Budget—Creating A Travel Budget Before You Leave And Sticking To It

A page from my budget book, a comparison of flights from places in France to Marrakesh

A page from my budget book, a comparison of flights from places in France to Marrakesh

Budgeting. Ahhhh the necessary evil! This column will explain some of the tactics that I use on the road to save money. Be warned that some of the penny-pinching tactics listed below are not for everyone. Isaac and I have pushed the limits of what we can live off of while traveling and that might not be enjoyable or necessary for every reader. Perhaps you don’t wish to live off of bread and cheese while skiing through Europe—especially if you are lactose intolerant, or maybe your vegetarianism is rooted solidly enough that you won’t touch that $0.21 borek filled with ground-something-or-other in Bosnia. Perhaps a metal box spring or a 4ft long chaise-lounge older than your grandpa doesn’t suit your bedroom needs. Maybe spending your honeymoon sleeping on stranger’s couches in Spain isn’t your idea of romance. That’s ok! These are just a few of the instances when Isaac and I have sacrificed maybe a little too much. In any case, many of the points below will not challenge your diet or deprive you of your creature comforts.

Chile meal

Before travel:

What can I say, this one is obvious…save money! Easier said than done I know, but this is a matter of self-discipline that hardly anyone has mastered.

So, What do I do? 

  • I take some of my paycheck money out of the bank in cash and put the cash away in a little box in my house where I can’t see it. I let the money accumulate, I don’t count it very often and I forget about it. Some people would tell you this is a terrible idea. If the house were to burn down, or was broken into, I would be S.O.L. However, this is the way that works for me. I think the take-away from this tip is that no matter where you put the money—a separate account, separate bank, under your bed, or stashed away somewhere else ingenious, the point is that you CAN’T SEE IT. Make it unavailable to yourself.
  • Buy your Lonely Planet and curl up on the couch for the next month. Going out is the biggest money drain there is. You can invite your friends over for home cooked dinner, but say no to eating out. Have a beer or two on pint night, but keep your hard earned cash stashed away on the other nights. If you really want to take advantage of this tactic, you can stash away the $4 you would have spent on a beer every time you don’t go out. To be honest, I don’t do that, but that is what it takes for some people.
  • Make yourself a budget in excel or on paper that reflects how much money you have, how much you will make before you depart, how much you need for your trip (more on this below), and how much you will spend in the meantime. Make columns for your spending and stick to the number you put in there. If you are going to oly spend $50/week on groceries, than do just that.
  • Go through your pantry and write down the food items that have been sitting there for ½  a year. Plan to make meals that use that food. Make the meals big enough that you have leftovers for the next day’s lunch. For example: when Isaac and I are getting ready to leave, a month before departing we will craft menus that use the random items that sit in our cupboards—have multiple cans of coconut milk, random canned mushrooms and some strange canned sea creature that your grandma sent you? Sounds like a curry to me. Curry powder and rice is all you really need to add and those items are cheap at the store. Dried beans sitting on your shelf because you never have time to go through the process of soaking them overnight and then cooking them for hours? Well now you do! Add some corn and spices, meat if you want, and you have a chili that will feed you through the next few days.
Preparing for a Euro trip

Preparing for a Euro trip

Research, research, research. At this point in your budgeting, money is worth more than time—this will not always be the case so take advantage of it now. Use those precious hours on the couch to research where you are going, what you are doing and the best way to go about it. By research, I do not mean plan per-se. You do not need to depart with an itenerized plan, in fact that will most likely lose you money. You just need to be knowledgeable of your options so that you can make the best decision when an opportunity presents itself while you are on the road. Your research will open your eyes to possibilities, ones that are much less expensive than those that are obvious. For example: the obvious way to get from the Balkans to Italy is to fly or train up and around Slovenia. The less obvious way, and the way that saves you time, money and headache, is to take an overnight ship across the Adriatic sea—this saves you a night in a hostel, days time in train travel, or the headache of getting to and from an airport, because the ship departs and arrives from convenient downtown locations.

swiss money

Many destinations will require you to get vaccinations. If you are American, than it is likely that you do not have health care, or that your health care doesn’t cover things that are useful—like vaccinations needed in foreign countries. If this is your case, with many vaccinations you can wait and get them in your destination country upon landing. However, take this advice with a grain of salt and do your research prior to making these decisions. Isaac and I waited to get our Hepatitis B and yellow fever shots in Arequipa, Peru. Getting the vaccines in Peru saved us hundreds of dollars, but it took a lot of time, a lot of missed buses to far-flung parts of the city that no tourist ever sees, a lot of odd hospital experiences and fumbling around medical terms in a foreign language.  For us at the time it was necessary to wait, and we did finally find out how to get the correct vaccines with a clean needle. I only suggest this if you have a lot of time in another country, very little money, and the desire to experience parts of a country that are not so exemplary.

Form an idea of how much money on average you will need per day while you are traveling. I include transportation at my destination (taxis, buses, flights, trains, ferries, bicycle rental, etc…) in this budget. You can include it in your daily budget or have a separate transportation budget. I do not include my departure flight from home in my daily travel budget. Your daily budget will vary greatly from country to country in obvious ways—Western Europe and the USA will cost more per day, South America and Southeast Asia will cost less. Your daily budget should look something like this (taken from a 2013 Europe ski trip. Trip length: 3 months):

NOTE: We only eat two meals a day when we travel, this may vary for you

NOTE: We only eat two meals a day when we travel, this may vary for you

To summarize, the bare bones daily budget comes out to be around $50/day without entertainment. Your budget should reflect what you truly wish to do while you are traveling, don’t fool yourself. I then take the 50/day and multiply it out over a week = $350/wk, and add in an entertainment budget: includes activities like skiing, scuba diving, performances, tours, entrance fees etc. = $100/wk. You can also add in other weekly fees like ATM fees here. The grand total is now $450/wk. I can now plan to save enough money to cover my travel at that rate for the amount of time that I am gone. In my case, I often do not spend my entire daily budget. Using couchsurfing and going to the grocery store, will offset my budget so much that I normally spend about $1000/month in another country, even though the above budget shows that I should be spending closer to $1800. However, I like to plan for the larger budget  in case your day-to-day is more expensive than expected (like Switzerland) or if you need a money buffer for something medical (I had to get a root canal in Austria) or if you just really want to blow some money on something big (like a week-long ski pass in the Dolomites). Now you know how much money you need to save before you leave. In the following blog that covers budgeting while travelling I will go over how I keep track of expenses while on the move.

foreign coins

These are just a few ways to prep and budget for your travel. Budget traveling will look very different for a two week to four week long trip than it will for a three month to five month long trip. The shorter the trip, the less money you will need to save beforehand, and the sooner it will be until you begin earning income again. This will make you feel more stable to spend more money per day, and it will make you feel more like a vacationer than a traveler. You will be more willing to drop some yen on that sushi dinner, or some euros on that whale watch. On long trips, Isaac and I will penny pinch to the point where we have no-spending-days, but on the shorter trips, we don’t have a problem spending money on a tour or a gift for a friend. Whatever your situation is, just remember to be realistic. If you like to drink four drinks at the bar instead of two, have your budget reflect that. Lastly, remember to spend money where it deserves to be spent. We did not spend the extra $80 to take a boat across the river from Buenos Aires to Uruguay, and in retrospect we definitely should have. We have not been back to South America since, and we may never have the same opportunity again.