Budget Your Trip: Splurge Vs Save
Budgeting your trip doesn’t need to be a nightmare
by Alicia Butler, June 22, 2022
I’ll be honest: my travel budget has grown in the past few years.
There was a time when all I could afford was hostels and budget vacations or trips to countries with American-friendly exchange rates.
These days, I can budget for a few more splurges than I did in the past. But when push comes to shove, I’d really rather not stay at five-star hotels or fly first class to every destination. Unlike what Anna Delvy might say, VIP is not always better.
Find out how to budget your trip so you can enjoy high-end experiences — without sucking out the heart and soul of your vacation.
Budget Your Trip: Splurge Vs Save Tips
My splurge versus save tips will help you budget your trip and keep a few extra dollars in your wallet.
Flying on a Budget
Flying can be a huge black hole in your travel budget.
With costs in the hundreds of dollars for a domestic flight and thousands of dollars for international flights, you may end up spending the lion’s share of your budget on a cramped seat in coach (un)conveniently wedged next to the lavatory.
Find out how to budget your trip for flying — no matter whether you’re a coach, economy-plus, business, or first-class traveler.
Budget Your Trip for Cheap First Class Flights
I’ve gotten to the point in my life where I don’t want to fly coach anymore on flights over 3.5 hours. And I’ve found ways to save money on upgrades — or get free upgrades and business or first-class tickets altogether.
Truth be told: I don’t fly to Europe or Asia often (and I’ve only flown coach to these destinations in the past).
There are a few ways to budget your trip for the price hike of flying business and first class on long-haul flights in the U.S. (and someday to other continents as well).
Credit Card Hacking
I really hate the phrase credit card hacking. Actually, I hate all references to hacking or life hacks altogether. I really wish we could stop using these phrases that imply you’re getting something for relatively little work (or no work at all — just a “shift” in your mindset).
But I have gotten some benefits from the process of credit card hacking.
The concept is simple: open up a mileage rewards credit card simply to snag the welcome bonus. Spend the qualifying amount of money to get the points, use the points, and close the card.
If you want to budget your trip for first-class flights, this is one way to do so.
I’ve snagged a 100,000 welcome bonus on my Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, a 50,000 welcome bonus with my Citibank American Airlines card, and a 60,000 welcome bonus with my Delta AMEX card.
I used the 100,000 Chase bonus to book one month of my Airbnb in LA last January, the American Airlines miles to fly from Seattle to Hartford in August, and the Delta miles to fly to LA last January (and from LAX to SEA and back last February).
I flew business class on all the long-haul flights and comfort-plus on the roundtrip flight from LAX to SEA.
Flight Comparison Sites
I ran out of miles when budgeting my trip from Hartford to Seattle in July, so I used flight comparison sites, like Kayak, to find the cheapest first-class flight from nearby airports.
Because I use my credit card hacking miles to make so many first-class flight bookings, I don’t usually get airline miles for those flights.
Yet, I do still use my Chase Sapphire Preferred card for all my usual expenses and can use those points for flights (I’m usually awarded about 36,000 points per calendar year) for flight upgrades.
Many airlines allow you to upgrade to a first-class flight after booking a coach or economy-plus flight, which can also help you budget your trip.
The cost of a North American flight upgrade from the East Coast to the West Coast (or vice versa) is usually between $100 and $100 — which is way less expensive than just buying the first-class or business class ticket.
I book economy-plus seats on flights more than two hours but less than four hours.
Flying coach really isn’t bad on a flight less than two hours, so I’ll save money on shorter-haul flights.
How to Budget Your Trip for Hotels
Hotels can be a ‘lil tricky to budget your trip for when you’re traveling alone. But it’s not impossible to find a budget or boutique hotel (or a combo of budget and splurge-worthy hotels) at any given destination.
I use apartment rental sites, such as Airbnb, less and less these days. Airbnb has led to a drop in affordable housing for locals, and I feel as though I’m taking an affordable housing option off the market when I book with Airbnb.
