Spending

Digital nomad: To save money on vacation, try walkable cities — here are some of my favorites

"Our flight to Zagreb, Croatia, was cheaper than a weekly car rental in the U.S."

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Before the pandemic, Cecilia Meis had been actively avoiding living in the United States.

From 2017 to 2020, Meis, 30, and her boyfriend bounced around eight different places, never staying put in any one location for more than six months. As a digital nomad, her diverse array of income streams, including $600 per month in passive income, made it possible for her to work from different time zones and still make enough money to explore the cities she was visiting. Though the cost of living varies based on where Meis and her boyfriend are, she says the "baseline" cost for two people for one month is $2,510, which includes housing, medical costs, restaurants, groceries, and entertainment.

Travel restrictions brought on by Covid-19 forced Meis to come back to the United States for nine months last year. To her surprise, life in the States ended up being more expensive than nomadic life. "Life on the road is the adventure, so you don't constantly feel the need to buy things or spend money on lame activities," she says.

So what exactly was costing her more at home? "Transportation was the big one," she says, mainly rental cars. On-the-ground transportation is also the biggest cost when it comes to traveling, according to ValuePenguin. The average family spends almost $1,000 a year on gas, tolls, and parking when on vacation.

That pandemic experience is why Meis now makes a conscious effort to travel to cities that are walkable or have good public transit. Here's how traveling to walkable cities can save you money on the road, and some of Meis' favorites.

Car rental costs can be pricier than airfare

Now back on the road again, Meis is hyperaware of how much she was spending while back in the United States. "Our flight to Zagreb, Croatia, was cheaper than a weekly car rental in the U.S., and that's before you talk about gas and toll costs," she says.

While in the U.S., Meis avoided large cities to cut down on lodging costs, but ended up using those savings on rentals cars. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, for example, a rental car proved to be much more than she anticipated.

"A weeklong car rental in Tulsa was about $230, compared to a month of transportation in Ecuador, like taxis and buses between cities, which cost $130," she says.

A weeklong car rental in Tulsa was about $230, compared to a month of transportation in Ecuador, like taxis and buses between cities, which cost $130.
Cecilia Meis
Digital nomad

It didn't help that the pandemic really drove up the prices of rental cars.

"Most U.S. cities simply aren't built to be walkable, and the public transportation options were mostly closed or didn't have enough routes to make them worthwhile," during the pandemic, she says. "The cities that are more walkable were far outside of our price range for short-term rentals."

Her favorite walkable cities abroad include Chiang Mai, Thailand, and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. In the U.S she recommends Waikiki, Hawaii.

"Unless you're driving around the island, the most you'll need is a bike or a moped," she says. "We walked everywhere and sometimes took the rental bikes, which was $15 a month for unlimited 30-minute rides. Couldn't ask for a better walkable city."

How to save money on transit when traveling

There are a few ways you can avoid renting a car while traveling. One is to visit a walkable city.

"One thing we noticed is that the lack of walkability means a lot of your expenses go to transportation costs," Meis says. You can find out how easy it is to explore a city on foot by reading local travel guides or looking up a city's walk score on walkscore.com. The site, which covers the U.S. and Canada, rates cities from "car-dependent" to "walker's paradise."

Philadelphia's walk score, for example, is 79, or "very walkable." This means "most errands can be accomplished by foot." Dallas' walk score is 46, though, which means "most errands require a car."

Making the most of public transportation is another way seasoned travelers save money. "Taking public transportation is going to be a lot cheaper," Jessica Nabongo, who has traveled to 89 countries solo and who was the first documented Black woman to visit all 195 U.N. member states, told Grow.

Taking public transportation is going to be a lot cheaper.
Jessica Nabongo
travel expert

This is especially true if you're going to be in town for more than a weekend: That way you can get a multiday pass versus paying for each individual ride. For example, a seven-day subway pass in New York City is $33, which might not seem worth it for a two-day visit. But with a single ride priced at $2.75, it could save you money if you plan to take the subway more than 12 times during your trip.

Don't forget about biking as a means of cheap transportation, Elaine Glusac, frugal traveler columnist for The New York Times, told Grow. Walkscore.com also tells you how bikeable a city is.

"Many cities have bike-share rentals that are cheap and offer easy-access joyriding," Glusac said. "Many of these systems are going to electric bikes, too, which means you can roam farther without exhausting yourself.

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