Travel, particularly long-term travel, can force you to become a lot more frugal than you would normally be in your day-to-day life. Without a paycheck being deposited into your account on a regular basis but having all sorts of additional expenses (the time you would have spent sitting in a cubicle earning money is now being filled with activities that cost you money) you find yourself in a situation where you have to come up with some sort of budget or risk running out of funds.
The trouble is, it’s easy to get carried away by the penny-pinching once you start, and some budget travelers get so caught up in trying to save every cent that they end up missing out on many fun experiences – sometimes even defeating the point of visiting a city or country in the first place.
But how do you know when to save and when to splurge? Read on to discover my guidelines for when it’s worth breaking the travel budget.
1. A cab from the airport after a super long flight. Sure you could take the subway, but if it’s going to take twice as long, require you to make a transfer while lugging all your bags, walk five blocks, and oh, it’s late and you’re knackered – it’s probably worth shelling out the extra money for the taxi.
2. A hotel/private room after weeks or months of hostel dorms. While it’s nice to have company, sharing a room/bathroom can get old after a while. Book yourself into a hotel (or at the very least a private room in the hostel) every once in a while to maintain your sanity.
3. Nice meals sampling local specialties. Self catering, eating at street stalls and hitting up cheap restaurants are all great ways to save cash, but don’t miss out on one of the great pleasures of traveling to foreign lands – the local cuisine. Make it a point to splurge on a nice meal that allows you to really get a taste of whatever gastronomic delights are on offer. If cost is a real issue, look for set meals as they are generally cheaper than a la carte options, or eat out at lunch, which is almost always cheaper than dinner.
4. Entry fees to tourism sites. I’ve come across so many people who have refused to go into a museum/cathedral/cultural site because of the cost. Even if the site feels overpriced to you or you’re frustrated at the two-tier pricing system for locals vs. foreigners, stop and consider whether you’ll regret not seeing this site once you get back home. Yes, entry to the Kremlin might be pricey, but does it make sense to go all the way to Moscow and not see it? When in doubt, check what your guidebook or other travelers have to say about whether the site is worthwhile (websites like tripadvisor.com can be useful for reviews).
5. When safety is an issue. If you get a bad feeling about a hotel, tour operator etc., pay a little bit extra to go with the safer option – don’t risk traveling with the dodgy bus company just to save a few pennies. Similarly, splurge for a cab when you arrive in an unfamiliar city late at night and spring for a sleeper cabin that locks up when you’re traveling on an overnight train.
6. Activities that risk your life. Adventure activities like sky diving, bungee jumping and scuba diving come with a pretty big chance of killing you if something goes wrong. It’s worth breaking the budget to go with a reputable company whenever you engage in these kinds of activities, and/or doing them in countries with high safety standards (even if these are usually the more developed, and consequently more expensive, countries).
7. Special experiences. Travel to Verona, Italy and you can watch large-scale opera performances in an amphitheater built 2000 years ago. Go to Peru and you can fly over the Nazca Lines in a chartered plane. Sure these things aren’t cheap (they’re not really that expensive either, relatively speaking) but you’re missing out on a truly special experience if you avoid them due to cost.
8. Rare events. Whether it’s a once-off festival, an exhibit of artifacts usually kept in protective storage or a rare performance, be willing to break your budget for unusual events – some opportunities only come around once in a lifetime. Don’t end up kicking yourself for missing out.
9. Weird hotel experiences. All around the world, there are crazy forms of accommodation available to you, and I guarantee you won’t forget sleeping in a cave, [former] prison cell, ice hotel etc. If it’s on the pricier side, consider staying just for one night and then move on to a cheaper hotel.
10. Tours that save you time or add meaning to the experience. A lot of independent travelers will shun any kind of tour, but having a guide for a daytrip to say, a jungle, can be really useful. You probably can’t tell most of the trees/flowers/birds apart from one another, but a guide could really open your eyes to what you’re seeing. Also, if you’re short on time or really clueless about art/history, a guided tour of a museum can not only make the experience more insightful but also save you valuable travel time by zoning in on the important stuff and whisking past the rest.
11. Transport that conserves your energy for more important things. I remember visiting Angkor Wat in Cambodia and seeing so many backpackers either riding bicycles to get to the ruins, or worse, walking. Now the temple complex is only about 6km from the city, but in the searing heat, it feels a lot farther and you’re going to be walking around the ruins all day anyway. The way I see it, it’s worth paying for the tuk tuk/taxi so you actually have the energy to see what you’re there to see.
12. When it’s about your passions. Spend money on the things that will bring you the greatest joy and create the happiest memories. So if you’re a foodie, splurge on nice meals or a local cooking course, if you love music, go to concerts and buy the souvenir t-shirt, and so on. You can balance this out by scrimping on the things that don’t matter to you (e.g. you don’t mind taking a bus or train rather than flying somewhere). Ultimately your trip is about you, so spend money on the things that matter most to you.
What do you think? What are your considerations when deciding when to splurge?