If you take nothing away from this article, have this: I love collecting data and I track almost everything I can, from daily steps to restaurants I eat at to my exact bicycle route from point A to point B. As a result, I'm able to tell you where I was, how I got there, and how much money I spent on any given day during my travels.
So when a number of friends asked me questions related to finances and how I kept myself afloat, I had a reason to justify sifting through all my data, consolidating them, and spending time designing a neat way of showing it all. This is the result of that.
I'm not claiming that my way was the best bang-for-your-buck or the most luxurious. It is in my nature to spend carefully and wisely. I lived day-by-day the way I wanted and in the end I am pleasantly surprised with the total amount I spent in exchange for all the memories, experiences, challenges, and surprises I encountered.
I believe certain decisions I made and the mindset I held while traveling contributed to a fruitful trip. I've tried to pepper these into the article in the form of tips or anecdotes. I'm not one to tell someone exactly how they should travel (I've encountered so many of these people in the last year!) but I hope I can inspire them to look a certain way.
3 months in Asia:
- 1 month backpacking through rural Northeastern Thailand, splitting my time between a farmstay, a homestay, and figuring out a medical condition.
- 2 months living in Taipei, Taiwan, where my boyfriend was studying
5 months in Europe:
- 35 days working and living on a campsite/restaurant in rural Burgundy
- 3 total weeks hanging out in Paris, France with friends in between traveling
- 2 weeks subletting an apartment in Lyon, France
- 1 week living with a French family in the mountains
- 3 to 10 days each visiting: Munich, Switzerland, Milan, London, Helsinki, Tallinn, Stockholm, Copenhagen
Note: I usually reference Asia and Europe as the two different parts of my travels. The difference is that in Asia (except for in Thailand), I was with my boyfriend whereas in Europe, I was by myself.
As such, these numbers exclude 2 months of expenses since my boyfriend and I split those. When we're together, we tend to do more activities (concerts, eating out, going to bars) than I would when I was solo-traveling so I didn't feel like it would add to an accurate representation of my expenses.
These numbers also exclude 2 weeks of traveling, when my parents met up with me in France.
How did you track your spending? I used MoneyLover for iOS in Thailand and Taipei, since those places were mostly cash only. I was taking out money from the ATM and used MoneyLover to track my everyday spending. In Europe, I mostly used credit cards so I utilized Mint to keep track of everything.
How did you track your steps and miles? I used Moves for iOS.
How long did it take you to save up for this? To be honest, I couldn't tell you. I've been saving money from my paycheques ever since I started working 6 years ago. I also am fortunate enough to not have any debt. Furthermore, I do not consider myself a frivolous spender. I check Mint religiously and am always aware of my financial situation. I don't indulge in expensive and/or luxurious experiences or products. I think this contributed greatly not only to how much I was able to save, but also to how much I spent during my travels.
Can you show your breakdown cost by city? I honestly don't think that would be representative of the city or my time there. Every city was so different situationally and as such, my expenses varied wildly. For example, Stockholm was the most expensive city I visited but my lodging was basically free after I met some locals and was able to cook a few meals.
Did you have a daily budget? No, I didn't. I checked my finances everyday, though. I understood and trusted my habits and I felt I should be able to travel freely without consciously adhering to a strict daily budget.
Any other questions? Don't be shy!
Below are my total expenses in USD and distance traveled in miles for all my transportation between cities and/or countries, sorted by average cost per mile.
How I Flew For Cheap
13 legs for $1,193.90 comes out to a little over $90 per flight, which is absurd considering I had 3 long-haul flights: Toronto to Taipei, Taipei to Frankfurt, and Paris to Toronto. If there was an extra column in the table, you would see that I also spent 109,000 points on reward travel. I spent the last 3 years signing up for credit cards to get their point bonuses and amassed a giant pot of points that I never dipped into until now. And let me tell you, it was so worth the wait because it saved me $1000!
