This is a long overdue post, but I’m happy to be back into the writing circuit after catching a bit of a bug at the latter end of my vacation. If you didn’t know, I was recently in Bolivia and Peru! And this week, I will be breaking down exactly how much I spent on vacation and share my 8 underrated ways to stick to your travel budget.
Traveling is actually a really interesting topic for me because I come at it from not only a budget traveler perspective (I’ve been to 30+ countries over 6 continents), or an ex-travel blogger perspective (see: The Blogging Diaries), but also as someone who has worked in the travel/tourism industry for 7 years. I struggle with many things in life but creating an travel itinerary is not one of them. I did it for myself on a shoe-string budget and have done it for hundreds of clients on budgets that ranged from a few thousand dollars to $100,000+. I’m not exaggerating.
So in this post, I’ll be sharing exactly how you can stay on budget, with my own example!
I recently went to Bolivia for a tour of the salt flats (and we got to see it in both the wet and dry conditions!!!) and to Peru to hike the Inca trail.
In total, I spent $3,761.26 CAD (approx. $2,828.81 USD). Here’s how it broke down:
|Flights||$1588.50||I had originally planned to take 8 flights in total, but one of our flights got canceled (and they just sent us directly to our next destination) so it ended up being 7 flights. This price included 5 international flights and 2 domestic flights.|
|Tours||$1368.11 (Including Tips)||The biggest chunk of this expense was also the main reason for the trip: Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. In addition, we also did a 2 day Salt Flat tour in Uyuni, Bolivia, and hiked Rainbow Mountain and Red Mountain Valley.|
|Accommodations||$289.25||To be fair, many of the tours covered our accommodations, so this was the cost of one hotel and 8 nights in multiple AirBnBs.|
|Misc.||$515.40||This was the cost of all the food, walking tours, transportation (Ubers and overnight buses) I spent on the trip. The only cost that was not factored in was my birthday dinner (which my partner paid for).|
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, I wanted to share with you all the ways the ways I stayed on budget during this trip and still ended up having a fantastic time. And instead of just giving you tidbits of vague/general tips, I will be using my own vacation as an example.
Let’s get started.
1. Do Your Research To Create A Realistic Budget
Staying on budget starts with creating a realistic budget.
Here are three areas I look into to ensure that I have a well-rounded idea of how much any trip will cost.
i) The Exchange Rate of the Country/Destination
As someone who’s worked in the travel industry, I see this all the time – People choose expensive destinations and then have unrealistic expectations of how much it will cost.
This will guarantee that you go over budget.
And what you have to be extra careful about is that currency exchange is a very relative transaction. What may be considered “cheap” to some people of certain nationalities may be very different from your own. So do your research.
Personally I found that Tangerine Bank has the best currency exchange plan for me. Tangerine is owned by Scotiabank and it has a huge network of banks worldwide. If you go to any of their partner banks in another country, you are able to withdraw money with no fees – only with the exchange rate. This was a life saver when I was doing volunteer work in Tanzania and could withdraw as much money as I wanted from the Barclay bank with no fees. And it came in handy again in Peru where Scotiabank is pretty popular.
I love having a credit union underneath a bank because I get the best of both worlds. If you want to look into it, feel free to use my Orange key 44592405S1 for a $50 bonus!
I always use Skyscanner.com and Google Flights (before to clear your browser cache every time you search though). I like how user-friendly Google Flights when you need a rough estimate and I like the different options Skyscanner gives when booking flights (they will search different types of transfers and flight options).
Just because you are traveling to a “cheaper” country, does not mean that the living costs of all the areas will be the same. Actually, it’s almost a guarantee that the prices will vary greatly between big cities and more rural areas. Look into hotels/AirBnBs/hostels of the touristy areas.
I have stayed in areas that a little bit far from the city centre but I’m now very conscientious about the distance it is from the airport and main attractions. Even if you are alright with a long commute into town, remember that many tour companies will not pick you up if you are too far from the city centre. And some tour companies only pick up from designated hotels. That’s what happened to us in La Paz, Bolivia.
And if it’s too good to be true, it probably is.
Money Saving Hack: If you use AirBnB and are you are traveling with at least one other person, make sure you are maximizing your referral benefits. My partner did not have an AirBnB account, so I “referred” him so that he was able to get a $60 credit on the booking we made on his account and I got a $25 credit on my account. That’s one of the reasons why our accommodation was cheaper (my sister also gave me a $100 credit).
