saving money, travel tips

7 Budget-Friendly Activities for Traveling Anywhere

I don’t believe that you have to be rich to travel. In fact, as long as you’re not in debt, there’s a trip out there that can fit your budget perfectly. Whether you’re headed around the world or simply to the next town over, here are a few ways you can get the most out of your travel experience- and still stick with your budget!

Eat Ice Cream

Twist O' The Mist in Niagara Falls, NY has been one of my favorite ice cream shops!
Twist O’ The Mist in Niagara Falls, NY has been one of my favorite ice cream shops!

I’ve visited (and once even lived in) several towns with triple-digit populations. There isn’t much in these places, but there’s usually an ice cream shop. Ask for a scoop of the most unique flavor on the menu, and you’ll be reminded of your visit whenever you taste, smell, or even hear that flavor. If you’re visiting an area that has several options for ice cream, pick a place that serves flavors from a local creamery. Sure, a small cone at an ice cream stand may cost more than a whole tub at the grocery store, but these few dollars won’t break anyone’s budget.

Visit a Church

One of the best churches I've ever been to- The River in Delaware, Ohio is held in a converted barn!
One of the best churches I’ve ever been to- The River in Delaware, Ohio is held in a converted barn!

If you want to meet locals, experience culture, and look at unique art and architecture for free, then head to a church near your destination. Churches are found throughout the world, even in places where it’s illegal, so you’re likely to find several churches within a short radius. Because this is part of your travel experience, don’t be bound by denomination or feel like you have to agree with everything the church believes. I’ve used travel as a way to experience Methodist, Presbyterian, Southern Baptist, and Catholic churches for the first time. Some churches have a historic significance to the area they serve, and may even be open during non-service times for visitors to see what makes the building unique.

Take a Walk

Walking can bring many unexpected surprises, like this large, walk-able map of Tennessee in Nashville!
Walking can bring many unexpected surprises, like this large, walk-able map of Tennessee in Nashville!

Not only is walking free, but it can actually save you money if you use it in place of buses, taxis, or car rentals. You can experience a lot more of the area by walking. While I remember taking some long walks on family vacations, my first trip with extensive walking was in Nashville. It was there that I went to RCA Studio B, where Elvis first recorded. I didn’t intend to go there, it just happened to be one of the many fascinating places I ended up stopping at while on my way somewhere else. Besides, walking ensures that you can enjoy all that ice cream you’ll sample, guilt-free.

Go On a Bike Ride

Going on a bike ride around Columbus, Ohio happened to bring me to the World's Largest Gavel!
Going on a bike ride around Columbus, Ohio happened to bring me to the World’s Largest Gavel!

Some areas are not pedestrian-friendly, either because of a lack of sidewalks or because all the places you want to visit are a few miles apart from each other. In that case, I recommend seeing the area on two wheels. If you cannot bring your own bike to your destination, many hostels and other travel-related businesses can rent a bike to you (with a lock and sometimes a helmet) for a daily fee. Bicycles are the best of both worlds: you’ll be able to notice most of the unique things you would if you were walking, but you can also travel faster and for further distances. While staying at a hostel in Canada, I met a fellow traveler who came from Japan to ride a bike from Los Angeles to New York City, with lots of side-trips along the way. Imagine all that he must have seen!

Photograph Everything

The best part of Chicago's Cloudgate "Bean" is taking tacky mirror selfies to a whole new level!
The best part of Chicago’s Cloudgate “Bean” is taking tacky mirror selfies to a whole new level!

Getting a durable, quality camera may come with an upfront cost, but it is certainly worth all of the memories you’ll be able to capture. Naturally you’ll want to take pictures of the sights you see and the people you share it with, but you can also spend some time and actually get creative with the photograph. If you take a picture of a famous place, it will look the same as the millions of other photographs that other people took of the same place. However, can you incorporate your own unique flair? I once read a traveling shoe ambassador’s blog that put a face on a flip-flop and took pictures of it in several countries and states. If you take a fun spin with a photo, be sure to share it with me!

Go To Unique Sites

Touring Boys Town in the heart of Omaha, NE was a great experience made even better by seeing the World's Largest Ball of Stamps!
Touring Boys Town in the heart of Omaha, NE was a great experience made even better by seeing the World’s Largest Ball of Stamps!