Save up points and miles to help pay for your long-haul flights by taking advantage of credit card welcome bonuses. Check out resources like DoctorOfCredit.com, ThePointsGuy.com, and r/churning or r/churningcanada. Note that bonuses are typically scores better in the U.S. than in Canada.
I always opted for any other form of transportation over flying. I once chose a 9 hour red-eye bumpy bus ride from Paris to London over a 1 hour flight. The only times I flew within Europe were to get from London to Helsinki (3 hour flight, bounded by music festival) and from Copenhagen to Paris (waited too last minute and was constrained for time because my parents were flying into Paris as well).
Taking the Bus vs the Train in Europe
Taking the coach bus was my main mode of transportation in Europe. It is totally underrated and I never booked a bus fare that I thought was not reasonably priced. The main bus company in Europe, similar to Megabus, is Flixbus (Ouibus is also quite popular in France).
The bus would take much longer than the train (i.e. 6 hour bus from Paris to Lyon vs 2 hour train), but time was no longer considered a luxury. I had so much of it, and I never planned out more than a week in advance. Train prices in Europe work like plane prices– it jumps significant as the departure date approaches. On the other hand, bus tickets always stayed the same, even if you booked it an hour before.
"Slow travel", or simply taking your time and not being rushed through your traveling, saves you money in the long run because you no longer need to pay for the luxury of time.
The bonus aspect to this is that the scenery in most of Europe is beautiful so your bus ride is rarely lacking window candy. And if that's not your thing, you can get through a book or a movie pretty quickly, as well!
I used Blablacar in France to get between cities where there aren't established bus or train routes. Blablacar is a popular carpooling service that connects people who need rides with people who were going there in the first place. Each time was a great experience and the bonus is that I was able to practice my French with someone who was forced to stay in a car with me for at least 2 hours.
On Taking A Boat
The boats I took were between Stockholm, Helsinki, and Estonia. Aside from flying, it was the most reasonably efficient way to get between each city. The boat from Helsinki to Stockholm was about 120 euros, but considering the fare includes one night of lodging, it doesn't seem so bad! Also, I booked it fairly last minute, and had I booked it 3 days sooner, the price would have been 80 euros!
Making last-minute travel plans adds fun and excitement to your trip but keep in mind there is a tax on that!
Below are my total expenses in USD and nights stayed for varying lodgings.
A Surefire Way to Save Money While Traveling
Here's the obvious: friends are ultra valuable resources when you're traveling! I'll admit after tallying up all the numbers, I was definitely surprised that I had stayed so many days with a friend! My average cost per night was less than $13, and I never even had to stay at a gritty hostel!
The friends I stayed with varied between friends I just met–
- Met a girl in Thailand and ended up staying in her apartment in Paris for a total of 21 days
- Met someone in Lyon and later stayed with her boyfriend in Lyon
- Met new friends in Stockholm 2 nights into paying for an absurdly expensive Airbnb and ended up crashing with them for 8 nights
- Met a friend in Milan who provided accommodations in both Milan and Manchester
– as well as old, familiar faces!
- Reunited with my first friend from college and stayed a weekend with them in Lausanne, Switzerland
- Had a friend visit Milan for a business trip and stayed in her hotel for 2 nights
- Had an old friend from San Francisco move to London recently and stayed with him for 6 nights
As I've mentioned in previous blog posts, I stayed at a campsite while working at a restaurant for over a month, and I also lived with several families while traveling through Thailand and France. These experiences helped me save money when it came to lodging. Instead of finding expensive hotels or Airbnbs in busy tourist areas, I was welcomed in small rural towns where the host glad exchanged free accommodation for a bit of work every day. I found my experiences via Workaway (highly recommended!) and i-likelocal.com. You can find a lot more of these via Google!
Find local experiences for a more enriching and affordable time during your travels. Be weary though– I would never "pay to volunteer" and I would always make sure that the experience is ethical and doesn't take advantage of the local villages (this can happen a lot in Southeast Asia, e.g. elephant retreats).
