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PRICE TAG: How to cut on costs during long backpacking trips in South America.

The way i do it. In details.
It has being over 2 years, that i quit my job and went for a backpacking adventure in Latin America. And, probably, the most popular question i get is how do i sustain myself financially during such a long travel. In all these years i got to know so many simple ways to cut on costs and earn money living on the road, which i could never imagine before i took off. Hope, it can help you to be more decisive about leaving everything behind, and setting for an adventure, without having a million in your pocket. But before we start, let's reach some common ground here and remove a couple of stereotypes.

Evgenia Berestneva
Text Author

A Type of Travel I Do

When i talk about long-term travel, i mean the life on the road - constant moving with short-term (usually 1 to 3 months) living periods at different places. That doesn't include 3-6 months trips in which you would like to see a hundred places in many countries over different continents, which will require you to pick faster and more expensive ways of transportation, and make impossible to have time to work on the way. No, i talk about slow-pace travels, when you have chance to put roots and melt with local environment, get to know how to live in the place, make friends with locals and leave with the feeling that you've just obtained a new home and family, where you would love to come back.
With fans of living on the road lifestyle. Backpackers in Casa Kayam, Guatape, Colombia, 2016.
In this case travel doesn't have anything in common with short-term vacations, when we consider it almost obligatory to have nice treats everyday, eat in expensive restaurants, spend money on entertainments and other pleasures, because it's a limited celebration of freedom, after which we come back to office life. No offense to people, who are in love with their work, and enjoy this type of holidays! From this point of view long-term travel and costs associated with it, won't differ much from what we spend having a settled life in one place.

Finally, the kind of living on the road i will talk about is for people, who are happy to give up on their usual level of comfort in exchange for exciting adventures, new learnings and crazy experiences. So, if you are into pretty hostels, organized tours, comfortable flights and, generally, like things to be well planned, don't bother! It's up to you how extreme you go about changing your usual lifestyle, but, generally, this information is for those, who get hyped about hitchhiking, camping, downshifting, backpacking, volunteering, road trips, anything unplanned, and who enjoys going out of their comfort zone.
When they ask me where do i take money for my trips, i tell "I just don't spend them!" Cost-cutting is a great way to make your wallet last without the need to dive into a working routine and money-based system. It's incredible how many things you can get for free, trade or buy for a very low price. Let's see step by step how to cut on costs in different areas of your life during backpacking journeys.

The way i or my friends do it.


Generally, you can find a lot of comfortable accommodation in hostels from 5 to 10$ everywhere around Latin America, but before you go to Hostelworld or Airbnb, try alternative ways.

1.1 Couchsurfing

Couchsurfing gives you a free bed, and is super popular nowadays not only in big cities, but also in remote places. I, honestly, was afraid to stay with people, whom i didn't know, but, after trying it with my male friend for the first time, i relaxed and understood that your hosts are the same open-minded people, hyped about travelling. I never had a weird or unpleasant experience, being a girl alone, staying at single-guys' places. Opposite, i met people, who treated me like a family, and got shocked when strangers were leaving me keys from their houses, sharing their home, food and time.
  • A local guide, who knows most interesting and cheap
  • Great company of like-minded people
  • Total free of costs
  • Comfort of living at home with kitchen, washing machine and internet
  • You need to talk with owners, which can be tiring after a long road
  • Can stay just for a few days, but my friends managed to find hosts for the whole month too
  • Sometimes you just "don't click" with the host, but you can always leave before planned, if vibes are strange

1.2 Camping

Camping let you have the private suit at all times, and removes the need to find accommodation at all, especially if you are traveling through countrysides and remote areas. During my cycling trip (Read story "BIKEPACKING: A Girl, A Bicycle and 6000km from Argentina to Colombia") i've been living 80% of the time in the tent put just beside the road. Yes, i freaked out in the beginning, thinking about wild animals, thieves and violators, but nothing bad ever happened, and, eventually, i relaxed.

