I had an incredible time hiking, climbing, and adventuring my way through Argentina, Chile, Bolivia and Peru during my 5 months in South America and thought I should share my top tops for the shoestring traveller.
Firstly, I want to start off by saying that despite what you may hear, not all of South America is dirt cheap (Patagonia, I’m looking at you). This defiantly doesn’t mean you should skip it, but being aware is the first step to travelling cheaply.
So check out the list below of my top 10 tips for travelling on a budget in South America
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Travelling around South America is certainly an adventure, but if you are looking for your trip to be cost-effective and relatively smooth, it definitely pays to do your research.
Below is a quick overview of the top tips that I will go through in this post.
|💱 Cheapest:||Peru||🤑 Most expensive:||Patagonia|
|🚌 Travel between countries:||Bus||✈️ Travel inside countries:||Plane or Bus|
1. Make a Budget and Stick to It
It’s easy to fall into the trap of “everything is so cheap, I can afford that”. This kind of thinking very quickly adds up.
Budget for the more expensive parts of your trip and remember to think about your future expenses when in cheaper locations.
Utilise the places that are dirt cheap and save those dollars for when they are needed.
2. Take Buses to Get Around
This may seem obvious to some however the number of people I met who pre-booked their entire trip with flights from place to place, never having considered a 5-hour bus ride, was really quite astounding.
Head on down to the local bus station to book your ticket, bus companies offered through hostels are generally double the regular price.
Not only do buses often allow you to see how and where the real people of the city live, but also frequently provide some pretty amazing scenery.
I took buses through mountains, deserts and across lakes and saw wild llamas, donkeys, condors and much more from the comfort of a 160-degree reclining semi-cama seat. So put in your headphones, sit back and enjoy the ride.
If you really prefer to pre-book your transport so you can travel without the stress of last-minute plans, I like to use Busbud to find the best routes, times and prices.
3. Don’t be Afraid of Night Buses
South America is much bigger than you may expect and 24hr bus journeys are common. Night buses are a saviour!
But South America’s night buses are like nothing you have ever seen before. You have the option of semi-cama, cama or suite when booking a seat on a night bus.
Semi-cama (half bed) being the cheapest, is still a great option, generally a 160-degree reclining seat. You can expect a nearly 180-degree recline with Cama or a private section with a suite.
Each seat usually includes drinks, a meal, entertainment and a blanket and pillow (this is all company dependent).
When checking prices always compare, often cama is only slightly more in price-worth a couple of dollars for added sleep.
4. DON’T Fly Internationally. But DO Fly Internally
International flights within South America are ridiculously expensive whereas buses across borders are much cheaper and more simple to take.
That being said, flying within a country can sometimes work out cheaper and quicker, in particular Argentina.
This massive country has high lux busses with journeys around 30 hours long, these buses come with a price tag, often being much more than a flight which is a fraction of the time.
5. Do Your Research when Booking flights
Using booking websites such as Kiwi is great for finding the date, times and airlines which fly the route you would like.
However, websites like these don’t search for prices with every airline, they often solely search for other booking agents.
I found in South American flights could be booked for a much cheaper price directly with the airline.
Sky, Lan and Areolineous Argentina are a few examples of low-cost carriers you will find here.
PS: I have a whole guide about how to find cheap flights if you want to learn my secrets!
6. Be Smart about Saftey
It is true that a large majority of the people I met whilst travelling South America have had something stolen at some point.
Believe it or not, this can put a large hole in your budget, depending on the object.
So always be smart about your belongings, keeping everything secured to you and watching for potential thieves and scams can go a long way.
I managed to make it through 5 months of backpacking without losing a single item of value. In fact, the only thing I did lose was a portable charger which I left charging overnight at my hostel. That’s on me!
7. Barter for Everything
Bargaining in South America goes so much further than you may think.
You can try and bargain for nearly everything and speaking Spanish is a major advantage. In both Bolivia and Peru, I was able to halve the price of bus tickets simply by asking the question.
If buying more than one item you should certainly receive a discount. For the beginner barterer, start by halving their asking price and work up from there. Then, follow my 5 steps to bartering to get the best price possible.
