27 Essentials For The Budget Traveler (Because There’s Always a Use For Duct Tape)

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Hey, hey travelers! We’ve all seen those super geared-out trekkers that seem to have enough equipment to build a luxury igloo in the desert. However, even though modern traveling gear can be nice, it’s also often pretty darn expensive. Unless you’re on a limitless budget you’re probably pinching a few pennies to make sure you can afford the airfare.

But when it comes time to pack up for the trip, you don’t have to fill your suitcase with pricey travel gear to prep for the trek ahead. I’ve realized that the simplest things can be the most useful when you’re out on the road. And sometimes it’s those small, inexpensive items that truly help you to save on unexpected purchases during your travels!

Here are my top picks for budget-friendly essentials for the wandering soul:

  1. Hostel international card. This is a good investment for anyone planning to stay at multiple hostels or other hostel type lodging throughout their travels. There’s a small membership fee upfront, but the discounts quickly make up for the initial cost. Ten bucks for 30% off future hostel lodging? Don’t mind if I do.

  2. Discount cards (Senior, student, military, etc.). Take advantage of any and all discounts by carrying your specialized IDs. Even if you don’t see a clearly marked discount, ask anyway – there may be unlabeled discounts or their sign may be out of date.

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  3. Insulated bag/cooler. This is useful for those day trips that require a packed meal. You can keep any perishables cool by freezing a water bottle and using that as your ice pack and later for your hydration.

  4. Small backpack. I bought a small backpack for a trip 8 years ago and it’s still my main go-to for exploring a new place during the day. It cost me 40 dollars upfront but man, it’s certainly put in it’s value time and time again. REI has some great used gear sales as well as an online outlet with some great options.

  5. Over the counter medicine. Bring any medication that you may need rather than buying it at your destination. You can avoid buying the pricey single dose packs that you see at gas stations. Just be sure to clearly label if you’re packing a small amount from a larger bottle.

  6. Small wallet/place to store your money safely. You have your cash to spend, better make sure that you protect it! Choose a wallet that has a wrist loop or fits smartly in your bag, pocket, or purse. Avoid wallets that you have to carry or that you could set down and potentially forget.

  7. Duct tape. Duct tape can repair a shoe. It can be fashioned into a drinking cup. It can collect spilt cheerios from the floor. In other words, it’s magical. Great part is, it doesn’t have to be a huge roll. A common trick is to wrap a length around a water bottle, and use as needed. Easy peasy.

  8. Plastic bags. Light and portable plastic bags are great for packing up your trash, carrying small snacks, or covering a wet towel/bathing suit that hasn’t quite had time to dry. They can help you segment belongings in your bag, too.

  9. Safety pin/sewing kit/needle. Fear not the ripped pants! Carry some small mending tools and you’ll be rockin’ your style in no time. It doesn’t need to be a sewing machine, just a small patch kit and thread and needles.

  10. Stamps/postage/envelopes/addressed and stamped envelopes. Who doesn’t love to get a note from a friend on the road? It’s obviously different if you’re traveling within a country that uses a different form of postage, but if you can snag stamps and stationery (even better, pre-addressed enveloped) it’s easy to write home to the fam.

  11. Water bottle. It’s a well-hydrated (and thus happy) traveler’s best friend. This will save you from buying water bottles at the airport or on the road. Just make sure you’re filling it up with potable water!

  12. Multi-tool or swiss army knife. You never know when you might need a screwdriver, or a mini pair of scissors, or a metal toothpick. Having a small, accessible multi-tool gives you a nice little “bag of tricks” in a tool the size of a roll of quarters.

  13. Eye mask. This is about saving your sanity and your sleep more than money. An eyemask is a great travel accessory for when you need to get some shut eye but don’t have your travel blackout curtain.

  14. Small reusable bottles for shampoo/ conditioner. If you’re flying, you know you have to keep liquids down to 5 ounces in your carry-on a bag. Instead of opting for the small shampoo/conditioner bottles, consider investing in some reusable squeeze bottles that you can use over and over again. Then, you can squeeze soaps from your more cost effective larger shampoo bottle into the smaller container. A definite money saver after the first use.

