Seven weeks into our world adventure, I am beginning to feel like a bit of a pro when it comes to managing travel budgets. Enough so that I’ve decided to compile a few tips that will hopefully help my fellow explorers.
When we set off from London back in June, I thought we had everything completely nailed in terms of what we would need to spend. We had a BIG spreadsheet. Probably the biggest one I’ve ever made. This spreadsheet covered our provisional itinerary for each and every one of our 335 days on the road, right down to meticulous detail for travel, accommodation, activities, food and drink.
It turns out that there are actually several costs involved with travelling that we weren’t quite prepared for. In these first few weeks we have definitely spent a bit more than we needed to, and we now have much more clarity on how we’ll need to manage our finances for the rest of the trip.
Hopefully this selection of hidden travel costs will help my compañeros to plan travel budgets better, and avoid some of those surprise costs. Note that these tips are based on travelling through Peru, Bolivia and Chile, but are likely to be relevant in most places.
One of the biggest travel costs that is easy to forget about is laundry. When you’re constantly out and about, burning the candle at both ends, the dirty clothes pile up quickly. You will likely find that you will need to do a full load at least once a week, and maybe more.
Some people try to do their own washing in hostels, but this can be difficult. Many times you will only stop in a place for one night, and there isn’t time for clothes to dry. There is also the competition for space on clotheslines, and of course the dent in your free time that washing clothes will make. We quickly found out that paying for laundry is the only solution.
Laundry prices vary hugely not only from country to country, but also within towns and cities. Don’t just take the first price you find. In Iquitos, Peru, we had a load of 4 kg washed for 40 soles (about GBP 10), and then a few days later we had the same amount done in Lima for 12 soles.
The way forward is to shop around for good laundry prices, and don’t be afraid to barter a bit. In Copacabana, when a laundrette quoted us 12 Bolivianios per kilo (about GBP 1.40), we turned to walk away, and they quickly dropped the price to 10.
When you do find laundry services for a good price, it’s best to get as much done as possible. When we were in Sucre, Bolivia, our hostel offered a service for 8 bolivianos per kilo, but I wanted to hold off until we were closer to our next 3-day tour to wash my clothes, so I waited. I regretted that decision when we got to Potosi and I couldn’t find a service for less than 12 bolivianos per kilo.
In the UK, we are used to drinking tap water for free, even in restaurants. This is not the case in many countries of the world. Throughout South America (and I expect the same is true across Africa and Asia) there are few places where tap water is safe to drink, and so you have to buy bottled water.
There are ways around this. The first is to boil tap water to kill the parasites and bacteria. If you stay in hostels with communal kitchens, it’s a good idea to boil a couple of litres in the morning to last you through the day.
It’s also a good idea to make the most of opportunities when free water is available. Lots of hostels offer free tea and coffee in the mornings – you can make use of that to hydrate yourself. Another example is organised tours that give water refills at intervals. Make sure you top up whenever you can.
It is especially important to fill up well on multi-day tours. When you are hiking through mountains and canyons, the few shops and stalls that sell water along the way hike their prices phenomenally as people have no choice but to buy it. Along the Inca trail, bottled water was five times more expensive than in the city shops.
One of the best investments we made before travelling was to buy camel packs for transporting water around in our day bags. Ours can carry three litres each and are far less cumbersome than large bottles. If you bring one of these and fill it with boiled water in the morning, you will save a lot of cash over time.
3. Border crossing
This is a very straightforward hidden cost, but there isn’t anything you can do to avoid it. When we entered Bolivia from Peru, there were no costs involved. Two weeks later, however, as we exited Bolivia to enter Chile, we had to pay 15 bolivianos each in order to leave the country. We were lucky we had any Bolivian money left when we got to the border.
Make sure you research any immigration costs ahead of making any border crossings – you don’t want to end up being stuck without a fee to hand.
When we met for our group briefing on the first day of the Inca Trail, our guide told us that the advised tip for the trek’s porters (read more about them here) was 50 US dollars per person.
Don’t get me wrong – we have absolutely no problem with tipping porters and other workers for their hard work and support. We just wish we had been made aware of this expense in advance. In addition to tipping the porters, we also gave tips to our two guides. Again, no problem there, but it did add a substantial unexpected cost to the trip.
Tipping culture varies from country to country, so be sure to investigate where you are going. In the portion of South America we’ve covered, while not compulsory, tips are generally expected for tour guides, so it’s advisable to factor this into your planning.
Tips also quickly add up when it comes to dining out. The budget daytime restaurants in Peru and Bolivia don’t usually expect tips, but if you go to restaurants in the evening you can expect to pay around 10%, which is often added to the bill.
In both Peru and Bolivia we were occasionally required to make tax payments in unexpected circumstances. One example of this is transport taxes.
When we took a flight over the famous Nazca lines in Peru, the only cost we were told about in advance was the payment for the flight. When we arrived there, however, we had to pay an airport tax of 30 soles each.
Similarly, in Bolivia, whenever taking a bus we were required to pay a bus station tax. Each payment is small, but over time it adds up.
Another common tax that travellers face is when making card payments. We soon stopped paying in restaurants on card in Peru when we found that a 10% tax was being added every time. If we had wanted to pay by card for our salt flats tour in Bolivia, we would have been required to pay 3% tax, which would have added about GBP 6 to the trip. As such, it’s usually best to pay in cash wherever possible.
As with water, in the UK we are not usually required to pay for the use of toilets, with the exception of train stations and suchlike.
