How to budget for traveling
Traveling overseas always makes people groan because of the work involved to plan it, but also the cost of it.
On average, we spend about $1000/week each on vacation, which is at least the flight and hotels, but depending on what continent and country we visit, can include food, transportation AND entertainment.
This is by far NOT the super uber frugal way to travel, but I am traveling with some basic comforts in mind such as staying in known hotels (brands I’ve heard of) of at least 3 stars, in a central location.
That amount varies due to a few factors:
- Staying in one place or going from city-to-city
- If we have family to stay with
- Staying in low budget, but still decent hotels (around 3 stars)
- Flying economy, with a maximum of only 1 stop for a trip
- How expensive the city is in general (Sweden is more expensive than Portugal for instance)
Here’s the breakdown of how it works when I figure out a budget when I decide to travel:
When I book flights for the cheapest
Booking on Tuesdays at around 3 p.m. is apparently the best time, but I don’t really subscribe to that.
When I book for flights, these are the 2 main factors:
- Flying on a Tuesday (tends to be the cheapest day)
- Booking 6 weeks in advance (unless it’s in the summer when it gets crazy)
Flying on Monday, Friday, or the weekends are best avoided. It’s because a lot of business people fly on those days, and/or vacationers starting their holidays.
For the time of the flights, I HATE early morning or late night red-eye flights.
I know they are cheaper, but I don’t want to get stressed out trying to get to the airport on time when the subway isn’t running, or other factors I haven’t considered just to save a hundred bucks.
If I was saving $1000 just by flying at 11 p.m. instead of 11 a.m., sure why not? But I find the price difference is not that big enough for me to justify the hassle.
Overnight flights don’t count as ‘red-eye’ and being miserable, if I have to fly to let’s say Hong Kong, and it takes 15+ hours.
I care more about arriving at a good time to get settled in, hunt down some food because some stores are still open and so on.
I do not love the 2 a.m. arrival.
How I book flights
I play around with multi-city trips (layovers here and there), single flights added up to see if it’s cheaper than a multi-city flight, and if flying to another airport would end up cheaper in the end as long as it isn’t inconvenient.
For instance, I usually fly from Toronto, but what if I flew to Vancouver, and then from Vancouver, flew to Hong Kong?
That might shave off a few hundred dollars, and I wouldn’t mind the break in between flying Toronto to Vancouver (5 hours), before the long trek across the ocean to Hong Kong.
I also check to see if going to other airports is cheaper. Newark in New Jersey is a popular airport to fly into when going to New York City, but it costs almost double in transportation to go to Manhattan.
$80 versus $40 if you take cabs, considering that they charge a very unfriendly $12 toll crossing from NJ to NY, and it’s almost 45 minutes in a cab versus 20 minutes from La Guardia, depending on traffic.
I’d rather not fly into Newark, so that I can just take the bus and subway to get to my hotel ($2.25, wuh-what!?), although this is more a choice out of convenience and health than it is cheapness, because I don’t want to travel any more than I have to, especially if the landing was rocky.
Public transportation doesn’t trigger my motion sickness as much as taxis do.
Other amenities I am willing to pay for
Exit row seats. The legroom for tall people (like BF) is really nice, especially on super long flights.
I also try to pick my seat so I don’t get stuck near the bathroom, or near the kitchenette areas on the plane.
I also think it goes without saying that YOU NEVER CHECK IN ANY BAGS. EVER.
It not only costs money, you can lose everything.
I have never lost a bag, but that’s because I’ve only checked in suitcases about 4 times in my entire life (forced to).
I always have everything I need in a carryon and a purse, and I pack as light as possible, knowing that
I could….. I mean I may… Okay FINE. I will bring back something. 🙂
Why I don’t stay in hostels or Air BNB
It’s a personal preference. I like 3-star or higher hotels, as long as they’re worldwide brands because service is generally consistent around the world, and I’m not surprised when I arrive.
Plus, if I’m unhappy, I can call a corporate office.
It’s harder to argue with a manager of an independent hotel who isn’t interested in your repeat business if you are unhappy.
What kind of hotels I book
- 3-star or higher (tends to be the minimum in terms of service/amenities I like)
- Brand I recognize
- ..preferably a brand I collect points with
- Location, location, location!
