Typically when I travel, the common questions I’m asked is “Where are you from?” or “What do you do for a living?”. As repetitive as those questions get, I still much prefer it over the now frequent question: How do you afford all of this? After so many months, people start questioning your budgeting habits. Did you win the lottery and just not post it on Facebook? Did your dad just die and he left you so much inheritance? I can only imagine what people think my bank account looks like.
My easy go to answer is: I’m good with money. But apparently that answer isn’t cutting it for anyone anymore. So here’s my secret to traveling months on end with a limited budget.
The first thing you should do is marry Microsoft Excel. Buy it a pretty ring and make it your life. I’m serious. During your travels, your new friends will come and go, and you’ll struggle to make contact with your family with the commitment issue Wi-Fi. Your Excel sheet pertaining to your set budget will be your best friend who will never leave your side. I literally document every penny.
Wither or not you wish to stay in hostels, they give a more accurate look at what the general spending will be for that country. If you’re planning on eating where the locals eat, take the lowest hostel price in the area and double it. That’s your food budget for the day assuming your accommodation provides free breakfast. I typically add in an extra $10 a day for miscellaneous activities like museums or city tours (since I travel slow, I usually do one activity a day) and there’s my budget.
For the past year, my budget has hardly gone over $30 a day per location. Typically my average spending is actually $20, but I enjoy giving myself that extra $10 buffer just in case I feel like that terrible American who goes to McDonalds or Starbucks every once and while.
I create the Excel spreadsheet for however long the length of my trip and put in my desired budget for each day. It’s an easy way to calculate how much you will spend initially and see if you can even afford the place to begin with. For each day that passes, I will accurately record my expenses for accommodation, breakfast, lunch, dinner, fun things, etc. and see how well I stayed within my budget.
Listen, I know not everyone wants to go on vacation and spend that much attention to finances. There are times I will spend money without a second thought, and typically that’s what a Westerner’s vacation is. But to travel months at a time or to not get home and scream at your bank account statement, this is the only way to do things in my opinion.
Also as crazy as it may seem, this is my favorite kind of souvenir. I can still look back at my excel sheet for my seven-month backpacking trip and remember what I did that particular day because I kept track of my finances that vigorously.
I remember sitting around the table in the middle of the Sahara Desert while waiting for the Berbers to finish cooking the tajine. My tour group was discussing what we had paid for the trek out here from Marrakech since most of us had to actually haggle for it. My friend and I paid $80, an Argentinian couple paid $60, and this Canadian guy paid $120. Obviously I’m not that great of a haggler as I thought I am, but the Canadian guy surely did something wrong: he booked online.
When you book for a tour online, you are at least paying double the price you could get than if you were to book at a local excursion office at the destination. This isn’t just in North Africa either. This is everywhere. Currently in Peru, the Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu will cost you about $400 if you were to book it online. However, many tour agencies in Cusco where the trek typically starts will charge you $175 for the exact same tour.
Now please do your research before. You obviously can’t do the Inka Trail to Machu Picchu last minute as the permits typically sell out 6 months in advance. Even tickets to Anne Frank House in Amsterdam will sell out weeks before your actual trip, which is beneficial to save time during your trip instead of waiting in line for hours.
A good rule of thumb to seeing which tours to book in advance is to ask your hotel or hostel which activities they typically can help arrange for you. If they personally can’t do it, then maybe you should Google an agency beforehand to get it situated.
This can eventually save you hundreds of dollars that can be put towards something else to make your vacation or trip more magical.
If you’re being adventurous and going outside of the country where they use a different currency, it’s a good idea to get cash. I hate money exchange places as the commissions are higher and the exchange rates are lower. I will usually just go to an ATM at the destination and withdraw a set amount at a time.
Using cash is a lot easier to make sure you don’t go over your desired budget especially if it’s in another country’s currency. It’s easy to loose track of the conversion rate for every purchase you make. Even more so if you are doing a few countries in a row with a different currency in each destination (i.e. cruises).
I typically will use a converter and put in my allotted budget. Right now, $10 translates to 33 Peruvian soles. So everyday I just have to remember 33 soles and subtract my daily purchases from that. Easy peasy, eh?
Cost of Adventures
London, Paris, Rome. It’s the top of everyone’s list of places to go. That’s also the reason why you’ll notice the cost of living or adventuring there is a lot more expensive too. Obviously $30 a day doesn’t go that far in any of those places mentioned.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t go to Paris or Rome. Paris will always top in my favorite cities list to visit. Everyone should go visit Paris if I had a say in the travel itineraries. I’m completely serious. But sometimes you should look beyond the typical tourist routes. Romania, believe it or not, is my favorite European country. Transylvania in the fall is absolutely stunning.
Less tourists typically means it’s a cheaper destination to go visit with a lot more there to discover! I think seeing the Big Ben in London is stunning, but lets face it, it’s a lot more exciting to find that hole in the wall and claim to be that person who made it famous.
You typically will find a lot more in places like Georgia, Nepal, Colombia, and Ukraine. It’s interesting to run into another backpacker and ask where their favorite countries are. You’ll be very surprised in their answers and probably have to look on a map to see where they are!
Go and explore New York City if you haven’t, but be adventurous in your next destination with a country you’ve never heard of before. You might just surprise yourself… and your wallet.
