Smart Indulgence: How I Budget For Travel To Indulge In Experiences

Food from Central in Lima - smart indulgence

I’ve written about why I travel and the kinds of places I travel to (mainly vibrant cities and dramatic landscapes) – then it occurred to me that I should write about how I travel, specifically how I budget for travel.

I have done a lot of budget travel, especially in my early years of travelling, and I have a done a couple of luxury trips.  But on the whole, my approach is somewhere in between the two. 

The driving force is a strong desire for experiences. I want to experience the best of a place I go to – to be immersed in it, to be seeing it all, feeling it, tasting it. Sometimes, those experiences are expensive, so to be able to afford to indulge in experiences, I cut back in other areas. I call this ‘Smart Indulgence’.

My travels might look extravagant from the photos on Instagram, but it is often less glamorous behind the scenes!

Things I try to save money on

Flights

Firstly, I use an Airmiles credit card to earn points for free flights as much as I can.  I’m not the savviest at this. I suspect there is more points-earning I could do, but I try to be smart by collecting points as much as I can – by putting payments through my credit card and also by buying through the credit card e-store to earn extra points on the retailers they have deals with.

Secondly, I have never paid for first-class nor even premium economy.  I’ve been tempted several times, but whenever I look at the cost of upgrading, I think of what else I could do with that money when I get to my destination. I would much rather have the experience there than extra comfort as I’m travelling there.

Finally, I go with the economy airlines and the unsociable departure times.  Every time I take a night flight I vow never to do it again, but I keep on booking them because I want those savings to spend on exciting things at my destination!  However, I do try to avoid early morning flights that require me to get up at 3 or 4 in the morning, because I know that lacking sleep will make me feel rubbish for the whole day. In my opinion, this isn’t worth the money I’ll save on a cheaper flight.

Accommodation

There have been a couple of times when the accommodation itself is the experience I am seeking. For example, I stayed at a very nice 5-star hotel on the Grand Canal in Venice because I was seeking a decadent weekend – and I got a deal for it! I stayed in the Centurion Palace and it was wonderful – it had breakfast tables overlooking the Grand Canal and a houseboat to take us to St Mark’s in style.

the 5-star Centurion Palace Hotel in Venice, Italy
I don’t have any photos of the grim places I’ve stayed, but this is the fancy hotel in Venice

However, most of the time, I stay in low-cost accommodation so that I can spend more on other experiences.

Now, I say ‘low-cost’, but I have avoided hostels for a decade after some bad experiences in New Zealand (noise, saggy mattresses, curtains that won’t close, disgusting showers with plasters on the floor etc).  So low cost is typically basic studios from Airbnb or low-star hotels. For example, in New York, I have stayed in budget hotels with shared bathrooms and in Bucharest, I stayed in a cheap Airbnb above a sex shop. It wasn’t as bad as it sounds!

Transport costs

When I’m at a destination, I don’t see the point in spending much on transfers or local transportation. 

In cities, I avoid this by walking a lot.  I am normally very happy to walk from place to place – it helps me get a feel for the city. I like to understand how it is laid out, where the different areas are and how the neighbourhoods fit together. Learning that helps me feel like I know the city. And walking it makes me feel like I’m somehow staking a claim in it, like it becomes mine a little bit. It also allows me to feel the vibes and the energy of the city. So the ability to save money this way is almost a secondary bonus, really.

And if the trip involves driving, I’ll go for the smallest cheapest car. Whilst being on the road is a real pleasure and a key part of the experience of exploring a place – especially in places with amazing scenery, like Namibia or Iceland – it doesn’t matter what the car looks like. 

White Duster car on a gravel road between canyons in Namibia
In Namibia, our little Duster cost much less to hire than a 4×4 (though a 4×4 would have made driving those gravel roads a bit smoother!)

Food

So, I do like indulging in food when I travel (which I’ll come on to shortly), but it doesn’t have to be every meal.  So, if it allows me to experience some amazing meal one night, I’ll cut costs on other meals.

For example, in Iceland, I self-catered in my Airbnb whenever I could. And in Cuba, I ate really basic provisions most of the time, like fruit from the market, bread straight from a bakery, and cheap little street pizzas.

Things I am happy to spend money on: Experiences

I have described myself as an ‘experience seeker’ because I love to have immersive and sensory experiences in the place I visit when I travel. I guess these tend to fall into two main categories:

Food & drink experiences

I love to taste the cuisine of a country I’m visiting – and if I can afford it, I try the best available. The best can be street food, or it can be high end dining (or anything in between).

In Lima in Peru, I was keen to experience both ends of the spectrum. I made a point to try ceviche the way Peruvians eat it. At a food market, it came by the ladleful, served in a polystyrene dish over sweet potato and corn. It is kind of like a cold, spicy, acidic fish stew (and nothing like the delicate arrangements of ceviche I get in London). I loved it!

