The Budget Thing (Solo Backpacking series)

Updated: Mar 9, 2020

Quick disclaimer : I'm not a vulgar person but my vocabulary can be colourful. My life is R-rated and my website occasionally reflects that. Be aware of some frank language. All my photos are PG, but please read blogs before sharing with kids.


Saving up for travels can be daunting, but you might not need as much money as you think. Alternately, once you’re there, you could easily blow your budget by throwing caution to the wind. To me, solo backpacking allows you to strike a balance, which is key.


Your style of travel can swing your expenses onto vastly different paths. Wanna drop a ton of coin on a fancy hotel room, or save your pennies by crashing in a dorm bed? All the power to you. Want to save funds by buying groceries, or splurge on an expensive meal? Your decision. Want to visit all the free museums in town, or spend all day at the Guggenheim? It’s your life. As a solo traveller, you have the last and only word on every dollar you spend.


I consider that there are two opportunities to save money: before you leave (preserving) and on the road (economizing). Financial habits follow us around like dirty socks in our bags; weaknesses at home are often the same abroad. So whether you’re broke AF or you’ve got a few bucks to spare, here’s how you can stash some cash before a trip, and then stay on the right path once you get going.


BEFORE YOU LEAVE (PRESERVING)


Start with your current finances

Figure out where your money flows by tracking every dollar you spend. (I track on a monthly basis because I get paid once a month). Download a travel budget template or apps like Trail Wallet and Trabee Pocket if need be.

* How much of your paycheck goes toward housing, food, utilities, transportation, play…? Don’t speculate or guess. Track where, and how much of, your money gets spent.

* What expenses can be cut back? Approach this cutback with a simplistic view. If you don’t need it, hold off on it for a day. Then decide whether or not to purchase it.

* How much can you put aside on a regular basis? Open up a travel savings account and put at least 10% of each paycheck into it; watch it grow!

* How much will those savings eventually amount to? Simply put: Save as much as you can. A daily cutback of just 5 $ brings in roughly 150 $ a month. Cha-ching!


Choose your destination

Maybe you’re dreaming of a specific place, maybe you’re just itching to go somewhere. There might be a spot closer to home that you can head to; you can have an adventure or get out of your funk without crossing time zones. It might be time to visit long-lost relatives or friends!

* Be reasonable. A month in Iceland is NOT easy on the wallet. If your funds are truly limited, consider dropping by SouthEast Asia or Central America instead.

* Prices drop dramatically in shoulder seasons. If your time off matches a destination’s off-season, travelling there could be a steal. In October, some hotels in the Greek Islands only charged me a quarter of their high-season prices.

* Search for flights on Black Friday or Boxing Day. Also, Skyscanner.com has a great feature: Type in your closest airport, type ‘Everywhere’ as the destination and a slew of national or global cities will pop up. Helpful and pretty cool.

* Travel books and sites like Lonely Planet and Rough Guides can be immensely helpful, if not strong motivators. I love that they’re filled with gorgeous photos, great backpacking advice, and trustworthy reviews. But don’t make the mistake of relying too heavily on prices set in your guidebook. Costs vary with every edition (and inflation rises at a reliable pace), so don’t expect fees to have frozen in time.


Currencies

lotzacurls solo travel budget
You won’t always have Internet access so right before a trip, write down conversions and keep them in your wallet. Eventually, conversions become a piece of cake.

* Currency conversion sites like www.xe.com are immensely helpful. Before deciding on a destination, consider cost of living and favorable currency exchanges; 25 euros for a hostel room sounded like a bargain until I learned that it meant nearly 40 $ Canadian.


Misc

* It might be worth searching for a new travel credit card - here’s a helpful Canadian site. After a year of travels, I earned a free flight to Hawaii for spring break. I felt like I had won the lottery!

* One of the worst travel mistakes out there? Not getting travel insurance. Don’t skip out on this one; consider it an important part of your travel budget.

* What payments need to be made while you’re gone? Rent? Car insurance? Storage? Make sure to take those into account.

* Bring all your student ID; the discounts are sometimes preposterous!




ON THE ROAD (ECONOMIZING)

Transportation

* How much will a flight to your destination cost? Is it worth the expense, considering how long you’ll be traveling?

* Can you fly somewhere closer or more central, then travel inland? For instance, a flight from Calgary into Cambodia could cost quite a bit more than a flight to Bangkok (Thailand) and then a bus ride into Cambodia.

* Once you’re at your starting point, will you rent a car? If so, leave room for insurance (read the fine print very well), gas money and toll fees. If not, will you take trains, boats or buses? It might be worth getting passes. Do your research!

* Travel slooowly by curtailing flights. Buses (and sometimes trains) are low-cost and a great way to sightsee; night runs are usually cheaper. Spend at least one month exploring one country. Stay in an interesting city or area for one or two weeks and go on day trips. Travel slowly overland and get to know a region and culture all the better.

solo travel lotzacurls photography budget
This Vietnamese train has seen better days but it got me from A to B.

* Backtracking, both in the air and on the ground, costs you money and time. Get from Point A to Point B (and Point C and D) by travelling along general cardinal points (ex: SouthWest) or in a loop.