Those, who fear more, can ask locals to camp in their yard - beside wild camping, i put my tent in churches, sport clubs, in a cheese factory, police stations, road toll, abandoned houses. In the city a tent can be even put on the roof of the hostel for a reduced fee, and you will have the best view! Sometimes, even when i had a bed in a shared place, i preferred to sleep in my tent, because it gave me privacy and protection from mosquitos. Just pick a good one, which has rain protection, enforcement ropes for wind and can fit a standard mattress. Some people prefer hammocks in hot areas, but in this case you need to think about net for insects, roof from rain and protection for your belongings.
  • Total privacy, if you like to sleep naked or travel as a couple
  • Insects free
  • Anytime, anywhere, free of costs
  • Might need special equipment for extreme hot or cold weather conditions
  • Need secure storage for valuable belongings when you are not in a tent
  • Extra weight to carry around

1.3 Alojamiento

Cheap local hotels called "Alojamiento", which in Latin America are concentrated around bus Terminals and old city centers. There you can get a private room with fan/AC/TV and shared bathroom for much cheaper rates than in hostels, featured on Hostelworld. Just ask locals for "alojamiento economico", and they usually point you in the right direction. To ensure cheap prices you better speak Spanish with owners. Be ready that it won't be pretty, usually without kitchen, and with couple of creepy neighbours. But, it's a great option for a couple, looking for privacy, and in places, where you can eat outside for 1-2$. Ah, and stay away from bordellos.

1.4 Volunteer

You can find any type of accommodation for free - farm, house, hostel, luxury hotel - in exchange for 4-5 hours of volunteer work. Those 30$ of year membership on really worth it (read more about volunteering at the end of the article). Otherwise, you can look for opportunities in person, just asking for it in places you like.

1.5 Friends Houses

Finally, the more you travel, the more friends you make on the way, and can stay in their houses once you reach their home country! Just don't lose contact with them!


The most expensive ticket during your travel would be the one to get to Latin America across the ocean, if you are not located on the same continent. I didn't have luck with cheap airfares as many people do through special websites and offers, so, for this look up information on itnernet (for example, here).


If you are ready for an adventure, start researching opportunities at, where you can sail through the ocean even without sailing experience, sharing costs of food and port entree fees with sailing boat owners. You can see even without registration that there are many options right now to sail from Spain to Brazil or from France to Chile, not even talking about plenty of cruise boats around Central America. I got overexcited just by looking at all these amazing opportunities!

Volunteer on a sailing boat is also a good option in places, where to travel by land is impossible. I traded my free 5-day trip from Colombia to Panama through paradise San Blas islands for 6 weeks of volunteering in an eco-gipsy lodge in Panama (Pachamama Republic), where i also had free accommodation and food. Actually, i liked it so much, that instead of 6 weeks i stayed for 5 months, and made other two sailing trips to Colombia and back. You can also go to Marina - Club Nautico in Cartagena, Colombia or Puerto Carti in Panama and speak with the captains to exchange volunteering on the boat for a reduced ticket price.

2.2 Buses

In general, buses in Latin America are not very expensive, with especially low rates in Ecuador (due to cheap fuel) and Bolivia (because everything is cheap). They are also quite well equipped for long 10+ hours travels, like super-buses in Colombia with sit-in screens and internet! Better not to buy your bus ticket on-line:

  • First, because it's super hard to find good websites with full information about buses in South America
  • Second, because they often list only limited and most expensive transport companies with extra charges for internet transactions

Some cities even have different Bus Terminals, where budget buses are concentrated. This happened to me in Peru, when i tried to cross half of the country around Christmas dates. Desperate to find cheap bus tickets on internet, i asked for help with a ride on Facebook. Instead of the ride i got directions to a different bus terminal, where i bought tickets for half of the price.

2.3 Budget Airlines

If you like flying (not my case), explore budget airlines, which offer great rates for national and international trips. In Colombia, it's even cheaper to travel by plane then by bus. Some of the budget airlines are Viva Colombia, COPA Airlines, Wingo. (These guys seem to know everything about it)

2.4 Bicycle

I, personally, skipped a lot of transport-related costs traveling by bicycle from Argentina to Colombia. The good news is that when you are tired pedaling, you can still hitchhike with the bicycle, and in case you take a bus, you can often transport it for free or for a small fee, agreed with a driver.

