Salar de Uyuni (Bolivia) was one of my favorite places in Latin America. I crossed the Andes by bus, which was quite an adventure, and got stuck in Northern Chile for a week due to heavy rains and political protests en route. Nothing worthwhile is every easy.
The biggest myth about travel is that it is outrageously expensive.
I bet it might even be cheaper than where you live now. I spent seven months in Latin America and traveled to 11 countries from October 2014 until May 2015. I tracked every peso, dollar and boliviano I spent in an expense tracking app. I spent hours analyzing the results to provide the detailed and honest breakdown of all my expenses below. (I never want to look at a spreadsheet EVER again!) This includes everything from pay toilets to beer!
Before any big trip, I ELMINATE my bills and focus on saving for travel. In previous posts, I have discussed the cost of travel, solo travel, travel safety, travel banking and how to prepare for a long-term trip. On average, I try to live on $1,000 USD/month no matter where I live. That’s roughly $30/day. In Asia, this was a simple task, but I knew it was a challenge for Latin America due to high transport and visa costs in South America. Before any long-term trip, I like to have at least $10,000 in my savings account, which includes a cushion fund for when I come home. For this trip to Latin America, I saved $15,000 to help cover higher travel costs. To be clear, I have NO debt, which I talked about in a post from 2014.
All prices are in U.S. dollars
Total Cost of Trip: $9,714.38
Cost per Month (7-month trip): $1,387
Cost per Day: $46
Countries visited: 11 total including Mexico, Cuba, Panama, Costa Rica, Colombia, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Bolivia, Peru and the Maldives (My friends flew me to the Maldives to shoot their amazing wedding!)
Biggest expenses: Machu Picchu ($229 including transport from Cusco and entrance fee only), Peruvian Amazon four-day tour ($402), a month traveling in Patagonia, Torres del Paine ($246.47 including food, entrance fee, rental gear, camping and transport from Puerto Natales, Chile), Cuba ($500 for two week trip); Bolivia Salt Flats ($179); Spanish classes ($259.30)
Summary: Overall, I stayed under my $15,000 budget and still came back to the U.S. with the cushion fund I had budgeted ($5,000). I did spend more than I hoped because I fell in love with Argentina and stayed for two months including one month in Patagonia. Is it possible to do this trip cheaper than I did? Of course! The goal of this post is to show an idea of the actual cost of travel and dispel possible myths. In the end, I do not regret a thing. Every single dollar was worth it!
Detailed Breakdown of All Expenses
I stayed in dorm beds at hostels for the majority of my trip ranging from $8-$40/night. I shared larger private rooms with groups of friends I met on my travels. I also rented an apartment in Buenos Aires for $35/night and split it with a friend.
(Transport $2,545.22 & Visas $275.80)
- This includes every single form of transport (taxi, trains, flights, ferries) and all visas.
- Visas: Argentina $160 reciprocity fee (As of 2016, Americans no longer have to pay this fee.); Cuba $25; Bolivia $60 for one-month entry
- Flights: I flew 15 times and only paid for four flights because I’m a frequent flyer mile ninja. (This does not include the six flights to the Maldives to shoot my friend’s wedding.) Domestic flights in Peru were only 6,000 miles each way so I flew multiple times to save time. I booked award flights a month to six weeks in advance. My trip ended in Lima because it is the cheapest place to fly back to the U.S. from South America. (Trust me, I did tons of research.)
- Overnight buses were my main form of transport. The buses in Argentina were the most expensive—each bus was at least $100. I traveled only by bus and jeep from Ushuaia, the Southern most city in the world to Cusco, Peru.
- I took an overnight ferry from Panama to Colombia for $150 because I refused to pay $400 for a one-way hour-long flight.
- There are only two ways to get to Aguas Calientes, the gateway city to Machu Picchu: take the train or walk for seven hours. I travel with 30 pounds of camera gear (and a gnome) so I gladly paid for the $150 for the scenic train.
