If you’ve ever dreamed of doing Machu Picchu, but you’re on a super tight budget that doesn’t exactly allow you to hit up five-star hotels and dine in elegant restaurants, you may think it’s out of reach. I’m here to tell you that it’s not. In fact, I’m here to tell you that you can get to Machu Picchu for well under $2000 if you simply plan properly and give yourself enough time to get there.
This kind of trip requires dedication, a little physical training, and advanced budgeting, but if you’re determined to get there on your minimum wage income, it can be done.
What to Do to Get There
There are several things you’re going to have to think through, plan, purchase, and decide ahead of time. Things like flights, lodging, and food are obvious places to start, since they’re the big-ticket items, but there are other things to consider if you want to make it as inexpensive as possible.
We’ll start with this big ticket items, first.
1. Find the Cheapest Flights
The most expensive chunk of any travel overseas is going to be your flights. Everybody wants to go First Class, but who can afford that? Instead, shop around for budget deals on coach flights that may come from unconventional companies.
To make sure I’m getting the best flights, I first set a deadline for when I need to purchase the tickets by. The season you plan to travel will determine the ideal days to shoot for purchase.
- Spring: 90 days ahead of time
- Summer: 47 days ahead of time
- Autumn: 69 days ahead of time
- Winter: 62 days ahead of time
The best time of day, according to some experts, is 3 p.m. EST on Tuesdays. I have found this to be about right, give or take on a few things, primarily the destination and departure locations (i.e. the airlines that service them).
First Priority: The Big Flight
You can purchase your main leg from the United States to Lima on a variety of airlines that will charge anything from a reasonably low rate to “that’s my rent for six months” kinds of fees. Obviously, you’re looking for budget-friendly flights that will only sting a little, instead of drive you into the poor-house.
From there, I head to the budget airlines I know of that fly to the area where I’m headed. For example, most places in Central and South America are serviced by Spirit Airlines. This airline has a well-deserved reputation for nickel-and-diming folks, but it’s still a legitimate way to fly overseas for less money than most, if not all, of the other guys.
As you calculate costs, remember to include things like baggage fees, taxes, and seat selection fees, if that window seat is mandatory for your comfort.
Google “cheap flights to Lima” in the search bar and see what prices they offer up. Next, look for “cheap airlines to Peru.” Keep using variations of these keyword searches until you’ve looked at a number of sites. I usually go through about 20 sites before I find a deal I’m willing to solidly consider.
Old-Fashioned Tip That Still Works
You can grab your cellphone and call up airlines that fly to a destination like Lima and tell them the price you’ve found online and ask if they can beat it. Sometimes they can, which means you can get a better flight than Spirit or Aeromexico have listed for the same price.
Sometimes they can’t, and that means you settle for the Spirit flight that charges you extra for your carry-on.
When I Made the Flight in July 2017
Heading down to Lima from Chicago, I flew with Spirit Airlines that had a layover in Miami. The flight was around $800 round-trip, which is pretty darn good for a round-trip flight from North America. I signed up for the $9 Fare Club, and saved on my luggage, which is how I kept it under $800.
Note: I flew out of Chicago but returned to Orlando since I was visiting my mother and husband who were in Florida at the time. This only varied the price slightly from the round-trip cost to/from Chicago.
Second Priority: The Little Legs
Next, you’re going to need to find the right flight from Lima to Cusco, the closest reasonably priced airport to Machu Picchu. For these, you’ll want to check out local airlines instead of American or European airlines.
The smaller, local airlines tend to have lower prices since they’re catering to locals and trying to compete with the big companies. These planes tend to be just as comfortable as the big company planes, and often offer more amenities.
When I Made the Flight in 2017
I used Vayama to find the best deals on some of these flights, as well as looking for “Peru airlines for domestic flights” on Google. These resulted in flights to Cusco from Lima for about $80 one-way. I flew with Peruvian Air and Star Peru.
Total, it was about $1000 for all my flights.
The Best Deals on Flights
Generally speaking, you’ll find better deals on flights if you book reasonably far in advance. If you know you’re going to Peru in July – which, by the way, is the peak of travel to Peru, and therefore more expensive – you’ll want to start looking for tickets in January.
Many companies run deals both six months out from a flight as well as closer to the flight dates, if they haven’t booked up the flights as much as they expected. There are also Black Friday deals, and various other holiday deals that may save you hundreds of dollars.
2. Be Willing to Make Some Sacrifices on Perfect Comfort
One of the main things you’ll have to be willing to do to save major money on your international travel is sacrificing some of the luxuries of resorts and big-name hotels like many folks focus on for their vacations.
I’ve employed many of these tips in my travels to nearly 40 countries in the past 15 years, while mostly working at minimum wage or slightly above minimum wage jobs. A little less luxury means a lot of travel.
