Traveling Cheap and Light Around the Globe:
a Guide for Gay and Gay-friendly Adventurers
In the beginning, my first trip to England was intended to study Shakespeare in Stratford on Avon, England, I flew an Icelandair prop-jet via Reykjavik (where the plane had to be repaired and we got a free tour during the layover); then on to London with a hand-written ticket from an agency that searched their travel-agent-only computer to find a cheap flight. That was generations ago, pre-Internet and pre-Airbus 380.
A few things have changed and the process has gotten a lot more fun—and complicated.
Deciding Where to Go
This starts with the huge wall map of the world that sprawls above my desk. I look at it often to get a sense of space, distance and location. No place is out of reach. Even in these risky times with political and religious warfare in central Asia and Western Africa, I recently met two separate women who traveled by bus, train, truck donkey cart and bicycle across these alleged danger zones with stories of friendly and helpful people along the way.
(Photo: Lake Albert, Murchison National Park, Uganda)
For gay travelers in these zones homophobia runs high. In April 2012 two lesbians and a gay male were arrested in The Gambia for ‘indecent acts’ and spent a week in jail. Passing through such anti-gay countries a gay man or woman it is wise to know about such injustice and yet one must understand that such scary headlines are not the complete story. Thousands of LGBT trekkers visit homophobic countries without incident each month. My own recent trip to dysfunctional Zimbabwe to interview gay citizens resulted in no trouble. (See the Gay Zimbabwe stories on GlobalGayz) However, in August 2012 police (some drunk) broke into the offices of LGBT GALZ in Harare. Staff members said it was mostly for harassment rather than arrest.
On the other hand, there are some countries where the snake of homophobia raises its ugly head and strikes. Uganda and Jamaica come to mind as places where anti-gay sentiment doesn’t seem to calm down. Stirred constantly by fundamentalist clerics, newspaper editors and politicians LGBT people in Uganda are intermittently harassed, reviled or arrested. In Jamaica there is a palpable trigger-happy loathing for gays that creates constant apprehension among activists and non-activists alike. Occasionally a “batty boy” is murdered; batty boy is a local pejorative slang word for queer that has been incorporated in pop music songs. Currently in Iraq there are numerous reports of gays being actively hunted down and killed. In certain Muslim countries–Palestine, Iran, Egypt and even Turkey–being gay or lesbian can get a person wiped out, not by a gang or police but by one’s own family in an ‘honor’ killing.
The point here is not to be paranoid and stay home but to be aware of your destinations and the local attitudes. I have been to several of the countries named here and encountered no problems. If you are fearful choose a gay-friendly country for spending your pink dollars. In truth, some tourists–gay and straight–get hurt anywhere by accident or intention, but most are rarely effected by local troubles.
Next is price: a trip to Travelocity, Kayak, Orbitz or ITA Matrix.com as well as the site of your favorite airline.
One of the keys to frugal travel is not to have fixed dates of travel so you can search these sites for ‘flexible dates’. Airline fares are insanely priced with hundreds of dollars differences between one day and the next. Go figure. If you have time constraints, researching fares months in advance can help you schedule your trip to fit your job. Some airlines will refund the difference if you see a cheaper flight later on their airline. (Ha! just try and collect it!)
ITA Matrix I like best because it allows you find “flexible dates” flights within a month with the fares for each day as well as different airline fares. Very helpful for comparing days and airlines. Delta and other airlines lets you search 3 days before and after a chosen date.
Kayak offers a list from low to high as well as a useful quick list of what airlines fly to your destination and the prices. You may also get a pop-up from Priceline with more prices. By the time you look at these sites you know what the cheapest price range is. If the price for your preferred destination is too high, as a bargain hunter, be flexible again and select a cheaper destination. You may want to go to romantic Paris but intriguing Istanbul may be hundreds of dollars less.
