An ambitious schedule with a backpacker’s budget requires extreme planning. If things aren’t planned out ahead, I’ll find myself missing out on things because I got lost trying to find it, or I’ll spend more money than I intended because I didn’t know I had another option. In order to get the most out of my limited dollar, I plan out each day on my itinerary to maximize transportation, lodging, and admission costs. The more planning I do ahead of time, the less I have to plan while I’m on my vacation!
In a few weeks, I will be leaving for a 15 day backpacking trip with my friend Alaina to Venice, Rome, Athens and Cairo. We had about six months to save and research. I’ll use this trip as an example for how I plan.
Part I: Overview of planning tools
Part II: Planning based on my budget
Part III: Order of events
Part IV: Putting it all together
PART I: Overview of planning tools
Google Doc day by day itinerary
Here, I compile all of my information as I research and book, including:
- Flight info and times
- Ground transportation info + public transportation tips
- Hostel/lodging phone numbers and address
- Detailed must-do sightseeing for each city, including:
- Links to their info pages or websites
- Admission costs
- Hours of operation
A Google Sheets budget spreadsheet
- The estimated budget totals are broken down by category
- Emergency Buffer
- Savings plan to reach my budget goals
Google Maps for each city
I create a marker for every major site I want to visit so I know how far of a radius I’ll be traveling in each city. This helps me plan how often I’ll be needing to take public transit and then best method to do so. This has been very helpful when planning the best walking route to maximize the amount of sites we can easily see in one day!
A packing list including supplies, necessary clothes, and travel accessories.
PART II: Planning based on my budget
It’s never fun to worry about money while you’re traveling – especially when you’re already on a backpackers budget. Setting a realistic goal for yourself, including emergency and padding money, will help you relax on your trip.
Get your ballpark range
For a traveler who stays in hostels and takes advantage of lower cost sightseeing, the biggest cost for the trip will be travel. The best way for me to get an initial ballpark range on how much money I’ll need is to price out my transportation, which will give me a good starting point.
Major Transportation Estimate
I use Google Flights and Kayak Explore to see which months are cheapest for travel. I can see that a one-way ticket from LAX to Venice in October is less than $400, and it just so happens flying back from Cairo about two weeks later is at a low price point of $513 – so that’s when I’ll want to travel. In this particular case, however, it’s only $50 more total to travel in late September. Alaina and I decided it’s worth the extra money to be able to go a little sooner in the year, so we chose the higher fare. With those ticket prices, plus my train and flights between Italy, Greece, and Egypt, my major transportation costs for my backpacking trip is around $1200.
I research each city’s average cost of food per day based on the quality of the meal, and I estimate how much I’ll need to budget per day. Including some extra padding, we estimate it’ll cost about €40 ($45) a day in the more expensive cities, and $20-25 a day for travel days and in cheaper cities. These estimates are based on the amount we’re willing to spend. We figure it’ll get us one nice meal a day with a glass of wine, a treat during the day, and then we’ll eat cheaply for the other two meals. Traveling to Europe, we knew gastronomic experiences are worth as much as any of the sights! Adding it all together for the number of days, we are looking at a budget of around $500 for the fifteen days.
Research on lodging while on a backpackers budget can be fun and stressful in equal measure. There are dozens of unique Airbnb spots for very reasonable prices – sometimes cheaper than a hostel if you split the cost with a buddy. Couchsurfing is another great option, and definitely ideal with my budget. However, we are doing more of a planned trip as opposed to a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants trip, so to avoid any conflicts and eliminate the need for a backup plan, we went with Airbnb and hostels. For my small budget, I know that I want to stay around $20 and under per night for my lodging. This sounds impossible, but after poking around hostelbookers.com and airbnb.com, I found this was a reasonable limit – especially when split by two people! With a few available option being well below $20 a night, my estimated lodging budget is around $200.
This one is tough to estimate because it really depends on what sites you’d like to see and your traveling style. You can do a free walking tour of Paris, but then pay top dollar for a guided tour of Versailles with private transportation. In Cairo, everything is very inexpensive; it’s only 60LE, or $7, to visit the pyramids and sphinx! But being a solo traveler in an unfamiliar country, I chose to go with a tour, and that made it the most expensive country in regards to admission prices. For a ballpark price, I’ll say I’ll spend around $50 a city, plus the tour I want to book, making my admission budget around $250.
