Creating a Travel Budget Occasional Nomads Style

(Photo credit: Scott Graham/Unsplash)

We continue to dream and plan for travel in spite of not knowing what the future holds. While our first post-pandemic trip won’t be until spring of next year, doing what we can to be ready remains our primary focus. Since we are not those people who can take out their checkbook or credit card and pay for everything without a thought, we save, save, save and have already started work on setting up a budget for next year’s travels. There are many pieces of a travel budget: lodging, transportation (getting there and back, on the ground, car rentals, etc.), dining, activities, tours, and other things as well, and it takes time and thought to get it right

The first thing we do whenever we create a travel budget is to think very carefully about the maximum we know we can save and have on hand before traveling along with the maximum we want to spend. Both numbers help us set our goals and budget parameters. Once we’ve figured them out we figure out the purpose of the trip and what we’d like to do. Are there things we’ve always dreamed of doing and this is our chance? Or, are we just looking forward to spending time with family members. Are we willing to try something new and/or different? What are things we won’t budge on? Where we stay, how we travel, and so forth are things that will strongly affect our planning and the budget for each trip. The overall goal is to make sure what we want to do matches what we can save, and that Brett and I are on the same page for what’s achievable.

The most important thing we keep in mind as we go along is: be realistic. While we’d love to fly first class or stay in 5-star hotels, we know that’s not usually possible, and we go with what we know we can afford and what pieces of the budget cost rather than what we’d like to do. We always strive to come in under the maximum amount we’ve allowed for a trip while getting the biggest bang for our dollars, but that’s only possible if we have figured costs accurately, and are honest with ourselves about costs. We know it’s possible to upgrade in one area if we can save in another.

Then it’s time to research, research, research. I look at a variety of flight schedules, airlines, and costs balancing upgrades with perks (i.e. saving on checked luggage costs and comfort for long flights versus lower cost for main cabin) to get an upper limit of what our flight will cost. If we’re driving I research mileage and cost of gasoline. I search for what lodging will cost at different levels of service, check Airbnb, VRBO, hotel sites (Hotels.com, Trivago, etc.) and other travel sites to see what’s possible and where things are located. For dining costs I generally use TripAdvisor recommendations and restaurant reviews; we’ve always found great, low-cost places to eat through their site. Cooking for ourselves always saves money, but we always enjoy eating out now and again. If we’re staying in a hotel we try to find ones that offer a free breakfast if possible (although some of those are pretty pathetic) and allow us to have some (simple) meals in our room. We also check how easy it is to get around – is there good public transportation available and what does that cost? Can we do more if we rent a car? How walkable is the area?

It’s not unusual to discover that what we’d like to do and the maximum we want to spend are not a good fit. That means we either have to adjust our wants or increase our maximum. We’ve done both, either giving up some things or downsizing our wants, or deciding we weren’t going to budge on some items and increasing the upper limit of our budget and finding ways to save more.

The very first budget item we focus on is our upper limit for lodging. That amount is determined by how long are we are staying somewhere, what sort of accommodation we want or need (hotel or our own apartment). We also think about any certain location we want to be near and then how far away from that location we are willing to stay. That is, do we want to stay in the center of things or are we willing to stay a little further out to possibly save? In Japan, for example, we always try to find lodging near our son’s home that has room for the grandkids to sleep over, something that affects the cost of our lodging there.

Are we driving, taking a bus or train, or flying? For now, from Hawaii, it’s always flying, so we look at things like the length of the flight, the schedule, layovers, and do we think we need or want more legroom? Are we willing to pay more for a shorter and/or more convenient travel time? What are the charges for luggage? Weight limits for luggage? Will we need to rent a car at our destination or can we use public transportation? Once we’ve researched all the options, figured out costs and times, we set a realistic upper limit for what we are willing to spend for transportation costs and then keep our fingers crossed we find a great fare sale.

Using convenience stores for prepared foods is one of the ways we save on dining costs in Japan.

Food is one of the easiest parts of the budget to figure out. We generally start with a dollar amount based on what we spend on food at home each month and then add anywhere from half again to double the amount depending on whether we’ll be cooking our own meals or mostly eating out. This always seems like so much at first, but having an adequate amount for eating is crucial, especially if we know we will be eating in restaurants, even only occasionally, or don’t know what food shopping opportunities await us. Food costs also require that we think carefully in advance about what part of the travel experience we want dining out to be and if there are special places or dishes we want to try in the location(s) we are going to.