2.5 Hitchhike

An ultimate way to save on transport, of course, is to hitchhike. You might be afraid, but in most cases, drivers are afraid of you. I met quite many girls, who hitchhiked alone or with their female friends, and hitchhiked myself with the bicycle. Most of the time, i just was lifted while i was trying to push my bicycle up the mountains, but sometimes, i intentionally looked for a ride at gas stations, where i could have more time to study potential driver. To stay absolutely secure, approach couples or families with kids. If you are a guy(s), try to don't look like an ultimate hippie, homeless or marginal, even though you are on the road for many days.


3.1 Local Restaurants

Many countries in South America have local restaurants, where you find standard menu for 1-3$ (with cheapest in Bolivia and most expensive in Ecuador), which include a basic drink, plate of soup and second plate with beans, rice, salad/potatoes/platanos and meat/fish. These restaurants are usually concentrated in old city centers and around big city markets, with rates in big cities being cheaper than in small touristic villages.

3.2 Cook Home With Friends

When you are tired of rice and beans, head to the local market or low-cost supermarkets, and indulge into cooking yourself. I have never liked to be in the kitchen and could manage only basic dishes, until living on the road made me love learning new recipes from people around and appreciate availability of proper cooking utensils. If you are staying in a hostel or volunteering place, making meals for a group of people will save you money and time, by alternating cooking turns! My super-friend Teresa managed to cut our food costs to 1.5$ per meal even in such expensive country like Costa Rica (Switzerland of Europe) by thoroughly checking prices in the shop and cooking for a group of people.

3.3 Dumpster Diving

For the most adventurous dumpster diving is the way to heavily cut costs on food and joy freeganism fans*. My friend told me stories how he found all meals in waste bins behind big supermarkets while traveling in Europe (better do it at nights). And during my life in Ecuador and Costa Rica, my friends used to fill the fridge with fruits and vegetables, found outside of Vegetable shops, left there due to the loss of presentation. In case fruits are too ripe, you can always make a delicious jam from them.
Freeganism (free + vegan) — lifestyle, rejecting consumerism.

3.4 Vegetarian Diet

I have always wanted to try a vegetarian diet, and travelling, slowly stopped to buy meat and dairy products, which also significantly reflected on my grocery bill, meanwhile making me to eat healthier and feel better!

3.5 Chalkboard for Lunch

Finally, if you draw, you can exchange a meal in a restaurant for making a beautiful chalk-boards with menus and promos of the day. Like i did in Peru and Costa Rica. Watch here for motivation a video of the girl, who made the whole project around this opportunity


Perhaps, my favorite topic of cost cutting, because i was forever impressed by the guy, who worked on reception in one of the first hostels i stayed in Rio de Janeiro, and whose whole wardrobe - cool and almost new - was coming from Lost & Found!

With time, finding forgotten clothes and items in hostels became my biggest source for new outfits, which now compose about 75% of my wardrobe. I just love the idea of upcycling and support low-consumerism. The bigger is the hostel and the more parties they have, the larger is the collection of things you can find: from backpacks and complete camping equipment to towels and swimming suits, not talking about the biggest choice of flip-flops and sandals. People forget a lot of stuff being hangover!

Some hostels even make special "Exchange Boxes", where people can leave good clothes, which for some reasons they don't want to carry anymore.

And i just have one pair of sandals for a city-like sort of occasion, because the rest of the time i live in small villages or at the beach, and i go barefoot everywhere - from shop to disco!


I still didn't switch to making objects of personal hygiene by myself from natural products, but i'm trying to make my way. In all these years on the road I've met a lot of cool young people, who gave up on plenty of things from the shop, staffed with chemicals. When i lived in a volunteering community in Panama we were washing hands with ash and taking shower with the leftovers of coffee. Soda can be used for brushing your teeth and washing your hair, vinegar with essential oils for hair conditioner, coconut oil for your body, hair and teeth, citronella and lemon-grass for mosquito repellent, lemon as a deodorant and pain relief from mosquito bites.

I hope to share more experience and recipes in the future regarding my attempts to use organic and self-made products for personal hygiene.


