The Goldilocks Number: Why $50 a Day is Just Right

By Nomadic Matt | Published February 11th, 2013

how to travel the world nomadic mattLast Tuesday, my book How to Travel the World on $50 a Day was released, and a lot of people seemed to wonder whether $50 per day was “extravagant” or just the right amount. I got asked questions like “Can it be done cheaper?” “Why $50?” and “What does that number include?”

Today, I want to talk about exactly that subject and magic number.

To answer those questions, let’s first talk about where that number comes from. I didn’t pick it out of hat! There’s a reason why it’s $50 a day and not $49, 37, or 69.50! Fifty dollars is a rolling average for a world trip that not only includes day-to-day expenses but also the cost of flights, travel insurance, your backpack, your gear, and special tourist discount cards.

That works out to be $18,250 USD for EVERYTHING. It’s all-inclusive. A lot of times when people say “You can travel Europe for $20 a day,” they are only including day to day expenses.

I include everything because it’s the only way to give an accurate answer to the question “How much do you really need?”

Now, I want to break that total down further.

First, let’s discuss pre-trip expenses. There aren’t a lot of big expenses before you go away, but there are some:

  • 1 year travel insurance policy – $1,000
  • Flights – $2,700
  • A decent backpack – $200
  • ISIC (students/youth), YHA (hostel), VIP (backpacker) discount cards – $100

Note: The flight figure assumes you use budget airlines and rewards points to lower your expenses. If you don’t, you’re going to pay a lot more and waste a ton of money!

Before we even go, we’re looking at spending $4,000. That’s a large figure, but it takes care of all our sunken costs and on the road, the discount cards save us money on attractions, accommodation, and transportation. Averaging that amount over a year, we get about $11 per day.

Next, let’s talk about expenses on the road, because this is where you are going to spend the majority of your money. In my book, I included the most popular destinations people visit on a round the world trip. Based on my travel experience, this is what I’ve found to be a good daily budget in each region:

  • South America – $30 per day x 90 days = $2,700
  • Europe (assuming a mix of Western and Eastern Europe) – $50 per day x 90 days = $4,500
  • Southeast Asia – $25 per day x 90 days = $2,250
  • Australia – $55 per day x 60 days = $3,300
  • New Zealand – $50 per day x 30 days = $1,500

Total price = $14,250 USD

Adding both those numbers gives us exactly $18,250 USD — or $50 USD per day.

Will you actually be spending $50 USD everyday? No. If you’re spending $50 a day in Thailand, I’ll find you and slap sense into you. You’re spending way too much! If you spend $50 a day in Norway, you’re doing great.

$50 per day is the amount you should budget to have a cheap but active trip that allows you to experience the places you go without blowing a ton of money.

Doing it Cheaper than $50

how to travel the world nomadic mattI often hear statements like “I did Australia for $20 per day” or “I only spent $12 a day in this country.”
I wonder a few things when I hear that:

  1. Where did you go?
  2. What did you do?
  3. Does that include your total expenses, or just your daily?

If you’re traveling to cheaper regions of the world, you won’t need nearly as much. If you are sitting in your hostel eating pasta, you can travel very cheap. If you decide not to include your flights in your daily budget, you can trick yourself into thinking you’re spending less.

Can you travel for less than $50? Of course! I spent $30 USD per day in Holland when I was staying with friends and cooking all my own meals. And if you decide to camp, hitchhike, or never drink, your expenses can be cut even further.

Ultra cheap travel is doable, but, for most people, not sustainable over the long term.

This book isn’t about being a cheapskate – it’s about being frugal and finding value. Too many travelers equate cheap with budget. Sometimes they have such a myopic view, they miss the forest through the trees. In my view, traveling the world on $10 a day just to say you did it is dumb. Travel and budget enough to experience the things that brought you to that country in the first place!

After all, what would be the point of saving all that money to then visit Italy and not see the David or eat a great pizza and drink delicious wine?

Using the plethora of savings tips and tricks in my book, you can lower your spending to less than $50. I’ll show you how I, with ninja-like precision, use various discount cards, city cards, transportation passes, and hospitality services to lower my expenses without sacrificing comfort.

