How to estimate travel expenses

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Whether planning business travel expenses or a vacation budget for the family, knowing how to estimate travel expenses really helps you stick to your travel budget.

We use this step by step guide, Our TRAVEL COST ESTIMATOR, to determine trip costs including car rental or flights, hotel expenses, food and activities. For business or corporate travel, a tool like this helps with expense management.

The example in this article uses vacation trip planning, factoring in entertainment costs which would not be needed for business travel.

Be sure to download our FREE travel cost estimator to use for your own travel planning.

When calculating travel expenses, we estimate the cost of each aspect of the trip to determine the final budget. Knowing the budget we have to work with saves time when making final reservations and plans. Online tools make it a lot easier to estimate prices to help us save on travel.

How to determine a vacation budget

When you estimate travel costs ahead of time, it’s easier to make vacation planning decisions.

Using this tool to set your vacation budget helps you keep travel costs in line with what you really plan to spend.

Step one is deciding the type of vacation you want and where to go. Step two is figuring out how much it will cost.

If planning a vacation budget is new to you, it might seem overwhelming at first. But, I promise, after you do it once, it’s easy! And the peace of mind you get from knowing you can afford your vacation? Priceless! So let’s look at how to calculate travel costs of your vacation.

I’ll be using a 5 day vacation example through the whole thing to help you see how it works.

There are lots of travel resources online that make it easy to estimate travel expenses.

We have a page dedicated to the travel resources we use to plan our own trips, which you can use. Each of these travel resource tools is free to use!

Visit our TRAVEL RESOURCES page to start planning your trip!

Step by step travel cost planning

So, you know where you want to go. Let’s figure out how much this vacation is going to cost.

Travel costs: How much will it cost to get there?

The first thing to consider when planning vacation is how to get there.

When I plan a vacation more than a one day drive from home (10 car hours), I compare the vacation expenses of driving to the vacation expenses of flying.

We actually enjoy road trip travel, so ten hours in the car isn’t too bad. But, sometimes, when you weigh out all travel expenses, flying is actually cheaper than driving, particularly for smaller families.

How do you calculate travel costs by car?

There are several questions to consider when calculating road trip costs:

  1. Will you have a rental car or be driving your own vehicle? If you’ll be using a car rental, estimate the cost. (For business travel, ask your tax professional which is best for your situation.) Here’s a great rental car savings site!
  2. How much will gas cost. I used to calculate this myself, but the Fuel Economy Trip Calculator from the US EPA is a whole lot easier! Answer a few questions, and it calculates road trip gas costs for you.
  3. Then add in costs for toll roads if needed. This link helps make that easy.  
  4. Add in the cost of meals during road trip travel.
    • We calculate $25/person for all day road trips (2 meals), unless we pack a cooler to save on food costs. Remember to calculate costs for getting home, too.
  5. Add overnight hotel lodging (if needed for the length of the trip). We use hotel savings sites to book inexpensive rooms along our route to keep this travel expense down.
  6. Consider the cost of parking your car during your trip. In major cities, you’ll likely have to pay to park your car even at the hotel, so it helps to budget that cost in.

Once you have each of these numbers, add them up for a good road trip cost estimate.

How do you calculate air travel costs?

To decide if it might be better to fly to your destination, also consider the time involved. If you only have a few days, it might be better to fly so you have more time to enjoy at your destination. For corporate travel, knowing air travel costs is helpful to determine business travel expenses.

Here’s the step by step process to determine air travel costs:

  1. Calculate the cost of round trip airfare to your destination.
    • Time of day can affect cost — Early morning and late evening flights tend to be cheaper, if that time of day works for your travel needs.
    • Different airlines have different prices — Finding an airline with a direct hub to your destination is often cheaper (and quicker) than if you need to make connections.
    • Consider costs from nearby airports — Sometimes you can save a lot by traveling a bit further from home. Years ago, we flew to Paris from Washington, DC (5 hours from our home) because it saved us more than $1,000 on airfare. On a trip where every dollar mattered, that was a huge savings!
  2. Add in the cost of checked luggage. (Airlines charge $25-$50 for each checked bag unless you get a free checked bag as a perk with an affiliated credit card. I use American Express to get free checked luggage on Delta, which has a hub at my home airport.)
  3. Factor in daily parking at the airport. I use $10/day for easy math.
  4. Add in the cost of airport transfers to the hotel or the cost of rental car for the trip.

Once you estimate each of these four costs, total them up for a good estimate of travel flight costs.