Throughout Peru, Bolivia and Chile, the use of almost all public toilets requires a fee. Again it’s small, but it adds up. In Peru the cost was usually 1 sol, in Bolivia 1 or 2 bolivianos, and in Chile 200 to 400 pesos.
Sometimes on multi-day tours the toilet prices are hiked drastically. On the salt flats tour in Bolivia, the standard toilet usage fee was 5 bolivianos. We even found that some restaurants charge for the use of their facilities.
When nature calls there isn’t anything you can do about this (unless you are privileged enough to be born with man parts and can find an appropriate natural toilet), but you can minimise the cost by making sure to use facilities wherever they are free, in particular in hostels and most restaurants.
7. Entrance fees
Most travellers like to visit sites of interest, such as museums, monuments and famous buildings. After all, the main point of travelling is to see and experience as much as possible, right?
Almost all these attractions incur an entry fee. In most cases this information is easily accessible online in advance, but not always. Entrance fees can often be hiked as well when attractions become more popular, and so the information online can quickly become outdated.
When taking multi-day tours, there are often entrance fees involved along the way that are not included in your tour package price. When we trekked through the Colca Canyon in Peru, for example, we had to make extra payments to enter the national park and visit the hot springs.
There isn’t a way around these costs, but you can plan for it by making sure to ask tour companies about any additional fees when making your booking. If you’re a student, bring your student ID, as you can often get discounts on these fees.
8. Cash withdrawal fees
The very act of withdrawing money itself can come with additional costs. There are, of course, the fees that your bank adds onto taking money out abroad (some of which we’ve managed to avoid by using the Revolut banking app).
On top of that, some cash machines charge a fee for withdrawals. In cities and major towns it’s usually easy to find ATMs that don’t charge, so it’s worth taking time to seek them out.
In smaller places, you might have no choice but to pay the fee. One such place on our trip is San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, from where I am writing. The cash machines here charged us 4,000 Chilean pesos (about GBP 5) for a withdrawal. In circumstances like this, it’s a good idea to take out as much cash as the machine will allow, as the fee is the same regardless of how much you withdraw.
9. Replacing gear
We spent a lot of money on travelling gear before we set off from the UK – clothes, rucksacks, various items of equipment and so forth. In the most part, we invested in good quality gear and expected it to last us the full year. It doesn’t always work out like that.
It definitely is advisable to spend well on good quality that will last. Cutting costs on your equipment will quickly turn out to be a false economy when things break and you need to replace them. But even the expensive stuff doesn’t always last.
A few days ago I found that the spout on my camel pack had broken off, and the part was lost. This is something I will need to replace, and I doubt it will be the last item on the trip to fall asunder. Seven weeks into the trip, my shoes are already getting pretty worn.
It’s sensible to factor in some contingency budget in your travel plans to cover these instances when you need to renew your gear.
10. Tourist tricks
Tourists make for easy targets when it comes to squeezing extra money out of service provision. If you aren’t savvy to the various tricks employed, you will soon find yourself out of pocket.
The first rule of travelling is to ALWAYS agree the price for any goods and services before you partake in them. In Peru and Bolivia prices are not always fixed, and if you eat a meal (for example) without asking how much it will cost, you can be sure to pay more for it than you should.
In general when prices are not fixed, you can barter significantly (see below). When you do settle on a cost for something, make sure the terms of the transaction are absolutely clear. You might agree to 10 bolivianos for a taxi, only to be the told that the price is actually per person when you are dropped off.
Taxi fares are a common way for tourists to be overcharged, especially when you arrive in a new place for the first time and need to get from the bus station or airport to your hostel. The taxi drivers expect that you won’t know the correct costs, and often try to charge you double or treble. Make sure you look into standard taxi fares before arriving so you can avoid this.
Also be sure to clarify the currency of any transaction. In Cusco, Peru, you will see local women in traditional dress offering pictures with their pet alpacas for a fee. If you agree a price of “three” or “tres”, once the picture is taken you might be told that the price is actually in US dollars, not Peruvian soles.
11. (Lack of) bartering
As mentioned above, we have found that there is room to barter for all sorts of goods and services in South America. When you are quoted a price for something, you can usually negotiate.
This is almost always the case when it comes to booking tours. For popular attractions there is usually competition among lots of tour companies, and they will often lower their asking price significantly to secure your business. If you book onto a tour as a large group, you can usually get a good discount.
Bartering is also commonplace in markets. As a western tourist it is a lot harder, but it can be done. We have often find that we are just told “no” when we ask for a lower price for some vegetables per se, but then when we walk away we are called back and offered a lower price.
Ultimately, though, if you think a price is fair then don’t feel bad about paying it. Tourism is an important provider for livelihoods in all the places we’ve visited, and it can’t be easy to make a good living as a market vendor. If you pay a bit more as a tourist, remember that you are helping somebody to support their family.
12. General mishaps
The ultimate hidden travel cost is probably the unforeseen incidents that will inevitably take place. If you think you will get through a year without losing things or becoming victim to some petty crime, think again.
Already on our trip, between me and Lisa we have lost a phone, a towel and a bank card, as well as damaging a camel pack. When things like this happen, it will cost to sort it out.
As with many of the hidden costs outlined above, the best way to prepare for this is to allow plenty of contingency money in your travel budget, perhaps around 10% of your total spend. You will be thankful for this when you encounter such mishaps.
If we had been aware of these quirks of travelling before we began, we could have avoided a lot of hassle and saved money. If you’re reading, I hope these insights will help you to preserve your funds for the fun times.