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Budgeting Your Trip

Complete Listing of Ed and Julie's Travel Tips and Planning Tools

One of the more frequent questions we're asked is, "How much will our trip cost?"

How should we know!? smile.gif (93 bytes)

Our answer usually is more politely phrased, but that's the gist.

We may not be able to give you the answer, but we'll tell you our foolproof secrets so you can get your own answer.

Only you know your tastes and your pocketbook. Ground expenses in Europe can run little more than $25/day, or $2,500/day ... or more.

For us, hotels typically run, in Europe, between $75 and $100 per person per day. Meal costs run $25 to $75 per day per person. We've spent much more, and much less, in both categories though.

You'll enjoy your vacation more if you don't spend more than you can afford. Here's how we do it.

The first application Ed ever used on a computer was a spreadsheet ... and it's still the most useful one around. Build a cost spreadsheet like the following, whether on the computer or by hand. (If you consider yourself numbers-handicapped, hold on ... there's help coming. We'll show you in just a minute where you can find one to use ... on the 'net.)

The example represents costs for one person; double for two, of course. If you have younger children with you you'll want to do a separate sheet for them as many of their costs will likely differ from yours.

You will have to supply your own numbers, though. Those below and on the extended spreadsheet are just numbers ... they're not ours; they're not 'representative'; they're not 'typical' ... they're just numbers to give you an idea of how the process works.

Leave 6/10 Depart and return 6/20
Arrive 6/11
Number of nights in Europe  9
Number of full days 8
Credit Cash
Hotel 9 @ $95 855 855
Breakfast 9 @ 0 incl w/htl
Lunch 5 @ 15 75 75
Expensive Lunch 2 @ 25 50 50
Picnic 2 @ 5 10


Dinner 7 @ 25 175 175
Expensive Dinner 2 @ 35 70 70
Refreshments 10 @ 5 50 50
Airport parking 7 @ 11 77 77
Taxis 12 @ 5 60 60
Bus 24 @ 1 24 24
Admissions 8 @ 15 120 120
After dinner 6 @ 6 36 36
Gifts 50 50
Miscellaneous 9 @ 5 45 45
Total  $ 1,697  $1,150  $ 547
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With the cooperation of blox.com we've prepared an extended example of the worksheet. It's a full-blown spreadsheet. You can adjust it to match your needs. Add or subtract days. Add or subtract expense categories. Fill in your own cost estimates and see the results. (You must be browsing with version 4 or higher of Explorer or Netscape.)

Keep in mind you don't need exact, precise estimates for this to be reasonably accurate. Presuming you include all likely costs and put in reasonable figures, the result can turn out surprisingly accurate.

More important than the precision of your cost estimates is the accuracy with which you identify categories and numbers of occurrences. The better you identify the number of expenses the better the result will be.  Given, of course, that your cost estimates are at least in a reasonable range.

The hotel price is easy to pin down; that's about the first thing people decide. Again, don't worry about being precise. You can begin working with a spreadsheet when you start thinking about your trip. As you proceed in your planning you can plug in numbers that are more and more precise. And, in fact, starting to budget before you set your trip plans in concrete may help determine how long you can stay and how much you'll pay for the hotel.

We don't run credit card balances from month to month normally. Thus the favorable exchange rate we get when using a credit card prompts us to use it as much as possible. You may find Money and Exchange for Travelers to Western Europe a useful page to read, if you've not already.

Note that we've two columns at the right, for 'cash' and 'credit'. We find it helpful to identify how much of our expenses will require cash.

We meet 'cash' needs mainly with US dollar travelers' checks converted in-country, or, increasingly, from ATMs. More often than not we charge lunch, though we find spots that only take cash for our lunches more often than at dinner. Many hotels in smaller towns less-frequented by tourists do not take credit cards, or only one or two.

Our sample above is in abbreviated form to fit on a web page. We normally have a column for each day. You'll find the more complete example helpful.

We don't make specific plans for specific days beforehand; however we do have, usually, a pretty good idea of the number of days we'll go on an out-of-area day-trip, how many at museums, how many 'splurge' dinners, etc. That way you get a bit closer to exactness in estimating bus trips, admissions and the like.

The cash and credit card totals for each day help us avoid changing too much money at one time. We estimate our day-to-day needs and reduce the amount of cash we have around.