When setting up the activities we many want to do we consider whether we’re going to want to do a lot of sightseeing, explore on our own or possibly take a tour, maybe go to a concert or visit a museum, or whether we’d like to take a class. Or, do we just want to relax. We enjoy taking walking tours, free if possible, and the classes we’ve tried have been great experiences and worth the cost.

Once we have done our research, set the upper limits of different sections of the budget as well as what we’re willing to pay, we work with the information we have gathered and start filling in the blanks. We start looking for deals and where trade-offs can be made. These need to be carefully considered (for example, we almost always go for a more comfortable flight as we’ve found it makes a difference in the whole experience for us). The further out we can book or make reservations, the better the deals or price we usually can find. I used to book air travel early, but these days with airlines making so many changes and so many unknowns booking closer to travel seems to be the better and safer choice even though it may cost more.

We always build in a cushion for emergencies. Always. Besides buying travel insurance, we add an additional 10% – 15% of our total budget as a cushion for emergencies or other contingencies. If it turns out we don’t use our emergency cushion then it goes right back into travel savings. Same for any money we save and don’t spend on a trip.

Brett tracks our spending daily when we travel in a journal.

The most important part of our travel budget? Keeping track of what we spend as we go along, even before we set out on your travels. We tracked every single penny when we were on our Big Adventure because it was critical we stayed at or under our budget. Brett kept a daily log of what we did and what we spent, we saved receipts for everything, and tracked our spending every day. The biggest benefit of doing this was that we could see when we needed to cut back or when we could splurge a bit and where.

6 thoughts on “Creating a Travel Budget Occasional Nomads Style

  1. I find the location that you decide to go to sets the tone for the budget. You can expect some countries to cost more than others from the get go. Reading this makes me miss travel, can’t wait to plan a trip again!

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    1. I agree with this to a degree, but after our last big adventure we sort of feel like “shoot for the high end and then save where you can when you get there” if that makes sense. We found some places to be far more expensive than we thought, and were glad we had planned at the high end, and others to cost far less than expected. But generally, the location and why you’re going does set the tone.

      We can’t wait to get planning and going again either – we miss being on the road.

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  2. We follow almost the exact same procedure for our trips, regardless of how long or short they may be. I find it reduces our stress level considerably, and makes our spending ‘guilt free’ if you will.

    The budget blowers are almost always sit down restaurant dining, so I’m very careful about how many of those we plug in, vs. fast casual dining. We do enjoy eating out, particularly after a long day of sightseeing, so what we will often do is start with an on-our-own Hapy Hour at our hotel, then do an alcohol-free restaurant dine out, ideally sharing a starter, then an entree. Local customs dictate whether this is considered acceptable or not, of course.

    On our current RV trip, which is ten weeks in duration, I preplanned all expenses, and likewise track every dollar diligently. The result is that we are currently on track to spend exactly as budgeted, or possibly slightly less.

    All to say that I hear ya’!

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    1. It took us a bit of trial and error to figure out travel budgeting, but we’ve got it down now. We did OK with dining out, but stopping to try snacks and doing things like eating gelato every day were near budget busters for us, but we made adjustments and got it worked out. I love your idea of happy hour at the hotel, then ordering a small dinner out. We always ask the hotel staff where they like to eat and have gotten tips on some low cost but delicious places to eat in the vicinity of the hotel.

      I am loving your trip photos – what an adventure you’re having! Can I ask the model of your RV? It looks small, easy to tow, and efficient.

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      1. Our RV is a hard sided, folding travel trailer made by TrailManor. (add .com to get to their website. We like it tremendously because it is lightweight, low profile when towing (meaning no wind or height issue concerns, I.e. low bridges or tunnels), and probably most important to us, can be stored in our garage between trips. Storage fees are hefty where we live, and for us the saved money in not paying storage literally pays for our trailers over time.

        Gas usage is minimal. We lose about 1 mile per gallon while towing over our normal mpg. We have all the amenities you would expect such as A/C, heater, bathroom w/shower, hot water, fridge w/freezer, Limited storage, so we travel light. Very easy to raise after getting to our RV or campground site, as their website shows in a video.

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