So it’s summer, and if you haven’t already planned a vacation, you’re probably wishing you had. One of the hardest things about living on a budget can be the sense that you can’t do any of the fun things you want to do, but I have good news for you–it’s important to take a break from the routine and a great vacation doesn’t have to break the bank.
When my husband and I started budgeting, we were living on his salary plus my school loans, which we had taken out for living expenses. We decided we were going to need more than his salary mostly because he was earning in dollars and we were spending in pounds sterling while we lived abroad. The exchange rate was less than stellar and so were our monthly ledgers. We decided that to graduate with as little debt as possible we were going to use the envelope system, and that one of those envelopes was going to be “Travel.” We didn’t want to miss out on seeing Europe since we were already there and didn’t know when or if we would get to come back. We also knew our families were going to come see us, so we picked a number based on the three major trips we were planning (and a few side day trips) and made a definite budget for the transportation, lodging, and special activity expenses we expected to incur. Practically, that looked like putting about £112 ($200 in 2015) in an envelope every two weeks and saving up for the trips we had planned. That might seem like a big number, but we decided we could eat more cheaply, have cheaper (or free) date nights, and only buy coffee once a week or once every other week if it meant we got to travel while we lived in Europe. It was worth it!
Pinching Pennies ‘Til They Squeal
Having money is one thing, but making it stretch is a whole other art form. Like I said, we planned three major trips – 5 days in Germany and Belgium to see the Christmas markets in December; a week in London, Paris, and Normandy with my parents in June; and two weeks in Norway, Scotland, and Ireland with my husband’s family in July – not to mention our trips back and forth to the States for holidays and weddings. We learned a lot about how to make our money last and we’d love to share those with you! Here are a few tips for how to make your hard-earned cash last as long as possible on your getaways:
- NO Procrastinating – The first, and maybe the most important thing, is to plan ahead. You can get way better deals on airfare if you have time to watch the prices and buy at the lowest point. If you can choose where you want to be in the city (instead of being stuck with whatever everyone else hasn’t booked), your chances of getting a non-“roach motel” for a good deal are much better than booking a week or two ahead of time. Sometimes buying passes for attractions or events is cheaper if you plan ahead. For example, we purchased a city pass in Paris that enabled us to go to the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, and other key sites, but it took almost 3 weeks to get to us, so I was glad I had ordered ahead.
- Adjust Your Expectations – If you’re traveling on a budget, you have to be reasonable in what you’re expecting. When I first suggested CouchSurfing to my husband, he looked at me more than a little skeptically (more like I was out of my mind); but when I explained it was the only way we could stay more than two days in Germany and eat three meals a day, he decided it was worth the possibility that our accommodations would be less than plush (as a note, our Couchsurfing hosts were super awesome and their place was lovely – it even encouraged us to Couchsurf when we moved across the country!).
While you might not be comfortable with crashing on a stranger’s couch or in their spare bedroom, AirBnB is another fantastic option for finding places well below the going hotel rate (not to mention possibly having kitchen facilities–see more on that below). The point is, you probably aren’t going to vacation in the height of luxury (although you might be surprised at the deals you do find), but if getting away and having a break from the routine, seeing new places, and/or spending time with people you love is enough, the inconveniences of budget traveling don’t feel like that big a deal.
- Set a Daily Budget – This was the biggest shift for my husband and I and it has served us so well ever since we implemented it back in 2014. We look at our total budget for the trip and determine exactly what we have to spend per day once we’ve taken out hotel or lodging expenses. That helps us determine whether we’re walking, taking public transport, or able to rent a car/take a cab. It also helps us decide whether we need to plan to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every lunch so we can splurge on dinner, or if we can afford a coffee mid afternoon. This is where having a kitchen in your AirBnB might come in handy. If there’s one or two places you definitely want to eat that are expensive, you can definitely prepare your other meals with some simple, quick, travel-friendly recipes. Rather than “living by the numbers,” we take it as a challenge to help us determine the “non-negotiables” of our trip. What do we feel like we absolutely have to see or do? What are unnecessary costs we might be incurring if we didn’t know exactly how much we had to spend. In the moment, it always seems like a good idea to pick up a pastry or try to fit five different activities into one day, but with a daily budget you not only get to do the things you really want to do and excise the fluff, you also get home without a big bag of guilt from all the money you hadn’t planned to spend that somehow disappeared while you were away.
- Don’t Forget to Have Fun – For us, budgeting has become a way of life. It hasn’t taken the fun out of vacation and it definitely isn’t our main focus, it’s just a natural accompaniment–kind of like how you don’t think very much about the fact that you’re breathing while you walk, but it enables you to walk–it enables us to have just as much fun without the guilt! Some of our best memories are from our trips while we lived abroad and they have inspired us to dream big for other trips in the (hopefully) not-too-distant future.
By The Numbers
Just in case you think this is pie-in-the-sky, or totally unrealistic, I pulled out my old ledgers to give you a snapshot of what we paid and some of what we did on the trips I’ve mentioned. Total disclosure: We had all sorts of little unexpected blessings happen along the way, but we’ve found that when we are trying to be faithful stewards of the resources we have been given, God is gracious!
Germany and Belgium: $1,114.19 includes airfare to and from Germany, 5-day car rental, two nights stay in a bed and breakfast, and a whole lot of great food and fun–not to mention admission for two to an ice and snow festival!
Normandy, Paris, and London: $2,112.27 includes transportation, food, visiting Claude Monet’s home, lunch at the Louvre, postcards for the folks at home, foreign data fees, a half day tour of the Normandy beaches, two nights in Paris, museums in London, and more!
Norway, Edinburgh, and Ireland: $2,021.24 includes four flights, lodging, food, and memories to last a lifetime–over a two week period!
Like I said, we don’t live by the numbers. Altogether, our vacation budget was originally $4,000 and, as you can see, we went over that by quite a bit. Part of that was funded by some part-time work that I took on, some of it was eked out of other parts of our budget, but we still came in under budget overall for living overseas and you can’t beat that! I hope this has encouraged you. If you ever have questions about suggestions for where or how to find deals, feel free to drop me a line!