Continuing the recent theme of logistics, how do you budget for an international trip? This is a tricky one to write, since everybody’s target budget and preferences can be so different. Certainly, our own budget needed to change somewhat between stays in cheap hostels when we were much younger vs. family travel.
Beyond that, the destination can make a big difference – our daily budget for India or China was vastly different than our daily budget for Switzerland. One joke we made after visiting China and Switzerland both over a decade ago, pre-kids, was that the menu price numbers were vaguely similar, but with different currencies – but each Swiss franc was worth roughly 7 times the Chinese Renminbi at the time.
That said, international family travel doesn’t necessarily cost as much as it might appear (particularly compared with relatively pricey US destinations like Disney). Hotel costs can be tamed with Airbnbs and apartment rentals. Food costs can be tamed with degrees of self-catering. Flight budgets can be helped with points or discount carriers. Even so, the costs can still add up – hence the need to budget. Maybe we could write a more exhaustive post about reducing costs, but this post isn’t going to be that.
Regardless of one’s actual budget, there is still a lot of commonality when you break it up into the following categories: transportation, lodging, food, entertainment, and luxury or less essential items. Figuring out expected expenditures in each of these categories will get you most of the way to knowing how much you are likely to spend on your trip.
When planning a trip, you first need to decide where to go and how you are going to get there. If you have a firm destination in mind, that makes it easy, but you are less likely to find a deal.
If you don’t have a particular destination, looking at airfare sales can help you decide. For example, in the summer of 2014 we picked Ireland as our starting point to Europe since transatlantic flights there were about $500 cheaper per ticket than most other places we saw. That is a $2,000 savings for a family of 4. Another time, Jeremy learned from coworkers that tickets to China can be relatively inexpensive (about $600) in the Fall. We’ve also used miles in earlier years.
Other times, the considerations are different. For our 2 month vacation over the summer, we knew that we did not want to be in Egypt in July. Even June was late, so we decided to make it our first stop on the trip. We had to pay a bit more to get there than we would have liked, but it was important to us to be there the least hot part of the summer, so we were willing to pay more.
You can read more about how we find flights.
In Country Travel:
Once you are at your destination, how are you going to get around? Starting in Ireland, the South Pacific, or other geographically isolated locations, you may need to take flights to get anywhere else. Traveling through Europe, flights, a rail pass, or a car rental is probable. In the mountains of Switzerland, a local train pass or a half fare card might be appropriate. While in India, maybe you need to hire a driver. Taxis, subway tickets, car rentals, ferry tickets, and other forms of transportation should all be considered and worked into your budget.
You can read about our experiences with driving in other countries.
Big ticket items should be separated in your budget and amortized over the whole trip. A trans-oceanic plane ticket will be a much bigger percentage of your budget for a 1 week trip versus a 6 week trip. A rail pass may be used for a week, a month, or a year at a time, so amortize it over the portion of your trip that you will use it. You may only pay a hired driver or tour guide at the end of your trip, so again, amortize it, remembering that you will need to add in a tip.
Smaller transportation items like subway tickets and taxis should be part of a daily budget item.
Lodging is another big ticket item that should be figured into your daily budget. When looking at mid-range lodging, you may only spend $30-$70 per night if you are in India, but if you go to Europe, this could easily jump to $200+, particularly if you want a family room that can sleep at least four people.
To reduce costs, you can look at apartment rentals from various sites like Airbnb or Booking.com, but there are often a minimum number of nights or one time cleaning fees so read the fine print and calculate the costs on a per night basis to see if they make sense for you.
You can read more about our accommodation strategies.
Food expenses can vary wildly. Is breakfast included with your lodging? Are you planning to buy bread and cheese at a market and picnic, eat multiple courses in a restaurant for every meal, cook in your apartment, pick up street food, or something else? In Thailand, you might be able to eat in a reasonable restaurant for just a couple of dollars per plate, but in Switzerland, it might be closer to $40+ per plate, plus drinks.
Breakfast: We typically try to get breakfast included with a hotel, pick up something from a bakery, or purchase something from a grocery store to eat in an apartment rental. A croissant, a box of cereal, or eggs can all be fine options that don’t break the bank or take a ton of time to prepare. Just make sure you also pick up oil, salt, and pepper if you are cooking your own eggs and the apartment doesn’t have those items stocked.
Lunch: While out and about mid-day, lunch is usually our meal out and can range from street food to a packed picnic to a multi-course meal at a nice restaurant. If you are in a business area of town, you can often find deals on the multi-course fixed price lunch menus. While the picture menus and big signs that advertise English menus can be tempting, it is often also a sign of poor quality. Look for places with lots of locals, unless you are genuinely sick of dealing with the language barrier. Then quality might not matter quite so much.
Dinner: Evening food plans depends on the country. In low cost countries, we will eat out. There is really no reason for us to cook our own food in places like Thailand or China. The food tends to be both cheap and delicious. When visiting higher cost countries, we might cook in our apartment rental, pick up sandwiches, or get a snack if lunch was on the large side. Besides, eating three full restaurant-sized meals a day can be too much food and too many calories.
Snacks: Make sure you plan for snacks. As you travel, you are going to see Italian gelato, French patisseries, Japanese vending machines, beautiful coffee shops, and delicious street food. If you are walking a lot, both a mid morning and a late afternoon stop might not be a bad idea. If the snacks are really good, consider occasionally eating more of them and skipping dinner. While traveling, bending the health rules can be fun.
