Lindsey is a money coach who can help you reach your financial goals, stress-free. She LOVES traveling and has been to 17 countries, and she hopes to add Spain next summer. If you don’t know the next steps to save for a house, travel, or paying off debt, check out LindseyWarrenCoaching.com.
Do you have a dream vacation that you want to save for? Knowing how much you need is the first big step towards getting to your dream destination. I used this plan to save for a backpacking trip in Europe, and I’m currently using it to save for a six month sabbatical. Once you know how much you need to save, you will have leverage and motivation to meet your savings goals on time.
The Dream Vacation
The minute I came back from studying abroad during college, I started planning my next trip to Europe. I convinced my best friend that we should do a six week backpacking trip through Italy, Austria, Germany, the UK, and Ireland. I love spreadsheets and planning, so we started our research right away.
Choose Your Experience
Our first step was to determine what kind of travel experience we were looking for. Since we were backpacking and still in college, we went for a low budget trip. Safety and cleanliness were important, but we wanted to experience hostels, street food, and public transportation.
There are a lot of steps on the “luxury” scale, from hostel life to five star hotels, and each option has its pros and cons. The experience you want to have will determine how much you need to save. Take a minute and write down how you picture your travel experience. What three words would you use to describe your trip? For my backpacking trip, I would have chosen safe, cheap, and local. In other words, I wanted to be in a safe neighborhood and experience local life for the lowest price possible.
Once you have an idea of the experience you want, you can start your price research.
Your three words should help you decide between hostels, Airbnb, couch surfing, hotels, or Bed & Breakfasts. Once you’ve narrowed that down, use search filters to your advantage! Since you’ve already thought about how important price, location, ratings, and reviews are to you, you can sort and filter by all your preferences. Airbnb and Hostelz.com have great filters such as air conditioning, wifi, and laundry.
If you know what area of the city you want to stay in, you’ll get a more accurate price estimate. Think about New York city- there’s a big difference in experience and price between staying in downtown Manhattan versus a suburb in New Jersey!
Done is Better than Perfect
Don’t spend too much time figuring out exactly how much it will cost you per night for a hotel- or any of these sections, for that matter. Do a search for your preferences (e.g. Airbnb, Bed and Breakfast, 4+ stars) and location (e.g. expensive downtown vs cheap suburb) and spend no more than 10 seconds scanning to find an average price. If you don’t have specific dates, choose a weekend 3-6 months out.
Remember, this is an estimate! You can refine and improve your budget as you get closer to your trip.
Accounting for your experience with food is important, too. I have been on trips in Germany where I spent less than $30/day on food, and I’ve been on trips, also in Germany, where I spent more than $80/day. Know your preferences, and find out how much you need to make it happen. Location matters some, but your habits matter more. Eating local food is cheaper, alcohol is more expensive, and trendy restaurants can be very expensive. If you’re going with friends or family, this should definitely be a group discussion.
An easy way to calculate your per day food and drink costs is to use Yelp’s price ranges: $ is for <$10, $$ is for $11-$30, $$$ is for $31-60, and $$$$ is for $60+.
If you are flying to your destination, especially to a different continent, your flight will be one of your biggest expenses. I use SkyMiles whenever possible to get free flights. Whether you’re using miles or not, buying early and doing your research can save you hundreds of dollars. To estimate a flight cost for a future international trip, search for a flight 6+ months out. If possible, choose the same season you would like to travel in (e.g. high tourist volume in summer vs low tourist volume in winter). If not, any non-holiday week will do for a rough estimate. For a domestic flight, the lowest prices will be about 6-8 weeks out. Again, avoid holidays unless you are planning to travel on one.
If you’re planning your trip far in advance, go ahead and set a price alert on Kayak/wherever you buy flights.
For budget travelers- be careful with flying on cheap airlines! RyanAir, Spirit, and Frontier can definitely save you money, but make sure you are very clear on potential fees and rules. You want to avoid paying hundreds of dollars because you didn’t check in properly. (Seriously- RyanAir cuts off check in 4 hours before the flight. It costs 50 euros to check in at the airport instead of online, and it’s only available to BusinessPlus customers.)
If you’re going to multiple locations, make sure to book travel between cities as well!
A Note on Holidays
It’s so important to look up any holidays or festivals taking place when you are planning on traveling. On several occasions during study abroad, we found ourselves paying double for a hotel because we didn’t realize it was a holiday in the country we were traveling to. Many museums and churches may also be closed on holidays- one of my biggest regrets on a trip was not getting to climb to the top of the Duomo di Firenze because we went on the feast day of St. John the Baptist.
On the other hand, if you have the money and you love festivals, going to Edinburgh in August may be a perfect fit. The Fringe Festival, Oktoberfest, and many other festivals are bucket list items and worth the money if that’s your dream.
