How much does travel cost?

I’m one of those people who habitually keeps track of everything numeric, from the number of sit-ups I complete in a week, to the amount of money I spend on groceries in a month.  My tedious habit becomes suddenly useful when I return from an extended trip because it allows me to put forth an answer a common question:  how much does it cost to travel?

The calendar I use to [obsessively] keep track of my daily expenses while traveling.

The calendar I use to [obsessively] keep track of my daily expenses while traveling.

This question is ridiculously complex.  There are so many variables!  Are you traveling to Western Africa or Western Europe?  Will you travel for two weeks or two years?  Will you sleep in tents or in hotels?  Are you comfortable with street food?  Do you like to go on guided tours?  How highly do you value hot water? In short, I can’t tell you how much travel costs, but, because I write really tiny numbers in a calendar every day I’m on the road, I can tell you how much my seven-month trip through portions of Europe, Northern Africa and the Middle East cost. Before I get to the numbers, here is some background information to keep in mind:

  • I travel at the upper end of the “budget” category.  I sleep in hostels when I can, but I splurge for the ones with wifi and hot showers.  I avoid guided tours unless they’re the only way to see something.  I’m happy to walk a couple miles to an attraction rather than take a taxi.  I sometimes eat at restaurants with menus and tables and English-speaking waiters.  I travel overland far more often than I travel by air.  Get the picture?
  • I’m including everything in this analysis except for three expensive splurges that were unique to me and my trip, and therefore not useful to include for other people.  Those were a) $650 for a competitive swim in Turkey, b) $1000 for a quick visit home in the middle of my trip, and c) $1150 for a week-long live-aboard dive trip in the Red Sea.  These were not ‘normal’ travel expenditures, but keep them in mind because they illustrate how much the cost of a trip can change depending on your activities.  Again, these three costs are not included in the summaries below.
  •  Pre-trip costs are not included, mostly because  I didn’t have to go out and buy a bunch of equipment to take this trip–I already owned it all.  But things like vaccinations, travel insurance, a good backpack, etc, can raise your travel expenses by upwards of $1000, so keep that in mind.
  • All amounts in the summaries below are in US Dollars.
  • I traveled largely by myself for seven months in 2014 and 2015 in parts of Western Europe, Northern Africa, and the Middle East.

Expenses by category The total amount of money I spent on my trip was $12,000 (Table 1).  That comes out to $1,700/month, or $60/day.  The most expensive category was accommodation, ringing in at $4,000, or an average of $20/night.  Interestingly, accommodation is also the category with the greatest amount of budget flexibility.  You can get by for less if you stay in cheaper hostels or really slummy hotels, or, of course, if you camp.  I personally cut costs by Couchsurfing when possible.  On the other hand, you can certainly spend more on accommodation by avoiding hostels entirely and by staying in higher-end hotels.

Total expenses including airfare. Click for larger version.

Table 1:  Total, monthly and daily expenses including airfare. Click table for larger version.

The next most expensive category was airfare, another area with a lot of wiggle room.  Buying last-minute flights will raise your costs, while buying in advance can save you money.  Travel-hacking and frequent flier miles can also save you a bundle.  In fact, the reason my international airfare came to just $2,250 for eight international flights, including two transatlantic flights, was because of travel hacking.  I saved $450 on my flight to Europe with a BarclayCard, and paid just $150 for my flight home from Ethiopia thanks to the Chase United card.  I’m not knowledgeable enough about travel hacking to write a post about it, but I do know that it can save you a bundle! Without it, my airfares would have cost about $1,700 more than they did.

The third most expensive category was overland transportation, totaling $2,100, or $10/day.  The cost of overland travel varied wildly with location.  For example, it cost upwards of $50 for a couple hours on a train in Europe compared to $3 for a four-hour bus ride in Ethiopia.

Camel transportation falls in a grey area. Wadi Rum, Jordan.

Camel transportation falls in a grey area. Wadi Rum, Jordan.

Eating out was the next most expensive category, totaling $1,560, or $8/day.  The cost of eating at restaurants goes hand-in-hand with the cost of groceries, which was just $690 for the entire trip.  Where I ate largely depended on what country I was in.  In the more expensive countries like Germany and Switzerland, I mostly bought my own ingredients and cooked food at the hostels, while in cheap countries like Egypt and Ethiopia I almost exclusively ate out.  That was partly because the restaurant food was so cheap it was hard to justify cooking my own, and partly because hostels, and in particular hostels with kitchens, were rare finds in those regions.

Activities totaled just $830.  Like I mentioned above, I don’t usually go on guided tours, so that saved me a lot of money.  Most of my activity costs were things like park fees, museum admission fees, entry to ruins, and bike rentals.

Finally, there’s the ‘miscellaneous’ category.  These expenses were things like visa fees, entry or exit taxes, medication bought on the road, toiletries, and souvenirs.  These relatively small costs add up over time, coming to $660 over seven months.

 Costs excluding airfare

Like I said, airfare is a category with a lot of wiggle room.  This is especially true for people who will be traveling exclusively overland, like my brother and his wife recently did on their 14-month van adventure from the US to Argentina.  Because of that, when preparing for a trip I usually calculate two separate budgets, one for airfare, and one for everything else.

T2

Table 2: Total, monthly and daily costs excluding airfare. Click on table for larger version.

When airfare is removed from the equation, I only spent $10,000 in seven months, or just $1,400/month and $50/day (Table 2).  Numbers like that make overland travel really appealing!  Consider places like Latin America and Africa for overland adventures–you can still see a remarkably diverse set of countries without the expense of air travel.

Costs by country or region

I don’t know which is the stronger factor in how much travel costs: where you go or your travel style.  One thing is certain, though–location plays a huge role in how much money you’ll spend.  Consider Table 3 below.  Three weeks in Switzerland cost over $2,000 while three weeks in Morocco cost half that!

