Travel can be expensive, particularly if you have a penchant for international destinations. Saving for these trips isn’t always easy, and plenty of travelers budget their finances before and during their vacations. Of course, there are the backpackers who claim you can have a great time traveling for months on end on only $15 a day (yes, it is possible, but I don’t want to travel like that).
The internet is filled with advice on how to save on travel — from stories about budgeting during the year and the best times to book a flight to the best ways to save a few dollars at a destination. I’ve even discussed the value of avoiding foreign transaction fees. Some of that advice is useful, particularly if it recommends cutting costs without cutting down on the fun.
But then there are the articles that are worthless or shameful or worse. Look no further than Suze Orman’s advice that quitting coffee will make you a millionaire (it might also make you miserable).
I’m not an expert on budget travel or personal finance. But I have had to live on tight budgets — I’ve never made much money, particularly in relation to the cost of living in New Jersey. I have found ways to not spend the money I earn and to make a little extra. Over the last several years, I have had a second job just in case; that additional work has covered my weekends out and then some. It has also helped when I didn’t have a full-time job. But it’s not something that everyone can do — taking on additional work can be stressful and lead to burnout.
The advice that always gets me is the played-out line that you need to give up on going out for coffee. It’s amazing how much money that will save you over the next 20 years!
Sure, you shouldn’t go out for coffee every day. That becomes a real expense when it’s daily, but it doesn’t mean you should never go out for coffee. I prefer making my own coffee, but I also enjoy going out to a cafe every now and then — it’s a treat that helps me relax, and those moments can make people happier, which can translate to being more productive.
The same goes for having a drink after work or on weekends.
I’ll admit that I have cut down significantly on my drinking over the past six months, though I really wasn’t drinking that much for the last few years (you wouldn’t know it from the stories I write). When I worked online and traveled around, I went out for a drink or two after work just so I could be outside. Several months ago, I realized I wasn’t enjoying my time in the local bars all that much, so I decided to go less often. I also stopped having a beer at home after work. The near-nightly beer alone saved me about $16 per week. Drinking less at the bars meant that I had more money to go out to eat once a week, so I wasn’t actually saving much more.
And that brings us to the habit of eating out. I saw this with my coworkers — they’d spend $8-10 every day on lunches. Meanwhile, I made my meals for the week on Sunday night. I typically made six or seven meals at once for about $15 total, and almost everyone commented on how good my lunches looked. And those meals were healthy and tasty. I also made some rather boring cheap meals for dinner because I was lazy after getting home. But that also translated into a pleasurable experience when eating out. Why would I want to eat a mediocre meal out anyway?
When I worked in Taipei, I was asked why I brought my lunch every day when the street vendors outside the office were so cheap. My reply was that my lunches were a lot healthier than those cheap vendors. I also didn’t like most of the food that was sold on the street. Overall, cooking at home cost about the same as eating street food; I might have saved a dollar or two each week.
I saved a lot more cooking while working in Tokyo and Seoul than anywhere else — eating out every day in both cities would’ve been expensive, even for the cheaper meals. Even cooking wasn’t cheap, but it saved quite a bit that I could use for eating better meals on the weekends while sightseeing. Again, it made those meals out more of a special experience.
One recent piece of advice I saw printed in Market Watch was that, specifically women, spend too much on shoes. I was taught that high-quality shoes are important, and I’m willing to spend more on a good pair of shoes that will last a long time, like my Red Wing boots, which coincidentally finally need to be re-soled after 15 years.
The fact is that the little things in life aren’t going to make a huge difference in your savings. Cutting back a little here and there can make you realize what you want and what you need, which can bring you closer to savings goals for travel.
And while traveling around the world there are ways to cut costs and save time. In tourist hotspots, it’s important to purchase tickets ahead of time to skip the line. Sometimes those advance tickets are also less expensive. And a lot of cities have combo tickets that provide discounts on most of the sights you want to see. Sure, there might be a few duds in the package, but it’s usually worthwhile overall if you do the research.
Transportation passes are particularly good for travelers, but they are not always cheaper. For tourists who are only taking a couple trips on the subway each day, those multi-day passes aren’t less expensive than paying a fare for each trip. But if you plan on taking four or more trips on the subway, those passes will save a few bucks.
Communication is another way to save while traveling. Most of the time I just skip getting a local SIM card or pocket Wi-Fi device because I don’t see it as a necessity. But I also know that those same products are cheaper outside the airport — it’s about $8 per day for pocket Wi-Fi at the airports in Japan, but my hostel in Tokyo had it for $4. Of course, in South Korea, you have to be in the country for three days before you can get a SIM card at a local shop (unless rules have changed since I was there).
The most important lesson I’ve learned after all these years is to live without and make intentional purchases when necessary. I’ve realized that I don’t need a lot of space to live — I don’t need to buy as much. There are things I want — I’d love to have a new camera — but I delay the gratification until it becomes a necessity.
I won’t tell anyone to make a budget and stick to it, though you should know about how much you spend each month. Detailed budgeting can create stress. I’m aware of how much money I have and how much I spend, but I don’t count every dollar spent. I can make rough estimates. It’s about making mindful decisions to reach those savings goals.
If you’ve trained yourself to make mindful purchasing decisions, it’s easier to enjoy life and save a bit for travel.