Category Archives: Budget Travel

Planning Budget Travel

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Unless I’m unexpectedly showered with money this year, a vacation is not going to be in the works this time.  India drained me more than I planned.  Now granted, getting divorced, refinancing the house and getting sick immediately after the trip did not help a bit.  LOL.  But there will be no vacationing again until the credit card is paid for, summer money is put up and that emergency fund is covered.  Accomplishing these three things means I will need to set aside basically my entire salary (gross) for one year.  Yeah, it’s gonna be a while.

Travel, though, is very important to me.  It’s something I’ve wanted since I was a little girl and traditional travel has never been within my budget.  Still, I value experiences over material things, and I seek to find a way to have these experiences even on my glamorous budget.  I may not be able to jet out of the country every year, but the memories of previous trips are motivators to try to spend and save more wisely.

So even though it is probably well over a year away, I’m planning my next budget glamorous trip, and I’ve “narrowed it down” to three places:  Iceland, Ireland or Central America.  Iceland and Ireland have experienced financial problems recently, making travel within the country far more affordable than ever before.  (Greece would be a good choice, too!)  Central America is just plain cheap all the time.  So for the next few months, I’ll spend time (i.e. procrastinate from doing more important things) seeing what the budget travel costs will really be and picking my adventure accordingly.

Budget travel means something different to everyone.  It’s all about the level of comfort you’re willing to pay for (or give up).  Costs will vary wildly if you’re the kind who likes to camp out versus the kind who must have hot water and fluffy mattresses wherever you go.  So determining the comfort level is critical to setting your own personal budget.  So is your level of trust for other people, as I’ll get to in a moment.  There are a variety of options available.  There are travel packages where everything is arranged for you, ways to go off the grid completely and do it yourself, and an interesting hybrid of both.  I’ve done all three.

It also depends on what you want out of the trip.  I like inspiration and a larger sense of purpose and humanity out of my trips.  Aesthetics is my hobby.  I’m willing to pay a bit extra to get those things.  I don’t find those same experiences in, say, a themepark.  Knowing what you want out of the trip is critical to not feeling like you’ve wasted your time and your money, and it aids the planning tremendously.  It also helps determine whether you need a tourist package or if you’re better off hiking and camping.  In any event, there are some known categories I’ll be using to help determine my savings target.

Fixed (to an extent) Costs:

Airfare:  This has always been the biggest expense of the trip, especially coming from the States.  Crossing any ocean is going to set you back, even more so if your starting point is nowhere near a coastline.  Planning when in the year to go and how you’re going to buy the ticket makes a big difference.  I try to go during the off season for that particular place, but that has its own set of pros and cons.  The pros are that it’s cheaper and less crowded.  Those two pros cannot be overstated!  The cons are that some attractions and businesses may not be open and you may be contending with weather issues that could spoil parts of your trip.  No one wants to go to a beach during the rainy season, right?  In my case, I ended up in India during monsoon season and Mexico during the heat of its summer.  I don’t have much of a choice in this, however, as I’m a teacher and the best I can possibly do for travel is either a week and a half at Christmas time or mid-May to very early August.  Hot places be much hotter then.  Rain happens.  I like hot and rain, so I don’t mind.  It’s the trade off I get for having that much possible time for traveling.  Plus, see aforementioned cheaper costs and fewer people!

How to get your ticket is also worth looking into.  Some people do very well by planning to go standby and taking advantage of a deeply reduced ticket price.  Others cash in points on credit cards, which I think is a great scheme if you can manage to pay off your credit card every month and take advantage of such points.  Based on my budgeting skills, I apparently am not one of those people.  I do have some points to cash in, but I don’t think they’ll end up being enough for a plane ticket.  So instead, I get the average cost of the ticket from several travel websites like expedia.com or kayak.com so I know what my base price is likely going to be.  I have not found that I can haggle with the airline directly for a better price, as I’ve seen some people suggest.  Perhaps I’m just not a great haggler.  If you are, it’s totally worth a shot!  I monitor the ticket price on those websites for a few weeks, and then I just go ahead and buy it from the cheapest one.  On my India trip, I waited three months longer than I should have to buy my ticket and it cost me about $600 more than I should have paid.

Currently, these sites list the average ticket price during the month of June to these three places as:  Ireland = $675, Iceland = $not found.  Seriously, Expedia claims no one is flying to Iceland for any reason in the next six months.  But CheapOAir says there are flights there that are about $700.   Central America offers a range of choices.  Let’s take Costa Rica, since it is very popular with tourists and so likely has a wider range of available flights.  Flying into Costa Rica would be $830, so it’s (surprisingly) the most expensive flight to take.  Belize is over $100 more expensive than that.  El Salvador, although a vastly poorer country, has airfare that is $400 more expensive than Costa Rica.    Guatemala is the only Central American country where airfare would be around $670.  So at this point, Central America would have to beat out Ireland and Iceland in housing and food costs to make it worth picking, or I’d have to start in Guatemala.

