Preparing for any trip requires a certain amount of research but preparing for a budget trip requires more planning than you think.
I’ve done this enough to know that while planning is a fun part of the adventure, it is an absolute must when it comes to saving on your trip.
First, let me say that this isn’t your typical “I have 2 weeks of vacation where to next” post. This is for people who lead flexible lives and have time on the front end to plan, and time during their journey to get the pieces to fit. Because that’s really how travel plans come together, like one big beautiful puzzle, usually hopping on a plane with a few pieces left in the box, I mean we all enjoy a little spontaneity.
I spend hours researching our winter travel. It’s practically a part-time job. It’s pretty simple if you want to save on your adventure you have to know where and how to find those savings. Sometimes we have a tendency to get lost in the romance of it all. You envision yourself frolicking down beaches, meandering through village streets, and hiking through hidden alcoves, and while all that can be a part of budget travel, it’s getting to those moments that will make or break your budget. That picture perfect moment doesn’t come cheap. What you’re not shelling out in paper dollars your racking up with good old fashioned time and effort.
If you don’t already know this about me, I am a spreadsheet fiend. I can find a way to organize pretty much anything. And data is no different. Spreadsheets not only easily allow you to organize all of your information in one place, but they take all the hard work out of math. Plus you can pull out pretty much any data set you can think of. Which is really helpful when you have a multiplier. I’m constantly surprised at my total cost, but when I can break a particular cell down to a per person rate, it’s a little easier to wrap my head around. So, in my opinion, it is impossible to plan a trip without a spreadsheet. And Google has made it even easier with Google Sheets, easily accessed from your Google Drive. I don’t love the format, but it gets the job done if you don’t have Microsoft Excel.
So once you have a dedicated doc open its time to fill up those cells. This is where my trip planning and your trip planning may differ quite dramatically. Every year we have a set amount of time that we can travel, April to October is Alaska time, October to January is transition/lower 48 work time, and January to April is our super fun time! I also have a pretty good idea of how much money I need to make throughout the year to fulfill my trip budget, which is a static cost that is built into my monthly expenses. So I suppose it depends on what type of traveler you are.
How to research/prepare your budget
In general, I follow the same path when making my travel budget. First, I start by clocking in very rough costs to assess if it’s even something we can afford. For instance, you can get sucked in by cheap food and lodging, but then you realize that a visa is $250 per person, for our multiplier that adds a considerable expense. That’s why it’s essential to tick your way through the basics before committing to any one destination. Once I have a rough idea, and I’ve decided it’s still a destination worth pursuing, I work through the process and meticulously research every item and log what I consider a very firm price.
- Other Transportation Costs*
*A couple of things to note*
- It’s easy to forget about the cost of airport transfers/taxis/busses etc. While some areas, like Central America, are easy to absorb, other destinations like Europe, can be a major expense. It’s important to run a few Uber scenarios and public transport routes to gauge what your local transportation is going to run. You can easily do this from Google, just select the public transportation option, and you can loop to a site that sells tickets. While these costs can vary greatly at least, you’ll have something to enter into your spreadsheet.
- I don’t include food in my budget unless it’s an activity that is paired with food, I have a monthly food budget that carries over to any trip we take, because even though food can be more expensive when traveling you still gotta eat, and food is one of the easiest things to pair down if you’re getting close to your spending limit.
Where and How to Save
Saver Tip #1 Flights:
Google Flights is a great place to start. Start by selecting one way versus roundtrip, this is a huge mistake people make. Often times two one-ways is cheaper than a round trip, don’t ask me why but I’ve saved multiple times. Also, depending on what type of trip you’re embarking upon, you may find yourself arriving in one airport and departing from another. I spend hours playing around with flights, you never know what you might find.
