Tuesday night was my first-ever travel-related speaking gig (well, I am always doling out travel advice, but I’ve never before been asked to do so in an “official” capacity). It was the first Meet, Plan, Go! New York City meet up of 2015, and the topic was how to set a travel budget and stick to it when you’re on the road. Here are the questions I was asked, along with my answers – most focus on the lessons I learned while planning my fall 2014 trip to Southeast Asia.
1. What was your original budget? What were your final expenditures? And how long were you traveling?
My goal was to keep my total trip under $4,000 for two months in Southeast Asia – approx. $2,000 in hard costs (including trip insurance, flights, a tour and visas) and $2,000 in spending money (including lodging, food and activities). I know that sounds high for the destination, but that included all of my prep expenses – including a new iPad and camera, shots/medication at a travel clinic, and even getting copies of keys and documents made. And I actually used only a little more than $1,000 of my spending money, so – fortunately – there were no real surprises, and I stuck to my budget.
2. What determined/influenced your initial budget thought-processes?
I’ve traveled extensively, and always on a tight budget, so I know many tricks to making my travel dollars stretch pretty far. I knew, of course, that Southeast Asia is pretty cheap, so I was even able to jump on an Intrepid Tour for the Cambodia leg (which was definitely worth it!), since it still fell within my budget. I also ended up taking flights within Vietnam, instead of long-haul buses or trains, because they were only a few dollars more and saved a lot of time. Sometimes I decide to pay for convenience and then make up the cost elsewhere (usually by limiting food/alcohol and choosing cheaper lodging).
Visas are also an important consideration – I eliminated China as a destination because of the $150 fee.
Local dishes are often just a fraction of the cost of Western dishes, and often push you out of your comfort zone (This is fish amok in Cambodia).
3. What tools did you use to help determine your budget?
I consulted various blog posts for suggestions, and searched various sites for average costs for hotels/hostels, food, transportation, etc.
4. What were some of your unique budget “line items”?
I decided to purchase a refurbished iPad2 before traveling, and I also upgraded my camera, which I found on eBay for around $300 (a savings of about $700). I also visited a travel clinic, and that was way more expensive than I thought it would be – it came to $230 for the visit and the shots/medication (Insurance didn’t cover anything).
5. What is the most important piece of advice you would give in determining a budget for a large goal such as career-break travel?
Location, location, location! Also – an important learning for me – you need to factor in how much time you will be traveling solo vs. with a friend or significant other vs. in a group. I discovered that meeting up with friends at different points during my trip killed my budget. I did WAY more eating and drinking!
6. Once your budget was determined, how did you go about saving?
I cancelled my gym membership and Netflix, downgraded my cable and my cell phone plan, and discovered I could actually freeze my cell phone plan while overseas (saving about $200!). These were all pretty easy/painless decisions, although more challenging now upon reentry (I miss cable!). I also opened a new checking account with no ATM fees and a new credit card with a chip and no foreign transaction fees. (See my Travel Tips page for more details.)
Public transportation is a great way to save money while interacting with locals (Here is the “lady car” I rode to Batu Caves in Malaysia).
7. Did you simply cut back or take on another job?
I took on an extra freelance project that provided some extra cash, and I rented my condo out on AirBnB for five weekends leading up to my departure. I also found a renter to cover a portion of my mortgage.
8. Was it a drastic undertaking? Minimal?
As my financial planner says, I “run a really tight ship,” so budgeting and saving is a way of life for me. Traveling always has been how I choose to spend my disposable income, so I maintain a very simple lifestyle and have worked hard (taking on second jobs) over the years to pay off school loans and my car loan, so my only overhead is my mortgage. Also, I started early – I had known I had wanted to take this trip for about two years – so it did not seem like a drastic undertaking.
9. What tools did you use to assist in saving?
I use the Mint app to regularly track my overall financial picture. I also maintained a very detailed spreadsheet with every expense incurred during the planning process, as well as estimated expenses for the trip.
I did splurge on a one-night cruise of Halong Bay during my time in Vietnam, which was definitely worth it.
10. Did you build in a cushion for emergencies?
Not really, but I did purchase emergency medical insurance for the first time (which really made me feel like an adult).
11. What is the most important piece of advice you would give re: saving for a large goal such as career-break travel?
Start early and start small – every little bit helps! If travel is important to you, you need to make investing in your passion a priority, and sacrifice, if necessary, to make it happen. It really all boils down to choices – I have always equated every purchase I make to how much travel it could buy me (i.e., that new coat is ¼ of a ticket to Europe).