Practical Trip Planning (Part 1): How to Maximize Your Travel Budget

You can approach the planning of a trip in a number of ways. I like to narrow it down to where I roughly want to go and then figure out how much it will cost. From here I can add or subtract locations or side trips.

As I’m currently beginning to plan a trip to Europe I thought I might walk through the process and demonstrate at least how I begin to put a trip together. (Note: the costs listed here are from internet searches I did on January 30th, 2008 and are just examples of potential prices. Your mileage of course may vary.)

In Flight
© aka Kath

Recently my Dad asked me to travel with him and show him around Europe at the end of April. After prodding for specifics his only request was that the trip include Italy, Spain or Germany. Although Germany is perhaps my favorite country in Europe, I axed it in favor of focusing on Italy and Spain where the first-time European traveler can really get a sense of the continent in a small amount of time. In Italy you have the circuit of Rome, Florence and Venice all within relatively close proximity to each other, making for easy and quick train travel. In Spain, my favorite cites Barcelona, Girona, Granada, Seville and Madrid, are likewise relatively close and inexpensive. Personally, there is so much about Germany I love which is at different ends of the country and a quick 7-10 day trip would not be adequate.

First and Foremost: Where to Land

With my list of end points narrowed and trip duration in mind I begin with the most important part of a trip to Europe: the flight.

Using Kayak.com I start by plugging in prospective major airports. Since we want to go to Italy we can start with (for simplicities sake) New York to Rome with flexible dates during the time frame I can get off work. Of course you will want to plug in the nearest international airport to you. Searching within the last week of April through the first week in May, I found the cheapest flight to be:

NYC-to-Rome from the 29th through the 9th = $756

With this as my working number for ticket prices I look into other possible cities to fly into for cheaper tickets:

NYC-to-Florence from the 29th through the 13th = $956 (Nope.)
NYC-to-Venice from the 26th through the 10th = $850 (Nope.)
NYC-to-Milan from the 25th through the 9th = $852 (Nope.)

Not finding anything cheaper, I start thinking about flying into one city and flying out of another. This has the benefit of saving our already limited time from backtracking as well as the cost of an extra train ticket back. Since my working plan is to fly into Rome and visit Venice last I check these two cities on the dates of the cheapest flight above.

NYC-to-Rome & Venice-to-NYC from the 29th through the 9th = $852

Add a Country or Two

For $100 more I can eliminate 4-5 hours of travel as well as a train ticket that will cost at least $100 one way. So far this seems like a better deal. Just for the sake of argument then, why not check into what it would cost to throw in a wonderful Spanish city: Barcelona. My Dad wanted to see Spain and an overnight ferry from Barcelona to a city near Rome is relatively fun and cheap when you think about the cost you will be paying for accommodation anyways.

NYC-to-Barcelona & Venice-to-NYC from the 29th through the 9th = $816

Well, we almost saved 40 bucks and get to see Barcelona. If we can get from Barcelona to Rome for around $40 we are practically making money (well not really but you get the idea). Sticking with the ferry idea for now a quick check of directferries.co.uk gives me:

Barcelona-to-Civitavecchia (near Rome) (20 hours overnight) = $65 on Grimaldi Ferries

Considering accommodation is going to be anywhere from $25-$35 in Rome or Barcelona and we saved $36 on the flight by going into Spain this sounds reasonable for a quick visit to Barcelona and doesn’t cost us more at all.

For even more savings we can try to fly from Barcelona to Rome but we must keep in mind that:

  1. It won’t be an overnight flight so accommodation will be an issue again.
  2. Many budget airlines don’t fly out of major airports, making travel outside the city an issue.

Nevertheless, let’s check www.clickair.com and www.ryanair.com for a few examples:

clickair has Barcelona-to-Rome (Fiumicino) on the 2nd = $29 (the 2nd however is a bit late)
ryanair-to-Barcelona (Girona) to Rome (Ciampino) on the 1st = $20

Night Train, Europe
Night Train © gen gibson

Complete Rail Pass or Single Rail Tickets?

All in all we now know that stopping in Barcelona is a great idea and getting to Rome will be cheap and easy. With our flight plans established, we can start to look at what this trip is going to cost for ground transportation. I prefer trains over renting cars in Europe; I just can’t relax in a car and the cost of gas and concentrating on the road usually outweighs the freedom. With that in mind it’s time to figure out if buying point-to-point tickets is cheaper than buying a rail pass. My rough plan is to fly into Barcelona, head to Rome (fly or sail) then go from Rome to Florence to Venice. I’ll check the cost of single, point-to-point tickets between these cities as well as a few side trips to get a spread of costs using www.raileurope.com.

Rome-to-Florence (1-2 hours) = $65
Florence-to-Venice (2-3 hours) = $58
Rome-to-Pisa (3-4 hours) = $47
Pisa-to-Florence (1-2 hours) =$19
Florence-to-Rimini (1 hour) = $50
Rimini-to-Venice (1-2 hours) = $70

With these numbers we can see that our simplest trip – Rome, Florence, Venice – is going to cost roughly $123. Our most expensive plan – Rome, Pisa, Florence, Rimini, and Venice – totals around $196. A quick look at rail pass prices shows us that we will only really benefit if we want to do the longer trip and then only barely. A four day rail pass (you can travel for any four days within two months) runs about $202. About the same as our longer trip but also with an included 20% off discount on the ferry from Barcelona. The problem I see here is that traveling that much, especially since we are adding the city in Spain, is not going to give much time to see anything. At this point I’m going to opt to pay full price on the ferry and buy point to point tickets in Italy. Even adding Pisa is only going to cost about $134 total.