However, I also wanted to try the famous nouvelle cuisine restaurant Central, which was awarded ‘Best Restaurant in South America’ by The World’s 50 Best Restaurants. I had 17 courses of exquisitely presented food inspired by the varying altitudes in the Peruvian landscape. It was culinary art, really.  The meal was super expensive, but totally worth it in my opinion because there is literally nowhere else in the world where you can have this experience.

My altitude-inspired culinary extravaganza in Peru

Other expensive-but-worth-it food & drink experiences include:

  • Lunch at the Michelin-starred restaurant La Tour D’Argent, overlooking the Cathedral de Notre Dame in Paris. Like the Peruvian tasting menu, there is no other place you can have that food & view combination.
  • A taster menu with Slovenian wine pairing in the walls of a castle in Ljubljana
  • Sipping cocktails whilst a pianist plays live music in Bemelman’s Bar in the Carlyle Hotel in the upper east side of Manhattan – one of the most ‘old world’ hotels in New York City.

Most of these experiences cost quite a lot, but they felt worth saving up and paying for in my mind because they were so of the place they’re in – and also the best of that place.

And in any case, you can keep the restaurant costs in check in several ways.  For example, sometimes I save money by booking lunch at restaurants, rather than dinner, as you can often get a prix fixe lunchtime menu that works out much better value than a la carte. And if drinking expensive cocktails, I rarely have many of them!  I’ll order one or two and will make them last…

Immersive excursions

The other thing I have been known to splurge money on is excursions into interesting landscapes. What I’m seeking here is to be able to see something beautiful – and maybe to lose myself in it a little.

The most common of these, and the least expensive, are boat rides. If I go to any coastal place, I will take some kind of boat ride. I’ll visit an island, a cave, a lagoon – whatever is available; I just love being on the water. Some of the best of these were in Montenegro, where the water was gorgeous and the coastline was steep and craggy.

smooth water and craggy cliffs in the bay of kotor in montenegro
Beautiful place for a boat ride: Bay of Kotor in Montenegro

I also love getting out into wild landscapes, like the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. I took a private tour in a 4×4 and I just loved exploring the alien landscape. Racing across hundreds of kilometres of white salt hexagons surrounded by ancient black volcanoes felt strange and wonderful at the same time. I’ll be honest though, the salt hotel I stayed at was not that great – this was a novelty that wasn’t worth paying a lot for in my opinion. 

white salt flats and black volcano at salar de uyuni in bolivia
Salt & volcanoes at Salar de Uyuni

I also took a private tour of the highlands of Iceland – mainly because I wanted a bespoke route to a specific volcano I had become obsessed with (and also because I’m an extreme introvert and I hate group tours with strangers).  In the end, we couldn’t make it to that volcano because of too much snow on the road, but it was still very special to explore that wild place on our own agenda. I’ll never forget the thrill of looking out across these snow-capped mountains from the top of another peak: it seemed like such a vast, hostile wilderness. I also think it was the coldest place I’ve ever been!

snow-capped mountains in the highlands of iceland
Private experience: the highlands of Iceland

However, probably the most immersive and most indulgent is my flight over the Namib desert, which I wrote about in a photo tour, so check that out!

snaking red sand dunes in the namibdesert
Flying over the dreamy Namib Desert

The key to ‘Smart Indulgence’

The key to smart indulgence is working out what makes the most impact on your enjoyment of a trip. What is worth investing in for you? And on the flip side, what is not that important to you?

If you’re not sure what you should prioritise, think back to previous trips you’ve taken and see which great memories come to mind.  What amazing moment do you remember most vividly?  These might be clues about what you should invest in for future trips.

For example, if what you remember most fondly is the luxurious bedroom you stayed in, then my exact approach might not work for you. You might want to cut back in other areas to make sure you have a gorgeous night’s sleep at a luxury hotel. If you don’t really remember any of the meals you had, even if the food was good, then this could be an area to reduce spend.

The key is to know yourself and adjust your planning according to what will give you the most joy.

So what about you?

What is your approach to travel planning and budgeting?

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2 thoughts on “Smart Indulgence: How I Budget For Travel To Indulge In Experiences”

  1. Martha, I like your style. Spend the cash on the things that really matter to you and give you the best experience. That fabulous menu in Cusco…wow. We were quite unwell in Cusco, because of the altitude and I think we had some local soup overlooking the main square.
    An indulgence that springs to mind was a helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon, definitely worth the expense.
    Your stay in Venice was pure beauty, fabulous.

    1. Thanks Gilda! Yes, I like to experience as much as I can of a place 🙂
      Sorry to hear you got altitude sickness in Cusco! I was only breathless and dizzy there – I didn’t actually get sick

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