California. One of the most visited — and most expensive — states in the country.
Three girlfriends and I spent seven months planning a wine tour in Sonoma and Napa Valley for August of this year. The trip would span almost ten days, cost several hundred dollars, and consist of many of the stereotypical tourist activities.
Unfortunately, I made several frustrating mistakes in the days leading up to and during the vacation that ultimately cost me money and exceeded my budget.
Here’s what I learned and how to avoid those mistakes in the future.
1. Voice Your Opinion
My first mistake was not voicing my opinion. I told my friends they could choose where we went and what we were going to do when we got there.
They chose to go on expensive wine tours in (expensive) Napa Valley, followed by an expensive trip to San Francisco. It was entirely my fault for not making my budget needs to be known to my friends, and for assuming I’d be able to afford the trip.
2. Research Cost
Though my airline points paid for my flight, and my friend’s hotel points paid for accommodations for all, I did not plan well for the expense of the wine tours, the cost of a bottle of wine ($30-40 per bottle is considered cheap in Napa Valley), the cost of food, the cost of transportation (rental car and Ubers), and the fact that my friends had different budgets than I did.
Naturally, the three of us who got to reap the benefits of Laura’s hotel points covered her meals two or three times, and every other time we ate out, the cost of each meal was split evenly between the four of us to make it easier on the waitstaff. This meant that despite the fact that I made a conscious effort not to buy an expensive entree or not to partake in a second drink, I ended up paying the same as my friends who did order those things.
Still, I didn’t say anything to them about the way we were splitting the bills, and their lack of awareness grated on me.
This is why we should be open with our travel companions about our budget expectations and what they can do to accommodate your needs.
Traveling with other people means compromise. This compromise shouldn’t come from you alone, but you can’t expect your friends to be mind-readers. Talk to them about your budget concerns before the trip, and speak up if you’re uncomfortable with something.
Bonus: Click here to get you first Uber ride free
3. Consider What Kind of Trip You Want
I also had to come to terms with the fact that my friends travel differently than I do.
If I’d visited San Francisco alone, I probably would have stayed in a hostel in a more chill district such as Haight Street, but instead, we stayed in a nice hotel in the business district.
As a result, I did not feel as much of a connection to San Francisco as I have to other cities I’ve visited on my own.
Related: Why I’m 30 and Still Stay at Hostels
4. Consider the Big Picture
The biggest mistake I made was assuming I’d be making decent money at my new job in real estate by the time we left for the trip. Real estate comes with A LOT of startup costs; luckily (or unluckily, depending on how you look at it), I had some savings, but that money quickly dwindled as I struggled to support myself and continued to pay to work as a real estate agent.
What I learned most from this big mistake was not to book an expensive vacation if your income source is on uncertain ground. Even though I booked the trip five or six months in advance, there was no way I could be sure I’d be on even footing when the time came to leave. And, in fact, I wasn’t. Not only that, but I had picked up two other part-time jobs and had to work the trip around them.
5. Consider How Much Your Time is Worth
It’s also important to consider if you will have to take unpaid time off from work (the case for many of us in service industry jobs). That’s money you won’t be earning while you’re away. So if your budget is $500 for your trip, and you’re missing three eight-hour days at $15/hour after tax ($360), your actual budget is only $140.
In today’s world of credit cards and rewards programs, the modern consumer wants instant gratification. We want to grab that last-minute deal, now! We figure we’ll deal with paying it back after the vacation, that we deserve this break, that everyone on our newsfeed can afford it, so why can’t we?
And maybe we do deserve a break, but we do not deserve to get stuck in debt. We deserve to take a vacation where we can relax instead of spending the entire time stressing about money. This is why it’s so important to consider your income stream, its reliability, and any other big payments you might have coming up before booking that expensive vacation.
Making the Tough Decision
A few weeks after I returned from California, another good friend invited me to New Orleans for Halloween weekend. I checked flights and I had enough points to cover it, but as we hashed out sleeping arrangements, it turned out that my budget needs and expectations were very different from those of my friends’.
I was willing to stay in hostel-style accommodation, but some of my friends were insistent on having private rooms in a shared house. I could see a similar disparity in the amount I’d have to pay (an equal split of the vacation house), and what I’d actually get (probably a couch). Not to mention I was still paying off the money I’d spent in California.
Despite how much I wanted to see my friends, how much I wanted to visit New Orleans, and how much I felt I deserved a break, I decided not to go. Instead, I’ve opted to visit another friend in Charleston, SC. It’s within driving distance so I won’t have to take off as much time from work, and accommodations will be paid for (her house).
In the meantime, I’m turning off my Facebook feed and focusing on my bills.
Hayley Swinson is an American writer and traveler. She loves slow travel and has lived abroad in Scotland, France, and Canada. She has a Master’s in Creative Writing: Prose from the University of Edinburgh, and is currently living in Wilmington, North Carolina. In her free time, she practices Japanese jujutsu and rock climbs.
Read more of her work on her website, hayleyswinsonwriter.com, or follow her on Instagram: @hhswinson or Twitter: @hayleyswinson.