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Blind Spots in Travel Budgeting


First things first – if you have no desire to travel, or if you want to travel but you have no monetary concerns, this post is not for you.  This article is for people who, like me, need to calculate every penny in our pocket to make hitting the road a reality.  But fear not, travel is possible! All it requires is a little discretion, self-discipline, determination, and some careful planning, including a well-crafted and maintained travel budget.

It’s a no-brainer that budgeting for travel requires factoring in major things like transportation to and from the destination, accommodation, and food.  While such a rough budget is important and, to a large degree, sufficient, it isn’t comprehensive.  I have learned over the years that there are many “blind spots” in international travel expenses that may potentially add up and cost you an arm and a leg.

Visa Related fees

Good for you if you’re traveling to a destination where a visa is waived, because visa applications are not only a hassle (I have had visa adventures that can outshine an actual trip!) but they may also be costly.  Depending on the country that you’re traveling to, what type of visa you’re applying for and the duration of your stay, you may be paying anything from $30 to $250 for the visa itself.  This does not even take into consideration the money that you need to pay to prepare the documents, mailing services, or travel to the embassy/consulate.  Granted these needs, the amount that you need to pay to obtain a permit to enter your destination country can fluctuate significantly.

Pre-departure Preparations

Regular preparations before a trip include purchasing luggage, clothes, supplies, refilling prescriptions, and many others, depending on what your routines and needs are.  (My Mom and I certainly went on shopping trips for some new clothes before our trip to Greece this summer because we didn’t want to recycle the same outfits and make our holiday pictures look like old vacation pictures photo-shopped against the blue Aegean Sea.) Other more unconventional pre-departure expenses might involve things that are less exciting than new sandals, such as required vaccination shots, which may cost hundreds of dollars.

Baggage Fees

baggageThis is not unavoidable, but given the increasingly stringent airline policies regarding baggage, this might as well have become the reality for a lot of people.  The regular allowance for free checked baggage traveling to and from the U.S. is 2 bags, max 23 kg (51lbs) each.  Traveling to, from, or between other continents or countries may entail more strict or lenient baggage policies; therefore, it is imperative that you double check with the airline before travel to avoid unnecessary fees at the airport.  Or be prepared to throw away unimportant personal items to lighten your bag.

Local Transportation

As I mentioned, most travelers budget for transportation to the main destination, say, a $1000 flight.  However, local transportation expenses should not be ignored.  For example, how are you going to go from the airport to your hotel?  How do you plan on getting around locally?  Are you traveling to other cities and how?  The option of shuttle, subway, or taxi services as the local means of transportation costs varying amounts of money.  In a similar vein, how you get around from town-to-town, and region-to-region, can also have big implications for your budget.  Take NYC for example, while $2.5 for a ride in the subway is quite acceptable, going uptown and downtown several times a day for a week will wind up easily costing you $50 (given you didn’t purchase an unlimited 7-day pass, which is itself $30).

Souvenirs and Gift Shopping

souvenirThis may sound silly, but souvenir/gift shopping can easily get out of hand if you aren’t consciously aware of it.  Investment in souvenirs/gifts can be a luxurious enterprise if you go for things like antiques or local hand-made products.  But it doesn’t have to be that way if you stay with cheap and cheesy traditional baubles such as magnets and thimbles.  In general, however, I think it takes extreme self-control to not be led astray by ever-so-attractive local toys and delicacies.  After all, the most cost-efficient souvenir is probably still the good ole’ postcard – it costs next to nothing, is very thoughtful and if mailed out, you don’t need to even carry it around!

Admissions/Entrance Fees

It costs money to do stuff, duh!  Unless you always aim for free stuff to do, you will wind up having to pay for miscellaneous admissions or entrance fees here and there.  These expenses may appear to be trivial, but they add up quickly, especially if you’re on the road for an extended period of time, or if you’re traveling in expensive places like Europe.  I suggest carving out a category in your travel budget to factor in this aspect of travel expenses, similar to how you would plan for food.

Bank Transaction Fees

Most banks charge foreign transaction fees when you swipe your credit cards or withdraw money at international destinations; this is to say nothing of ATM fees that might be charged.  Some of those fees may be a pre-determined amount (e.g., $10 for every withdrawal transaction regardless of the amount withdrawn), while others are charged using a percentage-based calculation (e.g., 1% of the amount swiped off the credit card). Once again, these charges may seem quite nominal for each transaction, but they may end up wrecking your budget and cause your heart to skip a beat when you read your post-travel bills.  If you’re curious as to what this may look like, let me run some numbers by you: using the transaction fee policy that I mentioned above, it means withdrawing $100 ten times will cost you $100, and spending $1000 on your credit card may imply an additional $100 charge that goes straight to the bank – so yes, the extra fees you pay the bank is 10% of your original travel budget!  The moral of the story is you should be familiar with the fee policies of your bank or your credit card company in order to plan ahead or to seek out other more affordable options, such as traveler’s cheques (which may have their own disadvantages as well).  For more information, this article on New York Times does a wonderful job explaining the hidden costs of spending money during travel.

currency exchange

Currency Exchange Costs

One thing that I have come to terms with during my travels is that currency exchange agents exist not solely for my convenience, but also for my money.  Yes, they are doing me a huge favor by converting my money into useful bills, but they also want to make $$.  Therefore, if you plan to buy in and out the local money using your native currency, be ready to pay the exchange service fees.  Also, be sure not to exchange for too much local currency at once, because if you end up not spending it all, you will have to convert it back.  You are likely to lose money in these back-and-forth conversions due to differences in exchange rates.

Lastly, and always, Bon Voyage!

Joy Tang
Joy Tang grew up in Chengdu, Sichuan, where people were living for food before being a “foodie” was hip. Her dream to see the world couldn't have had a more exciting start than central Georgia, where she bagged her B.A.. Currently, she is finishing up a Ph.D. in social psychology; however, most of her friends believe that she travels the world for a living, probably due to her love for waking up to the rising sun in foreign countries. Otherwise, she can be found reading, writing, or engaging with art and culture one way or another.

One thought on “Blind Spots in Travel Budgeting

  1. Momentary fluctuations in exchange rates have really hurt me in the past. Keep an eye on them and if you’re in the middle of one, see if you can’t hold off exchanging money until later. As for visas, that 250 dollar one is for China and only for Americans. China has two categories of visa fees: America and all other countries and all other countries pay way less. but their visa fees seem to go up a lot every year and that visa fee is almost as much as the ticket itself from Seoul to Beijing.

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