When traveling, you probably pick your destinations based on what you can see there. Of course you’ll want to visit what your destination is known for, but also keep an eye out for unique, little-known sites and attractions. People go to South Dakota’s Black Hills to see Mount Rushmore, but only a portion of these people stop at the wacky Wall-Drug on the way there. Find out about roadside stops that can enrich your travel experience at places like RoadsideAmerica.com. You can also follow road signs to any interesting-sounding attractions or, better still, ask the locals for their inside information.

Chat Up People

Two minutes before this picture was taken in Fremont, NE, I did not know this girl. But she was bold an encouraged me to dress up for the retreat's photo booth with her!
Two minutes before this picture was taken in Fremont, NE, I did not know this girl. But she was bold an encouraged me to dress up for the retreat’s photo booth with her!

Okay, I have to admit that I’m not naturally inclined to walk up to random strangers and start a conversation. But I do appreciate it when another (non-creepy) traveler comes up to me to talk. Being a native English speaker, I have had the privilege of helping people from all over the world practice their foreign language skills simply by chatting with them! While I had the luxury of speaking my own language, I have been able to hear all kinds of interesting first-person stories, and have also picked up a few tips for my travels. If you want to meet new people on your travels but aren’t very outgoing, try staying in hostels, riding the bus or train, or simply standing in a long line for a tourist attraction, and eventually someone will start talking to you!

What are some ways that YOU make the most of your adventure while spending little money?

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day trip, voluntourism

Chocolates, Chess, Caching, and Camps

I spent yesterday in Medford, Oregon. This large metropolitan area of Southern Oregon provided a lot for me to do! I started out by attending a business seminar about marketing, sponsored by Southern Oregon University at their downtown Medford campus. This was the same place that I went to college, and I drove the same van I drove to college and parked in the same parking garage that I parked in during college and walked down the same street to the same building that most of my college classes had been in. Ah, memories. I then went down the street to an event at the Harry and David world headquarters, where I was sure to munch on all kinds of chocolate-covered goodies. The only thing left on my agenda was to attend a banquet that evening, but since I had some time before that began, I went back to downtown Medford to play chess with some man.

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For the past twelve years, this man has been sitting at Vogel Park trying to determine his next move at chess. He’s really into the game. Nothing can distract him from his contemplation, even through stolen chess pieces, spray paint on his face, and other acts of vandalism. Across the table from him is an open seat where any passer-by is invited to play against him. I tried, but since I don’t know how to play chess and his turn was taking way too long, I got a little frustrated.

losing chess to a statue

One of the reasons I visited this piece of art was because there was a nearby geocache. Now typically, I don’t like geocaching in high-traffic places, and this little park is on what is probably the busiest corner in Medford. When people walked by, I would nonchalantly sit there, pretending to check a message on my phone or something like that. As soon as they were out of sight, I would duck underneath a table and search for the geocache. Since there were always cars waiting at the stoplights, I tried to stay on the side of the tables that faced away from the streets. I finally got to the chair that I was almost certain had the geocache underneath. But lots of people were walking by at that point, so I had to just sit there as I casually tried to feel the bottom of the chair for something magnetic. Finally, when everyone was gone, I looked under the chair and found that coveted geocache!

chess cache

As I was emptying this little cache of its contents, I found out that one of the drivers in a truck waiting at the stoplight was obviously watching me. He rolled down his window and yelled “Did you find the geocache?” I’m glad he at least knew what geocaching was. Oftentimes, people who catch me searching think I lost something, or that I’m just plain crazy!

After finding the geocache, I went back to the van and drove down the street a little ways to the inn where I would be attending a benefit banquet for Wildnerness Trails, which provides free camps to kids in crisis situations. Now, I recently ended a three-year career in camp ministry, but while you can take a girl out of camp, I guess you can’t take the camp out of a girl! Even though I won’t be working for Wilderness Trails, I did use the evening to meet the Girls Camp Director and turn in a volunteer application so that I can help with winter retreats whenever I’m available. Oh, and the banquet was amazing! There were several guest speakers who were campers, leaders, and local pastors, but I have to admit that the highlight was definitely the catering! Two types of salad, vegetables, and several main course choices. And the dessert was amazingly rich whatever it was. To me it tasted like a huge slab of fudge drizzled with raspberry syrup and topped with a raspberry. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed such a fancy meal from a camp-organized event!

