During our one month abroad, many people have asked Alex, my boyfriend, and I how we made traveling one month abroad work. Given that he is a new business owner and I am an educator, how is it that we can afford both financially and time-wise to travel around for a whole month? I always answer, “we put travel first”. But in reality, it is a lot more complicated than that. For Alex and I, it took proper planning, a mental shift, choosing the right career pathways, and getting savvy about a travel budget.
Below I outline how we did it. But please keep in mind that I am a Type A personality that loves a good budget. I also find so much joy in good deals and experiencing more for the least amount of cost but not at the expense of paying locals what they deserve or sacrificing quality time.
Outline Your Dream Trip
Start by dreaming. Alex and I sat down over numerous dinners and glasses of wine and discussed what our hopes for our one month abroad would be. At first, I had us in Peru, hiking to Machu Picchu and exploring the historic center of Lima. Alex had us back in East Asia, going to our love affair Thailand and its neighboring countries (although we have already been here). Nothing was off the table. We just dreamed. Our motto is if we can’t go this time we will go next time. In fact, we are intentional in exploring and researching all ideas and dreams.
The next step for us was to get practical. As a business owner, during our travels Alex would obviously have to work. Hiking in Peru was not necessarily an environment or activity conducive to putting in 4-hours work days. Further, the only time during the year that I am available for one month of travel is during the summer when educators are off work. I didn’t want to be caught in Thailand during the rainy and muggy season so Thailand was off the list.
One of the main factors in deciding which countries to travel to was expense. Travelling to India is far cheaper than traveling to Zurich. It is no secret that as countries become more economically productive then the price of food and lodging increases. Thus, when looking at places to travel, Alex and I researched countries where our dollar could go fairly far for food and lodging. This helps us keep a budget friendly travel and it also puts our dollars into a market that could use another tourist.
For this trip Alex and I agreed on Spain, Portugal, and Morocco. We felt like Spain may have some opportunities for Alex to explore international business, Portugal is a new must see hot spot, and how could you not go down to Morocco when you are so close. The weather would be amazing, the environment is conducive for working, and it wouldn’t be too hard on our budget.
When choosing the countries that you want to visit, it is also important for you to be honest with yourself and your travel partner on the types of experiences that you want to have. You can fit in a lot of countries in one month. You can also choose to visit only a few. When I was twenty and in college, my cousin and I took the summer and backpacked throughout Europe. We called our trip the “appetizer of Europe” because we literally were on trains every three days in order to explore new cities and sights. At the time, this type of travel was a blast. Now, into my thirties this no longer appeals to me. Alex and I love having a more in depth experience in fewer locations where we can engage with the culture and relax.
Choose the Right Career
Choose the right career. As a start, Alex and I both chose careers and industries that would support our love of travel. As an educator, I have 6 weeks off in the summer, 2 weeks at the end of December, 1 week in February, and 1 week off in April. This gives me an opportunity to travel throughout the year. The downfall of the times I have off to travel is that these are often peak seasons for travelling as many families take vacations during these times. This means prices are usually more expensive for flights and lodging and I have to get more creative, like finding locations that are not as busy at that time.
Alex on the other hand has chosen to start his own business so that he can have a flexible lifestyle for traveling and living out life. His ultimate goal is to live the Tim Ferris 4-hour work week life and have business model that is remote.
Get Savvy About a Budget
In the beginning of planning our month abroad, Alex and I had to get serious about our budget. For couples traveling together, it is imperative that you are in agreement about how much you will spend in total and also how much you should spend for various travel categories including transportation, tours + tickets, food, accommodations, and other necessities. If you are not in agreement, then your budget won’t matter in the long run. It is not necessary (and slightly impossible) to budget to the penny but with little research you can get a good idea of how much things should cost you.
Transportation. Transportation is often the largest expense due to flights. To get a baseline price, start by looking at flights to any and all of your destinations using flight search engines. Our original search to cities in Europe gave us approximate prices of $1,300 for each ticket. Therefore, I knew that this was the max I should pay for a ticket to Europe. At this point Alex and I had to agree that we would be willing to pay this amount for our month abroad. See below to see how we paid significantly less for our tickets.
