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How to travel when you can't really afford to travel: Advice from a cheapskate

Japan has a bit of a reputation for being pricey although I believe this is largely a matter of perspective. As somebody from New Zealand- a country with high living costs and food prices- I actually thought a lot of things tended to be much more reasonably priced in Japan, even with the exchange rate. (There is no way I could eat a delicious curry for $6 back home!). I have written this article to help you think like a true budget traveler. 

 Just do it


This advice may be a bit controversial. Let me start by saying I know people will have priorities and expenses that make travel impossible for them at this point in their lives. I know cutting out coffees isn’t suddenly going to mean you can afford the tickets. Yet let me say that going to Japan was really something I could not afford. I had more important things to spend my money on and traveling was probably not where my mind should have been. I had actually just lost my job and started waitressing to pay rent. I had already booked the tickets, thinking my old job would be more permanent than it was. A more sensible person would have cancelled the booking, but I was already so excited and had told everyone about the trip. I felt like I  had to make it happen. It was no longer a one day, someday scenario- it was coming up in a few months and darn it I really wanted to go! So I took all the shifts I could, cut out all unneeded spending and scraped together enough to make it happen.

via www.sarahcanderson.com

As stressful as it was I have no regrets about following through. A lot of people who want to travel and say they will do it later after they do x, y, and z. If you instead decide that traveling is really a priority for you then it is much more likely to happen. Rather than saying I would love to go ‘someday’ start saying you will go at the end of the year, or in two years, or three. It doesn’t matter how long it takes, it is still better to have a concrete date to work towards. At the end of the day most of us regular folk are always going to have something more sensible to spend their money on. For example I could say I want to travel but not until I pay my student loans or buy a new car or put a deposit on a house. Realistically if I go by that logic I won’t be able to travel at all in my twenties. Although it is a massive luxury and privilege to be able to travel internationally, it isn’t always merely something fun and frivolous to waste money on. Traveling can open your mind to new ways of life and it can teach you a lot about the world and yourself. If you want to travel you need to make it a goal, create a plan and actively work towards it. Waiting for a point in your life where you will have a couple of grand burning a hole in your pocket could mean waiting a very long time...
 

 Rethink


 To travel on the cheap you may need to reevaluate what you expect out of a trip away. For a lot of people a holiday means luxurious hotels, eating out for every meal and taking private tours. If that’s your preferred style of traveling then you do you, however you can’t do that style when you are on a tight budget. This doesn’t mean you can’t have a great time though, it’s simply a different experience. I would even argue that traveling on a budget often leads to having more authentic experiences . Think about it, if you spend the whole time in flashy accommodation, pricey tourist hot spots and with English speaking guides you are basically living in a bubble. Whereas my goal when traveling is to hang out with the locals and try to get a sense of their daily life and culture.
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Traveling on a budget will mean shopping at local grocery stores, finding tasty popular chain restaurants, using public transport, window shopping instead of actual shopping and finding your own way around shrines and temples. If you are anything like me none of these options are really negative. I like visiting grocery stores, going to places that locals eat, being part of the daily commute,  looking at all the crazy stuff in stores, and wandering around at my own pace. It is these experiences that help you gain a bit of insight into what it would be like to live in Japan.

I also believe Japan is one of the easiest places to get around as a traveler. The people are so friendly, the trains are amazing and there are English signs in the main centers. When my partner and I were first planning our trip we were considering booking through a tour company. We were worried about our lack of Japanese as well as our general lack of traveling experience. Nevertheless it turned out to be fun doing it under our own steam and not having to stick to a tour group schedule.

Another option for people who can’t really afford to travel would be doing a working holiday. You can find job listings here: https://jobs.gaijinpot.com/ . The Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme http://jetprogramme.org/en/  , working on Japans ski fields or at a Beach resort are also popular options https://www.boobooski.com/.

via mpora.com

Plan your splurges 


If your budget allows it pick a few things you really want to splurge on while you are there like a few fancy meals or a trip to Dream world. This is still much better than simply going in with the mind set of “Japan is expensive” and needlessly splashing cash everywhere you go. Remember that more expensive doesn’t always equal better. In fact most of my favourite memories of Japan were at sites that were free or very cheap. Even if you have cash there is still a lot of fun to be had without spending much money. Planning your spending before you go will help you save a lot of yen. 

