5 Tips for Traveling on a Budget

Traveling is so exciting! But it can also cause anxiety if you’re on a tight budget. How can you enjoy a vacation if you’re worried about money the whole time? Today, I’ll give you five tips for traveling on a budget! These are things we did for a recent trip to New York, but they can definitely be extrapolated to any destination.

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My sister-in-law surprised us with tickets to The Tonight Show for our anniversary! The tickets are free, but they’re only released at the end of each month, for the upcoming month. That means we found out we had tickets only a few weeks before the actual show. After a few minutes of stressing (0 minutes for Eddy, 825,600 for me) about how we would pay for a last minute trip like that, we got to work! We rearranged our work schedules – thank God for flexible jobs! – and took a hard look at our budget.

We do just about everything on a budget, but sometimes we do better than others. Many of the trips we’ve taken in the last year have been “on a budget,” but we didn’t follow it strictly – it was more an abstract goal than anything else.

This trip was different! We talked beforehand and decided we really wanted to stay within our set budget. We have big goals for 2018 and are working towards discipline in many different areas, finances included. With that said, the very first step to traveling anywhere on a budget is to know your budget!

1. Know Your Budget

After following Dave Ramsey’s baby steps to pay off $21,000 in 18 months, I will always be a proponent of budgeting! (Follow this link if you want to listen to my debt free scream!) It may not be a glamorous thing to promote but it is so beneficial and truly essential to anyone wanting be in control of his or her finances. Before you know how much you can spend on anything, you need to know how much money you’re making each month, and where it needs to go. Excess money (after bills and necessities like food) can be used for paying off debt, saving, and/or fun stuff, like travel! If you’re new to budgeting, you can find lots of free websites that allow you to either enter your income and expenses manually, or link to your bank account and track your transactions. You can also use pencil and paper and write it out – no need to be fancy!

A monthly budget to track all of your income and expenses will help you manage all of your money better. It will also let you know how much money you have to spend on fun activities. In planning for a trip, your budget needs to include everything from flights to souvenirs. If it seems unusually small, see if there are other areas of your normal budget you can reduce that month to make extra room for spending on your trip. Do you need new clothes this month? Can you cut down your grocery budget some? If you have time, save up! I used to set aside $150 each month into a travel fund. That’s not a lot, but I was paying off debt at the time so really only allowed myself trips home and only needed to pay for the flight. If you love to travel consider adding a travel fund as a monthly budget item so you have a stash of cash ready and waiting when you want to take off!

2. Do Your Research!

After your budget is in place, it’s time to do your research. We asked around for ideas of low cost or free things we could do in the city and filled up our schedule using that list. We also picked the cheapest flight and hotel we could find, knowing we’d rather have more money to spend on food and experiences. I am almost always on the lookout for cheap flights, just in case, and tend to scour sites like SkyScanner and Kayak when planning a trip to find the best deal. I also used Booking.com for the first time this trip and found it to be a great resource! Our hotel was highly rated but was under renovation so we got a great deal on our two-night stay and may not have found this hotel otherwise! After flights and accommodations are taken care of find options for things to do at several price ranges and in different areas. Though it may seem counterintuitive, this will allow you to be flexible when you're tourist-ing.

Don’t stop at flights and attractions! You’re going to need several meals wherever you’re going and you better plan accordingly. You can eat in NYC for less than $20 a meal, but that may mean skipping the drinks or desserts. If those are things you don't want to sacrifice, make sure you factor the extra costs into your budget. 

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3. Plan Out Your Trip

That leads me to my third budget traveling tip – plan out your trip! I went so far as planning things to see and eat by neighborhood, and even color-coded a little bit. You don’t have to be that nerdy, but having an idea of all you can do allows you to play it by ear while still sticking to your budget. Sitting down and prioritizing what we wanted to do, where we wanted to eat, all with a budget in mind was really helpful for our NYC trip! Not only did it help us rule out things that weren’t as important to us, it also helped me become acquainted with the city and its different neighborhoods before even getting there. This was a happy accident and it was fun to feel somewhat confident getting around a new city!

4. Prepare for "No"

Number four is a word of caution – be prepared to tell yourself no. I want you to enjoy your trip and experience all that you want to! I also want you to come home without feeling guilty about the choices you made, and the now-vanished extra money you didn’t plan to spend. Don’t get so swept up in the thrill of traveling that you blow through your budget or splurge on one too many things. This is another unglamorous part of budgeting, and adulthood for that matter – discipline never seems pleasant at the time (Hebrews 12:11). Take your budget seriously and tell yourself (and your travel partners) no when you need to.

5. Enjoy!

Now that you have your budget, your tickets and hotel, and your plan for your trip, get going! This is step five – enjoy your trip! If you’ve been diligent with the preparation, you can spend money on the things you want to without feeling guilty! You already know how much is too much to spend, and you’ve planned accordingly to avoid that. So enjoy!

We were NYC from a Thursday afternoon to midday Saturday, with a budget of $1000. We fit flights, hotel, food, souvenirs (which I lost before the flight home), and one comedy show into that budget. It was a tight but we made it happen! If we had more time to plan I’m sure we would have saved more so we could fit in a Broadway show or something more unique to New York. We did a lot of free sight-seeing! Central Park, New York Public Library, the Highline, Chelsea Market, and The Tonight Show made up our "attraction" list. We had several more free ideas, but these are the ones we had time to hit!

We had great food and the most expensive meal we ate was at that comedy club where there was a two-drink minimum per person. Pure Thai in Hell’s Kitchen and Los Tacos No. 1 in Chelsea Market were the best places we ate, and I failed miserably at finding a good Chai latte/London Fog. I still don’t know how that’s possible! We ate less than I thought we would, but I packed lots of trail mix for while we were walking around. I pack snacks wherever I go, on account of my hanger.

What are your best travel tips? And the best Chai’s in NYC?