It’s easy to use the excuse “I’m on vacation!” as a reason to spend when you know you shouldn’t (on an expensive meal, indulgent spa treatment, or souvenir that will end up collecting dust on a shelf), but the most important thing is to have a travel budget.
I’m a big fan of embarking on a trip without a set itinerary. Since my career is focused on planning, I welcome the uncertainty of spontaneous travel. But, that doesn’t mean I don’t explicitly calculate and stick to my travel budget. As much as I enjoy the freedom to explore, I never want to come home with a money hangover.
Follow these 6 steps to maximize your money and your fun while on vacation:
1. Start with an Idea
Choosing a destination, whether you’re heading out on your own or coordinating with family or friends, will dictate a starting point for your travel budget. A trip to Paris obviously costs more than a weekend retreat that’s only a few hours’ drive from your home. If seeing the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre is really important to you, careful planning can make it possible, regardless of your financial situation.
2. Be Flexible with Time, Location, or Money
Since airfares and travel costs fluctuate, planning a trip can become a juggling act between time, location, and money. If you’re low on cash but flexible with time or location, you can maximize your vacation by visiting during the off-season or choosing a less trendy destination. Alternatively, if you’ve committed to a ski trip with friends over a specific holiday weekend, you’ll have to budget accordingly.
3. Know Your Preferences
Research your destination in advance—guidebooks and travel websites can help you determine average costs for basics like lodging and food, as well as extras like museum admission or adventure activities. Don’t just skim the numbers while your eyes glaze over. Take the time to add up how much you think you’ll spend. If the amount is more than you can afford, you’ll need to save more or make some cuts.
4. Count Related Expenses
Don’t just budget for what you spend on your trip, but for all related expenses, too. Don’t forget the cost of buying specific gear or new luggage, or for boarding a pet on a plane. Think through any related expenses before settling on a budget amount.
5. Expect the Unexpected
Most people underestimate how much they will spend on vacation. A couple of years ago, I was excited to score an extremely cheap last-minute ticket to Colombia. Little did I know, entrance into Parque Tayrona, my ultimate destination, requires a Yellow Fever vaccination card. In New York City, that vaccination would have cost me about the same as the airfare. Although I avoided that expense by going to a free clinic in Barranquilla, I strongly recommend building a cushion into your budget for these types of surprises. A good rule of thumb is to inflate your travel budget by at least 10% to cover unforeseen expenses.
6. Don’t Forget About Rewards Points
Whether you like to accrue points to use for a big trip or spend them as you get them, rewards point can be an integral part of your travel budget. I rarely let airline miles accumulate—I fly within the U.S. often enough that there’s always a trip I can pay for with miles. Whatever you do, just don’t forget to use them.
What are you waiting for? Get out there and explore somewhere new—right after you create your travel budget.