How To Estimate a Big Trip Budget: Transportation Costs

I’ll admit it. I LOVE searching the Internet for airfares. It’s almost the first thing I do when dreaming about a Big Trip. Just to see if it’s possible. Just to plot the course on some horizon in my future. It feels more tangible, like, if I just press this little button, I can go ANYWHERE in the world. So this is my favorite step in the budgeting process because of the day dreaming. AND then it becomes like a treasure hunt to find the best price with the least, or most interesting connections (You should all have a friend Richard in Dublin for a five-hour Aer Lingus layover. We went out for Irish breakfast AND a tour of the Guinness Brewery).

This article covers step two of my three step process of how I estimate my Big Trip budgets and answer that question, “How much does a Big Trip cost?” See the intro article and estimating costs per day article to set the stage for this article: Researching and Estimating Transportation Costs.

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

I’ll cover the types of transport that I have the most experience with: Air, Train, and Bus. I’ve rented a car and drove it around Greece and there’s one site I’d use to do this: autoeurope.com, but I’m not that versed for budgeting purposes. Also, I swear I will never go on a cruise ship (another article that’d be more of a vent, but I believe cruise vacations are the devil), so I don’t have any advice to offer on estimating costs for that mode of transport.

Keep in mind that air travel is necessary to cross an ocean, but can be used for in-country jaunts if comfort and time efficiency are key for you. But also note that air travel in most of the world, I have found, is for the richer segment of a society, so you do sacrifice the local-ness of bus and train travel.

1) Ok, so get that spreadsheet out, start a new line and list the long-haul trips you need to take for your big trip.

Spreadsheet Example

There are some obvious routes that require air travel (Chicago to England), but some not so obvious. For travel in Spain, I thought train travel was the way to do it, who doesn’t do Europe by train? But the prices were very high – for Barcelona to Granada it was 120 Euros. Instead, I found a one-way fare for the same route at 80 Euros on Spanair.com.

Also, you can be a little tricky. When I was looking for how to get from Malaga to Madrid, I found that the bus took eight hours and the fast train took 1 hour. I was not even deterred by the 100+ Euro price tag on the English language Spanish Train web site. went to the Spanish language version (the native version), used Google translator and found a ticket on the fast train for 40 Euros.

2) Begin the search. (Have fun!) In the spreadsheet, note what site, airlines and dates you searched for future reference.

A Note on Air Travel

As you can see from my advice and spreadsheet, I play the role of travel agent in flight planning and cost estimating. You don’t have to do this, because there’s another school of thought on air travel for Big Trips:  Round the World Tickets (RTW) and Destination to Destination.

RTW: There are many articles written on RTW tickets (link takes you to great site Boots N’ All travel)  so I won’t go into too much detail on what they are and how to use them. What I will say is that I’ve never bought one for two reasons: Date restrictions and my destinations weren’t around the world. However, the best web site, airtreks.com, is one of the best travel daydreaming tools I’ve found and may work well for your list of routes. And, I’ve heard, tat their customer service is very friend and helpful. This route (no pun intended) saves you a lot of work in estimating costs and ultimately planning flights.

Destination to Destination: I’ve found that with some creativity, I could do destination to destination for not too much more money via air- between and within countries. Plus, unlike American airline companies or budget European airlines, one can make a flight reservation as soon as the day before on international or domestic airlines and the price is not that much different. I was so excited to learn this – I could have a little bit of “winging it” and still be able to fly (take that United!). It just takes a little more work to get everything arranged.

There are also many articles on the best days to find the best prices, so I won’t repeat them, but here’s what I’ve found in my experience when researching air travel: It’s all about the Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Look and Book on these days. I also have found booking cross-ocean flights 90 to 21 days ahead of time in the best. And I swear by Aer Lingus. You can get from the US to Europe cheap and go anywhere from there via budget or Middle Eastern airlines.

Here are my favorite web sites to find the best fares:

  • Kayak.com – sign in to get the dates flexible option.
  • Vayama.com – for international flights
  • Cheaptickets.com – not my fave, but sometimes the price can’t be beat.
  • sta.com – If I were under 26 and a student, I would use this site.
  • My ultimate secret weapon: itasoftware.com – login as a guest. It has a learning curve, but you can figure it out. I like the 30 day view for a very comprehensive view of flight costs.
  • Airasia.com is the way to get around Asia via Kuala Lumpur
  • The Lonely Planet’s list of airlines for that country or region as a starting point. Check the “Getting There and Away” section for your destination. I go here because, sometimes, the best price airline does not show up in clearinghouse web site lists and I find it on the individual airline sites for countries with which I’m not familiar, I find in the Lonely Planet.

When I do the booking, I actually go to the airlines site if I can find the same price. Why? The customer service at the actual airline has been much better than the third party web sites, especially if I need any changes and there are rarely booking fees. Seriously, Orbitz.com, your customer service reps are just looking at the web site, same as me. Where’s the value in that? What am I paying the “booking fees” for?

Train and Bus Travel

Bus Travel in Nepal

I have found that train and bus travel don’t need to be factored separately when estimating budget – thankfully (even I get tired of this much detail sometimes) they are a part of the cost per day. And if it’s available, plan for overnight bus and train trips. Me,  I LOVE Overnight train trips, especially in Thailand where a little man comes and sets up your bed AND they are perfect because they can be factored into per day costs and take up the accommodations portion of the per day budget. Plus, it’s not typical to take a really long train trip and then do major sightseeing on the day of arrival, so those costs are saved for another day. Yippee for your wallet and budget estimates.

Train Travel in India

Bus travel is so cheap, but sometimes comfort and time are sacrificed. Heavily. Especially in Asia.  If your daily budget allows, spring for the AC comfort buses (the word “Comfort” has different meanings in different countries) and enjoy the ride. In Turkey, I took three overnight buses across the country and found them THE way to travel in a place with limited train travel and higher costs per day (therefore air travel was out). The attendants served ice cream and water and sometimes played movies to make the fourteen hour trips go faster. I wasn’t sure the purpose of the David Hasselhoff Sci-Fi channel movie on the nine-hour overnighter bus trip from Cairo to Dahab though, that just seemed weird.

Right now, I’m researching my Southeast Asia trip and have found bus rides going from 18 to 30 hours. In these cases, I’ll budget a plane trip if available. Personally, my limit for bus travel is 15 hours. For train travel, it’s 24 hours (with sleeper). Anything more and I question my own sanity. My friend Annie and Rachel seem to be able to take buses for 30+ hours (see their blog) and can sleep on them. I do not have this talent, nor a bladder that tolerates it.

Now onto the next step…

Ok, now you have an idea of how much the transportation costs are for your big trip, now let’s talk about what  I call “Before and After Costs” to factor into the budget. Figure out Before and After Costs> 

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