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Add Splurges for Day Tours to Your Travel Budget

There’s no such thing as an average travel budget for a two-week vacation or a trip around the world. Whether you’re going to circle the globe or just hit four different places in Mexico, you need to give a calculator a workout and do some math. After all that though, you need to be honest about how often you’ll go off budget. You’re probably going to want to splurge on some day tours along the way.

Tikal, one of the great wonders of the world

No matter what figure you come up with in the end for daily, weekly, or monthly averages, add some more to it for the unexpected. You especially want to build in some money for adventures that are unique to where you’re headed.

Calculating a Long-term Travel Budget

If you pick up a copy of The World’s Cheapest Destinations, you’ll have the info at your fingertips to create a budget for the 26 best destinations where you can travel on a budget. These are the best cheap travel deals on the planet. Using the ranges in there, you can get a rough estimate of what you’ll average daily for expenses like food, lodging, transportation, and sightseeing.

Let’s say that after adding in a few weeks in an expensive country here and there, but balancing that out with a place like Nepal or India, you come up with the following budget for a couple for your backpacker trip of one month or one year, after what it costs to prepare and get there:

$30 a day on lodging
$25 a day on food/drinks
$10 a day on transportation
$15 a day on sightseeing and admissions

That comes out to $80 a day, so for a year you would need $29,200 for the two of you in savings or remote income. That looks like a lot, but it’s about $2,433 a month—less than what the average American couple living in a city spends just on monthly housing and utility bills, never mind food, transportation, health care, and fun. 

There are some chunks you need to add to that though: the big flights that cross an ocean, vaccinations before you go, any new gear or travel clothing you need to pick up, and any clothes and gadgets you’ll buy along the way. A trip around the world comes with lots of add-ons before and during the journey.

People usually remember to budget for those up-front round-the-world travel expenses though if they’ve been reading blogs like this one. What they forget though often throws them off: occasional day tour splurges along the way.

Travel Splurges and Day Tours for Fun Adventures

Travel splurges come in three main forms for independent travelers.

The first would be unexpected or badly needed splurges. You arrive in a city during festival season and the only room you can find is $50 a night. (Been there.) Or the cheapie option is just too disgusting to bear and you need to upgrade to a proper hotel (done that too). Or you really want to go hang out in a vacation resort area for a bit and it’s either pay more or don’t go.

Second, there are the must-see, bucket list places or experiences that come with a hefty admission fee. Obvious examples would be the admission costs at wonders of the world like Petra, the Taj Mahal, or Borobodour. These will wreck your budget in a hurry as they’re such outliers in otherwise inexpensive countries. But are you really going to go to Peru for the first time and skip Machu Picchu just because it costs a lot to get there and tour it?

day tour Machu Picchu Peru

Last, there are the experiences that really define a place and will provide memories that last a lifetime. Are you going to give up your dream of exploring the great salt flat of Bolivia because it doesn’t fit into your $ 70-a-day budget? Or skip that trip to the Perito Moreno Glacier in Argentina because the day is going to cost you far more than an average day? Are you going to pass on a tour of the Valley of the Kings in Egypt for budgetary reasons?

Multiple scientific studies show that as the years go by, we regret the things we didn’t do far more than we regret any mistakes we made along the way. Travel regrets can be especially vivid because we’re reminded of them whenever we hear about the destination or see photos posted anywhere. 

There’s no guarantee that all the day tours you book are going to produce memories that last a lifetime. Some of them will though and the longer you remember them, the more valuable they’ll become. These expenditures on experiences will pay off far longer than those throwaway outfits you bought from Forever 21 or Zara. 

Plus there are some destinations that are just plain going to cost you a small fortune, no matter how many corners you cut. It’s next to impossible to visit the Galapagos on a budget, for instance, for good reasons. The same with Easter Island or other fragile places. Conservation costs money. Either be ready to cough up a few grand for that eco-lodge in the remote rainforest or save that destination for later when you’re a working stiff on vacation. Or your parents invite you.

