How To Estimate a Travel Budget: An Introduction

I’ve had many questions over the past year and half about my Big Trips and one of the most frequently asked is:

“How much do these Big Trips cost?”

 I think the inquisitors are curious as if multi-month trips are unattainable because they require vast reserves of personal wealth. The good news is, they are completely attainable and one does not have to be rich to go on them. My secret is that I work and save for my trips. But to answer to original question – how much do these big trips cost? – I have to figure this out what my trip will cost so I know what I’m working and saving towards.

The working and saving takes a while between each Big Trip, but this process begins with knowing how much to save. And this, dear readers, begins with an estimated budget for the trip I want to take. Estimating a budget is not sexy, it’s numbers. But it’s necessary and gives me, and hopefully you, a number to work towards as I daydream about your Big Trip, especially while actually at work. The budget keeps me focused as a savings goal and helps me say no to purchase not related to my Big Trip (i.e. anything at Crate and Barrel or Nordstroms).

I’ll share with you how I estimate my Big Trip budgets in three articles, each pertaining to one step in the process. At the end of this process, you’ll have an idea of how much your Big Trip will cost and you can begin saving for it (or checking your already healthy savings account). Of course, you can always look at your bank balance, book a one way ticket and say, “f-it, I’m winging it.” That’s a whole other type of wonderful big trip too. But here are the three steps for one with a little more planning:

  1. Estimating Cost per Day
  2. Researching and Estimating Transportation Costs
  3. Considering Before and After Costs

Yes, it’s methodical, yes, it’s anal and hyper, but it’s for a Big Trip, your Big Trip. And in the US, we don’t have sabbaticals and Gap Years and support systems like the rest of the Western world, so take here’s some Helpful Information. Take what you need from this process and then let the rest go. All I  can say is that, right now, as I write this, I’m on my third Big Trip in less than two years and after I figured out where I wanted to go,  this estimation process was KEY in my trip planning and actually saving and then, leaving for the Big Trip. And, in my experience, I was pretty darn close in what I planned on, saved for and actually spent.

Prerequisites to doing these three steps

To estimate a budget, I recommend having access to a spreadsheet program (like Excel), the Internet, and a Lonely Plant book for the region(s) you want to visit (for example, LP’s Southeast Asia on a Shoestring). This process assumes that you are starting “bottom-up” for a budget (I want to go here and here and do this) vs. “top-down” (“I have $1500 -where should I go?” as my sister just asked me in an e-mail).

This process also assumes you have the following in your mind (or on paper for that matter):

  • a list of places where you want to go/experiences you want to have
  • approximate timing of how long you want to visit each place
  • the months you’ll most likely visit these places

The above information is necessary because you need to know what your budget is actually for and then you can begin to estimate.  If you don’t have any idea where to go, check out my blog articles to help you out in that department.

Now, back to the numbers. In these estimating budget articles, we’ll use my Spring 2009 Middle East Trip as the example to help illustrate the budget estimating process. I took a 10 week multi-leg trip to the following destinations and for these purposes. It’s a lot of detail at the beginnig, but it sets the stage for the level of detail and now hindsight that I had to work with when estimating the old budget. And it’s so much fun to relive now that I write this article.

Liverpool and London, England: One week in England to visit two wonderful friends I’d met in India: Tonia and Becky, both of whom graciously hosted me in the cities respectively. For budget discussion purposes, I’ll note that I stayed with these two ladies and therefore did not have to factor in accommodations. To get to Liverpool, I flew into Manchester and took a local commuter train to meet up with Tonia. Then we, along with her sweet boyfriend Tony, road tripped it to London while splitting petrol.

Egypt: Four weeks in Egypt to see the Pyramids, Nile, Abu Simbel, and the Sinai Peninsula. It was amazing and Egypt is very inexpensive and easy to travel around.

Jordan: One week in Jordan to see Petra and make my way to Amman for travel to Istanbul. If you look at a map, you’ll perhaps wonder why did I fly (expensively) over Syria and not travel through it? Sigh. I still regret this choice. I’d wanted to go through Syria to Turkey, but could not, at the time; figure out how to get a visa within the one month of my plane departure. Or rather, I didn’t trust that I would get the visa and my passport back by the time I left.

Turkey: Two weeks in Turkey where I spent one week in Istanbul with best friend B and then a week traveling to Cappadocia region and the seaside town of Kas. For the week in Istanbul, I beefed up the budget estimates a little bit because I knew that B was on vacay from her high-powered job and probably did not want to stay in a youth hostel (I was right).

Spain: Two weeks in Spain to eat fabulous food, drink fabulous wine, and see the Andalucía Coast. I ended up eating tapas in Barcelona, flamenco-ing in Granada, drinking and sunning in Malaga, and flying home after a lovely visit in Madrid because I stayed at hostels, not hotels. Europe is price-y.  In Madrid, I was hosted by my hospitable friends Pilar and Andreas in their very nice, centrally-located apartment so, again, for these purposes, I did not have to budget in accommodation into my budget estimation.

Now onto the first step

When I knew where I wanted to go, I began to look at how much I had to save in order to take this big trip. And this ultimately fed into my decision on how I was going to earn the money for the trip and how long it’d take me to save, but that’s another whole set of articles… It begins with Estimating Costs Per Day…

Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

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