What is budget travel? That's a pretty big question that will generate a different answer depending on who you talk to. And you bet I have my own set of opinions so I will outline my version of budget travel here.
Some people might picture gap-year "kids" partying all night in hostels and staying in dorm bunk-beds. Sure that exists and is there if that's what you want. But no, that's not what budget travel is. It's about shifting (not lowering) your expectations, spending more time, experiencing below the surface, and yes, spending less.Budget traveling is also known as "independent travel" or "backpacking". Independent means you are not on a tour. It's DIY travel!
Mainly, it's the difference between vacationing and traveling. Some people have gotten sick of this comparison but I think it still holds true. On a vacation, you are a tourist. You don't mind being in touristy areas, you might participate in special tourist activities, you will probably over-pay for just about everything, and you may never see any of the real local culture; just people showing you what they think you want to see. It also tends to be easier and much more convenient.
A traveler strives to do as the locals do. The effort might not always be successful, but it's part of the overall attitude. A traveler stays away from touristy restaurants and looks for where the locals are eating. Of course main attractions will be visited (Taj Mahal, Chichenitza, the Great Barrier Reef) but not on an organized tour if it can be helped. Getting off the beaten track is a true joy, seconded by staying in a popular tourist area and spending about one tenth of what most other people are spending. Local transportation is preferred - there's nothing like a good slow chicken bus. You'd be amazed what people bring on buses with them!
It's NOT just about saving money. The less you spend on traveling allows you to travel more often and for longer periods of time, but it's about really experiencing a country and PREFERRING the less expensive ways of doing things. Really your whole mindset changes after a while and the expensive options don't even cross your mind as possibilities anymore.
It's also not about denying yourself nice things and suffering for the sake of the budget (although that DOES come into play sometimes LOL). It can be a good idea to treat yourself from time to time to a place with a pool or hot water. But you'll get so used to not having it that you won't even know you missed it until you have it! And your standard of "nice things" becomes way lower. Extravagance just seems wasteful. Horrible beds and hit-or-miss bathrooms all become a part of the journey.
Looking at your options and a do-it-yourself attitude play a big part. Don't just take the first tour, or transportation suggestion given to you. Sure the flight might be the fastest and easiest way to to get to where you're going but there might also be an overnight train for a fraction of the cost and a much more interesting ride. An organized tour might not be your only option. Perhaps you can take public transportation and get a local guide when you arrive. Options.
It does become a personal challenge sometimes to save as much as you can. I probably go a bit overboard sometimes. But usually if you are traveling longer term you have more time than money and the journey is part of the adventure anyway. Also, money becomes very relative to where you are. After a while you are aghast at the thought of paying $2 for a meal in certain countries! That's generally a good thing since you are acclimating to your location, but there have been times when I have gotten home and regretted not paying $20 for something that at the time seemed so expensive and in hindsight would have been worth the experience.
Definitely as I've gotten older I find myself having more and more moments where sometimes it's just easier to pay a little more for some convenience. But you can still work that into your plan and be on a budget. I'm talking things like paying $4 for an Uber to save yourself a 2 hour $1 public bus ride.
How rugged is it? Well of course that's up to you. I used to stay in the absolute cheapest place I could find. Now the friends I travel with (I get to blame it on them ;) prefer air-conditioning and seldom a shared bathroom. If you have someone to share a room with, you can usually get a private room for the same price as two dorm beds. And quite honestly, hostels don't even exist in some countries because the private rooms are so cheap. There are plenty of decent and clean hotels in the budget price range. You just have to look. You will get stuck with a crappy gross room from time to time, but you suck it up and move on and hopefully have a good laugh about it later.
Travel at your own standards. You will run into people who go so far as to camp to save money and those who prefer air-conditioning. Travel however is comfortable for YOU. Even if you need a little more comfort it doesn't mean you have to spend a lot of money or alienate yourself from the rest of the budget travelers.
How much money are we talking about here? For a month-long trip I usually spend around $30-$35 per day for everything (not including airfare). That's food, lodging, transportation, sightseeing, miscellaneous. Rooms cost anywhere from $5 to around $30 for a nicer place with air-conditioning. Meals will cost $1 - $5.
Budget travel is an entirely different way of viewing your trip and is for any age. I have friends in their 70s who budget travel. They are super easy going and take it as it comes. Not only do you get a better quality experience, but it also makes travel way more accessible to people who are not super rich. You just need a little time off of work and you can go places you've always dreamed of!!