Because a lot of renters (or owners) use Airbnb to supplement their rent or mortgage payments, I’m more likely to book if it’s clear the owners live on site.
When I was in LA in January, I booked a mother-in-law apartment for two months. The owners clearly wouldn’t have rented a tiny house in their backyard full-time and were simply trying to recoup the cost of the build (and meet a few friendly travelers such as myself in the process).
That being said, Airbnb can be a great way to budget your trip if you want to stay in a destination for extended periods of time.
There are a lot of really cute cheap hotels and hostels right now to help you budget your trip. I end up spending most of my time in the best budget hotels and hostels I can find.
Using sites like TripAdvisor, Kayak, Booking.com, and more, I can find that sweet spot between the best-priced hotels and the ones I’ll feel happy to call home for a week or two.
If I use a site like Booking.com or Kayak to find a hotel, I always check out the user-uploaded photos on TripAdvisor before booking to confirm the commercial photos are a true representation of the property.
If you want to budget your trip, boutique hotels are a great way to save some money and are a bit more stylish than budget hotels and hostels.
The staff is usually very friendly — but the amenities you’d find in splurge-worthy hotels aren’t always there.
These are often run by local businesses, which I’m more than happy to support!
As a mostly solo traveler, finding room in my travel budget for splurge-worthy hotels is tough.
But I often budget my trip for these hotels anyway because I don’t want to miss out on the experience just because I’m traveling alone. Instead, I plan to stay one night at pricier hotels.
If I’m planning to stay at a destination for an extended period of time, I usually book a budget or boutique hotel for the majority of the stay and a one-night stay at a splurge-worthy hotel.
When I was in LA last winter, I booked a budget Airbnb, so I had money to spend on my side-trips to San Diego and Disneyland.
One of my best Disneyland tips? Know when to splurge and when to save.
Check Out TripAdvisor
Want to budget your trip but not get stuck in a ho-hum hotel?
I often book hotels directly on the property’s website. You can always get a price match for whatever deals you find elsewhere online, and hotels are willing to throw in a free upgrade or welcome drink to avoid paying a booking fee through a third-party booker.
When I visited San Diego last winter, I really wanted to stay at the Hotel Del Coronado because for me it was a “once-in-a-lifetime experience”. I’d heard amazing things about the hotel, there are tons of activities on resort, and it’s a historical hotel to boot (which I’m a sucker for).
I knew that if I just visited for the day and opted to stay at a resort nearby, I’d be disappointed when it was time to leave.
So I booked the cheapest room (about $730 with taxes) and spent the day lounging on the private beach and the following day taking the self-guided tour.
All in all? I wouldn’t do it again.
The room was on par with three-star hotel rooms, really dated, and not worth $700+ at all. Most of the visitors at the hotel were just day guests, and I could have spent the day on the beach (as I did) without booking the hotel room and simply paying for the $50 beach pass (which I also did).
Had I checked the user-uploaded photos on TripAdvisor, I would have known the rooms weren’t worth the price and saved myself some disappointment — and $500.
What I did enjoy was spending a day on Coronado Beach, something I could have done for only $50 with a Hotel Del Coronado cabana rental. My advice? Skip staying at the Del and book a beach chair or daybed for the day instead.
ResortPasses are a great way to experience the amenities of a luxury hotel without shelling out an entire night’s fee. If you’re struggling to budget your trip and keep it classy, Resort Passes are a great way to do so.
Book a pass for a hotel pool chair, cabana, daybed, or beach chair. These passes cost anywhere between $30 and $2,000. Pool chairs cost between $30 and $150 (depending on the time of year and property) and cabanas that seat up to 10 people can cost thousands of dollars (but often come with credit for food and alcohol).
I booked a ResortPass at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Hollywood (also known as the Pretty Woman hotel). I paid $150 for a queen-sized daybed, where I parked myself from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on the day of my reservation. Pool chairs start at only $50 a day. Rooms at the Beverly Wilshire start at $850 a night.
