5 Tips for Planning a Trip on a Budget

The most common response I receive from friends and family who follow my travels is “How?” How do I have the money? How do I have the time? How do I choose where to go? And how can they do the same. I always answer, “Because I can. And you can too.”

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In all reality, anyone can travel at anytime. Yes, we have work, family, pet, school, and many more obligations, but the truth is, you can do it. The tools are out there, you just have to use them! With that in mind, my goal is make sure that every person I meet or that reads this blog takes away this fact: traveling is achievable.

I try to be as transparent as possible with the way I plan my travels. I want all of you to be able to travel too! Over just the past two years, I’ve traveled to Europe four times, Africa twice, and the Caribbean once, and I have three more international trips in the books for later this year and early next year. This is how I do it.

Be flexible on time and place to find affordable airfare

This is the absolute, number one thing you must do in order to travel and not burn holes in your pockets. If you are flexible on the time and place, you can find a complete steal on your plane ticket. Below is the list of roundtrip plane tickets that I have purchased from cities in the US (specifically Texas) and the difference between intentional and spontaneous buys (all tickets were bought through major US or European airlines):

  • Austin to London–January 2016, intentional–60,000 Delta points (roughly $600)
  • Houston to Milan–March 2016, intentional–$800
  • Houston to Cape Town–July 2016, intentional–$1,500
  • Houston to Lisbon–October 2016, spontaneous–$400
  • Austin to Lima–July 2017, intentional–$575
  • San Antonio to Nice–October 2017, spontaneous–$460
  • Austin to Tallinn – February 2018, spontaneous – $450

All of my spontaneous trips were booked the day I was alerted of an airline sale (more about that in the next tip) and all are under $460, roundtrip. Your flight is going to be your biggest expense (or it should be), and thus is the best opportunity you have to save money. Give yourself at least four to six months in advance of when you want to travel and set travel alerts for major cities in the general area (continent or country) that you want to visit. Tying into my next tip:

Only buy flights on sale

Just like clothes, flights also go on sale! If I can help it (as in, there are not definite plans to be in a specific location at a particular time), I only buy flights on sale. Or, if I know that I am going to need a ticket for a particular place, I set my alerts for that location ASAP. Here is the extremely easy, totally worth it way to find sales: sign up for Scott’s Cheap Flights. It’s $15 dollars every six months and $30 for the year (as of April 2017). Try it first for six months and sign on for more if you like it! And you will.

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How it works: You pick the regions you are interested in traveling to, and Scott sends you email alerts when these locations go on sale. Scott’s Cheap Flights has been my game changer. Not only have I set up alerts for locations all over the world, I usually see 3-5 deals A DAY, and for popular, normally expensive places. I have also traveled to places I never thought to go, but bought the ticket because it was so affordable! See, flexibility FTW. If I had booked those tickets at their lowest available price during the same timeframe, I would have paid $1,824 more dollars. That $30 a year is definitely money well spent.

Decide what type of trip you want

Answer yourself this: do I want to explore just the city I’m flying into, or do I want to explore the entire country/state and/or surrounding countries/states? This is a big decision! Traveling to multiple cities will increase your transportation costs, and possibly your lodging and activities costs as well. This decision also will determine how light you pack and if you need to allocate additional funds to baggage fees.

If you decide on exploring more than just the one city, start researching and looking into the best ways to get around the country/state/continent. In Italy, it was via train. For my Lisbon trip, I booked additional flights to Madrid and Marrakech. These additional means of travel will only increase in price as the date of your trip approaches, so it’s better to book as soon as you can after you book your destination flight. Also, be prepared for exhaustion. Traveling multiple days during a trip will wear on you (I was on a train six out of the ten days I was in Italy and on a plane six out of the nine days I was in Portugal, Spain, and Morocco), so don’t take the decision lightly.

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If you decide to stay in the one city, PLEASE for the love of God have a drink and a massage for me. #kthxbye.

Shop lodging

Once you have your destination city(ies), research lodging. This can generally be a time-consuming process, however taking the time to compare prices will allow you to find the cheapest and safest lodging. I look into hostels, hotels, and Airbnbs. For solo trips, hostels and hotels will be cheaper than Airbnbs, but if you are traveling with a group, I have found Airbnb to be the least expensive option (since you will be splitting the cost). For hostels, I go to http://www.hostelworld.com. Hostelworld allows you to focus on the things that are the most important to you like security, great WiFi, and price. They also have plenty of honest reviews for every location they host, and these reviews have been the make or break decision for me many times. Equally, for hotels, I go to https://www.hotels.com/. For both websites, you pay a small deposit through the website and the remainder of your balance at the hostel or hotel, which is a great opportunity to book your lodging and save up for it in the months before your trip. Note: most European cities have a tourist city tax (usually €2-5 a night) that you will need to add in addition to your quoted price.

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Be realistic about your spending

Many times I have thought, “I’ll skip breakfast or eat a protein bar,” only to walk out of my hotel and into a small, delightfully smelling bakery shop. Or rather, I’ll treat myself to multiple expensive dinners (dammit swordfish!) because “I’m on vacation.” Be realistic about who you are and what you want while you are on vacation. I love buying my friends and family (including extended aunt and uncles) treats from the places I’ve been. I usually spend more money on souvenirs for other people than I do for myself. So I budget for that. It’s better to know what you will splurge on before you vacation so you can plan for it instead of stressing about it after the fact. It sounds easy and obvious, yet it has taken me multiple trips and credit card debt to really make planning for extra spending a priority. Treat yo self without regretting yo self.

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Going on a trip and have planning questions? Leave a comment below!

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