How to budget for your trip

Build a travel budget before you hit the road.

Planning a big trip can be stressful, especially when you’re trying to do it on a budget. But knowing what you can afford, what you’ll need to spend and how to avoid overspending can help maximize the fun and minimize the stress. Here are a few ideas for building a travel expenses budget so you can feel as good about your finances as you do about your itinerary.

Start at home

If you don’t stick to an overall spending budget, you may find it hard to build and keep a travel budget. So start by figuring out exactly how you spend at home, making sure you have enough left over each month to put away in a savings account. If you don’t, search your budget for places to save. If you’re spending too much on á la carte workout classes or a gym membership, try online workout classes or free forms of exercise like running, biking and hiking to help keep costs down. Or hunt your bank statement for subscriptions, digital or otherwise, that you never use and cancel them. Once you’ve started padding your savings account, you’ll feel more confident about planning a big trip and building a budget for it.

Analyze that spending

The simplest way to figure out what you’ll spend on a trip is to look hard at where your money went on a previous trip. Using the website or app for your bank and credit cards, find every expenditure related to the trip, from your airfare to your cab ride home from the airport. Include things you bought for your trip (like new walking shoes or sunscreen) and things you bought during your trip (like souvenirs or dinner). Then, build a spreadsheet that summarizes what you spent in each category. It’s not the most fun evening activity, but analyzing past spending will offer a glimpse into how much you spent on food, drinks, taxis and other categories, helping you plan for your next trip.

If you’ve never traveled or are traveling abroad for the first time, you can still plan your travel budget. Using the categories in the next section and a little online sleuthing, you can do your best to estimate your trip costs. On your next trip, consider getting receipts as emails whenever possible, and take photos of your paper receipts. It can help you analyze your spending the next time around.

What travel expenses to budget for

If you’re not an experienced traveler, you may not know exactly how to budget for travel. So, start with categories. Imagine your trip from start to finish, focusing on how you’ll spend money along the way. As you go, create a travel budget worksheet that puts your spending into buckets. Those buckets will depend on where you’re traveling and how you like to travel. Planning an all-inclusive beach vacation will require different categories than a trip to a national park. But generally, the categories in your trip budget should include:

  • Transportation. This includes how you get to and from your destination and how you get around when you get there. These days, many people are opting out of airplanes and trains in favor of more personal forms of travel, like rental cars. Make sure you’re taking these choices into consideration when you budget for things like gas, food pit stops, and prepping your car for a lot of road time. Then check out your options for how you’ll travel when you arrive—taxis, Lyfts, public transportation or just walking. It could be a good idea to add in some cushion in case your transportation needs shift once you get there.
  • Lodging, including taxes and fees. This could be a big chunk of change, but luckily, you should know exactly how much it is before you leave.
  • Food and drink. This depends on a lot of factors, including how you like to eat, where you’re traveling and how much you expect to tip. If you’re more comfortable grabbing take out or getting delivery, make sure you’re taking those extra fees into account.
  • Activities like museum tickets, tours, excursions, golf outings, etc.
  • Souvenirs—anything you might buy on your trip that you wouldn’t buy at home.

Look for places to save

Once you see how you spend, you may discover that traveling costs a lot more than you realize. If so, you may want to try traveling more cheaply.

Say your last trip included hundreds of dollars in spending on Lyft or taxis. Price out what it would cost to rent a car for the length of your trip, which is often the cheaper option.

Maybe your dinner bills regularly reached $100 on your last trip. Use local food blogs and magazines to seek out small, local eateries and street food vendors that will capture the local flavor while keeping your dinner tab manageable. Also consider staying near a farmers market or small grocery store, so you can try your hand at cooking meals with local ingredients.

Airfare often is the biggest expenditure on a trip budget, and right now, a lot of people just don’t feel comfortable with it. Instead, think about traveling by car. If you’re traveling with friends, make sure you’re keeping track of gas usage so you can split the cost later. Scope out the parking situation beforehand so you know where you can safely leave your car without racking up too high of a garage fee or getting an unexpected parking ticket.

Consider a staycation instead. If traveling away from home is something you don’t feel comfortable with right now or if it just isn’t in your current budget, planning a staycation could be a good alternative. You can still plan fun activities around the neighborhood, get your favorite take-out or go to your favorite local spot, or even set up a tent in the backyard. Finding some R&R with a staycation can give you the feeling of getting away, while being a lighter touch on your budget.

Adjust on the fly

Analyzing your spending after one trip might help you plan for the next. But it won’t keep you from sticking to your budget while you’re traveling. So, if money is tight, consider tracking your spending while you travel and comparing it daily against your trip budget planner.

One way to rein in your spending is to designate a daily budget for food, drinks and other costs. You may even set aside that amount in cash each day, so you know exactly how much you spend. Just be sure to bring along a debit card or credit card in case of an emergency.

Then, every afternoon, when you’re not wiped out but can use a short break, take a few minutes to see what you’ve spent. If you’ve overspent on food or drinks, consider something lighter for dinner. If you’ve already hit your target for activity spending, plan your next day around free sights. If you’re traveling somewhere that allows access to your favorite banking or budgeting app, use that. If not, bring a printout of your budget and just jot down what you spend in a notebook, then take a few minutes to compare.

If you stay on top of things, you might find it easier to stay on budget until your head hits the pillow the second you arrive home. You may even find that you have enough left over to start planning your next big adventure.

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