If you ‘re still unsure about the budget or living costs, don’t be scared to to talk to a friend who’s been there before or Google the estimates from travel bloggers.
For me, I had a couple of friends who had actually been to South America and did very similar itineraries. One of my friends sent me his itinerary and while he had private tours, I got an idea of what to expect.
While it’s tempting to look at destinations and be enraptured by the beautiful pictures you see online, really think about what your whole trip will look like.
2. Prioritize Your Needs
You won’t be able to do every single thing in every city or country. It’s just not possible.
Unless you’re a full-time traveler (and even then you have limits), you will have to choose what’s important and what you are willing to cut off. And be honest about it.
At one point in my life, I LIVED in Rome and never got to see/do everything in Italy.
The big priority for my trip was to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu and it was hella expensive. The trek cost $650+ USD and on top of that, we did choose to tip. And like in my previous point, currency exchange makes a big difference so USD came up to over $900 CAD. Finally, with tip, I paid almost $1100, which is about the cost of my mortgage each month.
But to me, it was worth it.
You could definitely take a train to Machu Picchu, but I’m an active outdoors person and I love history.
For anyone who has ever booked the Inca Trail (or who plans to book the Inca Trail), than you will know that the permits book up about 6 months in advance. We originally had different travel plans that did not involve going to Bolivia. But those fell through, so we ended up booking a 2 day salt flat tour even though most tours are 3 days, we just didn’t have the time. It was a sacrifice we were willing to make to ensure we got to Cusco with plenty of time in case something went wrong. Another tour we were on the fence about was Rainbow Mountain (I didn’t know how much high altitude hiking I could handle), but we had the time and it ended up being compensated (more on that later), so we doing it and loving it.
It’s tempting to want to do absolutely everything. But be realistic about your time and budget.
3. Create A Budget and Talk About It.
Up until this point of my life, I had always been a solo female traveler. This was really the first trip (outside some family vacations and some road trips with my best friend) where I was traveling with another person. And as someone who’s travel through 5 continents as a solo female traveler, I can tell you without a doubt; it’s cheaper to travel with another person.
But it’s also harder to travel with more people because not everyone feels comfortable spending the same amount of money on the same things.
Before we booked the vacation, I gave my partner a rough estimate of how much it would cost. I told him that with the Inca Trail and everything involved, he would need to set aside approx. $4000. Because he is also an avid hiker (honestly, he loves it way more than me and is way better at it than me), he agreed.
There would actually be very people I know that that I could do this kind of trip with because most people I know wouldn’t be willing to spend almost $1000 to go camping and torture themselves with steep hills.
I know it’s awkward, but if you don’t talk about the budget with your travel companions beforehand, it just makes for stressful conversations during the trip when some people want to go to expensive tours/restaurants and others don’t.
4. Plan For More Than You Need
Sometimes you miss a flight and need to stay an extra night in a hotel. Sometimes you get so super lost and need to taxi home. Or sometimes you miscalculate how heavy your luggage weight.
Always have a bit extra of cash on hand so you’re not dipping into your emergency fund to make up the difference. An emergency fund is for emergencies, yes, but choosing to travel or go on vacation is not quite the same as losing your job unexpectedly or having your rent/mortgage rates raised.
For my trip, the costs went to cover the expense of extra luggage. For a domestic flight I booked, they charged for carry-on luggage. I didn’t know that and had to pay the extra cost. It didn’t break the bank, but it was an extra $40 that wasn’t in the original budget.
Lesson learned: When booking with a cheap airline that is half the cost of all the other airlines, read the fine print.
5. Create Savings or Payment Plans
So once you have the rough estimate of how much you will need to save up, work backward to create a payment plan. How much will you need to transfer from each paycheque leading up to your vacation?
Start a separate account for your vacation travels and set up the payment transfers automatically.
And don’t forget to label your account! It feels so much better to have your bank account say “FUN IN THE SUN 2019” than it does to say Account #2843231.
6. Do Not Forget Your Insurance And Medication
Working for the travel industry, there are things I didn’t think could happen. I’ve had clients in a stuck in cities because a volcano erupted, or because a political riot arose, or a because cruise ship crashed into a shore, or unexpectedly lose a loved one and needed to cancel the trip.
Travel insurance is something I cannot stress enough because things go wrong all the time.
You don’t need to go crazy with the coverage (insurance is also the biggest money making industry I’ve ever worked in), but make sure that you have enough in case of an emergency.
