How to Track Travel Expenses and Stick to a Vacation Budget

Most families need to stick to a budget when they travel. But tracking daily expenses, especially in a foreign currency, can be tricky. Here are some easy tips to make it easy to keep track of how much you're spending.

Before you leave:

  • Create an email folder for your trip. Each time you make a booking, place the itinerary confirmation and receipt into the folder. You can use the folder to help you build your final itinerary before you leave, too.
  • Set a daily budget that includes lodging, food, transportation, and entertainment. During the trip you can track your spending against this goal.
  • Find out how much it costs to get money, and know which source is the cheapest. For example, what fees does your bank charge for using an international ATM and withdrawing foreign currency? What about your credit card? What is the exchange rate? If you expect to travel a lot, you might consider opening a Capitol One credit card with no international transaction fees.

On your trip:

  • Develop a rule-of-thumb for converting between currencies. You'll do a better job of reining in your purchases if you know how much you are spending. Your rule-of-thumb doesn't need to be exact. For example, at today's rate of 1.57 US Dollars to the Euro, I would multiply any price I saw by two and then subtract 20%. (Meaning a 30 euro item is approximately $60-$12=$48.) This accounts for any transaction fees, and slightly overestimates the cost of each item so that there aren't any nasty surprises when I return home.
  • As you get receipts, write on each what it was for.
  • Bring an envelope for receipts. If some expenses are deductible, reimbursable or shared, bring separate envelopes for each type of expense. At the end of each day, empty your receipts from your wallet into your envelope.
  • Keep the cash for the day separate from the rest of your cash. For example, you get $300 out of the ATM and you want that to last you 4 days, so that's $75/day. Put $75 in an easy to access part of your wallet and you put the rest in a harder to reach spot. If you see yourself going into the hard-to-reach spot, you know you're going over budget.
  • If you need a more detailed accounting that includes smaller cash transactions, or want more accountability, carry a small notebook. Record each transaction in the notebook (including snacks, bus rides, etc). Each evening, total your expenses and note where you wasted money and can do better the next day. This tip helped us cut our budget significantly by doing things like buying bottled water and snacks at local grocery stores to carry with us when we travel.

Not only will having a detailed accounting of how much you spent on your trip help you keep expenses down, it will help you do a better job of estimating expenses for your next trip before you leave home.

J.D.'s note: On our trip to Europe last summer, I did all of these things based on reader advice. They worked like a charm. I was able to adhere closely to my intended budget. This may sound like too much work, but it really alleviates a lot of hassle, making travel easy and care-free. Photo credit: Refracted Moments.

More about...Budgeting, Travel

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Tim
Tim
12 years ago

we normally carry a light portable laptop on our travel and use excel spreadsheet to track spending, but i’ve also just printed out my budget and blank excel sheets to track expenses or you could use the online software in your online account. don’t forget to claim VAT. i also round up on currency exchange, which helps to deter some expenses. at the end of the day, though, remember you are on a vacation, so enjoy it. people do get hung up on costs, that they forget to enjoy the trip. give yourself a budget and go from there and… Read more »

Ben
Ben
12 years ago

Unless I completely misunderstood the formula, there’s a correction to be made: 20% of $60 is $12, not $6, so the ‘rule of thumb’ price would be 30 euro = $48.

I’m going on a 5000 mile road trip in two months and although I’ve been doing exactly what is suggested in this article, every time the price of gas fluctuates, I have to recalculate my budget!

SG
SG
12 years ago

One thing any good travel budget should have is an amount set aside for ‘unexpected expenses’ — at least an extra day’s worth of money. If you don’t end up using it, that’s great, but it can be a godsend if your return flight is cancelled/your luggage is lost/your hotel has bedbugs/what-have-you.

Heidi
Heidi
12 years ago

I find as long as we have some sort of budget, ANY budget, we do fine on vacations. It’s when we’ve saved just enough to fly out to wherever and get a hotel, that the credit cards get ringed up and we spend like there’s no tomorrow. A little preperation and budgeting in advance goes a long way.

J.D.
J.D.
12 years ago

Thanks for the catch, Ben. I’ve corrected the numbers.

Saro
Saro
12 years ago

Very timely for me, Thanks!

LK
LK
12 years ago

We were in Europe just last month. I had budgeted a set amount of US currency to spend for the duration of the trip. I made ATm withdrawals every few days, and only a few things like dinners went on the cc. Then we just made sure not to spend all our Euros before the trip was over! (we got rid of the leftover Euros at the airport, buying souveniers LOL) My only problem was remembering that the money I was withdrawing was not in US currency – so when I was thinking that I’d take out, say, $300US, I’d… Read more »

Rich
Rich
12 years ago

Also, keep a copy of your bank and credit card companies phone numbers somewhere you can get to it. When we were in Vienna a few years ago, an ATM machine misbehaved and didn’t give us our money. We figured it was just a glitch and did another withdrawl and went on our way. Several days later when we got somewhere we could check our bank account we saw that we had been charged for both transactions and that $400 had been taken out of our account for both transactions! This also triggered an overdraft fee… I had to sort… Read more »

