Travel Budgeting Tips to Roam

For so many people, travel is a grand but vague, far away goal that, between the costs and trouble and fear of the unknown, seems impossible. Travel seemed like a daydream that would never be realized to me right up until I moved 8,000 miles away and spent three years hopping about to as many different locations as I possibly could in my spare time. Here are my tips on how to travel safely and cheaply while still having a thrilling adventure.

Before any real planning can begin, decide how much you will spend on your trip. This will be your hardline number that you cannot spend above, the absolute maximum you will spend for this traveling. Make sure this number is one you can truly afford to spend, without risking your financial wellbeing. At minimum you still want to be able to pay your bills and have your emergency fund intact when you return. One of the best plans is to make your trip one of your savings goals. Once you’ve reached your goal you can move on to planning out how you’ll spend all that money.

When budgeting for a trip, I plan from the most expensive items to the least: plane tickets, accommodations, food, activities, and transport (metro, buses, taxis, etc. in the location I am traveling to). Plane tickets usually eat up most of the budget, so get them done first. To get the cheapest tickets possible, follow our ticket buying guide.

On to accommodations. Since I’m a baller on a budget, I always book hostels rather than hotels. When traveling, I prefer to be out and about rather than in my room, so the cheaper and more basic hostels are a perfect fit for me. Plus, depending on your location, hostels can range from a simple bunk bed to a private room with an ensuite bathroom. Sites such as hostelworld.com make it extremely easy to find hostels and hotel rooms that are priced appropriately for your budget. Here is how I judge and choose between hostels when booking a trip.

My next greatest expense is always food. Buying three meals a day adds up astronomically, especially if you’re in a large major city. Hostels nearly always have a common kitchen area, so my first strategy is to decide which meals I actually want to eat out and which I want to prepare myself. Eating the food in a new place is a fundamental pleasure of travel that cannot be missed, so figure out what your destination is known for to make sure your budgeting doesn’t exclude the local culture. First, I do the math on how many meals I’ll be eating while away: # of days X 4 (3 meals & 1 snack per day). Then a little Googling: How much is the average meal in my destination? What is the cost of a cup of coffee (or milk tea, my vice of choice)? Plenty of travel bloggers populate the internet, usually at least one of them has been to your destination and has already detailed their expenses. At this point, multiply that average cost of a meal by the total number of meals you’ll be eating. This will be your food budget for the trip. Keep your food budget rather high to ensure you will always be able to afford a meal – being hangry does not make for a good trip!

Next, decide which meals you want to exclude: Do you hate waking up early and just want to sleep through breakfast? Is your destination better known for lunch than dinner? While your budget won’t change with these decisions, planning to eat your own food at certain times will help you undercut that number and save even more. Now, pack as many snacks as you are capable of fitting in your bag, things like breakfast biscuits, granola bars, crackers, peanut butter, anything that doesn’t easily go bad and that you enjoy. Keep these in your pockets or purses while you’re wandering around on your travels so you can avoid overpriced tourist food. Stop by a grocery store on your first day traveling and buy supplies to make simple meals you can carry with you during the day. Replacing one or two restaurant meals a day with cheap alternatives will bring you in way under budget, leaving you with a slush fund to have fun with toward the end of your trip. When I went on a four week European trip with my friend in 2013, we decided to fill my entire checked suitcase with various snacks to help get us through most breakfasts and lunches while we were away, so that we could indulge more on good dinners. All in all, we each saved at least $1,000 by munching on granola bars on our way between adventures.

When you do go out to a restaurant, follow that simple bit of wisdom: Go where the locals go. Try the little restaurants tucked away on side streets that are bustling with customers. And if you’re in a city known for its street food or night markets (like Singapore, Bangkok, Taipei), do yourself the favor of trying it. Some of the most delicious meals of my life have come from portable carts parked among packed pedestrian streets. (And if you find yourself at the Shilin Night Markets in Taipei, try the curry chicken wraps, the cart is usually parked in front of the movie theater).

Now that you have a place to sleep and know you can afford to eat, it’s time for the real fun: What will you do? Where will you go? Once again, it’s time to Google. Get an idea of how much the entrance costs will be to the museums, temples, theme parks, etc. that you’re interested in seeing. Include souvenir shopping as part of your “Activities” budget. Wandering around foreign markets buying little chatzkies is most certainly one of the pleasures of traveling. Before a trip, my friends and I would make a master list of every attraction we possibly wanted to go to, with an estimate of how much it would cost to both get to those locations and any fees to enter. Each night of the trip we would gather and decide which activities we would do the next day, attempting to group them together by which ones were closest to each other. This way we each had an idea of what we should budget for activities, and had enough flexibility to change our plans as we discovered exciting new spots in our temporary home or decided others were too much trouble to actually see.

The last piece of the puzzle is transportation. How much will getting to all of your activities cost? If your destination has a metro or bus system, utilize it as much as possible. Get a reusable metro card and fill it up with what you think you’ll spend in one to three days (usually best not to put any more on there, in case of losing it). Check out your activities on Google maps and see if it is feasible to walk or use public transport to get there. If not, how much will a taxi or a tuk-tuk (a three-wheeled motorized taxi in Thailand) cost? You may find yourself adjusting your master list of activities due to the availability or cost of transportation. For closer activities, go with fun and cheap alternatives, like renting bikes for the day (in fact, renting bikes was often an activity in and of itself for me and my friends).

Now that you know what it will all cost, are you under or over what you want to spend on this trip? If you’re over, try to make some adjustments: Can you change the dates to off-season? Which activities are you not in love with? Will the trip still be amazing if it’s shortened by a day or two? Make your adjustments and get yourself under that hard line, but under no circumstances go over it! You do not want to come home to discover you don’t quite have enough to cover your bills – or that you have a maxed out credit card to start paying off. Travel is amazing, but you won’t treasure those memories if they’re attached to the feeling of destitution. Plan accordingly and have those adventures that you’ll continue talking about for years.

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