Sometimes I check fares first and let them decide a destination. There are always specials that are offered, some for a few days only so it pays to subscribe (free) to sites such as Travelzoo, LastMinute and Travelocity where they send out travel alerts of special fares. We once found a Cathay Pacific Asia Pass for a thousand dollars that took us to five countries, including Sri Lanka. The Asia Pass is still available but more expensive now. Recently we grabbed a great deal sent by Travelzoo: round trip Los Angles to Bangkok for $538–with tax. That’s a 1989 price! Another good search consolidator travel search site is CheapFlights which surveys many travel sites for good fares. Searching can be frustrating so be patient.
I used to recommend flying on one airline alliance so you can collect frequent flyer miles. Your still can but the game changed: airlines now base award miles on ticket price not distance flown so frugal travelers get cheated out of many miles when they buy cheap tickets. In place of airline mile use a credit card that gives you miles (points) on one or more airlines; you’d be surprised how much it accumulates per year. I used credit card points for a free trip to Central America recently–and points awards tickets are also upgrade eligible, unlike most airline frequent flier award tickets and you can get miles as well.
With your ticket booked, check SeatGuru.com or SeatExpert for seat maps of most major airlines’ planes to find the most comfortable spot available—there are actually some good spots in coach class. As well, most major airlines now have seat assignment pages you can access during your purchase. Major airlines now offer ‘semi-upgrade’ seats (Delta calls them Comfort Plus) for only a little more money than a coach ticket. These give you more leg room which is great for long hauls. ‘Elite’ frequent fliers can get these free.
Speaking of frugal flying, in the past fifteen years in dozens of low-cost airlines across Europe and Asia have come into being, unlike America. Competition among these upstarts is fierce to the benefit of frugal travelers. Amazingly, you can fly from Birmingham, England to Barcelona, Spain on Ryanair for US$50. In Asia you can get from Bangkok to Calcutta for only $131+ round-trip on Air Asia.
Also, check out this page for a guide to getting ‘bumped’ on flights that can earn you money.
The currency converter Onanda www.oanda.com/convert/classic is handy to see the conversion rates between any two world currencies.
Now you have your destination chosen and your ticket booked, online or by phone (I usually call the airline directly once I’ve found my flight and price online). Next is to get information about your destination. This is the least expensive important part of your trip.
First is a guidebook and second is a history book or biography or novel that reveals some depth about the destined place. Don’t try to be an expert; a cursory knowledge will increase your experience significantly. And don’t travel ‘blind’ not knowing anything. You may well step onto a field or into a building that has great historical significance. Berlin, for example, has an intense history most of which can no longer be readily seen but you can find locations such as the magnificent and enormous Stadtschloss Castle of the Prussian kings, begun in the 1500’s but damaged in World War II and demolished by the communists in 1950. (There is a proposal to rebuilt it at a staggering cost.) There are numerous virtually invisible ‘collecting points’ where Jews were exported to concentration camps that are found only with guidance.
Guidebooks are like friends: you pick them because you like them and are friendly and attractive and tell you insightful things. I’ve used Lonely Planet for decades while others prefer Rough Guides, Frommer’s, Fodor’s, Let’s Go (backpackers) Rick Steve’s, Moon or Insiders Guide (USA); Amazon lists about 30 guidebook publishers.
Don’t forget the gay travel guides, hard copy and online. In recent years the online guides have become quite numerous. Frommer’s and Lonely Planet have printed gay friendly guides for years. Gay journalist Michael Luongo has written the Frommer’s guide to Buenos Aires. Spartacus Gay Guide and Damron are the grand-daddies of the hard-copy bunch with countless listings of LGBT venues but not much sightseeing information. None of the guides is significantly better than the other and all offer nuanced differences in hotels, restaurants and entertainment places.I have posted a separate page of LGBT travel magazines and guides elsewhere on GlobalGayz.
Places to Stay
When you land in your chosen target country, sometimes withered from jet lag, you need a good sleep. I always book one hotel ahead of time for my first couple of nights. I begin with a look in my guidebook for the area and price range I want and will e-mail or phone the hotel directly. It can be that simple.