Rob Madrid
Rob Madrid
12 years ago

Just a note if your interested in visiting Europe but not sure if you can afford it one blog I’ve been following : Less Than a Shoe String She travels insanly cheap, for example she did Five days in London, including flights to/from Berlin, cost me under £100 I’m sure most people would spend more than that on the first day alone. Her speciality is flying around Europe for pocket change. For example in her latest post she payed on 17€. For most of us might spend for a 2 week vaction to Europe she can spend the whole summer… Read more »

Louis Meert
Louis Meert
12 years ago

We have been to Europe several times, and we would like to share our experiences. Hands down the best way to get money is to get it from an ATM. It beats the pants off any other currency exchange rate. I usually get a large amount at a time to minimize bank fees. Make sure to keep the bulk of your currency hidden in a money belt, or some other location. I usually keep a few Euro in one pocket, and more money in a hanging neck pouch so that noone can pickpocket me for much or rob me for… Read more »

AJC @ 7million7years
AJC @ 7million7years
12 years ago

Now THERE’S an oxymoron: “vacation budget”

… try telling that to my wife who is currently cruising the Aegean Sea with her girlfriends!

There are just some things that you shouldn’t HAVE TO budget … AJC.

Josh
Josh
12 years ago

On both our honeymoon and a separate trip to Europe we successfully used part of this plan which was to break down how much we had to spend into a daily allowance. Anything we didn’t spend got added to the next day’s allowance, so as we went along we could treat ourselves more or splurge on a particular day.

Works out really well as you always know that you can get through every day with at least something.

Hotel and airfare I’ve always seen as separate, so we only did this budgeting in terms of our daily spending (food, entertainment).

Shawn Petriw
Shawn Petriw
12 years ago

How about just live your life in a different location?

Keep doing the financial management things that work for you at home. Keep receipts, use an envelope system, give every dollar (or Euro) a name, etc.

JM
JM
12 years ago

Great tips, I’ve been using similar tips as well to help budget. Beware when claiming VAT or other taxes at the airport when departing, they’ll offer to give you your refund and also exchange your money at the same time but you’re better off taking the local currency. We received $80 as a VAT refund but when we agreed to get it back in CDN funds, it was the worst exchange rate by over 15 cents per euro. Also, in case you’ve got extra money left over from the vacation, the shops in the airport can be really dangerous. I… Read more »

Sam
Sam
12 years ago

Perfect timing, I just returned from a Memorial Day weekend vacation (on a budget) and posted my budgeting results.

http://adventures-of-sam.blogspot.com/2008/05/vacation-on-budget-update.html

My vacation came in under budget by about $400. It is a great feeling to return from vacation knowing that no bills will be following me home.

Cassie
Cassie
12 years ago

Great tips, thank you for sharing!

Sarah @ Eking out a Life from a Living
Sarah @ Eking out a Life from a Living
12 years ago

Taking the splitting up money thing further, when I studied abroad, I had an extra “mugging pocket”.

I took about 10 notes and stuck them in my jeans pocket and kept the rest of my money for the day in a money carrier close to my body. That way, if I ever got mugged, I could fork over something without having to give up my whole wallet (or ALL of my money). Apparently, this is pretty common in some countries.

Lo. Price
Lo. Price
12 years ago

I second what Rich said. Keep your credit card and bank phone numbers handy. Also, before you leave, be sure you call your credit card/debit card/ATM card companies to tell them when and where you will be traveling so that they don’t put a stop on your account if you try to use your card. Also, when you get back (and while on the trip if possible), be sure to diligently check your card activity, because there is a decent chance of fraud.

Michal
Michal
12 years ago

I was thinking about getting the Capitol One credit card for the reason mentioned, but after I read so many bad reviews I am very reluctant to get. Does anybody have an good experience with it or any other credit card wi th 0% foreign currency fee?

Martin
Martin
12 years ago

I’ll add that you need to carry (and not use) a second credit card because even though I talked to the credit card company of the primary card I used, had them put the note in the system for the exact dates and places that my family would be away on vacation, etc. etc. they still shafted me when I was trying to pay for passes on the Metro to get to the airport to catch a flight in London (About a week and half into the vacation). Their excuse: “We called your home phone number and no one answered.”

Debbie Dubrow
Debbie Dubrow
12 years ago

Thanks everyone for the great comments! I’m delighted that you enjoyed the tips. After reading the comments I have a few more things to add: WRT the VAT refund, it is important to understand in advance how the process works. At many airports, you can only get the refund for items in your carryon baggage (that way you can show the customs agent the item after you clear security). That can be problem if your carryon is full or if your duty free item was, for example, perfume. We travel with two small kids, so we’re already bogged down with… Read more »

Sandy Naidu
Sandy Naidu
12 years ago

International transaction fees can add up to quite a bit…And also if travelling to Australia, don’t forget to claim your GST (similar to VAT)

cmb
cmb
12 years ago

It also pays to know *where* to buy things. My husband and I did a two month honeymoon in Africa last summer, which sounds like it should’ve been insanely expensive, but it wasn’t. (Admittedly, a large portion of trip was devoted to research, the costs of which were paid out of grants from a well-funded population genetics lab) But, especially when travelling in the third world, it’s much, much more affordable to plan when you’re on the ground, in the country you’re traveling around. After playing two safari agencies against one another, we were able to get a discount of… Read more »