One of the highlights of my trip was a four-day Amazon tour in Iquitos, Peru during the wet season. I photographed this squirrel monkey from our boat on Monkey Island.
Entrance Fees/Tours: $1,053.43
This includes all museums, archeological sites, hiking, national parks and cultural attractions like Machu Picchu admission ($40); 4-day Amazon Tour in Iquitos, Peru ($403.91); Torres del Paine admission ($30); Bolivia Salt Flats tour ($179)
(Eating out: $1,565.97; Groceries: $299.92; Beer: $269.99)
- One of my favorite parts of traveling is the food! The older I get, the more I spend on food. I eat well and never eat ramen, but I do eat a lot of peanut butter. Usually, I make peanut butter, banana and honey sandwiches for long bus rides or transit days when food options are limited. (TIP: Always pack a jar of natural peanut butter for a trip – it’s either hard to find or expensive overseas.)
- I ate my weight in steak and fresh berries in Argentina. All of which were extremely cheap.
- I cooked a lot in hostels with other travelers, which meant most meals only cost about a few dollars. I also tried to only stay at places with free breakfast.
- I only spent $13.12 on water because I took a Sawyer MINI water filter with me, which saved a lot of money and plastic. The tap water was drinkable in Argentina, Southern Chile, Panama and certain parts of both Colombia and Costa Rica.
(Toiletries: $54.39; Medical: $90.16)
- This includes shampoo, medicines like ibuprofen, toothpaste and bandages for when I smashed my knees (and my iPhone) on a morning run in a park in Buenos Aires.
- Contact solution was $20 in Panama! When possible, I ALWAYS buy sunscreen and contact solution in the U.S. before I leave because it’s either hard to find, bad quality or overpriced abroad.
I stocked up on llama clothing in Sucre, Bolivia.
(Clothing: $45.83; Laundry $56.42)
The only clothing items I really bought were socks and a llama sweater/gloves for Bolivia/Peru. I usually only pack for summer because I hate the cold. It’s easier and cheaper to just buy a llama sweater, gloves and socks than drag warm clothing around for five months. For a list of my top 10 things to pack, check out this post.
I paid $50/month for zero-deductible travel medicine insurance with emergency evacuation coverage and an adventure sports rider through IMGlobal. I opted for the 30-days of home coverage after I returned to give me time to sort out my American insurance. I always cancel my American health insurance when I travel long-term because most U.S. policies offer limited international coverage.
Other Expenses: $599.84
This includes the following: Pay toilets: $3.91; Gifts: $34.65; Postage: $56.92; Spanish classes $259.30; WIFI: $16.42, Tips: $36.17; Other: $192.47
QUESTIONS: Now that I have bared my soul and travel finances to you, I have one small favor to ask. Tell me what topics you would like to see covered on the blog in future posts! What are your travel questions or concerns? Please comment below or email me. I’ll respond as promptly as possible or answer your questions in a detailed post in the future.
COMING UP: Guide to Working Abroad
A Guide to Eliminating Monthly Bills
In my post about Saving for Travel, I mentioned eliminating bills. If you are traveling long-term, you should have almost NO bills. That’s right NONE. Refer back to your list of monthly bills. Cut off all monthly/annual subscriptions: Pandora, Hulu, Amazon Prime, etc. Then, follow the steps below to make your main bills disappear.
Sublease/Rent out your place. Sell your house and excess stuff. Ask your parents or a friend if you can store what’s left in their garage. Offer to pay a small fee or buy them a wool carpet from India. (Luckily, my parent’s own a furniture store with plenty of storage. The few things I own get stored in a corner or the closet in my old room.) Airbnb is a great option to make money while you travel. You can pay a percentage to a friend/family member to manage/clean the place while you are gone.
Left: Patagonia, Argentina. Right: Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay
Option 1: Sell it.
Option 2: Rent it.
