All the glamorous photos of luxury safaris in Zimbabwe or hotel rooms overlooking the Siene are trying to sell you the idea that in order to travel, you need to have a pretty hefty wallet. We all know this, and more often than not, it's the #1 reason why people come to the conclusion that they "can't travel," or at least won't be able to for years (and a solid savings account) to come. While, yes, some places in the world will be more expensive to travel than others - there's just no way around that - I promise you that there are ways to bend and break the rules so that you can affordably travel and still be able to have all the amazing experiences you want.
How to Come Up With a Budget
The first element to consider when creating a budget is flights. Depending on where you travel, this will likely be a big chunk of what you will need to save up for. While third-party companies such as Kiwi can offer flights at prices that seem too good to be true, they often come with hidden fees or trade-offs, such as:
Limited (or no) baggage allowances (including no carry-ons!)
No seat choices or preferences
No grace period or changes allowed when it comes to canceling or changing your ticket
Little-to-no customer support in case of an incident while traveling (such as changed or canceled flights or lost luggage)
If you can, try to book directly with an airline. You may pay more initially, but the security and benefits are generally considered to be worth it.
Activities and Entrance Fees
Before setting out on a trip, I try and put together a list of must-see and must-do items. Then, I use that list to research what they will likely cost me, and I use that to budget X-amount of money toward these activities.
Doing this beforehand also means I won't be blindly spending money on activities that are on the lower-end of what I want to do, and potentially puts me at risk for blowing through my budget before doing what I'm most excited about.
Thanks to the internet, it's easy enough to contact tour operators and tourism offices before even leaving my front door. This the best way to gather activity price lists, entrance fees and/or permits, and to compare costs and get a rough idea of what I can expect to spend. If I'm lucky, I'll be able to cover everything I want to do. If not, I'll create and "A" list and a "B" list of activities, and if I have leftover cash after my "A" list, then I can explore some other options on the "B" list.
This doesn't mean that you have to know everything you want to do before you get to your destination. For long-term trips or people who like to wing it, it just isn't realistic. But it's a good idea to have a vague idea of how much "fun stuff" generally costs at your destination so you don't find without enough cash to participate in some of the activities that drew you to that region in the first place.
The cost of public transportation can vary widely across the world; it doesn't really need to be said that a train in Japan won't cost the same as a public bus in Uganda. Therefore, depending on where you decide to go, transport can turn into a significant portion of your budget.
When planning your trip, piece together a few locations you know you want to travel to, and see what connecting transport is available. Through the internet, you can likely gauge at least an idea of what these modes of transport cost. For example, if you're planning to take trains through Europe, use websites such as www.EurRail.com to get price estimates.
In some places, you might find that it's more time and cost effective to just rent your own car. If so, it's worth contacting global agencies (such as Europcar or Avis) as well as locally based companies to get quotes. Keep in mind, though, that with this method you'll need to consider price of gas and distance you plan to travel.
INSIDE TIP: Several countries in Europe, such as Switzerland, offer discounted train passes for students, or people under certain ages, or people traveling on their trains consistently. Check out your destination's official tourism pages to see if any information is available on discounts.
Depending on where you're traveling and your comfort level with camping, staying at campsites tends to be an extremely budget-friendly option. Some travelers use apps and websites such as iOverlander to find free places to stay (which may or may not be illegal in certain countries, so do your own research and risk-assessment).
While you don't have to book all your accommodations beforehand, having a general idea of what places cost will give you a good rough estimate to work with. Then, if you have any leftover cash, you can treat yourself now and then to an upgraded place to stay - who doesn't like that?
Food is one of the toughest things to budget for as it can not only vary widely day-to-day, but it's also very difficult to predict food prices of every restaurant you'll eat at, or grocery store you'll visit.
Generally speaking, if I'm on a tight budget, I make it a goal of mine to plan to cook most of my meals while traveling. No matter where in the world I am, a bag of rice, tin of beans, jar of pasta sauce, bag of pasta, etc, is unlikely to shock me with a steep prices. If I'm planning to cook my own meals, this is something I can prepare for and be more in control of.
