(This article was originally posted on October 31, 2016, but because our recent budget changes I felt it was a good time for a re-post. A few minor updates have been made to the original.)
I only wish Brett and I had the kind of income where we could whip out our checkbook or charge card whenever we wanted to take a trip, and pay for it all, just like that. For us though travel takes planning, time and saving, saving, saving. All of our journeys are fully funded before we leave home.
However, saving money is only the start. Along with putting away funds we talk about: Where do we want to go and how much is it going to cost? Do we need to save $500? $1000? $5000? More? Is it doable? Realistic? Can we do it for less? When’s the best time to go? Where would we stay? How long can we afford to go away? What do we want to see or do when we’re there? And so forth . . .
That’s the thing about travel: Each trip is different and requires different things and costs a different amount. There isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to traveling – we bring our own desires and expectations when we hit the road, even within in the family, and the total cost of any trip is affected by those desires and expectations. Because we don’t have that bottomless checking account, Brett and I not only put money aside but take some extra steps in order to make the most of what we have and where we’re going.
Here are some ways we successfully save for our travels and make sure we get to go where we want, have the best time possible, and don’t bust our budget:
- Our travel plans always start with us talking about places we’d like to visit and then making a mental list of places we’d like to go, whether we’ve been there before or they’ve been on our “someday” list. We’re not the most spontaneous people when it comes to travel, so we prioritize our list by starting with places and people we’d regret never getting to see down to locations we’ve always been curious about or that make sense to visit since we’ll already be in the area. We allow our list to change whenever new information comes up so that sometimes places we wanted to visit in the past can seem less important as time passes, and other places become more interesting. Some of our destinations, like Japan, are determined by family circumstance and always go to the top of the list. I love this part of travel planning though – dreams are always free ;-).
- I thoroughly research what it would cost to travel to places. Brett usually leaves this step to me. It takes a while, but I find doing research for travel a LOT of fun, and I always learn lots of new information and pick up tips, even if we don’t end up going to someplace I’ve looked into. I try to figure out how much transportation will cost, as well as lodging, dining, and other expenses. Would it make more sense for us to stay in a hotel or use Airbnb if we go somewhere? Is there a peak season (and how can we avoid it if possible)? I love reading articles and stories about how to dine on a budget at our destination, or about a place where we may need to increase our budget because the food and experience are not to be missed. I love learning about all sorts of interesting places we might want to visit, from must-sees to maybes. I know that there are many people way more spontaneous than we are, and when they see a cheap airfare to somewhere they snap it up and go, or think nothing of hopping in their car and taking off. I’m enough of a nerd though that I’d rather do the research about spending our money on a trip, and figure out how to get the most bang for our bucks. Our income and budget sort of demand it as well.
- After the research is done, we decide if we can realistically save enough to afford the trip. We make the final decision to go somewhere only if we can afford it. We’re not willing to break the bank and go into debt just to fulfill some fantasy or check off something on a bucket list. I would greatly love to take more tours through India, and Brett and I would like to visit one of the national parks in Botswana, but know now that these days both are way out of our price range (Botswana is way, way, way out) unless we saved for years and did nothing else. We focus on what’s realistic and doable.
- We set a goal for saving. We like to use the SMART criteria whenever we make a goal, financial or otherwise: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound. Rather than saying “Let’s save so we can go to Japan,” we tell ourselves that we need to save enough before [proposed travel date] to cover airfare and lodging for three of us as well as have enough for meals and other expenses. Can we have approximately half of that amount saved by [a certain date] to cover airfare if a good deal shows up? This is how we can place what we need and when in relation to other upcoming expenses, such as the girls’ college expenses, Christmas, etc. Once everything gets mapped out, and we decide it’s achievable, we go forward. If it’s not, we either adjust our goal or drop it. We typically set our goals and start planning more than a year in advance of any major travel though, giving ourselves plenty of time to tweak things as we go along.
- We have a dedicated savings account for travel, whether we’re actively planning any travel or not. I believe it’s important to make dedicated travel savings a priority rather than a ‘leftover’ when it comes to budgeting. We “pay ourselves” first and put away a predesignated amount each month for travel. We add to our savings in other ways like adding what we save in our change/$1 bills jar (which adds around $800 per year to the account). If we can spend under our budget in any other area, like groceries or gasoline, for example, the difference goes into our travel savings – it’s an incentive to look for the best deals and be more conscious about saving. Rebates, refunds, rewards and gifts also go into travel savings. It adds up more quickly than you might think, and I never feel guilty or worried when we take any money out to cover travel expenses because that’s what it’s for. One more thing: with a dedicated travel savings fund we’re already miles ahead whenever we start thinking about going somewhere.
- We stay motivated to save by giving ourselves reminders of our destination. Once we know when and where we’re going, we post pictures on the fridge, share books or articles about where we’re going, start Pinterest boards, and so forth. These ‘motivators’ can help keep our savings goals on track. They often help us decide between doing or buying something now versus putting away more for travel later. Even when our trip to the Grand Canyon was a mystery to everyone else, I still put up reminders about our trip in places that I saw frequently but that were hidden from Brett and the girls in order to stay motivated.
- While we’re on the road, we track our spending every day. Brett maintains a daily spending log/diary so that we can see if we’re staying within our budget. If we’re over, we have a way to know why that’s happening and we can rein things in, but it also gives us a way to know if we can afford to possibly add something extra to our visit.
For us, successfully saving for travel involves more than just setting money aside. The extra steps we take help us not only be realistic about what we can afford but help keep us motivated to reach our goals and fulfill our travel dreams. Careful planning and saving along with close tracking of our spending provides us with a solid foundation to see and do what we want during our travels as well as the ability to dream about future journeys and make them a reality.