The Biggest Travel Budget Killers: Location, Velocity, & Distance

Budapest train

What’s the biggest perception difference between an experienced budget traveler and one planning to take off around the world?

The first has learned what really breaks the budget over time. The latter generally has it all backwards.

Here are some paraphrased quotes from people who have sent me e-mails or asked questions on message boards I’ve been on.

– “Yes, I know we’re going to a lot of expensive places in Europe, but we’re going to sleep in hostels.” (Person who had Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, England, France, Spain, Italy, and the Greek Islands on their itinerary.)

– “We’re on a tight budget, but we really want to hit all every continent except Antarctica on our trip.” (A trip that was just 12 months long.)

– “I’m trying to find a cheap round-the-world flight that includes South America, Europe, Asia, and Australia but I’m not having much luck.”

These statements are inherently at odds with traveling on a budget. They’re hoping for a magic bullet answer that is the equivalent of defying the laws of physics. If you don’t tackle the big budget items, you had better have lots and lots of money saved.

You can ignore most of the “Top-10 Ways to Shave Your Travel Costs in Europe” articles that are meant to be click bait. Most of the time they’re just about messing with the margins, the small stuff. It’s like trying to fix the U.S. deficit problem by cutting funding for the arts. To really make a difference we would need to reform social security, truly fix the health care system, or cut defense spending. All three at once to achieve anything dramatic.

hostel prices

For the price of a hostel bed here, you get a really nice hotel room for 2 in a cheap destination.


Budapest is a fantastic bargain. Nobody will ever call Oslo a bargain, or even London for that matter. You can buy a round of drinks for all your friends in Hungary for the price of one in Norway.  The price of a hostel bed in Copenhagen will get you a spacious hotel room for two almost anywhere in Eastern Europe. One nice restaurant meal in Switzerland will feed you for a week in Portugal.

Now take that further and go to Central America, Southeast Asia, or the Indian Subcontinent. Prices drop in half again, for almost everything you could possibly spend money on. So don’t think of how you can shave costs by self-catering and staying at hostels. If you cut the entire “basket of goods and services” cost by 2/3, messing with the margins isn’t necessary.

And as I’ve said often, getting out of the big capital cities will usually help no matter where you are.

long-term travel

Did you really leave home to do this every day or two?


The more you’re moving around, the more money you’re going to spend every week, every month. It’s not far-fetched to say that someone visiting 24 countries in one year is going to spend twice as much as someone visiting 12. The one visiting 8 will spend even less.

If those 24 countries are on multiple continents that require long-haul flights, bump the budget up by thousand of dollars. Even in places where transportation is cheap, being on the move a lot requires constant spending on transportation tickets. If you’re in one place for a month though, it’s just your feet and local buses or subways. Plus when you get to know an area, you don’t have to throw money at hurdles because you’re in a hurry. You can figure out cheaper/better options for everything from lodging to groceries to bus options for leaving town at the end.

Many people setting out on their first round-the-world trip act as if their life is going to end the moment they return home. They have to do it all, see it all, on this one grand adventure. Hey, you’re 28 years old; is this really the last time in your life you’re going to get on a plane and go somewhere? On my three round-the-world trips, I never even set foot in Latin America. Now I’ve been to a dozen countries in Latin America. They didn’t disappear from the map. I still haven’t been to New Zealand. But I think it’ll wait for me.

round the world flight

This route STARTS at $7,250.


I’ve written a few articles related to my book on traveling in the cheap clusters of the world. This one is getting a bit dated, but apart from Turkey getting more expensive it’s still pretty accurate.

The idea is, you take a long-haul flight to a cluster of cheap countries, then go overland from there. The most common one is to get a flight to Bangkok and then you can hit a half-dozen other countries without getting on another long-haul flight. You can get a cheapo flight from Singapore to Indonesia or a not-so-bad one from Bangkok to Nepal or India, which is the start of another cluster. The cheapest cluster option from the U.S. or Canada is to fly to Mexico or Guatemala and then make your way south by land and boat. For the Brits, a cheap flight to Budapest or Prague can then turn into lots of jaunts by train and bus to the least expensive parts of Europe.

The easiest way to ratchet up your long-term travel budget in a hurry is to try to check far-flung places off your list on one trip. Sure, you may have always dreamed of visiting Japan, New Zealand, South Africa, Israel, and France, but if you’re trying to find a ticket hitting all those areas, it’s going to be the price of a used car, no way around it. Save some for later.

What lesson did you learn the hard way between planning and actually traveling?

  1. Glenn Dixon

    Much truth spoken here! Every traveler should read this before they purchase their first ticket…

  2. Anthony

    Tim, I am not employed currently and I building up my blog/podcast. However I do want to see much of Latin America. Let’s say its a about $800-$900 in the off-season to visit Brazil by plane from LAX. Is it possible if I took my time as you said and get down there for less than that amount of money?

    It cost me $250 fly to Mexico City, I’ve seen sales for way below that ($189-$199). A bus would have cost $130 but taken much longer of close. Buses don’t brother me as long as they are the newer coaches and I know many companies have these.

    Also how would you return? Say it took you three-four months to get down there, are you saying you have no choice but to return the way you came and it takes the same amount of time?

    • Tim Leffel

      Anthony, if you really only want to go to (expensive) Brazil and not anywhere else, then you should just fly there. Airfare is going to pale in comparison to all your other costs after arrival. It’s the most expensive country in South America in most respects. If you do want to see other countries though, you could go down overland and fly back from somewhere like Ecuador or Colombia that has relatively low flight prices.

  3. Joe

    Much truth spoken here. As a regular visitor to Europe, I would certainly dodge Oslo and Switzerland. Both are ridiculously expensive, yet have relatively little to offer. Budapest is a great city in Europe, so is Krakow and as a value for money destination, I would say Berlin is one of the highest.

    London is expensive but many of it’s attractions are free, same for Paris. If one is travelling to Europe from the USA, particularly to England, look out for Ryanair, Wizz Air and Easyjet flights that can cost as little as £10 ($20) from Manchester/London to Poland and many other countries in Eastern Europe.

  4. Johnny Witt

    Switzerland doesn’t have “relatively little to offer”. Switzerland is one of the coolest countries on the planet. Where else can you jump on a train to go anywhere in the country, or all of Europe, from right inside the Zurich Airport.
    Switzerland is like buying a Lexus brand new and is priced accordingly. Eastern Europe is like buying a newer Lexus from your Aunt that’s been garage kept with low miles for a bargain price. I like to get a lot of value when I travel (which is why I read this blog), but I definitely acknowledge that countries like Switzerland, Italy, and Norway for instance have something to offer.

  5. Jennifer Kolbuc

    Great post! It’s never worth biting off more than you can chew. People always ask how I’ve travelled for so long without working (just finished up an 8 month trip and previous 15 months of travel) and it’s all about destination. Southeast Asia and South America are some of the cheapest places you can go and still have the opportunity to see so much of the world. For South America specifically there are lots of great ways you can make stretch your pesos:

  6. Marvin

    Get out of the most big cities. But not Bangkok! Bangkok is very cheap and a very good place to stay in Thailand

    • Tim Leffel

      But there are much cheaper places than Bangkok in Thailand, especially for lodging.

  7. Razia Sheikh

    Great Post, Even India, Shrilanka Country also include in budget travel.

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