With wishful thinking of future trips and to-visit destinations constantly on my mind, I’ve been thinking of the financial errors I’ve made whilst travelling. Because there have been a LOT of travel budgeting mistakes in my time. As I stare at the planes flying overhead yearning to be on one, I find myself feeling regretful for not taking every opportunity with both hands. I wish I had seized the day a little harder when I had the chance before commitments of work and life kicked in. But a big factor that prevented me? Budgeting.
Here are my travel budgeting mistakes and wins so you don’t make the same errors and maybe a handy tip or two to help your next trip.
Travel Budgeting Wins
I admit that most of my travel budget success stories have occurred more recently than the errors. I can only assume that it’s a skill I’ve grown and developed rather than being blessed with an innate knowledge of budgeting!
Not taking the first or most convenient option
It can be easy to opt for the first option that pops up while researching a trip.
I’m pretty pleased that I’ve never (that I remember!) fallen for the Google top spot without looking into it further. Perhaps as a slight sceptic I prefer to thoroughly research every available option to consider the costs, experience, reviews… Yeah I’m fun at parties I promise.
One example of this that springs to mind is when we visited Plitvice Lakes as a day trip from Zadar in Croatia. We were bombarded with endless guided tours, all offering the best and/or cheapest tour possible. When we looked into the pros and cons we actually realised the costs would work out both cheaper and give us more flexibility if we booked the elements of the trip (bus, entry, food) separately.
Don’t get me wrong, tours can be great! The point here is really that they’re often persuasive and heavily marketed, but not always right for you. If you want to be careful about travel budgeting it’s worth taking your time to explore as many options as possible. If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.
Similarly, choosing to travel off-peak can be a money-saver for transport, accommodation, and activities. Sure, you might be at risk of unpredictable weather and perhaps some places are closed earlier, but you’re also going to be met with fewer crowds and more reasonable prices so it has its benefits.
Not everyone has the luxury to be flexible in their travels, such as families or teachers who have a limited window for school holidays. However, as someone that generally prefers to go off-peak and avoid busy places as much as I can, I’ve found it to be a really valuable way to save and have a nicer time. Double win for me.
There are a plethora of brilliant websites and tools out there that can help to reduce costs and find the best deals for a trip. As with avoiding the first offer you see, this is a great way to shop around in a convenient way.
It’s a no-brainer to use Skyscanner when searching for flights, especially if you’re not picky when it comes to airlines. Accommodation browsers such as booking.com and even Google can really improve the affordability of your trip too.
Not only are they great for finding great deals, but they’re ideal for researching different options. I find it helps when I’ve spotted something I like to also look at their own website to see whether the airline or hotel has a special offer only available when you book directly. If you’re really serious about cutting costs, you could also consider subscribing to an email newsletter which is often packed with offers.
Of course, there are also loads of voucher code websites out there. While they’re great to make the most of these deals, I would also be mindful of phishing and scams. Don’t hand over any personal details or bank information without being 100% sure it’s legit.
Being pickier about what makes you happy
There was a time when I would stay literally anywhere as long as it was cheap. Hostels with zero hygiene standards, couchsurfing with strangers, Airbnb’s with slugs on the walls… Some were better than others!
As my budgets have become a little more flexible, my standards have certainly crept up. I will still stay in hostels, especially when taking solo trips, but I’ll set a minimum review rating instead of a maximum budget.
Choosing more comfortable or “better” but slightly more expensive accommodation has totally been worth it. I’ve found that giving yourself the flexibility to just browse other options opens up so many doors. Whether you want a little more privacy, a more luxurious bathroom, or a cracking view – you can be better positioned to make an informed decision simply by knowing what those options cost.
During our trip down the coast of Croatia, we encountered this exact dilemma in Dubrovnik. A notoriously pricey city but one we didn’t want to scrimp on, we browsed lots of options that felt a little less special than we’d have liked. We by no means were on the hunt for a 5-star suite but figured that if the basic accommodation was this price, we might as well push ourselves for somewhere we really wanted to stay.
We ended up in a beautiful studio Airbnb with the most amazing view over Lokrum Island and the Old Town. Sure, the set-up was simple enough but we had our own outdoor space and plenty of privacy. It didn’t feel like a compromise when feeling comfortable was so priceless.
Making smarter travel budget choices
I’ve touched on this already, but good travel budgeting really comes down to weighing up all the options and making smart choices that are right for you.
This is most common for us around transport. For example, we tend to opt for a local bus/train instead of a taxi or private hire where we can. We mostly do this from airports which often see a big markup in prices and for us, they’re just not worth it. Getting around can be really affordable, it just takes a little more planning.