I stayed in a hotel mostly in Thailand because 1. they were not that much more expensive than hostels, and 2. I was going through my medical emergency and much preferred to have had my own private room.
I also opted to stay in a hotel sometimes when I felt like I needed my own space and I wanted to be guaranteed nice accommodations and amenities. It would be like a vacation while I was on vacation when I needed recharging. Sounds silly but it happens!
Choosing private room Airbnbs was a great way to have access to a local for recommendations. The downside is this isn't exactly the affordable option. I only rented Airbnbs in 3 cities: Munich (relatively cheap), Stockholm (costed an arm and a leg for basic room), and Copenhagen (came with a bike!).
Around month 2 of being in Europe, I was starting to crave my own space. I visited Lyon once before and really enjoyed the city so I ended up finding a sublet there for 2 weeks. It was a great plan because it felt like I had my own apartment and I also had access to a kitchen which encouraged me to visit local farmer's markets. Subletting ended up being a cheaper cost per night than Airbnb'ing (gets expensive!) or staying in a hostel (wouldn't want to stay in one for more than a few days). I found the sublet opportunity from local Facebook groups, and I was also searching the local Craigslist site as well (leboncoin.fr).
Staying in a city you like long term doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg! Look for short-term sublets from local Facebook groups.
I have a love/hate with hostels. On one hand, I love the idea of them– travelers from all over crossing paths for one night. In reality, it's not always like that. Sometimes you get a place that's dirty, or you have anti-social roommates. Sometimes you luck out and meet some amazing people. I swore off hostels after a bad experience in Thailand but ended up having one of the best nights of my trip at a hostel in Tallinn, Estonia. It's a great way to force yourself into social situations after days of mere basic human interaction– I found these slumps happening from time to time while solo traveling.
Below are my total expenses in USD for local transportation.
This one was hard to map out and compare. I wasn't diligent enough to track how I was moving every mile, so the cost factor is not useful.
Nevertheless, here are my main takeaways from the data and from what I remember:
- Everyday in Europe, I walked an average of 3.9 miles, or 8,300 steps. In the beginning, I opted to walk everywhere if it was less than 1 hour and I didn't have anything scheduled. It was great! I saw so much more of the area on foot.
- I only took taxis in Thailand because they were very cheap and sometimes the best option.
- Being from San Francisco, I am so proud that I only took Uber 6 times in the last 8 months! I remember each of those times and it always involved being in a rush. Go figure!
- City bike rentals are awesome! I tried them in Taipei, Xiamen, Munich and Helsinki. The only city where it was not the affordable option was in Stockholm– no surprise there!
Overall, I feel that I spent relatively little money on food while I was traveling. When I worked at the restaurant in France, I ate all my meals for free, as well as during my homestays. I also cooked almost every meal when I was subleting in Lyon (by that point, I just missed making my own food so much!).
I spent a lot of money on gifts to friends as a way of expressing my gratitude for their contributions to my travels. These are people who have provided me with accommodations or amazing opportunities.
I don't believe anything comes free. You should always return the favor or show your gratitude!
I brought limited clothing with me and was not necessarily prepared for the fluctuating summers in Europe. I (along with my bank account) also discovered that I love shopping in Stockholm.
On Concerts & Shows
I love live music and theatre, and I was lucky enough to catch some bands, both familiar and newly discovered, while abroad. The highlight was watching Mary J. Blige throw down in a 1st century Roman amphitheatre just outside of Lyon.
On Personal Care
This category mostly involves the costs from the medical care I had to deal with in Thailand as well as spas, gyms fees, and allergy medicine.
On Mobile Phone
A data and phone plan in Thailand was relatively cheap and easy to obtain. The story is a little different in Europe. I wasted 40 euros on a SIM card in Frankfurt I was told would work in all countries only to find that it didn't work in Switzerland and was barely operational in France. I ended up going with a budget phone company in France and essentially paid 20 euros a month for unlimited data.