My suggestion (as a previously licensed insurance saleswoman) is to choose a plan with a deductible that you’re comfortable with paying. For me, personally, I could pay up to $500 (and this would be for an emergency like if I was seriously hurt) and then have my insurance cover the rest.
And speaking of health, I think people overlook the costs of going on vacation before vacation. And unless you’re traveling domestically, that can include health-related expenses such as vaccinations and medication. Personally, I like to see a travel clinic physician every time I go on a big trip (in the past my travels would go from 4-6 months through developing countries). Since I was in East Africa a few years ago my vaccinations were all up to date, but I still needed to consult with a doctor for altitude sickness pills, stomach medicine, etc.
I cut costs on a lot of things, but never on my health or well-being. There are some things money can’t buy, like an instant cure to an illness in a foreign country, but it can sure help prevent it.
7. You Will Get What You Pay For
As a traveler, I’ve definitely seen the cost of booking a tour with a cheap or shady tour operator.
It can be enticing to find the cheapest tour possible when you’re on a budget, but most of the time you will get what you paid for. And when you have traveled all that way, it really does suck when it gets ruined by an awful tour operator that has shady (or illegal) business practices or mislead you during the tour brief and then you end up not being able to fully enjoy your trip.
That’s why I can’t stress the importance of reading the reviews!
I personally read through TripAdvisor reviews before booking anything. I really trust TripAdvisor because there are a variety of different people that use the site and you can judge what works for you.
But more than that, the reason I really stress booking with a good company because it will also impact your travels when things go wrong. During the trek, someone in our group got severely sick (and she declined the offer to go back before it was too late). And this really impacted our hike because we had to miss 1/2 a day of hiking due to her illness and then make it up the next day. Although my partner and I are really good hikers, it was still hard to make up because we wanted to explore and take a photo of the Inca sites along the trail (the rest of our group skipped them). We ended up missing one of the Inca sites because we couldn’t make it before sundown and we had to hike most of the trail without a guide because he was too busy with the sick traveler.
It was kind of disappointing because we had paid just as much money to be there and booked this trek 6 months in advance. But as soon as we returned to the booking office to collect our luggage (they were storing it for us on the hike), the owner sat us down and apologized for what happened (even though it wasn’t his fault and his porters actually had to carry for half of the hike).
But he stated that instead of just an apology, he wanted to make it up to us – whether that was in a partial refund or another tour. I was honestly stunned that a tour operator would take that much responsibility to ensure his clients were treated well and were the first one to offer us a refund or make-up/tour. We ended up taking the tour and went to Rainbow Mountain and Red Valley Mountain and had a fantastic time! But if we had a booked a cheaper tour (and there were those options), I knew that the porters would be poorly compensated and I can pretty much guarantee you they wouldn’t have responded similarly.
Lastly, as someone who has worked in tourism, I try to book with companies that pay and treat the staff and environment well. I’m a big proponent of responsible and sustainable tourism and I’m willing to vote for these travel practices with my wallet. If you’re wondering who I booked with, I used Sam Travel Peru.
8. Track Your Spending
It may not seem like a bit of a downer, but I really think it’s important to track how much you are spending on vacation. There are two ways of doing this:
i) Write down everything you are spending money each day
ii) Take a set amount of cash each day – for ex. $50 a day and a credit/debit card for emergencies.
My partner and I actually opted for the first method and wrote down everything we spend money on each day (that’s why my figures for this post are so detailed). It wasn’t just a matter of staying on budget; it was purely out of interest. It also gave us a good idea of when we could and could not splurge on a meal, tour or souvenirs.
9. Re-Cap Your Spending
Lastly, review your spending habits when you get home.
It’s so easy to just pay the credit card bill and try to forget how much we spent on vacation but really look through your finances and see where you can do better next time. I’ve learned to book with really good tour operators even if it costs a bit more because I’ve been burned a lot.
Even though I’ve spent so much time traveling and working in the tourism industry, I’ll admit, I’m not perfect when it comes to traveling. As I mentioned before, I booked a small flight from Cusco to Lima on a local airline that looked cheap on the surface, but I ended up having to pay for it in extra charges (and a huge headache but this airline made so many mistakes on our tickets and I had to call multiple times to get it fixed).
I’m also an over-packer. Even though I usually travel with only carry luggage, I can still do better. But that’s another article for another day (if I ever figure out how to not overpack, I’ll keep you posted).