My guide to planning a world trip on a budget
I’ve travelled extensively across more than 30 countries and planned several epic expeditions. Travelling has offered me the opportunity to break away from an increasingly urbanised society and connect with nature again.
In this post I talk about how different types of travel can affect your budget and why planning your trip in advance is important. I then share a system I've developed that breaks down the planning process considerably, so you can manage any initial overwhelm and spend your time and money better.
Deciding how you travel
There is so much more to travelling than landing somewhere exotic and hopping from one country to another. You might decide to do some conservation work, fundraise or challenge yourself by travelling solo or hiking, biking or paddle boarding. So my initial advice would be to take some time first to think about what it is you want to gain from the experience. You may be able to find sponsorship or funding if you decide to challenge yourself or fundraise. You could cut down considerably on travel and accommodation costs if you decide to travel by land and pitch up a tent.
A little bit of research will help you decide the type of travel that’s right for you. If you're undecided check out my blog: How to find inspiration for your next adventure. It covers everything, from mindfulness activities to inspirational communities to follow.
The extent to which you plan and budget for your trip will vary greatly, and depend on:
Whether you’re travelling alone, in a group or volunteering
Your flexibility and time
How much money you have, and how you are going to fund your trip.
My average monthly travel tends to be £1000 all in. It all depends on your comfort levels and choice of destination.
For the purposes of this blog I'm going to share my tips on how to plan independent world travel on a budget.
Independent budget travel
I travel independently and have a certain amount of money that has to see me through. There are no emergency funds. My time is also limited because at some point I have to go back to work (such is my current lifestyle). I also rent, so when I get back I have to have some extra money put aside for deposits and starting up again.
Can’t I just jump on a plane and wing it?
Yes. There are plenty of examples of people jumping on a plane and making their way through whatever situations arise, and having an adventure of a lifetime. That’s wonderful! But for me personally, that’s pretty high risk.
Not knowing or understanding regulations, etiquette, culture, geography ahead of time can lead to more expense and delays. It can also be quite dangerous.
4 reasons why planning a long-distance trip is important, no matter how you travel
1. Knowledge is crucial
It’s important to understand the geography, politics, culture and etiquette of the location you’re travelling to, and be mindful that you are in someone else’s home, not a playground.
Just having a little background knowledge helps me to feel more confident and less vulnerable – especially in remote areas.
2. The Way We Travel is Changing
The internet has revolutionised everything about travel - from how we get to our destination, to where we stay, to how we rate where we stay. All the information we need to explore the world independently or otherwise is accessible at the touch of a button. Never before have we been so curious or so adventurous. In 1990 439.5 million overseas trips were made by travellers around the world. In 2017 1.32 billion trips (United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO).
Everyone is doing it and if you want to travel somewhere, even if it’s off the beaten track, chances are someone else will be travelling there too. Wifi is available everywhere and hostels, hotels, cabanas get booked up through sites such as Hostel World and Booking.com. Finding somewhere to stay is always possible but finding somewhere decent and affordable last minute may be challenging, especially in popular destinations.
So if I really want to be somewhere (for an expedition or tour, or just to have a base to relax for a period of time) then I research accommodation options ahead and book in advance. The rest I comfortably leave up to chance. I also travel with a tent now, which makes finding a base for the night a heck of a lot easier – but again, depends on what you’re comfortable with.
3. I don’t want to miss the boat
Some places are hard to access. Depending on a season you may be unable to physically reach it, or it may be so popular you need to book weeks, if not months in advance.
If one place really sings to me (e.g. a remote jungle lodge; the Galapagos; Gorilla Trekking) I book it and then plan the rest of my travel around it.
4. Getting the best deal and deciding your mode of transport
My money has to stretch, so I book smart.
If I’m going away for a long time and the trip is a build it yourself style trip, then the cheapest flights I’m likely to find are through a specialist travel agency (STA, Intrepid Traveller). Even then I compare flight costs with Skyscanner and sometimes book direct with the airline. Usually, the sooner I book, the cheaper the deals, and if I’m booking really far ahead, I need to know in advance how long I may want to stay in each country.
Through research I may also discover that I can travel to countries by land, and subsequently reduce my carbon footprint AND save money.
Skipping on flights and travelling by land also allows you time and flexibility to change your travel plans last minute without incurring costs.
Do I have to book travel and flights in advance?
Well, money aside, having an itinerary of flights highlights your exit strategy. In immigration you'll be expected to show your intentions of travel, and not having future travel or return flights booked could lead to being detained and questioned. I was asked for my exit strategy at nearly every airport.
As mentioned before, by travelling a little more creatively and avoiding flights you can afford yourself more flexibility and time (visa permitting). So investigate land based travel - coach, bus, train, tuk tuk, bicycle, taxi, horse, kayak, foot. The journey may turn out to be the adventure, rather than the destination itself. In South America I travelled all of Mexico, Colombia and Ecuador by land.
My 4-Step Guide to Travel Planning
When I planned my first world trip the whole process soon felt incredibly overwhelming, so I developed a system to break it down and make planning a whole lot easier.
If you're going the independent travel route, then this 4-step process may prove useful.
The Skeleton Planning System
I allow a few weeks of solid research for each country and follow what I call the Skeleton Planning System:
BONES: Guidebooks, rough itineraries, maps, routes, timings
MUSCLE: Internet, Google, community sites, local tourist agencies, blogs
SKIN: Allocate your time, make a spreadsheet, agencies, booking
MAKE-UP: Friends and friends of friends – recommendations
Following a 4-step system like this helps me to approach travel planning in stages so I don’t feel overwhelmed.
