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How to Travel on a Budget

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Family snorkeling in the ocean.

It’s a big, beautiful world out there. And you would love to explore it all. But who has the kind of money required to travel wherever they want?

Well, the answer might come as a surprise.

Because if you research thoroughly, plan properly – and stick to your budget when you travel – then that person could very well be you. You don’t need to be rich to travel. Just creative, flexible, and a little bit disciplined.

And best of all, you can save the money you’ll need to fund your adventures while still staying true to your long-term financial budget.

Everyone has their own version of financial success. And if yours includes traveling regularly, this is your guide to achieving that. Here are the steps we recommend:

Thoroughly research your travel options

Yes, travel does cost more than your daily life. But there are many affordable options that can make your dreams come true. And finding lower-cost opportunities is much easier today thanks to the internet.

Here are some tips that will help:

  • Be flexible. This is true with your travel dates, your accommodation standards, and even your destination. Consider less popular airports and locations. Let your budget be your guide.
  • Use third-party search services. Websites like Priceline or Expedia constantly scour the web for the best deals on your biggest expenses – hotels and flights. You can even set price alerts for your target destinations.
  • Go at the right time. Almost every location has a high and low season. Choosing to visit during the slower times can reward you with lower prices, shorter lines, and better service.

Create a realistic travel budget

Your budget should be based on the level of experience you want. For example, you don’t need to stay at The Plaza to enjoy New York City. Heck, given that rooms start at over $900 a night, you’ll probably enjoy your stay a lot more if you don’t.

Be as realistic as possible when you answer these questions:

  • How much will it cost to get to your destination? Factor in everything. Airfare, of course. But also ground transportation, baggage fees, etc.
  • How much will it cost to stay there? You don’t need to pay top dollar. There are many affordable options out there, from lower-priced hotels to vacation homes or condo rentals, or even hostels.
  • What will you be doing when you are there? Account for everything – where you’ll eat, whether you’ll be moving around, any souvenirs you might want to buy, and even if you’ll want extra money available in case of an emergency.

Include all potential expenses – and perhaps even err on the high side. You can use resources on the web to create a travel budget.

Once you add everything up, you should know what your budget should be.

Build a vacation fund

Now that you know how much you’ll need, you can start to save for your trip. Like any major expense, it is best to create a separate account where you can deposit your funds. As always, this should be included in your overall budget.

It is best to allocate funds into a liquid savings account that can be easily accessed. These regular deposits will also help you determine if your budget is realistic. Knowing how much you can afford to save will tell you how much you can afford to spend.

Prepare for the unexpected before you travel

Planning ahead for unknown events can make a huge difference in your budget and experience, particularly if you are traveling to a foreign country. Here are a few ways to plan ahead of your trip:

  • Carry multiple methods of payment. Don’t assume everything will be accepted.
  • Learn what foreign exchange fees might be involved. Many credit card providers charge foreign transaction fees. If you’re a VACU credit cards holder, good news, our cards feature no foreign transaction fees! Learn more about our cards here.
  • Notify your financial institution and credit card providers. Say you live in Richmond, VA. Suddenly using your card in Paris or Orlando could prompt your provider to deny the transaction. To alert us here at VACU, place a travel memo on your card via the VACU Cards App.
  • Safeguard important information and documents. These include your social security number, credit cards, driver’s license, and passport.
  • Be cautious with public Wi-Fi and ATMs. This is true everywhere, of course, but particularly so when visiting a high-traffic tourist destination.
  • Consider travelers insurance. When you book, consider checking out this safety net in case your plans change. Just don't forget to account for it in your travel budget.

You can also save money by knowing the latest currency exchange rates while you’re on the go. This will let you know how much you’re spending in U.S. dollars. There are many free apps that will show you the current conversion in real time.

Stick to your budget while traveling

Traveling can make you feel like a million bucks. Which is fantastic, as long as you don’t forget you might not be a millionaire yet. But you can still have extraordinary experiences wherever you go while sticking to your budget.

Here are some tips that can help:

  • Learn from the locals. Famous restaurants are fancy, wonderful, and usually pretty expensive. Whereas restaurants visited by the locals will give you great food, a more authentic experience – and likely, a much lower bill.
  • Avoid tourist traps. These tend to spring up around the most famous attractions, of course. But they are often overcrowded, overpriced, and overrated. Prior research can help you decide if they are worth it.
  • Track your daily expenses versus your total budget. This will let you know how much you have to spend in a day. Want to splurge on one meal? Consider the breakfast provided at your lodging or a grocery store visit for another meal so you can stay within your overall budget.
  • Use trip-friendly financial tools. These will help you track your spending while on the go. These include Expensify, Pocket Guard, Tripcoin, and more. There are even specialized apps for events like bachelorette parties.

Revel in the experience

As almost every seasoned traveler will tell you, some of their fondest memories really didn’t cost much at all. And some of their most expensive outlays weren’t nearly as enjoyable as they thought they might be.

As with most things in life, spending more money doesn’t necessarily result in more happiness. Your personal photos are often the best way for you to share and won’t cost much at all – but will let you relive the best parts of your trip over and over once you’re back home.

Planning properly will enable you to see new parts of the world, enjoy the freedom of a vacation and experience a culture far different than your own. All while giving you priceless memories that will last the rest of your life.

Saving services from VACU can help you prepare for your long-term plans - or an unexpected expense.

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