Then there are destinations that are expensive just because they’re in developed countries and they’re super popular. If anything, prices are high because they’re so popular: there’s no price sensitivity with free-spending tourists. So you’re going to spend some bucks touring New York City or London, even if you do pick up the right discount CityPASS or Sightseeing Pass

Bosnia day tour

You can do a lot of things on your own, of course, and there are times when renting a car and getting into the countryside will cost you less than going on an organized tour for the day. Other times it won’t, however, plus there are considerations beyond the cost. Sometimes having a local guide can provide far more depth than you could get from articles and books written by outsiders, like when I went with two local residents for a tour of sites near Mostar, Bosnia and went on a hiking trip near Sarajevo with two others. I could have never written this award-winning Bosnia article without them. I learned so much and saw places I would have never discovered. 

If you go on a food tour with a local, you’ll find out what the region’s specialties are, which restaurants are a sure thing, and where people of normal means go to eat, places off the tourist trail. Start with a menu of tours where you’re going and see what really gets you excited. 

Search day tours on Viator for where you’re headed

Search tours and excursions on GetYourGuide

Search food experiences with locals on EatWith

Splurging on Experiences During Your Budget Trip

A few years back I was in Santa Catalina, Panama, a surfer magnet on the Pacific Coast that reminded me about this angst about spending on day tours when on a budget. I’ve got Panama listed as an “honorable mention” in my book because some things are a bargain, especially outside the capital, but this is a country with a booming economy. Most people aren’t rich here, especially outside the capital business district, but the middle class is large and getting bigger each year. Plus half the wealth of pre-Chavez Venezuela has seemingly landed in Panama City.

If you’re heading overland to South America, you need to go through this country. You could come to Panama and do nothing but kick back and party on the cheap. This is, after all, one of the cheapest places in the world to knock down some drinks. Almost nothing is taxed heavily here, including booze. But if you want to do the things most leisure travelers come here to do, you have to splurge a little now and then.

break the budget for a tour to Coiba Island

Back to Santa Catalina, where you can get a hostel bunk for $15 or less a block from the beach or get a private room for $15-$30.

The thing is, if you want to get out to Coiba Island, where these photos were taken, you’ll pay $50+ a person for a boat of six people. It’s not that they’re ripping you off: it’s 37 miles to the island and gasoline is a tad more here than it is in the U.S. You need a few guys along as well, including at least one who can speak English. Plus there are park permits to pay for.

splurges on a trip around the world

So if you want to get the full experience, you will need to toss the daily budget out the window. One way to deal with this is to make up for it later, by just staying put in a cheap place and not doing much for a week. It’s better though just to have a bit extra set aside for just these situations.

Being there brought me back to an experience I had as a round-the-world backpacker in the late 1990s. My wife and I had spent nearly six disappointing, sometimes grueling weeks in the Philippines, with only flashes of good memories to show for it. Overall, we were dejected and ready to high-tail it out of there to somewhere more attractive.

When we finally got to El Nido on Palawan Island though, our moods brightened considerably. Natural beauty, better food, and a decent cheap hotel for once all drastically aided our mood. But the price for a boat tour of the islands and lagoons—$40 each in late 90s dollars—was really going to trash our budget for the week.

We debated, we hesitated, but in the end we threw down the cash and went out on our boat tour. It was by far the highlight of our last month in the country. A day of unsurpassed beauty and one postcard-perfect stop after another. Thankfully we had the sense to step up and go.

splurging for day tours

When you’re 80 and looking back on your life, you won’t remember what you did with the $40 or $50 each you saved once by skipping something. Or probably even remember what you spent for a bigger splurge. You will remember the great times you had. You might meet some people on the tour that you end up spending time with afterwards too, or people that you get some great travel tips from. 

Yes, I’m all for cheap travel deals and having a clear long-term travel budget for that long-term travel tour. I couldn’t have spent nearly five months in Europe this year if I wasn’t being careful about our weekly expenses. You’re going to need to cheat sometimes though when you have the chance to do or see something really special.

So build in some extra for travel splurges on day tours and you’ll deposit much better memories in your mental bank. Those will make you much happier than anything physical you will spend that money on back home.

Search day tours on Viator for where you’re headed

Search tours and excursions on GetYourGuide

Search food experiences with locals on EatWith