Eating in: Note that grocery costs can vary wildly. I still remember the first time we purchased groceries in a Swiss mountain village. Everything seemed like it was priced for a nice restaurant. Why was grocery store raw chicken really $20/pound? But it was still cheaper than eating out. At the time, we were a bit stressed about the surprise addition to our budget, but there wasn’t a lot we could do about it.
Picky/Irritable Kids: When the kids were little, they often didn’t have the patience for restaurants, so we would often cook our own breakfast and dinner. It can take a little fun out of the vacation, but the tradeoffs are often worth it, particularly if you like the adventure of cooking with ingredients that are a little different than at home.
Speaking of differences, milk is often different than at home. Skim milk is almost unheard of in many countries, so beware that if your kids are used to drinking this, they are unlikely to like the higher fat milk found in other countries. Consider buying a box of Nesquik (chocolate drink mix) to mix in. Or just get them enough ice cream cones to supply their calcium needs. You won’t get any complaints from them, and if it is only for a week, it really isn’t the worst thing in the world.
In general, expect that your kids aren’t going to get all the nutrients they really need while traveling. Kids can be picky, particular when they are being exposed to new things. Even when they order something that should be familiar like lasagne or pizza, you may have problems. In Peru, these two items are often very different from the American counterpart. The cheese is different. The sauce is different. Expect them to refuse to eat some of their meals. Expect to need to get them a snack later so they don’t melt down in the middle of a museum. But even then, you might make mistakes. Bakery items may not be exactly what your kids expect. Maybe instead of a fruit filling, you will end up with meat. Maybe the seasonings will be strange. Rules you have at home about food tend not to work while traveling. You may waste a bit of money with uneaten food, but in the grand scheme of things, it is better to enjoy your time rather than worry about it. If you are only gone for a week or two, rice, an ice cream cone, and a vitamin for every meal isn’t likely to have lasting harm.
What types of activities interest you? What is your museum budget? Do you want to see an opera? Do you want to go on a chocolate factory tour? Do you want to go scuba diving, take surf lessons, or go paragliding off the top of a mountain? Do your research on your destinations local activities and set a reasonable daily budget. If you exceed it one day, simply do something free the next, or eat at a grocery store rather than a restaurant. If you use cash for all your all your expenses, or otherwise accurately track your spending, the day to day budgeting can be very straightforward.
One observation is that various countries will have vastly different fee policies for museums. Countries in Europe usually charge admission to museums, though children may be free. Some countries admission is nominal, others it is quite expensive. Most of New Zealand’s museums are free. Some museums have “recommended donations.” Others have free or reduced cost entries on particular days, but that might result in more crowds. Do your research before you travel so that you don’t have surprises that cause you to spend way more than you intended.
Less Essential Items
Most other things are less essential, but can make your time away from home more enjoyable. Some people really like to travel business class, stay in 5 star hotels, and always eat at top restaurants. Good for them.
For us, we’d prefer to fly coach, stay in 2-3 star hotels, do some cooking on the road in high-cost countries, and consequently be able to travel more frequently, and see more places. There are other corners we used to cut as well, though we don’t feel like we have to cut them as sharply anymore.
It’s important that you understand yourself and your budget to figure out what your tradeoffs are. For example, for some folks, it’s socially necessary to bring back souvenirs for friends and coworkers at home, though in our case we rarely buy more than a few t-shirts or cookbooks on the road these days.
Also plan some amount to your budget for surprises. You never know what you might encounter and it can be really disappointing to skip something you weren’t expecting for financial reasons.
If you are at the Great Wall of China and you see a luge that goes back down the mountain, or if you are in Switzerland and see a group of paragliders jumping off the top of the mountain, you may just want to do it. If you are in Budapest and you see some amazing handmade lace, or are in Peru and see a beautiful alpaca blanket that you want to take home with you, maybe it is worth a splurge. Or maybe your Airbnb host tells you about an amazing restaurant or museum that you can’t miss, maybe that is a time to dip into this part of your budget.
You know what types of things appeal to you, but you may not realize that your destination has them until you get there. Set something aside for this.
Tracking It All
Spreadsheets for big-ticket items: We usually keep a spreadsheet of expenses for the major categories that are mostly known before we leave – e.g. air travel, ground travel, lodging. Since these costs are typically known before you leave, these lend themselves well to such such tracking. As you make reservations, you should have an idea of how these are expenses track compared with your budget.
Cash management for smaller items: For the daily expenses such as food or subway/museum tickets, we typically use cash, rather than credit cards. We find that we notice cash withdrawals quicker and can track these better, than the line items on next month’s credit card statement. You can read more about our strategies for dealing with foreign currency.
Tracking strategies: In the past, we wrote down all our daily expenses in our daily travel journals, though we don’t do this so exhaustively anymore. (Actually, it can be interesting to see later in our journal that we only spent $13 on a one-hour massage in Bali.) Close budgeting of each category, and re-counting your cash every night, can be helpful if your budget is reasonably tight, as it was for us when we were younger. Now we mostly just track our ATM withdrawals compared with our expectations, and we feel like we have a reasonable understanding of what we think we should spend on meals in different places.
Make a plan for a system that will likely work for you. If your budget is tight, err on the side of over tracking. If your budget is looser, winging it a bit is okay, but pay attention to your tradeoffs. Most of all, make sure that you pick a location and activities where you can have fun without worrying too much about money.