Experiences not things

via www.v-i.travel

The feeling of seeing something in a store in Japan that is really cool and not something you could find at home can be hard to deal with on a budget. If you are traveling on the cheap I strongly recommend leaving any shopping till the end of the trip. This gives you time to consider whether you really need it and whether you can actually afford it. The fear of not making it through the trip with enough yen should be enough to help you keep those purse strings closed. If you end up with a bit of cash spare at the end then go ahead and treat yourself. If not, remember that you are in Japan to be in Japan! This is not a shopping trip. 

You will get sudden “OMG must buy!” feelings in Japan, its unavoidable. However I don’t regret leaving behind the things I didn’t buy , while I do regret a few of things I purchased (namely one too expensive cap that now resides in the back of my closet).  I saw a lot of cosmetics I wanted to buy and had to remind myself that amazon Japan ships internationally. Another thing that can help you deal with this feeling of urgency is telling yourself you can always come back to Japan in the future. Trust me you will already be planning your second trip halfway through your first anyway. 

Budget traveling means traveling to see and do things not just bring home a bunch of stuff. At the end of the day things are just things and memories are much more precious treasures to collect. 

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Good practical advice and I love it that you like visiting grocery stores because that's what my wife had implanted in me now when I travel anywhere.

Grocery stores offer greater value and discounts on most, if not all items that convenience stores carry. It's also worthwhile to note, approaching store closing time, they will start to discount fresh items like sushi at their deli and even fruits like the famed sweet melons.

As for transportation, unless you are going to zip around the metropolis, rushing through a few sights a day, don't get a day pass. It limits you to only the national railway company's system, the city's metro or private lines system (all 3 not necessarily sharing the day pass privileges). A single trip ticket makes more sense if you are the type to linger and take your time at each spots. Invest in a SUICA or PASMO instead for single trips. You can keep the card or return it sans a small administrative fee.

If you are going to travel from Tokyo to say Osaka, you could consider overnight buses as an alternative, saving yourself a night's accommodation too but you do miss out on the scenery.

Thank you a lot! My best friend and I are planning to go to tokyo in one year and we're having the same worries as you did. So this article really gave me hope that it will work out. :))

This article was really uplifting. Thanks Girl!

I would also say - do a lot of research. You pay for the internet already, so doing research is free. Everyone recommended buying a JR Pass, but doing my own research on travel prices showed me that for our trip, it wasn't going to be worth it. We did find the Kansai-Hiroshima Pass, and that saved us a lot, but the main JR Pass was more than we were spending on individual Shinkansen trips, based on how long we were staying.

We did shell out for a Ghibli museum "tour" though - it was my absolute priority to see the museum, and even a day after ticket sales opened, individual tickets were sold out! So a "tour" - basically just a bus from Shinjuku to Mitaka, including the museum ticket, but no guide - was the only option. I had to rethink our accommodation because of it, but it was the most worth-it part of the whole trip, and a long term dream realised.

Also, AirBnb. Especially now that it will be legal! Absolutely the most cost-effective accom option. Central Shinjuku for $100 a night? YES PLEASE. See you again real soon, Japan!!!

Yes I have an article about air bnb too . Highly recommend ! And you are so right about research . I think if you go anywhere (even just your local grocery store ) with no plan you will spend more then you need to .

Oh and Ghibli would have been amazing ! I have to see that next time , I am hoping to go again next year . Do you think the tour itself was worth while ? Or would you have rather have gotten an individual ticket ?

Thanks for the tips. I love travel and shops (who doesnt?) but shopping while traveling is just too expensive and hard to resist. Traveling with a backpack saved a lot of money since there will be no space for a lot of stuff, so shopping will be a thought decision.

Yes only having a backpack definitely helps ! I find a lot of the time there is just a rush when buying something , but later you feel a bit "meh" as you realize you don't need it . I try to keep that in mind when I feel that urge to spend . Everybody just wants what they don't have , once you get it it isn't so exciting .