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Before I left in 2002, like many other touring cyclists about to embark on a long trip, I did not know exactly what my daily expenses and budget would be. Traveling on a bicycle is inexpensive but still takes money. After bicycle touring through Arizona, USA and part of Mexico for six months I settled on the cheapest budget I could comfortably live on. Through the years and many different countries, like Australia and New Zealand, I have refined my budget and now know what to expect to spend wherever I go.
When asked, "What is your advice for a first time bicycle tourist?" my answer is "Take your plan of desired distance, available money and time frame, cut the distance in half and double the weekly travel budget."
It is hard to figure out your daily expenses before you set out on a bike tour. Picking a realistic bicycle touring travel budget and sticking to it is difficult. I meet a lot of people on the road and the number one thing that couples, friends and informal groups argue about is money. Agreeing to a daily budget before the trip starts will alleviate different expectations concerning finances and make any trip with others less stressful.
I have seen people traveling extremely "bare bones" cheap by hitching, walking or cycling and free camping every night. I used to travel this way when I was younger but I live a little better and a lot more secure these days. If you read bike blogs and their budget seems too good to be true, it may well be so. This is not to say that some bike tourists do not travel cheaper than me; they often do. Just be careful of copying budgets you read on blogs because there is a bit of a competition in the bicycle touring world as to who can travel the cheapest. This leads to a bit of "creative disclosing." A bike touring budget is a personal thing and copying others may lead to short falls and frustrations.
I knew from day one that I would get burnt out if I traveled too cheap and rough. The lowest budget would stretch my savings but it would eventually shorten my trip because I wouldn't enjoy myself and want to go home. A balance must be reached between conserving money and not hating the trip and wanting it to end early.
I have also seen touring cyclists who have saved up a lot of money and only had a few week's vacation time. Sometimes this is called a credit card tour because nice rooms and upscale restaurants usually take credit cards. They looked like they were having a good time and if this is an option for you, I say "Go for it!" If I spent money at the same pace, my trip would have been shortened considerably.
Determining a daily, weekly, or yearly budget
There are a whole host of factors to consider when picking a budget. This is what makes the topic of calculating a daily travel budget so difficult to pin down and even harder to write about.
Your route is a good place to start. Developed countries like England, Japan, USA, and Australia are going to be expensive compared to developing countries like Cambodia, Guatemala and India where it is much cheaper. Even among countries within these two groups, costs can vary because of ever-changing exchange rates due to economic cycles and political circumstances. My advice is to pick a destination where the currency is hitting a low against your home country's currency. The price of a long haul flight can be absorbed in the drastically cheaper daily cost of traveling in the developing world.
Accommodations play a big factor in determining how much you will spend. Your choices can be boiled down to hotels, hostels, campgrounds and free camping. Usually a combination of two or more of these options will be used. You can determine the general cost of hotels or campgrounds from a good, up-to-date guidebook. Free camping, by my definition, is finding someplace to pitch a tent or sleep under the stars without any cost. I have camped in cemeteries, farm fields, and countless places hidden from all. Of course, there are no facilities so this option requires the most amount of gear but it is the best way to stretch your money on the road. Morality, legality and security are just some of the factors debated in the bicycle touring world to keep in mind so free camp at your own discretion and risk.
Food and groceries is another area that impacts a bike tourist's budget. If you only go to grocery stores and buy food to prepare yourself, eating, even for a hungry cyclist, is fairly cheap. If you like the convenience of eating out or if absorbing the culture around you involves tasting local dishes prepared in restaurants, then the cost could be higher. The exception may be in some developing countries where street venders or cheap food stall eateries can be cheaper than preparing your own food. Because such things as toilet paper and toothpaste are also bought in supermarkets and grocery stores, I roll these necessities together into this part of the travel budget.
Infrequent expenses includes everything not mentioned above like museum fees, internet cafes, inner tubes, flights, doctor bills (if you get hurt or sick) booze, nightlife, and so on. This list could go on and on but these type of expenses are the wild card and can wreak a budget if not kept in check.
Determining your budget
To determine your bicycle touring budget my (loosely accurate) rule of thumb may be helpful. Take your daily lodging cost and double it. The theory is that the more expensive your accommodations, the more expensive everything else will be. If you are willing to camp in campgrounds, you will likely be cooking most meals and the trip will be cheaper. If you are staying in hotels, you will eat out more and probably like to spend money on other things. For example, in a cheap country like Bolivia, because of exchange rates, accommodation prices are low and the cost of other things you will be buying is proportionally lower as well. The same accommodations in Germany will be several times higher and so will everything else. If you plan to free camp every night then maybe take the price of a campground and make that your daily budget.
This rule of thumb of mine does not take in account infrequent expenses (see above) or will not work for non-cycling trips where riding public transportation or buying gasoline for your own vehicle is a regular expense. In fact, this should not be used as the sole source in determining your budget but rather just a place to get started. The only way you will really know how much you will spend on tour is to learn by trial and error on the road. It is a good idea to have more funds than you need and a back up source of money, like a credit card, if you run out. Calling parents and begging for money (I never have) is not a back up plan; it is a bail out, so do the honorable thing and take care of yourself. (see my finance page)
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