Transit/Travel Insurance/Emergency Buffer Estimate
This estimate heavily relies on research and depends on your style of travel. Will you be taking taxis or will you walk everywhere? Do you have a private pickup or will you venture into the public transit system? It’s really about weighing your options and deciding the price of your time. It might take you an extra hour to ride the bus into town than it would to take a taxi – but that taxi costs $20 per person. Is $20 worth an hour of your time? If you’re on a tight schedule, it’s probably worth it to spend the extra money. But if you have all day, it’s nice to walk to your destination and get a little lost, rather than spend the money on a three day public transit pass to get everywhere faster. I thoroughly researched my transit options and made notes in my itinerary, and had a conversation with Alaina about what our time was worth. For our trip, we decided to use public transit and walk as much as possible, but will be spending more on a taxi when time is tight or we arrive at our destination at night and don’t want to feel unsafe.
Travel insurance costs are around $75 per person for our itinerary. Alaina elected to purchase it – and I did not. It comes down to the risk factor, the value of your belongings, and your health coverage abroad.
I added an emergency buffer of $50 to just my transit category, and the rest of my categories have a little buffer built in. So my total transit, etc. estimated budget is around $180.
Altogether, I can see my ballpark range for the four cities I want to visit will be $2,300. Is this a reasonable amount in the time I have to save? The way I budget, every month I put extra money aside for travel. Starting with a good amount from my tax return, I only have to save about $150-200 a month to make my goal.
PART III: Order of Events
- Book major transportation
- Decide what I want to see
- Find lodging near the attractions
Book your major transportation
Once I have enough saved for the major flights – I book it! You can snatch up really good fares by keeping an eye out for when prices drop and booking those seats before they fill up. A lot of times, this is how I get inspiration to travel to a certain place – I’ll see a really good fare on Kayak Explore and go from there!
Decide what I want to see
It’s important for me to figure out exactly what I want to try and see so I can see how many days I’ll need in certain areas or cities. I don’t like to book my lodging until I have an idea of where in the city I’ll be spending the most time.
Example day in Venice from my itinerary:
There are countless resources to finding lists of the top sites and itineraries in popular cities. Most of my information is from a general search of the city on Lonely Planet. They usually include a description, location, hours and cost for each of their sites, as well as lists of top must-sees.
Once I get a feel for the city and I’ve done my research, I’ll book my lodging. Generally, the further in advance you book, the lower price you’ll get! We booked our AirBnb in Rome and Athens months in advance and we got really good rates – our studio apartment in Athens is only $27 a night!
PART IV: Putting it all together
I like to walk through my travel plans as if I am there, on the day, so I can catch any potential problems. Once I arrive in the Venice airport, I’ll be without a phone plan and it’ll be 10PM — how will I know how to get to my hostel? For this trip, I copied my itinerary out into a two-page per sheet word document so I can print it out. In this document, I also have notes about:
- Which travel docs to attach (e.g. airline confirmations, hotel info, train ticket confirmation)
- The number of the local emergency service
- Common phrases
- Tipping etiquette
- Safety tips
- Public transit tips
I find this to be very helpful because I have all information I need in one place so I don’t have to waste time looking up pricing or finding out something is closed. In fact, this is how I caught a big disruption in my travel plans: I am taking a train to Alexandria for a day while in Cairo, and the main attraction there for me is the new Alexandria Library. I had taken down notes of where it is and the hours, but not the days of the week it was open. So, when I walked through my itinerary, I discovered that the one day of the week I had booked my hostel in Alexandria was the one day of the week the library was closed. If I hadn’t done my research, I would have arrived in Alexandria after a four hour train ride, only to discover the one thing I really wanted to see was closed.
Last time I traveled with just a backpack, I didn’t have a cell phone and I marked everything out on a paper map. I’m hoping this time, with my research handy and my smartphone map apps at the ready, I’ll have a stress-free trip and feel good about seeing as much as possible within my means!