Total and daily costs by country/region.

Table 3:  Total and daily costs by country/region.

At an average of $87/day, Switzerland was particularly expensive (but, wow, was it ever worth it!) because of two factors: the price of transportation and of accommodation.  There are some great train passes that will help you save money on transportation expenses, but even ‘half price’ on a Swiss train is ridiculously expensive.  And accommodation is ludicrously overpriced.  A bed in a hostel dorm can cost you upwards of $50!  Definitely check out Couchsurfing.org if you’re heading to Switzerland–it can save you a bundle.

Private coves on Crete are free! Plakias, Crete, Greece.

Private coves on Crete are free! Plakias, Crete, Greece.

Greece was surprisingly inexpensive, coming in at just $44 a day, cheaper than most countries in the EU.   Average daily transportation costs there were $25, or roughly half of what it was in the rest of Western Europe, partly because of low ticket prices, and partly because I hitchhiked quite a lot (Greece is fantastic for hitching).  More importantly, I did something in Greece that’s essential to cheap travel–I traveled slowly.  And by slowly, I mean I went to a hostel on Crete and stayed there for two weeks.  Not only did I drastically cut my food, activity and transportation costs by setting up base somewhere, but I was able to really get to know that little corner of Greece.  As a result, my time in Plakias, Crete was one of the highlights of my trip.

The cheapest countries were, naturally, the most impoverished.  I spent just $26/day in Egypt and $21/day in Ethiopia.  Travel tip for Egypt:  if you have a student ID, even one from a university instead of an official ISIC card, bring it–it will get you half off all the major Egyptian ruins.  As for Ethiopia, traveling independently instead of with a tour group will save you a bundle.  Check out my guide for independently hiking the Simien Mountains as an example.

Putting these costs into perspective

Along with “how much does travel cost”, I’m often asked “how can you afford to travel so much?”  After crunching the numbers on my last trip, it isn’t hard to see how I can afford it—it costs the same (or sometimes less!) than the cost of staying home.  Seriously. Below is a table of my monthly expenses before I left home (Table 4).  These costs were for a one-bedroom apartment in a college town, cooking at home far more than I ate out, driving as little as possible, and limiting my spending on ‘stuff’.  The total was roughly $1,500 a month just to stay home.  Even with airfare, my average monthly cost of travel was just $200 more per month!  Previous trips I’ve taken have cost even less, and I’ve actually saved money by traveling in the past.

Table 4: Typical monthly cost of living at home prior to my trip.

Table 4: Typical monthly cost of living at home prior to my trip.

There are two things to keep in mind, though, regarding the relative costs of staying at home versus traveling abroad.  One is that you have to save all the money in advance.  Living at home you can get by ‘paycheck to paycheck’ if necessary, while with travel you need all that money upfront.  In other words, you have to focus on saving money while still at home.  But then, while you’re traveling, don’t cringe about the amount you’re spending each day–at least you’re not just handing that money over to your landlord.

Which brings me to the second caveat:  the idea that travel costs as much as staying home is only true if you’re not maintaining a home while you’re away.  The same won’t apply for two-week vacations or if you’re still paying rent/mortgage for the full seven months you’re gone.  If you’re renting, move out.  If you’re in your own place, try subletting or renting out your home so you don’t have to eat those costs, too.

Tips for a cheaper trip

While some costs are out of your hands (eg. train travel in Switzerland or visa fees for Ethiopia), there are some things you can do to ease the burden on your wallet.

  • Traveling with another person can make things cheaper.  For example, you can split the cost of private transportation, like when a friend and I hired a car in Egypt to take us to some remote ruins.  The biggest savings come from sharing hotel rooms.  In areas without hostels, hotels can be your only choice, and sharing a room is always less expensive than having one to yourself.  But be careful: financially speaking, traveling with another person can be a double-edged sword, especially if the other person has higher standards of comfort than you have.  You might finding yourself spending $20 each on a hotel room each night because it’s “not that much more expensive” than the $15/bed hostel next door.  Over time, those extra costs can add up!
  • Traveling slowly can also help to cut costs.  Instead of racing around trying to see everything, try thoroughly exploring one area instead.  You’ll cut down on transportation costs by not moving so much, reduce food costs by knowing where the good deals are or by cooking your own food, and often times you can get a good deal at a hotel or hostel by staying multiple nights.
  • Fly as little as possible.  There are exceptions to this, like the budget airlines in Europe, or the half-price domestic tickets in Ethiopia when you arrive on an international flight using Ethiopian Airlines.  But overall, flying is really expensive, especially when you take into account the peripheral costs like getting to and from the airport, departure taxes and baggage fees.  Besides, traveling overland allows you to see far more of the countryside and gives you an opportunity to meet locals on the way.
Hiking near Gimmelwald, Switzerland.

Hiking near Gimmelwald, Switzerland.

A final thought

After all this talk about money it’s important to keep in mind that travel is far more than the sum of its costs.  It’s like one of those MasterCard commercials:  you can assign a price tag to everything you do, but the overall experience of travel is priceless.  Do I cringe every time I think about how much money I spent in Switzerland?  Sure.  But now, seven months later, do I care?  Nope.  All I think about is that amazing hike I took below the Matterhorn, and the view from the porch at that incredible hostel in Gimmelwald, what it felt like to swim in Lac Leman, and how I got to share all those experiences with my boyfriend.

Priceless.

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3 Comments

  1. Ahhh this is amazing and so useful!!!

  2. Wonderful article. I have met my match in keeping close track of numbers. I’m going to insist all my Girl Scouts read your blog before planning their next international trip.

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