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Picture this: you're nearing the end of your bicycle tour and with a sinking stomach, you suddenly realize that you're running out of money. What happened to that carefully planned budget? There are a few steps you can take before and during your next bicycle tour that will stretch your finances and keep you from coming home early or in credit card debt.
We all know that you cannot drink the tap water in developing countries. But buying bottled water is expensive and trashes the planet. What's the point of traveling sustainably if you buy and throw away 3 or 4 plastic bottles a day? There are a couple of ways to treat your drinking water so it's safe to drink.
For years, I've used a backpacking-style water filter pump to clean my drinking water. I like the Katadyn pump as it's tough and, according to the specs, "removes particles, bacteria, cysts, parasites, and protozoa." I like that I can use it for back-country water sources, as well as tap water.
I've used a water filter for 20+ years of different types of travel and thought I could never be swayed, but I must admit that the UV lightpen purifiers I see people using now are pretty intriguing. They're cheaper and lighter than a pump, use rechargeable batteries, and require much less hassle with hoses and bottles since they clean one bottle of water at a time. A UV pen uses batteries, so it's not a good option for extended backcountry use. I'd also recommend using a filter to remove silt from any river or stream water before sterilizing it with the UV light. But if you're planning on staying in hotels and filtering tap water during your cycle trip through a developing country, you might consider one of these new gadgets.
Filter/Treat your own water - Cook your own food - Do your own laundry - Sleep for free - Avoid flying - Ask for a discount - Cheaper travel means more gear - Go slower and spend less - Get rid of monthly bills - Budget plan with your travel partner(s) - Watch the extras - Start with your bicycle and gear in tip-top shape.
One of the joys of cycle touring is eating limitless loads of yummy food. Nothing tastes quite as good as that sloppy sandwich you eat on the side of the road after working up a voracious cycling appetite. Eating in restaurants everyday in expensive countries can devastate your budget. Save your eating out days for special occasions and get into the habit of cooking most of your food. Usually I cook up a hot breakfast and dinner at camp, and try to carry some sort of sandwich and snack gear. Beware of shopping while hungry. A few deli treats and some Pepperidge Farm cookies, and you could have eaten out for the same price. You can stock up on oatmeal and pasta for the times you're far from a store, but don't feel limited to dried out backpacking rations. Don't skip meals to save money. You get hungry and grumpy, and more likely to run to the nearest restaurant.
If you're traveling in countries like Thailand or India, it's cheaper to eat in local restaurants than cooking every meal. While I still like to have my own stash for sudden snack emergencies, street food can be ridiculously cheap and yummy and much easier than doing all that cooking.
Laundromats can be surprisingly expensive in first world countries and in developing countries, laundry services can take forever and also be expensive. I usually do my own laundry. In hotel rooms, you can use a bathroom sink, bath tub or bucket with a little soap. You can carry a length of rope, a cool fancy travel clothesline or just drape your wet clothes on the bike at night. One drying trick I've learned is to wring out the wet clothes and then twist them up in a towel. Wash small loads; you don't want to carry a pannier-full of half-dried gear. You can strap small things to the back of the bike to dry during the day, assuming it's not raining.
You may save money by camping but do a little research on the campgrounds you're headed towards. An RV camp with a swimming pool and hot showers can be just as expensive as a cheap hotel! Usually publically owned municipal/state/national parks are cheaper than private one like KOA in the USA. Free camping isn't for everyone, but with a little practice you can have a sublime outdoors experience that's impossible at a crowded campground and pay nothing to boot. I have spent hundreds of nights free camping in public parks, horse pastures and cemeteries. If you have the camping equipment (and don't forget the water bag), free camping in someone's yard or squeezed off the road can stretch your budget and broaden your experience.
I also highly recommend checking out Couchsurfing.org and Warmshowers.org. These are online communities where you can find people who offer up a free place to sleep for travelers. Warmshowers is specifically geared towards touring cyclists, while Couchsurfing is for any sort of traveler. It may sound a little creepy to someone who's never tried it, but I've used Couchsurfing on my own many times and never had a bad experience. Especially in big cities, it is a fantastic way to meet people, save some money and get a local's view of the neighborhood.
One drawback to free camping is the lack of shower facilities. There are a few ways to keep the smell off. You can splash down in the restrooms at gas stations and restaurants or rig up a bucket shower at camp. For this reason, lots of people won't appreciate free camping every single night. Be realistic with your expectations. Planning to free camp every other night is a more realistic goal than every single night.
Avoid flying - especially with your bike.