Many hotels–large and small–have their own websites these days. If you want to look around or compare, Kayak, Hotels.com, Booking.com and DealBase.com offer many other places and help determine if you are getting a good deal. Or Just do a Google search for ‘discount hotels’ in your destination. Surely every traveler knows that everything-anywhere-anytime on earth and beyond can be sourced on Google–the greatest media invention since moveable type!
A useful booking site focused on the LGBT community can be found at Ebab.de based in Germany: “a global agency for private accommodations in the gay and lesbian community.” In the USA www.selectregistry.com is a helpful source for hotels, inns and B&Bs.
Often there are touts or taxi drivers in the train station offering rooms or a hotel nearby. Don’t always view these folks with suspicion; they can be helpful if you don’t know where you are, and will usually give you a free ride. Most of them are just trying to eke out a living. But, as ever, let your intuition and common sense guide you. Stick to the city center.
Once you are settled into a room and had some rest, even if you don’t like it much, it serves as a base to look for another one while you are touring around. In India I was dissatisfied and changed hotels in two different cities—not bad for stay of thirty days. In the space of a few blocks, using a guidebook, Internet or your feet, you will likely find a price and style that suits you.
TripAdvisor.com helps with subjective evaluation of places. This is the only pre-booking I do. For the rest of my trip I use the guidebook for suggestions in my price range as I go. Around the world you will find thousands of unlisted hotels, pensions, rooms in private homes, cheap hostels and expensive apartments that are not listed in any guidebook. Every large or small city I’ve been to has hotels that are visible from a train or bus window or not far from the station. A recent drive around the Czech Republic turned up countless charming and spotless little pensions, many with WiFi and tasty restaurants on the ground floor.
The recent invention of Airbnb has brought a revolution in accommodations and inspired many copy-cat online booking services such as VRBO and dozens more online.
Cheap and Free Accommodations
Not surprising, hostels (not only for youths) are among the best budget accommodations. In recent years they have become more mainstream and more appealing. A helpful site is HostelWorld.com. Here is the site for Hosteling International. Some sites offer free accommodations such as CouchSurfing.org, a worldwide network (gay and non-gay) for connections between travelers and local residents who offer free places to crash, from sofas to big beds. Another freebie is Stay With Family that lists houses, rooms and couches for LGBT travelers.
Still another way is to swap your home for free with another person/couple anywhere in the world by joining the LGBT Home Around the World service, which we have done a couple of times with satisfaction. It’s also a nice way to meet new friends. There are many house-swap/trade websites.
If you want top stay longer in any one place, rent an apartment that can be found on Craigslist. For my trip to the OutGames in Cologne I posted an ad on Craigslist requesting a room for two weeks and received several offers for whole apartments for less than $40 a night. Even budget hotels in that city go for about $80.
Unfortunately one offer turned out to be a scam and I lost my deposit. As it turns out this is a common scam in major cities around the world. A fraudulent lease holder responds to your request ad with an offer of nice digs for cheap. But they are not currently in the apartment or are out of the country and require money be sent up front. Be very cautious with Craigslist ads for this purpose. Do not send money despite the ‘requirement ‘ to do so. See this site for advice and help: Chicanery, Cons and Scams. Also see a recent New York Times story about rental scams. Be very aware of the tell-tale signs of a scam. Do not send money via Western Union, demand proof of ownership or lease before you proceed and ask for referrals.
Sometimes my husband and I will rent a car, which we have found is the best way to see a country (not a city) since the cost is split and there are as many deals as there are airfares. Check out the international companies online such as Hertz, Avis, Budget, Sixt, Europecar, Alamo or a dozen other companies—or from a local company at your destination. Several years ago we rented a car for three weeks in South Africa from a small company called Dolfin; it was a good price for a reliable Nissan car.
