Travel Costs

The Travel Budget Fanatics

We all want to make our hard-earned travel savings last as long as we can on the road, but when Andrew and I got to Indonesia we became obsessed with spending as little as possible, with disastrous results – here’s how becoming travel budget fanatics almost ruined our trip.

Letting go of our Travel Savings

We spent three long years dreaming about travelling the world while we toiled away in our jobs back in London. Once we’d paid off our immediate debts we started saving for our trip, watching as every month our account filled up and pushed us ever closer to our departure date. There’s no doubt that it’s difficult to make the shift from living so frugally for years and saving as much of our earnings as possible to suddenly being out there travelling, watching cash leak from our bank account each day without a steady income to replenish it.

Travel Money

To make this adjustment in spending habits even harder, we started our trip in two of the most expensive countries possible – New Zealand and Australia. Even though we tried to cut costs by staying in cheap hostels and cooking our own meals while we were there, we still had an expensive, but amazing, couple of months. We ended up spending wildly on exciting adventures like skydiving, glacier hiking and snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef; rationalising that these were once-in-a-lifetime experiences and there was no point spending years saving to fly half-way across the world and refuse to spend any money.

Although we don’t regret a second of our time in New Zealand and Australia, we did spend a fair chunk of our savings while we were there, so we were looking forward to giving our bank account a rest when we flew on to Asia and our next destination: Indonesia.

Becoming Travel Budget Fanatics

When we were in the travel planning stages of our trip I remember scouring the internet for daily travel budgets. Working from those and our hazy memories of how cheap it had been for us to travel in Thailand in 2009, we set ourselves a daily travel budget of £30 to cover all of the countries we were planning to visit in Asia. That was our first mistake.

We’ve learnt the hard way that setting budgets before you travel only leads to anxiety and disappointment. The truth is, although you can spend hours researching the cost of hotels and activities before you arrive, it’s hard to know exactly how much groceries or petrol might cost in a particular country. You don’t know whether you’ll need to replace lost items of clothing; end up booking an extra tour or head to a part of the country you hadn’t planned on visiting. Even spending small amounts that you didn’t factor in, such as cough medicine, postcards and tips add up, not to mention unforeseen costs such as airport taxes or restaurant service charges.

So far on our trip, we’ve smashed every single travel budget we set for ourselves before we left the UK. Instead of spending our expected £85 per day for the first two months of our trip, in New Zealand we spent £122 and £99 in Australia. No wonder then, that  we were panicking slightly once we reached Indonesia; we became fixated on sticking to our planned £30 per day (to cover both of us) and here’s the bottom line: it made us miserable.

In order to meet our meagre travel budget for Indonesia we had to limit our activities and how far we travelled, stay in some grottier places than we would have liked and forego little luxuries like air conditioning and hot water. We started skipping meals and buying the cheapest – which often ended up being the most unhealthy – food. We used the cheapest forms of transport possible, even if they were uncomfortable and long-winded. We became paranoid, anxious and agitated, checking our costs obsessively and calculating whether we could afford every purchase. Although we did almost meet our overall spending target in Indonesia it was at great personal cost; there were arguments and bitter victories, frustrations and disappointments; we became our own worst enemies – the travel budget fanatics.

It wasn’t until our breakdown in the Gili Islands that we started to realise how much our strict budget was affecting our experience and our mood. We resolved, then and there, to relax our spending immediately and to avoid setting any more budgets for ourselves in future. That doesn’t mean that we’re going to spend like crazy, we’re still going to travel on a budget, but we are going to eat three meals a day and afford ourselves the luxury of a hot shower every now and then and we’re definitely not going to pass up experiences and activities because they’re too costly.

We do think it’s useful to have a rough budget in mind to keep our spending under control while we travel and we’ll continue to track our expenses using Trail Wallet. Now, however, we intend to set a tentative, more realistic budget once we’ve been in a country for a week or so and can better gauge how much our time there will cost. We’re not going to beat ourselves up if we don’t meet our targets though – we’re not going to let the travel budget fanatics emerge again to ruin our trip.