And while there’s always a great deal hiding in there somewhere you’re typically going to find the best flight deals in/out of major hubs. Stick to the usual suspects if you can: Seattle, Los Angeles, New York, and Miami. And if you have that multiplier like we do, we’re always a times 4, then sometimes it’s worthwhile to do a one-way car rental to get to a cheaper airport. Again, this is where that time and effort pays off.
For us, our transportation costs are usually the single biggest expense, but this includes getting in and out of Alaska, and when you consider it’s $1000 roundtrip just to get to and from the Anchorage Airport from our little town, we are already up against it with transportation costs. Let me put it this way, it’s cheaper for us to fly from Miami to Europe and back than it is to get us to and from Alaska. With that said, people typically think that traveling abroad is far too expensive for their pocketbook, but that’s just not true. International travel can now be had by all. I’m not talking your own pod on Emirates or anything, but if you’re willing to sacrifice a few “luxuries, which are probably “basics” to most, then you too can be en route to far off destinations.
- Explore different websites: Momondo | Google Flights | Skyscanner
- Don’t get caught up in just one idea, let each link lead you down the rabbit hole, I’ve found some pretty off the beaten path carriers that offer great deals, one way, multi-city, airports that are a train or bus ride away from your final destination. I like to start with Google Flights then I usually fine tune on Momondo. Momondo has really great interactive flight insights, super fun to play around with.
- With ever-evolving baggage fees, it’s extremely important that you know just how your airline will handle your bags, also be sure to check all the airlines as many times you will be traveling on multiple partners. If you want an outstanding deal on a flight you’re simply going to have to leave all that useless crap behind. Besides, it’s just going to weigh you down, and most likely you won’t need it anyway. There’s a funny travel saying out there, “Don’t pack your fears.” I promise that when you live out of a pack for any length of time, it only takes a few days to get really done with dumping the entire bag out to find that one thing way at the bottom.
- Stick to carryon luggage, aside from a few operators, your standard bag size is usually around the following: Carry-On Allowance: 1 Bag + 1 Personal Item
Each passenger is allowed one (1) carry-on bag and one (1) personal item. The carry-on hand luggage must not weigh more than 22 pounds (10 kilos), and the external dimensions (H+L+W) must not exceed 22in X 16in X 8in (55cm X 40cm X 20cm)
- There was a time when sitting apart from my family was a no go, but sometimes when you want something bad enough, you just go with it. Typically speaking when traveling budget fares, you won’t get to pick your seats. However, with the new a la carte flight options you may choose to just pay extra for seats, usually its a nominal fee, so you’ll have to determine just how important it is, maybe it’s worth putting 2 of your 4 together, so at least the kiddos have a buddy, or however you want to work it, but again, these are those sacrifices budget travelers make.
- Travel Dates – Obviously, one of the biggest impacts of flight price is timing. If you’re planning on heading to New York City for New Year’s Eve, flights are probably going to be a bit more than in the middle of August. If you have your heart set on a location that is experiencing its high season you may want to put that trip on the back burner and explore something different, it’s a big wide world out there, there’s no shortage of new places to visit.
- Purchase Dates – They say approximately 60 days out is the cheapest time to buy your flight. I tend to get anxious and book early when I’ve found something that I’m comfortable with. I would rather be a little irritated that I could have gotten a better price than be super annoyed that flight prices are still going up and I don’t have my tickets yet, the whole penny wise pound foolish mentality. In general, this works out for me. But this method requires knowing what a “good price” is for your route, and that requires many hours on all those websites I mentioned before. The resources are out there, flight tracking, price graphs, flight insights, but it’s up to you to find and use them.
Saver Tip #2 Lodging
This is probably the easiest category to find savings. There are tons of websites out there dedicated to lodging, but it really depends on what type of traveler you are, how many are in your party and your destination. You also need to consider taking advantage of any rewards credit cards or programs that you may be able to cash in on.
When traveling as a family I’ve found that hostels are not always cheaper, this is because you’re not just buying a single bed for the night, which is on average a price of $10 or so, so when you think about it, 4 beds are already running $40. In a lot of areas, this is a steep price to pay. Although I never rule anything out.