Personally, I dislike dealing with car rentals because it’s such a scattered industry with no coordinated system—there are a hundred choices, and ‘deals’ are often not deals when you add in the tax. Plus it takes time to call various companies. Do not trust consolidator sites like Travelocity, Expedia or Orbitz to find you the cheapest deal. They might and they might not. Most of the time I have beaten their best offers through shopping around by phone and Internet. To add to the mess, the same company will often offer different rates online than they will on the phone. There is no secret to getting the best car rental deal. Do your homework and be patient.
If you are going abroad for a few months or more, consider buying a cheap reliable used car or truck and then giving it to a charity when you’re done. Doing the paperwork may be a hassle but it’s worth the trouble. The emphasis is on cheap and reliable (Toyota is everywhere and parts can be found); you want it to get you where you’re going and if it’s stolen or destroyed it’s no great loss.
Other than Morocco, Egypt and South Africa I don’t recommend foreigners driving in Africa. Outside the main cities most roads are unpaved, pot-holed, dusty and with few gas stations and no road signs. (This is an inaccurate generalization but is often true: you can drive anywhere at your own risk. I met some folks who drove from Morocco to Egypt without major problems.) In India most native drivers are suicidal and homicidal. Hire a car and driver if you want to survive a day or overnight trip—it’s worth the cost and spares your nerves. Just don’t look when the driver passes a bus on an outside curve!
We don’t always go by car. On other trips we have traveled with rail passes, public bus transport, local airlines or bicycle and of course in cities we mostly go on foot. In northern Mozambique we discovered the only way to get across the border to Malawi was on the back seat of a bicycle taxi, and we happened to catch a rain storm in the process.
An important point about inexpensive travel is to find a travel partner; it’s considerably cheaper—and safer. There are many travelers blogs on the Internet for hooking up (see list below) but I’ve only hang out occasionally in Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree forum where thousands of travelers post messages offering advice, asking questions or looking for companionship to virtually everywhere. Thorn Tree has many branches and for the LGBT community it’s the Gay and Lesbian Travellers Forum. I have met ‘couples’ who have hooked up on the road for a week or a month or more because they like each other’s bodies, minds or the reduced cost of hotels, taxis and self-made meals. CouchSurfing.com, Wayn and Evergreen Club are helpful for all travelers to locate free or cheap places to crash or for making connections between like-minded others. So if you are off to Ulan Bator you might find a fellow queer traveler. We are everywhere.
Regarding luggage and the thrifty voyager, airlines charge hefty fees for a second bag of checked luggage. The true bargain traveler does not haul around their laundry or stash four different changes of clothes. They don’t bring their whole medicine cabinet of salves, lotions, make-up, mouthwash, 12-ounce bottles of shampoo and 7-inch tubes of toothpaste. Take small sizes, now required by Homeland Security rules.
Take one change of clothes and a bar of laundry soap. Five minutes of washing every other day replaces pounds of clothing. Pack according to the climate you are entering. Obviously climbing Everest will involve a bit more equipment (plus about $25,000) than Borneo. Remember you can buy used clothes in thrift stores or on the street everywhere. Pack one light sweater or jacket and if you need more buy it for two dollars elsewhere. Treat clothes like food, take only what you need; don’t over eat or over pack.
Travel light also means one pair of all purpose shoes. Mine are half-shoe and half-sandal so my feet don’t overheat but they are obviously not waterproof. I have pairs of Ecco, Tiva and Merrell brands for about $90 each. All are available from Zappos.
This may sound too obvious, but in order to travel light go to warm or mild climate locations. That is, the northern hemisphere in summer and southern hemisphere in winter. My favorites won’t suffice in Fairbanks in November.
If you are a techie, iPods are easy to carry of course but computer addicts used to have a heavy time. No more. Now with the new notebook computers from Apple, Acer, Lenovo, Dell, Vaio weighing less than 3 pounds and selling for less than $500 it’s an easy carry. I carry the 11″ Mac Air. Recently Novatel started to offer a WiFi (MiFi 2200) personal hotspot card for Internet anywhere. See a review in the New York Times. My personal pick is the new MacBook Air, a new dream computer to take on trips but it costs a thousand bucks. iPhones are now almost required for all travelers because of their multiple programs, including GPS.
