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Four experts on cheap travel share their best tips for maximizing value while vacationing

Travel writer and photographer Anna Mazurek in Puerto Escondido, Mexico. (Anna Mazurek)

Scott Keyes hadn’t given much thought to visiting Taiwan or Milan. But when he found bargain basement deals to each — $130 to Milan and $169 to Taiwan, round trip from the United States — Keyes, who is founder and CEO of the travel deal site Scott’s Cheap Flights, couldn’t resist booking them. To his surprise, the savings made the trips that much sweeter.

“I felt completely light and airy, like I was playing with house money,” he says. “I ended up having more fun, because I didn’t have all this pressure hanging over my head. I was able to loosen up a little bit, because I knew I’d saved $600, $700, $800 off what the flight would normally be, so what’s another glass of wine or a plate of truffle linguine or something?”

The frugal traveler’s essential list of budget travel hacks

For Keyes and many others, when it comes to travel, the search for savings isn’t just about money. To some, budget travel can present a challenge or a game; it can be a framework to help with planning; a gateway to meeting like-minded adventurers; or an adrenaline rush from the pursuit of the deal.

Learning to slow down

As a freelance photographer and writer specializing in travel, Anna Mazurek spends most of the year on the road, living for weeks or months at a time in different cities and countries. When we talk via Skype, her home base is a $300-a-month studio apartment in Chiang Mai, Thailand. “I’m in Asia, so I don’t like to spend more than $15 a night,” says Mazurek, who wrote the book “Good with Money: A Guide to Prioritizing Spending, Maximizing Savings and Traveling More.”

Staying in an apartment in a neighborhood comes with benefits beyond the budget: She’s able to live more like a local, which allows for a deeper appreciation and understanding of the area than she’d get if she were in a luxury hotel in a tourist zone. “It’s an added bonus, because it’s more authentic in a lot of ways. You take public transit, you’re having street food, you’re having conversations with people, you’re seeing how people really live,” she says. “I like being in a place for longer, whether it be a week or a couple of months.”

Matt Kepnes, a travel writer who founded the website Nomadic Matt and wrote the book “How to Travel the World on $50 a Day,” says that when he travels, he walks around different neighborhoods and takes public transportation, just like he does when he’s at home in New York. That gives him a feel for the rhythm of the area he’s visiting. “People around the world live the day-to-day life you do,” he says.

Kepnes makes it a habit to cook his own food or picnic rather than dining out all the time. That comes with a bonus: Grocery stores offer a fascinating glimpse into a new place, whether it’s discovering ­hagelslag (sprinkles often eaten on buttered bread) in the Netherlands or losing yourself in any country’s potato chip aisle (so many unfamiliar flavors). In Sweden, he remembers coming upon a popular fish spread in a metal tube, called Kalles Kaviar. He says the flavor and texture reminded him of Cheez Whiz mixed with caviar.

“It’s actually quite tasty,” he says.

Making connections

It’s a given that staying in a hostel can save money. But Mazurek says there’s also a sense of community that comes with the territory. She’s made friends and had many impromptu adventures as a hostel guest. “I’ve had some of the best experiences with the people I’ve met,” she says. It’s quite a difference from hotel stays. “I wasn’t really making friends at the elevator in the Hilton,” she says. Fellow travelers and staff can also be great resources on where to go and what to do in the city at hand, or in surrounding ones.

Beth Whitman, founder of the travel site Wanderlust and Lipstick and author of the book “Wanderlust and Lipstick: The Essential Guide for Women Traveling Solo,” also finds that connecting with other people is the most fulfilling aspect of travel. In part, that’s why she started her own company, WanderTours, which leads small, adventurous guided tours to places like Papua New Guinea, Morocco, India and Bhutan. While her tour company isn’t budget, many of the travel lessons Whitman has learned come from her earlier spendthrift travels.

On a trip to Vietnam, she ­realized the profound impression volunteering can make when she helped build a playground for an orphanage outside of Hanoi. There, she was able to meet children and locals and learn about their struggles as well as the joys in their lives. “I know sometimes people don’t travel to budget destinations because they don’t want to look at the poverty, but there’s also great beauty in that, too, and part of that beauty is people are really quite happy around the world,” she says.

Through her globe-trotting, Whitman has also learned the art of haggling, and says she’s become a “master bargainer” at markets in India and Southeast Asia — as well as at the garage sale down the block from her home in Seattle. While some travelers are intimidated by the process, she relishes the back-and-forth when purchasing a rug or other items. “If you don’t get upset about it, it can be a really fun game to have this cultural exchange,” she says.

Flexibility brings more deals

Early on in his travels, Keyes discovered that budget travel can also be a means to more adventures, and a map to exciting locations. Say someone sets a flight budget for $1,000 a year. They can spend that $1,000 on one flight to Europe. Or they can be flexible, search for great deals and, says Keyes, easily find three flights overseas for that amount, often to places that are a little more off the beaten path. “When you know you’re taking three trips a year, you can be a little riskier,” says Keyes. “You can choose places that might be a little bit more interesting. If you’re taking one trip a year, the stakes are pretty high and you kind of have to go to the tourist favorites.”

While many people will first choose their destination and then make plans accordingly, Keyes says he’s learned to flip the formula, making price the priority and then putting the rest into place. “I try not to set my heart on somewhere and then hope a cheap flight will pop up. It’s more a matter of when they do pop up, that’s when I’ll end up going,” he says.

Safety over savings

While cutting costs can be gratifying, Mazurek points out there is one area where she never cuts corners: when it comes to her security. “I will not be cheap when it comes to safety,” she says. “If spending more money means I’m being more safe or gets me out of a situation where I think I wouldn’t be safe, I would spend the money any time.”

That’s because budget travel doesn’t have to mean making sacrifices. In speaking with all the travel pros for this article, that theme came up time and again. Cheap flights can be direct and convenient. Inexpensive street food can be delicious. Less familiar cities can be great adventures. Safety is important at any cost.

Mazurek brings up the “cheap vs. frugal” debate and says that, for her, budget travel is about being frugal. “Being cheap means you’re making a decision based on price for everything. But frugality is making a conscious choice to spend money on things you love while cutting your spending on things you value less,” she says. “And that’s really my whole philosophy.”

Silver is a writer based in Chicago. Find her on Twitter: @K8Silver.

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