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Although I’ve never been to the Wilderness Trails camp, between talking with the volunteers at my table and reading about all the great things they do, I am definitely looking forward to going there this winter. For winter retreats, there is a cozy lodge to stay  in, but in the summer they have archery, canoeing, lake ziplines, horses, and they sleep in tepees! In the room outside the banquet hall, they had a few camp-themed items set up, including one of their tepees!

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Accommodations, saving money, travel tips

10 Ways to Pay (Almost) Nothing for Accommodations

We all know there’s no such thing as a free ride, but is there such a thing as a free bed? For most travelers, accommodations is their number one trip expense, but it certainly doesn’t have to be that way. You just have to follow this one simple rule: Never stay in a hotel! Hotels provide little more than a bed and a bathroom, and they do nothing in adding a cultural or community aspect to your trip. Instead, try out one of these accommodation options- and save a bunch of money while you’re at it!

1. Friends and Relatives: This is the easiest and cheapest option. All you have to do is figure out who you know that lives near your destination, and call them up. If they’re available, this is a great option because it offers so much more than just a place to sleep. Every time I’ve stayed with someone I know, they’ve offered me a ride, a meal, or even a city tour. Of course, everything depends on whether or not you know someone at your destination and if they’re available, and depending on how well you know them, you may feel as if you’re imposing on them. But this can be a great way to catch up with an old friend, and if you bring a gift from your hometown, it can serve as a unique cultural exchange.

Hostel Dorm Beds in Chicago
My hostel dorm bed at HI-Chicago

2. Hostels: If you’ve read any of my other posts,  you probably already know that I’m a big fan of hostels. This is ideal for the solo traveler, but even couples, families, and groups can save by staying in a hostel. Depending on location, they can range anywhere from $15-45 per person per night, but they’re always a fraction of the cost of a nearby hotel room. In addition, hostels typically provide a guest kitchen, breakfast, WiFi, a commons area, and some degree of concierge service. The cheapest option is to get a bed in a large dorm (which can be co-ed or gender-specific), but if you prefer, many hostels offer private bedrooms and family suites. To save even more, book through Hostelz.com.

Deborah's Guesthouse Bank in Kentucky
I stayed at “The Bank” Guesthouse in Northern Kentucky, where you can sleep inside an old vault!

3. Guesthouses: If you’re traveling as a family or other large group, this may be your least expensive option. At sites like airbnb.com or vrbo.com, you can book anything from a spare bedroom to an entire house directly through the owner. It’s hard to say what to expect from a guesthouse, because each one is so unique. You have to speak with the owner about what to expect, but one of the reasons that guesthouses are becoming increasingly popular is because they often offer all the comforts of home. Because guesthouses are so diverse, you can choose one that fits your needs and lifestyle best, from a downtown high-rise to a country cottage.

Camp Rivercrest
Not only have I camped here, I lived here for two years!

4. Camping: If the goal from your vacation is to get away from it all, staying at a camp will definitely help! Campgrounds are always a low-cost option, and there are many primitive campgrounds that you can stay at for just a few dollars per night or even for free. It is true that the initial start-up costs for camping can be a bit pricey. You’ll need a sleeping bag, food, fire starters, and either a tent or a camper. However, some people convert their van or SUV to sleep in. Others will go to campgrounds where they can rent cabins, yurts, or other lodging, though this can up the price quite a bit. The best part is, once everything is set up, camping can be a vacation in and of itself.

couch
Although no one ever contacted me through Couchsurfing, several visitors slept on my old couch.

5. Couchsurfing: Couchsurfing is an online organization where people can offer travelers a place to spend the night. Although it could be sketchy and awkward to stay at a stranger’s house, you can get background checks and references, and it’s completely free. I’ll admit, while I’ve heard many positive experiences from others who’ve traveled this way, I don’t think it’s for me. But I do have a Couchsurfing account and I even used it once. I found the owner of a hostel who, instead of offering his couch, offered a free hostel bed for one night. By contacting him through Couchsurfing, I got my first night at a hostel for free!