STEP 1: BONES
Firstly, I look at what inspires me and decide where I want to go and what I want to see and experience. I buy a guidebook and start reading. Reading familiarises me with the geography, the things I can do and gives me an idea of how much time I might want to spend in a place. I recommend Lonely Planet and BRADT Guides for global travel and Time Out for major cities.
Mapping your route
As I read, I make notes in a journal and mark in the book the places that appeal, and visualise a route. I read the book from start to finish (skimming through parts i.e., hotels, restaurants and bars).
How long can I travel for in a country? Consider your Visa requirements.
Where should I start and end? Usually determined by the seasons, climate and events.
Once I figure out my start and end point, I look in more detail about the time I want to spend in each place.
I mark a town/place with the number 5 (for 5 days) if that’s how long I think I’d like to spend there.
Can I get from A to B as easily as I think? Or maybe A-E makes more sense because of the seasons. There's little point flying into A first if everything there is closed because of Monsoon.
I total it all up and figure that’s how long I would like to spend in that country.
I might realise I’ve over-egged it. The total may come to 120 days and my visa will only allow me 60 days of travel, so I go back and think holistically “OK, where can I chop and change this? Maybe I’ll skip that mountain; after all I’m hiking 2 others.”
It’s not concrete, and I know when I go away that the plan will more than likely change. I might decide to spend twice as long in a particular area or scrap another area altogether.
But if I want to get the cheapest flights by booking in advance, I need to have a rough idea of how long I’m going to want to spend in each country. By reading I’m also getting crucial information and a feel for the country – the geography, culture and etiquette.
These are my BONES to planning.
STEP 2: MUSCLE
I Google the areas I’ve marked and see what comes up – personal blogs, community sites etc. Obviously, I don’t overdo it and ruin the surprise element, but it is incredibly useful to get some backup knowledge.
Guidebooks are out of date as soon as they’re published. You might also find inspiration from people who have travelled differently, or adventure cycled or kayaked a region. A guidebook is unlikely to have that kind of information.
Reading about other people’s experiences may also give you the confidence to try something new. You might learn about a volunteering programme or a conservation project which may change the nature of your trip entirely.
Checking with the foreign office Gov.UK for foreign travel advice is also very useful.
Internet research adds MUSCLE to my planning.
STEP 3: SKIN
Allocate time/money, make a spreadsheet, agencies, booking.
This is when I start to make things real and get logistical. I put my spreadsheet hat on just to make sure I can afford the travel I want to do. A spreadsheet is just my preferred way of visualising something practically.
I map out a loose itinerary. I add a column for dates, location, accommodation, travel, activity and food and drink costs. I then make space for the days I intend to travel and calculate at the bottom how much things will roughly cost.
The point is not to be exact. I just pluck out figures based on what I’ve read. An itinerary like this really helps me to identify where I can make the cuts if I need to.
How to figure out costs and what to consider
Accommodation: Hostel World and Booking.com are good for getting a gauge of the average price of a bed. Don't rule out the possibility of staying somewhere for free. Check out couch surfing and home stays in the region. Most hostels I've stayed in have excellent facilities and private rooms, and couch surfing doesn't necessarily mean staying on someone's couch. People offer up their spare rooms, a little like Air B&B - but for free!
A meal and a beer: Numbeo is a really helpful site for checking cost of living in a country.
Getting about: Guidebooks are good for giving you an idea of local transport costs. Fellow travellers also detail this kind of information in blogs.
Activities and adventure costs: Very important!
Visiting a travel agency who specialise in world travel.
Once I know how much time I think I should spend in a country, I visit an agency and I book flights - as soon as it’s possible to do so (usually 11 months ahead).
My go-to are budget-friendly STA Travel. Booking through them gets me money off travel insurance and other perks, and I only have to put down £45 deposit for each flight (the rest is payable 3 months ahead of travel). As I book the majority of flights through them I’m also eligible for several free MultiFlex passes, which allow me to change the date of my flights without paying fees.
My agent also suggested much better flight paths for me than what I found on the internet. Agents take a lot of the headache away. Skyscanner will give you a great gauge on prices but the cheapest airline might not necessarily be the most reliable or safe. I sometimes book direct with the airline if the agency can't match the price, so I mix it up.
I never take an agent's advice as gold. They do have commissions to make so I don't agree to anything without taking the time to cross research.
STEP 4: MAKE-UP
Friends and friends of friends – recommendations
I’m surprised how many people I know who have been to places I travel to and who have family and friends who live in the countries I am visiting. Facebook is great for putting your feelers out, as are community groups (my favourite being: The Yes Tribe). Staying with people through association means you not only get free or cheaper accommodation, but it is also a chance to experience life like a local and connect with people.
Adventure, entertainment, nature and wildlife are all great elements of travelling but it will always be the people you meet along the way that make your trip memorable!
Never be afraid to ask and connect with the lovely people around you.
This is the final icing on the cake to trip planning – the MAKE-UP.
Take a look at my Advice Page for small and big adventure inspiration. I keep this page updated with useful guides, resources and insider tips, designed to help you get outdoors and make life memorable.
So whether you’re looking at taking on a big challenge or need inspiration to shake life up a little, check out my website for more information.
Happy adventure making!