How I Plan a Budget Friendly Vacation

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I leave for Hong Kong and Tokyo in about a week and a half and before I start flooding my feed with travel pics, I wanted to share some insight into what goes on in my brain while planning a trip and figuring out how to make a seemingly unrealistic multi-country trip fit in my budget.

This upcoming trip, like all the ones I have planned in my last two or so years of being travel obsessed started from random browsing. I was staying at my Grandma’s house in December when I first moved to LA as I waited for my stuff to get shipped from NY. One night I just started planning a fake vacation in my head to visit my friend Sam who is living in Hong Kong and then going to Tokyo, which I thought was nearby but is actually 4 hours away. I picked a range of possible dates I was into, and started plugging them into Kayak. I was pretty open since I would be taking my vacation days at work and have paid vacation days that don’t roll over, so what could be more motivation. Below I break down how I plan where to go, when to go, where to stay, and how to fly.

Please leave any of your tips and tricks in the comments! Both about saving money, taking trips, and vacation ideas! 

The location:

I sort of have a mental reserve of places I want to go in the near future, and Tokyo has been on it for years, ever since a cancelled trip senior year. Hong Kong was somewhere  I hadn’t given much thought of, but since my friend was living there, it seemed interesting, and the more I learned the more I wanted to visit.

Deciding where you want to go first is also important, and can alter the pricing. Flying into one place and out of another can make it cheaper. When I went to Spain, Italy, and Turkey, I honestly just had a random idea, OH! Istanbul, and when I plugged it in, it was hundreds of dollars cheaper than the other places I had brainstormed. Being open and curious is key.

The dates:

I like to have an idea of where I want to go- obviously- and play around with where to go first based on dates, flight pricing, and other events.  I wanted to be in Japan to go to Kyoto for the cherry blossom season so the dates had to do with that.

The more open you are with your dates, the higher the likelihood of finding good priced flights and hotels you are. You also have to give yourself enough notice, so you can shop around and strategically buy one thing at a time.

The proposed budget:

Like anything else, it’s safest to have an idea of what you want to spend before getting committed to an idea. I am pretty cheap and a stickler for discounts, so I have a rule currently that I am not going anywhere where the primary flight (to and from that continent) is over $800. I came to that number because I’ve been able to fly to Europe twice roundtrip and to S. America for significantly under $800 each RT, so I’m not about to up the ante now. (If you don’t believe me, I flew into Iceland out of Amsterdam from NY for $750, into Barcelona out of Istanbul for $600 from NY, and to Cartagena Colombia from NY for $375…… THESE FLIGHTS EXIST)

I try to give myself a lodging budget of anywhere from $40-80 per night. This is a lot easier when you are splitting something with someone or multiple friends. If you’re alone, your lodging isn’t going to be as nice, maybe a hostel or a single room Air BnB, if you’re with friends, which I am, we can get a $100 hotel room and split it three ways keeping us at $35 per night for a nice accommodation.

For hostels I’ve used and Hostel International, in Europe, my favorite chain is Generator Hostels. For hotels, I’ve used Expedia, Kayak, and Hotel Tonite (this saved us in Berlin for a day of hotel, use my code LABASCAL or $25 off.)


The flight(s):

As discussed in the dates section, my dates were flexible which allowed me to look for the best possible price. Typically Tuesdays are the cheapest day to buy a flight. I use Kayak but I’ve heard google flights and sky scanner are best. I actually prefer Expedia because I love the app but for multi city flights, Kayak is typically better because it aggregates a bunch of sites.

Anyways, back to me on my Grandma’s couch, I randomly found a flight into Hong Kong out of Tokyo for under $700. Once I decided I was into this idea, it had gone up. I played with dates with around 7 days of flexibility but still staying the 10 days I intended (about 7 workdays and then a weekend.) I had some rules, which are good to have. I really did not want any insane layovers, and you should avoid them too. I have lived my life being someone who wants a deal so badly I make myself sad and uncomfortable and regret it.

There were $600 flights with layovers on both ends, and I eventually found a $700 flat flight that had a 2 hour layover on the way, and no layover on the way back. This was the route for me. I also liked the times because it gave me the most possible time in Tokyo, where I get my 10 or so hours of time difference back once I land so I don’t have to take an additional vacation day.

Then it came down to, which airline. There were a few providers offering the same price, some a bit lower, some slightly shorter (1 or so hours.) I wanted to balance shortest flight, cheapest flight, best quality, but of course compromises are always made. I considered the fact that I am earning miles on Delta and see that they frequently have flights I am interested in and decided their quality made them the airline I wanted to get miles for this very long trip on. They also are just known to have better service than American or United, the other companies offering the flight.

Once you know where you’re flying into and out of, you have to get from one place to another. For this trip, I needed a flight from Hong Kong to Tokyo. This was a bit tricky. On Expedia and Kayak, they were listing for upwards of $300 and with insane layovers. Then I found a budget small airline, Hong Kong Express (like the Ryan Air or Southwest of Asia) and got a direct flight for $150.