Other modes of transportation must be included in your budget. Alex and I would be traveling between three countries and multiple cities in our month abroad. Europe offers trains, buses, ferries, and airplanes as modes of transportation. To create a budget, I mapped out various modes of transportation that Alex and I both agreed on. We needed to determine the value of our time to our money for this budgeting process. While airplanes take less time, they cost more. And trains take less time than buses but also cost more than buses. Alex and I agreed that we would stick to trains, given that they have excellent train systems in Europe. However, we decided we would pay more for first-class tickets that would give us more comfort on our journey, especially since Alex and I are both tall people. We would then take buses where trains were not available. I looked at various train passes for Europe and decided that a 3-country, 5-day, in-one-month Eurail pass would suit us best given the route we wanted to take. The cost was $547.56 for each pass and I added that to our budget. In addition, there were two places where I knew we would need to take a bus. After researching online, I found out that those buses cost about $23.00 each so I added an addition $50.00 per person to our transportation budget.
It is important to remember transportation that you will use within a city. In my own experience, I have found some cities to be very walkable making metro systems, taxis, and public buses not necessary. Madrid, Seville, Tangier, and Portugal were just like this. However, other cities are so big that a metro pass or public transportation pass is a must such as Barcelona! Based on some other blogs I included about $200 in our budget for local transportation. There are many ways to save with transportation and Alex and I agreed to maximize on this budget. See below how Alex and I saved on everyday transportation.
Accommodations. Using hotel search engine sites, I looked at various hotels in each city that we planned to go to. I looked only at the types of hotels/hostels that we would be comfortable sleeping in. For the best experience, you need to be honest with yourselves about what kind of living accommodations meet your standards. Alex and I prefer to stay in a hotel or hostel that is in the city center for easy access to tourist sights and city life. We like a double bed with an ensuite bathroom preferably with a small fridge or a community kitchen. We do not like youth-like hostels that are more like an American or Australian fraternity than a place for exploration. Sometime Ill blog about our experience in Lagos, Portugal. I don’t go into detail here about it because it was a pretty miserable experience trying to sleep when twenty-somethings are taking shots of vodka outside your door. We also like rooms that have more space so that Alex can work while he is in the room. Once you find hotels that are to you and your partners liking then you can get a good idea of how much to budget for accommodations. For our month abroad in Europe, Alex and I agreed on no more than $70.00 for each night of travel, including all city taxes and cleaning fees. Given that we wanted to stay for 30 nights, we budgeted about $2,100. Sometimes this meant we were in the hot spots of life and other times it meant walking further.
Food. In my experience with travel, the cost of food provides the most variation in how much a travel experience will cost. We all eat different amounts of food and have different styles in how we eat food. Further, the cost of eating in restaurants and shopping in grocery stores are different in every country and every city. Having travelled internationally together prior to our month abroad I knew that Alex and I could be budget friendly when it came to food. Both of us are perfectly capable of eating out of grocery stores for the majority of breakfast and lunches and we don’t mind finding more cheap eating dining restaurants for the evenings. But even “cheap eats” can have a different connotation for each partner. I looked up the average price for food in Spain and it reported about $30.00 a day and that included wine and food at great places to eat. Knowing Alex and I and our love for eating out of grocery stores and in parks or finding some delicious street food, I budgeted $25 per person for a total of $1,500.
Tours, Tickets, + Souvenirs. Neither Alex and I are a big museum people nor big souvenir collectors but we do love a good cultural experience. This is the category that was most complicated during the budgeting process. Given that we would be abroad for one month I couldn’t quite imagine what we would want to do. I had no inclination of seeing a ton of museums or palaces etc… Instead, Alex and I like to walk to streets and do activities that allow us to really experience the pulse of the city. I thought $100.00 dollars per week for the both of us may be adequate enough for this category which means I budgeted a total of $400.000.
Other. From experience I know that many things come up in the “other” category such as laundry, basic pharmacy supplies (e.g. the bug spray you didn’t think of or diarrhea medication), or even your cell phone plan. Alex and I both love to have the internet so that we can navigate around cities and contact one another in the emergency (we are not with each other the whole time). These items I count as “other” or miscellaneous. And after my last travel experience to Thailand with Alex I wanted to make sure that we budgeted an adequate amount for these emergent situations. Neither one of us really care for trinkets but we usually pick up a souvenir or two.