Sites and Souvenirs
Some people like to decide what to do the day of their trip; some people like to have every minute planned out in advance. Whatever your style, you probably have a few events or places that you just HAVE to see. For those must do sites, make sure you know how much they cost and what planning is required ahead of time. For instance, you can save hundreds of dollars by booking tickets months ahead to see the Last Supper in Milan. You can book last minute from a reseller, but they can cost 10x as much as the original ticket. The five minutes of research I spent saved me money and stress.
On my calculation spreadsheet below, I have divided sites into “must do”, “want to do”, and “if I have time” so you can plan out how important things are to you. Add as many or as few sites that feel right to you!
Take a few minutes to think about what souvenirs you want to buy as well. Are you someone who buys a gift for every single person you know? Do you like to collect mugs from each city you visit? Plan for it.
Savings Tips while Traveling
- Use ATMs to withdraw money abroad- they usually have lower exchange fees than banks or airport travel centers.
- If you use credit cards, use one with no foreign fees.
- If you’re on a tight budget, buying breakfast and/or snacks from a grocery store can save you money every day. Picnics or cooking at your hotel if you have a kitchen are other fun ways to save.
For those of you who like spreadsheets, I have created a Travel Budget Calculator to help you estimate your costs. This is a real example of a trip my boyfriend and I took to London, Edinburgh, and Dublin last year. There is a section corresponding to all the sections included in this post, plus an additional calculator to help you figure out food costs based on the Yelp $-$$$$ price ranges. I’ve also included currencies for some common travel destinations, but feel free to add your own!
- Make a copy and save to begin editing.
- Fill out any “Input” cells, using this post as guidance to research any estimates you need.
- Look at Total Budget Calculation at the bottom of the calculator.
- Adjust “Savings per Month” to see how long you will need to save for your trip!
Once you know how much you need, you can start saving! There are two main ways to approach how you save: Fixed Date and Fixed Price. I recommend calculating how much you need for the trip first- I have found that if you start with a budget of $2000, you will spend $2000, even if you could actually take the trip for $1500.
Like my backpacking trip, you may have a specific date planned. I wanted to travel just after college graduation, which was 18 months away. I had plenty of time to save, but I also had a very low income- I was only working 10 hours per week as an assistant. Luckily, since I was in college on a scholarship, I had very low expenses as well.
For a $3300 trip, I only needed to save $3300 / 18 months = $183 per month. I only made about $500 per month after taxes, but since I had scholarships for rent and tuition, I could make $183 work. I did everything in my power to make saving $183 my priority, including declining dinners and parties until I saw that money in my savings account. Since I had already started planning my trip, it was easy to visualize it. Instead of feeling sorry for myself for missing out on social events, I could picture myself going to a show at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London (which I later did for under $20!).
On the other hand, you may not have a date in mind, so you can travel as soon as you meet your savings goal. This is how I am saving for my sabbatical now. One benefit of fixed price is that the more you save, the sooner you can take the trip! My magic number for this goal is $15K for six months… makes me miss the days of not having rent to pay!
$2K per month of expenses x 6 months + $3K as a buffer = $15K
When I think about spending money on something else, like a shopping trip, I can calculate out how much that will postpone my sabbatical. For instance, I chose to take a trip to D.C. to visit some friends- but I know that the $400 I spent would mean an extra week of work. Having that information helped me make a better choice- in this case, visiting these friends is worth it, but in many situations, I would have chosen to save instead.
Saving goal = $1500/month, so $400 -> roughly 1 extra week
If you’re a visual learner, try printing out some pictures of your destination to remind you of your goal!
Savings Tips Before You Go
- If you choose a more extravagant travel style, hotel and airline points will be your best friend. There are tons of sites on travel hacking, but one tip that has worked especially well for me is to pick one hotel chain and one airline and stick with them.
- Plan ahead when you will book hotels, trains, etc. Sometimes, booking late is the best choice because you prefer a more spontaneous trip or because you are making last minute plans. On the other hand, paying more to book late because you forgot you hadn’t booked your hotel is not fun. When I took my backpacking trip with my best friend, we had monthly planning dates to book all our hostels and travel.
- Do you need a new suitcase? Are you replacing your Kindle for that long flight? Make sure to include these in your budget! (I’ve added a section for miscellaneous expenses too.)
- Refundable vs non-refundable: Are you potentially changing your plans? Or are you going for the cheapest option possible? Non-refundable is cheaper, but sometimes refundable/flexible can be worth the extra cost.
The Last and Most Important Key to Travel
Have a wonderful time in both the planning and the traveling stages of your trip! Exploring possible locations can be really fun if you let yourself enjoy it and not get caught up in the stress of timelines. You also don’t want to spend all your time counting down to the trip and missing out on right now. You only get to plan and look forward to this trip once!