  15. Reusable shopping bag. Having a small, packable bag always seems to come in handy and is particularly nice if you plan to shop at grocery stores when you’re out traveling. Will save you from the bag fee and can be used to carry other gear on day trips or beach jaunts.

  16. Small bandana and/or scarf. Another MacGyver type item to tag along in your luggage… it’s amazing how a scarf can double down as a towel, as a bag, as a tie. Tons of travelers also swear by a sarong which is well suited for limited space and maximum benefit.

  17. Hand sanitizer. Not everyone agrees on the health benefits of hand sanitizer, but it certainly in handy when you’re out and about with no sink or soap to help kill all the germies from the subway or the squat toilets. A small bottle also generally lasts a reasonable amount of time!

  18. Calorie dense snacks. I’ll assume that most of you have heard the term “hangry” by now. It’s what happens when you’re out on the road with nary a culinary option in site. Poptarts just won’t cut it, so opt for something that’s meal sized in calorie density. My snack of choice is a good ol’ jar of peanut butter. A few pieces of fruit or crackers and you have yourself a satiating snack.

  19. Cheap watch. If you’re so inclined to leave your smartphone locked up at home, you can keep track of time the good old-fashioned (ish) way by wearing a cheap watch. This can prevent lost money on stolen electronics, especially in areas known for pick-pocketing.

  20. Notebook and pens/pencils. Trusty old pencil and pad of paper harkens back “the old days” of note taking. They’re cheap and provide you a place to jot down your thoughts, doodle, make paper airplanes – the possibilities are endless.

  21. First aid. On the same vein as over the counter medicine, pack up a small first-aid kit so you don’t have to pay for expensive supplies or kits when you’re on the road. Taking care of any cuts or scrapes and keeping them clean will save you from a health headache down the road.

  22. Sunglass case or hard-case for breakables. Your pack can get pretty squished around when it’s being tossed onto planes and trains. To avoid having to buy replacement sunglasses, invest in a hard case. You can use the aforementioned (and recommended) case for storing any other fragile things in your bag.

  23. Skype card. Consider loading up a Skype card to make international calls instead of opting for an international cell phone. The minutes are fairly inexpensive and if you stay somewhere with free computer or internet access then you can save on the high cost of international minutes or roaming fees.

  24. Clothesline. You might need to do laundry at some point during your travels but some things just need a quick rinse or can be hand washed in the sink. To make sure that they dry, hang ‘em from an easy to carry and hook up clothesline. Hotel laundromat – bam.

  25. Kindle/e-reader. This is definitely an investment but the return is fairly quick and so incredibly awesome for the frequent traveler. Books on the road are expensive and heavy – a Kindle saves money and weight. Plus, if you have a library card you can check out books via the Overdrive system from anywhere in the world with a Wifi connection. The coolest!

  26. Tupperware. A small, screw-top container comes in handy, especially if you plan to pack up your food when you’re out and about OR bring back food from a meal out. Any such container will do, but the screw-top variety will prevent leaks and also makes the clean up easy too. You just have to fill with a bit of warm water and soap, screw on the top, shakeshakeshake, and rinse.

  27. A budgeting method. Ok, ok, this one’s less of a “thing” and more of a technique that you pack up and take on the road with you with you. But in order to stick to your budget, your have to know what your budget is. That means planning out your expected expenses and having a clear sense of where your finances stand throughout the duration of a trip.

Of course not every single trip will require each and every one of these items, but it’s a handy checklist to keep on hand when you’re packing up and prepping for the journey ahead! Budget travel doesn’t have to be uncomfortable and cheap accessories can help you to navigate any unexpected challenges without having to buy an expensive (real or symbolic) band-aid for the situation!

Image Credit: Chris Ford

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  • Dana Wilson

    These are very helpful travel tips especially for backpacking students who really are low on the budget. Thank you! And perhaps not trying out delicacies or food that you’re not sure would go too well in your stomach. The last thing you wanna do on trips is to get sick.

    • Claire Murdough

      Thanks so much for the comment, Dana! And such a great additional tip – definitely an essential thing to pack to prevent a potential traveling headache (and stomachache)!