However, after doing research, Alex and I felt like Europe was way out of our budget. Given that Alex is starting a company and I work as a school counselor in public K-12 education, an eight-thousand-dollar budget just isn’t necessary. After a lengthy discussion, Alex and I agreed that we needed to plan a month abroad that cost approximately $3,000 for the each us. This would require us to figure out how to save about $2,000 dollars which largely related to sacrifices of comfort and convenience. We had to adapt our budget. And so we found ways to make money and also ways to save money.
Find Ways to Make Money
Travel Credit Cards. If you have plenty of time to plan for your month-abroad then I highly recommend making a small investment into a travel credit card where you can accumulate points for traveling. I applied for Chase Sapphire Reserve Credit Card in November where I can earn for each dollar spent 1.5 travel points among other amazing benefits. Instead of using my debit card like I used to, I put all of my expenses on the Chase credit card and accumulated points. The Chase Sapphire Reserve costs about $450 but you get $300 dollars back in travel credit and can easily make up the additional $150.00 cost through the point system. I didn’t spend extra money. I simply put what I would already be spending money on my credit card. The added bonus is that you get free global entry and TSA as well as access to lounges across the world, which saves us a lot of money at international airports for food and comforts.
By the time it came to book our hotels for Europe travel, I had earned enough points to get over $800.00 dollars for travel, beyond the $300.00 travel credit. This money was earned back just by using a credit card that I paid off monthly anyway!
Renting Our Apartment. Another way we made money for our trip was by leasing out our apartment for the month that we went abroad. Alex and I are very fortunate to live in a prime location in the city of Seattle for a sublease. We are 1 mile from Pike Place, a 5-minute walk from the waterfront, and you can see the space needle from our rooftop. Does anyone want to apartment swap this summer? (I’m not joking!). While our rent is more, we decided to sublet our apartment for $800.00 in the agreement that our things and clothes would all remain in the apartment. After a post on social media, we had someone sign our sublease. The extra bonus is that it was to someone we knew.
Find Ways to Save Money
Book Flights Early. Do not wait to book your flights until the last minute. Book early! Do your research on when is the best time to book for the country that you are traveling to. The longer you wait the more you will pay. Don’t be the person who watches your flight price increase as your refreshing your computer screen.
Eurorail. Many people do not realize this but there are certain seasons when the Eurorail goes on sale! When we booked our Eurail pass we were able to get a discount for a 3-country Euorail pass, purchasing each one for $379.00, saving us a total of $336.00. Unfortunately, I just learned that this pass has been discontinued. This was a great deal for us. Before this, we were wondering if the Eurorail was going to be the right budget-friendly purchase. Its important to map out your routes because its not always the best deal. And most long-distance trains, especially ones that are high speed cost additional fees to reserve your seats. And you don’t have an option not to get reserved seats! Thus, there is an additional cost on top of this pass. Don’t make the mistake and think that the Eurorail pass covers all train expenses. Most of our reservations cost us $20-$30 euros. Its not cheap!
Museums. Did you know that in Europe many Museums and other national sights are free to enter on certain days of the week or even certain times during the day? One way Alex and I saved money was by planning our day around these free events. We don’t care what time we see the Prado Museum or the Royal Alcazar of Seville, as long as we see it. Do your research ahead of time and find out the most efficient way to see the museum for free. Often times there are long lines. However, many allow you to reserve free tickets a head online for a $1 transaction feed. Find out the details and go for free.
Use AirBnB Experience. Instead of paying top prices for expensive tourist traps, we booked the majority of our local experiences through AirBnB Experiences. Because of this, we did things that would have never fit into our budget. And we found it to be much more personalized and the local experience that we wanted. We sailed the Tagus river off the coast of Portugal with Mario (Total Cost for 2 = $100) and cycled through the beaches of Sintra with Jorge (Total Cost for 2= $70.00). We even experienced an amazing and personalized Flamenco experience in Southern Spain (Total Cost for 2 = $30.00).
Walk. When possible, we walked everywhere! It allowed us to be active and see things at a much slower pace. And wandering around the city gave us opportunities to have so many experiences we would have missed had we been on public transportation. Sometimes we would walk to our location and take a bust back. Walking saved us a lot of money that we could have easily spent on local transportation.
Use Public Transportation Over Private Taxis. When we did need to use public transportation we chose buses or shared taxis over private vehicles. It wasn’t as comfortable but we easily saved $60.00 by sharing a small taxi with Moroccans through the desert to the Blue City Chefchauen instead of getting one for just the two of us. Plus, it was an incredible experience to be in a 3 hour car ride with a bunch of sleepy locals and no air conditioning.
