Ensuring your travel spending reflects your priorities

If you have a budget when you travel, which most of us do, you must prioritize what you spend. To do this, I have found it helpful to break my spending down into five categories:

  • Transportation
  • Accommodation
  • Activities
  • Food
  • Souvenirs/Gifts

It is helpful to decide before you go on vacation what among these five categories you care about the most and the least. Are you traveling to San Sebastian, Spain, to eat at three-Michelin star restaurants? You might want to go light then on the souvenirs and stay in AirBnB accommodations. Plunked down close to $1,500+ on airfare to fly to Southeast Asia over the holiday season? Fortunately you are going to a part of the world where you can save on everything else. Are you going somewhere like Hawaii or Costa Rica, where water and land activities are among the biggest draws? You’ll probably have to spend a good sum on expenses like diving, snorkeling trips to harder to reach spots, surfing, parasailing, ziplining, etc. But there are other ways to save at these tropical paradises.

Understanding your personality type will help guide your travel priorities. I’m a maximizer, so I want to do everything. I am not the kind of person who at the last minute buys a package airfare plus resort deal with plans to spend a whole vacation relaxing and letting the resort give me everything I need because I would feel like I was missing out on being active and seeing what a place has to offer. Others are much happier than me to stay in one place, relax, and spend a few days in the utmost comfort.

Even though wanting everything on a vacation sounds like a recipe for going over-budget, I like to think of it another way. I like to think of my vacation approach as a sampler—getting a little bit of everything but not spending too much on any particular area.

On my most recent trip to Hawaii, I knew I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to see diverse sea life. This meant either snorkeling or diving in Hawaii’s pristine waters. But what to do and where to do it? I decided I’d forgo spending all of the money and energy on diving (maybe some day) and focus on snorkeling. And I decided to avoid a popular and well-regarded snorkeling spot on Oahu in favor of another popular but less touristed and I think even better-regarded spot on the Big Island, Kealakekua bay, which a friend who had lived in Hawaii recommended. 

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Kealakekua Bay view from the Captain Zodiac raft (Feb 2016)

Of course, the choices were not over even then. I had to choose how to get out to Kealakekua Bay. I realized the options ran from taking a big boat with two waterslides and a barbecue to making a challenging hike to the Bay with my rented snorkeling gear. I didn’t feel like I needed the bells and whistles of the boat, but I didn’t feel comfortable making a challenging hike and then snorkeling on my own. So I chose something in between: taking a motorized raft led by experienced guides (Check out my Yelp review of Captain Zodiac). The difference between a 4-hour trip on the raft and a 4.5 hour trip on the big boat is $95 and $135 respectively. (I took a 5-hour “beat the crowd” trip, which was $110). A side benefit of this trip was that we got to see whales and dolphins on our 15-plus mile trip down to the Bay. I probably wouldn’t have seen that with a hike or even on the kayak trip. As our guide said after we saw a whale “You just saved $85 on a whale watching cruise.” I’ll write in a future post about how best to take a “kill two birds with one stone” approach to traveling.