Tours & Trips

Adventure Travel on a Budget: Ways to Save Money and Still Have Fun

Natasha Amar

Natasha is a Dubai-based travel writer and photographer who likes to explore the world in cultures, cuisines, and hiking trails.

Got a bucket list that includes paragliding in New Zealand, skydiving in Spain, horse riding in Mongolia, glacier hiking in Iceland, trekking in Nepal, deep-sea diving in Fiji, and sandboarding in Dubai? There’s no reason to postpone your adventure-chasing dreams to when you win the lottery.

Here's how to design the ultimate budget adventure travel experience.

1. Find the Cheapest Flights

One of the biggest components of your travel budget is the cost of the flight ticket to your destination. Ask any seasoned traveler and they might just reveal a bunch of tips and tricks that can slash your flight ticket prices by half.

If you have your heart set on your next adventure, use different search engines to find the cheapest fare and book your flight as early as possible. Obviously, the closer you book to the date of departure, the more you’ll pay. Plus, fare prices surge when booking from Friday to Sunday, so try checking out prices earlier on a weekday. Certain flight search engines are also more efficient than others depending on which part of the world you’re traveling to, so use a few different ones to compare prices, and sign up to get notifications for the lowest deals available.

When searching for flights, use the Incognito feature of your browser. This prevents airline websites from placing a cookie to monitor your searches for a particular flight and driving up the price offered to you.

Many search engines don’t include local or regional budget airlines such as Adria Airways or Wow Air, so do a little research to find these special discount fares and check prices on their websites. If you're still a student, many airlines like Student Universe offer student discounts that can help reduce your flight cost. Keep in mind that some budget airlines might not arrive at your destination’s main airport. Still, they might be significantly cheaper even after paying additional transportation to the city.

If a little spontaneity doesn’t scare you, then choose your destination based on available flight prices instead of vice-versa. Use Kayak Explore to find the cheapest destinations from your city in a particular month.

Finally, don’t underestimate the savings from being enrolled in an airlines loyalty program. Expenses using a miles-friendly credit card can help you score complimentary flights and enjoy the luxury of airline lounges around the world.

2. Pack Light to Avoid Airline Fees

Know what’s worse than lugging a heavy suitcase for a mile on cobblestone streets and up flights of stairs at your hostel or Airbnb? Paying baggage fees that are equal to one-fourth the price of your budget flight. While you can fly from New York to Reykjavik with a compact carry-on for just $200 with the Icelandic budget airline Wow Air, a carry-on larger than 42x32x25cm adds $40 and a checked-in bag adds $50 to your total price. Wouldn’t you rather spend that money on a glacier hike in Iceland, ziplining adventure in New Zealand, or learning how to rock-climb in Thailand? Be smart and travel light, preferably carry-on only to avoid unnecessary airline luggage fees and zip through airports quickly once you’ve arrived.

The key to packing light is bringing functional clothes in solid, neutral colors that can be mixed and matched to create a variety of looks that can suit different occasions. The same rules apply for shoes -- carry comfortable walking shoes or sandals, a nicer pair that you can wear on formal evenings, and hiking shoes if you expect to spend any time on trails outside the city. Ditch the things that you can buy locally at a price that's far lower than what you'd pay to the airline for excess baggage or an extra bag. If you're traveling for several weeks, make use of locally available laundry facilities at your hostel, guesthouse, or a laundromat instead of over-packing.

3. Travel in the Shoulder Season

Instead of traveling during the busy summer months or holiday season, try planning a trip in the shoulder season: the period just between high season and the kind of weather that hampers your travel plans. You’ll find affordable accommodation with greater flexibility to book as you go, reasonable tour, car rental, and activity prices, smaller tour sizes, and fewer crowds. Sounds like a great deal, right?

For example, Iceland gets most of its tourists in the summer when its most famous sights are crowded, hotel and tour prices are super expensive, and the Blue Lagoon is packed with tourists. On the flip side, visiting in February means the most severe part of winter is over and you have enough daylight to explore the countryside each day. Guesthouses and hostels are available at better rates during this time, and popular tours and activities such as glacier hiking and lava-tubing are more affordable. It'll still be cold, but it's worth the extra dollars you'll save.

