It can be easy to get caught up in your destination and spend money freely until you check your bank account… and cry a tiny bit inside (or, let’s face it, a lot out loud!).
This might be a once-in-a-lifetime trip you’ve saved for over years, or it might be one without a fixed end date that will require you to not overspend along the way. Either way, setting a budget is an important part of any trip prep.
Tracking travel expenses is also essential if you’re on a work trip where you’ll be reimbursed by your company. There are a few different methods recommended by our readers in the HPLWorld community as well as a few we’ve used ourselves.
Setting Your Travel Budget
Before you can track your expenses while traveling, you first have to set a budget to begin with. This requires some research and a number of factors like the exchange rate and cost to travel in your particular destination. You don’t want to set a low budget and then find you don’t have enough to cover both your accommodation and daily meals.
I found my budget to be incredibly low when I arrived in Australia back in 2011. I thought $3,000 would last me a while but thanks to bank fees, high cost of living, and unexpected costs, it quickly disappeared.
You can also start using the expense-tracking tools below before you even leave to cut down on costs at home. You might quickly realize how much you’re spending on that daily coffee or lunches out and eliminate them in favor of bungy jumping in New Zealand or a safari in South Africa. Plus, it’s good to test the method before you really need it just like you’d test gear before bringing it with you.
Old School Methods for Tracking Travel Expenses
When I first started traveling, these are the methods I used. Different things work for different people, so here are a few non-technological ways to keep track of expenses if you don’t travel with a smartphone or just don’t want to mess with it.
For my year in Australia, I kept copious notes of all spending in small Moleskine-like notebooks. I drew lines in the pages, although you can buy them with grids or lines, and put in everything I spent every day and what I spent it on. I also listed how much I earned, as I was on a working holiday visa, and was able to see the extra that I saved for travels.
I later ended up putting it into an Excel spreadsheet (which you can see here) at the end of my trip and wrote a blog post about how much I spent traveling in Australia. I did the same on my three month trip through Australia and Southeast Asia a few years later, which allowed me to track expenses with my sister and split the difference.
Another reader suggested only using cash rather than cards, which can be lost or charged high fees for overseas transactions. Instead, you can place a specific amount of cash in an envelope for a chosen destination and when that runs out, you’re out of luck. I like this idea for a shorter trip that you don’t have to constantly take out cash for.
This will also keep you from carrying around all your money at once, stashing the rest in your bag, and only having the amount you need for the day. You can either set aside cash in your home currency to change over when you arrive or do it in advance for best results.
Technological Methods for Tracking Travel Expenses
If you want to cut down on the extras like notebooks, your smartphone or laptop can do just about anything you need it to when it comes to tracking expenses.
This is my preferred method for just about everything, especially in my work, and you can make spreadsheets on a smartphone or laptop. Excel is one computer program that performs these functions, as is Google Sheets, which also has an app as well as functionality on Google Drive. Here you can make different columns for different destinations and categories and tally the totals up at the end. They’re fairly straightforward to use, even if you’re not necessarily tech-savvy.
Smartphone Apps to Track Travel Expenses
Just Google “travel budget app” and you’ll see dozens of options to keep you organized on the go, but we’ve narrowed down a few of our favorites, a few recommendations from readers, and some you don’t even have to pay for! Note that some of these are not available on all systems and some may only be available in certain countries.
If you have a favorite we didn’t mention, please leave it in the comments below!
(free)– Just about every smartphone has a Notes function, which you can use to type in your daily expenses and add them up with your Calculator app at the end of each day. Easy peasy!
(free with optional paid upgrades)– Trail Wallet was the most highly recommended of the apps and was created by travel bloggers! You can organize your expenses by trip or month and set a daily budget.
(free)– I use One Receipt when I travel for work because I can scan my receipts from my phone and I can then toss them. It also pulls from your credit card and bank statements to organize all expenses into one place. From there, you can sort into business and personal.
(free)- It’s a good idea to use Mint whether you’re traveling or not. In addition to setting budgets, you can also track your cash flow, credit score, and see your most recent transactions.
(free)- The Toshl personal finance app also allows you to set budgets and add expenses in any currency, which is ideal when you’re traveling. You can also take photos of receipts to add to your reports, all of which can be synced with your other devices.
($4.99)- We reviewed this app a few years ago, which incorporates all aspects of your trip, from packing lists to maps to budgets to trip plans. You can also add multiple travelers to share the information with your travel companions.
How do you keep track of your travel expenses on the road?
Excel spreadsheets! We left home for a 14-month RTW honeymoon with a set budget. We divided that budget by the number of days to get an average expense per day. Instead of keeping track of every single thing we spend on, we track every credit card/debit card transaction and compare it to how much we have been allotted so far (based on the average per day). The most important number for us is “how many days ahead of budget?” – this number represents our savings or overspending. If the number is negative, it means we’re saving (and can splurge); if the number is positive, we need to watch our expenses for a few days until we’re back to zero or negative. So we’ve been able to “save” in cheaper places to splurge on more expensive experiences (such as a 12-day Europe cruise!)
My husband and I travel basically year-round, so we have a constant situation of needing to budget both our general budget, a monthly budget (sometimes in multiple currencies) and track our expenses. The best situation we’ve figured out is to plan in a spreadsheet – we use Google Sheets because if we’re not in the same place we can always keep it up to date – and then use Mint to track our budget, but then we use Spendee to track expenses in other currencies. I can have multiple “wallets” open at once in Spendee, and each one can have a different currency. So when I’m in India for 6 weeks and transition into Euros, its a really simple switch.
I can definitely recommend travelcash. It is a new app for iPhone on the market and one of the first one which saves the expenses in categories and converts foreign currency automatically into your own currency. This is very handy especially for people who travel longterm. It can save you a lot of time on the road.
Trabee pocket is awesome! You can set a budget, use multiple currenciesand create your own categories….