You would use the same process for train tickets and public transportation instead of flights and car rental/airport transfers. When we go to New York City, we use public transportation and save a lot of money over car transfers or rental cars!

Where you stay on vacation can have a great impact on your vacation budget.

Consider a variety of hotel options as you calculate travel costs: hotel brands, amenities offered and location related to what you want to do when deciding your vacation budget.

Using a hotel comparison site like Trivago, you can quickly compare hotels to find the best one for your needs.

AN EXAMPLE: We are taking a cruise vacation, and want to stay at a hotel the night before the cruise. We considered hotels near the cruise port in Tampa, but the cheapest we found was close to $300 per night. We looked at hotels about an hour away (along our road trip travel route), and found an overnight stay for about $120, including a full hot breakfast. The hour drive to the cruise port won’t be hard the morning of the cruise, and we save about $180!

When you estimate travel expenses, remember resort fees. Some hotels charge a daily resort fee, especially hotels that offer extra amenities like a lazy river, playgrounds or sauna. Many hotels charge a daily fee for WiFi and/or parking. Add those costs to your travel expenses worksheet.

Here’s an example in a post I wrote about hotels near Carowinds. It’s a detailed example of what I do when selecting hotels for my personal family vacation. And, when you see hotel recommendations on this site, I try to include the information you need to quickly determine if it’s a good fit for your trip.

You might not be able to estimate food costs exactly, but you can calculate travel costs for dining based on how you usually spend money at restaurants.

  • If your family spends $100 when you eat out, budget $100 for every meal you will be eating at a restaurant.
  • If you eat quick meals on the go and/or carry snacks, you might be able to budget less.
  • And, if you like to enjoy a bottle of wine or a couple of beers at dinner, the costs go up.
  • Simply put: You know your restaurant spending habits. Use that number to calculate vacation expenses for dining.

As a general rule (before 2022 when food costs skyrocketed), we factor $100/day for a family of four if breakfast is included at the hotel. We usually grab quick meals between sightseeing adventures on vacation and plan only one or two “nice” restaurant meals.

We increase it to $150/day if breakfast is not included. In major cities and at theme parks, we increase our budget by $50/day for a total of $200/day.

Look at theme park restaurant menus or do an internet search of restaurants at your destination if you have specific restaurants in mind.

What do you plan to do on vacation? Make a list and estimate costs for tickets and parking.

Consider these attraction costs:

  • Theme park tickets (multiday tickets are cheaper than single day tickets),
  • Theater tickets
  • Game tickets (NFL, MLB, etc)
  • Concert tickets
  • Museum admission costs
  • National park admission fees
  • Bike, kayak, or other adventure rental costs
  • Ferry costs
  • Mass transit costs (subway or metro tickets)

There are lots of ways to save on the cost of attraction tickets. We use them for all our vacations to save big on the cost of attractions:

  • UndercoverTourist: This is a great site to save on theme park tickets, especially in Orlando and Los Angeles. I always check here for theme park tickets. (We saved about $400 using UndercoverTourist on a trip to Universal Orlando compared to what we would have paid directly back in 2018).
  • CityPASS: Use CityPASS to save up to 50% on attraction admission in major cities. We have used CityPASS in Atlanta, New York City, San Francisco and Tampa. It’s the first place I check for big city travel savings.
  • GetYourGuide: This is a tour site I like to use to save on food tours, adventure tours and city tours. GetYourGuide offers some of the best tour options at a savings compared to rack rate. It has United States and international offerings, and can be good for cruise shore excursions, too.
  • TripAdvisor: If you aren’t sure what you want to do, TripAdvisor is a good place to start. See what’s available. But, compare prices before you book! The other links I share tend to save me more than if I book through TripAdvisor.

Once you have decided what you want to do on vacation, total up the cost of all the tickets to get a good estimate of your entertainment costs.

Now that you’ve crunched the numbers for each aspect of vacation, total them up, and that’s your vacation estimate. Don’t forget travel insurance, if you think you’ll need it.

If the total cost is higher than you want to spend, look at your options to see how you can save. Like I explained above, we cut our air travel costs to Paris by $1,000 by choosing a different airport with a direct flight. Or, see if you can get discount tickets to save on attractions.

With this vacation cost estimator, you can adjust to save on travel costs if you need to. Or, if you have a dream trip in mind, you can use this tool to plan and budget for it.

As promised, here is your FREE Vacation Cost Estimator Tool! <– click on that and it will open! Use it to calculate travel expenses for your vacation, and you’ll know your vacation budget before you go.