How to Save Money While Traveling Through South America


Creating a budget sounds simple enough, right? But sticking to your original plan can be hard, especially on an extended vacation when you want to indulge (and you should! It wasn’t easy to get to where you are, and we commend you for that).

Each country in South America will vary depending on the local currency and exchange rate, but you can expect to spend between $800 – $1,300 USD a month on transportation, lodging, food and fun, plus presents and other necessary expenses, like visas and trips to the farmacia (stomach bugs are common). Track what you spend the most money on during your first few weeks on the road. If you find that the ‘fun’ section is outstanding, try to tone it down, just a little, using these tips:

Stay Longer: Many hostels will offer backpackers a better deal if they stay for a week or more. This was the case in Peru and Ecuador for me, especially in family-owned and operated hostels. In Montañita, Ecuador, the original price offered was $12/night, but we negotiated it down to $8/night after agreeing to stay for a week. Not bad for a beach view.  

***Tip: Use your judgement when haggling!  Manners and a smile go a long way.***

Find Set Menus for Lunch: Many local restaurants not highlighted in your guidebook will offer set prices for their menu del dia, or lunch menu. In Ecuador, this means a 3-course meal accompanied by a fresh fruit juice, usually for $2 USD or less.  A typical meal will include some sort of soup, meat, rice, maduros or other version of plantain, vegetables and a small dessert. If the restaurant is full of locals, it’s probably delicious. You may want to stay away from the emptier ones unless they’ve been recommended though. Like I said, stomach bugs are common.

Work at a Hostel in Exchange for a Free Stay: There are many hostels along the backpacker trail that will offer work in exchange for free lodging. A popular chain to look into is Loki, owned and operated by expats in Peru and Bolivia. You work behind the bar or as a server a few days a week and in exchange, get a free bed and one meal a day. But proceed with caution: you may get stuck partying in Mancora, Peru if you’re not careful. Days turn into weeks that turn into almost a month, especially if the world cup is on and the surf is good.

Pre-drink: This may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s easy to fall into the convenience of drinking at dinner, ordering a cocktail on the beach, and buying rounds at the discoteca. If nothing else, college taught me this: having a cocktail or two before you head out for a night on the town can save you from spending all your cash at the bar.  Find the local grocery or liquor store, buy your favorite drink and take it to go.  You’ll probably still be hungover, but chances are you’ll have some cash left for breakfast.

The Best Deals Come to Those Who Research: Dying to see the Galapagos Islands? Set on doing a 7-day trek to Machu Picchu? Want to experience Carnival in Brazil? Learn how to Salsa dance in Colombia? Or learn how to speak Spanish? Talk to other backpackers and get recommendations on trips they’ve already taken or schools they’ve attended, and work these big expenses into your budget.

Last Thing: The cheapest thing you can do while visiting a new city is wander about and take photos. You’d be surprised what you can find while looking for nothing in particular, like a 3-course almuerzo for $1.50 or the most beautiful view of the city.  Enjoy!

What about you? What are some tips you use to save money while traveling?


About Author

Ellen wanders. She wandered her way through Europe in 2007 during a semester abroad in Madrid, then through parts of the South Pacific after college graduation, and spent a year in South and Central America during 2010. Most recently, she went on a solo adventure south of the border to research and write the travel guidebook Go Girl Guides: Mexico.


  1. Research is always good. And not drinking at all saves money as well! 🙂

    Getting away from touristy areas can lead you to finding things to do that are free and lead to cheaper places to eat as well. That’s been the case for me so hopefully that is true in South America as well.

  2. As much as I like to save money I do try to encourage people to go out to eat dinner rather than stay in, especially in places like Ecuador where groceries are just as expensive as a fixed meal. Yes we want a cheap vacation but we should be giving back to the economy and the best way to do that is support small businesses like restaurants.

    In Ecuador if its $1 to cook my own food or $1.50 to eat out. I always eat out.

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