For instance, if I traveled to New York City for a trip, but I would stay in New Jersey and commute each day by ferry an hour just to get to Manhattan, then I am not interested.
I’d rather pay $30/night more just to be centrally located so that I don’t have to think:
UGH. It’ll take me an hour to get back to the hotel, and it’s already 9 p.m.
Then I want to maybe shower, relax… I won’t be sleeping until midnight.
I also look for hotels near public transportation, as I generally avoid taking taxis (I consider it in my personal life to be a ripoff, so I keep the same philosophy when I travel).
If I HAVE to take a taxi, I will, but I am not budgeting for it if it’s a city where I can avoid it within reason.
How I book hotels
I always check the general price of hotels on travel sites, but ultimately, I book directly with the hotel.
I do this, because if you go through a travel site (let’s say Hotels.com), I’ve noticed 3 things:
- They don’t give you good rooms — they have specific ‘travel site’ rooms near elevators or pipes
- You have to still negotiate and talk directly with the hotel if things go wrong
- Hidden fees — fully refundable is not always true in all cases
If you go directly with the hotel, you are very clear on whether it is refundable or not, and you might even get the same deal (or better) through them.
Not only that, you get hotel points with them, so you can stick to one budget-friendly brand or groups of brands, and rack up enough points for a night or two.
How much I budget for hotels
About $100 a night is reasonable as an estimate to start. Some hotels in very expensive cities will jump up to $120 – $150 for a ‘budget’ hotel, and then I have to make a decision to stay there less to fit my budget, or pay more money.
I start by looking at all the hotels in that city, and the price of a budget hotel like Best Western or Holiday Inn. From that benchmark of what it costs, I browse the rest of the hotels to see if there’s something better for about the same price, from a brand I’ve heard of.
Also, please note that BF and I split the cost of everything including hotels. This saves quite a chunk of change in the budget, so when a hotel costs $100/night, we’re really paying $50/night each.
Hotel brands I like
- IBIS Hotels — Part of the Accor Group; it’s a budget-friendly brand I stay with a lot
- Candlewood Suites — This is only for the U.S., but it’s a decent hotel with a kitchen to cook in
- Marriott Residence Inn — Kitchen or a kitchenette is really nice to be able to cook basic meals
Otherwise, I don’t mind staying at independent hotels as long as they are 4 stars or higher — Tiara in Lisbon for instance, is very nice.
Photograph I took in Lisbon, Portugal
I always budget for this, but I also consider that if I stayed in my home city, I’d be paying for food too. So my budget is about $600/month for food (just for myself, organic, fancy schmancy stuff).
I start with that as a base amount, and then I double it because we’re in a foreign country.
BF and I are also not fans of eating in restaurants. Sure, if it’s something incredible, why not?
Otherwise, we’re interested in (clean) street cart food (in China we avoided those carts), grocery stores, and assembling food in the hotel like making sandwiches or eating ready-made meals.
Restaurants are nice once in a while, but 80% of the time, the food they serve you is not worth what you’re paying, especially when you know you can make it better at home for a better quality with larger portions.
We’ve also been known to spend about $200 equipping ourselves with a burner, basic frying pan, and utensils to cook in our hotel room. Not recommended if you aren’t used to cooking, but let me tell you…. we made some delicious, basic meals doing that.
Otherwise, we try to book places with kitchens so we don’t spend $15 on a breakfast we can cook or make ourselves for $5.
We always have a few hundred books for entertainment. This includes museums, temples, or anything we know ahead of time we’d like to see.
I usually research the places beforehand, get the approximate cost of the tickets, and then add a 50% contingency.
As I said, we don’t take taxis as a rule when we travel (even going to and from the airport), so I usually estimate about $5/day for public transportation.
1) Cabs in North America are awful
The cabs are crap in North America, when you think about the Mercedes and wonderfully kept cars in Westernized countries in Europe (even Portugal).
Here, cabs are old, they squeak, they drive like they are learning for the first time, and it’s dirty inside for the most part.
But even in Europe or other countries, I am not in the middle of nowhere that I need to take a cab.
2) I don’t take cabs as a rule
I haven’t taken a taxi in my personal life for about 15 years now.
Every time I’m out late (past 10 p.m.) and I am tired, I will sometimes have a fleeting desire to take a cab back home.