* In cities, don’t forget about the metro (or even boats, if a river runneth through it). Personally, bicycles are my favorite way to snoop around. Most urban centres offer multi-use punch cards for the metro, trains, or hop-on-hop-off buses. I tend to avoid taxis like the plague.


hostels spain solo travel lotzacurls photography budget travel
A fun hostel room in Cadiz, Spain

Accommodation

* Where are you willing to sleep? Do you need your own bathroom? Can you handle a dorm bed in a crowded room or do you need privacy and elbow room? These standards are game-changers. Wallet-friendly hostels work if you’re on a budget, but you’ll be miserable if you’re craving crisp bedsheets and your own toilet.

* 18$ per night in a hostel adds up to roughly 540$ a month; 25$ per night adds up to 750$ a month -- that’s a huge difference. There are all kinds of hostels, from cheaper party ones to fancy boutique ones. Check out photos, reviews and prices on www.hostelworld.com, www.hostelbookers.com or www.booking.com and figure out what you’re willing to spend on a bed.

* Try to avoid downtown areas; they tend to be more expensive. Instead, choose an interesting and safe district, one that’s close to as many coveted sights as possible.

* You might want to splurge on an occasional hotel or a private room in a hostel. If you stick to your budget, you can indulge from time to time when you need space, a hot bath or a roomy bed. For instance, on O’ahu I stayed mostly in campgrounds, so the one or two B&Bs I booked didn’t break the bank.

* Don’t discount bed & breakfasts and other types of accommodation; www.airbnb.com is useful, as is www.couchsurfing.com. My fave is www.booking.com - you can reserve everything from campgrounds and hostel dorms to fancy boutique hotels and resorts, you can cancel without a fee and you can see photos and read hundreds of reviews from past patrons.


Food

* What kind of eater are you? If you’re a hard-ass about saving, hostels usually have well-equipped kitchens for guests. Breakfast is included but if that’s not the case, cereal, oatmeal or toast are easy to prepare and store in the kitchen.

solo backpacking travel lotzacurls photography budget
The not-so-shabby dining room of a Madrid hostel.

* Buy more-than-one-use groceries (that you can use multiple times); pasta and pesto are backpacker staples for a reason! Don’t buy a ton of fruit and veggies if you’re leaving soon; transporting fresh produce (esp on a hot, humid day) is a bad idea. I speak from experience.

* Take advantage of food trucks and street food. Visit grocery stores or markets and prepare picnics.

* Learn to eat alone and to not care if people think you’re strange or a colossal loser. For me, local cuisine is one of the most enjoyable parts of traveling. I tend to prepare my own breakfasts, snacks and light lunches, then splurge on supper. But from a financial viewpoint, it makes more sense to eat out at lunchtime, then make supper back at the hostel. It’s also less intimidating to eat out alone at noon than at night, when restaurants are typically busier and everyone’s ogling each other in the candlelight. Barf.


Now For The Fun Stuff !

* Think about what’s important to you while I throw some fun words at you: Music concerts. Local cuisine. Beautiful hotel rooms. Diving. Museums. Partying and chilling out. Theater. Coffee shops. Hiking. Churches and architecture. Sandy beaches. Cooking classes. Adventure touring. Photography... Boom! (That was fun.) Your interests determine how much play money you’ll need. Worse case scenario: Plan one cool activity per month if restraint is necessary in order to afford food.

* Hostels often have free or inexpensive classes and events: I’ve enjoyed yoga sessions, pub crawls, flamenco shows, walking tours, games nights, cooking classes and surf lessons at various hostels. Such bargains, man!



* When making credit card purchases, pay in local currency (not in your country’s currency). Regardless of the exchange rate, you’ll lessen currency charges on your credit card.

* Keep an eye on currency fluctuations. In Europe, I (somehow) got ahead of my budget at one point. So I happily loosened the purse strings as I headed to Italy for a month, without verifying the euro afterwards. Well... At the end of that month, I had unknowingly spent a few thousand dollars while the euro quietly plummeted and my currency exchange widened. Let’s just say that my following month in Spain was tightly restrained, which suuuucked.


solo travel backpacking lotzacurls photography budget
Buy a bottle of wine, pour it into a Thermos and go enjoy the buskers and street performers. I had an absolute blast doing this in Ireland and it was a lot cheaper than drinking in pubs.

TO SUM UP

Budgeting doesn’t have to be boring or merciless, but don’t get caught up in the I traveled for less than 5$ a day game, either. You need to travel on your terms, reflecting your standards and interests. It should never be a contest to see who can spend less (or more). Leave your ego out of it.


Worse comes to worst, fall back onto a line of credit or (gasp!) your credit card. People put themselves in serious debt for their studies, their mortgage, their wedding, their car... I can’t think of a better life investment than travel.


I’m not a trust-fund baby; I don’t even remember having an allowance. I’m a professional who manages to save money because travel is my financial priority. I choose to NOT own a house, I drive a reliable shitkicker (def: old, rusty clunker) and I make certain sacrifices so that I can strap on my backpack in a new spot every now and then.


I personally think hostelling’s the way to go, although I enjoy the occasional indulgence. Maybe we’ll meet in the common room or on the road one day.


Happy travels, my friend. xx


Link to Photo Collections

More awesome Solo Backpacking posts :


The Loneliness Thing (Solo Backpacking series The Safety Thing (Solo Backpacking series)

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