8. Eat at Mercados (Markets)
Every town or city will have at least one “Mercardo” or market. This is where the local people come to shop, eat and socialise.
They are a great way to fully immerse yourself into the culture but be prepared to be harassed by 15 different people at once, shouting for your business.
Mercados generally shut around 4:30 pm so best to head there for a late lunch, don’t be surprised when you’re struggling with a food coma after a 3-course meal for around $2
9. Hitch Hiking is Common
Hitch hiking in South America is fairly common especially where transport is expensive such as Argentina.
It is important to do your research however, during peak tourist season, hitching route 40 in Argentina can bring you quite some success however you will be competing for seats with everyone else trying to avoid the bus costs.
Out of peak season, follow the truck routes, as these will be your most concrete way of finding a ride.
10. Be Flexible
South America is a pretty laid-back place and as a result, things don’t always happen on time. Embrace this kind of living and learn to go with the flow.
Don’t pre-book your schedule down to the minute, this will almost defiantly leave you stranded and out of pocket at some stage during your trip. Account for the unknown and have faith in knowing you will get there eventually.
Most importantly, don’t spend all your time worrying. Go out and enjoy the crazy adventures that will be thrown at you on this incredible continent!
FAQs About Traveling South America
What is the best way to travel between countries in South America?
Taking busses between the countries of South America is the cheapest way to travel as flights can be quite expensive for the distance.
Which are the best countries to visit in South America?
All the countries in South America are very different but some of the best ones for travellers are Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia and Ecuador.
How much do I need to budget to travel South America?
For a budget trip, you can get by on $50 a day per person, for a midrange traveller you want to budget closer to $100.
What is the best time to visit South America?
September – November is the best time to visit South America as the temperatures aren’t too hot and you get to experience much more of the beautiful spring colours and flours.
Hotels.com - Another great place to find a hotel with specific requirements for your trip.
Agoda - Best for booking hotels in Asia. Has options worldwide however in Asia it seems to have the most options of all the booking sites.
Hostelworld - Perfect for backpackers, Hostelworld is my go-to to find dorm rooms and cheap, social accommodation options.
Discover Car Hire - Another option to compare rental car companies and providers worldwide.
Sixt - Previously “Thrifty” car rentals.
Europcar - Offers car and van hire around the world.
AutoEurope - Best place to find RV’s to rent for your trip.
Paul Camper - Rent campervans directly from their owners at reduced prices.
Viator - Preferred by US providers so sometimes has a bigger range of activities in select locations.
Klook - Most popular in Asia, you will find a bigger range of attractions and tours in the region of Asia on Klook.
Civitatis - Specializing in European Cities. Although it provides tours worldwide, always check here for additional options if visiting Europe.
HeadOut - Best place to find discounted attraction tickets.
Tiqets - Offers a lot of combo tickets. Make sure to visit if you are planning on visiting a few iconic attractions within a city.
Tripaneer - Where to go if you want to book retreats of any kind (yoga, cycling, outdoors etc).
Guru Walks - Book your spot on a free walking tour.
G Adventure - Lets you compare multi day tours around the world to pick the right itinerary for you.
Cruise Critic - Check out the different cruise options for long or short trips world wide.
Cruise Direct - Another option for comparing and booking cruises for your trip.
Helly Hanson - Norwegian based clothing brand which produces durable outdoor clothing, particularly ski gear.
The North Face - High quality clothing for all your outdoor adventure needs.
Decathlon - Has a great range of cheap equipment and clothing for a huge range of sports and outdoor activities.
Sport Chek - Everything you need for general sports and outdoor adventures under one roof (or website).
Kiwi - Best platform for comparing different routes and dates.
Flixbus - Cheapest bus service mostly serving Europe but available in a few other destinations.
Greyhound - US long distance bus transport service.
Busbud - Compare and find all the bus times and providers for your chosen route.
Trainline - Find train times and tickets for long distance travel around the world.
Save a train - Another place to get train tickets and compare services for your destination.
Welcome Pickups - Pre book your airport transfer to your hotel.
Get Transfer - Another option to find airport transfers within your destination city.
Kiwi Taxi - Find and pre-book a taxi service in your location (including airport transfers).