Hotel common areas, such as the pool, restaurants, bars, and gym, are often the fanciest in the hotel, so it’s a great way to take advantage of the luxuries without paying for an entire room.
Vacation Activities: Budget Your Trip for Time & Money
While budgeting your trip for money is super important, don’t forget to budget your trip for time too.
Like money, time is a limited resource; you can’t do it all and still relax on your vacay, so use these tips to make sure you’re not one of those people who go around saying, “I need a vacation from my vacation.”
What type of activities do you enjoy?
You don’t need to visit famous sites just because you think you “should”. Instead, try to focus on activities you enjoy.
Most travelers make the mistake of trying to do too much on vacation. They have a long list of activities, and they need to check everything off their to-do lists.
But then they find there’s not enough time to do everything, and they end up feeling frustrated they can’t do it all. Don’t forget to budget your trip for time in addition to money.
I know what types of activities I enjoy, and I try to seek out those types on my vacation, too. I book a few touristy icon activities (Empire State Building, Eifel Tower, or London Eye admission) and I try to book a combination of tours and off-the-beaten-path activities.
Are you the type of person who loves doing the hottest new thing? Do you abhor the idea of doing something so basic and touristy as visiting the Mona Lisa at the Louvre?
Budget your trip for off-the-beaten-path activities.
I also try to book off-the-beaten path hotels sometimes to save money. For example, on a trip to spend Halloween in Salem, I booked a hotel in nearby Gloucester, which was only a 20-minute drive from Salem, a lot quieter, and a third of the price for accommodations.
I love visiting a destination’s major touristy icons — but I can’t spend my whole trip at these sites.
Who visits Paris without going to the Eiffel Tower or the Louvre? Who goes to NYC without seeing the Empire State Building or Statue of Liberty?
The good news is that you don’t need to buy admission tickets to visit these places. A quick photo outside will do the trick. But you may want to budget your trip by booking a tour of some of these iconic sites, so you can get a behind-the-scenes look at their history.
I also happen to love those terribly tacky hop-on, hop-off buses. By no means will these buses ever be the only tour I do, but they’re a great way to acclimate to a city.
My best friend and I took a trip to Istanbul 15 years ago, and we spent our days in the city getting lost AF. On the last day, we took the hop-on, hop-off bus, looked at each other from our seats on the upper level, and sighed, “Ohhh, this is how the city is laid out!”
Pro tip: don’t use these buses as a form of transportation. They take forever to get from Point A to Point B. Do the full city loop once (preferably in the late morning when there’s less traffic) just to acclimate yourself to the layout of a destination and get a little background history.
I’m a food nerd and love seeking out “foodie” activities wherever I go. I try to book at least one food tour on every trip and spend more time planning my meals and making restaurant reservations than I do researching anything else when I travel.
For some reason, I used to feel guilty that I spend so much time in bars and restaurants on vacation. But why? If eating and drinking is what I like, why do I feel bad doing those things on vacation?
Now I lean into my foodie activities. Food tours allow me to get a little history while doing what I love most — eating food!
There are also usually plenty of low-budget food options in most destinations. You can get brats and beer on a road trip from Chelan to Leavenworth or steak sandwiches on a day trip to Philadelphia from NYC. Want a Disneyland tip for food? Order off the kids menu! Most menu items are the same. You’ll just get a smaller portion that comes with a drink and a side for cheaper.
Are you the type of person who loves zip lining, hiking, rock climbing, or skiing? Then you’re the opposite of me!
But if you do love these activities (and won’t get overly exhausted doing them), book a few on your next vacation.
Book a horseback ride in Wyoming, a hike in the Rhinebeck Valley, rock climbing in Sedona, and a bike ride in Seattle. Whatever iconic activities are available in your destination, book at least one.
Do whatever gives you energy on your vacation.
That being said, don’t forget to relax on your vacation, either.
And if relaxing is your favorite activity? Book more spa, beach, and pool days than active days.
