Travel budgeting: I need a rule for my thumb
September 4, 2014 2:35 PM   Subscribe

Is there an easy way to estimate how much money it will cost to take a trip?

I love to travel but due to having little money for much of my life, I always tend to think of it as being "too expensive." But as I have recently become aware that several non-wealthy people I am acquainted with somehow manage to take a trip or two (or more) every year, I am beginning to think that "I can't afford it" is now pretty much just a knee-jerk reaction on my part, and I probably could afford to do a few things here and there.

Problem is, I really have no idea how to estimate a budget for a trip in the early stages. Is there some rule of thumb that could help me do this without doing tons of research up front? I would just like to have a general idea what it would cost for a married couple to have a reasonable good time over a 4-day trip to Vegas, a few days in the Bahamas or a week in Rome (for example.)

Also, is there a reliable place to get actual travel deals that really are bargains and not scams? I always thought Expedia was supposed to be cheap for airfare but all the $69 round trip tickets they advertise in my email never seem to apply to anywhere I want to go.
posted by Serene Empress Dork to Travel & Transportation (18 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
It's fundamentally flight + accommodation + other expenses. I guess that's not a rule of thumb, but if you spend 10 minutes looking up flights, you can ballpark accommodation and the other expenses and you'll have a good answer.

Say I live in Seattle and want to fly to Montreal for a week-long vacation at Christmas. Yes, I like freezing my bollocks off. Kayak says the flights for two adults would be about $1100 together, maybe budget $150 a night for accommodation, and then $100 a day for food. Throw in another $500 for other expenses and souvenirs, and I think you're in the ballpark.

In terms of scam avoidance, I would only trust known brands--Expedia, Travelocity, Kayak and the like.
posted by dbarefoot at 2:48 PM on September 4, 2014

For deals, I know people who love TravelZoo, but I've never used it so I can't speak to it personally.

So, one thing you'll run into is that the trips you describe will cost vastly different amounts of money depending on the time of year you travel. Start by picking a week when you're likely to go - if you're a teacher, for example, you only get to go places in the high season, so there's no point looking into flights to Rome in February.

Once you've picked your dates, I would search for flights and ho(s)tels/airbnbs, as those will be your biggest expenses. Lonely Planet or the like will give you an idea of how much you can expect to spend on food and tourist stuff each day, but you have a lot of leeway there - when I was in Iceland I just cooked beans at the hostel, when I was in Morocco I had like three course meals twice a day; similarly you can go to every museum or only the cheap ones.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 2:49 PM on September 4, 2014 is very useful for getting an idea of average airfares from Point A to Point B and the best/worst times of the year to fly for any given route.
posted by theodolite at 2:51 PM on September 4, 2014 [8 favorites]

I usually ballpark $500 for domestic flights, maybe $150/night for a hotel (that ends up being a bit high but I'd rather overestimate) and then add $100/day to the trip for food/other, but we usually budget $150/$200 if we're going to a city and want a bit of a cushion for shopping, drinks, concerts, etc. So for four nights in Vegas I'd estimate about $2,000. Then, if it's something you could do, you can spend the time to price out flights and hotels, which as others note, are your biggest travel expenses. Of course you can do it cheaper, but it just depends on what your priorities are for the vacation.

I've also really found that it helps to just kind of keep checking Kayak for routes to get an idea of costs. That can help you realize when cheaper or off-season times are, or what airlines serve your airports (then you can sign up for flight alerts).
posted by stellaluna at 2:52 PM on September 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Ditto: $100/day for "stuff" is about right for three modest meals with limited alcohol, and a toothbrush or a pair of sunglasses or whatnot. If you plan to go out, eat at even somewhat fancier places or do anymore shopping than for a couple of incidentals, go higher. However, a group (family) being frugal, cooking their own food, can get by for quite a bit less, even under $50/person/day.
posted by bonehead at 3:13 PM on September 4, 2014

This assumes NA or western Europe, though big cities like London or NY will add 25% or more. For developing economies, you can discount by 25% to 50%. The Economist Big Mac index is a decent way to judge how much to alter your estimate.
posted by bonehead at 3:17 PM on September 4, 2014

A remotely accurate budget? Without knowing any more information? Not really. Too much depends on:

1) how cheaply you can get the flight (depends on your skill, LUCK, and starting city)

2) how much you care about accomodation - staying at a bottom-end hostel will be hundreds of dollars less per night than staying at a high-end hotel, and while most people are somewhere in the middle, people have wildly varying definitions of "reasonable accomodations".

3) how much you spend while you're there. If you're going to see expensive shows, eating fancy dinners, drinking a lot, etc, you can spend hundreds of dollars more per day than the person buying groceries and checking out the free concerts. Again, most people are in the middle of that range, but differ wildly in where exactly they end up.

The good news is that you can make a personalized (if still very rough) estimate pretty easily, especially if you've travelled at all before and/or can guess at your preferences.

1) flight estimates can be found through Kayak, google flights, etc. Tack on $200 to their lowest flight cost to be safe. Flight costs change dramatically depending when you're booking, though - to some degree, unpredictably. So can't be estimated very accurately if you don't plan to book it for a while.

2) look at hostel and hotel websites to see how much it costs in your chosen city for the quality of accomodation you prefer. For a very rough estimate, you can get a clean and safe hotel for under 150$ or a clean and safe bed in a hostel for under 50$, in a central location for most US/Canada/EU cities (and probably the rest of the world too). Less, if you put some effort into it and/or have low standards.