If selling scares you, rent your vehicle out to a friend/cousin/your dry cleaner’s dog walker. We all know someone who needs a car or has one that only cranks if you kick it ten times. If you own your vehicle, consider letting a friend drive it for free if they pay your car insurance.
Or rent out your car with companies like Relay Rides or Flight Car.
If you don’t want to sell or rent your car, here’s a few ways to slash your insurance bill:
Drop Liability Coverage. If your car will be parked while you travel, you can cut your bill in half by dropping liability and leave only the comprehensive coverage. You will have return the license plate, but your car is protected if a tree falls on it or a herd of cows have a dance party on the roof.
Risks: Be sure to change your oil when you return. You might also need a new battery. You’ll will also have to get the tags for your car again. I know it’s common sense, but I have to say it: NOBODY should drive your car without liability insurance. If you don’t have comprehensive insurance or your car is ancient, then ditch the insurance until you return. Talk to your insurance agent about your options before making a decision.
USAA Insurance offers huge discounts for cars in storage. (Available only to US military members and their families.)
Is this financially worth all the hassle? Do the math. How long can you travel on the money you save?
Cut off or suspend your cell phone service. Here’s a list of service/billing suspension options for major U.S. carriers:
- Verizon allows you to suspend your service online at no cost for six months per year in three-month increments. (I do this every year simply because my cell phone number is the only consistent thing in my life.)
- AT&T lets you suspend service but continues billing.
- Sprint offers a Seasonal Standby Plan to suspend service for $8.99/month for six months per year for all plans.
- TMobile offers free international data and messaging for their Simple Choice plans. This is a reason to consider keeping your plan instead of suspending it.
- If you cut off your service completely, you will lose your phone number.
- Do NOT get an international plans. The rates are crazy: $2/minute for voice and .50/text. It’s cheaper to use Skype or buy a local SIM to use for both local/international calls.
- Research early termination fees. It could be cheaper than paying your bill while you are traveling.
The secret to staying healthy while traveling is eating healthy and exercising. And, invest in a good travel insurance plan.
Ditch your U.S. health insurance and get a good travel medical insurance plan. Most U.S. health insurance companies offer limited coverage abroad except for major emergencies, which require paying out of pocket upfront and being partially reimbursed. If you have a serious preexisting condition, research your options thoroughly. Some travel insurance policies will cover a “Sudden and Unexpected Reoccurrence of a Preexisting Condition.”
If you have health insurance through your employer:
When you quit a job in America, you receive an option to enroll in the COBRA program, which allows you to keep your same benefits but at a higher cost for up to 18-36 months. COBRA gives you 60 days to sign up, and coverage is retroactive to the date you quit. This gives you two months to start your trip and still have the safety net of COBRA eligiblity as a backup plan if you have a medical emergency. Plus, it saves the cost of paying for COBRA insurance.
Here’s what I do: I researched the cost of COBRA before quitting my job and the cost of Obama Care. I had to decide if the risk of getting sick or having a major accident was worth the cost of COBRA or Obama Care. This year, I took a risk and didn’t sign up for either but made sure I left for my trip BEFORE my 60-days to sign up for COBRA ended. If I had a medical emergency, I would have signed up for COBRA and been covered retroactively by the benefits of my previous insurance.
If you take prescriptions regularly, research generic costs without insurance. Also, remember most drugs are available at a significant discount without a prescription in many places abroad especially Asia. (I occasionally use prescription eye drops. A tiny bottle costs $30 with insurance and $300 without. In Thailand, the exact same brand and batch is $7! It’s cheaper to live abroad than in America sometimes.)
TIP: Most insurance plans also offer a 90-day vacation supply of medications for travel on top of your regular monthly or 90-day supply refills. Simply call your insurance to clarify the details and start the process at least a month before your trip.
Before canceling your health insurance:
- Research international coverage options for your current plan
- If you have insurance from your employer, verify COBRA eligibility. Do a cost comparison of COBRA and Obama Care BEFORE you quit.
