When it comes to the daily expenses of travel — like hotel, food, in-country transportation and souvenirs — many first-time travelers aren’t sure what to expect. How much all of this will cost you can vary widely by destination, currency exchange rates and even how you travel (if you require a four-star hotel and private drivers everywhere you go, your trip is obviously going to be more expensive than a backpacker’s exploration of southeast Asia). To get to a sound estimate of how much cash you need to have available for your trip, it’s important to consider all of these factors.
When I’m planning a trip to somewhere I’ve never been, here’s how I begin to estimate how much it will cost:
1. Learn from other travelers.
Peruse travel blogs, TripAdvisor and Wikitravel for an idea of how much other travelers have spent in your destination. Many travel guidebooks also outline average daily costs. In general, you’ll find that wealthier, more developed countries are more expensive — especially if they’re in high demand by tourists. Western Europe is definitely one of the most expensive places you can visit, so expect to spend a lot more there than you would on trips to countries that are a bit less traveled, like Colombia. Be very specific as you research, instead of making assumptions about all countries or locales in a specific region of the world. For example, Jordan is a very stable, relatively wealthy country in a very unstable region, and the Jordanian dinar is worth more than the U.S. dollar; this destination ended up being comparable to Europe in terms of overall expense.
On my own trips, I stay in budget accommodations and eat locally (street food is a great way to get to know a place’s culinary culture!), take public transportation and only occasionally splurge on nicer meals or hotels. Because I travel this way, my 17-day trips cost roughly $2,000 on average for everything: all transportation including flights (which I often book with miles), visas, accommodations, food, nightlife and shopping.
2. Research hotel costs.
If you’re paying with cash instead of miles, your flight is often the most expensive part of your trip (read How I Afford Travel and How I Fly Around the World for Next to Nothing for more information on using points and miles). But the second-most expensive part of travel is usually your hotel, hostel or apartment rental. Hostels are the least expensive option in most cases, but many of them offer private double rooms, which I often stay in when traveling. Apartments can be a bit more expensive than a hostel but usually are still less than a hotel. Use sites like Hostelworld and Airbnb to figure out how much to expect to spend per night. (Note: Hostelworld rates are for a single person, so be sure to calculate for two people if you’re traveling as a couple.) Get all the way to check-out, even if you’re not ready to book, to see what the total cost would be at the kind of places you’d likely prefer. Keep location in mind when doing this — if you don’t know your destination well, it can be difficult to understand how far apart things are or where you’d really like to be. I usually prefer to spend a bit more to be closer to the action, but you can always save money by staying a little farther out — especially if public transportation is reliable and cheap.
3. Set your pace.
Figure out how much time you want to spend in each location before packing up and moving on to the next. If you’re not a long-term traveler and want to get the most of your limited vacation days (see also 9 Ways to Fit More Travel Into Your Life and Career), you might choose to see multiple different countries in a single trip. In 2012, I took a 17-day trip (that’s two weeks plus the surrounding weekends) to Jordan, Egypt and Spain; in 2013, I took a trip of the same length to Italy, Croatia and Spain (plus a one-night layover in Berlin). Within in each country, I traveled to several different areas and cities. That’s a lot of traveling, which adds up quickly. Cramming as many places into a single trip can be very expensive because you’re spending extra money on transportation — from additional flights to long-distance buses or trains. You can save money by staying longer in one spot.
4. Set aside a little extra.
“When preparing to travel, lay out all your clothes and all your money. Then take half the clothes and twice the money.”
— Susan Heller
Once you have a fairly realistic idea of how much you should plan to spend on your trip, add a little extra to that number. Remember that one of the best parts of travel is that you don’t know what’s waiting for you at each turn — and while you should have travel insurance (see How to Save Money on Travel Insurance), you might also be presented with a once-in-a-lifetime experience or excursion that you didn’t plan for, and wouldn’t you rather be able to take advantage of that? That’s one of my favorite reasons for traveling very cheaply — rather than overspending on chain hotels, you save your money for the experiences that truly matter.
Photo credit: Megan Van Groll