The travel budget fanatics

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How do you manage your money while you travel; are you a budget fanatic too?

  • Carmel
    Posted at 15:54h, 25 July Reply

    We have 2 weeks left of work, as of today, and this has been weighing heavy on my mind. It’s taken us about 3 years, as well, to get to this point and spending money feels strange. A few months ago I was freaking out trying to research approximate costs for each country and feeling really frustrated and sad every time I did. I felt like there would never be enough money. I had multiple people (who were on the road) tell me not to worry about it. Shawn was telling me not to worry about it. But I wouldn’t listen…and the result was I was miserable. So I can definitely see how your situation arose. Finally I decided that the length of time we are gone is not the point. The freedom is the point. If I make myself miserable for 12 months, is that a victory when I could have been happy for 10?

    Glad you posted this…it’ll be a good reminder for those of us about to begin!

    • Andrew
      Posted at 04:16h, 26 July Reply

      Hi Carmel, it sounds like you went through exactly what I did before we left; I spent hours researching country costs and freaking out about whether we’d saved enough money. All those people who told you not to worry are right though, it’s better to spend what you need to spend to have a good time rather than be ultra-frugal and miserable. This is a lesson we had to learn the hard way and now that we have, the journey is much more enjoyable although I won’t lie – I do still have odd moments of panic over money. Good luck with your final few two weeks of work – exciting times!

  • Mig
    Posted at 17:43h, 25 July Reply

    I’m in the same boat as you guys. I’m trying stick to around $35 USD a day, but it hasn’t been happening. If for any reason my trip ended shorter than planned, I would have no regrets because I tried. I will be scaling down to rice and beans soon for a bit to help catch up to reasonable spending levels. Although, I splurged on a 17 oz steak last night. 😛 That’s a great tip to figure out a budget the first week once you get in country. I’ve been thinking about the best way to figure out a travel budget is to take what the guide books say and multiply by 1.5 or 2 to get a more realistic number with inflation and stuff. You’re livin’ the dream!

    • Amy
      Posted at 04:22h, 26 July Reply

      I’m glad we’re not the only ones having trouble with our budget Mig. Scaling down to rice and beans sounds like a good plan but it is important to splurge occasionally! Multiplying guide book costs sounds like a good way to establish a rough daily budget – I’ve heard someone else mention that. We’re finding things easier now we’re gauging realistic budgets once we’ve arrived in a country.

  • Charlie
    Posted at 20:16h, 25 July Reply

    You’ve definitely made the right decision by loosening up on tracking your budget. If you can’t enjoy the trip there’s no point being on it right! I can fully understand how hard it must be to watch that so hard-earnt cash quickly disappearing. I can see myself being pretty fanatic over counting pennies when traveling. Because I know I’m like that I’d rather wait a few more months and leave with a larger budget then to feel restricted. Perhaps you guys could stop moving for a while and replenish the funds with your freelance work so you don’t feel the pressure of making up for the first few months spending?

    • Amy
      Posted at 04:25h, 26 July Reply

      Hi Charlie, yes, we are planning to stop in Thailand in September and work on replenishing some funds in between visits from friends and family; this will also be a good chance for us to recover from the last few hectic months of travel. It sounds like a sensible plan to work a bit longer and have more funds for your trip – if you can be patient that will definitely pay off in the long run.

  • Jessica
    Posted at 01:54h, 26 July Reply

    It’s true that there’s something very unsettling about watching money continuously drain from your account with no new money coming in. Even when you’ve anticipated this, it’s still a difficult thing to get used to.

    We’ve learned to just have a rough idea of how much we want to spend, rather than counting every penny. Some days we end up splurging a little, and some days we end up being quite frugal – as long as we don’t go crazy with the spending, it all ends up balancing out in the end. And not worrying about every purchase definitely saves a lot of stress. Traveling is unpredictable, and therefore travel budgets have to be flexible.

