What Is a Suitable Travel Budget and How Can I Plan For It?
One of the major obstacles we often see before setting that first foot out the door to travel is the expense of it all. Luckily, travel budgets don’t necessarily need to be as high as we fear. In order to take the scary out of the dreaded money issue, it helps to do some research and set yourself a budget. That budget in turn then becomes a tangible goal you can work towards to get yourself travel-ready. So, let’s assume you have a dream destination firmly in mind already. Now…you simply want to know how much your dream destination will set you back.
If you have read my article How to make travel a part of your life, you will remember how I had you narrow down your dream destinations to just one in order to set a realistic goal? There was a reason for it. With one travel goal firmly in mind, you can start getting information on your destination and setting up a smart budget for it. The easiest way of doing that is by looking at your future travel costs according to groups, such as pre-trip expenditures (i.e. visa, travel insurance, necessary vaccines, special equipment), transport (“getting there” and “getting around”), accommodation, food, activities, miscellaneous and then, very important, what I like to call my buffer – a lump-sum for unanticipated expenses.
Once you know your categories, you should start researching them for your specific destination. How, you ask? Ideally, you know someone who has been there and you ask them. If this is not possible, you take to the web. There are several sites out there that give you wonderful overviews of travel costs per destination, like budgetyourtrip or the budget travel table on myfunkytravel.
Budgetyourtrip lists average daily costs per destination by aggregating data from countless travelers and gives you prices for the categories accommodation, food, bottled water, local transportation, entertainment, tips and handouts (to tour guides or service providers), intercity transportation and alcohol. The nice thing is that, because the site uses the input from so many individual contributors, I would expect the data to be fairly accurate. They seem to update their information once a month.
Myfunkytravel, on the other hand, lists the names of countries in different categories for backpack travelers. The first countries mentioned are “dirt-cheap” (under 20 USD/day) for a backpacker to visit, then there are those estimated at around 25, 30, 35 and 40 USD/day, as well as destinations they value to be “mid-range” (i.e. 45 or 50 USD/day respectively). Their “things are getting expensive” list shows places that will set you back 55USD/day, “things are definitely getting expensive” shows the countries that will cost you around 65USD/day. They round out their itemization with the category “I’m a backpacker, get me out of here!” with destinations for 75 USD/day and over.
For figuring out how much transport to and from your destination will cost as well as getting an estimate of how much getting around will set you back, you have several options. The easiest for knowing how much air fare costs to and from your destination will be travel search engines. I personally like skyscanner, but a lot of people also swear by using Google Flights or kayak for their booking needs. All of these services will trawl a number of sites for you and come back with – hopefully – the best prices for a particular trip. Skyscanner is great if you are flexible with dates, as they give you the option of searching for the cheapest fare in any given month. And, if your destination is not set it stone yet, you can also type in “everywhere” into their “to” window for the cheapest flights from your airport.
If you are not traveling very far, you might want to forego the plane altogether. In Europe and a number of Asian countries, for instance, bus or train travel can be a great alternative to flying. There are some search engines for bus travel such as GoEuro or ComparaBUS. Eurolines was the first European bus carrier (that I know of), but since then, a multitude of other operators have flooded the market. I personally much prefer train travel, though. If there is a train to my chosen destination, you will most probably find me on it! In China, for instance, I still find taking a train from A to B a cannot-miss experience. The sleeper trains here are sooo cool. But that is probably something that I should be exploring in another post, rather than fangirling all over you.
That being said, train travel is not always as readily bookable as other forms of transportation. Since every country has its own (mostly government-owned) train system, cross-boarder train journeys are not always easy to plan and it can be tricky to find out the best fares for them. But if you have a destination firmly in mind, you will probably be best off to check the website of the national train network you will be using for your travel. Rail Europe might be another alternative if you travel in Europe, as they offer tickets from more than 50 European railway companies and also issue the famous EuroRail passes. Those will only be interesting price-wise if you are planning a multi-country rail travel extravaganza all over Europe, as you need to use them extensively for them to be worth your hard-earned dough.