Shirley
Shirley
12 years ago

Great article. 🙂 We do most of these things and I agree with most of the tips. I am one of those nerdy type folks who carries my planner with me on trips so that’s where I stuff my receipts and record daily expenditures. I also have info on each page prerecorded as far as flights, hotels, etc. for once we leave home and don’t want to reference tons of paperwork. We are not hung up big time on the daily budget amount, but this helps reconcile bank account statements and such when returning home. I do have copies of… Read more »

Soultravelers3
Soultravelers3
12 years ago

Good tips and important topic Debbie! I don’t think “vacation budget” is an oxymoron at all, but something very doable and can add to the pleasure, peace of mind, and even luxury! We are big believers in frugal travel and find that we can live large on little in Europe. Our total budget for a year is only 25K for a family of 3 and that includes some luxury hotels and meals. I have known families that have spent half of that for two weeks. Why pretend to be a 2 week millionaire when you can live a life of… Read more »

Soultravelers3
Soultravelers3
12 years ago

I could not resist adding this quote here: “The luxury traveler and his poorer cousin, the common tourist, are constantly encased in gleaming metals and other costly materials; preened mechanically by resentful lackeys; surfeited with overpriced, denutrified victuals; treated to vulgar and expensive entertainments; intentionally or unintentionally lied to; sneered at even by themselves; led like sheep through attractions that bore them? This is not travel; this is butchery of soul. This is how money, an artificial form of energy, distorts reality for its own ends. To travel cheaply, in any form at all, weakens the power of money to… Read more »

Carrie
Carrie
12 years ago

Great tips!
The other thing I always do when traveling abroad (for those of us who are mathematically challended) is put together a spreadsheet of the exchange rates from dollar to whatever currency in increasing increments. (ie. 1 dollar=so much, 5 dollars=so much, 10 dollars=so much). I print out a small version and keep it in my wallet so I’m not surprised by how much I’ve spent.

miran
miran
12 years ago

<>
I want to second that… I’m off for 6 weeks to Ireland this year (Hey MOM, KP.) My last trip was for a month three years ago. My per night rates are so much lower. Cost of food because I can grocery shop and make my own is so much lower and leave enough funds to travel from my base location to stay for mini vacation elsewhere that might be part of a package.

SavingDiva
SavingDiva
12 years ago

Travel is so expensive! I can’t even imagine having to exchange currency with the dollar doing so poorly!

Colin
Colin
12 years ago

I can’t think of anything less vacation-like than undertaking daily accounting exercises. Preparation is the antidote to trying to audit in real time – if you learn the less expensive ways to travel up front, then you can rough out a budget and get on with the trip. This does require a certain honesty about what kind of experience you’re going to want to have. To be honest, if our going to France (hopefully our next overseas trip, but who knows) hinged on sticking to say $75 / day, with limited ability to cope with variations, I wouldn’t bother going.… Read more »

Tim
Tim
12 years ago

i’ve done the less than shoestring travel before, but now i look for a different kind of vacation, especially now that i’m married. if you are only willing to spend less than what you would normally spend to live where you reside, i think you are missing out on many things, so i’m not all jazzed about the less than shoestring blog. the biggest problem with the blog is the lack of having to pay lodging, the blogger traveling solo and minimal luggage, etc. there are many ways to reduce vacation expenses, but some of them require time. you can… Read more »

John
John
12 years ago

I keep track of expenses on my Palm Pilot… then just download the info to my computer when I get home. It’s never perfect… but it allows me to be fairly close.

kitty
kitty
12 years ago

What I normally do is to keep a ballpark figure, kind of a rough estimate of what the vacation should cost me. Granted, nowadays I have enough money for a much nicer vacation that I normally take, and the one I take I can almost cash flow, so I don’t need to worry. This hasn’t always been the case. What kept me from overspending when money were tighter were a few simple habits: 1. Save on major items like air fare and hotel. Shop online for the best deals, don’t just go to a travel agent. Before internet I found… Read more »

Rob Madrid
Rob Madrid
12 years ago

I found a little more information Hospitality Club (couch surfing) My initial thought was I’m too old for that kind of thing but after reading her review I’ve had second thoughts.

Reducing Accommodation Costs

Rachel Crawford
Rachel Crawford
12 years ago

Here’s a tip for a great way to organize your travel expenses for free — use a check register. I picked up two for free at my bank before my 9 month trip to Asia. It made for a very easy, chronological way to keep track of expenses. I used one column for local price and another for conversion and the last for my budget balance. You could even get a binder clip or rubber band to put around it to keep receipts organized.

Lori at Frugal Edmonton Mama
Lori at Frugal Edmonton Mama
8 years ago

Any vacation that we have gone on, we’ve always set a daily budget and made sure to stick to it. It helps to search for deals and coupons before the trip, too.

tarevl expense management bangalore
tarevl expense management bangalore
7 years ago

Such a nice blog, thanks for providing us great information. awesome work. Keep it up.

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