3) figure out what activities you're likely to do and how much they cost, and how much you expect to spend on meals. You can get by on under 50$/day spending money pretty easily (eating out once or twice a day and not spending much on admission etc), but many people want to spend much more than this to fully enjoy their holiday. 100$/day is a safer estimate, just keep in mind that you can do it for much less....or much more.
posted by randomnity at 3:22 PM on September 4, 2014

I will answer the Vegas question as I have done that several times on a budget. I usually find cheap ON STRIP* hotels from the site and look for their "hot deals" section. Rooms at Flamingo are often $30/night mid week. After finding a couple dates with cheep rates I look on google flights to see which dates are cheapest. Vegas is a popular destination so there are lots of deals to be found. Mid week Mon-Thurs is usually cheapest.

We give ourselves a budget of $100/ person per day to cover food, shows gambling whatever.

*strip is key to avoid taxi fees and also have more fun.

So Vegas is around $1000 plus cost of flights and should come in less than $2000 all in.
posted by saradarlin at 3:33 PM on September 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

I paid for it by having a "vacation savings account" that I put $100 into every pay cheque (26 a year).
posted by saradarlin at 3:34 PM on September 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Accommodations are often super expensive. My family did one of those home swap things back when we lived in Stockholm. We were able to trade with a Berkeley family for 3 weeks and they were generous enough to let us use their car while we were in California.

So it's possible some of the friends you know who are traveling are doing home trades or couch surfing. Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 4:14 PM on September 4, 2014

Talk to the non-wealthy trip-takers you know, or even better - go on a trip with them.
I know someone who does a lot more travel than I could afford in his shoes; he knows a whole heap of easy ways to cut trip costs without sacrificing much of anything in exchange. Just smarter ways to do things. Going on a trip with him, I was constantly learning tricks of the trade, so to speak.
posted by anonymisc at 4:15 PM on September 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

You can also look into getting credit card rewards. I just spent a weekend with my wife in New York City. We flew there on points and really cheap Jet Blue flights. We stayed in Manhattan, Midtown (free with points), went to the US Open, spent money on overpriced food,drink, ate several great dinners and had some good lunches and went out to NY ($10 beer) bars and got drunk. We took one cab and got a $20 on our metro cards. Our total outlay was less than $700, 1/3rd which went to the US Open and another 1/3rd to booze (YMMV).
posted by sandmanwv at 8:51 PM on September 4, 2014

One thing I do to get a sense of an upper limit is to google for all-expenses-included-package deals for whereever I want to go. Then I assume that whatever I put together myself will be quite a bit cheaper than that. And if once I've done the research, it turns out not to be, I can always go back and book the package instead.

Other than that, my rules of thumbs for non-flight costs are:

$150 a night for a nice hotel or bed and breakfast pretty much anywhere in the USA, Europe, or Australia. Less if staying more than a week as you can often get a short term apartment instead. This price is per room and can usually sleep 2 people. Sometimes you can pay an extra 30 a night for a foldout bed for a third person. In more expensive cities, this will not get you something central, but it will get you something.
$30 per person per night for backpacker style hostel accommodation in any of those places.

$100 per person per day for food and expenses if you are going to eat two meals a day at restaurants and buy coffee and so on and not have in room food making facilities. Double this for Scandinavia. Maybe only two thirds of this for the USA.
$30 per person per day for food if you are going to buy everything from street stands and supermarkets, make your own coffee in your room, and avoid paid entertainment and attractions.

Then it doesn't take more than a couple of minutes to find the airfare costs.
And then if you are going to a city with exciting activities you'll want to do, assume a cost of $20-100 per person per day for those. (Eg Vegas shows, or Theme park tickets, or zoos and acquAriums or whatever.)

If you are going overseas you can usually assume the total cost will be higher if the exchange rate is bad or lower if good, and unless it's extreme, this will usually make a difference of about 10% to the total. I don't bother trying to take that into account unless I'm travelling in the next month, as it will otherwise probably change.
posted by lollusc at 11:19 PM on September 4, 2014

The Billfold recently posted this as a good example of working from a daily budget and flexing the lifestyle afforded by it depending on where in the world they were. It's good to get an idea of the range of daily costs created by travelling, and how many of them are discretionary.
posted by Happy Dave at 2:51 AM on September 5, 2014

These answers are a great help, thanks everyone! I feel much less lost than I did before.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 3:55 AM on September 5, 2014

Here's the best rule of thumb I've ever read for estimating day-to-day costs (taken from the excellent Practical Nomad): figure out what you're likely to pay on average for housing (look up the kinds of places you like to stay in your destination), add 10% for wiggle room, then multiply that times 3.

The idea is that housing, food, and [transportation+random extras] cost roughly the same amounts. I've used this trick to budget for everything from long weekends to 6-month backpacking trips, and it's pretty reliable.
posted by lunasol at 9:08 PM on September 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Sorry, should clarify that this is mostly useful for budget travel - if you're spending $400 on a hotel room, you probably won't spend that much on food. But it works pretty well for travel on the hostel/motel/airbnb level.
posted by lunasol at 9:11 PM on September 5, 2014

Traveling is rarely cheap, but doesn't have to be expensive.

When I backpacked around Europe, I was spending max $10-15 a day on food, mostly buying basics from the supermarkets and putting stuff together myself. And that worked for me. I know others who insist on having restaurant meals for every meal.

My general way of getting a rough estimate is to take one of the big travel search engines (ex expedia or other), find journey+hotel combo, and then add a ballpark guess on top of that per day (ex $50 for a city per day, if I want to do lots of events, or only $20 if I just plan on wandering around or hiking).

Once I have figured out the general ballpark and decided I want to do it, I go ahead and start researching in depth.
posted by troytroy at 2:32 PM on September 8, 2014

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