Eat off the Beaten Path. Alex and I almost never ate in a tourist center or a place where there were a lot of tourists. Yes, we did splurge and go to Sobrino de Botín in Madrid, which is claimed to be the oldest restaurant in the world. This was a bucket list item for Alex and an amazing experience. However, despite special circumstances, Alex and I always went for what I like to call “the hole in wall” or the best cheap eats we could find.
For breakfast and lunch, we often ate food at street vendors or out of grocery stores, which allowed us to sit down for a nice and longer dinner in the evenings. We loved grabbing a loaf of bread, meat, and cheese at the local grocers and eating it on the steps of some famous and historic monument. I loved finding new squares and shady spots for the meal. For dinner places, we often won by talking to the locals and reading reviews. It allowed us to price it out. Alcohol is a lot cheaper in Europe so we didn’t have to skimp here. A lot of times we would get a glass of wine at dinner and purchase a bottle for the streets.
See Alex in the photo below at our favorite Portuguese restaurant (Stasha) where we actually ate twice. We tried Pork cheek with sweet potatoes, salmon with risotto, pork loin with potatoes and a berry sauce topped with goat cheese, as well as a spinach lasagna. Each Meal was $10.00 and wine was $3.00 each. Also a photo of us eating Pasteis, a famous Portuguese dessert.
Accommodations. Do not assume that Air BnB is the cheapest accommodation. Because of the cleaning fee and additional tax on top of that, Air BnB can often times be just as expensive as staying in a budget friendly hotel. We found hostels to be generally just as good in Europe and also much better locations. We saved a few times by calling the hotel and asking for accommodations last minute. Other times we saved by researching and comparing prices online. We also found it helpful to book hotels with fridges. We would do a little grocery shopping, which allowed us to keep food available for grab and go breakfast and lunches. Sometimes we also kept food in community fridges. We did have one incident where our groceries were stolen. The hotel compensated us with a beautiful display of meat and cheeses. We also loved accommodations with community spaces in order to meet people and hang out. Many places have great roof tops and central locations to experience the local vibe.
Do your Own Laundry. We did our own laundry. It is so easy to have someone else to do it but we used laundry mats and were easily able to do all of our laundry for about seven euros (5 euros for wash and 2 euros for dry). Plus we got to hang out with some sweet puppies in the Madrid laundromat.
Free Walking Tours. In Europe, there are so many free walking tours. Locals take groups of tourists through the historic sights and simply ask for a tip at the end. Thus, one way to keep tourism budget-friendly is to participate in these walking tours. Alex and I participated in a few and loved them. Another way, is to simply download walking tours on the internet. Rick Steve provides incredible walking tours for the main cities in both Spain and Portugal. These were incredible. Alex and I put our headphones in and walked around the city at our own pace. Imagine us, heading down the Las Ramblas as Rick Steves tells us about the history of the street. It was great!
Sticking to Your Budget
It is one thing to make a budget, but if you do not abide by your own values related to your budget you will easily blow it out of the water. It is so easy to say “lets just do it” and put it behind you. Or “lets just worry about it later”. However, this might put you in a very bad financial situation. My advice- don’t worry too much about it but don’t get derailed either.
Given that I wanted to know what it would cost us to go abroad for the month, I kept track of every little expense from tram tickets to the cost of a glass of wine in an Excel spreadsheet. I was motivated to keep track of our expenses because I wanted to determine what amount of money we needed at minimum to travel again. I started this process the moment we stepped foot in the Seattle Airport and ended it the moment we got back home. I categorized each item in transportation, tour +tickers, food, accommodations, and other. I also categorized the food by breakfast, lunch, dinner, or snack. Further, for fun and curiosity I categorized each item by city.
Alex and I did amazing with our budget. For a month abroad, we spent a grand total of $5,698.00 dollars for the two of us. Subtract the additional $800.00 dollars that we made from subletting our apartment and the total out of our pockets was $4,898.3. Yes! That means I went to Europe for an entire month on less than $2,500 dollars. See the chart below.