To get a general idea of price I usually hit Airbnb first then Hotels.com and if the destination is a backpacker haven, then I’ll check out Hostel World. Overall this will give you a good idea of what’s available in the area on each end of the spectrum.
In the beginning, try not to spend too much time when researching lodging costs, again you can find some significant savings the closer you get to your arrival time as well as grinding through promo codes and such. Remember you’re just trying to get a ballpark. Any savings that can be had later is a win.
- Sign up for rewards programs – This works particularly well with big chains like Wyndham
- Book via Credit Card Rewards Site – Simply booking through your credit card rewards site can offer big savings.
- Search for promo codes – My favorite is Retailmenot but just entering a hotel name and promo in a search engine can produce great results
- Offer up your email when booking directly with larger chains, the deals will come pouring in
Finally, just scour the internet. Don’t be afraid to go past that second or third page of Google. I’ll admit even I get tired by about page 6, but it’s worth it. Again, if you don’t want to spend those hard-earned paper dollars, you’ve got to spend your time.
Saver Tip #3 Activities
Activities obviously vary based on location. Sometimes the destination is your activity, and your costs will be fairly minimal. Sitting on a beach and enjoying the sun doesn’t cost all that much and it’s ready-made entertainment. Other locations may require excursions, museum tickets, or even entrance fees to national parks. The destination is offered determined by what type of trip you’re looking to have. The savings to be found are quite abundant when it comes to activities.
In my experience, it really depends on the location. Down in Central America, for instance, you’re much better off booking tours and such on site. However, in Europe, purchasing tickets online not only offers financial savings but time savings as well. When cruising, I would never recommend purchasing excursions through the ship. For more in-depth excursions you’re better off researching the activity on Trip Advisor and booking directly with the tour operator. For walking tours and such, you can get a pretty good deal when you come into port. When traveling in the states, I’m a huge fan of driving tours. These can be found online, and you can upload the route to your Google Maps. You’ll have several points of interest as well as a preplanned route and talking points all for free.
I also like to check out my destinations’ Groupon page. You can find great deals on everything from hair styling and massages to food and fun. Once again, your credit card rewards program is a great place to look, there are usually dozens of offers on gift cards at a low rate for food and activities.
But for the purpose of preparing your budget, the best thing to do is to go directly to the source. At first, just clock in the highlights. Get those big ticket activities like snorkeling trips, ruins, museums, etc. on paper then like all the other categories try and get specific costs down. Activities are nice because they’re typically not something you invest a ton of money into on the front end and if your budget is tanking you can just enjoy a nice day walking around your destination of choice.
Saver Tip #4 Other Transportation
Depending on the type of trip you’re taking this may or may not need a separate line item. We typically try to arrive in one location and depart from another, thus resulting in significant transportation costs. The reason I keep this as a separate item is because it varies greatly on the location, and I like to see as much date sorted as possible. Eventually, when I keep track of my budget, it all gets logged in one general transportation category.
As far as where to save this can be tricky. The obvious, do as the locals do. Usually the longest, most populated mode of transportation is the cheapest. But don’t discount your multiplier. A single person taking a taxi may be quite expensive, but by the time you board 4 people onto the subway, you might break even. You just have to do the research. Be sure to explore all modes of transportation. Rome2rio is a good base. You can enter in practically any destination, and it will offer options for local transport. I’m also a big fan of Trip Advisor Forum. If you just ask how to get from a to b and follow the trail of internet ramblings you can get turned on to some pretty great sites.
It’s simple, just remember that easy is expensive. It’s a very real possibility that to make it to your picture perfect moment you’ll have to hike, bus, walk, boat, hitchhike, and bus again. Or some combination thereof. It’s part of the fun though. And when you’ve hit the state of delirium, boarding you’re fourth bus of the day, and you still have a ways to go, that you’ll know you’re a true budget traveler, and damn proud of it!