Comfort Without Luxury Key 1: Cheap Lodging
The first key to saving money once you’re on the ground in Peru is finding inexpensive lodging. Generally, that’s going to mean youth hostels and motels. There are certain criteria I always look for in these apart from the “not-disgusting” factor.
To find out if a hostel or motel fits my needs, I read the listed amenities, but I also read through as many of the reviews left by travelers as possible. They’ll tell you how clean the place is, if there are bed bugs, how well the wi-fi works, and other various information that can be critical to the comfort and usability of a location.
I always look for these things when choosing my hostel:
- Access to airport shuttles/cabs
- Access to public transit
- Linens included or for rent – Unless I’m traveling with my own towels and sleep gear
- Luggage storage – Free is best, but I’ll go up to $5 a day
- Free wi-fi – This is not a thing everywhere, so it’s seriously important if you need to keep in touch as you travel
- Acceptable payment types – I tend to only use VISA, Mastercard and cash
- Kitchen and grocery store access – The absolute best way to save on food, is, of course, a shared kitchen and nearby grocery store
I have found that both Hostelworld and Hostelbookers have great success rates for good youth hostels and inexpensive hotels/motels. Through these sites, I found a hostel in Aguas Calientes for under $15 a night, a hostel in Lima for $10 a night, and a Cusco hostel for under $10 per night.
Total, I spent only $64 for my lodging the entire trip.
Comfort Without Luxury 2: Save on Food Costs
As mentioned above, the easiest way to save on food costs is cooking for yourself. If you’re not a cook, you can still mostly do this and save loads on food costs.
Hit up the local grocery and find ingredients for things like sandwiches – this is tough as a gluten-free traveler, I’ll attest, but you can find some alternatives like tortillas – and salads and things to eat on the go.
Be sure to wash all produce thoroughly, and avoid buying street food, especially if you have a weaker constitution – i.e. have IBS or other GI tract issues. This includes skipping that purchase of produce from the street sellers.
You can easily find the ingredients for local foods and make them at the hostel with a quick recipe search on Bing. You won’t have to miss out on local cuisine this way. Budget ahead of time for a certain number of meals that you’ll eat out, though, so you get some of that experience as well, if food is a part of the adventure for you.
3. Save on Transit Through a Variety of Options
On the ground, transit is one of the other major expenses while traveling. You can easily dodge some of these bigger costs by getting creative, walking a ton, or finding the discount methods for transport.
Take a Bus, Instead of the Train, to Machu Picchu
One of the major savings for getting to Machu Picchu is taking a small bus from Cusco to Hydro-Electric and hiking up to Aguas Calientes – the town closest to Machu Picchu – where you can stay overnight and hit the mountains the next day.
You can get this bus ticket for very little money – mine was about $30 round trip – and you can either purchase this online or wait until you get to Cusco and find one of the many spots there that offer these “tours.”
Get in Your Exercise and Save Big Time
The cheapest way to get to Machu Picchu is through hiking your way there from a drop-off point a couple of hours away. The hiking is mostly flat, after the initial climb from “Hydro-electric” a well-known spot nearby. (This is where the bus drops you after a few hours.) There’s a mild incline much of the way, but you really don’t notice it too much, even with a heavy backpack loading you down.
You’ll want to do some training ahead of time for this hike, both up to Aguas Calientes and up to Machu Picchu itself. You’ll need to be able to walk for a couple of hours, carrying at least a minimum of supplies like food, water, a change or two of clothing, and your camera. You’ll also need to be able to climb stairs if you’re going to hike up to Machu Picchu itself – which is another way to save money.
I have bad shoulders, so for my preparations I ran a ton – I am a runner, so I did this anyway – and did tons of pushups, especially in the weeks leading up to the hiking. I knew I needed a strong upper body to handle the weight and pressure of the backpack on my shoulders.
If you have any messed-up joints or health issues, first be sure to check with your doctor about any training you plan to do, as well as talking through the hikes you’ll be taking. Then, find the exercises that will work the joints and muscles that are your weakest.
Shoot to do these exercises and the hiking/walking/climbing training for at least three months leading up to your adventure for best results.
Saving on Cabs and Shared Rides
While Uber or Lyft is not available everywhere, before you go, check to see if it’s available in the major cities you’ll be visiting on your travels. These may or may not be cheaper than a cab, so they’re at least worth looking into, even if you don’t use them.
As to cabs, sometimes, you just have to do it. Most cabbies in places like Lima will negotiate. They want your business.
Have a firm figure in mind of what you’re willing to pay, and don’t budge up unless it’s reasonable. But start lower than you’re willing to pay and go from there.
If you’re like me and hate haggling, I just start with my top amount and walk away if they won’t meet it. I almost always have them come down to my figure. If not, I just walk away and find someone else instead. There are dozens of them, so you’ll be fine to find another one.
Just don’t wait too long after the flight lands, as they will eventually disappear after flights have landed.
Note: You can also try to get a group of people going to the same area to lower the price as well.