Looking for an accommodation that has a kitchen can allow you to be much more budget-conscious. You can stretch a $3 bag of pasta and $4 bag of marinara sauce over the course of 3 dinners, and you can transform a $2 loaf of bread and a $5 jar of peanut butter and jelly into a week's worth of lunches. A box of granola bars, a $1 container of instant coffee, and a bag of bananas are a week's breakfast and snacks. When you arrive at your destination, visit some supermarkets or farmers markets and pick up whatever is delicious and cheap. In most towns, no matter where in the world, you will be able to find some kind of general foods store or mini-market that will sell anything from fruit to vegetables to bulk bags of rice, pasta, beans, and bread.
Because it may be cumbersome to carry a big bag of rice in your backpack as you move from location to location, buy smaller quantities of these staples, or leave behind whatever you can't carry (some other hungry backpacker will be eternally grateful to find leftover bags of fruit or beans in the hostel kitchen's cupboard). No matter what, buying and preparing your own meals will cut down on food costs significantly, and will leave you with the ability to proudly say that you're living off of a total of, say, $15 a day in Paris.
This way, too, you'll have more money budgeted for the occasional special meal, where you can really enjoy the local cuisine and indulge yourself in a nice meal or night out trying the local bar scene without feeling like you're bleeding out of your wallet. Eating out at restaurants and trying local cuisines is one of my favorite parts of traveling, and a few extra hundred dollars beyond your already-set food budget can give you the freedom to try some pricy-but-amazing restaurants in Switzerland - or, can probably allow you eat out nearly every day in Southeast Asia.
Extras (visas, equipment, etc)
When you're planning your trip, be sure you look into visa requirements for your destination. Some visas (if required) can be as low as $30, while others can easily reach $200. Be sure you figure this out with enough time before your trip so you don't end up spending extra month on last-minute visa services.
Additionally, consider everything you may have to buy for the trip:
Do you need a backpack?
Do you need special boots and/or shoes?
Do you have all the clothes and toiletries necessary?
What about camping supplies if you're going camping?
Be sure to consider these as well elements so the price of preparing for your trip doesn't catch you off guard.
Once you have all of these numbers, add them up, you have your rough budget. Congrats!
I tend to throw in an extra few hundred dollars for additional, unforeseen expenses (it's better to be over-prepared than under), and you have something to work towards.
How Do I Save?
My main recommendation for people who are trying to save for a trip is to think of everything in relation to what it could get you abroad. Think on a global, end-goal scale. For example:
Forgo your daily $5 cup of coffee (That $5 is a night in a hostel in Kathmandu).
Cook more at home instead of going out to eat (That $40 meal is a bus ride from Uganda to Nairobi)
Reconsider buying a $120 sweater if it's not necessary ($120 is a full day of rating on a river in Patagonia)
Wait to see a movie once it comes out for free on Netflix ($30 for a movie ticket can be stretched over three days in Indonesia)
Some other tips are:
Have a spring clean and sell all the clothing you don't wear, unnecessary household trinkets, unopened gifts in the back of your closet, and other unnecessary accumulating items.
Ride your bike or take public transportation instead of wasting gas in your car
Forgo the expensive, unnecessary foodstuffs you may like to splurge on at the grocery store, such as artisanal chocolates or gourmet pre-made products. Stick to cheap produce, sale/bulk aisles, and staple items. You'll be surprised at how much you save by only buying and eating what's necessary
Open a savings account specifically for travel savings so you don't tamper/drain it.
Prepare at home your own weekly lunches so you're not tempted to buy sandwiches while at work or school. Same goes for coffee: invest in a thermos and brew your own.
When you do go out to the bars or a restaurant, really save drinks for special occasions. And when you do drink, stick to just one or two of whatever is cheap. When you feel yourself wanting to go for that third $12 cocktail, say no and instead deposit that $12 into your travel fund. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
Lastly, if you have the time, consider a part-time job. Even working a few hours here and there as a waiter or babysitter adds up. Of course this just is not feasible for many people as they may already be working full-time or are just too busy, but if you find yourself lazing around on weekends or having wide-open days during the week, get busy. You'll be surprised at how quickly your travel goals are met.
With all this in mind, I'm not saying it's not important to be comfortable and enjoy the interim between trips. If all you do is sit in your house eating peanut butter sandwiches because you're afraid of spending money and it's impacting you negatively, then that's simply not worth it. But by eliminating unnecessary items and focusing on the end goal, then you should find yourself feeling excited and empowered by the money that's pouring back into your pockets; money that will leave you with incredible experiences soon enough.