Tallying up the Cost: How I Afford to Travel

Parrot on Breakfast Sign in Flores Guatemala

No matter who you are one of the biggest obstacles and considerations when planning a trip is cost.  Out of all of the reasons regularly given for why people “can’t” travel, cost is the one I’ve found to be the most common and frankly, it’s with good reason.  Jumping on a plane, flying across the world and spending several weeks away from our normal day-to-day infrastructure has the potential to not only be stressful, but also quite expensive.  Especially if you treat your travel time as a vacation “splurge” as most Americans do.

The great news is, it doesn’t have to be. Ultimately, it comes down to how you’re willing to travel. Splurge travel is terribly expensive but often reflects how we’ve been told we “need” to travel.  The truth is, budget travel is all about re-framing your normal day-to-day lifestyle so it works for international travel.   By doing this I was able to spend 36 days abroad in 2009 on two separate trips while holding down a normal salaried job while limited to two weeks paid vacation.

The final cost for both trips including airfare and all ancillary expenses?  Less than $5500 dollars. The exciting part?  If I’d truly wanted or needed to, I could have easily done the trips for $1,000 less. As is, I’ve found that Ive historically averaged about $2700 for a 16-18 day trip to Europe and about $2300 for a 20 day trip to Central America.

Fresh Lobster in Belize

How To Do It

Most people will tell you that budget travel starts when you hit the road.  It doesn’t.  It starts at home, months before you begin a trip.  The key to being able to afford to travel at all is managing your expenses and eliminating areas where you’re throwing away money. Once that’s done, it’s important to look through your daily lifestyle expenses in order to identify which expenses are flexible and which expenses are fixed.  More on this in a second.

First: What you DON’T want to do is book a ticket, and put your entire trip on your credit card, planning to pay it off once you get home.  What you DO want to do is eliminate all credit card debt.  If you’re a 20 something reading this blog, there’s a decent chance that you’re not paying your credit card off fully every month.  If you’re in this category, you’ve got a HUGE expense that you can easily eliminate. Interest costs money especially if you’re paying 15-20% APR.  A lot of money – as in hundreds if not thousands of dollars extra each year.  By paying off their credit card debt and adopting a policy of paying off your total  in full each month – you’ll find yourself with a lot of extra money for future trips.

Second: Cut out major splurge expenses.  It never ceases to amaze me how the people who constantly complain about lack of money turn around and spend ridiculous sums of money.  I regularly see these people spend hundreds of dollars on tickets to see a musical performance or at sporting events. If not some sort of live, one time event, it’s usually hundreds of dollars spent on things like electronics, designer furniture, expensive hair salons or overpriced clothing.  Eliminating a few of these expenses a year may be enough save up for the trip of a lifetime.

Third: Food and Bar tabs.  If you’re in your 20s or 30s and live a social life style, you’re probably spending a lot of money on food and drink.  As a single, 20 something male, I know that this is the area where I’m able to make the biggest cuts. Bar tabs can be insanely expensive. If you’re one of those people spending $60-$200 on bar tabs a weekend, a few basic changes will add up quickly.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying don’t go out.  I’m saying drink smarter and spend less. Significantly less.  Like to eat out?  Consider trading fancy high end eateries for often equally delicious, albeit significantly cheaper local venues and dives.

For the average person, following the tips I’ve outlined above should save you at least $1,500 a year.  For most, it’ll result in saving significantly more.

Alex in Scotland

The Next Step

After re-evaluating your current expenses and identifying areas where you can make cuts, it’s important that you identify different types of expenses.  Some expenses are location specific and aren’t flexible. From trips under a month in duration you’re pretty much stuck with things like your monthly rent check, cell phone bill and car insurance.  However, other expenses – like food, gas, entertainment and bar tabs – are flexible.  This is the exciting part, because by re-allocating those expenses during your trip, you’re actually going to be depleting your savings far less than you expect.

Tally up your average weekly expenses in this category and pay special attention to the final number. I know that I average about $12/day on lunch, $10/day on dinner, $40/week on Gas, $20/week on entertainment and $50/week on bar tabs and random meals.  That alone accounts for about $264 in expenses a week and leaves out a number of similar expenses.  It also means that I can spend at least $528 over a 14 day period on the road without changing my cost of living, a single penny.