    • Amy
      Posted at 04:28h, 26 July Reply

      So true Jessica – travelling is unpredictable and budgets need to reflect that. We’re hoping that the last few weeks of expensive travel in Malaysia balances out with a few weeks of cheap travel in the Philippines – we’ll see!

  • Steph (@ 20 Years Hence)
    Posted at 06:32h, 27 July Reply

    Another great post, Amy, and one that I think every travel can relate to in one way or another. On my list of ideas for posts to write, I actually had this very topic about how difficult it is to transition from a saving to a spending mentality, because it can be very difficult to move away from many of the habits one develops in order to build a travel fund for this kind of trip to actually making the most of the opportunity when you’re out on the road. It requires so much discipline and of course, once you’re out there after about two months you start to see your fund begin to drop increasingly ever lower and that can be really scary!

    I will say that probably the most important thing I would advise any new travelers setting out on their own RTW trips is to budget far more than they think they will really use as a way of keeping their sanity when on the road. Tony and I left on our trip with a budget of $100/day and knew exactly how many days we could travel on that. Of course, we knew that when we got to most places in Asia that this budget would be ridiculously high, but that just means that every day we come in 50% under budget, we’ve bought ourselves an extra day on the road. For us, this has been so much more comforting than having going in with a budget of $50/day because while we do sometimes spend less than that (often, actually), we do go well over that sometimes too. I think there’s something nice about thinking you have enough money to travel for 8 months, and then find that because you were so under budget in certain places, you were able to actually travel for 10! Plus, by having that $100 limit for ourselves, it means that when we are in places where we want to take a cooking class or play with elephants or what have you, even if that means we are going to spend $90 that day rather than our usual $35, we still are under budget! So yes, I think the big lesson is that rather than setting a budget that seems realistic based on research, it’s much better to build one that has ample padding in it.

    Based on our experiences in Asia, I would say that you are right to let go of your £30/day budget, as we have not had a single country average out to that low. That’s not to say you couldn’t make it through places like Vietnam, Cambodia & Laos on that budget, but I don’t think you’d be very happy or get to do very much. Even bumping up by £10 will probably increase your happiness substantially. Not only will it be more realistic, but it will also allow you the chance to actually do and see the things you traveled all this way to see!

    • Amy
      Posted at 16:24h, 27 July Reply

      Hi Steph, great minds think alike 🙂 You’ve offered some great advice for travellers just setting off on the road or planning their trips; I only wish Andrew and I had done the same kind of budgeting you guys do right from the start. From our experience so far in Asia (Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines) we’ve also found it is possible to just scrape through at £30 per day if we’re not doing any activities, sleeping in basic accommodation and eating modestly but as we discovered, that isn’t much fun! Since we scrapped our budget we spent a (relatively) whopping £60 per day in Malaysia and are averaging £43 per day so far in the Philippines so it’s balancing out. We may have to stop and work sooner than we thought we would on this more flexible budget but it’s worth it as we’re so much happier now.

  • Steph (@ 20 Years Hence)
    Posted at 17:24h, 27 July Reply

    It sounds like you guys are similar travelers to us, at least based on the numbers you are claiming for Malaysia (which, is not really that expensive all things considered, but definitely more expensive than most of Thailand (unless you do the islands), all of Vietnam and Cambodia and the Philippines too). It looks like we averaged £50/day in Malaysia, but I think that if we had stuck to peninsular Malaysia and not gone to Borneo, we could have done it slightly cheaper (as there aren’t really any other super expensive activities elsewhere in the country, but Borneo sure has a lot!). Philippines we averaged £41/day, but that does not include the money we spent to do our SCUBA certification (though it does include all subsequent diving costs). If you do really want to keep your costs lower post-Philippines, you should probably limit your time in the Thai islands, at least on the West coast of the country. We found them actually quite pricey, especially if you happen to be there during high season (which I guess you won’t be, but don’t do the West coast in the next 2 months as the weather is quite bad). Northern Thailand we found pretty cheap (we averaged £35/day over the last 6 weeks) so head there if you want to lay low and recharge and work. You should not have any money concerns once you hit Vietnam, Cambodia & Laos.