Return, briefly, to an earlier subject, the number of categories. This is quite important in building a useful budget. Add and subtract categories to the sample as your trip and personal habits dictate.

For example, the spreadsheet will work equally well for US vacations as well as European. If it's a driving trip rather than by air, delete the air category and add categories for enroute fuel, tolls, meals and lodging.

In Switzerland the cost of Swiss Passes would replace most or all bus and taxi fares. 'Admission' costs in that case might be defined to cover the cost of mountaintop excursions not covered by the Swiss Pass. In Germany we'd need a car rental category, as well as one for fuel. With a car in Italy or France we'd also have to budget highway tolls. If you go to the theater or opera you'd want a category for that.

Food and admission costs are probably the most difficult to estimate. There aren't always a lot of sources for admission costs. We don't worry too much about this category as it's usually not a budget buster. Something between $5 and $10 is probably close enough per admission. The major source of error is in the number of admissions; make sure you estimate that as well as you can. The same holds true for other expenses, especially meals.

One way to help control meal costs is to eat your big meal at noon. That's the traditional way to eat in Italy, as in the rural US. Better, as in the US, lunch prices are less than dinner-time prices. Indeed portions may be a bit smaller, but for most of us that might be an advantage.  smile.gif (93 bytes)

Advice on food cost is difficult, whether for a specific city, or Europe or the US in general. So much depends on personal appetite and taste as well as personal interest in food.

We spend, relatively, more on food in Rome because we love true Italian cooking, and Roman food preparation in particular. Food, in Italy, is a major part of the trip for us. And we often eat two relatively large meals each day.

Whatever you spend on food (outside your hometown) in the US is likely to approximate your European costs. In general, though, food is a bit more expensive in Europe. Especially so in large cities, a bit less so in smaller locales ... just as in the US. Food is yet higher in Switzerland than elsewhere because of agricultural subsidies that are high even by European standards.

How to economize? You say you've run the budget and the trip will run more than you can afford?

  • Change hotels ... usually the biggest single factor.

  • Review your ground transport plans: reduce number of cities; check for cost of single trip tickets vs. rail passes.

  • Reduce your spending on food. Eat fewer courses: skip dessert; have pasta for a main dish instead of meat. Large meal at lunchtime. Picnic. We enjoy shopping for picnic ingredients as much as eating them, especially in Italy. Nothing wrong with having a picnic on your bedspread in the hotel room occasionally at dinner time if you're really trying to cut spending.

Will this budgeting work? It does for us. We're rarely off by more than, say, 5% actual total vs. plan. Normally we're off a bit on every item, sometimes by more than a little, but we find pluses offset minuses. When we're off more than 5% it's because we made a conscious decision to make an expensive purchase or cancelled an excursion because of weather.

We don't pay much attention anymore to the spreadsheet while we're on the trip. We're confident actual expenses will turn out close to plan. After so many trips to Europe we should be.

Pay attention to your plan, though, as you holiday. Your estimates are likely to be less accurate than ours, unless you have a lot of travel and budgeting experience under your belt. Less accurate for a couple of reasons: 1) less knowledge of likely, actual costs; 2) less experience in estimating how much you actually spend vs. how little you thought you could get by with.  smile.gif (93 bytes)

Keep track of how your spending is going. If you're under budget, great! Perhaps you can afford an extra splurge dinner.

Running over budget? If you can afford it, no problem. If you'd like to stay to your budget, adjust your spending.

Perhaps reduce food spending by eating fewer courses, skipping dessert, having pasta for a main dish instead of meat, eating a small meal at dinnertime or having more picnics. Fewer splurges? Cut out an expensive day-trip? Reduce between-meal snacks and alcoholic refreshments? We've always found ways to offset higher costs in one fashion or another.

We really do enjoy our vacations more when we spend only what we can afford.

Web-based spreadsheet for your own travel budget estimates

Other Financial Information to Help Plan Your Trip to Europe
Money and Exchange for Travelers to Europe
The Euro: A Primer for Travelers
A Trip Budget - How Much Will Your Vacation Cost?
About Foreign Currency Exchange Rates
What Will You Do With Your Leftover Foreign Coins?

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Copyright 2000-2001 E.J. Gehrlein
Published February 16, 2000
Last Revision: August 24, 2001

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