Choose One Splurge-Worthy Activity
There are tons of activities at every destination at every price point. But it’s easy to find the splurge-worthy activities.
Before you budget your trip, I recommend making a list of your must-do activities. Price out each activity. Choose one to three splurge-worthy activities and add them to your budget.
Now choose one or two moderately priced activities to add to your budget. Fill in the rest of your itinerary with cheap activities or free activities (there are plenty of them!).
Budgeting Time for Travel Activities
I also don’t recommend booking back-to-back activities. Book more time than you think you’ll need to travel to and from your activities — especially if public transportation is involved.
You may want to plan some downtime during your vacation (a.k.a. naps, pool time, or beach time).
When I was an NYC tour guide, most of my guests booked so many activities back to back that they found themselves canceling activities because they were so tired.
I like to book tours and activities in the morning, take a break for lunch, and be back in the hotel around 3 p.m. to rest up for dinner and evening activities.
You don’t need to do everything in one trip.
It’s not a bad idea to budget your trip for extra time for transportation on vacation — especially if you’re planning on taking public transportation.
Google Maps can only be so accurate when it comes to travel times. I usually add 10 to 15 minutes onto a Google Maps travel time estimate when I’m traveling to avoid missing a tour or another activity.
Don’t use hop-on, hop-off buses as a form of transportation (they’re notoriously late — like hours late), and won’t get you everywhere you need to go.
I like to use a combination of public transportation, rideshares, taxis, and walking when I’m traveling. That way, I get to feel like a local, and my travel budget isn’t totally stripped by Uber.
Finding Good Food on Vacation
Finding good food on vacation doesn’t need to be an expensive endeavor! You can budget your trip for all kinds of foods.
Some of the most iconic foods of a destination are also the least expensive. Sure, you can find pricy pizzerias in NYC, but these spots don’t necessarily serve the best pizza in the city.
Street food tends to be a budget-friendly option in most cities; since food trucks don’t need to pay servers or for the cost of a brick-and-mortar location, the savings are passed down to you.
Finding Iconic Foods on Vacation
NYC is known for pizza, steak, dumplings, sushi, bagels, and more. New Orleans is known for its shrimp and grits, po’boys, oysters, red beans and rice, and beignets.
Each travel destination has its own culture and unique flavors. To truly understand a travel destination, you’re gonna need to roll up your sleeves and eat. There’s a good chance that there are iconic foods that your destination is known for. Even if they’re not all your cup of tea, part of traveling is expanding your palette and trying new things.
Try to find out which foods are considered “iconic” in your destination. Use websites like Eater and The Infatuation to find the most highly-rated restaurants in any given destination. These sites almost always have listicles of different types of foods, too.
Just some listicles you can search include:
- Best Cheap Eats in [City]
- Best Street Food in [City]
- Best [Cuisine] in [City]
Don’t ever assume when it comes to food. The best Italian food in NYC isn’t in Little Italy. Some of the best restaurants in Rome are actually in the most touristy neighborhoods.
Try to avoid chain restaurants when you’re on vacation. Every meal is an opportunity to experience something you can’t get at home.
Eating on Vacation: Splurge Vs Save
Choose a few restaurants to enjoy splurge-worthy meals. Since the pandemic, most restaurants post their menus (with prices) online, so you can accurately budget your trip meals.
Check out restaurants on Yelp or TripAdvisor to get tips from locals or to find out which restaurants to skip.
Try a few hole-in-the-walls and restaurants specializing in street food. Get a few small plates to share with your traveling buddies.
Tipping on Vacation
I know it’s tempting to forget to add tips to your travel budget (or to forgo tipping altogether). Not only is this really bad karma, but it’s just kind of a d*ck move.
Waitstaff, hotel staff, tour guides, and other hospitality workers rely on tips — not just as a “thank you” but as part of their wages as well.
There’s a special place in hell for travelers that don’t tip the minimum suggested amount (even if the service wasn’t what you expected), so don’t forget to budget your trip for gratuities!