Affording Travel – Part 2: The Balancing Act

January 16, 2018

The Triple-Constraints of Travel

I often describe myself as a “recovering” project manager. For many years, I worked in this role… and the framework and principles of project management still colour the way I look at the world, and how I operate in it. One of the project management concepts that is particularly relevant to travel, is the triple constraint. This is the tugging, shifting and balancing that must occur between time, resources and scope.

A prime example of how this concept applies to travel, is a “Vacation”. Typically, a vacation needs to:

  • Occur within a short period of time (1-2 weeks)
  • Has a high scope (lots to do within that time)
  • And as a result, requires more money to accomplish it

When a person travels long-term, they have a lot of control over the “time” corner of this triangle. They can choose to book things in off-season. They can book well in advance to get better prices. They can stretch out their stay, and take advantage of the longer-time=lower cost/day effect. And, we always have a fair amount of control over the “scope” of where we go, and what we do while we are there as well. If your game is to visit as many countries as possible, in the shortest amount of time… well… you will need some serious cash to do that just to cover flights and transportation alone. The control that we have over time and scope, allow us to travel on less money than we would if we were in “Vacation” mode.

The Balance of Budget-Line Items

There is a more granular budgeting balance act that I needed to do when making decisions about locations. Fortunately, when travelling because we don’t have the same level of fixed expenses that we did at home, that allowed my budget to be more fluid to accommodate for that. So, I can move money to accommodations and from transportation if it makes sense to do that.

The balancing act occurs between:

  • Cost to get to a location
  • Cost of accommodations
  • Cost of transportation
  • Cost of food options
  • Cost of learning adventures that we want to take
  • Visa requirements

Typically, we found that accommodations that were close to everything that we needed (within walking distance) were more expensive than ones that either required a car or transit to get to them. So, we had to balance out the cost of a vehicle (or other forms of more private transit) with the extra cost of those accommodations.

We also had to factor in what we wanted to do in those locations. If we intended on visiting a lot of places that were a fair distance away, often it was more reasonable to rent a vehicle than try to arrange for transportation for those adventures. So, in those cases we could opt for cheaper/more remote accommodations.

We learned through this trip the difference between “good value” and “cheap”, and that often when we chose “cheap” we ended up paying for things in other (often painful) ways. For example, often the lowest priced flights happen at the most inconvenient times or have long layovers. While we may save money by taking a 6 am flight, we pay for it by getting up a 2 am and trying to get to an airport at that time. Saving on a hotel that is a bit out of the way, has meant at times hours of waiting for buses and/or paying through the nose for a taxi to get there. And… 6 am flights more than once, resulted in a 4:30 am airport meltdown… which is NOT a pretty thing to witness.

I mentioned in my last post, how low our cost of living was in Penang, Malaysia and how staying there allowed us to have extra budget for other more expensive countries. The cost to get to Malaysia from Canada though was quite expensive (essentially the full savings of a month of staying there). So, our real ability to “save money” in Penang only started after we had been there a month. Which leads to…

The longer you stay in a place, the lower your cost of living/day becomes

Flights

Southeast Asia is home to many places where you can enjoy a high-quality standard of living for far fewer dollars than in North America. But, it costs a fair amount to get there. Our flights overall, were our second-largest budget line item (after accommodations). Our family’s one-way flights to south-east Asia from Toronto cost roughly $2,500. That is a significant cost to absorb for a short visit. But, when it was spread over 6 months, that amount became $416/month. A lot of people don’t include their flight costs in their cost of living calculations, but I think that this provides a skewed picture of affordability when they are excluded. I find that factoring in the cost to get to a location helps when making clearer decisions about the affordability and true cost of the destination.

Accommodations

Many rental places provide significant discounts for rentals longer than 7 days. We’ve often received a discount of 10-15% for a weekly rental, and as much as a 70% discount for stays of 28 days or more. If you are going to stay someplace for 6+ months, the discounts can go even further.

Now, before you get too excited and start booking 6+ month trips in single locations, I think that I should add a bit here about the cost and impact of visa requirements. Plain and simply, most places in the world do not allow people to come as a “tourist” to their country for six months. Every country is different, and the rules are different depending on your home country. And, if you stay some places too long, you also run the risk of becoming a resident from a tax perspective. I am not qualified to speak in depth on visa requirements or tax laws, but I do recommend that you make sure that you do your research on this before you go too far in booking anything in any country. And, if you need to do one or more visa runs (or extensions), make sure that you consider the cost of those too.

Transportation

When you are in a location for a longer period, it allows you to reap the benefits of lower-priced transit passes or car rentals. We spent a month in Prague, Czech Republic last fall and purchased one-month transit passes for each member of our family while we were there. Our entire family road the amazing transit system in that city everyday that month for $81 CDN.

With our car rentals, we found that discounts started to kick in around the 7-day level. Of course, car rental costs vary widely across the globe, but we also found that monthly (28 day) rentals were often not that different from 2-week rental costs.

Food

The biggest savings that comes with food, when staying in a location longer term comes from the ability to grocery shop and prepare your food at home. Of course, this assumes that you have rented accommodations that have a kitchen in them. Throughout Europe, there are many discount grocery stores (i.e. Aldi, Lidl) which were our “go to” stores. So much so, that when we were choosing accommodations we always checked to see how close we would be to one of them.

