Managing your budget when you’re traveling alone or as a couple isn’t easy, but when you meet up with friends things can get waaay more complicated.
B and I know from experience that when we meet up with friends on the road, we spend much more than when it’s just the two of us. That’s ok, because we plan for it and know how to stay within our limits without limiting the fun, and of course, because we always have a blast when we get to meet up with our friends!
Still, for us it’s one of the most challenging parts of travel budgeting and something we’re always trying to improve.
Here are some tips to help you navigate the budget side of planning a trip with friends:
This is really the key to having a happy trip. Ideally, you would sit down with everyone who is coming on the trip (ok, a FB messenger group is more realistic. That works too.) and talk about what each person’s expectations are for the trip, what activities you want to do, where you want to stay, what types of meals you want to have, etc.
In a perfect world, based on everyone’s expectations you could come to a consensus about how much you want to spend and how those costs would break down (accommodation, transit, food, activities, etc).
Ok, but it’s not a perfect world. I know it can be hard to have this chat, especially the money bit, but it really is key to everyone feeling comfortable, having fun, and not feeling uncomfortable, regretful or resentful.
So, what happens if your group’s expectations don’t quite line up? What if one friend wants to stay in 4-star hotels while another has the budget for hostel dorms? Glad you asked! See point 2:
Choose the right friends, the right time, and the right type of trip
The reality is, your budget won’t always match up with your friends’, and that’s ok. We’re all at different places in our lives, have different expectations for our travel experiences, and perceive value differently.
For a start-to-finish trip (ie, you leave from point A together, go to point B together, and return to point A together), choose friends whose budgets and expectations match up closely with yours. If there is a big difference in expectations, consider planning a different itinerary and meeting up in one city for just a few days or a few activities.
If you are the lowest-budget friend:
Trust me, I’ve been there! When you’re traveling for a year but your friend is on a 3-day weekend, you’ll probably have different budget expectations. Just be up-front, plan for it, and set expectations so your friend won’t feel disappointed if you need to turn down certain activities, and you won’t feel pressures to over-spend or guilty for missing out.
- Share your budget early on. I try to say something like “I’m traveling long-term so I’m sure my budget is different than yours. I usually stay in Airbnbs and cook most of my meals at home. My going-out budget is much more “corner pub” and less “ballin’ in Vegas”. Is that ok with you?” I’ll still make concessions and allow for a lot more spending money for the days I’m with friends, but it’s important to set expectations because my “high” budget will probably be lower than what they would expect, or what they would have spent if they didn’t think about it.
- Take the lead on suggesting destinations and activities that work within your budget
- Share an Airbnb. If you’re traveling as a group this is often one of the most budget-friendly options. Discuss how much you’d like to spend per person per night, and take the lead in finding 2-3 properties within your price range that could work and ask the group which they prefer. It’s nice to “live” in a house together (feels like college!), plus having a kitchen makes it easier to cook and have few drinks at home rather than going out all the time. If you’re trying to minimize restaurant bills, offer to cook!
- Food, food, food: food is a game-changer for any budget, so take the initiative and suggest cooking at home or picnics when appropriate. Check out Groupon deals for restaurants. Plan which specific meals to have at home (“how about we have dinner at my place on Thursday? I’ll make lasagna” Offer to cook! Buy beer!) and which meals and activities to go out for.
- When eating or drinking out, unless everyone is having roughly the same thing, suggest each having your own tab so everyone pays for just what they order. This way everyone can order what they want guilt-free.
- Plan time apart: if you can’t agree on accommodation or think you’ll get sick of each other after too many days, consider different accommodation and just meeting up for some activities. This is a good idea anyway so that everyone has their space, but also allows you to join the activities and meals that are important to you and skip the rest
- Remember that your friends will probably be relieved to spend less. I think we tend to imagine that our friends want to spend much more than us, or feel guilty for “making” them spend less (because less money means less fun, right??), but the reality is that unless they’re saving TONS of money every month (hint: they’re probably not), they’ll be relieved to have a blast with you without killing their bank account.
If you are the highest-budget friend:
Be understanding of your friend’s budget, and try to be flexible. When suggesting a restaurant or activity, try to tell estimate the cost for them and propose lower-budget options if possible. They’ll appreciate it!
How to split expenses:
When appropriate, have everyone pay their own tab. For example, when we went to Nabu in Las Vegas, we each ordered whatever we wanted and paid our own bills, so everyone could get what they wanted and spend what they wanted.
Find a simple way of splitting group expenses fairly. In this case, I’m talking about any bill you would want to split evenly, say groceries, beer, or a lunch where everyone has almost the same plate and we split a bottle of wine.
For splitting group expenses, you can go either the cash route or the plastic route.
The cash method is: everyone puts the same amount of cash into an envelope. Use the money from the envelope to pay for group expenses. Great for relatively low spending (less than $100-200 per person) or places where cards aren’t commonly accepted. Also great for keeping track of how much you spent- if you started the day with $200 and have $50 left, then you definitely spent $150, regardless of what you remember. Only works for expenses split evenly within the group (each person owes an equal share of the bill)
The plastic method: use an app like “Splitwise” to keep track of what everyone paid for and their share of each bill. Can be a bit complicated and you need to remember to enter everything you paid for and each person’s share of the bill. Great for larger budgets, places where you pay by card, or if some bills need to split unevenly.
DON’T do this: “I paid for the groceries, you paid for the lunch, she paid for the rental car, but then I also paid for the gas so… if you two split the cab we should be about even.” Seriously, this method seems simple at first, but in the end, each person feels like they paid for more than everyone else. It’s a disaster and no one knows where they stand. Try to avoid this!
Challenging but worth it!
I hope this will help you plan your next group travel budget. I love meeting up with friends on the road, I find that spending a few days together (especially when things go wrong, especially when you get lost or caught in the rain, especially when you drink $3 rum on the beach instead of going to a fancy nightclub), it makes for a much deeper connection than just meeting up for a few hours at a time back home.
Setting expectations for the budget can seem daunting at first, but when everything matches up it makes for an irreplaceable experience. Enjoy!