If you want to have even a lighter load, leave without your computer. There are Internet cafes and shops for e-mail and surfing everywhere in the world–even up at Machu Picchu. In sexually repressed countries you can expect any website with the words ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’ or ‘sex’ to be blocked, but even in China or Iran there are clever techies who get around these to access the support of the worldwide LGBT community.
Phones: If e-mails are not close enough for comfort use Skype phone to talk live (and see) with dear ones. It’s a computer-based phone and it’s dirt cheap or free if both caller and receiver use it. It’s a web site you go to for access; you don’t need your own program. The connections vary but often are good. I suggest signing up before you leave home and put a few dollars into your account. The only limit here is that you do need a computer to use Skype, your own or in a cafe. Nearly every Internet shop I’ve seen has at least one computer with headphones, or you can tote your own. Of course, you don’t have to use headphones at all but how much of your conversation do you want others to hear?
As well, I suggest a frugal traveler carry a cheap quad-band phone (ask to have it ‘unlocked’ when you buy it). Every country, I believe, now sells SIM cards (located inside quad phones) for local and low-cost long distance calls. Changing your SIM card removes you from your home phone company and puts you into a local one. It’s best to buy them at a (foreign) phone store and have the card installed in your phone by a clerk to be sure it works properly; it’s not unusual for some reconfiguration to be made. Smart phones are not so easily unlocked.
One of the best advantages of a live personal cell phone is staying in easy contact while you are out and about with your traveling companion or your local contact people. My partner and I sometimes go off to separate places during the day and if there is a sudden change of plans the phone is very convenient for that. I have found that using foreign phone systems is confusingly frustrating because first you have to find a phone booth, then it may require coins, which you may or may not have, or, most often nowadays, require a pre-paid phone card with lots of numbers–and an automated operator who speaks in the foreign language when you make an error. Your own phone is familiar and easy.
For blog addicts, you can upload your itinerary on your Facebook page including the message “Any friends there?” People know people everywhere so you might not be alone for long. Names and introductions may arrive along with inside information and suggestions for your destination.
And all this information weighs nothing in your mid-sized, not-over-stuffed backpack (this size). Also take a smaller side bag with zippers for day trekking. Don’t carry your wallet, phone or passport in the side bag—too easy to pickpocket or if your bag is snatched; put them close to your body under a shirt or in a zippered pocket.
This leads to the issue of money. Any traveler should carry some cash but not in a wallet. At cheap hostels or small pensions and restaurants they commonly don’t take plastic; local currency only. Even if you have Euros or US dollars don’t assume a small town proprietor wants them. Usually they don’t unless it’s their own national currency. (In 2009 Zimbabwe stopped using the local currency since it became worthless. I bought a hundred-trillion-dollar bill for 50 US cents in February 2009. They now use US dollars only.)
Travelers Cheques are good for backup money, especially if your wallet is stolen or lost. However, there are now about a bazillion ATM money machines that spit out cash around the world, with of course a fee (often $2-3) to dispense the cash. My own bank repays all my ATM fees; most banks don’t. For security reasons carry more than one bank ATM card (two banks)–security meaning that if one is not accepted at a machine in rural Botswana the other likely will be. Also carry a credit card for use in case neither of your ATM cards is accepted. You can read more details here.
ATM Scams and ID Theft
Keep an online eye on your bank account; check it almost every day. ATM identity theft happens; you may find there’s suddenly less cash at home than you think. Thieves now can insert an ATM-sized copier card (skimming device) into a machine that stays in place for a few hours or a day that copies people’s card and PIN numbers. After the thief withdraws their copier card with your data he/she makes a duplicate and merrily goes around withdrawing your money. Read more here and also here.