Main flight $700 + connecting $150 = $850 flights 

The lodging:

For this specific trip, I’m doing an approximately $120 hotel per night in Hong Kong divided by three people, and a $110 room in Tokyo divided by 2. Keeping a nice $60 per night budget maximum (less in Hong Kong), times the 9 nights I will be there, averaging to $540 for lodging for this trip.  

I could have gotten an Air B&B for cheaper, but after hearing advice from some friends, figured the services at a hotel such as concierge who speaks the language and familiarity by cab drivers would be worth a few extra bucks per night.

Now we’re at $850 + $540 = $1390 

The allowance: 

The order I purchased stuff in was, main flight, connecting, then lodging. Once these were all paid off (I put them on my credit card and paid in a few installments of self payback over about 6 weeks) I started to save up for an “allowance” while I am there. Since I have the luxury of paid vacation, I can consider that I will have my regular salary, which I usually spend $200-400 a week on “stuff”. Anything on top of that (which there definitely will be on a trip where you aren’t in an office for 9 hours a day) I will need to save.

I try to give myself an average of $100 per day on trips I take. I’ve found this to work in expensive places like London and cheap places like Cartagena. It all depends what you do and how you disperse it. Some days you may eat cheap street food and take the train, others you want a sit down meal with alcohol, but go to free museums to make up for it. On my first trip to Europe (Iceland, London, Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam) I budgeted $100 a day and was so unbelievably paranoid I came back with $1,000 left, which I then used to buy a $600 flight into Barcelona and out of Istanbul and planned my next trip where I left 5 months later.

From my experience on trips and in life, there are some things you should splurge on. If a cab to the airport is possible to avoid, take a train, but if you’re me in Paris and decide to take the train and get lost then get your luggage stuck in the turnstile and end up spending half as much as a cab, you wish you had taken the cab. It’s a vacation, so if you’re being cheaper than you are in your daily life, it’s likely going to be a lot less comfortable. But of course, this varies depending on what your trip is like. If you’re going on a romantic get away you may spend more than on a multi month long backpack style Euro trip. I classified this trip as somewhere inbetween. I’m visiting a friend in HK so thankfully he’ll have some budget student budget friendly tips, and Tokyo is insanely expensive so I’m ready.

I also try to see if online there are deals for train passes, airport pick up, admission to any shows/reservations, and more. I am saving money booking a night at Robot Restaurant in Tokyo online, as well as buying our train passes so we can get around, to and from the airport, and on a day trip to Kyoto.

My trip is about 10 days, so I am giving myself $1,000 spending money.

$1390 + $1000 = $2,390 give or take spent on this 10 day Hong Kong and Tokyo/Kyoto trip. I am assuming it will be around $2,500. And will update you when I am back.

NOTE- Now $2,500 is NOT chump change to me. If it is to you… why the hell are you on this blog, you should be being lavished somewhere being fed grapes. JK. But…. when spent one increment at a time, it feels a lot cheaper. I had the $700 for the flight from a freelance project, which prompted me taking the trip, the $150 flight was relatively easy to cover (don’t eat out for a week) but the hotels I booked one at a time, my $200 or so from one paycheck, then the next. The spending money I am saving the month before the trip and likely will use some credit and pay $300 or so from my check following the trip. I also got a new credit card, Chase Sapphire, with no foreign transaction fees so I will put everything on that for the trip to save a few bucks and be safe, while earning points for my next adventure.

  • Colin Kerrigan

    Since you have the travel bug, you should follow @airfarewatchdog and @theflightdeal . I’m not affiliated with them at all, but they allow me to plan impulsive trips with the deals they tweet out to the world. In December, I bought a roundtrip from JFK to South Africa for $293 in September. True story. $293. My friend and I bought them up and have 10 months to plan the trip. Check it out. Also, just went to Europe last fall since I got a $263 one-way ticket to Tokyo that made stops in Milan-Budapest-Amsterdam along the way. I took it all the way to Amsterdam (one day I’ll get to Tokyo) and then got a one-way ticket home from Paris for $350 via Kayak. Cool stuff.

    Enjoy your trip! I’m jealous.

    • Lina Abascal

      thanks so much! appreciate the suggestion following now!

  • JimmyFooFormerlyMyBitch

    Wow I’m asleep. You and annabel ly really fell off. V funny

  • Chihwei

    Lina, I was researching on how people plan their multi city trips and come across your article. Thanks for sharing your experience! It’s very useful. I work in a startup called and we’re building a tool to help people streamline the planning process for multi-city trip. I am wondering if you could give it try to see if that’s useful for a savvy user like you. Will appreciate your feedback on it! Thanks!

    • Lina Abascal

      Hi- please email me linalovesit at gmail . com id love to be involved and give some feedback sounds super up my alley.