I have no problem deeming myself a queen of planning budget international trips. After doing it for so long, it is difficult for me to fathom any other way of going about it. Through my years of experience (nine whole years!), I have come across plenty of tips and tricks both due to my experimentation and from speaking with lots of other budget travelers. “Money” is often the main reason people give for why they can’t travel as much as they desire; however, in most cases, this is just an excuse. Sure, if you only want to fly business class and stay at five-star hotels then, yes, you need a grandiose budget; but, that isn’t really traveling, or at least how I define it. Even if I possessed the finances to indulge in those kinds of luxuries (I very much don’t), I wouldn’t. It just doesn’t seem that appealing to me and is a surefire way of blocking yourself from having the kind of impromptu travel moments that I relish.
Here’s the thing — an international trip doesn’t have to cost you your right arm. When you combine smart budgeting with a little bit of pre-planning and an open-minded attitude about what to expect while you are there, you can see the world on a budget. I promise! If you are looking to plan a trip to the other side of the world, here’s how I plan my international budget trips, from start to finish…
STEP ONE: Figure Out What you want
When people ask me for recommendations on where they should travel next, before I start listing off destinations, I always question them about what exactly they are looking for in their trip. All corners of the world have the potential to be the location for a fantastic trip (read: mindset), but not necessarily in the same way. Some countries excel in adventure-based activities, while others are mindblowing for architecture fans. Some destinations make the perfect background for lovebirds, while others are easy to navigate on your own. Do you want a city-break (something only a couple of hours away) or a month-long immersion in a wildly different culture (making more travel time feasible)? How much time and energy do you want to dedicate to logistics? Or would you prefer a locale that has a definite “traveler route”? Do you want the cheapest getaway possible? Or are you willing to splurge on all the experiences?
In some cases, the destination may be evident as it is somewhere that haunts your dreams or is where a visit-worthy friend resides. Just having a vague idea of where you want to visit, for how long, and the style of traveling you want to embark upon will aid you in finding the right place for you for this trip. Need some inspiration? Here are my city guides for Seattle, Portland, Stockholm, and Hydra and my favorite new travel destinations of 2017 & 2018.
STEP TWO: Look Into Logistics
Once you have some idea of where you want to go, it is time to start researching how to make it happen aka the logistics stage aka my favorite part! Now before you shudder at the mere thought, hear me out on why I love it. Generally, I move onto step two as soon as I have an inkling about a destination. I tell myself, “I’m just looking!” while in reality, this is where I see how to make the trip as financially feasible as possible. Take my December travels, for example. The initial destination was Mumbai, India to meet my boyfriend. Immediately, I wondered how I could combine it with some time in Dubai where the company I work for is based. Cheap flights from Dubai to Mumbai? Check. Cheap flights from Boston to Dubai? Not so much. The more I researched flights on this route, the more I recognized that all the cheaper flights had a stop in Europe. Utilizing Skyscanner’s brilliant “everywhere” option, I searched Boston to Everywhere and instantly found a very cheap flight to Oslo, Norway. “Cool, I haven’t been there.” How about Oslo to Dubai? Well, it turns out the budget-airline Norwegian fly that direct route for less than $100. By this point, I had cut hundreds of dollars from travel expenses while also including a weekend in a new city. It didn’t take me long to discover that a $30 bus runs from Dubai to Muscat, Oman and that there are multiple daily flights from Muscat to Mumbai. In about an hour, I had a full month’s itinerary mapped out well under-budget.
I understand that not everyone has this extent of flexibility, but the point is that you don’t know where you can go until you start looking into the logistics. Most of the time, I have a reason to be in one destination at a particular time, and then I start building out the rest of the trip by looking at feasible transportation options to places I haven’t been.
STEP THREE: Have your basics covered
Once I have an overview of the logistics, I am pretty confident that the trip is going to happen. However, before booking anything, I make sure that I have all my basics covered. This includes ensuring that my passport doesn’t expire within six months of the travels and that I have enough pages in it for any stamps or visas (learn from my experiences – keep track of this!). Next, I verify the visa requirements for the countries I will be visiting, and see which need to be applied for in advance (either by mail or online) and which offer visa-on-entry. Last but not least, I check if I need any additional immunizations or specific medicines. At this point, I am a very relaxed traveler, so these are really the only essential things I examine.
STEP FOUR: Book that flight!
The moment when the trip becomes real — when you receive your flight booking e-mail! I pretty much exclusively use Skyscanner when booking flights as it always finds outstanding deals and I love to use their options of looking at flights from a destination to “everywhere” and scanning the cost of flights for an entire month. Other sites for finding cheap airfare are Momondo, Kiwi, and Airtreks (focuses exclusively on multi-destination RTW tickets). If you are planning a trip to Europe, check out my post on the essential apps for European travel for other resources specific to this continent.
STEP FIVE: Figure out the initial accommodations
Most people, understandably, like to know where they are sleeping each night that they will be away. I, on the other hand, prefer to wing it, usually only organizing accommodation for the first couple of nights in a locale. Couchsurfing is my go-to (the best budget option), and I try to send my requests out 3-8 days in advance. Too much earlier and hosts don’t know their personal plans, too much later and your chances of finding someone you actually want to stay with are significantly reduced. That being said, there have been COUNTLESS times when it is the middle of the afternoon, and I don’t know where I am sleeping that evening, so I don’t want to say that this is a foolproof system. If that happens, I usually resort to Hostelworld, Airbnb, or sleeping in my car if it is an option. Which is to say that I always figure it out, but maybe don’t follow my lead on this if you need a little more stability in your life. HAHA!
STEP SIX: Last minute preparations
Before leaving for the airport, I ensure that I have printed copies of my passport, Green Card, driver’s license, and travel insurance as well as having copies stored on my phone, laptop, and in the cloud. For travel insurance, I always use World Nomads as they provide great coverage at a fantastic price and you can purchase it for the exact dates you are traveling. If you are a really responsible traveler, you will alert your embassy that you are gone, but I have never done this. Oops. Depending on the cards you have, you may need to notify your bank of where and when you will be out of the country — my experience is with Chase and Wells Fargo, and the former doesn’t need to be notified, while the latter makes it really simple to update travel plans on the mobile app. Again, depending on your cell phone plan, you may want to look into adjusting to allow for international roaming without the exorbitant costs. I have the T-Mobile One Plus International plan which works in 200+ countries (unfortunately they recently discontinued this as a new option), so I don’t have to think about that.
However, I do have to consider money. Generally, I have $200 in cash in my travel wallet to be used in emergencies or for visas-on-entry, and another couple of hundred dollars to exchange for local currency upon arrival. As much as possible I opt to use my credit card because I get points, can keep track of my expenses, and it is the best way to protect my funds while traveling. I travel with two debit cards and two credit cards from two different banks and keep them all in separate areas of my luggage to reduce the risk of me being stuck in some far-flung place with no access to money — which is really the only thing I ever worry about.