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Tuesday, September 26, 2023

How to travel like a boss on a budget

How to travel sustainably on a budget 

Tori Dunlap

After a few years of working from home many of us are in desperate need of a vacation, and we have our eyes set on faraway destinations. From tropical beaches to coffee shops in quaint towns to forests and mountains that look straight out of a Tolkien novel, there is so much world to explore… but it sure can get pricey fast. 

As a travel fanatic, I know firsthand how expensive traveling can be. Between air travel, accommodations, transportation, tourist traps, souvenirs, and the cute outfits you NEEDED for the Instagram photos (no judgment because, same), the array of expenses associated with traveling can get out of hand before you can say arrivederci!  

Creating a realistic and sustainable travel budget is one of the best ways that you can prepare for a trip so that you can be wholly present and stress-free on your vacay. After all, your trip should be stress-free and relaxing; the last thing you need is to see “declined” on a screen when you swipe your card – especially when you are traveling abroad.

Fortunately for you, as a seasoned traveler and a money coach, I have all the tried-and-true tips and tricks for creating a travel budget that feels totally fulfilling rather than restrictive, all while helping you reach your overall financial goals. 

How to create a travel budget

Think of your travel budget as your ultimate travel companion – always down for an adventure, with you through the highs and lows, and also keeps you grounded and secure as you navigate new countries and experiences. 

Now I know that when a lot of people hear the word “budget,” they automatically think “restriction” – but this isn’t the mindset we want to have as we create our travel budget. Rather, we want to create a budget that allows us to be fully present during our travels because we aren’t stressing about finances. 

The only restricting your budget should really be doing is restricting you from making purchases that might not ultimately align with your personal financial goals. A good travel budget should allow you to make room for your travel essentials and priorities, and the only restrictions within your budget should be restrictions from making purchases that may not ultimately align with your personal financial goals. So rather than thinking of your budget as a “stop sign” that gets in the way of your fun and adventures, consider it the steering wheel that allows you to take on new experiences with control and security.

Identify your “must-haves”

The first step to creating a sustainable travel budget is identifying your travel must-haves. These are the things you must do, see, or buy during your travels so that you feel like the trip was as personally fulfilling as possible. 

Whether it’s going to the top of the Eiffel tower, taking a sushi tour through Japan, buying a designer handbag in Italy, or flying first class for the first time ever, these are the experiences that will be prioritized in your travel budget. 

Identify your expenses

Next, write down all of your travel expenses and their estimated costs. Whether you prefer to plug these numbers into a spreadsheet, fill out a budgeting app, or write them down with a good ol’ fashioned pen and paper, identifying all of your anticipated expenses will give you the most realistic budget for your trip possible. 

From airfare to baggage fees to accommodations to food, the more detailed you can be the better, as it will help you create the most specific budget possible. Don’t forget to include your financial priorities! 

This is where it’s especially important to be realistic about the amounts you will need to spend. While a month-long European tour for $1,000 sounds great in theory, it’s definitely not realistic and is not setting you up for financial success. 

Once you have identified all of your travel expenses, add up all of the costs and voila! You now have a detailed and realistic budget for your upcoming trip. 

Set aside money in case of an emergency

You know the age old adage, “if it can go wrong, it will go wrong?” Never has it been more relevant than while traveling. Even with all of our detailed planning, sometimes unexpected emergencies – and expenses – arise. 

From dropping your phone in the ocean to twisting your ankle on a day hike and needing to go to the doctor, it is so much better to have some emergency money set aside to accommodate unexpected expenses. 

Even just an extra $50 set aside in a secure cash account can create so much peace of mind while you are traveling and prevent you from having to go over budget due to an emergency. 

Determine how much money you feel comfortable setting aside for emergencies and add that amount to the final number from step two to find your final budget amount. 

Once you have figured out exactly how much money you are planning to spend on your travel, you can start to save for the upcoming trip. I suggest using the various tools available through Empower to set yourself and your travel budget up for success. 

The Empower Personal Dashboard™ can allow you to see exactly how much money you are earning and spending each month so that you can determine how much you can afford to contribute to your travel budget every month. 

How to stick to your travel budget 

I know, I know, you thought the hard work was behind you now that you’ve finished your travel budget. But, your travel budget is only as beneficial as your ability to stick to it, so here are my top tips for sticking to your budget so that you can enjoy a totally financially stress-free trip. 

Keep track of your expenses 

Remember how I had you write down your budget on a spreadsheet or a piece of paper? Well keep that budget on hand as you travel and update it as you go. 

I know that tracking your expenses while traveling may not sound like the most fun way to spend your time while traveling, which is why I suggest using Empower’s budgeting tool to make tracking your spending quick and easy. This will allow you to easily track your spending and see in real time if your spending is over or under what you budgeted. 

Find ways to stay motivated

When traveling, it is easy to get swept up in the excitement of jet setting to far-away destinations, dining at Instagram-worthy restaurants, and picking up souvenirs at every stop. If we aren’t careful, this can end up resulting in embracing a “YOLO” attitude and kicking your budget to the curb. 

Find ways to stay motivated to stick to your budget even when tempting opportunities to blow your budget arise. Whether it’s writing your larger financial goals in a note on your phone and revisiting it when you get the urge to splurge, reviewing your budgeting spreadsheet daily, or asking for your travel buddy to hold you accountable, look for ways to stay motivated to stick to your budget even when tempting opportunities to go over budget arise. 

Review how your budget performed 

So you’ve made it back home after the trip of your dreams and are looking for an excuse to put off unpacking. Well, I have just the thing. 

Take this opportunity to whip out your budget spreadsheet (you didn’t think you were done with it, did you?) and review how your initial budget held up to your actual travel spending. As you compare your estimated expenses with your actual expenses, ask yourself the following questions: 

  • Were there certain areas where you consistently overspent or underspent?
  • Were there certain necessary expenses that you didn’t plan for in your initial budget?
  • Were there any purchases that didn’t meet your expectations or you wish you hadn’t made?
  • If you overspent, what do you have to do now to get your overall budget back on track?

Answering these questions can help you gain clarity on where your budget could use improving so that you can better prepare your travel budget for future trips.



Tori Dunlap

Tori Dunlap


Tori Dunlap is a millennial money and career expert. After saving $100,000 at age 25, Tori founded Her First $100K to fight financial inequality by giving women actionable resources to better their money. A Plutus award winner, her work has been featured on Good Morning America, New York Magazine, Forbes, CNBC, and more. An honors graduate of the University of Portland, Tori currently lives in Seattle, where she enjoys eating fried chicken, going to barre classes, and attempting to naturally work John Mulaney bits into conversation.


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