4. Book with Local Companies

It’s always cheaper to book your adventure tour or activity once you’re at your destination with a local company that employs local tour guides and adventure experts. Doing this with an international tour provider means you’ll be paying a significantly higher amount once you factor in their own expenses, marketing and promotion, the cost of guides and employees who travel to the destination, and expenses towards local operators and equipment.

Once there, you’ll find that a local company operates the tour, often pooling together customers who may have booked with different international providers such as Viator and may have paid different prices for the same tour.

Organizing your adventure with a local operator makes it more affordable for you as well as beneficial to the local economy, as all the money goes directly to the business owner and guides. If you have some degree of flexibility during your trip, this would be the more responsible choice to make as a traveler. You can arrive in the country and then choose the next available date for your adventure, request to customize some aspects of the tour, and ensure you’re comfortable with the group size.

An example is a trekking and homestay trip with ethnic tribes in the terraced rice fields of Sapa in Vietnam. Many tourists book this experience online with an international company for a much higher price and have exactly the same experience as I did when I showed up in Sapa, talked to a few locals, and booked with an organization that employs local Black Hmong women as trekking guides and provides an income for their families who act as hosts in the homestay program. I ended up saving $60 for a trip that included two nights at the homestay and three days of trekking versus one night at a homestay and two days of trekking offered by a well-known international tour operator for a much higher price.

5. Venture Away the Obvious Destinations

If you’re adventuring on a budget, get creative and think beyond the obvious choices for specific adventures to save on the costs. If skydiving is on your bucket list, head to Costa Brava in Spain rather than Dubai to skydive at half the price -- and save a full $275. The views will be just as awe-inspiring, if not even more so.

If you’re interested in a wildlife safari and can’t afford the flight to Africa plus a pricey Maasai Mara safari in Kenya that can cost up to $300 a day, consider cheaper options in India where for just $95 a night you can stay at the luxurious Taj Gateway Hotel and go lion-spotting in the forests of Sasan Gir. If a skiing trip to France is out of your budget, plan a longer trip to Georgia in the winter, where you’ll get more value for money. While a night at the ski resort town of Chamonix in France can set you back by $425, a night in a suite in the ski town of Svaneti in Georgia costs only $70.

6. Work, Intern, or Volunteer

If you’re a student or professional on a gap-year or someone who’s transitioning to life as a digital nomad, then you might not like the idea of spending large sums of money on a diving trip in the Galapagos or dog-sledding in Sweden. These might seem like unnecessary luxuries when you don’t have a steady flow of income.

But a gap year is no reason to deny yourself adventures; after all, you may not find yourself in that part of the world again. One solution is to find a work exchange, internship, or volunteer arrangement where you can trade your skills and expertise for the chance to experience some amazing adventures. You won't just be having fun -- you'll be learning something, too.

If you like skiing, you can sign up to work at a ski resort in Queenstown, New Zealand. If you’re fascinated by the Northern Lights, find a job as a tour guide in the Arctic north. If you adore huskies, you can volunteer to work at a husky farm in Finnish Lapland and also experience dogsledding. If you’re a talented photographer, you could lead photography tours in the Salar de Uyuni salt flats in Bolivia and take time off to explore the Atacama Desert. If you’ve always wanted to earn a diving certification, you could offer your social media expertise or help out with administrative tasks at a dive school in Thailand in exchange for dive training.

Make Budget Adventure Travel Happen

The truth is there's no better time to do the things you've always wanted to than now. You'll never be this young again and as you grow older you'll realize that adventures and experiences add far more value to our years than material possessions.

Take a leaf out of the book of seasoned travelers who’ve made a habit of pushing the boundaries as they jetset around the world. Armed with a little travel savvy, on-ground research, and these helpful tips, you too can make every trip just as action-packed and brag-worthy, even on limited vacation time and a strict budget. So go on and take the leap!