How to Budget for Travel: What I Learned

Travel doesn't have to break the bank. You can see the world and still save responsibly.
Josh Garber
By Josh Garber 
Updated

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Although I’ve always had a desire to travel, I didn’t have a passport until shortly after I turned 23. Over the last 14 years, I’ve made up for lost time and visited over 55 countries on every continent except Antarctica (which I hope is soon to come).

At the same time, I’ve been laser-focused on becoming financially independent as I’m part of the Financial Independence, Retire Early (FIRE) movement. This financial lifestyle aims to save and invest as much as you can so that you can live off your savings as soon as possible.

While it may seem that wanderlust could get in the way of financial independence, throughout my travels, I have found ways to work towards both goals, including these money lessons learned while traveling around the world.

You don’t need to spend a lot of money to have an amazing trip

If you look at social media for travel inspiration, you may fall into a trap thinking the only way to have an amazing trip is to fly Emirates first class to an overwater villa in the Maldives. While certainly enjoyable, you should remember that you don’t need to spend a lot of money to have an amazing trip.

Even if an Emirates first-class trip to the Maldives is your dream adventure, you can find ways to go that don’t involve spending a lot of money, such as using points to book your Emirates first-class flight and for your villa in the Maldives. That said, you should keep in mind that you can have some truly incredible travel adventures that won’t break your budget. For instance, some of my favorite travel experiences include staying at hostels in Japan, Australia, and France, bus and train trips around Europe, and spending $20/night for a 2-story bungalow on a rice paddy in Bali.

Be clear about your travel budget before traveling with friends

When traveling with friends, it’s always important to be clear about your travel budget upfront. For instance, you may be traveling with a friend who makes significantly more or less than you or who has an entirely different idea of how much they want to spend on the trip.

I’ve learned that it’s crucial to discuss travel budgets and expectations before booking trips with friends. Having this conversation before you commit to a trip can help you avoid ending up in an awkward situation and also help ensure that everyone enjoys their trip to the fullest.

Setting (and sticking to) an annual travel budget helps you enjoy your trips

I enjoy traveling while participating in the FIRE movement because I set — and do my best to stick to — an annual travel budget.

In creating such a budget, you should start with your income after taxes and deduct necessary expenses (like rent/mortgage, medical expenses, food and retirement savings). What you're left with is discretionary income. From your discretionary income, you should set aside the amount that you want to be dedicated solely to travel.

When traveling, you shouldn't have to worry about money if you stay committed to your travel budget and planning. Since no one wants to be poolside fretting over how much was spent on dinner the night before, budgeting is a great way to help you maximize enjoying your trip.

It’s OK to splurge if you plan for it

You absolutely can splurge on expensive trips, provided you plan for them in advance. For instance, let’s say your dream trip can’t easily be booked with points or miles. You can still make these trips happen either by setting aside part of your travel budget each year and putting that money into a travel fund towards these trips or by using your annual travel budget for that one epic trip.

Final thoughts on budgeting for travel

With a bit of effort, you can travel the world while still making financially intelligent decisions and setting yourself up to meet your financial goals. On top of that, having a travel budget in place that you stick to on your trips can help ensure that you aren’t worried about money when you travel, which will add to the enjoyment of your trip.


How to maximize your rewards

You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2024, including those best for:

Travel Cards from Our Partners
Chase Sapphire Preferred Credit Card

on Chase's website

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
5.0
NerdWallet Rating
Rewards rate

1x-5x

5x on travel purchased through Chase Ultimate Rewards®, 3x on dining, select streaming services and online groceries, 2x on all other travel purchases, 1x on all other purchases.

Points

Intro offer

60,000

Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.

Points
Chase Freedom Unlimited Credit Card

on Chase's website

Chase Freedom Unlimited®
5.0
NerdWallet Rating
Rewards rate

1.5%-6.5%

Enjoy 6.5% cash back on travel purchased through Chase Travel; 4.5% cash back on drugstore purchases and dining at restaurants, including takeout and eligible delivery service, and 3% on all other purchases (on up to $20,000 spent in the first year). After your first year or $20,000 spent, enjoy 5% cash back on travel purchased through Chase Travel, 3% cash back on drugstore purchases and dining at restaurants, including takeout and eligible delivery service, and unlimited 1.5% cash back on all other purchases.

Cashback

Intro offer

$300

Earn an additional 1.5% cash back on everything you buy (on up to $20,000 spent in the first year) - worth up to $300 cash back!

Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card

on Capital One's website

Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
4.7
NerdWallet Rating
Rewards rate

2x-5x

Earn unlimited 2X miles on every purchase, every day. Earn 5X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel, where you'll get Capital One's best prices on thousands of trip options.

Miles

Intro offer

75,000

Enjoy a one-time bonus of 75,000 miles once you spend $4,000 on purchases within 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel.

Miles
See more travel cards
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