As a personal finance writer, I'm conscious of my spending habits and pay close attention to prices. So when I saw $375 round-trip tickets from New York, New York, to Madrid, Spain, for early September, I jumped on them.
To keep my vacation expenses relatively low, I sat down with my travel partner (and roommate) and set a budgeting goal of $1,800 for a nine day trip. That's a little more than what I earn in a single paycheck. Before taking off, my parents gave me a gift of $140 cash for spending money. That upped my grand spending total for the trip to roughly $1,950.
I'm proud to say I came in just under budget for my nine-day trip to Madrid, Alicante, and Valencia.
Here's how I traveled abroad on a budget — and even managed to account for the unexpected.
I knew having flexibility with my travel dates and destination would help me score the best deals on flights and accommodations. For two weeks, I monitored flights to several European cities before purchasing the $375 tickets to Madrid — that's 30% less than the typical cost of flying from New York City, according to Skyscanner. I had the option to purchase an assigned seat, which I did for $24. However, the low cost came with luggage restrictions: I could bring carry-on baggage only.
My roommate and I split the cost of three Airbnb stays covering eight nights at a total cost of $379 per person — a steal. According to Kayak, the average cost of a "cheap" double hotel room for a single night in Madrid is $197, as of September 18. All in all, our pre-trip expenses rounded out to $754 per person.
Since we were able to score great deals upfront, I had a little more freedom to spend day-to-day during the trip, within reason.
To prepare, I immediately increased my automatic savings contributions to $300 per biweekly paycheck, for a savings of $600 a month over three months, or a total of $1,800. That was enough to cover basic trip expenses but not so much as to feel burdensome or unrealistic.
Leading up to the trip, I also cut out small indulgences, like dining out and going out on weekends, to help cover my expenses when I returned. As a contract employee, I don't get paid time off, meaning I would lose earnings for the five work days I planned to take off and therefore receive half my paycheck the pay cycle following my trip.
We decided to travel from city to city via high-speed trains run by Renfe, although there are airports and bus stations in each city. Trains were our largest transportation expense, at a total of nearly $200 per person. We decided the price was worth it because getting around by train cut our travel time in half, as compared with traveling by bus.
To keep the rest of our local transportation expenses low, we walked a majority of the time and purchased two full-day metro passes in Madrid for a total of about $18 each. For a change of pace, we rode electric scooters for $1 plus 15 cents per minute, for an overall cost of $16.20. Though slightly more expensive than the subways, electric scooters turned out to be an exciting way to tour a city.
My roommate and I split the cost of the majority of our meals, which averaged about $17 each, or about $270 over nine days. We never paid more than €3 for a bottle of wine (equivalent at the time to $3.31 U.S.). In several cases, I turned to my reserve of $140, or approximately €130, and used it up over the course of the trip with small purchases at local food markets and grocery stores so I didn't have to take out additional cash.
There were a few surprises: I had sticker shock when I was charged €1.50 for table water (common practice in much of Europe) but I was happy to discover that a glass of wine cost €1.
To save money, we cooked all our meals for three days in Alicante. At the local market, we purchased pasta, onions, eggs, tomatoes, chicken, chocolate pudding, and wine, spending a total of approximately $26. If I had cooked our meals in each city, I would have saved roughly $200.
For the most part, we kept our spending minimal as we walked and talked our way through each city.
In Madrid, though, we decided to splurge on an all-inclusive experience that came with food, drinks, and a flamenco show for $40 each run by Sandemans, a reputable tour operator. On the last leg of our trip, unexpected thunderstorms drove us indoors: We decided to spend the day at the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, where we shelled out $34 each to visit the aquarium.
Alright, I'll admit it — shopping was my biggest additional expense. I spent nearly $400, which exceeded the amount I spent on food by nearly $100. Traveling at the end of the tourist season worked in my favor, as several shops had sales and discounts. I made eight shopping trips, and my most expensive purchase cost $130.
At first, I considered setting a shopping limit for myself, but realized it wasn't necessary because I felt confident that I could have fun shopping the sales while staying within budget.
In hindsight, I don't regret my purchases because I haven't treated myself to a shopping spree for some time and stuck to sale sections, with only a few exceptions. One of my favorite purchases was a colorfully patterned jacket that I picked up at a popular Sunday flea market in Madrid for approximately $20.
In the beginning of the trip, I fell off an electric scooter and got a good-size gash on my leg. I made several trips to pharmacies as a result. Not bringing a first aid kit on the trip cost me $31.
Going into the trip I knew I wanted to spend around $1,800, and pretty much nailed it with a grand total of $1,808 plus $140 cash, for a total nearly $1,950. Here's a breakdown of what I spent:
- Flights: $399
- Shopping: $397.45
- Airbnbs: $379
- Food and drinks: $295.58
- Transportation: $231.03
- Incidentals: $140
- Tours: $74.52
- Unexpected costs: $31.35
Deciding to travel on a budget gave the trip structure and balance, without limiting our plans. Here are a few things I learned.
- Be flexible on travel dates and destination: If you're interested in an impromptu trip, being flexible on when and where you go, if possible, can save you real money.
- Save in advance: Before departing, I tucked away $1,800 to cover the cost of my trip and cut spending habits leading up to the trip. Having a solid saving strategy helped protect me from sticker shock. Otherwise I would have been stuck with an $1,800 bill and rent payments — all on half my typical paycheck, since I don't have paid time off.
- Pack a first-aid kit: It never hurts to be over-prepared. I could've saved on my pharmacy purchases, which included Band-Aids, Neosporin, and antiseptics, all of which I had at home.
- Have a good travel buddy: My trip was a success thanks to my travel partner, who I met while studying abroad in college. Being on the same page about where we'd stay, what to eat, and what to cut back on helped us set expectations and stick to them.
- Set a budgeting goal: Planning in advance and having a set amount I wanted to spend made it easier to set spending limits. That being said, don't stress too much while you're traveling, because you're there to have a good time.
More from Grow: