You know you’ll need money for a big trip abroad – but how to figure out how much you’ll need and what you’ll spend it on? Here are a few pointers to help you plan out your budget for a backpacking trip
Budget © gotcredit
This is a sort of follow-up to my previous article Seven Reasons For Travelling Solo. Once you’ve decided to go on a backpacking trip, alone or accompanied, it’s easy to get misty-eyed about the amazing adventures you’ll enjoy. At some point though, you have to allow reality to intrude and start figuring out exactly how you’re going to spend your time and how much money you’ll spend too. Here then are some tips to help you work out a budget for your backpacking trip won’t leave you penniless in the middle of nowhere.
1)Think Of A Number, Any Number
Before you wade into planning the practicalities of your trip, take a moment to consider the big picture: how long you can go for and how much money you can save up before you go. When figuring out what your total budget amount will be, be brutally realistic with yourself. Don’t dream up a money saving scheme that will require you to live like a Trappist monk for six months before you leave. The figure you come up with must be comfortably achievable if your trip is going to match up to your plans for it. Budget travel is something of an oxymoron – while you’re doing everything on the cheap, it’s still going to cost you four figures or more at least.
Once you’ve worked out your money total, be clear about your time contraints. Do you need to be back in three months for the new term, or a best friend’s wedding, or do you have longer because you’re inbetween jobs or freelancing? Work out the maximum amount of time you’ve got to spare before you need to come back to existing commitments that cannot be moved. If you can avoid having commitments, so much the better. Only when the money runs out do you need to come home.
2) You can do anything, but you can’t do everything
That phrase was the headline of a Fast Company interview with Getting Things Done author David Allen, and it’s equally applicable to travel. Less Is More is definitely the best approach. The temptation on first planning is “I’ll go here and here and here and, oh, here too”. Writing a list down helps. Soon you’ll realise that the list is just too damn long. Mercilessly pare it down to the stuff you really care about. Realise that you cannot see everything in a country in one visit, no matter how well you plan it. You don’t want to be stuck in perpetual motion or interminable bus journeys – believe me, the novelty of 12 hour overnight coach rides wears off fast.
Plot a route through the country you’re visiting so you minimise your travelling time (and so your travel costs). Consider spending at least 3 or 4 full days at each of your destinations – that usually gives you enough time to orientate yourself, see the local attractions and also to simply relax into your new surroundings. If you try and pack in too much, everything becomes a blur and you don’t get a chance to savour it. Of course, sometimes you run out of stuff to do after a couple of days or you simply don’t like the feel of where you are – in that case, just move on. Because you don’t usually need to book your accommodation in advance when you’re backpacking, you have the flexibility to go as things suit you.
3) The Magic Formula
If you’ve figured out how much time you have available and where you want to go, then you can start working out how much money you’ll need to let you do it.
The magic formula is:
These are the five key things that will chew up your money. Remember also to budget for travel insurance + innoculations + passport + backpack, all stuff you will need to buy before you leave home. Don’t skimp on the backpack – buy a decent brand like Karrimor and make sure it fits properly and feels comfortable.
By now you will already have a guidebook for the country or countries you’re visiting. From there you can get an idea of how much budget accommodation will cost you per night. Take this number and multiply it by the days you have for your trip. Do the same with food costs.
Total accommodation and food are easy to estimate – they stay pretty uniform throughout your trip and give you a bare minimum idea of what sort of budget you need. I always round up because it’s good to have some slack in your budget for the inevitable time when you run out of luck and have to take the expensive option, or you feel like treating yourself.
The things that chews the money are the Travelling Costs and Doing Stuff. Travelling Costs can mount up rapidly as you move through a country, even if you are taking buses and trains everywhere and avoiding planes. It pays to write down how you intend to get from one major destination to another and what it might cost to avoid any nasty surprises. You’ll also want to factor in things like visa costs for when you enter a new country too.
Doing Stuff is the exciting activity parts of your journey – learning to scuba dive for example, or doing a cookery course, or learning Thai massage. You may well have several of these lined up during your trip and they will take significant chunks of change out of your budget – but, of course, will no doubt be worth it.
This is why it’s so helpful to write the big long list of stuff you want to do and pare it down to what you *really* want to do, as eventually you have to make some choices about what you will spend your finite budget on. Sketch out the general trajectory of what you want to do and nodify it until it’s roughly realistic to go with your decided total budget.