Traveling the world on $50 a day is about a philosophy as much as it is about a specific number. If you just focus on that number, you’ll miss the entire point of the book — which is to get you to travel cheaper, longer, and smarter.

It’s about bringing your total expenses down to as little as possible while still finding value, having fun, and checking items off that bucket list of yours.

comments 34 Comments

“This book isn’t about being a cheapskate – it’s about being frugal and finding value.” << I LOVE this quote. *Finding value* is really what budget traveling is all about, cutting down costs on airfare, food, and lodging to make way for the things that you really care about doing or seeing.

This reminds me a lot of a similar conflict in the minimalism blogosphere. Lots of people like to brag about “Oh, I only own 50 items,” but the point of minimalism isn’t to show off how little you own or how empty your schedule is, but to *make way for the things that matter*.

Great reminder. I’m looking forward to picking up your book this summer when I’m back home stateside!

NomadicMatt

Great! I hope you love it!

I really wish there were budget airlines that operated out of Canada. It’s pretty much impossible to find these cheap flights leaving from my province. *sigh*

If all I did was go to work and home, my own regular life is $37/day (cheap mortgage, heat, car insurance, house insurance, $75/month in gas and $150/month in groceries). I usually end up budgeting $50/day just for food when I travel (N.America/Europe)! lol It’s nice to know that it can be done for cheaper though.

NomadicMatt

Yeah, Canadians get screwed. There’s only WestJet and Air Canada.

I completely agree Matt. I am very anal about tracking my expenses, and I always find that I can make my overall expenses around $50 per day. In Europe a bit more, in South America less. Of course, this varies a lot depending on your itinerary, but it’s a completely reasonable goal!

Tamara

Hi Matt, I really like your website and all the tips, so I’m very interested in buying your book, BUT it’s not available for UK Amazon and I can’t download it from US Amazon. :(

Will it be possible any time soon?

Thanks

NomadicMatt

Tamara,

That’s up to the publisher and the world of foreign rights. I’m working on it!

Matt

I usually come out between $35-$50 per day too. One thing that’s good about getting old is that if you invested in quality stuff, you don’t need to buy new gear. I’ve had the same North Face backpack since 1992 and it still rocks. So, that’s $200 more I get to spend sightseeing.

NomadicMatt

Yeah! Before South African Airlines lost my bag, I had it for 8 years!

I have been in Canada for the last 2 years and have not travelled as much as I wanted to during this time due to the price of flights here. $600 return flight from Toronto to Vancouver is just not worth it. It’s on to Europe now thankfully.

Must say $50 pretty much works for me too, I don’t stay in hostels but that’s paying for a double room in Asia. I’ve had a lifetime membership for YHA for many years. too. My pack is over 10 years old

You forgot to mention injections -although I don’t usually pay for travel insurance (its covered by our credit card) the visit to travel doc can cost a few hundred depending on what you are due. It’s also more expensive if you haven’t already had things like hep injections which last a lifetime but aren’t cheap.

It is tough to get a decent cheap internal flights in Canada…but it is do-able. Depending on where you are, it can be cheaper to take a bus/train to the US and fly that way. You just have to weigh the cost vs time ratio. Everyone has their own formula for that…but if you are close enough to the border, it can be worth it!

Great thing about Canada is the majority of people live near the border therefore it’s easy to cross into the US and take advantage of cheap flights.

Really great article and philosophy. We sent some link love your way here. Thanks for the interesting read!

NomadicMatt

Thanks!

Agreed – I had heard that one could do Cambodia for less than I did ($30/day) but they didn’t include cost of getting there, the cost of the visa, travel insurance, the expensive entry ticket into Angkor Wat. Of course my food and accommodation were less than $30/day, but there’s more to it than that!

But Matt, how often does one set out to travel the entire world, and plan the exact amount of time in each place? Personally I try not to plan that much but I understand that some people would do. However, I would say most people’s trips only target one continent at a time. e.g my last one was Asia and I successfully traveled for 5 months on $15 per day (and had a lot of fun!) but I’m about to go to the Caribbean for which I’m budgeting $50 per day. I suppose as a book pitch your ‘Travel the world for $50 a day’ makes a neat subject, but breaking it down by continent, as I think you do, is much more useful.

