I'm often accused of being a cheap-fake -- instead of a cheapskate -- when people find out how much I've traveled the world. To quote my favorite Johnny Cash song, "I've been everywhere, man. I've been everywhere."
Well, not really, but I have traveled in all 50 states and nearly 30 different countries -- not bad for a spending-challenged guy like me. Of course, traveling-on-the-cheap is the only way to go, in my opinion, since it's the best way to get a real sense of places and the people who live there. It's all about thinking locally while you travel globally, as I like to say.
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A big part of successful cheapskate travel is deciding what to pack, and, even more importantly, what to leave behind. Traveling-on-the-cheap means packing as light and compact as possible, not only to avoid extra baggage costs, but to enjoy the trip more and maintain maximum flexibility, which can save you a lot of money when you're traveling. Many of my travels have been under my own steam -- bicycling or hiking, or, at the very least, traveling by public transportation. That's usually the cheapest and greenest way to go, but it all depends on keeping your traveling kit to a minimum.
Here are some tried and true tips for cheapskate packing I've developed over the years:
* Worst Case Scenario: Before packing anything, ask yourself: What's the worst thing that will happen if I don't bring this with me? Unless the answer is you could die or suffer some immeasurable degree of pain or discomfort, think twice about packing it. Most often, the answer will be something like, "If I need it, I'll just have to find one along the way," in which case it's usually best to skip it.
* Run a Shopping Mall Obstacle Course before You Travel: It's easy to convince yourself that your backpack or suitcase isn't soooo heavy before you leave home. Don't be fooled. Once you have it packed, take an hour or two to tote your luggage around a local shopping mall -- stairs, escalators, elevators, crowded aisles, etc. After that little exercise, I bet you'll find a way to shed a few pounds off your Samsonite.
* Visit the Produce Department before You Pack: I roll (rather than fold) my clothing when I pack to make them more compact, and I pack items in individual plastic bags to keep them dry and organized. At first I used to buy Ziplock bags for that purpose, but I found that it's difficult to get all of the air out of them, and the "Ziplock" feature often fails after repeated opening/closing. Now I swear by the plastic bags from the supermarket's produce department --- they're the perfect size, super light weight, and, oh yeah, they're free.
* Check the Lost and Found: If you do leave something at home and find that you need it along the way, don't assume you need to buy a replacement. Ask at hotels, hostels, restaurants, bus stations, etc. if they have one in their lost and found. As a traveler, the item you're often missing is the same item another traveler left behind. NO, I'm not suggesting that you be dishonest about it by claiming that you lost an item when you didn't. Many times lost and found departments are happy to giveaway -- or even loan out -- abandoned umbrellas, garments, and other items that have gone unclaimed for a certain period. My favorite pair of swim trunks is compliments of the lost and found at a Holiday Inn Express in Columbus, Ohio.
* The Kitchen on My Back: Being able to prepare at least some of your own meals while traveling is key to moving on the cheap; plus it's fascinating and fun to shop for groceries where the locals do. Don't burden yourself with portable camping stoves and the like; think of every meal as a simple, cold-foods picnic. A lightweight plastic bowl, a good multi-tool knife (e.g. a Swiss Army Knife or Leatherman Tool), and a spoon is all you really need -- that's what's in my travel kitchen, and it weighs-in at about 10 ounces. I've also started carrying a small, insulated freezer bag to store perishable items in on some trips.
* Think Double (or Triple) Duty: I like items in my traveling kit to earn their passage by performing more than one function. When a Bungee cord isn't strapping my sleeping bag to my pack, it's serving as a makeshift clothesline or a guide wire for my tent. And after I'm through with a road map, it becomes a fire starter, or a window shim in a sleazy hotel, or toilet paper in a pinch (try doing that with a GPS).
* One Change of Clothing, Maximum: Because I frequently travel for weeks or even months at a time, I've discovered that packing more than one change of clothing -- if even that -- is a waste. Select clothing that's versatile, lightweight, and, most importantly, clothing that will dry quickly. Wash your clothing en route -- even if it's just showering with your clothes still on and lathering them up with shampoo -- and dry one set while you wear the other, or let them dry while you're wearing them (What, never hear of "wash and wear?")
* A Single Good Book: Okay, if you can afford a Kindle, then you can carry lots of books with you in your travels. Otherwise, pack no more than a single piece of reading material; once you're finished with it, ask at hotels, hostels, coffee houses, etc. if they have a swap library. Some of the best books I've ever read are ones I picked up like this while traveling.
* Drip Dry: Unless your entire trip is going to be spent on a deserted beach, packing a towel is a total waste of space. And even then, if it's that deserted, you can always just dry au naturale, can't you? Otherwise, towel-off with a piece of clothing or do the dog-shake-dry if the place you're staying doesn't provide towels.
* Post Trip Luggage Audit: One of the most important lessons for cheapskate travel is the one you learn after each trip. When unpacking, make a note of anything you brought along that you rarely used or didn't use at all. Those are the things to leave home without next time you travel.
* A Perfect Travel Pillow: Last but not least, I've found that the plastic bladder from inside a five-liter box of wine makes a terrific inflatable travel pillow. It can also be inflated to provide a cushion for fragile items inside your luggage or be used as a fun beach ball around camp (again, triple duty). Plus, draining a box of wine to get your pillow is guaranteed to result in a very good night's sleep. Happy travels!
Photo above: getting started on the travel pillow. Note the discount wine vintage.
Jeff Yeager is the author of The Cheapskate Next Door and The Ultimate Cheapskate's Road Map to True Riches. His website is www.UltimateCheapskate.com. Connect with Jeff Yeager on Twitter and Facebook.
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