Traveling on a Budget, Responsibly

In general when I travel, I like to save money. This is not a groundbreaking revelation, most people probably do. Traveling on budget is a necessity at this point in my life, and I tend to seek out - and share - tips and tricks for doing so.  This comes with some qualifications though.

I've written before about the expectations that many travelers (specifically Americans such as myself) often have when visiting other countries. Sometimes these expectations result in amusing misunderstandings (exhibit a: me ordering what I assumed was a very light beer in Tokyo and getting instead a powerful soju cocktail), but other times, expectations and the ways we enforce them can be damaging. 

One such expectation I have a bone to pick with is the belief that every place we go (especially outside Western Europe) should be substantially less expensive than home. We often expect to pay a fraction of the price we otherwise would for unique food, drinks, and experiences without a real understanding of local economies and the communities that support them.

So, my number one qualification for traveling on a budget is this: if your budget constraints will prevent you from paying fair prices and ethically spending your money when you travel somewhere, now is not the time to visit. Additionally, if you are unable or unwilling to research what these fair prices are and look into responsible ways to travel around an area, now is also not the time to visit. There is often a perception that tourism is universally beneficial - that it results in equitable economic opportunities, exchange of ideas, and mutually favorable cultural exchange. While this can be true, there are also potential negative impacts for areas that experience a lot of tourism: increased economic inequality, environmental degradation, and enforced westernization to name a few. As a tourist, being thoughtful and informed about how and where you spend your money can be an important factor in how your trip will impact the community you visit.

It's also worth noting that there are plenty of scams that target tourists out there, as well as supposedly charitable organizations that may do more harm than good, so being careful about where and how you spend your money has two sides to it. Here are some starting pointers (by no means an inclusive list) that may be helpful to think about when you are looking to travel on a budget in a responsible way:

1. Support the local community. There are plenty of ways to do this, and it's been extensively written about, but being conscientious about who benefits from tourism in an area is always good to think about when deciding where to spend money. It's a complex topic, as larger international chains often provide jobs, attract investment, and give back to the community in certain ways, but also going to smaller local businesses when you travel is a very direct way to support the community you are staying in. Not to mention that eating, staying, and shopping at local businesses is probably the best way to get to know the unique place you are visiting!


2. Bargain respectfully. In some cultures, bargaining is a huge part of day-to-day life and almost no transaction will occur without it. In the United States, we might have the perception that haggling over money is generally aggressive and unpleasant, but in many places this is not the norm at all. Bargaining can actually be quite enjoyable (hopefully for both parties)! 

For example, in the Middle Eastern countries I grew up in, the shopkeeper may invite you in to sit down and have some tea, and then you will have a un-rushed (probably extensive) discussion about various topics and items in the store. Don't expect to blaze in, yelling that you intend to buy the item at 1/10th the price, and be out in 30 seconds. Not only is that rude, but also you definitely won't get a discount. If there's something that you know you would like to buy, ask around and/or search online to figure out a fair price for that item, and then be polite but firm in mutually deciding on a reasonable price. Also recognize that your first time around, you may end up paying more or leaving with significantly more things than you planned to. Bargaining is kind of a choreographed dance of going back and forth, bantering, strategically revealing information, and drinking tea. It is something that will become more natural with time and you will learn to recognize when you might be getting taken advantage of, as well as understand the norms.

3. Be very cautious about "voluntourism". First of all, I really don't like that word, but it's the popular term to describe the vast range of organizations that are set up to connect international volunteers with work abroad. Unfortunately, despite the promising description, these organizations fall all along the spectrum from those that are doing good, community-centered work to those that are blatantly harmful to the communities they work in. Be particularly careful about any experience that would have you volunteering with children, displaced people, or any other vulnerable population, as these are at particular risk of being exploitative and harmful to the people they purport to help. Some questions to ask yourself before participating in a trip that might be classified as "voluntourism": are you contributing a real and needed skill to the community? Is this project designed primarily for the benefit of the volunteer? Will the project exist in isolation, or is it part of a larger and long-term plan? Who will you be working with? How is the local community involved in the project? Who will benefit monetarily from this project? 

I personally have never gone on a trip that would fall in this category, so I can't speak much more about it from a personal perspective. If you are interested in volunteering your time while traveling, I have heard some good things about programs like "wwoofing" where volunteers stay with host families and work in exchange for food and housing. Additionally, researching local non-profits working by and for the community can often provide insight on ways you can donate and give back in meaningful ways. 

4. Respect the environment. Don't litter (even if you see litter around), do research before visiting attractions that involve animals, don't engage in "poverty tourism" (going to impoverished areas or slums solely to take pictures of the area), and be thoughtful about how you portray your travels and the people who live there through social media. Pretty self explanatory. Treat the place you are visiting and the people who live there respectfully!


As always, feel free to comment any other points (or provide feedback on the ones above) and let me know if there are any questions I might be able to answer!