It used to be that I could walk into the airport with my boxed bike, smile at the right ticket agent, stick my foot under the scale, and there would be no extra charges for my overweight bicycle and camping gear luggage. I found out the expensive way that this is no longer true. Airlines are hurting financially and overweight fees can cost as much as the price of the original ticket. Do what you can to avoid flying with the bike. Consider sending it ahead as a separate package with a service like FedEx or DHL. If you simply cannot avoid flying, research that ticket like crazy. Beware of code-sharing flights, meaning two airlines share the same code but have different rules and costs for bikes. Know what your weight allowance is and stick to it. This means packing up sooner than the night before you fly. Sometimes you can pay for extra weight online in advance (and this means more than 24 hours before your flight) at a cheaper rate than what you'll be charged at check-in. Budget airlines often charge the worst fees. You might consider flying first class, if the airline gives you a bigger weight allowance (and you get to fly in style!) It's not a bad idea to print out the airline's bike policy, just in case the agent checking you in forgets that sporting equipment gets another 5kg of luggage allowance. Never argue that overweight people don't have to pay extra luggage fees, no matter how logical it may seem at the moment. Airlines charge by weight, not the size of the box, so a folding bike will not necessarily save you any cost.
It never hurts to ask! Campgrounds and hostels might not advertise it, but they sometimes have special rates for cyclists. Or the owner might be a fellow cyclist and decide to give you a discount. Staying more than one night is a good bargaining chip. Be friendly and don't act entitled. In many developing countries, it's expected that customers won't take the first offer, although you'll have more luck bargaining with the owner rather than an employee.
Reducing how much you spend everyday takes more gear. I admire the ultralight touring philosophy, and I'm secretly jealous of the super light rigs I see people riding. But to me, traveling cheap is the opposite of traveling light. Camping, cooking and carrying food means riding a fully loaded bike. Make sure you're prepared with strong racks and panniers.
If you're entering an area with few grocery stores, you can be sure they'll be overpriced. Make sure to stock up on food before you enter.
There are only so many hours of daylight. If you plan on spending each and every one of those hours in the saddle racking up the big miles, you'll have little time or energy left for camping and cooking. The search for a suitable camp spot, food shopping, setting up camp, and cooking your own food are all easier done during daylight hours. The cool encounters you have meeting people through Couchsurfing and Warm Showers may cause you to linger a day or two longer than planned. In other words, cycle touring on the cheap is a little bit slower.
If your focus is mainly on miles, you may find that you don't have enough time or energy to economize. After a long hot day of death march riding, it's very tempting to wave the magic credit card at a hotel with room service. Think about what your ultimate goals are: drawing a line on a map or experiencing what your journey has to offer? If you can afford it, credit card touring is much faster since you spend every ride-able moment in the saddle. But you may miss some magic moments of spending time on the side of the road and meeting the locals.
Instead of paying rent for the two months you'll be gone, can you find someone to sublet? Ask your utility companies if it's possible to put your accounts on hold instead of paying for cable or garbage service. Be realistic about your cellphone plan. It's easy to go over your minutes when you're bored at the campground. Your cellphone may not even work in other countries. Consider traveling with no phone or picking up a cheap pay-as-you-go mobile phone when you arrive. Check that your bank has branches on your route so you can avoid ATM fees for using other banks. If you're traveling internationally, ask your bank and credit card company about international fees and if they can be waived.
Make sure you all have the same idea about what economic travel means. Cheap for one person may mean free camping and bread and cheese sandwiches while the other person is thinking Motel 6 with no cable. A little pre-discussion will save you from spending more than you want on the road because your partner is living it up. I highly recommend all members of a group have the same realistic daily budget.
Artisan bread at the Farmers Market, a couple bottles of microbrew beer, a day at the County Fair... all extremely fun treats that don't come cheap! Expect your iron will to be tested by roadside temptations. Plan for a few splurges with some padding in your budget.
One last word of advice: don't be too cheap. A diet of vegetables and instant noodles might save a few bucks but it gets old. Don't miss out on fun experiences just because you're sticking to your bare bones budget. While living on the cheap can be part of the adventure, a few thoughtful splurges can create special memories. A basket of organic blueberries to be nibbled while riding through the countryside. A campfire in the forest with a bottle of local wine and some new friends. A warm hotel room when the weather is too horrible to bear. These are the moments that stick with you forever.
Bicycle repairs, while just a fraction of car repairs, can be expensive and a giant hassle on the road. Buying parts on the road can cost much more than the tried-and-true discount retailers you know at home. Buying parts in developing countries can cost at least double the cost at home and require lengthy waits for shipping. Start your trip with good tires, a newish well-maintained drive train and all the spares and tools you can think of. Pay particular attention to the health of your rear wheel. Broken spokes are a common costly mechanical breakdown on the road. Spending a little more money before the trip starts can save you a bundle in the long run.
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I have used several brands of bicycle panniers and
highly recommend Ortlieb.
See Why I switched to Ortlieb waterproof Panniers?
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