Every single time I think about taking a cab back home because I don’t want to wait for the bus, I think:
But it’s $2.25 for a subway ticket, rather than $30 for a cab ride.
That’s SO CHEAP. I could take 12 subway rides for the price of one taxi.
…then I tough it out, tell myself not to be lazy, and I take the subway.
Of course, I also live in very safe cities, so I am never worried about being hassled when I am out. If I were in a more dangerous city, I’d take a cab instead for my safety.
For business, I always take the cab to get to the airport, or around the city, because it isn’t my money and I don’t have leisurely (client) time to waste by taking the subway.
Otherwise, if it’s my time, I’m cheap enough to want to save that $27.75 per trip.
I don’t want to pay more than what I have to.
HONG KONG TRIP: ESTIMATION AND ACTUAL
For our upcoming trip to Hong Kong, I applied the above rules in this order.
General Base Cost of a Week on a Trip = $1000/week
We wanted to stay 3 weeks, so it’d be $3000 in per person, or $6000 together for the whole trip.
That became our budget for the whole trip.
We then discussed that staying a week in Macau might be nice instead of ferrying back and forth 2 days a day, so the hotel costs might be different (higher or lower), and we’d have to plan the timing correctly to make sure we don’t waste money.
On that budget of $6000 for 2 of us:
- Hotel: $2800
- Flight: $3000
TOTAL = $5800
Let’s say $6000, to round up as we weren’t sure when we would want to go and what we would do for going to Macau or not.
Fixed Cost Research: Flights & Hotels
At this point, I can only control the Hotel and Flight costs. I can look back on my notes for transportation, but the basics have to be there: Can I afford to go for 3 weeks on $6000 to 2 cities?
I always start with the flight, because you need the ticket cost to understand what is left of your budget for the hotel. It came out to:
Flight: $2174.40, which is $625.60 CHEAPER
A full $600+ below what I expected! BF and I then concluded we would increase our total budget by a little, and stay a FOURTH week in addition so that we get to go to Macau.
We could still do 3 weeks with Hong Kong and Macau, but we were taking into account the jet lag which would take up 3-4 days to overcome while in Hong Kong.
Changed our minds and added a week
Now with 4 weeks, everything will go up, including the hotel cost, and our confirmation that we would stay a week in another city aside from Hong Kong.
Our original budget of $2800 for 3 weeks = $933.33 a week
$933.33 x 4 weeks = $3733.33 as the new budget
Hotels: $3834.08 for 4 weeks or $100.75 MORE than estimated
We did some searching on Ibis hotels, and what we could reasonably expect to pay in Hong Kong and Macau, and it was in the range of what we expected.
We ended up at only spending $100.75 more than our estimation at 4 weeks, which is not a bad deal at all.
TOTAL FIXED COSTS: $6008.48
Wow. Not bad at all. 🙂
Only $8.48 over.
We budgeted $6000 for 2 cities for 3 weeks, increased it by a week, and still stayed around the $6000 range.
Variable Cost Research: Food, Entertainment & Transportation
Our variable expenses are more easily controlled than fixed dates for flights and hotels.
4 weeks x 7 days x $40/day* = $1120 x 2 people = $2240
$40/day = My $600/month food budget divided by 30 days, multiplied by 2 because we’re traveling
$1.20 per trip x 4 trips a day x 4 weeks x 7 days = $134.40 x 2 people = $268.80
TOTAL ESTIMATED VARIABLE COSTS: $3008.80
Let’s say $3000.
This still doesn’t include shopping, however 😉
TOTAL ESTIMATED TRIP COST: $9008.48 for 2 people
$6008.48 + $3000 = $9008.48 for the 2 of us
Each person, it’s about $4504.24 for 4 weeks in Hong Kong and Macau.
$4504.24 x 4 weeks = $1126.06
That’s just around the average of $1000/week (slightly higher, as the $1K is a rough estimate) per person traveling overseas, the way we do it.
What contributes to that extra $126.06 a week is:
- we decided to take a very nice hotel for part of the time
- for the month of October, the IBIS hotel was sold out on the weekends, which monkey wrenched our timing slightly.
I’ll update once we actually go on the trip to say what we spent.
- Google Online Matrix Flight Fare
- Hotels.com (Owned by Expedia, just for checking rates, and/or booking through them or not)