Traveling on a budget can be difficult, especially when you're used to living freely without a budget. It's crucial to plan your budget before you go anywhere, otherwise you may end up in a sticky situation, and your trip could be ending earlier than you had planned. Know what's important to you to splurge on, and know what you can cut back on.
If we're being real here, budgeting is not my strong suit when it comes to real life. However, I'm a pro when it comes to travel. When I first began traveling, I was throwin' hunnids like it was my job, living up the luxury of living in Europe for the first time. Until I realized that I was being an idiot and that lifestyle didn't work. Now, I make it a competition with myself to see if I can spend the least amount of money on the coolest stuff. It's a weird thing I have, I dunno. While I would never count every single penny, I'm always conscious on whether an experience will be worth it or not. I'd rather spend more money at a more authentic restaurant than eat cheaply, for example. While that's what works for me, there's no secret to budget travel, except to think smart, save your money, and decide what is important to you.
When I travel, I try to spend the least amount of money possible on accommodation. Personally, I know that I can sleep just about anywhere as long as it's clean. I've come up with my own list of what I call my "non-negotiables" aka things I won't budge on. For example, I'll always stay somewhere that's clean (no bed bugs!!). There also has to be a safe storage area where I can lock up my belongings, and a fun, sociable atmosphere. I always try to look somewhere close to the center if I'm staying in a city, otherwise I try to look for somewhere with good transportation links. Those are pretty much my only non-negotiables. From there, I can create my budget for the trip based on individual country costs. I'm going to pay a lot more for a hostel in Switzerland than I am for an AirBnb in Prague, and that's just the reality.
Food & Drink
I tend to budget quite a bit of money for food and drink when I'm traveling. Some may think that's stupid, but I travel so I can enjoy the culture. If I'm going to go over my budget, then I cook in my hostel or AirBnb. If you plan on eating out a lot, budget a good amount of money (more than you think you'll need) for food and drink. Also, take into consideration whether or not you want to go out and enjoy the nightlife in the evenings.
For me, I spend the least amount of money on flights, because as long as I'm safe / the airline staff aren't complete dicks, I can fly any airline. While nice airlines are.... well... nice (holla at my folks at Turkish Airlines), I'd rather spend $15 on a cheap flight across Europe than splurge to get a little extra legroom for a few hours. If I'm flying transatlantic, then hell yeah, extra leg room. But otherwise, there's no need, in my opinion.
What's important to you? If you're going to be miserable during your whole trip if you don't sleep on the flight and are uncomfortable, then by all means, set aside extra money for your flights.
If you are flying budget airlines, however, it's necessary to take into account baggage restrictions for your budget. Airlines like EasyJet and RyanAir sometimes check the size of your carry-on, and if it doesn't fit in their little luggage size tester box thingy, then you're going to owe some extra cash. They also charge heavy fees for checked bags, so do your research ahead of time, so you don't end up spending an extra $70 to check a bag.
This is where the most of my money goes. I came to explore, obviously, and I want the maximum out of my experience. However, it's important to decide what sort of experiences you want to spend your money on before you leave. This can be especially difficult if you're traveling with a group, because your group may have differing individual priorities when it comes to travel experiences.
I learned this the hard way in Venice with one of my nearest and dearest friends. We had a full blown argument in Piazza San Marco over whether or not we wanted to spend a fortune on a gondola ride.
Figure out what you want to spend your money on. Do you care deeply about seeing museums and therefore they go straight to the top of your priority list, or could you care less? Do you want to invest in guided tours, day trips, or tour buses? Those can get pricy, but sometimes can be worth it. There's a lot to consider in terms of activities, and if you don't establish your needs/wants beforehand, you may end up going far over your budget on experiences that you didn't expect.
Always, always, always plan ahead. You wouldn't want to miss your flight with RyanAir (who don't rebook) and be stranded in Madrid because you didn't have the cash to pay for a new flight (me).
The unexpected may also happen. Your card could be accidentally shut off by your bank if they detect possible fraud. I learned this the hard way in Sweden when I withdrew money from the same ATM within a short time period and had my American card shut off. Fortunately, I was traveling with friends who could help me out until I could contact Chase back home. However, had I been by myself, I would have had to miss out on a significant portion of my trip to Stockholm because I didn't have backup cash. Plan ahead.
Track Your Expenses
While it's not necessary to track every single penny, make sure you're keeping general track of what you're spending, unless you want to check your bank account a week later and find out that you're in way deeper than you thought. Write down what you're spending so you know whether or not you need to cool down on the spending for a few days. You don't want to be going home early simply because you miscalculated.
Know the Most Up-to-Date Exchange Rate!
Exchange rates can fluctuate rapidly. You may think you're spending way less than you actually are, so make sure you're doing your calculations as correctly and accurately as possible.
It's okay to go over your budget. Be sensible, be smart, but be forgiving and kind to yourself. Don't ever deprive yourself of once in a lifetime opportunities because you're afraid you'll go slightly over your budget if you do. In the end, money is just that - money. Yes, it is the lifeblood of capitalism, it's replaceable, it's disposable, and it's money. You can make it up on other days.