Church with Long, Confusing Name
I’ve spent the night at several churches. This one in South Dakota was not one of them, but I thought it was funny that their name was so long, they needed two signs!

6. Convents and Churches: These nonprofit faith organizations are not typically thought of as accommodations, but some of them definitely are! Some convents and monasteries, especially in Italy and other European countries, help support their ministry by offering low-cost lodging to travelers. I didn’t know about this until recently, but I plan to try this out if I go to Rome! In any country, if you call ahead of time, you may find a church that can offer you a place to sleep, even if it’s on the floor of their fellowship hall (though some clergy may even offer up their homes!). Churches are more likely to open their doors to you overnight if you are traveling as a group and are of the same faith.

Volunteer in Posada de Amor Peru Orphanage
Volunteering at an orphanage in Cieneguilla, Peru, called Posada de Amor

7. Volunteer: I love volunteering while traveling because it gives me a more realistic understanding of what the area is like and gives me the opportunity to “give back” to the community for allowing me to visit. Some organizations will even provide their volunteers with freebies, such as meals, transportation, and, in some situations, lodging! You can search for causes you care about near your destination, or you can download Kirsty Henderson’s e-book, The Underground Guide to International Volunteering: For experiences that go beyond beaches and the backpacker trail. I’m in the middle of reading this book now, so stay tuned when I give you an update on what I think about it!

Overnight Greyhound Bus
Taking a rest stop in Wyoming, right before I spent the night on this bus.

8. Take an Overnight Trip: Whether you travel by plane, train, or bus, be aware that you can also use these services overnight. It’s not the most comfortable way to sleep, and you’ll likely be woken up in the middle of the night, but at least it’s something! After all, riding the bus during the day costs pretty much the same as riding the bus at night, but at least you won’t have to pay for an accommodation that night. Airlines often even give discounts if you choose a “red-eye” flight! In my opinion, trains are the best way to sleep on transportation. In some countries, it’s required to pay a little extra for a sleeper car, but in other countries (such as the United States), you can choose to pay a lot extra for a sleeper car, or you can just pay for a standard train seat and sleep right there! (Trains tend to have more leg room, better-reclining seats, footrests, and quiet hours, so it’s almost, kind of like sleeping in a bed. If you’re driving, you can still apply this principle by either having one person drive while the other sleeps and switch off, or by parking in a large parking lot (such as Walmart) and sleeping there. (But know that not all Walmarts condone this and may even ask you to leave!)

Columbus Greyhound Bus Station
Resting up at the Columbus, Ohio Greyhound bus station

9. Sleep at the Station: This is more of a plan B, but it will do in a pinch. If you’re leaving the next morning, the airport, bus, or train station will probably let you spend the night, as long as they operate 24 hours. If you’ve just arrived at your destination, you can sometimes stay at the station as well. The major problem with this is keeping your things safe. Some train and bus stations offer lockers for small pieces of luggage. I’ve seen some overnighters use small padlocks to secure all the bag’s zippers, and then use a bike lock to attach their luggage to themselves. Of course, you shouldn’t expect to get much, if any, sleep. Some people are also concerned about personal safety. This probably won’t be an issue if you travel with others, but even if you travel by yourself, you should be fine if you stay within sight of a security guard or employee and just try to blend in.

Mennonite Your Way Directory
This is my copy of the current MYW directory. If you think the cover’s great, wait until you see what’s inside!

