This post is was originally published on The Penny Hoarder
I just spent a month in Barcelona, Spain, for less than $3,000.
That’s including airfare, lodging, all my food… everything.
And in case you’re wondering, I didn’t take it easy. I saw a €41.50 flamenco show and a Lorde concert that was only slightly cheaper. I took a weekend trip up to Cadaques and Figueres, Dali’s stomping grounds, which means for a couple of nights I actually paid for accommodations twice. I ate a truly remarkable amount of food and drank an even more remarkable amount of incredible wine.
I got not one, but two mani-pedis. With shellac. (I know. Sue me.)
How to Spend Time Overseas Without Spending Your Savings
Don’t get me wrong: I know $3,000 isn’t exactly petty cash. We’re still talking about a hefty investment.
But considering you could spend almost a third of what I did for a vacation package of just six nights — and not including most of your food or any sightseeing — I’m going to go ahead and call my $2,938.87 total an epic win, especially since I spent almost as much on just a week in Ireland a year ago.
Here’s the exact breakdown.
Airfare: $6.00 (not a typo)
Lodging: $1,166.18 (28 nights in Barcelona; two nights in Cadaques)
Groceries and necessities: $461.46
Food, drinks, and coffee (non-home meals): $453.76
Tours, sightseeing, and shows: $238.17
Getting around — including all public transit, taxis, and trains: $229.51
One-month gym membership: $45.28
Gifts and correspondence: $41.55
Nails/salon: $107.97 (I KNOW, I am the WORST)
Stuff I really wish I didn’t buy (see below): $188.99
GRAND TOTAL: $2,938.87
Not bad, wouldn’t you say?
Let’s take a look at what I did right — and what I could have done better.
Wins and Travel Hacking Secrets
Here are the main ways I successfully saved heaps on my international adventure.
This is obviously my biggest savings. I could have easily spent a third of my total on this expense alone.
But I paid for my trans-Atlantic flight with frequent flyer miles, only having to cough up the cash for non-negotiable, carrier-imposed fees that totaled to a heaping $6.00 (on the nose!).
I accumulate miles by purchasing everything — absolutely everything, from groceries to my cell phone bill — on a travel rewards credit card that awards me at least a mile, and sometimes more, for every dollar I spend. This is a fantastic way to rack up miles quickly, provided you always pay your card down to $0 every single month to avoid paying any interest.
Have iffy credit or a tendency to overspend? Don’t worry — there are lots of ways to earn miles without using credit cards, too.
While this was the priciest item in my travel budget at over $1,000, it’s still not a bad total for a combined 30 nights of accommodation.
I use Airbnb to find unique and affordable lodging, and also to ensure I have a private space with WiFi (so I can work) and a kitchen (so I can lower my food bill). You could do even better if you’re less of a delicate flower that I am; I simply will not share my sleeping space and will only rarely put up with a housemate. (What can I say? Introversion has its costs.)
But if you’re more gregarious — or at least tolerant — than this misanthrope, there are tons of budget travel accommodation options to choose from.
For example, many hostels offer beds in shared dormitories starting around $10 a night, and you can also look into free lodging through Couchsurfing. You might even be able to get the best of both worlds if you can find a housesitting gig: Privacy at no charge.
If you *do* go the Airbnb route, however, keep in mind that many listings feature steep discounts (on the order of 25% off or more) for travelers staying for longer periods of time — say, a week or a month — so it can be beneficial to try and extend your vacation.
Which is also important for…
You’d be surprised how much you can save just by shuffling your sightseeing schedule. In Barcelona, I got into the Picasso Museum, the City History Museum, and the National Catalonian Art Museum for free simply because I waited for the weekly free entry windows, saving a total of almost $40.
Of course, if you only have a couple of days, your itinerary is going to be less flexible. But there’s also free fun to be had at almost every destination, no matter when you go.
For instance, one of my favorite parts of my stay in Spain was a trip to the beach, where I was surprised to find fistfuls of sea glass. It was totally magical and totally free of charge — and if I decide to sell my souvenirs, I could even turn a profit!
Natalie Rhea Riggs/Unsplash
Part of the reason I love Airbnb is because you can filter for locations that have a kitchen. I ate the vast majority of my meals at home.
