It’s very easy for people who don’t travel regularly to assume that the cost of traveling for a year is 52 times the cost of their average week’s vacation. Fortunately long-term travel isn’t nearly that expensive. Unfortunately, there’s also no magic number.
There are a ton of tools I’ve used over the past year or so in figuring out how much money I’ll need for my RTW trip. As a self-proclaimed organization nut, I personally love the DIY method. Nothing makes me happier than researching travel, comparing flight costs across various aggregators or testing out different combinations of cities to see which is cheapest. It is my absolute favorite dorky pastime.
But there are also a lot of budget calculators that claim to do that legwork for you. How do they stack up?
BootsnAll offers a budget calculator as part of its Plan Your Trip in 30 Days course. Every traveler has his or her own particular style, so a one-size-fits-all budget tool of course isn’t possible. If you can’t bear taking anything other than the path of least resistance, long term travel probably isn’t for you. But I imagine this spreadsheet and its corresponding cost guide is as close as you can get.
It’s no surprise that BootsnAll recommends using their Indie airfare tool to estimate airfare costs. Personally, while I find Indie a lot of fun for the dreaming stage of route planning, I think there are several reasons why so many travelers choose the DIY road.
Most importantly, booking all your flights at once seriously limits your itinerary. You’re committing yourself to knowing you’ll be able to catch that plane in Istanbul six months from the start of your trip, and that eliminates a lot of possibilities. Part of the allure of long-term travel is to travel sans outside commitments, so a one-way flight fits much more neatly into that picture. Indie does have far fewer tricks up its sleeve than the major airline alliances selling RTW tickets, and you can book your trip in legs, but it still doesn’t have the same level of freedom as one-way tickets.
I also find that I can save myself more money doing the extra elbow grease for flight booking. Skyscanner is an amazing little search engine that has incredible functionality for flexible travelers. Airfare costs can fluctuate wildly, but on Skyscanner you can search an entire month at once to find the cheapest day to travel. You can also search entire countries or the whole wide world to find the least expensive tickets on the market for a particular date. And let’s not forget about frequent flier miles – I plan on getting a lot of my flights for free using miles, but BootsnAll doesn’t touch on that possibility at all in this stage of their planning course.
Indie estimates I’ll need over $4000 for all my major flights between Europe, Asia, and South America. When I fiddle with the same itinerary on Skyscanner and other flight aggregators, however, my total (including a handful of small regional flights that weren’t part of my Indie estimate) is almost $500 less. And that’s before any frequent flier miles have been allocated.
$500. That’s enough for an entire week in Dubrovnik, one of Europe’s more expensive cities. That’s enough for nearly a month in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Which would you rather have? The few hours you save booking a multi-stop ticket, or the several extra days of travel you earn by doing your own legwork?
When it comes to things like accommodations, meals, and entertainment, daily costs obviously vary from city to city. BootsnAll claims their travel guides include reader-supplied daily budget estimates, but that’s not the case, and this is where I find their budget calculator most lacking. Naturally, prices and currency exchange rates change over time, but even having ballpark estimates available seems like an important component if you’re claiming to be travelers’ one-stop shop.
Personally, I rely on the backpacker index at priceoftravel.com for a baseline. It offers estimates for over 150 cities worldwide, which include a dorm bed at a hostel, three inexpensive meals, two public transportation rides, one paid attraction, and three beers.
There’s no such thing as a perfect system and there are several ways my personal experience will differ from these estimates. Couchsurfing and house sitting might bring my accommodation costs down, while splurging on a hotel room one night will spike them. Nonetheless, knowing that Greece is more likely to fall in the $50-60 a day range, while Thailand might fall in the $20-30 a day range, feels like a much stronger start than just guessing.
Visas, vaccinations, insurance, phone plans, replacing worn out clothing… there are so many additional expenses that crop up over a long-term trip, beyond what you actually do during your travels, but BootsnAll doesn’t touch on them at this stage. I can see at a later point in their budget calculator, they will be included, but for now this is another major piece of the puzzle missing from the budget estimate.
BootsnAll’s estimate of $17,000+ isn’t far off from my personal estimate of $20,000, but the processes for getting to those two numbers aren’t particularly different. I really had to do the same individual legwork with this budget calculator that I did to research my costs without outside help, and my own estimate is ultimately far more inclusive.
Bottom line: budget calculators might be helpful if you have no idea where to begin in your trip planning, but they’re certainly not necessary.