I'm an experienced female solo traveler—here are 4 tips I use to be smart about my money on the go
Solo travel is one of my favorite perks of being single. Of course, anyone can book a trip by themselves, but I've found my coupled friends are less likely to leave their significant other at home, and not without reason.
Women historically earn less than men and travel costs are up, like other things, due to inflation.
Plus, like the everyday costs that rack up quickly for singles, solo travel can often be more expensive than going with a companion. That's because hotels and tour operators mostly set room rates based on double occupancy, which means you're often on the hook for a fee intended for two people, even if it's just you.
Smaller pay combined with the so-called "singles tax" can make traveling alone as a woman financially intimidating, but I'm living proof you can have a beautiful adventure without breaking the bank. I've traveled internationally on my own four times over the last few years — to Costa Rica, Tunisia and to Mexico twice.
I'm not alone: Search interest in female solo travel specifically recently hit a 10-year high, according to Google Trends.
These are my top four tips for smarter saving and spending on your next solo trip.
1. Indulge yourself, but don't go overboard
"I'm on vacation" is my preferred excuse to spend more money, and I'm a firm believer that relaxing on your budget is part of the benefit of going on vacation in the first place. I give myself room to do this by planning ahead and setting limits on my indulgences so I don't come back tanned, rested and financially ruined.
Booking hotels, tours and entertainment ahead of time helps me keep my trip spending in check because I'm not tallying up expenses in my head when I'm on the go. I'm able to sit down with my bank account open, add up all the things I want to do and see if I can afford each item or where I need to cut back.
Planning a financially sound getaway might mean making compromises, such as switching to a cheaper hotel so I can spend more on attractions. On my most recent trip to Tunisia, I paid extra for a more comfortable seat on my seven-hour flight. That meant skipping a few souvenirs I might have liked to buy, but the legroom was worth it.
2. Plan an itinerary that lets you spend your time and money how you want
People travel for different reasons, and when you're in a group it can get tricky to make sure everyone gets to do what they want. Solo travel is the opposite — you get to do anything you want. If that means you spend 75% of the trip eating at new restaurants, so be it. But if you'd rather check out the shopping scene, it may mean sticking to low-cost meals.
My solo trip to Tulum, Mexico, last January included plenty of time for lying on the beach, which meant I spent less on excursions and achieved my goal of soaking up as much sun as possible before I went back to New York.
The destination itself might even be a chance for you to save money. If you're less interested in touristy locations than someone you'd otherwise travel with, you might score cheaper flights and accommodations in less frequented spots.
If you don't have your heart set on a specific destination, you can set a budget and explore options that fit into it. I use Google Flights to get inspiration and compare trip prices when I'm not certain where I want to go.
You can input dates or the desired length of your trip and even filter for flights in your price range to see what's available globally.
3. Spend your money strategically
One of my biggest pet peeves when splitting a bill, whether it's for dinner or a few days in an Airbnb, is when my friend offers to pay up front and I pay them back. It's easy enough with all the peer-to-peer payment options available these days, but it means I don't get to rack up airline miles by using my credit card.
It's certainly not the end of the world — it might even save me money on interest if I don't pay off my credit card right away. But I'm greedy when it comes to credit card rewards.
That's another benefit of solo travel — I can pay how I want. When I'm planning a trip and giving myself time to save for it, I use a sinking fund that I store in a high-yield savings account. "Sinking fund" is just a term for savings that you plan to use on a specific thing, as opposed to your emergency fund, which is for the unexpected.
In the past, I've used cash and envelopes labeled "Vacation" or "Tunisia" to stash money for an upcoming trip. Nowadays I keep it mostly in the bank. My bank lets me divide my savings account into "buckets" that function as digital envelopes I can label to motivate me to save.
I aim to save enough for the trip before I start booking, then do all the pre-paying I mentioned using my credit card. I try to pay it off right away with the money from my sinking fund. This way, I get some miles I'll use later, but I'm not carelessly racking up debt.
When I'm on a trip, I try to rely on cash, for several reasons.
- It helps me stay on budget, because I see my money disappear in real time instead of having to log on and check my account.
- I've found that I often pay a better price when paying cash in the local currency than when using a card. It's usually a small percentage difference, but it can add up with a few swipes.
- Debit and credit card accessibility may not be as ubiquitous as in the U.S.
The first time I traveled by myself, I made the mistake of not bringing any cash and learned when I got to my hotel in Cancún that the nearest ATM was not exactly close. I went to three separate gas stations struggling to come up with the Spanish words for ATM before finally finding un cajero automatico.
Thankfully, it wasn't an emergency, and Cancún isn't an ATM desert. But for a directionally challenged, first-time solo traveler, it was a frustrating moment.
4. Paying for peace of mind is almost always worth it
Though I consider myself an experienced traveler, plan ahead and give myself room for error, I still get stressed and anxious about plenty of aspects of a trip. I've missed one flight in my life and the fear of experiencing that again has scarred me.
I've found that if I'm able to reasonably pay for something that is going to ease my worries and allow me to better enjoy my trip, it's worth doing. That might mean taking an Uber to the airport instead of relying on public transportation. For some trips, especially during the pandemic, I've paid for travel insurance in case I got sick and had to extend my stay.
Recently, on an overnight layover in Morocco, it meant paying for a hotel instead of hoping the airline could provide free lodging.
The point is, your trip is an investment. You're aiming to learn something, see something new or experience a new culture — worrying about traffic or delays or even safety can cut into those "returns." It's worth working these kinds of costs into your budget.
Expect the unexpected — even while you're on vacation. One last tip: Make sure your emergency fund is in good shape before you go booking a flight.
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