- Research travel insurance coverage thoroughly. Daredevils should add the adventure sports rider. My current plan is $50/month with the adventure rider and end of trip home coverage. (Travel Insurance Guide Coming Soon!)
- Non-emergency medical care and even x-rays can be significantly cheaper abroad. I paid $72 for two x-rays and an appointment with an orthopedic doctor at the nicest and most expensive hospital in Bangkok. (I was reimbursed by my travel insurance later.) I also got my teeth cleaned for $30 in Bangkok.
How do you eliminate bills while you travel? Share in the comments!
Donations in a Buddhist temple in Leh, India.
The easiest way to save money while traveling is the have the right kind of bank accounts. Here’s a quick rundown of the most important ones:
If you currently don’t have a savings account or method for investing money, considering a High-Yield Savings Account to earn interest on your travel savings.
Barclay’s High Yield Savings Account – This online only account offers 1% APR with no minimums or fees. (Most bank savings accounts only pay .01% interest.) Like all savings accounts, you are limited to six transfers a month according to government regulation. I’ve been using it for six months and love it!
For more information on high yield savings account, check out NerdWallet’s Savings Account Guide*
Common Bank Fees
There are two big fees that add up when using your debit/credit card aboard.
Foreign Transaction Fees: Most banks and credit cards charge a small fee to convert the currency ranging from 1-3%.
ATM fees: Banks will also charge you a fee for using a non-partner ATM abroad. Plus, that ATM will mostly like you charge you a fee as well. AND, your bank will charge you the foreign transaction fee on top of the ATM fees! That is a minimum of $10 per ATM withdrawal! That’s five meals at the street market in Thailand!
The more money you save on bank fees, the more you have to spend in places like Burma!
How to Avoid Bank Fees While Traveling
1. Find a free and no-fee bank account and credit card
- Charles Schwab Checking Account
No minimum balance. No ATM fees. No foreign transaction fee. They also refund any ATM fee charged to you by another bank at the end of every month. They also have 24-hour customer service, and they are seriously nicest people ever.
- This is a free account so it can be used solely as a travel account or as your main account. I opened two accounts with them in case one card was lost or stolen. That way, I can transfer money to the other account without any issues.
- Local credit union checking accounts might also help you avoid fees. ATM fees might still be an issue but are usually lower than bigger banks. Foreign transaction fees will be less of an issue.
- For more information on free, no-fee checking accounts, check out NerdWallet’s Checking Account Guide*
No Fee Credit Cards
- Avoid credit cards with fees. There are no foreign transaction fees for any Capital One credit card. Keep in mind some rewards cards have annual fees but no foreign transaction fees like the Chase Sapphire. (I will post more about award travel cards and points loyalty programs soon.)
- For more information on credit cards with no foreign transaction fees, check out NerdWallet’s Credit Card Guide*
2. Use Partner Banks. If you want to keep your current bank, research their partner banks abroad. They don’t charge ATM fees and have a lower foreign transaction fee. Outside of Europe and Australia, there aren’t many options if you use a US-based bank.
3. Look for ATMs that don’t charge fees. Most ATMs in India don’t charge a fee. Avoid well-known worldwide bank ATMs like Citi or HSBC because they ALWAYS charge a fee. Use local banks instead. They might still charge a fee but it will be less than a mainstream bank.
Important banking tips
- Open Accounts in Advance. Open any new bank account or credit cards three months before you leave for your trip. This eliminates any hassles with holds on funds that occur on new accounts.
- Avoid Maintenance Fees. Some banks charge a monthly maintenance fee if you don’t keep a large daily balance or have a monthly direct deposit. Check with your bank in advance if you will be traveling long-term without any direct deposits.
- Take multiple cards (Visa, Mastercard and Amex) with you. Visa and Mastercard are the most universally accepted cards. Although, I find American Express can work better on some airline websites abroad like Quantas. But, beware – American Express is NOT everywhere you want them to be. They were not in Cambodia. They left me stranded and living in Western Union commercial. They do charge lowest foreign transaction fee – 1%.
