The Ultimate Guide to Overseas Travel on a Budget

When you have limited vacation days and limited funds, it can seem like a big trip overseas is never in the cards. That said, travel is one of the most enriching, rewarding, memorable experiences out there and you shouldn’t miss out just because you have to budget both your money and your time!

So we’ve put together the ultimate guide to taking a whirlwind overseas vacation (anywhere in the world!) with our best tips for hitting multiple countries, packing light, and making the most of your trip without spending more than you can afford.

Setting a Budget

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The first step to planning your vacation is to decide on a budget. First, decide how much you can afford to spend overall. From that amount, subtract the largest costs, which will most likely by your flights and accommodations. Divide the remaining amount by the number of days you’ll be traveling—that number is how much you have to spend each day on:

  • food
  • drinks and evening activities
  • tickets and passes to attractions
  • souvenirs and gifts
  • cabs, buses, and other transportation
  • emergency or surprise expenses

That last category is important—don’t forget to leave a little wiggle room in your budget for unexpected expenses. You never know when you’ll have to deal with cancelled flights or a delayed return and while an extra day of vacation may sound like fun, it’s a lot more enjoyable if you can afford to spend it sleeping at a hotel, not on the airport floor!

If you have 4-12 months before your trip, consider setting aside travel funds in a high-yield savings account through your bank or an online service like SmartyPig. Not only will having a separate account help you avoid accidentally spending your vacation money, you’ll have the chance to earn a little extra interest on it too.

Traveling Between Countries

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When planning overseas travel, the first flight is usually the most expensive. That’s why traveling to multiple countries on one trip can be such a good idea!

For example, if you buy a ticket to London, it could cost you anywhere from $600-$1600, depending on when you fly. But once you’re there, taking a train to Paris or a flight to Rome can cost less than $100 round trip.

If you’ve already bought an expensive ticket to travel to another continent, make the most of it while you’re there and visit more than one country. For a ten-day trip, you could visit two or three countries without feeling too rushed in any one place. Use sites like Kayak to find the lowest prices on flights and check out Loco2, Seat61, and TrainTraveling to find inexpensive trains between countries.

Of course, you’ll want to pick a location that’s not too far away so you don’t spend too much time traveling. But it’s definitely worth coordinating (in our opinion) because if you manage to visit multiple countries, you’ll feel like you really got your money’s worth!

Saving Money

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If you have a limited budget, don’t worry! There are plenty of ways to keep your costs down while still traveling to multiple countries.

  1. Stay at a vacation rental. Renting someone else’s apartment through a site like AirBnb or VRBO is not only cheaper than staying in a hotel but it also allows you to save on food costs by preparing (some of) your meals there. Even something as simple as making coffee and toast before you head out for the day can cut down on expenses. And as a bonus, it’s nice to have a little more room to spread out at the end of the day!
  2. Travel in the off-season. Usually destinations are more popular to visit at certain times of the year. Travelers tend to go to the Caribbean in the winter, Europe in the summer, and Southeast Asia in the fall. If you visit in the off-season, you’ll find flights are less expensive, accommodations are more open, and you’ll spend less time waiting in line and fighting tourist crowds.
  3. Go off the beaten path. Want to plan a trip to Europe? Consider skipping Rome and Paris and head to the less-expensive, but still amazing, cities of Eastern Europe. If you want to head somewhere warm, pass on Puerto Rico and book cheaper tickets to Belize. By heading to less popular destinations, you’ll avoid the big crowds, save money, and have more unique stories to tell.
  4. Look for free things to do. Every city has a culture of free activities that visitors can enjoy. Whether it’s free concerts at universities, public parks for strolling, or street festivals celebrating specific cultural events, take advantage of these freebies while you’re there! Try Googling “City + Free” or check local government and travel websites for activity calendars that spotlight low-cost events.

Packing Light

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Keep your suitcase small and your packing compact! This does more than just allow you to skip the luggage claim at the airport—it also opens up cheaper options for travel from place to place.

Many railways, discount airlines, and buses limit travelers to a single carry on or piece of hand luggage. If your suitcase doesn’t fit the strict size requirements, you’ll find yourself paying extremely high prices for checking luggage, sometimes more than the cost of the original ticket.

In order to pack light without running out of options, make sure you:

  1. Check the weather. Rather than packing for every possible temperature and precipitation, check the weather before you leave to see what you’re likely to encounter. That way, you know exactly how many days you need that extra sweater.
  2. Keep your wardrobe modular. A modular wardrobe is one where every piece can be worn with every other. If you pack five tops and three bottoms that can all be mixed and matched, it gives you fifteen possible outfit combinations to choose from.
  3. Wear things twice. Don’t be afraid of repeats! Unless you get very sweaty or muddy, you should be able to wear most articles of clothing more than once. Mix them up into different outfits so that you still feel like you have variety.
  4. Plan your outfits. The best way to make sure you have everything you need is to plan out what you’ll wear each day. You don’t have to stick to your plan perfectly when you’re traveling (especially if the weather or your itinerary changes), but putting together a packing list before you leave will help you avoid packing extraneous clothing or forgetting your pajamas.
  5. Roll your clothes. Rolling clothing saves room in your suitcase over folding. Roll larger items such as a jeans, jackets, or sweaters first, then layer rolled dresses and shirts on top.
  6. Limit your toiletries. If you’re carrying luggage on, pay attention to liquid restrictions. Curb the impulse to pack everything in your medicine cabinet, and limit yourself to essentials. Stick to multipurpose products, cosmetics in small packages, and non-liquids like facial wipes whenever possible.

Want even more tips? Check out our Packing Guide for Backpacking Abroad for more suggestions.

