How to Create a Budget Travel Itinerary

Creating a basic budget travel itinerary is the most important part of your trip preparation. Disagree… let me set the scene for you…

You are heading away on a trip and you would like to start planning your itinerary. However, it all seems overwhelming so you decide to wing it. When you arrive at your destination you hear about this amazing waterfall/temple/market/show that you ABSOLUTELY must see. One small catch, its only open on Tuesdays and you won’t be there on a Tuesday. All of this could have been avoided if you had made a simple budget travel itinerary before you left. Or when you arrive it is the middle of a religious festival and you are staying in a hotel across the road from a temple. Cue being woken up every hour when they strike the bells. Easily avoided with some research. 

My ethos around creating a budget travel itinerary is to find out what you can and can’t do. This creates a framework that you can either build off and schedule things around (if you are a planer person) or that gives you directions if you decide to wing it (because there is nothing wrong with that). Even if you want to “just make things up as you go”, you need to know a few things to help you do that. There is nothing worse than knowing you missed out on Chinese New Year in Vietnam by one day, purely because you couldn’t be bothered to pick up a guidebook.

But, it is all so overwhelming you say! I get that, there is a lot to consider. Flights, accommodation, places to eat, things to do, meeting up with friends and rest days. There is a lot to research, a lot to think about. It all needs to be factored into your adventure… and then before you know it, your holiday is over.

I do have to mention that planning a trip is one of my favourite things to do. I am constantly creating new budget travel itineraries. Currently, in my head I am building one for a walking holiday in Germany, a road trip through Montana, a sailing holiday in Greece and a couple of weekends escapes just out of Sydney. If you aren’t a travel planner freak like me, here are a few helpful steps to help you get the most out of your time away.

Note: I break my itineraries up into travel days, activity days and rest days.

Know how much time you have in your budget travel itinerary

This is the number one thing I do. It doesn’t matter if you are going to plan out every day or just going to wing it. Knowing how much time you have is the key to having a great time. To do this I create an excel spreadsheet of all of the days… because I am obsessed. But a normal person may just look at a calendar.

The first thing to note down is your travel days. Always block out a full day for any travel. In my experience, travel ALWAYS takes longer than expected. Or leaves you too exhausted to do anything. You aren’t running in the Amazing Race, be realistic about your capabilities. Therefore, if I get off a flight at lunchtime, by the time I make it through immigration, collect my bag (on one of the rare trips where I have packed more than carry-on), and found the train/bus to my accommodation its AT LEAST mid-afternoon. That just leaves me enough time to check in, go for a walk around to orientate myself and have dinner.

This rule also applies to whatever time you are leaving. If I have a 3 pm flight, you might think that I could do something in the morning. What will really happen is that I will sleep late, then get up and pack. Check out at the LATEST possible moment. Leave my bags with my accommodation while I go in search of breakfast. By that time its about 12 pm and I need to head to the airport for check-in.

It doesn’t matter if it is a flight, a train, a ferry or a bus. Generally, a travel day is not an activity day. Cross it off. If you are travelling a long distance, this usually reduces the time you thought you had by four days. Two days of travel there, and two days back. 

What local holidays fall during your budget travel itinerary?

One of the biggest regrets I have in life is that when I went to Rome it was during the national holiday of St Peter & Paul. The Sistine Chapel was closed for three days. I still haven’t seen it, its still on my bucket list. Now, I always do a quick google of the local holidays before I plan anything else. Is it Eid al-Fitr or Chinese New Year? Mark those days down as you might want to get involved in the festivities. Or you will need to know that shops and tours may not operate on those days.

Also, check to see if there are any big events on. To do this just google the name of the place, the month and “what’s on”.  If the F1 is on, expect there to be surge pricing for your accommodation. Maybe the tomato throwing festival is on or running of the bulls. There are a number of cool things that you may want to add into your budget travel itinerary… or maybe you want to re-think that destination due to the surge in prices.

If it is election time there may be protests in the street. Twice when travelling through Europe I have been caught up in huge political protests. When I was in San Sebastian in 2005 the protest quickly turned into a riot… tear gas and police everywhere. On the flip side, the protests and campaigning for the election in Portugal were amazing – music, dancing, people in the streets chanting. Fantastic experience. Just be aware of what is happening and how it may impact you.

Make sure you note all of these down in your calendar (or spreadsheet). If there is a local holiday/event maybe have to be a rest day if everything is closed.

