There is one big reason I try not to dwell very much on the bare-bone minimum budget you can get by on in a destination when traveling. If you strictly stick to the lowest of the low budgets, you miss out on a lot of really cool experiences. For one thing, you don’t have the ability to join up with a local tour that can save you loads of time and provide a more interesting experience.
A little over a week ago I took a $28 tour out to the Teotihuacán ruins outside Mexico City. Throw in another $5 for a really good buffet lunch and another roughly $4 for the admission ticket and it’s a $37 day before lodging and additional meals. But it wasn’t an ordinary day.
Unless you are going somewhere really boring, you should budget for plenty of unordinary days.
Sure, I could have saved a few bucks doing this the hard way, taking a local bus or metro to the right bus station, then taking a packed bus out to the ruins, then waiting for a packed bus back at the end. Then the local bus back to the center. But it would have been an ordeal. For this trip we had a comfortable van and a good guide who could explain a lot and answer questions in English. Plus there was the camraderie that comes with meeting other travelers from around the world. (In this case, Australia, Germany, and Slovenia—and two of the Aussies are now staying at my house next month when they pass through.)
The tour also built in two other stops. One was the Aztec city of Tlatelolco. This spot was interesting because of the juxtaposition of architecture and all the layers of history. Aztec market town, Spanish colonial church from pilfered stone, and a plaza where a student massacre (and coverup) took place in the sixties. Would I have gone there on my own? Probably not, but I’m really glad we stopped there.
The other stop was a different story. It was the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe. It brought out my usual skepticism about religious miracles that seem way too convenient and timely. (And funny how that blessed impression in the robe looks just like a 16th-century Spanish religious painting…) The masses eat it up though and the masses were definitely out in force when we visited on a Sunday, a Sunday where the pope was speaking by satellite on big TV monitors. Not for the claustrophobic.
But Teotihuacan was even more spectacular than I expected and it was great knowing I had a ride back after I saw the huge crowds pouring in from the bus stop. Sure, spending the night nearby would have been even better to enable an early entrance, but I was on a work trip and only had a day.
If you are backpacking around the world, you usually have more time than money, so spending an extra few hours in transit is not such a big deal. If you are on a vacation/holiday time frame, however, bumping up your daily budget a bit can allow you to see and do a whole lot more, with less hassle. In Luxor, Cusco, Saigon, Bangkok, Kathmandu, Cape Town, Istanbul, and pretty much any other place where travelers congregate, check out the local tour menu at your guesthouse or nearby agency. You’ll find plenty of worthwhile mini-splurges.