And sometimes you just need a rental car. Hertz is always my favorite, but you must research rental codes. With Hertz there are two codes you’ll need to maximize your savings. The Discount/CDP code and the Promotional Coupon. You can find these codes in numerous different ways. Retailmenot is a reliable source, as well as your credit card rewards program. Not only do most credit cards have promo codes that you can use for your rental, but car rental insurance is usually included when you book with your relevant credit card. Be sure to check the fine print. Your regular auto insurance should also cover a rented vehicle, be sure to check your policy, but this will be a huge savings.
In areas like Europe, the popularity of hopper flights is making for some pretty cheap transportation. Sites like Vueling, Easy Jet, and Transavia, have great ow fares and you can always take on hand baggage, unlike Ryan Air.
Again, it’s just about researching the area. Near the water? Search for boats or ferries. In a congested city, tuk-tuks might be the way to go. Down south it’s chicken buses and a good old fashioned hitchhiking. Just think outside your comfort zone, and you can save a ton.
- Play with Uber – You’d be surprised where Uber is available, it’s pretty much everywhere
- Google Maps/public transport – Usually this will only be reliable in larger cities but it’s worth looking at
- Hertz– If you’re looking for a rental car I strongly recommend Hertz, they’re usually the cheapest, as long as you research your codes, and being a Gold Member, which is free, makes renting way easy
Saver Tip #5 Gear
The cost of gear can really start to add up. Especially if this is your first backpacking trip and you need a good base of items. Saving in this category is very dependent on where you are headed and what type of equipment you may need. My first suggestion if you’re just starting out is to buy only the basics and don’t invest in gear that will last you a lifetime.
For instance, when we were first preparing for our backpacking trip through Central America, we happened across an REI. As a side note it was just a fun recon trip I would never seriously buy anything from an overpriced trendy place like this, but I was curious. The cost of pretty much every item in the store astounded me, packs that were $200 and $300, shoes that were in the $200 range, and dry wick shirts upwards of $100 a piece. Anyone who steps foot in one of these stores is bound to think they’ll never afford to travel. But this is crazy.
We purchased most of our items on Amazon and a few things at Walmart. And I can tell you that 4 years later it’s all still holding strong. Those packs you see in the picture cost less than $25 each and have been to dozens of states, and several countries. Not once did we ever have a problem. You don’t have to spend a fortune on gear, simple. Also, you don’t want to overload yourself. Even the smallest of packs is quite cumbersome.
So while the savings in this category may not take a lot of research, the main thing to focus on is keeping it simple, light, and cheap. Think ahead, especially with things like bug spray, sunscreen, OTC medications, those items can be expensive in remote areas. But don’t break the bank when it comes to gear.
Saver Tip #6 Food
Once again, food prices vary greatly based on location, I think we can all see a theme here. But food is one of those things that’s different for everyone. As I said earlier, for the most part, I don’t have a separate food budget when we travel, but rather I take our monthly food budget as well as our miscellaneous budget and lump them together. For us, this means approximately $60 per day on food and any various items that come up during the trip. I’ll be honest this is a tight budget to keep. This absolutely requires us to grab things from a local market and prepare them at our hostel or in the room.
With that said if you don’t already have a monthly budget you can pull from, then setting up a dedicated food budget is an absolute must. And when you think you’ve allowed enough for your daily expenses tack on a little more, travel is so much about the food.
The easiest ways to save on food is to–yes you guessed it–do as the locals do. Street food is not only some of the tastiest, most authentic food you can eat, but it’s also the cheapest. Wind your way down the street to get off the beaten path, even just a couple of streets over from the central hub can save you tons on food. It’s also pretty fun to go into a local market and shop for items to prepare at your hostel or other lodging kitchen. It makes for a richer more personal experience, and of course, cheaper.