It’s also good to have this attitude about alternatives and options when looking at activities. For example, on our Dubrovnik trip, we wanted to go to the top of Mount Srd at sunset. There are a few options to get up there, including a cable car at around £20 for a 5-minute journey or a 1-hour walk with steep switchbacks. Guess we option we chose… Although the walk was hard work, we saw so much value in the chance to get some exercise, not feel crowded or crammed, and take it at our own pace. Smart!
Making smarter choices with your budgets is a very nuanced topic. We all have different standards and limitations, so always do what’s right for you and the costs you can afford. It also depends on how much work you’re willing to put in to save money. If working out the bus timetable and walking an extra 20 minutes isn’t going to be worth it for you – then catch the damn taxi! No judgement here.
Making up the difference
Sometimes you just REALLY want to do that big-ticket activity. And you SHOULD. That experience will come at a hit to your budget, but it’s how you work around it that makes the difference. Perhaps you cut down on eating out for a couple of days, or enjoy some more low-key activities for a while until your budget evens out.
Making up the difference of an activity that will be worth it can help to balance your books on a trip. For example, we chose to take a scenic flight on a weekend trip to Esperance in Western Australia, which cost us $450 AUD each (around £260). This big-ticket item was SO worthwhile, we absolutely loved the experience. But, it meant that for just a three-night trip we were going to have to make some cuts in other areas of our budget. Thankfully, we found lots of low-key activities that were relatively cheap for the rest of our trip. This included visiting the Cape Le Grand National Park and the stunning beaches in this area.
Travel Budgeting Mistakes
While most of the examples I’ve included here are from trips long ago, I don’t doubt I’ve been guilty of similar travel budgeting errors more recently. What I have realised about budgeting for a trip is that it is a continual lesson that can never really be complete. The destination, your approach to money, and the experiences you wish you focus on all change from trip to trip.
Forgetting to factor in crucial costs
When I went solo backpacking for the first time, I thought I had considered every possible cost. Sure, I didn’t exactly track my spending nor did I keep a routine of assessing my budget. But, I did think I’d covered every expense.
Oh how wrong I was. I think many inexperienced backpackers overspend at one time or another.
One seemingly insignificant cost I had forgotten to factor in soon became much more crucial than I had realised: the internet.
Throughout my time in Australia and New Zealand, I failed to consider that not everywhere would have easy access to free and reliable WiFi. It’s something we can definitely take for granted while at home where it’s a basic necessity for many. Now, this might have changed since I was backpacking in 2016, but on a return trip to New Zealand in 2018 I remember similar WiFi issues in a hostel once again. Had I learned my lesson? Sadly, no.
This issue didn’t exactly make or break the trip, but it was annoying when trying to contact people back home, upload photos to cloud storage, and blog my experiences.
I eventually caved in and bought a local SIM card – something I should have done far sooner. This worked out to be both cheaper and more convenient to enjoy data almost anywhere I needed it. Moral of the story: don’t bother with the shitty hostel WiFi if you can help it.
Being too stingy
There are times when being financially savvy can go too far. I have plenty of examples of being my own worse enemy with money. Particularly when backpacking, the ever-decreasing bank balance never being replenished by a reliable source of income was hard to stomach… Pun intended.
For one example, we once again return to Dubrovnik and the beautiful Lokrum Island, just off the coast of the old town. I thought I had thoroughly researched the excursion, but clearly not thoroughly enough. The tickets came to around £20 per person, over double what I had expected. This annoyed me no end and we almost didn’t go, but I sucked it up. Despite going (and seeing how pretty it really is) I was quite resentful of this increased spending which I hadn’t accounted for. Although it wasn’t a huge sum of money, I couldn’t shake the disappointment in myself for not realising sooner.
The lesson I took away from this was to not let stubbornness affect your experience. I was a bit of a grump and really needn’t have been – and that’s on me and me alone.
Backpacking on a budget was a difficult experience when choosing what to eat while trying to save money. When interrailing through Europe as a student, my friend and I would stay at some truly awful hostels eating nothing but mustard and bread from a free breakfast buffet for days. And you know where that led us? Feeling as though we can and should splash out for dinners as a reward for all our savings. What was the point? We could have been more balanced rather than going to extremes.
I’m also bad at spending money on food while travelling solo. For a weekend in Copenhagen I avoided eating anything that wasn’t from a 711 because it was a pricey destination and I didn’t have the drive to eat in a restaurant alone. Looking back, I regret not embracing the chance to try local food more. However, at the time it was more important I paid for entry to museums and galleries, so I’m still largely happy with that decision, if disappointed I didn’t try and delicious Danish treats.
