Tuesday Tips: Travelling on a budget

picnic on the beach

My husband is the king of spreadsheets. I often joke that he doesn’t make a single decision without consulting a spreadsheet first. I think he may have even created one before he asked to marry me.  : )

While this is obviously an exaggeration, he does use spreadsheets whenever significant finances are involved; such as buying a new car, renovating a flat, budgeting a big holiday. While I like to joke, it’s comforting to know that we’re making smart decisions based on his careful planning. It allows me to be the more emotionally driven, fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants type of person. We make a good team.

It goes without saying that our year of travel has been carefully budgeted. Michael has worked out a weekly budget for each destination so that we can make decisions accordingly. It’s not always easy to achieve it, especially when first arriving in a new and unfamiliar place, but so far we’re doing okay. I thought it might be helpful to share some of the small things we do to help keep us on track.

  • The first step is to decide what you want to spend. We had a figure we thought the year should cost, but once Michael started plugging in realistic numbers for accommodation, food, transport and entertainment, he found we were 30% over our target. So the next step was looking for ways to whittle this down. Michael uses Excel but there are many apps (including free ones) you can use to help you budget.
  • Decide on a weekly budget for your accommodation and stick to it. Renting apartments or hotel/motel rooms with kitchens can help make big savings on food costs. Location matters too. Find a place within walking distance of the shops, museums, parks, etc. and you’ll save on transport costs. (I also like Emilie’s tips for making use of the many stylish hostels now available!)
  • Eat at home or picnic. Whenever we get somewhere one of the first things we do is find the local grocery store. It’s always fun browsing and deciphering a foreign a market. We stock up on simple breakfast foods (yoghurts, cereals, fruits), lunch supplies and snacks. Even when we were in Yosemite, far removed from any towns, we were able to find little general stores that sold sliced bread, cheeses and deli meats. Instead of buying bottled water or other drinks when we’re out, we bring our reusable water bottles and re-fill them throughout the day if necessary.
  • Eat locally and seasonally. This past weekend in Brazil, we visited the farmer’s market and paid less than one dollar for six mangos! We also stocked up on passion fruit, bananas and papayas which are abundant and cheap here. We’re chopping up these tropical fruits and putting them over our breakfast instead of the raspberries and blueberries we found in California. We’re also going for the local beer instead of our favourite imports and drinking Brazilian wine.
  • Don’t wait until you get to the beach to buy your sun creams, water toys or floaties — these things are much cheaper at the local grocery stores in town.
  • Talk to the locals and get insider tips! In the village we’re currently in, there are three pizza restaurants, including one that is nearer the centre and looks the most appealing from the outside. A local resident told us that we should try the other two restaurants first because the pizza is half the price and just as good.
  • Transportation can be a significant cost. In each stop on our year away we are looking for the least expensive ways to get to and from the airports and around town. A big decision is whether or not we need to rent a car. In LA, the cheapest option was to rent a car. So far in Brazil we are able to walk everywhere and take the occasional taxi. Sometimes the cost of frequent taxis is still less than renting and fueling a car.
  • Do a bit of research before planning your activities each day. For example, when we were in LA we discovered that some museums have a ‘free-entry’ day. We made sure to visit on those days.
  • Get the right credit cards. There are only a couple options out there with no foreign transaction fees and favourable exchange rates. The Halifax Clarity card was the clear winner in the UK. In the US, a Platinum American Express card seemed the best option, despite the high annual fee. The best cards change from time to time but you can get lots of good advice on sites like Money Savings Expert.
  • Use good foreign exchange services like Azimo to pay in the local currency. For example, when paying by bank transfer for our accommodation in Brazil we converted pounds to Brazilian Reais. For cash we use bank machines or exchange at a local bureau rather than at the airport.

Obviously not all of these steps are worth the effort for short breaks, but if you’re going for longer the savings can really add up. Dare I say it’s even a bit fun to find creative ways to stay on budget. As always, if you have other tips or questions, please share them below.

Courtney x


Comments (11)

October 20, 2015

I often joke with my husband about his ability to navigate Excel spreadsheets, but I agree it is quite the complement to my rather “emotionally driven” self too. Enjoy your South America!! If we are out of town…post up at our flat if you make it through Hong Kong next Spring 🙂

October 20, 2015

Hi Courtney! Thanks for sharing your experience and tips! I thought I’d mention that, in my experience, the most accepted credit card around the world is VISA. Granted, I only travel in the U.S., South America and Europe but I’ve never had a problem whereas VERY few places I’ve been accept American Express. Also be sure to let your credit card companies know that you will be abroad and for how long that way they don’t block it and assume it’s been stolen when it’s used somewhere you don’t live. Happy (and safe) travels!

