Birding on a budget can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. The budget of a teenager who has just graduated high school and the budget of a couple in their mid 40’s who have worked steadily for 15 years are probably going to be vastly different. There’s also a good chance their “time budget” is going to be quite different.
When talking about budget birding I’ve came to the conclusion that there are three main types of budget birding which are all based off of various transportation means: Backpacking, Self-Transportation, and Hired Driver with Vehicle.
Of course the lines between these categories can blend together and often one might find themselves shifting throughout the spectrum of budget birding during a single overseas trip. When planning a trip it is always important to keep two things in mind. Time and money. This will help you to determine what types of budget birding is necessary to achieve your desired goals.
Here is a breakdown of the spectrum of budget birding:
The Good: By far the cheapest way to go bird watching in a foreign country is by backpacking and using public transportation. In some countries this can be a great option. Public buses and shared taxis in most regions of the world are a very inexpensive (only a few dollars a day) way of getting around. Except in the most remote areas of the world, there are always small towns and villages accessible by public transportation that can then be used as a base camp for exploring the surrounding areas. Once a base camp has been reached, exploration of the surrounding area for target birds can usually be arranged by hiking, taxis drop offs, or even renting a taxi for the entire day (an extremely effective way to explore areas, but if used daily can start to cost more than most shoe-stringed budget birders would prefer). Another great way to save costs for those on the tightest of budgets is to take along your own camping gear. Many national parks throughout the world offer camping for a very small fee and it’s usually not too difficult to also find a sports field, farm, or front yard in my countries where someone is willing to allow you to set up a tent for a few dollars. When it comes to eating, the best way to save money is to stock up at local markets and grocery stores. Usually while birding you will be away for towns for the majority of the day, so buying food for breakfast and lunch can save both time and money. Eating breakfast and lunch in the field and saving dinner for the only meal of the day at a restaurant, is a great way to help keep costs low, but still enjoy a few good local meals (and help you to not wither away!).
The Bad: Of course, the backpacker’s method of budget birding has its own set of hidden costs (but not a monetary one!). The biggest concern one should have when deciding on doing a backpacker’s birding trip is TIME. Using public transportation to navigate a country can be very rewarding, but it can also be very frustrating. Waiting on buses, realizing a bus route doesn’t run on the day you are there, and sometimes the inability to get to locations easily on public transportation all add considerable amount of time to a birding trip. If you plan on exploring a region for a month or longer, this usually isn’t a huge problem, but a short 1-2 week trip to some areas simply cannot be done if you have to consistently wait for buses and other means of public transportation. Also, not having at least a good understanding of a country’s language can be very frustrating when trying to book bus tickets, inquiring about bus routes, or trying to negotiate a taxi driver for the next morning. If trying to camp during the duration of the trip, a sleeping bag, tent, and other gear can add a substantial amount of weight to be carried. Most airlines in Asia and South America allow 20-25kg of free checked baggage so if camping gear increases your weight above this threshold and your trip involves a lot of flights, you might not end up saving as much money as you originally hoped to do.
Pros: By far the cheapest way to travel. Easy to live off of $15-25 a day (maybe even less!) in many areas of the world. Very rewarding to learn to navigate the public transportation system of a country. Usually allows for a thorough understanding of the region visited. Great way to interact with locals and learn about their culture.
Cons: Very time consuming. The most logistically difficult category since public transportation routes must be learned. Can be very frustrating (nothing like learning the bus doesn’t depart that day or the taxi driver you hired for 0430 the next morning doesn’t show). Must be careful not to find yourself “stuck” a considerable distance away from your base camp without any means to get yourself back before nightfall. Not a requirement, but recommended to at least have a good understanding of the country’s language.
Self Transportation (mid-range):
The Good: When planning a budget birding trip, the idea of renting your own rental car should always be entertained. For some countries due to poor road conditions, lack of road signs, and unsafe driving conditions renting a vehicle is out of the question. But for many others, renting a vehicle can be a great and relatively cheap way of getting around to all of the birding spots. Renting a vehicle allows a lot more freedom than a “backpack” trip and allows one to concentrate a lot more on finding birds than worrying about bus schedules or if the taxi you hired to come back before dusk is really going to show up. Nowadays, gps systems are available for a lot of countries and can either be rented with the car or you can buy and use your own. Accommodations on a mid-range trip can very as well. Having your own vehicle to transport your camping gear can make it easy to move campsites and save money. Also, most villages and small towns near birding sites will have a range of accommodations varying from cheap hostels for as little as $5 a night to hotels for well over $100. The use of your own vehicle also makes it easier for those you don’t enjoy “backpack” meals to get back and forth between the birding sites and restaurants in town.
The Bad: Renting and driver a vehicle comes with its own set of fears, concerns, and frustrations. For someone who has never driver outside of their home country, the idea of reading foreign road signs, abiding by foreign road laws (usually a lot more lax!), and dealing with the frustrations of self-navigation is enough of a turnoff to keep many out of the rental car office. Having to deal with possible accidents or car troubles is always a possibility and in some areas, birding sites might only be able to be reached by 4wd vehicles (which if you rent a 4wd, it usually can get very pricey). Having a good working knowledge of the county’s language is also good to have though not as necessary as it is for those who are backpacking/using public transportation.
Pros: Viable cheap option to getting around most countries. Can sustainably reduce the amount of time needed to move between birding locations. A car is a great place to store extra gear (just make sure it’s out of sight if you’re far from the car!). Easier to eat breakfast and lunch in town and get back out to the birding spots.
Cons: Accidents or car trouble could be crippling to the trip (make sure you get insurance). Some areas still might not be inaccessible due to need of 4wd. Being able to read a map and navigate is crucial. Time must be spent learning the “rules of the road” Good knowledge of the local language is preferred.
Hired Driver with Vehicle (upper range):
The Good: Hiring a vehicle with a driver is the closest thing you can get to going on a bird tour without actually signing up for a tour. Most tour companies can arrange for this cheaper alternative to a birding tour, but the price is definitely on the upper end of a budget birding trip. If you’re traveling as a large group (5-6 people) hiring a vehicle can be a great alternative to going on a bird tour. With prices ranging from $150-300 dollars a day for the vehicle, it’s still well under the price of a birding tour. The pros of having a driver is long. Most driver’s already know how to get to all of the birding spots and some even know exactly where to stop for the “good” species. Having a driver allows one to have the most flexibility and while you’re birding the driver can worry about logistics such as getting food, filling up gas, finding out about road conditions, ect. Some companies’ drivers will also prepare food in the field while you’re out birding! Lodging and food expenses remain what you want them to be. One could hire a driver, but still reply on camping in the field or one could sleep every night on a comfortable bed in the closest town. These decisions of course are all based on the final goal budget.
The Bad: The biggest concern with hiring a driver with vehicle is the cost. After all, this is budget birding! If you are traveling by yourself or as a couple, a few hundred dollars a day for this luxury might be well outside of your price range.
Pros: The driver most likely will be very familiar with the birding route of your choice, likely knowing current road closures, necessary detours, and roads to avoid. Drivers who aren’t even birders usually have a good understand of where to stop (even if it just means stopping and pointing to a picture in a book!). A driver normally will take care of logistical duties while you can concentrate of birding. Spending time with a local can be a great experience and you can learn a lot more than originally anticipated about the country and culture. No knowledge of the language is needed (though it is always helpful to know at least a few phrases).
Cons: Price range is usually beyond the means of most people trying to do a budget birding trip. Less satisfaction of saying you conquered the country on your own.