Passport/Visa fees:  Always fixed in price, always worth doing sooner rather than later.  Otherwise, you’re going to have to pay for an expedite fee.  This costs you time and stress.  Travel is supposed to be fun, not full of worries!  Iceland and Ireland do not require a Visa.  No Central American country currently requires US passport holders to get a Visa either.

Variable Costs:

Housing:  This is the biggest variable cost in my opinion.  It’s a chance to save money, but there is a thin line between saving money and being absolutely miserable.  Some people do the camping thing.  I confess I would have a hard time doing that throughout a country.  I’ve done it before, but I was catered to with hot coffee every morning, a hot supper every night and a solar shower for my French soap.  I know that being spoiled isn’t very budget, but camping is just difficult for me.  No need, on the other hand, to demand the several hundred dollar hotel room per night, either.  Here is where comfort and trust really begin to matter.  Decide what bare minimum of comfort you can stand and then pick accordingly.  My personal standard is a) safe and b) clean.  If it meets those standards, it’s sold!  Other budget choices I’m looking into are couch surfing and servia.org, which allows you to open your home to other strangers who love to travel and who’ve already been vetted.  I cannot begin to stress the difference staying with someone who lives in the country makes to your overall experience.  Their local knowledge makes *everything* much more enjoyable.  And apart from  you doing things to make yourself a great house guest as well as taking on the possibility of entertaining others at some time, your cost is free!  I can see the inherent worry in staying with someone else or having complete strangers come into your home, especially in this day and age.  But keep in mind, everyone has been prescreened and you can always say no.  I’ll be looking into budget and midrange accommodations as well, keeping in mind that I am not a kid anymore and have no desire to hang around older teenagers boozing and humping their way across the world.

Food:  Another area where you can save money depending on your tastes.  You can always try to fix food for yourself, which is a great idea if you’re going somewhere the cuisine will be very unfamiliar.  Ease into it.  Trust me on this…  It’s especially easy to get breakfast foods to keep with you as well as snacks.  Street food at stalls is both the dodgiest and some of the tastiest and cheapest food there is!  Watch how it is being prepared so you have a better idea of what you’re getting yourself into.  There are plenty of sites that offer average costs for food within each country.  I like the Lonely Planet series myself.  I’ll be looking into average costs for all three areas of the world as well as picking some “must trys” from each place!

Incidentals.  This will vary widely for people.  For example, I try to take Christmas present money with me.  Nothing pleases me more than giving international gifts for Christmas, and the people back home are thrilled as well.  So I figure this into my budget (though I don’t really consider it part of a “travel” budget so much as a Christmas present budget and I save that money separately).  I also enjoy things like museums, gardens and galleries, so I build these into my budget.  I also try to look for days when those things are free to the public, which shockingly to me, there are usually free days every month!  I also like to people watch, so there are definitely cafe-and-drink days built in as well.  Your mileage varies according to your tastes.  But it’s a mistake to think you won’t try to fit those in once you get there.  You will.  You’ll rationalize it by saying “I’m never going to get back here again, I have to go for it!”  And you’ll plunk that credit card down before you know it.  Excursions are what makes the trip special.  Plan for them.  That way you won’t be tempted to take sudden and expensive tours.  Each of these three areas offers its own sort of aesthetic entertainment and some of it is free (like scenery surveying) and some of it will add up fast (like Irish pub crawling).  I’ll make a plan for the area I end up going to, and then throwing at least $100 on top of that for random excursions that I cannot foresee from the guidebook!

Travel within the area.  This means everything from taking a taxi across town to airfare across the country.  I don’t like to overplan a trip, but it’s worth thinking through what you might be apt to do within the city you go to.  Figure what the average taxi ride is.  Calculate a trip every other day and see what it comes out to be.  Build this into your budget.  If you never need it, you’ll have more money to spend on souvenirs or food.  But if you do need it, it won’t come as a surprise.

I once read a piece of advice about packing for travel.  It was something along the lines of “Pack for the trip.  Then remove half the clothing and double the amount of cash.”  That has always turned out to be very close to the truth for me!  Given that my airfare costs went from about $1400 for the initial plane ticket to about $2600 once I had to cough up $1200 to get my sickened self home earlier than planned, my airfare costs damn near doubled.  That was the only real added expense in the planned trip, but boy did it hurt!  And wouldn’t I have loved to spend that $1200 in other ways.

I also don’t want to come back from the trip paying for it for the next year on a credit card.  So as a way to beat the boredom and winter blues over the next few days, I’ll start adding the costs up, figuring various itineraries and so forth…

“Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.” – Jack Kerouac


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