Talk about a can of worms – how much does travelling cost? You might as well ask how long a piece of string is, because the answer, of course, is that it depends. It depends on whether you're a five-star-hotel traveller or a cockroach fetishist. It depends on whether you eat well or eat to survive. It depends on how addicted to Coke and Snickers you are, and whether you go for a short, sharp trip, or a long, open-ended one. The only way to be sure is to do some research, ask people who've been there, and accept that whatever figure you came up with, it's going to be wrong. Probably.
It's also down to experience. When I first hit the road, I was still spending money at the same rate as when I had a job, but that didn't last long: about as long as my savings, in fact. I realised I had to do something about it, so I tightened my belt, found some work and saved up another load of cash; three years later I still had money to spend, and came home simply because I fancied it. I was lucky: there's nothing worse than having to come home because you drank your entire travel budget in one night in Cairns.
Tips for Budgeting
Below are some real figures from my trips, but before we get stuck into the maths, here are a few common sense pointers for budget travellers.
Buying a car: In large countries where you're planning to stay for a while, it can actually be more cost-effective to buy a car, and to sell it when you leave. In Australia, for example, my total car costs – initial purchase and work on the car, car tax, insurance, RAC membership, stereo, a big box of spare parts and all the costs I incurred through blown tyres, dodgy handbrakes, buggered batteries and so on – came to about A$3750 (1995/6 prices), and by the time I got back from six months on the road, I'd spent about A$1850 on petrol and maybe A$900 on camping fees (if that): that's a grand total of A$6500. I got A$2000 back for the car, so that's a total outlay of A$4500. Six months on a coach, travelling the same distance and staying in hostels, would come to about A$3500, and that's without any excursions outside the main urban destinations; this would leave about A$1000 to spend on seeing the countryside, or about ten days' travel away from the highways at an average cost of A$100 per day for tours (which, in my book, makes the car far better value for the sort of travelling I do). And, of course, it's much cheaper if there's a group of you.
Prices vary: Developed countries are more expensive than developing ones, of course. In India in 1998 I lived very well on £5 a day (about US$8.50), which covered a hotel, three meals a day, transport and pretty much anything else except for flights. In 1995 in Australia, living in hostels, the figure was much closer to £15 (about US$26), and when I was driving about and cooking for myself, what I saved on food I blew on petrol. It's all relative.
Drinking is expensive: Beer will destroy your savings, whichever country you're in. That's absolutely no reason not to drink lots of it, but if you're out on the piss every night, perhaps you should be asking yourself why you're going abroad just to get drunk. Besides, everyone knows the beer at home is miles better anyway...
So is moving around: You can always save money by staying put for a while; moving about is expensive, and relaxing can be just as pleasant as racing around, seeing things.
Sharing costs: Check out money saving schemes like: sharing someone else's car and helping with the petrol costs; getting a Youth Hostel card or another accommodation discount card; teaming up with other people and splitting costs; cooking for yourself (especially in the West); giving up smoking; and asking other travellers how they cope.
Work: Working abroad is a good way to get experience and money; I'd be foolish to suggest anyone work abroad without the correct visas and paperwork... so I won't, even though almost everyone I met out there did.
Relax: Don't get hung up about money: some people you meet are so concerned with meeting their daily budget that they'll refuse to enjoy themselves, which is criminal. It's better to have a shorter but more enjoyable trip than a long one that's a misery to behold. Be budget-aware, but don't take it too far. Nobody likes a weirdo.
If there's one thing that's guaranteed to go out of date fast, it's cost estimates, but here are two example budgets from trips I've made. Take them with a very generous pinch of salt.
On my first big trip, from 1995 to 1998, I saved up £6000 before leaving, and came back with £2000 and £1000-worth of scuba equipment. However, I did a lot of work on the road, so the only thing this tells us is that in the right countries, you can pay for your trip as you go.
In West Africa, I travelled for 105 days from to . Excluding flights there and back, the total cost was £1680, or £16 per day. I set out with the following stuffed into my money belt: £40, $140 and €355 in cash, and £300 and $1750 in travellers cheques. Along the way I made nine visits to ATMs, taking out CFA200,000 (£200) in Senegal, D2000 (£65) in the Gambia, CFA150,000 (£150) in Mali and 300,000 cedis (£25) in Ghana. I came back with empty pockets.
In India, two of us travelled for 17 days in , spending a total of Rs88,350, or about £1050 (at a rate of Rs84 per pound). This comes to over £60 per day, which is more of an indication that we were living the high life, rather than budgeting (taking a house boat on the backwaters is one of the most expensive things you can do in India, and we then hired a driver for five days, which is hardly budget travelling). Back in 1998, when I was a solo budget traveller, I spent about one-tenth of this per day.
All of which proves what I said at the start: travelling costs as much as it costs, and that's pretty much all you can say...