NomadicMatt

“How to travel Asia on X, Europe on Y, Australia on Z, etc etc” makes for a long title! :)

Yes $50 per day is the magic number, but some countries like in South East Asia might be cheaper and some countries in the Eurozone are definitely more expensive but on average, this is a good number. I try to travel as much on countries where $50 can go a long way for a day.

Wil

That’s a good place to set my income goals.

I’m trying my hand at being a digital nomad starting in April. I’m headed to SEAsia with some savings and royalties (from writing) currently averaging ~$13 a day. I’ll aim to be making $50/day (+ taxes) by years end so I can perpetuate my travels.

NomadicMatt

$13 a day is hard even in Southeast Asia. Good luck!

Excellent post, Matt! I really hate running into travelers who automatically operate under the guise that cheapest is best, especially when this means that they saved all this money to see the world and their stinginess prevents them from actually doing that. For my husband and I, one of the best things (and most important things!) about traveling is getting to eat the local food. This may mean we are spending more money than if we self-catered (though in places like Asia, the difference in cost really seems negligible!), but that expense is worth it to us. Like you say, we didn’t travel all the way to Japan to eat ramen… ok bad, example, we did, but you take my point! ;)

I also don’t understand why certain travelers don’t at least take into account their actual traveling costs, whether its planes, trains, buses or otherwise. Those things still cost money, and it would be a bad thing to go on a trip and not account for those costs! I think people sometimes are so enslaved by their “budget” that they fail to remember how averages work… you can spend over $50USD some days, and still wind up with that average budget at the end of your trip so long as you spend less than $50USD on some days too! (And in Asia, you really will! In Malaysia, we are frequently under $50 for TWO people!)

NomadicMatt

Exactly!

I’ve struggled with budgeting while traveling to New Zealand and on my first trip abroad. I definitely didn’t even consider breaking it down per day (idiotically) and I also didn’t bring nearly enough money. I’ll be utilizing some of your awesome trips and try the $50 a day route, next trip is SE Asia and you won’t need to slap me…I’ll budget.

jay

Hey Matt, been following your website for a few years without commenting, all I can say is in europe 50$ a day including everything, even free accomodation is hard.
If you spread your flight price, food, etc.. over a month then 50 $ is realistic.
End of the day I can say you’re dead right

Excellent points. I traveled Australia for $22 a day, but that figure does NOT include the flights or my health insurance. Once I factor in those numbers, my expenses are pretty close to the ones that you’ve outlined.

(For the record, buying a car to four-wheel-drive around the country… And then selling the car at the end of the trip… is much, much cheaper than renting. That move was integral to traveling Australia for a cheaper rate, while simultaneously doing awesome stuff.)

NomadicMatt

Paula, you’re right! I included that tip in the book too!

Rebecca

So I’ve been reading a lot of travel blogs and books, etc. While I think $50 a day is great, I do have a question… about how much do you budget for drinking? I don’t drink because of religious reasons, and so I am wondering how much that would change my expenses. Although chances are I would probably just spend it on something else like extra sightseeing and food :P

For myself its definitely a philosophy or lifestyle choice rather than numbers. Everyone’s going to differ on what they deem as fun and valuable and ultimately what they’re willing to spend for it follows.

I know the budget I spent traveling Europe for the year was considerably low. What makes it more impressive is there’s no guarantee I could replicate it myself let alone give solid advice on how to do the same. The hospitality you meet from fellow travelers and locals, your own appetite for risk/pain/adventure (hitchhiking, urban camping) and good fortune are all situational. The improvisational nature of the experience is what makes it memorable and what personalises our travel.

Great article. Nice point that frugal does not mean cheap.

Matt, how much would you increase the daily budget if traveling as a couple. I don’t think it should necessarily be double the number you came up with. It’s interesting how another person changes the daily expenses dynamic.

Those of us who live near the US border (I live in Vancouver) drive across the border to fly out of the US. It’s ridiculous how much cheaper flights are from the states. Unless I’m flying for work I always fly from Seattle.

NomadicMatt

For sure! Canada has some really high priced flights.

coffeecream

there are really cheap accomodation and if you think you fit into that category then you should be able to spend less than $ 50 a day.

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