    • Amy
      Posted at 04:08h, 28 July Reply

      Our costs do sound pretty similar – we did lots of expensive activities in Borneo which really upped our daily budget. We’re not crazy about spending much time on the Thai islands but our family and friends will want to so we’ll have to adapt our budget to suit that. We plan to spend August, September and October in Thailand (we got 60-day visas in KL which we hope to extend in Bangkok) so that in between visitors we can hide out in Northern Thailand and recoup some of our costs, or that’s the plan! It’s reassuring to hear that you’ve averaged £35 per day in Northern Thailand and that Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, thanks for the info.

  • Maddie
    Posted at 13:59h, 28 July Reply

    Oh I am such a budget fanatic, I have the biggest spreadsheet known to man! The best thing we did before leaving was do the all the research and then acknowledge that we were in our 30s and wanted a certain level of comfort which was probably higher than the standard budget allows. Every single person I’d read about had come back with an over-spend so our method was to go in with a truly realistic budget for our needs.

    We worked out a budget for western countries ($160) and a budget for South East Asia ($60) and we’ve been completely bang on the whole trip while enjoying the whole thing exactly as we wanted. For me it was important to know we had enough money for our entire trip without having to scrimp or work or come home early and if that meant having a much bigger budget than recommended then so be it. However… we arrived in Argentina recently and hadn’t realised that it was suffering from 30-35% inflation and our budget of $90 per day was woefully inadequate. After two days in the country we did exactly what you do and agreed to alter the budget to realistically enjoy ourselves, sometimes you just have to otherwise it would be a truly miserable experience and we didn’t all come travelling to suffer our way around the whole thing.

    • Andrew
      Posted at 15:36h, 28 July Reply

      Hi Maddie, thanks for sharing your experiences; you’re clearly pretty good at setting realistic budgets and adapting them to suit country costs as you go. You’re exactly right that the aim of travelling shouldn’t be to suffer your way through the trip – at times in Indonesia we felt we were on some kind of endurance test!

  • Rob - Hungry Escapades
    Posted at 07:34h, 30 July Reply

    I can really relate to this post and we haven’t even set off yet. We are completely obsessed by budgets as we save for our trip. Even when we have money to spend we have to give ourselves a little pep talk so we know it’s ok to spend our hard earned cash. (You should see us in the supermarket aisles doing this giving a motivational speech to other, it’s ridiculous!!)

    I think the transition is going to be hard for us, but ultimately I think you guys have made the right decision. There is no point in travelling if it’s all about being a Scrooge, life’s about adventure!

    • Amy
      Posted at 14:01h, 30 July Reply

      Hi Rob, Andrew and I were similar when we were back home saving for our trip! As Steph and others have said, the best advice is to set more of a generous daily/country budget for yourselves to avoid disappointment and just remember to be flexible. You’re right, it’s no fun being a travelling scrooge!

  • James World Travel Chef
    Posted at 18:56h, 15 August Reply

    Hi guys. I think it’s amazing that you track your spending so well, we never bother. We don’t set budgets either. When we first started we had around $50/day for Asia in our heads, which came in OK for the 4 of us. These days I have no idea what we spend! We just spend what we need to spend and kind of naturally look for best value or best deals. It works out OK, no worries.

    • Amy
      Posted at 09:46h, 17 August Reply

      Hi James, sounds like a good plan and if it works for you, that’s great. We no longer set budgets for ourselves but we do still track what we spend each month, especially at the moment because our funds are low right now and we need to make sure we’re not dangerously over spending!

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