Save Using Public Transit
And, ultimately, your cheapest route is always going to be local transit versus a cab or some service like Uber. Local buses run to and from airports, around the city, and even out to some sites of interest, though not specifically to Machu Picchu, as that is a darn long way from Lima.
Side Note for Additional Transit Savings:
I also tend to walk everywhere instead of using public transit inside city limits. This allows me to save $5-$25 a day, but it also gives me views and insights into the city that I don’t get when passing it by on a bus or local train. It’s a LOT of walking, though, so be prepared if you want to take this route.
4. Pack Well to Save Yourself Some Additional Money
There are a variety of smaller things you can do to cut the overall costs of your trip. From things like packing food to bringing two pairs of sunglasses, you’ll save loads if you just pack properly.
For International Flights
One of the ways I save money while traveling is packing myself a lunch, snacks, and a water bottle that I can fill up at the airport.
Just be aware that once you enter a new country, laws prohibit you from bringing food in that isn’t still manufacturer sealed. And most will not allow trail mix – nuts and fruit – any kind of produce, meat, or similar items in, even if sealed. You may be able to bring chips, granola bars, et cetera in, however, as they are thoroughly processed items.
On Domestic Flights
Once you’re in country, many airports will allow you to travel with liquids from one airport to another, as long as it’s a domestic flight. These will also allow you to travel with food you have on your person, in your bags, et cetera, as you purchased the item in-country and it won’t be bringing foreign contaminants to their country.
So, before you go from Lima to Cusco, be sure to load up on those snacks and drinks before hitting the airport and save yourself a bundle.
Note: But know that these sorts of laws change regularly. When you deplane your international flight, ask a flight attendant about the current policy on liquids/foods on domestic flights.
On the Bus to Hydro-Electric
You’ll probably stop one or two places along the way to Hydro-Electric. There’s also a small restaurant there at the base. But the prices at both locations will be higher than purchasing snacks for the ride and hike ahead of time from a local supermarket.
Instead, grab some hot tea at the stop, or a cup of coffee, and maybe grab a bag of nuts or something. Avoid the produce, generally speaking, however, as you won’t be able to properly wash it yourself.
Always Bring Small Change
Most places where you stop along the way, whether on the bus or while hiking to Aguas Calientes, you will find that you need to pay to use the facilities. Be sure to have some Peruvian Sols on hand to avoid losing money because someone doesn’t have change or refuses to give change.
You’ll also find people all along the way selling wares – be it souvenirs or snacks and water – and you may want to buy something then, too. Most of them won’t be able to offer change for larger bills.
Pack a Few Duplicates
I have the tendency to lose my sunglasses. Because of this, I pack extra pairs of them. I’m good about shoes, socks, and other clothing, chapstick, and sunblock, but for some reason, sunglasses evade me.
Whatever you tend to lose most often at home, grab a duplicate and bring it along. But be selective. You don’t want to bring duplicates of a bunch of things – just the one or two that will be a hassle to replace while in Peru.
5. Your Other Preparations for Peru
One of the main things I recommend doing before heading down to Peru is purchasing your entry fee to Machu Picchu ahead of time. This will save you some money, as well as guarantee you have passage to the places you want to go before flying down there.
Entry to Machu Picchu is limited to 2500 per day. Generally speaking, this isn’t an issue. But during peak months, you may find you can’t get in if you wait until the day of to purchase your tickets.
As soon as you have your basic dates for the trip in mind, go to the website and make your purchase, especially if you want to climb any of the other mountains around Machu Picchu.
And be sure to be on time, with your tickets in hand. You’ll have to employ a tour guide on site, and you’ll have to present your tickets, or you won’t get in. These tickets need to be printed out.
If you arrive late to your mountain climb, you won’t be allowed up to the peak, so timeliness is key if you plan to hike more than Machu Picchu itself.
My Total Costs for Going to Machu Picchu
My total cost for my trip to Machu Picchu, for 6 nights and 7 days, was $1000 for flights, including all fees, $150 for food, including eating out about 5 times, $64 for lodging, $30 for transit to Hydro-Electric, $40 for cabs, $100 for souvenirs and gifts, $68 for my hiking/entry fee for Machu Picchu, and $30 for hiring my Machu Picchu guide. There were some random incidentals, which cost approximately $50 total as well.
My total for everything was: $1532.
Adventure or Vacation: You Choose
Having an adventure honestly isn’t for everyone. Some folks need a vacation more than they need or want an inexpensive adventure across the globe. If you’re on a tight budget, and want both, you can definitely have both, you’ll just have to choose which things are most important in your travels.
Find great deals on your flight, and you might be able to afford a hostel that’s closer to the city center. Or, if you don’t care that much about hostel location, you can take transit instead of hiking up Machu Picchu and save some energy for hanging out with new friends you make that night.
Whatever you choose, you can do this within your budget. Just plan ahead, decide which luxuries you’re willing to sacrifice, and purchase your flights ahead of time to save some dough.