This happened to me in South Africa to the tune of about $7000 during an African trip before I noticed (without checking for about ten days) the loss and saw overdraft fees appearing in my statements. If you find this happening cancel your card immediately, by phone to your customer service office (the phone number is printed on the back of all credit and debit cards), but doing so may also cut off your source of funds if you don’t have a second card, cash, traveler’s checques or a credit card. (My bank refunded my money after I got home.)
Anticipate a loss. Be sure to make copies of your passport face page, driver’s license, credit/ATM cards and keep these separate from the actual cards. Write down the customer care toll-free international phone numbers. Losing your wallet or passport by theft or loss abroad can be a nightmare (a passport can be re-issued at an embassy; a credit card must be re-issued by the company but where to send it is a problem). And consider not carrying your cash in your wallet, that is to say, spread out your valuables so one loss is not an entire loss.
Think ahead and be prepared so you can continue your fabulous frugal trip despite any challenge.
Other useful sites:
Boots n’ All – Independent traveler’s guide to the world
Cutting Travel Costs – New York Times report January 2011
SkyScanner.net – good for people with flexible schedules
AttitudeTravel.com – lists foreign budget airlines by destinations served
BiddingForTravel.com – provides info on Priceline and Hotwire bidding strategies
Venere.com – hotels in Europe often the best price
SmarterTravel.com – handy but less well organized than Travelocity
Vayama.com – negotiated deals for international flights
GirlsGuideToTheWorld.com – unbiased travel reviews for hotels, restaurants, bars, shops, spas
Frommers.com – trip ideas, plan an itinerary, bookings
DealBase.com – lists the best and worst hotel deals
Tratoz.com – find reliable and useful information to plan your next trip
Gliider.com – drag and drop all travel research into a file that sits on one’s browser
Sidestep.com; useful for flights, hotels, cars, cruises and deals
TripAdvisor.com – popular site for evaluating quality of hotels
FareCompare.com – cheapest tickets available for the next 11 months, shown by month
SeatExpert.com – search for a seats by carrier, date and flight number
Yapta.com – tracks the prices of flights and hotels and tells when the price changes
Seat61.com – train and ship travel around the world
Nileguide.com – in depth destination reviews and what to do when you get there
Virtualtourist.com – organized and straightforward info from people out there traveling
Gridskipper.com – one of a thousand world travel blogs
PoorButHappy.com – forums for travelers on a budget–comments/quesrtions
SlowTrav.com – travel slowly, staying in villas, farms, cottages, apartments
Airbnb – International accommodations in private homes
Google.com – good for finding private homes/condos bargains off the beaten path
CouchSurfing.org – worldwide network for connections between travelers and local communities
Wayn.com – similar to couchsurfing.com; people around the world make their couches available to travelers, making connections between persons and cultures
EverGreenClub.com – for folks over 50; worldwide stays in members’ homes for little
WheresCool.com – stuff to do that’s cheap, independent, authentic or underground suggested by folks on the road
Weather.com – for checking the temperature and skies of a destination
Craigslist.com – find a place in Paris for $60/night, or anywhere (beware of scams)
LuxeCityGuides.com – guidebooks that fit in a shirt pocket for luxury venues
MatadorNetwork.com – independent online travel magazine for frugal travelers
StayAnotherDay.org – Southeast Asia site, involves travelers in local projects for worthy experiences and participation
TravelFish.com – resources and information for Southeast Asia resources
Chowhound.Chow.com – voracious devotion to hyperdeliciousness and food-lovers worldwide
Netflix.com – many quality documentaries and fictitious movies to see a foreign place and how people live through film
Earth.Google.com – ‘awesome’ for seeing the terrain of mountains, rivers and coastlines
Flight001.com – travel equipment store
TravelWares.com – travel equipment and gadgets
SmartSave Discount site – offers 20% discounts on various attractions in America and Europe
Also follow the New York Times Frugal Traveler columnist, Matt Gross, especially his recent column on the “battle of the booking sites”.
By Richard Ammon
Click to see related GlobalGayz articles and photos about: Frugal Travel.