Several months ago, I happened to see an advertisement for super cheap flights through Frontier Airlines. Though I had no travel plans in mind, I clicked on the link and started searching. The first thing that stuck out to me was the fact that nearly every city had flights departing to Denver — and all for under $50.
I've been a passionate traveler since my early childhood, when my family began teaching my siblings and me that there are few better things to do with your money than travel. Ever since I began college and gained my independence, my desperate desire to travel as an adult has been eternally nagging in the back of my mind. Needless to say, when I saw super cheap flights to Denver, I messaged two of my best friends, knowing that they were my best bet for willing and excellent traveling companions. I sent them an unexpected message: "come to Denver with me" and, somewhat to my surprise, they agreed immediately.
The two things we knew when planning our four-day trip was that it needed to be culturally stimulating and incredibly cheap. In my opinion, we succeeded at both. Here is an account of how we made the most of our short trip, with suggestions for other budget travelers, coming from our experiences of making the most of a few days and a few dollars.
We booked our flight the same day that I found the sale on Frontier tickets. The tickets for my friend Anita and me from Milwaukee to Denver were $39 each way, with some small fees added on. Another friend, Carmel, joined us as well, flying from Portland where she lives, for a slightly higher plane ticket price. Cheaper airlines like Frontier are great, but be warned that they charge extra for almost everything. Anita and I decided to share one checked bag for all of our clothes and split the $25 fees. It was totally worth it and we had abundant space for all of our sweaters, as well as the extra food we took from our houses.
Aside from the food we brought along in our suitcase (oatmeal and cereal for breakfasts, popcorn and pretzels for during the day), we went to the grocery store on our first day and picked up ingredients for the meals we'd carefully planned out. In the end, we only ate out twice, and both were delicious and fairly inexpensive meals that we stumbled across in our explorations.
Before heading to the grocery store, we made a list of all the meals we'd need to be prepared for, and all the cheap meals we could make for them. We bought a loaf of bread that was used in three or more meals, eggs, cheese, ramen, fruit, vegetables, and a couple of frozen pizzas. Knowing we couldn't afford to spend a lot at the supermarket in order to eat healthy, we bought a few simple produce items: onion, zucchini, tomato, apples. We added fresh fruits or vegetables to most of the meals we made. In the end, we split our grocery costs and each spent about $11 total at the store.
Before even heading out on our trip, we did a lot of research. While I hope to someday take a spontaneous vacation with no plans and ideas, traveling on a budget was made much easier for us by being very prepared. We planned our transportation ahead of time, making sure we knew how to get anywhere we wanted to go. While we planned to use only the bus, we actually ended up using Uber several times as well, and only paid for one of our many rides. Of the three of us, I was the only one who had ever used Uber before. In the app, there is a code you can deliver to your friends which will make their first ride (of $15 or less) completely free, as well as give you a free ride, too. So, of course, when it was late or we were tired or cold, we used the app and our free rides without having to worry about catching a bus.
On other days, we did use public transportation, of course. And I don't know if this is just a Denver thing, but two or three times when we got on buses the ticketing machines were broken, and we rode for free then as well.
We were very lucky with our choice of destination. Coincidentally, one of Anita's cousins had a house in Denver that she wasn't currently using. She was extremely generous and let us stay in her house for free for our entire trip. It made the entire experience 100 times better. It was nice to have someplace to come back to where we could relax and cook our own food.
However, for those budget travelers who aren't fortunate enough to be going somewhere where they have a great lodging connection, there are a ton of options out there for cheap travel. One is Couchsurfing, a site and app where fellow travelers and explorers all over the world post when they have a couch, bed or room for people to stay in. Yes, you have to put your trust in the good of humanity, but tons of people really swear by this idea! There are hosts all over the world, many who are verified and have tons of reviews. You can sort by age, gender, location, amount of space available, etc. All totally free.
Another option is Airbnb, a website similar to Couchsurfing, where people post their available spaces. However, there are several key differences. First, these aren't free options. While the prices can be very low, you are usually paying for your own apartment/house/condo or bedroom for your trip. For the most part, these are unused living spaces that the owners rent out for cheap for budget travelers.
Research a ton ahead of time. There is a huge wealth of knowledge to be found on the Internet about any location. Search "free and cheap activities in ..." and start planning!
Take advantage of public art and interesting stores. This is an activity where there will never be a charge! We stopped at every mural and neat-looking shop, which was an awesome way to see the city without spending any of our money. Large, culturally exciting cities like Denver are filled with art and great unknown places.
Take advantage of free tours and events. There are websites that will tell you any free events for the upcoming weekend. We found one of these and ended up at a super serious and amazing all-day writer's workshop. It was held in a gorgeous old house, filled with tables and desks and staircases, all of which were absolutely packed with people silently writing. It was amazing. The event also offered free food and yoga classes in the basement, both of which we took part in. We didn't stay long, but this was one of our favorite experiences for the fact that it was both free and fascinating.
Appreciate the scenery. An amazing view is something you won't forget for a long time, and it's also totally free. Of course, Denver is incredibly picturesque, but any city will have it's fair share of beautiful natural sites or parks. We visited a park near where we were staying, and also climbed to the top of a parking garage to watch this sunset over the mountains.
Look for activities that are low priced, free, or "payment by donation." These can be hidden gems and, of course, great for your budget. One of the best things we went to on our trip was a poetry slam at the Mercury Café. This was an incredible venue and an amazing experience for all of us, and the entire event was by donation only. Of course, we donated a few dollars apiece, but it was a very cheap, but memorable, evening.
Check out free art galleries or free days at local businesses. Most museums and zoos have one or more free days every year or every month. There are also plenty of galleries that are free to the public. We visited a few during our trip. One of the highlights of the entire experience was the insanely unique art gallery we visited on the morning before we left. We had the place to ourselves and got to walk around, checking out the amazing art and even interacting with a lot of the sculptures.
Take advantage of student discounts or any other discounts offered. Lots of places have them and they can make for much better deals. We went to an interesting art museum for only $6 just because we were students. We also planned to go while the museum was having a special event, so there was a live musical performance during our visit.
Don't stress about not seeing or doing all of the "touristy" things. Just because most people do them, doesn't mean they're necessary! Feel free to skip boring, expensive museums or experiences that are way out of your budget. Be a cheap traveler and be okay with it!
Overall, our trip was an amazing experience. Yes, this was partly because we managed to keep it super cheap and still see a ton of Denver, but there were plenty of other even better reasons.
The beauty of traveling is in every part of the trip. For me, the beauty was in the companionship, the camaraderie, the art and every time we got lost. It was in the homemade meals, fascinating conversations with strangers, and the feeling of being immersed in a new place as a grown-up traveler. By the end it felt like, in a small way, we had conquered the world. And that's exactly how traveling should feel.