How To NOT Go Over Budget While You’re On Vacation

It’s very easy to spend more than you expect when you’re on vacation. Even if you plan in advance, your “vacation brain” can set it. Actually, I think they call it YOLO these days.

We’ve all been there. You’re relaxing by the pool – it’s hot as heck – and you absolutely needed all four of those $8 strawberry daiquiris with the mini umbrellas that the pool boy placed on the table next to your lounge chair. Then you get the bill – $36 including tax! Plus you have to tip! Yikes. You just spent $43 and you haven’t even gone out to dinner yet.

After several OMG DANGIT moments like that in my travels, I learned that the tactic that works best for me is to map out my daily expenses ahead of my trip so I know exactly how much I’m in for.

You're at a moonshine distillery in Gatlinburg, Tennessee with your friends. Ergo, you will probably buy a few rounds.

You’re at a moonshine distillery in Gatlinburg, Tennessee with your friends. Ergo, you will probably buy a few rounds.

Please understand that my budgeting tactic does not involve planning every single detail of my vacation in advance. Au contraire, mon ami!

Instead, I map out what I know to be true, and give myself an allowance for the rest. Since many of my readers typically travel with at least one companion, I thought the most relevant example would demonstrate what it looks like to travel with a buddy for ten days. The example below is from my trip to Seattle and Vancouver in late summer 2013 – and my boyfriend was my buddy.

Planning to $5K Vacation Budget - my Vancouver/Seattle Trip 2013

Planning to $5K Vacation Budget – my Vancouver/Seattle Trip 2013

As you can see, I estimated each of our expenses by day, and included notes about what was planned in advance. Most notably, I divided up my budget tracker into four vacation expense types:

  • Transportation
  • Lodging
  • Food
  • Activities & Souvenirs

Based on my experience, all travel expenses will fall into one of those four buckets.

Ever since I started pre-planning my trips using this spreadsheet tool and making sure to stay within my allotted budgets, I have not had any issues with overspending at a “YOLO” moment. (for all non-Millennials reading this, YOLO stands for “you only live once”)  I know exactly what I can spend each day on food and souvenirs, and I stick to it.

A few budget-busting tendencies to avoid during your travels are:

  • Not packing what you truly need. Last year I went to Ireland in the springtime without waterproof shoes. On the second day of my trip, and after several spontaneous rain showers, I scoured the shops in Dublin for a pair of boots that could get me through the next six days. I ended up spending 60 euro on a new pair of shoes, and had to make up for that cost within my food and souvenirs budgets over the rest of the trip. Major bummer.

    Shopping with my best friend for warmer clothes in Cork, Ireland.

    Shopping with my best friend for warmer clothes in Cork, Ireland.

  • Not being realistic about your food/alcohol budget. You’re on vacation. You will most likely have at least one coffee and one alcoholic drink per day. If you’re planning to go out at night, budget for a few more drinks than you usually consume. It’s always better to over-estimate what you’re going to spend on food and drinks than under-estimate. And don’t forget about exchange rates! If you’re in London, there’s absolutely no way that you’re going to spend the equivalent of five dollars for lunch on-the-go.

    Create a realistic budget for what you will spend. (image source:

  • Forgetting to account for fees. Before you leave, think through carefully when you’ll be charged specific fees. There are many examples of this to choose from. Most airlines charge around $25 to check a bag. Some hotels charge a small fee to print out your boarding pass. Some train stations have pay-per-hour lockers to store your bags for the day while you tour a city. If you’re renting a car, you may have to pay to park near a tourist attraction. Whatever the case may be, I recommend that you brainstorm all potential fees in advance of your trip so you can factor them into one of your four trip expense buckets.

    Think through all potential fees in advance so you're not caught by surprise (image source:

    Think through all potential fees in advance so you’re not caught by surprise (image source:

I hope I’m not being the bearer of bad news as I explain how expensive dream vacations can be. Trust me – I am just as eager as you to explore the world! And I know that people who read travel blogs are usually looking for inspiration rather than a reality check. So for that reason, I’m sorry!

But, by using my budgeting tool to help you take affordable trips, I sincerely hope I can help you experience an enjoyable vacation that you won’t have to pay off for several months upon your return. To me, that idea alone is inspirational!

So, feel free to download my vacation budgeting template here, located in my MeansToTravel google docs.

Here’s to hoping my tactics can work for you too!



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