Updated: May 27, 2021
International travel on a budget usually involves traveling to "budget destinations": countries with a significantly lower cost of living than the travelers' own home country. The challenge is that, depending on where you are flying from and to, some inexpensive countries can be quite expensive to reach! Hence, part of being a budget traveler is to scour the Earth for cheap flights. Cheap flights, in turn, make themselves available to those willing to compromise the most.
Budget travelers have always had to be flexible with their choices -- mostly having to do with time and convenience -- when it came to traveling abroad. Throughout the nineties, when I first started traveling to foreign countries for fun (as opposed to being a refugee in foreign countries -- totes different mood and vibe!), you found reasonably priced flights to foreign countries by being flexible with:
-- the "there and back" travel dates
-- the length of stay / travel
-- the regional airport to land in
-- the flight times (they don't call 'em "red-eye" for nothing...)
-- the number and length of layovers on the way to and from the final destination
Though, when I say "you found flights", I mean you went to a physical travel agency and had to verbally instruct an in-the-flesh travel agent to look up each individual travel date combination you had in mind, and then the said agent would read the results off the screen to you -- and this went on back and forth until you settled on a ticket, which you had to book right away because, if you waited, something could change and then you would have to do this whole search with the travel agent all over again...
Flexibility in booking international travel remains a prerequisite for budget travelers to this day. It is true that not everyone by far can afford to be very flexible with their time. As it happens, though, many US-American budget travelers are college students, artists, artisans, creatives or some other type of freelancers whose lifestyles generally presuppose a higher-than-average degree of flexibility of time and location. So, it's a good match: budget travel requires flexibility and budget travelers are some of the more flexible people with their time and their thinking, and their lifestyles in general. It works for many!
The great news for everyone else is that, nowadays, the ways to be "flexible" about travel are growing.
Today's budget travelers have the option to be "opportunistic" not only with when they go, but also with where in the world they go. Modern technology makes it easier than ever to reverse-engineer yourself a trip depending on what country is "on sale".
(Though, I will say, in the bygone 90's, we too had "opportunistic" ways to suddenly go on a trip to who-knows-where. For one, you could sign up for as a "courier" and get a free 2-3-day round trip to some random foreign city in exchange for transporting business documents that are too sensitive / immediate to send by mail.
Then, in pre-9/11 travel world, there was also such a concept as "standby" air travel. You could show up to an international airport with a country in mind and get on a standby list of upcoming flights -- and at the last possible moment, they put you in for cheap on undersold flights. Alternatively, you could show up to an airport and just see what's flying where and decide on the spot which country to go explore depending on what's cheap and doesn't require getting a visa in advance.
Here's to "standby" travel becoming a thing again someday!)
Back to the present, though, which is also not too shabby in its own right! Today, you can look up all he flights to all the destinations around the world and then some on your phone or laptop -- from the toilet, if you want to! Information about just about everything is at all times under your fingertips: all you have to do is start searching.
There are different flight search engines that yield bountiful options, with handy cross-matrices that show prices for different date combinations. Google Flights, Expedia, The Flight Deal, Secret Flying and a million other online search companies, as well as each airline's direct websites: they are all good to try. Skyscanner's "everywhere search feature" lets you opportunistically browse through different countries with lowest flight prices indicated.
Spend some time crawling through the internet, combing for different flight results with various date combinations and destination options -- and, pretty quickly, you get a feel for which search tools / interfaces are best for your interests as well as user experience.
There is also the super-helpful option to set up email alerts with the travel search engines / digital travel agencies you like most for when new excellent travel deals drop for certain destinations.
With all of the above tools and some passionate determination, you can find some amazing deals, that happen for any number of reasons.
Sometimes there are great flash sales, sometimes prices drop competitively due to "airline wars", sometimes there's a temporary glitch in the system and a much lower price is listed. And now we know that a pandemic can drive prices super high or low as well... Given how volatile this whole system is, it's better to snag a deal as soon as it comes to your attention, as it could disappear within minutes.
As for where you go: maybe you find cheap tickets to a budget destination you hadn't considered before. Or maybe it's exactly where you wanted to go for next year but the flight leaves a week from next Monday.
Again, obviously, we are not all free-as-a-bird individuals who can just drop everything and fly away at whim. In the real world, you've got to work around the responsibilities you have. However, being flexible about where you visit may take the edge off needing to be flexible with your time: you could score a great deal to a fun / fascinating new place without disrupting your schedule.
Besides, all I'm suggesting is that people with travel on their mind think "opportunistically" about it: by keeping en eye out for great travel deals -- and pouncing when they see ones that particularly excite them.
This is made much easier by a rule by the USA Department of Transportation that applies to all flights within or originating from the United States: when booking directly with the airline (on their website or through their phone operator) and more than seven days in advance, the customer has a 24-hour cancellation time window to cancel the reservation without penalty (or having their credit card charged).
Thanks to that marvelous 24-hour "breathing room", this is one of those very rare scenarios where it's OK to shoot first and ask questions later. If you come across a way-cheaper-than-normal price on a flight to some awesome destination you either wanted to visit or like the sound / look of right now -- snag it up! Then, you can take a few hours under the protection of the cancellation policy to cool off and decide if this is really something you can / want to do at the moment.
Even if you end up not going this time, there is a certain satisfaction and purpose to this exercise. At least you seriously considered going. At least you gave yourself a chance to experience the feeling of having an exciting trip coming up in the near future (it's pretty uplifting!)
And it's OK if you have to cancel this particular flight reservation: the trip may be a great deal but it just doesn't fit into your life -- it happens all the time, no FOMO! And yet, having ordered those tickets, if only for a few hours, might get you to mentally commit more to traveling soon and give you more resolve to book the next trip that you will go on!