- Watch Exchange Rates. If your home currency looks like it’s dropping, then take out cash before it gets worse. If your home currency spikes, hit up the ATM! When I lived in Australia, there were a few weeks when the Australian dollar sunk pretty low. I took out a good chunk of money out of my US accounts and deposited them into my Australian one.
- Avoid Airport Currency Exchange. You will get the worst rates. You are better using an ATM. The only exception are countries like Burma, Argentina or Vietnam, which allows you get a better exchange rate with cash on the black market. (ALWAYS take US dollars to Argentina and Burma.) Currency exchanges in the city will have better rates.
- Use Bank ATMs. If the ATM is in a strange place (hotel lobby or sketchy corner of a restaurant), it probably has higher ATM fees and the worst exchange rate. Go to a proper bank ATM for the best rates.
- Call Your Bank. Before you leave for any trip, ask your bank about fees. Also, let your bank know where you will be traveling so they don’t block your account.
*I have no affiliation with NerdWallet. I just find their guides and site to be super helpful.
I quit my first “real” job as a graphic designer at a newspaper to move to Australia on a one-year work visa. One of the middle-aged copyeditors at the paper was baffled, “How are you going to live? Do you have a trust fund?” I shrugged and said, “No. I saved and plan to work while I’m gone.”
Traveling is easier than you think and is probably cheaper than where you live now. The biggest myth about traveling is that it’s expensive. I am starting a series about Travel Funding including how to save for a trip and ways to cut costs on top expenses. My tips are geared toward long-term travel but can also be used to extend your funds for any trip!
In life, you either have time or money. In this series, I focus on money. Time will be the subject of another post.
HOW MUCH DO I SAVE?
For me, I try to live on $1,000 USD/month no matter where I am. That’s roughly $30/day. This is a fairly common budget for many backpackers I’ve met in Asia and Latin America. I like to have at least $10,000 before any trip, despite the length. I started with $15,000 (and no debt) for my current Central/South America trip.
Top Five Factors to Consider when Saving for Travel:
1. Research Your Destination
Where are you going? Asia, aside from Japan and Singapore, is the cheapest part of the world. Central and South America, except Brazil, are fairly cheap compared to the U.S. Western Europe is one of the most expensive for Americans. And, Australia isn’t cheap either.
Guidebooks give you a rough idea of prices. Go to the library/bookstore and look through a few current guidebooks. Lonely Planet lists a daily cost breakdown at the beginning of each book for various budget ranges. Flip through to get an idea of the cost of transport, accommodation and food. This is the best starting point.
2. Be Aware of High/Low Seasons
Costs can triple during holidays and high seasons. Be aware that holidays at your destination might differ from your home country. Prices can spike but also some businesses close. Transport might be pricier and more difficult to find in low seasons. Keep in mind that low seasons can mean colder or rainier weather. Shoulder seasons are sometimes best. It’s easier to negotiate prices in low season for accommodation but easier to find ride shares for transport in high season. Do a little research.
3. Bucket List Activities
If you want to get PADI certified to scuba dive or climb Kilimanjaro, know the basic cost. This is most likely going to be your main expense so get an idea of costs to make it easier to save accordingly.
4. Talk to Other Travelers
Remember your co-worker’s cousin that teaches English in Thailand? Get his email and ask him about the cost of living. Look at online forums for travel advice. Couchsurfing.com is a great resource for meet-ups events and other ways to meet experienced travelers in your neighborhood. I went to Spanish meet-ups in Austin before I left for this trip and meet tons of cool people with great travel budget tips.
5. Cushion Fund
At some point, you have to go home. What is your plan? Do you have a job lined up? Are you going to crash with a friend or family? Where are you going to live? Don’t worry – you don’t need a plan, just a cushion fund to cover a couple months of living expenses when you return. For me, I feel safe with $5,000-$2,000. If you have a job lined up, then you can get by on less.What’s your target savings goal?