The Right Extras

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Of course, in even the tiniest of suitcases, you’ll want to leave room for a few extras. These smart purchases will make travel easier, smoother, and more enjoyable all around.

And if you love using an upcoming trip as an excuse to do a little shopping… well, they tick that box too! We recommend you pick up:

  1. Rosehip seed oil. Cold-pressed and organic, you can slip this heavenly feeling multi-tasker into your carry on. It’s perfect for moisturizing your face, removing makeup, taming frizzy hair, saving your cuticles, and rescuing your skin after long flights.
  2. Multi-country adapter. If you travel with electronics, you’ll want to be able to plug them in at the end of the day so you’ll need an adaptor. We love a compact model that works in multiple countries. If you want to bring along your hairdryer or curling wand though, you’ll need a larger one that also serves as a converter.
  3. Phrasebook. Perfect for when you need to ask directions to the nearest bathroom or figure out what’s on the menu. There are apps that will help you out, of course, but there’s something charming about carrying around a little paperback in your purse.
  4. Sygic GPS Maps. This handy app uses only GPS, not data, and once it’s downloaded has maps for almost every country you’d want to visit. Use it for navigating by car or on foot, finding major landmarks, and searching for restaurants and ATMs.
  5. Eye mask and earplugs. These don’t take up a lot of room in your bag, but they can make the difference between waking up refreshed and waking up feeling like a zombie. You never know when you’re going to be seated next to a snorer or end up in a bedroom with a fluorescent light outside, but you can be prepared for whatever comes your way.
  6. Castile soap. A bar of unscented castile soap serves the dual purpose of cleaning both you and your clothes. That way, if something does get a stain or your trip gets unexpectedly extended due to weather or flight delays, you’ll still have fresh underwear and a clean shirt to wear.

Dos & Don’ts

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Once you’ve set a budget, picked the destinations, done some shopping, and packed your suitcase, what’s left? Actually enjoying yourself on your trip! Just a few final dos and don’ts will help you get in the right mindset to make the most of your vacation and be your best traveling self.

  1. DO spend some time by yourself. If you’re traveling with a friend, significant other, or group, don’t be afraid to strike out on your own from time to time. Do you want to see a museum that no one else is interested in? Does your boyfriend want to sleep in while you want to go walk around downtown? Do you just need a little break from conversation and being around people all the time? Set a time and place to meet later and head out by yourself. You’ll enjoy the solitude, and you’ll end up with more to talk about over dinner.
  2. DON’T be afraid to try the local language. Even if you don’t actually speak the language where you’re going, pick up a phrasebook, and learn a little bit before you go. Even if you have to stumble through most of your communication with pointing and sign language, you’ll gain the goodwill of locals if you know how to say “please,” “thank you,” and “dinner was very good.” Plus, knowing how to read a menu and find the bathroom will always be helpful!
  3. DO communicate about health needs/concerns. If you follow a particular diet or have a medical condition, learn how to communicate these things before you leave. If you have a food allergy or are vegan, research how to explain your needs and restrictions in the local language. If you have a health condition that might flare up while you travel, it’s a good idea to carry written information and learn the correct terminology in several languages. Hopefully, you won’t have to use that information, but it’s better to be prepared when it comes to your health and well-being.
  4. DON’T take cabs everywhere. Sure, cabs are faster and easier than trying to figure out public transportation. But if you’re constantly being chauffeured from Point A to Point B, you’ll miss out on everything in between. Don’t be afraid to hop on a local bus, rent a bike, or figure out how to navigate the subway system. If navigating public transportation seems like too much, pull on a comfortable pair of shoes and walk! You’ll experience more of the culture, see more sights that you would from inside a car, and maybe even meet a few locals along the way.
  5. DO splurge occasionally. That said, sometimes, you do just need to take the path of least resistance. If your flight gets in at 10:00 p.m. and it would take a train and two buses to get to your hotel, skip the public transit, and spring for a cab. Leave a little wiggle room in your budget for spur-of-the-moment decisions that make travel more convenient. You’ll end the day less tired, less grumpy, and ready to keep going the next morning.
  6. DO research local customs. In Korea, blowing your nose at dinner is considered rude. You should never show the soles of your feet in Thailand. Tipping in Japan can be construed as an insult, while tipping in Brazil isn’t necessary, but it is common to round up when paying service people. Before you travel, spend time learning about local etiquette from haggling with vendors to paying the bill in a restaurant. You’ll feel more comfortable if you know what local expectations are, and you’ll make a better impression on those around you.
  7. DON’T try to see everything. If you don’t know when you’ll ever be able to come back to a country or city, it can be tempting to pack your days full of every tourist attraction, museum, and local event possible. But when you’re planning a whirlwind vacation, trying to see too much will leave you exhausted, burned out, and unable to remember anything clearly when you do finally get home. Instead, pick one or two major things you want to see every day, and leave the rest of your time open for exploring, eating, and relaxing. You’ll end your trip feeling like you really experienced your destinations and got a vacation, not just a trip.
  8. DO plan the big picture. When traveling to multiple cities or countries in a short period of time, it is easy to become overwhelmed. Limit stress by planning all the major parts of your trip ahead of time. Book bus passes or train tickets in advance, check maps so you know how to get from the airport to accommodations, and do a bit of research so you have an idea of the sites you’d like to visit while there.
  9. DON’T plan everything. Once you’ve planned all the big pieces of your trip, leave a little wiggle room for spontaneity. Wander around a bit to find the perfect restaurant for lunch or dinner. Ask a local what museums they recommend visiting. Spend an afternoon walking around the city with no particular destination in mind. Not only will you discover places and experiences you would otherwise miss, you’ll end up appreciating a little downtime in the midst of all the hectic travel.