And again, my grocery total could have been lower, but I’m one of those low-carb people, which means I couldn’t just fall back on endless pasta and rice cakes.
It’s safe to say you could eat abroad for a fraction of what I paid if you’re not as concerned with macronutrients as I am. (You also probably won’t need to shell out fifty bucks for a gym membership, whereas I can’t live without one. At least weightlifting is still cheaper than therapy!)
One word regarding cheap protein sources if you don’t just want to carbo-load the entire time: eggs. Gloriously cheap, delicious eggs that, in Spain at least, don’t even need to be refrigerated. I ate literally three flats of eggs over the course of the month.
Room for Improvement
I did a lot right, but there are quite a few things I could have done better — and which would have pushed my travel total even lower.
Carmen Mandato/ The Penny Hoarder
I didn’t separate them out in the above totals, which include both cash and card purchases, but I ended up paying $20.99 in ATM fees.
Even though I used the “right” ATMs — the ones my home bank recognizes as international partners — I didn’t realize I’d be assessed a 3% surcharge on any foreign currency I take out overseas. Had I known, I would have used cash less often and would have taken more of it out at a time.
(While you’ll always have to pay something extra to exchange your dollars for euros, I could have ordered more before I left under the flat $7.89 “handling fee” my bank charges.)
Obviously, opting for public transit is always cheaper than taking a taxi, at least if you’re traveling solo.
Unfortunately, a silly mistake on my part — not memorizing my chip card’s PIN — meant I was forced to take a €50 cab ride as soon as I landed. I also ended up taking cab rides home from the Lorde concert (the closest bus had stopped running, and I didn’t want to walk alone for an hour at midnight) and to an attraction for which the ticket required I be there at a specific time (I didn’t plan well enough and would have been late via metro).
Almost all of that could have been avoided if I’d simply prepared and scheduled more diligently. In fact, my total transit cost probably would have been less than $50.
Carmen Mandato/ The Penny Hoarder
It is not cheap, guys. Not at all.
You know that sea glass I mentioned above? I decided to send some of it, along with a postcard, to my parents in St. Augustine, Florida. Not wanting to try my crappy Spanish at the regular P.O., I went to a Mailboxes, Etc. and put everything into a tiny envelope.
Sending that eensy-weensy package cost me, seriously, approximately $40. As a reminder, that’s about $34 more than I paid to ship myself to Europe, and the package weighed about 0.5% of what I do.
Avoid shipping things home at all costs. Bringing an extra bag to check will almost always be cheaper, even with baggage fees — and it allows you to bring home hard-to-ship goodies like wine and olive oil. Just wrap them well in soft clothing!
Eating (and Drinking) Out
I’d been doing great about eating at home for the first twenty days, but then I somehow effectively DOUBLED my total on fun-meals-out in the last week.
I don’t know why I got loosey-goosey at the last minute, but, um, yeah, don’t do that.
Another thing: My Airbnb was wonderful in a lot of ways, but I was dismayed to discover that it didn’t have a way to brew coffee. And for a java fiend like me, a canister of instant Nescafe just wasn’t going to cut it. (Why do Europeans like that stuff so much?)
I ended up spending about $60 on supporting my caffeine habit at coffee shops — an easy amount to shave off the top if I’d just bitten the bullet and gone cold turkey.
Stuff I Really Wish I Didn’t Buy: A Cautionary Tale
Some of the money included in this category comes from random extras: an umbrella foisted on me by a street vendor; the $7 and change I wasted when I canceled an Airbnb. It was silly to think I’d have the time (and, honestly, discipline) to check Henry David Thoreau’s lengthy “Walden” off my list while abroad.
But the largest part — over $150 of it — comes from my incredibly questionable decision to purchase not one, but two pairs of shoes. SHOES. What’s worse, the €15 pair of sandals I bought started falling apart not three days later, forcing me to hobble click-clackingly home before throwing them away. The other pair are holding up, but they definitely give me too many blisters to wear on the regular.
So I guess one piece of sage travel advice I have is just, like… don’t buy shoes.
Jamie Cattanach (@jamiecattanach) has written for VinePair, SELF, Ms. Magazine, Roads & Kingdoms, The Write Life, Barclaycard’s Travel Blog, Santander Bank’s Prosper and Thrive and other outlets. Her writing focuses on food, wine, travel and frugality.