So I think the main thing people wondering where I can find two three-course meals a day for under $10 and afford the different amenities. That can’t exist right? It depends on the country. Obliviously in bigger cities like Paris or New York City you can’t dream of it unless you cook it yourself (which I also do). But in smaller cities and developing countries, all you have to do is follow the locals.
In Cusco, San Pedro market is famous for it’s fruits and eatery. You can get the full menu for 5 soles for lunch, or a skewer of beef/chicken with a potato for 3 soles just walking around. If you remember above how my daily budget is 33 soles, you can easily see that I can get a full menu and a skewer without even touching 1/3 of my allotted budget. It may look un-hygienic, I know, but obviously it’s safe if the locals are doing it too. I only got a parasite for drinking un-filtered water up in the mountains.
A quick Google search of “Cheap eats in _____” can easily pop up thousands of results from previous travelers too. Not every place has San Pedro market, but I can guarantee you that one blogger has at least gone to the place you have. Even Antarctica.
In India, it’s a western thing to actually go eat out at a restaurant. So a lot of the time the prices will be geared towards the typical western market rather than the locals. Indians in the smaller cities will prefer street food making that the “go-to” for the cheap eats. It also provides a layer of authenticity and emersion into the culture.
Just remember to bring the hand-sanitizer if you’re that paranoid, eh?
The most expensive purchases on my journeys are the plane tickets. Once I get to a country, I can live pretty cheap. So how do I manage to find the money to get to India or Australia in the first place?
Be willing to book last minute. It doesn’t need to be four days before your trip (which I sadly admit to have done), but airlines are likely to throw out deals no sooner than 6 months before the actual flight. These typically are round trip deals set outside of tourist season (June-August).
It’s also true what the say about booking your flights on Tuesday being cheaper. But if we’re being completely honest, many weekday prices will be just as cheap if you can’t manage to take off of work on that particular day. When searching for flights, set your departure date as “flexible” and watch as flights will become significantly less costly.
I will put this personal opinion out here now: I hate booking through Kiwi. I used to only book through them as it was an easy way to piece together different airlines together to reach my desired destination. You are able to put in flexible dates and even expand your departure airport by a certain radius if you wish showing you the cheapest options available. It’s a great research tool. Just don’t book through them. Instead screenshot the flights you wish to buy and go to the actual airline’s website to book. Not only can you sign up for reward points, but flights will be slightly cheaper and you’ll have a bit more flexibility in changing them in case something comes up.
I also use a website called Momondo to look up flights. They won’t book the flights for you, but redirect you to company’s website to book with them directly. It’s basically an easier version of Kiwi, though a lot less pretty.
When you hear “Black Friday”, I know most people will groan. This is the best way to book flights for amazing deals. Best part about it? You don’t even need to wait in line or put your life in danger from those people fighting over that new TV. Google “Black Friday Flight Deals” and I am sure you’ll see something that tickle’s your fancy. Last year (2017), I saw a deal for $28 trip from Los Angeles to Barcelona. You read that correctly: $28 for a cross-Atlantic flight to the European paradise. That’s cheaper than seeing your in-laws for whatever occasion. People used to ask why I went to Paris than seeing my family when I lived in Orlando. The answer was simple. It was a cheaper round trip ticket overseas than to Louisiana. Crazy right?
My other un-wanted opinion is to not fly with Spirit airlines (or WOW if you’re in Europe). While the flights may seem cheaper initially, I can’t even fly with my 50L backpack without being charged an extra $30 to $50. You’ll be charged an extra fee for not checking in online, for printing a boarding pass, or probably breathing if they could. By the time I finish paying all the extra fees, a typical flight would cost me about $150 for a, pardon my French, shitty service. I can tell you now that there’s a cheaper airline than that for better quality.
My last tip to you for how to afford your next dream vacation is to prioritize this trip. That seems very simple, but I don’t live a materialistic or party life.
When I’m in the United States visiting my family or for work, I don’t go eat out. I stay home, go grocery shopping, and cook 99% of my meals. Meal prep for the week if time is an issue for you, but eating McDonalds everyday easily blows any persons budget (I’m not kidding when I know a few people who do that and wonder where their money went).
I also don’t go out and buy the latest iPhone X and have the newest fashion trends parading around the streets. That last one is a struggle for me though I’ll admit. I practically like the general statement that if I can’t fit it into my 50L backpack, I probably do not need it.
By all means, don’t live out of a backpack like I do. I have plenty of stuff at my parent’s place because I enjoy my collection of memorabilia, artwork, books, etc. I can’t wait to settle down and be surrounded by it all most of the days. What I can do is wait to buy a new laptop until my old one literally falls apart in my hands. You can visit the thrift store and find some unique finds for a much cheaper price.
I highly recommend watching this documentary called Minimalism. It was on Netflix a few months ago and I watch it pretty frequently. It definitely has a lot of people like me who do the extremist things, but it has a lot of lessons you can take from it like building a quality wardrobe with less pieces (blues, greys and blacks are the key FYI). Favorite quote of mine says “Collect moments, not things.”
My mom went to 9 different Dollar Trees to try and find a little bank even. She wanted to transform it into a vacation savings fund box where you just deposit a little bit of cash you have lying around every once and a while. I’m sure if you deposit $20 a week into that, you can easily reach that dream destination of yours in no time. Within a year you’ll have at least accumulated $1040. That lasts me about a month of travels! Imagine what you could do with that.
A belief I have is that if you really want it, you’ll make it happen.