Really, this chart should be titled “One Month European Abroad Expenses (in US Dollars) for a Diligent Couple”. I need to remind you that I am Type A and my boyfriend is also incredible at finding experiences that are of value but not costly. He is also easy going. We agree on almost everything when it comes to travelling, except for sometimes directions. Further, Alex and I could have fun feeding some pigeons bread in a square while drinking a glass of wine. In fact, some of our favorite experiences were working out or just hanging out in parks across Spain and Portugal. We are not fancy, although I do need decency, and we do not need the best. We simple want to have an incredible local experience.
With this mindset, we had the most amazing time in Europe. I spent my days walking around the cities, sitting in coffee shops and writing, and enjoying the culture. I used the time to reset my mind and rest. I hadn’t been so relaxed in years.
And no, we didn’t focus on the money. It wasn’t as if we turned down things in order to save a euro or two. In fact, we took bike tours and entered tourist traps too. But we worked hard to avoid these traps and focused on how to have a more local experience. To give you an idea of how we filled our time money free or with inexpensive experiences Ive listed some things below.
- Paseo or walk the streets and observe life
- Sit in a local coffee shop and write
- Rick Steve’s Walking Tour of Barcelona
- Workout in the Citadel Park (local hot spot for all types of fitness)
- Watch Sunset at Monjuic Park while drinking cheap wine
- Free show at Magic Mountain (Twice!)
- Stumble upon Gay Pride in Barcelona
- Go to the beach for some sun (up coast is better than Barcelona Beach)
- Walk. Walk. Everywhere.
- Paseo or walk the streets
- Free Local Walking Tour (Tip only)
- Watch the sunset at Palacio and sit down in the ancient parks where Kings and Queens rested
- Hang out in El Retiro Park and take a nap
- Watch World Cup 2018 in the Center of Commercial on a big screen with a dj and dance party
- Run through the Alfama Neighborhood and climb the hills for a view of George’s Castle
- Take a picture with Tram 28 and follow the street down to the waterfront
- Sit on hotel balcony and watch hustle and bustle of Portugals city life
- Walk the streets to enjoy all the different “tiles” and street art
- Eat! (The food is practically free here)
- Be a beach bum
- Paseo or walk the streets (all the locals do it)
- Walk the Guadalquivi River and stop for a rest to watch the boats and rowers pass by
- Alcazar (The Royal Palace) at Free Entrance Times
- Plaza De Espana
- Seville Cathedral at Free Entrance Times
- Walk through Triana
- Have coffee on the hotel rooftop overlooking the city
- Workout and explore the Park of Maria Luisa then lay down for a nap
- Walk through the Kasbah and experience a port market
- Listen to the call to prayer in the park and on the roof top
- Walk through the Medina (Old City) and New City to observe culture
- Have mint tea on the rooftop
- Meet friends and check out their riad (type of Moroccan accommodations)
- Hike to the Spanish Church and watch the sunset
- From the Blue City (Chefchauen) take a day trip to Akchour and hike and swim to the waterfall and Bridge of God (no more than $15.00 total for a whole days trip and the most amazing Tagine).
- Get lost in the Blue City and try to find your way out
Make UP Your Own Mind
When thinking about a budget, the important thing is to make up your own mind of what you should and shouldn’t see, do or eat. For example, in Barcelona I felt like we had to see the La Sagrada Familia. While we received information about the Church on a bike tour, I still felt like we needed to see the interior for ourselves. And so we did. We paid at least $20 to enter and we both couldn’t get that into it. It is nothing less than a significant feat, a church that is still being built, but it really wasn’t our thing. It was something I was told we had to see if we were in Barcelona. Mr. Gaudi is the pride and joy of Barcelona, but we found more joy sitting in the pews for 45 minutes and meditating to the sounds from the organ playing from the church service below. I was happy that this experience was in the beginning of our trip because it helped set the tone for all the experiences to come. Just because someone else values it doesn’t mean you have to. I can guarantee that there are a lot of people that wouldn’t find joy in working out in all the historic parks we encountered on our travels. Or joy in observing this group of men play dominoes at a local coffee joint. So don’t! Do your thing!
Remember, that this is only the experience of two people. I am sharing it because I think that there may be some of you out there that find value in how to take 1 month trip and afford it. And how to do it. Again, “we put travel first” isn’t enough. There is a lot of planning, budgeting, mindset, and persistence to make a budget-friendly one month abroad experience happen at such a low cost. And of course, as always if you have any questions feel free to reach out.