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22 Jul 2014

How To Budget While On Vacation

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by Jesse Mecham

I had told you about how we just got back from Europe, and Sarah in the comments had asked: “How did you track your expenses while on vacation?”

So my husband and I got to talking about it, and, using much of what he commented back to Sarah with, we came up with this post.

While it’s a challenge, keeping to a budget on vacation requires a LOT of preparation and foresight. We’ve now gone to Europe three times on a YNAB budget, and at this very moment I’m sitting in a cabin in Taos on another vacation. (I plan on telling you next how I manage my travel addiction.) So hopefully this will help in Europe or wherever your heart takes you next.

1. Before you purchase anything, know your conversion rate!

It’s not board game money, as much as you feel like it is. It’s real money; trust me. If you don’t want to do the math, then get an app for your phone that can do it for you.

2. Pay for as much as you can while you’re still home.

If you plan on traveling by train or bus once you’re there, then buy the tickets as early as they’ll let you. Many of the companies mail you the ticket, and others simply email them. But trust me, don’t wait until the last minute. Also, pay for any shows or tours that you plan on going to in advance. This helps a ton.

3. Check the admission prices on the websites of everything else you plan on attending and public transportation passes, and budget for all of those.

I made the mistake once of just estimating what I thought the museum admission prices would be, and it ended up being about 2-3 times more. If you spend a couple of days at home on your itinerary, you won’t regret it. You don’t even have to nail down the itinerary day by day, just list the things that you definitely want to do, and then plan then play it by ear, planning around the events that are set in stone. Also, do a search on the public transportation of the cities that you’re going to so that you can maximize on the passes that you’ll surely want to buy.

4. Give yourself a budget for gifts and souvenirs, and get cash out for those.

Once you have your cash, then use an envelope system for this. Keep you cash safe in a money belt or traveler’s wallet. This will also keep you from making regrettable impulse buys.

5. Give yourself a per diem for food and use cash.

Again, you’ll want to use the envelope system for this, keeping the cash safe in a traveler’s wallet or money belt. Also, be sure to do an internet search for what is customary tipping procedure. You may end up saving a little dough that way.

6. Make sure you and whomever you’re traveling with all have a chip in your credit/debit card.

If you don’t already have one, get this sent to you a few months in advance of your trip. Many vendors, especially in Eastern Europe, don’t take a credit card with a swipe. This prevented me from renting a bike one day because each of us needed our own card to register, so it was a major bummer. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/EMV – the US will be doing this very soon. (Tip: Call your credit card company and bank before you leave to let them know you’ll be overseas.)

7. Give yourself (if possible) a few hundred dollars of buffer so that mistakes or minor emergencies aren’t a big deal.

You’re on vacation, and it’s awesome, and you don’t know when you’ll get to come back, and that this doesn’t happen every day, so you don’t want to be stressing out about money! A buffer will ease the stress as long as you don’t rely on it too heavily.

8. Download your transactions every night.

Any credit card/debit transactions will show up almost immediately as converted into dollars, so if you’re doing a best guess conversion during the day, at night you can look at your pending transactions and you’ll see those transactions in dollars. Make sure you use a credit card that doesn’t charge you a huge conversion fee (we use the Barclay Travel card because of its rewards and for this reason too).

9.  Use Yelp or Trip Advisor to find places to eat out of the tourist areas to save money.

If you do this beforehand, it’s great. But if you don’t, you might consider getting data on your phone to make things easier (you can buy a prepaid SIM card while you’re there that’s pretty reasonable), but we managed to find enough places with free Wi-Fi to get the information we needed (the Trip Advisor app was my favorite). A lot of times you can end up going a few blocks outside of the normal tourist trap and get something more authentic and much cheaper. So I’d recommend looking at your itinerary now and finding options for where you’re going to be. I think the most expensive aspect of our trip was the panic-and-eat-out-at-a-tourist-trap scenario.

And as far as the nuts-and-bolts of your categories and whatnot, that’s up to you. We just had one category with a simple list of the budget in the notes. Some of you will probably want a master category with sub-categories for each thing (food, souvenirs, etc.), and that’s fine, too. My personal taste is to keep it a little simpler.

I hope this helps! Happy travels!

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Remember, budgeting is not restrictive. You won’t be spending less, you’ll be spending right. You can do this! Today. Right now. What do you have to lose? Except all that debt and stress. (Ok, so kind of a lot.)

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