an aura of adventure, freedom and mystery, along with the association of somewhere that is far off and luxurious — thus feeling alluring and unattainable. The modern atmosphere of social media and advancing technology has made the world seem smaller, with exotic destinations frequently appearing on our Instagram feeds.
Yet, real access to the non-virtual, life-sized experience of travel can appear to be reserved to an elite few. It would be ignorant to suggest that to travel does not remain a privilege, but I would venture to say that it’s a lot easier to travel for free than most resorts would have you believe. And, as a result, the privilege of travel is one that is becoming more accessible to more people.
In fact, I am 18 years old, and I recently returned from over four months of solo traveling in Eastern Europe. I backpacked through Budapest, Paris, Bosnia, Albania, Prague and what felt like everywhere in between. This experience was, as you might expect, one that opened my eyes, shifted my perspectives, left me with a deeper appreciation for the world around me and a stronger desire to continue to explore. I also spent almost no money and felt incredibly safe for almost the entire duration of my trip.
Since returning home, the questions of safety and budgeting have been the ones that I have been asked the most frequently. I’ve noticed that these questions are also usually accompanied by a wistful comment about how the person asking would feel too nervous to travel alone, or how they would love to travel solo but simply don’t have the money. In my experience, neither of these issues were really problems. Here’s why.
1. Cheaper Usually Feels Safer
A lot of people wince when they hear the word “hostel,” and they particularly wince when they hear word of the $5 – $7 per night hostels I was calling home in the far eastern countries like Serbia and Bosnia.
There is the consensus that, if traveling as a solo female, safety must take the forefront but, while I agree with this consensus entirely, I would not say that safety has to be costly. The fact of the matter is, I have never experienced safety problems within a hostel.
No matter where you choose to stay, there will almost always be some 24-hour staff, there will be locked doors, there will likely be an option for single-sex dorms and, if you find a hostel lacking these things, you can always cancel your reservation and go elsewhere, as you probably only spent $5 in the first place.
What I did experience at hostels was, apart from uncomfortable bunk beds, an environment in which dinners are communal, nightlife tours are led by locals, cities are explored with groups of other friendly guests and, in short, solo travel does not feel solo for long. In my experience, safety concerns arise only on the streets outside bars at night or in restaurants if eating alone after dark.
While there is definitely a value in exploring a city alone and it can be done safely, the added support of new friends from a budget accommodation never hurts. I picked my hostels through reviews and ratings on Hostel World. I checked the overall scores, looking specifically for a high atmosphere score and at least a few reviews saying the accommodation was social, and a good place to meet fellow travelers.
2. Be Mindful of Location
This applies both to the location within a city, and, even more importantly, to the cities you choose to visit themselves. Simply put, it is impossible to stay for $5 a night everywhere. In Amsterdam, hostels average about $80 a night. I know people who paid almost $200 for a dorm room bed in Ireland over Saint Patrick’s Day.
Solo traveling on a budget is not conducive for ticking off items that might pop up on a generic list of 100 things to see before you die. That said, it is the underrated place that bring incredibly cheap prices that are often accompanied by a far more authentic travel experience.
Within a city, opt to stay in the city center, even if it’s a few dollars more. Safety-wise, I don’t like to walk alone in quiet neighborhoods, so avoiding the cab costs from accommodation to attractions made central-location hostels crucial in my goal to travel for basically free.
3. Work Your Way
For me, this tip was absolutely vital and absolutely the key difference between traveling for cheap, being able to travel for free. I spent six weeks of my trip working for stay at a hostel in Budapest, and another six weeks working at a hostel in Prague. This hostel was also a massive chain and, after I finished my work, I was able to get free accommodation at other branches around the world.
I landed these jobs through a website called Workaway, and I have friends who, through this same platform, have done everything from volunteering at a reindeer farm in Finland to cooking at a vegan restaurant in Belgium. The work, for me, did not feel like work,. Instead it involved interacting with guests, meeting people from all around the world, exploring the city with some of the most interesting people I’ve ever met and receiving free accommodation and food in exchange.
I found that the experience of working in a country allows for a depth of connection to a place and the people in it that would never be possible when just passing through. Some of my best friends are still the people I worked with in Budapest and Prague. This level of lifelong friendships is something I never expected to find when setting off to travel solo.
To explore the world alone and on a budget, in my experience, allowed for an experience that ultimately was richer in both friends and memories than I have ever found when traveling with big groups to splurge resorts for a week. To travel for free is not just a possible option for those on a budget, but arguably a better option for anyone who wants to really see the world close up.