4) Budget To Enjoy Yourself
Some people wear the fact that they’ve stayed in $1 rooms infested with roaches as a badge of honour, or brag about being so poor in Paris they could only afford to eat bread and cheese for a week. These people are idiots. You don’t go travelling to be a martyr to your bank balance. To go to Paris and not have enough money to dine out at least a couple of times a week and sample the world famous cuisine is madness.
Travelling on a budget does not mean always going for the cheapest option. If eating bread and cheese for a couple of nights means the next night you can go to Famous Paris Restaurant and blow a hundred bucks on a meal, then you’ve hit the balance. Don’t so grossly underestimate your budget that you wind up depriving yourself of the very things you went travelling to experience. For sure you can’t afford to wildly spend money every night, but equally you should have some money that will let you mix up frugality and extravangance on the road. A single night in a four star hotel can do wonders for restoring your body and spirit.
You are not on some sort of endurance test and you have nothing to prove to anyone else. If you come home a few weeks early because you’ve run out of money but had a blast, then you’ve succeeded completely in having a great trip.
Don’t stay for all the time you have if you can’t afford it. If you can only go to Thailand or Ecuador for 3 weeks on the budget you’ve got, but with that budget you can see the things you really want to see and you’ve got a bit of cash for some good nights out and great mini-adventures, you will have such a better time than if you try and stretch it out over six weeks by only eating noodles every night and staying in roach motels.
5) Ensure You Have A Back Up Line Of Credit
Sometimes you will encounter problems when travelling. Throwing money at problems is the best way to make them go away. This is particularly true in emergencies, and it’s a good idea to have a back up line of credit in case something goes wrong. A credit card is the obvious choice. If you haven’t got one yourself (or can’t/won’t get one), ask your parents or siblings if they will add you to one of their credit card accounts – with the proviso that you’ll only use it in emergencies and let them know immediately about any purchases. This involves trust, but it’s also a good way to let your parents feel like they’re actively doing something to take care of you. Ensure that the card is Visa or Mastercard (I’d say that Visa tends to be accepted more widely) and that you know the PIN number of the card too.
6) Investigate Working During Your Trip Before You Go
If you have a good stretch of free time – six months or more – then you may already been thinking about working while travelling. Working abroad is the most obvious way of extending your travelling time and also experiencing life as a local rather than a tourist. If you want to get a job when you’re travelling, actively research it and pursue it before you leave home to massively increase your chances of getting something decently paid and interesting to do.
Teaching English is the job most universally accessible to native English speakers in Asia and South America that often requires little qualifications or experience, but salaries fluctuate wildly as a result. See Travelhappy’s previous articles on Teaching English in Japan, Teaching English in Thailand and Teaching English in Korea for in-depth information.
People with bar work experience have a headstart, and if you’re a PADI Divemaster or Instructor you might be able to get freelance scuba diving work. But be bluntly realistic with yourself – thousands of people are clamouring for these sorts of casual jobs each year, so they are unlikely to fall in your lap. Do your research, try and contact companies ahead of time, and know what paperwork they expect of you for you to work legally. Don’t expect to just turn up and get a job, especially if you don’t have much cash – the only jobs that are easy to get are the ones which are low paid and backbreaking work.
Some skilled professions, like nurses, are in demand virtually everywhere in the world, and open the door to the prospect of living long term abroad. It’s worth researching your own skill set and seeing if anything is available – you never know what you might find on a job board somewhere.
7) Make Your Budget Plan – Then Throw It Away
So, by now you’ve figured out your list, you’ve figured out how much it will roughly cost, and you’ve figured out what you can actually afford, somehow bringing the cost vs what you can afford into line with each other. This is your default plan – as you go travelling, you’ll run into to people who may well persuade you to do stuff that you hadn’t even thought about and certainly hadn’t put in your budget. But your forward planning still works in your favour, because by now you’ll be used to quickly estimating how much time and money a weeklong excursion to Vietnam from Cambodia, say, is going to cost you. You swop out some of your plan, drop in the new thing according to the Magic Formula, and take it from there. Flexibility is the key. Your budget plan is simply a guide to one way of conducting your travels – you can continue to change it from day to day and travel as you wish. Provided you don’t lose complete touch with reality, your travel budget will be able to take you wherever you want.