10. Mennonite Your Way: This is an organization I just found out about last week. Mennonite Your Way is a group that has listings of people who offer lodging to travelers as a way to practice hospitality. When I first heard of this, I thought, “Cool, but I’m not Mennonite.” It turns out that you don’t need to be! Although many of the listings are for Mennonite households, hosts and travelers are not required to be Mennonite, and as long as you’re respectful of your host’s faith, you don’t even have to be Christian. For safety and to ensure that people who use this are aware of the mission, homes are not listed online, but you can order a Hospitality Travel Directory. I was expecting this to be a Xeroxed stack of addresses, but I was surprised when I received a professionally-bound 100-page catalog that started off with more information about Mennonite Your Way and a few articles from the users. Homes are listed by states and provinces, plus other countries in the back. Among the listings are information about things to do in the area and advertising for wholesome supporters. Each listing shows the family’s names, address, phone number, e-mail, how much space they have for visitors, whether they have any kids or pets, occupation, church affiliation, hobbies, and more! Many of them seem to be in rural areas, but some are downtown in big cities. Although staying at someone’s home is donation-based, Mennonite Your Way asks that you offer $10 per adult and $2 per child per night, plus $2 for any offered meals and perhaps a gift from your hometown. I’m tempted to plan a trip just so I can use this great resource!

Travel can be pricey, but hopefully these inexpensive accommodation suggestions, along with all the other resources at this blog, will help your trips to become affordable and attainable!

Accommodations, moving, road trip

Across America By Bus: Nebraska

This is part three of the “Across America By Bus” series.

Some of the most valuable lessons about community were taught to me in Nebraska. I spent two years living near Fremont, and there were many times I had to rely on those around me. Everyone I met there proved to be a true blessing. This time also opened up more travel to me, especially since it was my first time living away from home. Work provided many opportunities for paid travel that I never would have expected, and I was encouraged to travel solo for the first time too. I wanted to make sure to visit this area on my cross-country trip. Everyone turned out to be a blessing once again, even though most of them didn’t even know I was coming!

Camp Rivercrest

It took all afternoon to get from Chicago to Omaha. I got picked up by someone I had never even met before, but she was a roommate of a friend. After hearing a little about her life and that she also had experience at the camp I had worked at, I quickly befriended her. I spent the night in Omaha, and woke up super-early the next morning so a friend could drive me to Camp Rivercrest in Fremont.

Camp Rivercrest Cornfields

The ride at sunrise provided a great opportunity to catch up and share experiences with a fellow traveler. We eventually arrived at the house I would be staying in to unload my gear. I then went to the camp director’s house. He and his wife have two kids, so I knew that they would be up around this time to get ready for school. But the thing was, they had no idea that I was coming to Nebraska, let alone their house! I guess I came a little too early, because no one was up quite yet. I decided to walk along the camp-owned cornfields. When I went back to their house, I could tell they were having breakfast in the kitchen. One of the kids was at the sink by the window, so I tapped on the glass. I don’t know what startled her more: the fact that someone was tapping on the window early in the morning, or that I was there! After everyone’s initial shock, they let me inside, and we caught up before the kids had to catch the bus. Us remaining adults chatted a bit more, and then they proceeded to show me all the changes that had happened in the year I had been gone. So much had happened: five acres were added with new-to-them buildings, an old house was remodeled into offices and meeting rooms, the old offices turned into storage and prayer rooms, and my bedroom suite had been adapted for visiting workers. I knew some of this had happened, but I didn’t realize to what magnitude! (Perhaps the reason I didn’t know was because when I left, they lost their fabulous media manager that would have kept the public updated on these kinds of things. Ha.)

Fremont LakesFremont Lakes

Nebraska was my most restful stop, but I did enjoy visiting Fremont Lakes. I spent the afternoon there with some friends, and we just caught up on life, shared experiences from Ohio (they grew up there), ate food, and splashed around in the lake. It was actually their house that I was spending the night in, so they eventually brought me back home where I rested through the next day.

Platte River at Camp Rivercrest

I walked around camp, reliving the memories. It was refreshing to see all the old lodges, cabins, and outdoor adventure elements. When living here, I enjoyed going to the back of the property overlooking the Platte River. The river was still breathtaking as usual. I eventually found a few former coworkers that I hadn’t seen yet, and one offered me a ride back to the Omaha bus station.

Midwest sky

I did take Nebraska at a much slower pace than anywhere else I went, but I was able to catch up with more people here than anywhere else too. Besides, it was good that I got to take this break midway through the trip, because I would be getting very little sleep the rest of the time!

I’d like to use this post to shout out to Camp Rivercrest, where I lived and worked for two years. If you agree that they should redesign their website (like they’ve been wanting to do for years now), encourage them to call me!