For getting an idea of accommodation costs at your dream travel spot, check out aggregator search services such as Agoda or Booking.com. They will trawl a number of sites for you to come back with – hopefully – the best prices for a particular hotel. But, once you have found a hotel option you like, it usually pays to check out their own website or give them a call, as they might have special promotions giving you an even more advantageous offer. Agoda and Booking.com reached the two top spots in a 2017 test of online travel agents (OTAs), aggregator sites and individual hotel webpages compiled by Frommer’s.
And the last – and probably most fun – aspect of fixing your budget will be finding out which activities you would like to do. A good place to start for this is definitely TripAdvisor. Not only do they list attractions and give you the links to the relevant websites, but you can also use them to find tours; if you are interested in that kind of thing.
Once you have found numbers to put to all the big areas of your travel budget, you should start thinking about what kind of miscellaneous expenses you will have as well as how much “buffer” money you will need for emergencies. Miscellaneous expenses could be things such as who you plan on bringing souvenirs back for and how much you believe those should cost. Or bottled drinking water and snacks for each day. My snack budget is usually higher than my souvenir-buying budget. Selfish? Maybe. But also delicious!
When it comes to buffer money, many people recommend that you should have at least enough funds to get yourself a last-minute plane ticket back. So that, in a pinch, you could get to the nearest airport, book a ticket on the next flight headed to your home base. Usually, this amount will also be enough to cover most emergency expenses that might come up.
For all of the research, the hardest part will probably be making choices. With the internet, there is an extreme wealth of information at our very fingertips. No matter how remote our destination, you are sure to find a lot of information online. It will be up to you to curate this overwhelming amount of data and glean from it what you would like to focus on during your trip.
Some people might have to take a different approach to fixing their travel budget, though. While they also have a dream destination fixed in their head, they do not have the time (or the inclination) to save up for going to that place. Instead, they already have a fixed travel budget.
Those who already have a travel budget in mind are usually folks who set aside money each month dedicated to their travels. Or people who have unexpectedly come into a sum of money, like a bonus at work. Or the sudden inheritance from a long-lost relative. Or their share of the loot of their latest heist. Just kidding on that last one. I HOPE…
No matter where the money comes from – and please remember, children, crime doesn’t pay, so please don’t go around robbing any jewelry stores just to scratch your travel itch… Anyway, let’s pretend for a minute that you have this definite sum of money available for travel. How is that different from simply setting up a budget as we did in the first case?
If you have a dedicated travel budget, you still have to do most of the research as detailed above, but instead of determining your ideal budget for all of that, you will have to shift priorities around until everything fits your budget. What I mean by that is this:
Travel comes in many guises. For the same destination, you usually have multiple options for all categories (such as local transportation, accommodation, food, or activities).
Let’s look at an example: If I wanted to visit Sri Lanka (one of my all-time favorite places on earth, btw), I could choose to hire a fancy car with a driver for my transport, stay in a boutique or 5-star hotel, go scuba diving, visit the elephant orphanage, and get multiple Ayurveda packages at a luxurious retreat. I would eat at the hotel restaurant morning, noon and night and shop at Laksala for my souvenirs.
I could, however, also choose to book an AirBnB instead of the fancy resort hotel. For transport, I could rely on the train and the long-distance bus service. My activities could be hiking, visiting museums, maybe see a cricket match (because really, you have not been to Sri Lanka if you haven’t been to one) and try an Ayurvedic hospital for a day of indulgent and healthy treatments. Food would be kotthu (I could eat just kotthu and be happy until the end of my days, actually) or curries at small restaurants in the side streets.
Both of these options are valid choices for experiencing Sri Lanka, but they differ vastly in terms of budget. When you have a fixed amount you are able to spend, you will have to look at all the categories and decide where you will go for a high-end option and where you are okay with getting the “economy version”. That being said, very often, the cheaper ways of spending your time can be just as good or even more rewarding than what you thought would be the highlights of your trip.
So, when are you sitting down to make your own travel budget? What are you waiting for?
Let me know in the comments how you are doing on budgeting! Also, if you want more on travel budgets or how to stick to them or have any other ideas for future posts, please shoot me an email at email@example.com or post a comment below.