You’ll also need to take into consideration your type of employment.  Are you paid hourly or are you on salary?  Again, this is significant because it dictates the extent of your opportunity cost.  An individual on salary taking paid time off has a major advantage over someone who works hourly for tips.  The unfortunate reality is that the opportunity cost for the salaried individual, who’ll have an uninterrupted revenue stream is dramatically lower, than that of the hourly worker who won’t be able to work/collect a pay check while abroad.  The trade off, however, is that it’s significantly easier for the hourly employee to take off several weeks at a time. Regardless, don’t forget to take your type of employment and opportunity cost into account.

Dock in Belize at Sunset

The Trip

Travel for less – How?  By picking a time for the trip that is slightly off season. This is important because airfare, accommodation and even food can be much, much cheaper.  Remember, the more money you save on each of these (within reason) the sooner you can take your trip and the more trips you’ll be able to budget for.

Keep it Regional – Let’s assume you’re like most Americans and you’ve budgeted for a relatively short trip (20 days or less).  The temptation is to try and visit as many locations and countries as you can possibly squeeze into one trip.  Honestly?  Don’t.  I regularly talk to friends who plan on seeing London, Paris, Berlin and Rome in a two week trip. Unfortunately, these types of schedules are a horrible idea.  Traveling costs time and money – especially when you’re covering large distances and crossing international borders.

Cut your expenses dramatically by planning regional trips that avoid long leg voyages.  By doing this you’ll save a lot of money, see more, and get more out of the experience.  Unfortunately, capital cities are capital cities.  They’re typically big, industrial and modern. Sure, each has it’s own flavor and unique draw but the real adventures and beauty lies in a country’s other cities and towns. After all – what would you think of America if all you came and saw was Los Angeles, Detroit and Philadelphia?

Be Reasonable – You don’t need to stay in a 4 star hotel to be happy and get a lot out of your experience.  Remember, your goal is to minimize a-typical expenses.  Besides, the truth of the matter is you’re going to enjoy yourself far more in a hostel then you would in a hotel.  Book hostels, and consider couch surfing as a way to reduce accommodation expenses and increase socialization.  Remember, there’s no better place to meet friends and travelers than in a hostel common area or bar.  Besides, most hostel bars and restaurants have food for far cheaper than the surrounding area.   Feeling the need to splurge a bit?  Then splurge on a smaller room at the hostel – instead of blowing your daily budget on a private room at a hotel.

Eat and Drink Smart – Your three major expenses on the road will be food/drink, accommodation and travel.  In fact, these three should/will probably make up some 2/3 of your daily expenses.  Be smart about it and push your boundaries.  Identify the local budget foods (Indian in the UK, Gyros in Greece, Kebabs in Europe, Beans and Rice in Belize, Tacos in Mexico etc.) and eat those regularly.  Heading to the pub?  Stop at the supermarket first and pre-game. Alcohol is expensive, be smart and remember – other travelers are on their own budget, so there’s no reason to be a big spender. If you’re going to buy someone a drink keep it to locals-only as a thank you for their hospitality, no reason to go off and buy round after round.

Don’t Shop – Sure, everyone asked you to pick them up something before the trip.  Not to mention, the shoes sold in Paris are – I’m told – quite fantastic. But, let’s be frank.  You’re there to experience the culture, meet people, see amazing things, and maximize an already stretched budget.  Not buy worthless shit.  If you’re going to pick up a keep sake or two – go for it when you find them on sale.  If you need a shirt or jumper while on the road?  Then pick one up – but don’t go off on a silly spending spree.  I can’t tell you how often I see people start a trip, arrive at their first destination and blow a small fortune on crap – before they’ve even gotten up and going.

Above all – Get out there and have fun.  The biggest obstacle to travel and taking a trip is excuses. If you make the decision to take the trip, stop making excuses, and prioritize – you’ll be able to enjoy the wonders of the road in no time.  Stop wishing and start doing!

You’ll notice that this post doesn’t dive heavily into the finer details of budget airlines, etc.  for that I’ve taken my previous Tips and Tricks list and created http://theultimatepackinglist.com – hope you find it equally as useful!

Have another piece of advice?   Please share it in the comments!  As always, thanks for reading!