Personalise your budget travel itinerary

What is your passion or hobby? Can you experience it in another country? I have two things I always do when I am travelling – a cooking class and a hike. Therefore, my next step is to research what are the best hikes in the area. Who has the best cooking class that I want to do? I need to work out if there are any restrictions around doing these. If it’s an overnight hike up a volcano then I will need to budget two days (and maybe a rest day) out of my budget travel itinerary. Or maybe it only runs on certain days.

Be mindful also of your travel companions passions as well. Where possible, I try and do a swap. If they come to a cooking class with me, I will go on a sailing trip with them (it’s a hard life sometimes). Maybe I will exchange a day of hiking for a day of going to museums. However, sometimes you have to go your separate way. When I was on my first trip through Europe at 18, I arrived in Salzburg, Austria and marvelled at the beauty. The friend I was travelling with wanted to do the Sound of Music Tour, I wanted to see the worlds largest ice cave. We didn’t have enough time to do both, so we split up for the day. Which was fantastic, as that evening we regaled each other with tales of our day.

How to fill out your activity days in your budget travel itinerary

You now have your travel days, the local holidays and your MUST DO activity blocked out. But what to do with the rest of your time? I always recommend you do this research, but unless its something that you really want to do or see, don’t plan it too much. Leave some flexibility in your budget travel itinerary. There are a number of ways you can do this research:

  • Travel books – I always buy travel books as I love reading them. I get so many good ideas from Lonely Planet, often things I wouldn’t have seen while googling. This is because sometimes you can’t see the tree for the forest when you are doing a search.
  • TripAdvisor – I look up the top ten things to do on TripAdvisor, and then read the reviews. The reviews are vitally important as that helps you decide on whether its worth your time.
  • Tours – I head to Intrepid Tours or Gap Adventures and look up the tours that they have running in the region. They have pretty detailed itinerary plans so it can help you understand how much you can get done in a day. This was how I found out about hiring a moto driver to take me to explore the temples around the city of Hue in Vietnam.
  • Blogs – Given the plethora of blogs out there, you can pretty much always find someone writing about where you want to go. Don’t just read the article though, ask questions if you need. After all, this is a person who knows the area well enough to write about it, they are a pretty good resource. Also, bloggers LOVE answering questions about their content.
  • Ask around – when you are planning a trip, it can come as a surprise how many people you know who have been to where you are going. From colleagues to your local grocery store checkout person, you never know! I always try and drop my upcoming trip into the conversation (not because I want to be the person who always talks about travel… though to be fair, I am that person), but because you never know where people have been and what they can recommend.
  • Expats – do you know someone who is originally from the country you are going to? They will obviously be a huge source of information. Ask them about the nitty gritty things such as transport options or the best place to eat.

NOTE: Ignore any advice from someone who says “I haven’t been there, but I have heard” – unless you are hearing it from the horse’s mouth, ignore it.

You may now have a list of ten or so things that you would like to do if you can. Maybe you have identified a couple more items that move onto the MUST SEE list and have scheduled them into your calendar or spreadsheet. Either way, you now have a good idea of how you are could fill your days.

Planning rest days in your budget travel itinerary

These are super important. A holiday can very quickly become exhausting if you don’t break it up with some downtime. Just because you aren’t at work, doesn’t mean that what you are doing is relaxing. Especially if you are travelling in big foreign cities which take a lot of energy to navigate. Break up your trip with some rest time, even if its just a morning by the pool. Or going to the cinema. When I was in New Orleans, I was at the end of my tether from exploring so much. The thought of going out and looking at the nightlife made me want to cry. So instead I went and saw the latest James Bond movie – best three hours of my day! If you are doing any strenuous adventurous activities you may want to schedule in a recovery day or two afterwards. And please remember, it doesn’t matter where you are, you are allowed to have a bad day.

Should food be a part of your budget travel itinerary?

For some foodies, the trip is all about the food. Although I love food and revel in eating in new places. I don’t let it factor too heavily in my planning process. I usually google the local specialities so that I know what I must try. When I arrive I will ask my accommodation (hostel, Airbnb or hotel) where they recommend. Their recommendations are often the best. This is how I discovered that in Porto, locals eat a steak sandwich and a beer for breakfast. What a fantastic revelation!

If there is a specific restaurant you want to visit, try and organise your activity to be in the same area where its located. This cuts down on how much time you need to spend travelling. Try and go at lunchtime where possible. A lot of restaurants have cheaper rates at lunchtime and aren’t as busy with the after-work crowd. It’s a great opportunity to get the full attention of your serving staff at a better price. If you are travelling solo – don’t be afraid to eat out alone, some of my best meals have been when I was on my own.

In Conclusion…

Knowing what’s going on, and how many actual activity days you have is important. Everything else you can make up as you go along. Travel should be fluid. In fact, it has to be. 

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