The Round-the-world Travel Budget

I get a few e-mails each week from readers planning to take off and go travel the world and I’ll occasionally go surf the gap year and round the world branch on the Thorn Tree forum to offer some advice. The top question by far is, “Have I saved enough money?”

The problem is, nobody can honestly answer that question except in the obvious cases when it is clearly not enough. If your year abroad includes 9 months in Europe and a month in Japan, you had better have a big inheritance coming or a major amount of coin saved up. If you’re going mostly to the places covered in The World’s Cheapest Destinations, however, you can get by for far less than you would spend at home…IF you do it right.

Here are the questions you really need to answer honestly before you’ll know how much money you need.

1) Am I spending most of my time in cheap destinations? You can spend two months in Indonesia and spend less than you would in two weeks in Norway or Japan. The Czech Republic is half the price of Austria even though they share a border. I would argue that if you’re not made of money, a country’s costs should be your #1 factor in choosing where to go. It’s that important.

2) How much am I going to be moving around? Having a real or mental checklist that forces you to race around from place to place is a sure way to burn through your money twice as quickly. You will be handing much of your hard-earned savings to transportation providers and your memories will be a blur of buses and trains. Take time to get to know a place and its people and you’ll be amazed at how much less you need.

3) Am I a city person? There’s a huge divide between rural or small town prices and big city prices, whether you are in a third-world country or a developed one. In many cases the prices for lodging are double: Prague/Mikulov, Budapest/Eger, London/Nottingham, Atlanta/Chattanooga, Bombay/Hampi, Buenos Aires/Cafayate, and on and on. If you plan on spending most of your time in cities, double your budget.

4) How much discomfort can I put up with? I stayed in some downright scary hotels on my first round-the-world trip and was able to bump it up a notch on the next two, with slightly nicer rooms and some air-conditioned trains now and then. The difference was only a few dollars a day, but if you don’t have those extra dollars you’ll have to settle. Do some camping, some cold water showering, and outhouse using to assess your ability to truly cope with a shoestring budget.

5) How many flights will I need? I did this article a long time ago called Fly to the clusters and save. It still applies. Most of the cheap destinations are clustered together. If you’re not taking 12 flights for 12 destinations you will spend far less. A reasonable round-the-world trip can easily be done with four or five flights total over the course of a year if you’re not trying to tick off every continent.

Only when you figure out the answers to these questions can you really know how much you will need. If you’re on the right side of all the above, you and a travel partner can get by for $800 to $1,200 per month after flights fairly easily, for a year-long RTW trip. (Assume $500 to $1,000 if alone—there are savings in numbers.) Less if you stick mostly to the very cheapest spots and are a cheapskate. If you’re on the wrong side of the above questions though, double or triple it. Two of you will easily spend $1,500 a month just on hostel beds if you’re in Western Europe in the summer, before you eat even one baguette…

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