If you are planning for a very long trip and have a chance to choose a good insurance, do it. These services often depends on which country you are from, because basic travel insurances generally cover only emergency cases. And even if you will be safe from fractures, burns, cuts and any other accidents, and you, generally, don't get sick too often, in 95% of the cases you still will get a food poison or high fever at least once during your long travels.

Unfortunately, insurance rarely covers regular check-ups, like the ones with dentist or gynecologist, so, if you like to stay healthy, plan those once-a-year visits while you are in cheaper countries, or if by chance you are travelling through Ecuador, because they have a free health care even for tourists.
Lucy Abdala
The best gynecologist in Barranquilla, Colombia. 70$ per visit, which is a standard rate for such doctors in good districts.
Denti Salud
Good dental clinic in Barranquilla, Colombia, where i made dental implants for 1000$ per teeth.

Leisure Time

When it comes to excursions, i stay far far away from any sort of tour companies and organized trips. Just because the idea of activities, happening according to a plan and schedule bores me to death. Sometimes, it's worth to break the rules too, sneaking in some places for free, because the amount of stories and adventures you will live through will be much higher than your excitement about the place itself. But, if you miss stories of a tourist guide, look for Free Walking Tours at TripAdvisor.

Museums and cinemas usually have discounted or free entrance once a week, just look for information on their websites.

Interesting free activities and events organized by locals can be found on Couchsurfing and Meetup.

For those, who like to be active, do sport for free is not a problem. Apart from the open gyms in parks and streets, you can always join local people playing some sport on playgrounds, find communal zumba or yoga classes, tought on principle of voluntary donations. I look for training routine at Nike+ Training Club и Down Dog apps.

How much you spend for parties is up to you, but if you are keen on spending money on alcohol, maybe it serves you well to work or volunteer at the bar, where your chances to be invited for drinks rise high. For girls it's always easier to find free entrances in clubs on certain hours and days, but sometimes hostels spread free passes for everybody to one or two clubs they partner with. Just make friends with people working at reception.

Mobile Connection

Don't rush to buy sim-cards in border cities in case you move from country to country by land. In some countries new numbers can only be registered with a local ID, or after registering your phone in the system. So, to avoid future problems, wait to ask some locals which network has better coverage and plans for mobile internet not only in big cities, but also in remote areas. For example, one of the most famous network provider Claro, which exists everywhere in South America, often didn't work as well in countryside as its competitors. And some networks, like Moviestar in Panama, have great promotions for phone call credit - with every charge of 5$, which i used for mobile internet i was getting 20$ worth free credit for phone calls, which i used to call my mum in Russia.


Volunteering is not only a great way to do something interesting and useful, but also the simplest mean to remove accommodation and/or food costs, and find friends among locals and travellers. Living on the road you don't want at all go for tours and museums all the time. In my case, i like to be busy working but not working, doing something i enjoy while learning something new, and creating something that will stay when i go.

My volunteering experience started only after 6 months since the beginning of the travel, in a bar of a party hostel, where i got free accommodation, a meal a day and, as you might guess, a bunch of free drinks in exchange for 4 shifts/week. I also had a plenty of free time, because most shifts happened in the evening/night, so for the rest of the day, i could explore everything i wanted. Since then i tried and learned many things in exchange for accommodation and/or food - from making a website for an NGO to building a clay house. gives you plenty of options and areas to choose from in various locations ( and as well) - check it right now! But, in my case, most of the volunteering i found by myself, just by asking or offering help in places, where i liked the cause, the vibe and the owners. Like this you can be sure to stay in a place and with people you feel totally comfortable, enjoying each and single minute of your volunteer time, which usually is limited to 4-5 hours/day, 5 days/week. It also helped me to avoid places, where volunteers are taken just to have an almost free work-force.
the end
That's it, my friends. Wish you courage, crazyness and great people in the search for adventures. If you know more ways of cutting costs during long-term trips, comment below or write at - i will add them to the article.

And next time i will talk about various fun ways to earn money while travelling - easy and with a lot of adventures, as always!

Photo: Evgenia Berestneva / Rogrigo Saldana / Amit Einav / Zach Salar
Text: Evgenia Berestneva


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