P.S. My husband is also an Excel freak. He even uses spreadsheets for his fantasy football team!

October 20, 2015

Great tips! I know the picnic one too well, and the children love it!
Sounds like you are having a great time. Keep enjoying it!

October 20, 2015

Excellent image of E and Q kicking back with a few cold beers and commenting on how the local alternatives taste just as good 😉

October 20, 2015

Hi Courtney
I just open my computer and saw a article about you.
Everything is so interesting. Congratulations.
I am a Landscape Architect from Brazil but I live in Hawaii for 12 years. At the moment I am in Brazil visiting my family.
I was reading your plan to go to Brazil.
I can offer you my house in Brazil right on the beach. In Brazil we have a expression” my house is foot on sand” mean the house is beach front.
It is 4 bedroom 3 1/2 bath , varanda and so on.
The name of the city is Ubatuba between Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.
You can have a fresh fish, ride a bike swim, surf,
In Brazil you can have a lot of inspiration for you children clothes. Brazil is a creative country. People is friendly. But the politics at the moment are making the country in bed economy.
If you to know more you can contact me.
If you have a plan how long you can stay in Brazil and stay in my house you can tell me when, how long and how much you could pay and we can make some agreement.
I hope you plans works well and have a wonderful year in your journey.
Have a good day
Marta Dale

October 20, 2015

Very handy article. My husband and I are both fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants types of people, which is fun, but there comes a point when he have to buckle down and crunch some numbers!

October 20, 2015

Men and Excel – they go together like peanut butter and jelly! I actually think an Excel doc WAS indeed used when Dustin talked with my parents about marrying me 😉 Traveling on a budget makes the trip more meaningful – because nobody wants to return home and realize they’ve gone into debt from overspending!

Susan M.
October 20, 2015

Great tips. I love watching you travel and enjoy. There will be ups and downs, and many learning experiences. I’d love to know even more about Michael’s excel sheets and plans because it matters how detailed and specific one is, and what to count. Also does he factor in the average cost of living in each country so that he can figure out how to save there? For example, say the apartment rentals are about 1/4 the price of what you had in England. Then do you splurge on some other aspect of living? Or save it for later in the years travels? Does the budget factor in emergency costs such as health issues? Or did you plan on a year’s health insurance plan to travel with family? Or decide to pay as you go? Or just have a reserve fund for any kind of emergency, medical or otherwise? Again in some countries a visit to a doctor does not cost so much whereas in countries like the U.S. it can become immensely costly. I’m fascinated with planning such a complex trip and would love some more insights about planning within a budget. I can imagine a lot of the budget has to go to airfare for 5 people, so that already is a big expense. When I was younger and single, I did two years of abroad living and lived on a careful budget. That said, one year was in a small town with fairly low cost of living while the second year was in a major world city. Eating in, eating local and using markets help, also if you want to eat out to try local cuisine, the lunch menu is more reasonable and offers usually as much variety as the dinner (and it’s often easier to manage a lunch with children than dinner). If in a big city, getting a metro/bus card is usually better than paying individual fares. I’m curious how to budget on clothes for children through a year’s wear and tear. I’ll bet that will be a later topic for you, Courtney! Thanks so much!

Bethie in London
October 20, 2015

Oh man! Jason is SUCH an excel nerd! He has a budget for absolutely everything!

Great tips! We also love exploring grocery stores! And I second asking the locals for advice. When we were in Barbados a few years back, we spent nearly every evening in a local hangout where dinner was served family style whenever it happened to be ready. (Sometimes it took hours longer than it did the night before!) It was the most amazing food and we loved having a little glimpse into how the locals live .


Ally M
October 20, 2015

Ohhh, this explain why your husband wasn’t to keen on you buying the Christy & Dawn in LA — totally worth it though – their dresses are timeless! But if I had to chose a store in LA to go into – I would have chosen General Store over Christy & Dawn. Sounds like you’ll visit LA again, though. . .

October 22, 2015

Hey Courtney,

Just wanted to say thanks for including in your recommendations for your low-cost foreign currency exchange needs 🙂

Your blogs brighten up a grey London day!

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