I have surprisingly few souvenirs of the places I’ve visited which has become a regret of mine. When visiting Marrakech, it was such an affordable destination I was almost competing with myself to save as much as I could while still having a nice time. I was wary and cautious to stick to my tight budget, and as a result only bought one small souvenir.
My friend on the other hand, was keen to enjoy all the markets had to offer and focussed on what those items could mean in the future. This mirrors my experience in Thailand several years earlier too. My friend saw the opportunities to collect memories where I saw the unnecessary expense in the short term. I do wish I’d taken a more considered approach, as I love the idea of surrounding myself with the items that tell my stories. Perhaps an excuse to go back…
I think this travel budgeting mistake can be summarised as “imbalanced”. And as mentioned, how we feel about money while we’re spending lots of it is closely tied to our income levels at the time. I have learned to be better, but sometimes the quick high of saving money wins and I need to ask myself: what value will this expense have in the future? Is it a memory I’ll cherish? An experience like no other? Or an item I’ll hold on to forever? Taking a step back and considering these questions can help avoid these mistakes.
Throughout my travels, I’ve had misjudged moments where being too stingy with money has led to a risk of missing out altogether. There have been times that I’ve skipped an activity I really wanted to do because of what it would cost.
One example was when I spent time on the West Coast of New Zealand. It was a place I visited as a backpacked and then returned to WWOOF. Throughout these times, I missed out on the glacier heli-hike in Franz Josef – a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience that I was desperate to do. But I said no because of money. And looking back, I regret that hugely. What did I do with the money instead? Honestly, I couldn’t tell you. That pot of money wasn’t separate from the rest of my budget so the likelihood is that it ended up going on everyday bits and pieces.
Missing out when I had the chance always feels like a big mistake, but I try to remind myself that it’s still there – I can return to it one day (hopefully!). It’s ok to miss out, but it’s also important to listen to your gut instinct. Is this something you’ll regret leaving behind? If so, can you really find the money for it? If the answer is yes – then what’s stopping you?
An example of this going the right way was in Thailand, right at the end of a six-month trip. We were down to the skin of our teeth with money and didn’t want to take on any big-ticket activities. But on the island of Koh Phi Phi, we were recommended a day trip to Hat Noppharat Thara–Mu Ko Phi Phi National Park. It wasn’t a high price, but it was an unaccounted-for expense. We went in circles about going, and finally decided we would. Best. Decision. Ever. A stunning, magical experience that I am so grateful we persuaded ourselves to do.
On the flip side, I know for sure that I’ve spent unnecessarily while travelling.
I couldn’t even pick out what specifically I’ve spent money on. Perhaps clothes in markets, snacks I didn’t need, a taxi when I could have walked. Then before you know it, somehow you’re closer to the wire than you realised.
Some overspending isn’t even careless, just not accounted for. For example parking fees, park entries, toilet facilities. This is a form of carelessness, as it could have been factored in sooner. But you live and learn!
I would say my biggest case of careless spending was buying add-ons to a car hire and never using them. The GPS stayed firmly in the glove box despite paying per day to have it and using our phones instead. What a waste!
Keeping track of how much you’re spending is a good habit to maintain if it’s something that’s important to you. The cold hard stats will hopefully nudge you in the right direction and help you to resist overspending.
Not setting a realistic travel budget
Despite doing my best to set a budget, sometimes even after calculating every cost I would still end up wondering where it had all gone.
I would say that now I’ve got a healthier attitude to spending while travelling I’ve allowed myself more flexibility. Not worrying if the cafe stop eats into my budget too much. We certainly felt this while on a trip to Iceland. Known for being expensive, we decided to have a benchmark budget rather than doubt our choices along the way. It was a much more relaxing trip as a result and we’re thankful we had that option. We set our expectations of what looked “cheap” “moderate” and “expensive” and actually without realising were comfortably in the “moderate” camp.
Some expenses you just have to cope with. You can’t haggle the price of a flight or a restaurant menu. It harks back to smart choices and balance – not spending carelessly but also not denying ourselves the joy of travel experiences.
Travel budgeting summary
It’s all a balance – sometimes we get it wrong and sometimes we nail it!
Surprisingly, most of my travel budgeting mistakes were due to being regretfully tight on the purse strings but there’s still room to improve some overspending by making smarter choices.
I really hope the more I experience the world the less I’ll make mistakes when it comes to travel budgeting. If you have any tips I could love to hear them!