It’s Not the Four Seasons, But It is Cheap:

To this point then, assuming we throw in Pisa (a day trip) on our way to Florence and pay full price to take the ferry over from Spain we are looking to spend about $1015 to spend 10 days and see five cities in two countries in Europe. It’s time now to figure in accommodation. A rule of thumb for me is to plan on spending a minimum of $50 a day for a bed and food. Sometimes this is high (not very) sometimes this is low (more and more each year). For the sake of demonstration however I looked up budget hotels and hostels for the locations I plan on visiting to get a rough idea of what I will be spending.

30th April – Barcelona = $20-$35
1st May – Boat to Rome = already figured in
2nd-4th – Rome = $20 (camping) $30 (hostel)
5th-6th – Florence = $15-$25
7th-8th – Venice = $45

What we end up with is a budget of $200-$265 for accommodation. Adding in food takes a bit of guess work but $15 dollars a day is a good workable number. If need be you could eat twice at a McDonald’s and “live” or grab some bread and cheese from a grocery store and still have some left over for a couple slices of pizza or Döner Kebab. Of course if you’re traveling to Italy for the food or wine you will have to plan on spending more money but $15 should get you by.

Colosseum, Rome
Colosseum, Rome © Beachy

Tallying the Extras and the Grand Total

Our final cost is going to be the sightseeing and extras (taking the metro, bottle of wine, train reservations). Since my Dad has never been there I will want to show him the Vatican museum, the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, the statue of David, la Sagrada Familia and a variety of other things. For a trip like we have planned above, in Italy for only 10 days, $150-$200 should be fine.

When all is said and done I can count on spending around $1365 – $1480 for the whole trip. This, as we have seen is rather bare bones so not much can be cut if this were out of my budget (which it is very close to being). I could of course opt out of going to Pisa but ultimately in terms of trains this only saves me $10 and that doesn’t seem worth skipping a city I have never seen.

What you will decide to cut – perhaps the duration you’re overseas or how many cities you can see – will ultimately depend on what is essential to you on your visit to Europe. What is important is that you find a way to fulfill your dream of traveling to your country of choice and I hope that this article helps you find a way to make it work with a limited budget.

About The Author

Christopher Cook currently lives in Tallahassee, Florida where he received his second Masters Degree from FSU. As an avid traveler he maintains a budget travel website, www.noambit.com and develops MP3 audio tours in the hopes of inspiring others to just get out there and see Europe. He has lived and studied in Tübingen Germany and travels as much as possible each year to cities throughout Europe. His writing has appeared in several publications including, bravenewtraveler, thetravelrag and the FSView.

11 Responses

  1. Pete

    Thanks for such an interesting post!

    Another tip I frequently use for nabbing discount international trips: take the lowest Kayak.com price, subtract about 30% and then use this as your bid price on Priceline.com. It doesn’t work all the time, but when it does it’s a beautiful thing!

    Reply
  2. CatherineL

    Hi Christopher – that’s pretty good considering the exchange rate right now.

    I plan on doing Barcelona and Rome next year, but I’m lucky as I’m from England, so the flights etc are much cheaper.

    Did you check out skyscanner.net to see if you can get a cheap flight on one of the Spanish airlines for Barcelona to Rome? It could save you a good bit of time.

    Reply
  3. Amanda

    Chris, great post, nice to see the thinking all laid out like that. Unfortunately it’s given me really itchy feet though …

    Reply
  4. LB_Matt

    Chris, you da man. Thanks for all the work you do for us!

    Reply
  5. Heather

    Great post, lots of solid advice.

    I´m also getting itchy feet, and would like to minimize cost for my upcoming trip around Europe. Skyscanner can be good for shopping around for flights, but even better is Dohop (www.dohop.com) – especially for European flights.

    Happy traveling!

    Reply
  6. Tim

    I find momondo great for cheap flights around europe. However i prefer their old site still available at old.momondo.com, where also have quite a fun feature for inspiration: A random city-jump combining European cities by low cost flights (http://old.momondo.com/en/CityJump.aspx)

    Reply
  7. Lola

    Great breakdown Chris! Love Kayak.

    Also, I always try to fly into a major hub and then just use a budget airline to your final destination.

    Another approach that has worked for me is booking two separate tickets on the same airline – Ticket 1 from home to major hub, and Ticket 2 from hub to destination, and then having the airline desk connect both flights for you at the airport and check your luggagge all the way through!

    Reply
  8. Jim Swartwout

    Another way to keep costs down, no matter where you happen to be traveling is to look into Vacation Rentals. In areas like Florida in the US or even in Hong Kong or Sydney, you will find vacation rentals that can meet your needs no matter the size of your party.

    When my family and I travel we only use vacation rentals. If we’re headed to Tahoe or St Kitts we check out http://www.vrbo.com which lists properties all over the world. If we’re headed ot florida we use more area specific sites like http://www.floridagulfvacation.com for rentals on the west coast of Florida. You can search almost any city and find what you need.

    The biggest savings comes from cooking yourself. We generally make our own breakfast and lunch and have a nice dinner out. with what we save on the first two meals we can really afford to splurge on dinners.

    Generally speaking you get more room, for less expense. Sure you have to clena up after yourself but the benefits far out weigh the five minutes a day it takes to straighten and make the beds.

    Reply

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