We absolutely indulged in eating out throughout our travels. But, this was the exception and not the rule. Because one of our crew has a severe gluten allergy, a lot of cheaper restaurant options weren’t options for us. We treated eating out as something “special”. It is an amazing adventure to eat local fare, and many of the meals that we ate were incredibly memorable.

But, not all meals were memorable… Shortly after we arrived in Portugal, we had a super-duper-disappointing meal at an Indian restaurant near our apartment. For the same price we paid for that meal, we bought all the groceries that you see in this photo (which included a bottle of Port). These groceries fed us for a week.

Experiences

Depending on what you want to do in a location, longer-term stays can save you money on your experiences as well. The gift of time, can allow you to book excursions on off-peak or discount times. As an example, when we were in Western Australia, paid 50% less for our ferry ride out to Rottnest Island because we had the flexibility to book it on a discount day.

Many places offer seasons passes for not much more than a single visit. If you know that you want to visit a location more than once, the value of this can be significant. Again, when we were in Western Australia, we purchased a National Parks pass while we were there that allowed us access to multiple parks for not much more than a single-visit entry. We made good use of that pass as we travelled to different parks in and around Perth.

Where do cruises fit in?

We have taken a couple of cruises during our adventure. They have both been a very specific kind of cruise – a “re-positioning cruise”. Re-positioning cruises are one-way trips, which are generally offered at a significant discount because the ship needs to move to new location.

While there can be a bit of sticker-shock associated with a cruise, when you consider EVERYTHING that is included in that price… they start to become a more viable option. For the 11-night cruise that we took from Singapore to Shanghai during our first year of travel, we spent (including gratuities and excursions), just under $2,700 for the four of us. That $2,700 included:

  • 11 nights accommodations
  • As much as we could or wanted to eat during those 12 days we were on the ship
  • I didn’t have to cook
  • The opportunity to visit Vietnam, Hong Kong, Okinawa Japan and China
  • I didn’t have to grocery shop
  • Shore bus transportation in most of these locations
  • Childcare for our kids
  • I didn’t have to clean the toilet
  • Powerful enough internet, so that Marcus could continue to see his clients
  • Lots of amazing entertainment for our whole family aboard the ship
  • Someone else made the beds (and put towel animals on them)
  • Visas for all the places we visited (including a transit visa for China)
  • Transportation from Singapore to Shanghai

It would have been a struggle for me to manage to book flights alone for the four of us to all the places we visited while we were on that cruise for under $2,700. Cruises can represent tremendous value because of how many budget line items they can cover – and particularly if they stop at places that you want to see. You only get a bit of a “taste” of a location with a cruise stop, but sometimes that is enough. And, if it isn’t – you can always put that place on your list to visit longer-term in the future once you know you like it.

The cost of comfort

If I had I done an adventure like this when I was in my early 20’s and without kids, I have no doubt that I could have made a trip like this work on a shoestring. But, travelling in my 40’s with two (sometimes 3…) children means that I know that I need more “comfort”. I know that I need to ensure that I am well rested, well fed, exercised and grounded enough to do what needs to be done. And, everyone else in our crew needs the same.

This all means that I tend to look at the amenities of the accommodations that we choose (both short and long-term) quite carefully. Are the beds comfortable? Is there a playground on-site or near-by? How about other recreational facilities like a gym or pool? A comfortable bed is worth a lot to me, as is the peace that comes with having children who can expend their (excessive) energy in productive ways while we are travelling.

A number of years ago (before we were married), Marcus and I took a trip to Greece together. We took a packaged trip there, that included flights on a charter airline with “less than average” legroom. For eleven hours, I sat in the middle seat beside my long-legged travel partner who was spilling into and taking up almost half of my too-small-to-begin-with space. I’ve had my moments of being ticked off with Marcus over the years… but by the time we landed in Athens… I was on the verge of homicide (and I think he was pretty close to the same). We’ve never sat beside each other since on a plane. Whenever possible, we pay the extra money to put him into an “extra legroom” seat. The price of that “comfort” (which results in our staying married…) is worth every penny.

There are many places which can be really cheap to visit, but super painful to experience on a shoestring (I’m looking at you India…). If I had to visit India again, I would have opted to spend more and ensure that we had more things taken care of for us, in advance. I underestimated how challenging our time there would be, and how difficult it would be to get things done. We do not have the best memories from our time in India as a result. When I compare our time in India, to our time in Egypt – the experiences were night and day. Our time in Egypt was AMAZING from the moment we got off the plane to the time we left. I likely over-estimated how challenging Egypt would be, and opted for a higher-end experience (and I am glad that I did). In general, I found that the more different a culture was for us, the more we benefited from spending extra on “comfort”.

I’ve encountered people who have been able to take a family the same size as mine, for a 3-month tour of Europe (including all flights, food and accommodations) for less than $5K. While I admire their ability to do that, I also know that my family would not be able to sacrifice that much comfort to be able to pull that off.

Figuring out what works for you

The choices that we made throughout our adventure are personal ones, that reflect what worked for us (or in some cases what we thought would work for us… and didn’t). One of the great things about travel is that it puts you in new and different situations. We learned more about ourselves through these experiences about what we can and cannot tolerate. We learned how to make our budget work to support “us” so that we could do what we wanted to do as we traveled.

Kay Green

About the Author

Kay Green

Professionally, I am an e-learning instructional designer who breaks down the barriers of space and time in learning. Personally, I'm the Mom in the Little-Green Family, and co-planner in our adventures.

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