Saving For Travel: It’s Not Just About the Money

(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.

6 thoughts on “Saving For Travel: It’s Not Just About the Money

  1. Wow, we may be sisters🤣. You are so right, it’s not only about the money. Although that’s what I hear the most from the people I know – they don’t travel because they don’t have the money. And I always tell them that actually they don’t feel attracted enough to the idea of traveling.
    My husband and I have a very similar system in place and after so many years, we have perfected it almost to a tee. I have travelled since I was in college, late 70’s -early 80’s on a budget, since I didn’t have a lot of spending money back then. We don’t have a lot of spending money these days either, we live comfortably, not lavishly. But we make saving for travel a priority Rather than going out, I would rather cook at home, buy a bottle of wine from the store and save money for travel. It’s just how one sets up priorities. It looks like you find enjoyment not only in visiting faraway places but also in organizing the trips.Me too. I find traveling so gratifying, enriching and energizing as well. I think that what attracted me to your blog is the title-The Occasional Nomads-which is pretty much how I feel about us. Brilliant!!

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    1. I love the planning part of traveling! My goal is always to create a good foundation, but then much of what we do day by day at our destinations is spontaneous, or what we feel like doing that day. It’s why we’ve decided to stay longer at places we visit – we like the ability to be a little more free with our time, and have more of it for exploring daily life in our neighborhood versus only having time to see the sights.

      We don’t always get to go where we want, but like you, we make saving for travel a priority so we can travel, and have no excuses for not doing something we love.

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  2. Your travels have been inspirational. I have made plans for my upcoming trip in the US too. I made reservations for a car and a few hotel rooms when I will not be staying with friends.I have estimated a daily spending allowance like you did. I will be on the road for a while and I am thinking of frugal meals. I know I will have nice dinners at good restaurants too but, not all meals will be expensive. I also set aside a notebook to take notes and tally up my spending like you do. Thanks for all the tips and ideas.

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    1. The daily diary/accounting is one of the best things we decided to do, and it’s made a huge difference in our spending. We know when we’re overspending and need to cut back, or when we have a little extra for a splurge now and again.

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  3. We have a budget for every trip we do, whether backpacking, road tripping, RVing or cruising. At times I bump into folk who proudly proclaim they don’t have a budget while traveling, and I’m like, ‘huh?’ Regardless of the size of your bank account, everyone has a limit, even Warren Buffett!

    For me, the key to establishing, and then staying within, our travel budget is to do research ahead of time. Lots and lots of research. Our preference anywhere we visit is to walk everywhere we can, hike, bike and kayak as we can, and spend our remaining money in a way that avoids tourist traps. For lodgings we prefer location over amenities, and have found, at least in Europe, that the Rick Steves travel books have the best lodging recommendations. Sometimes the lodgings recommended are truly quirky, but they are always perfectly positioned.

    Back in our leaner years, I planned a family trip to Hawaii, where we actually pre-checked an ice cooler full of food. We emptied the cooler at the condo we were staying in, supplemented our pre-planned meals with daily stops for inexpensive local produce and bread, used the cooler daily to keep our bagged lunch cold, then refilled the cooler with chocolate and pineapple for the return flight home. the reward for all this frugality was that instead of eating a lot of overpriced meals out, we enjoyed almost daily stops for shaved Hawaiian ice, which our girls adored. i must say I’m still proud of how I kept our food costs down on that trip!

    We’ve traveled from day one of our marriage, beginning with camping when funds were super tight. Funds are really not the impediment many people claim them to be. Where there’s a will there’s a way!

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    1. This is us too – we go nowhere without a budget and without having done a TON of research. Tracking our daily spending average is new this time and has really helped us manage our money better on a much bigger travel undertaking than we were used to.

      Your cooler idea and experience is master class! We rarely eat out in our daily lives, so sticking with that is not an issue, but we do want to eat out we usually search out inexpensive local places to eat and skip the high-end spots.

      Brett and I also started out by camping – on our first trip together we slept in my car when I transferred down to Florida because we had so little money. But it was fun and we made lots of great memories. We still need to see Savannah though!

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