5 Must-Do Travel Splurges (Even If You’re Really Broke)

When are travel splurges worth it? I've been to 36 countries and it's always budget travel. Click through for the 5 things I always spend money on!
It’s hard to know when travel splurges are truly worth it, isn’t it? Honestly, sometimes when I’m traveling through an expensive country I get into the nasty habit of compulsively checking my bank balance.
And then checking the exchange rate.
And then thinking “You know what? I’ll just make some spaghetti for dinner. Again.”

5 Travel Splurges Worth the Money 

1. A good traditional meal

Currasco in Brazil. Whitebait in New Zealand. A crayfish party in Sweden. Maybe they’re not super cheap (or they’re certainly more expensive than street vendor food) but you won’t find a more delicious version of these once you’re stateside and a real, traditional meal is a memory and experience on to itself.

2. One or two nights of decent lodging

Fact about me: after 15 years and 32 countries worth of travel, I’ve only ever had two cryfest breakdowns. They were both directly related to me being tired, hungry, dirty and then finding myself in cold, dirty, unwelcoming lodgings. That business will break a person, you guys.
If you’re traveling for months at a time, grubby hotels and hostel dorms rooms will begin to make you hate life. At least once a month, splash out on a room someplace clean and pretty. Someplace that provides towels, reliable hot water, and wifi. You will emerge transformed. I promise.

3. A local sim card and pay-as-you-go plan

This doesn’t really count as a ‘splurge’ since a local sim card usually costs less than $5 and pay-as-you-go plans cost about $20. A lot of travelers are too intimidated to buy a local sim card, so they either stop using their phones or pay one million dollars to text internationally. Don’t.
In most countries, you can buy sim cards at any corner store and then you can text all your friends back home about how you went to a club under a bridge in Stockholm.

4. One or two experiences you can only have there

You can go shopping and drinking and dancing anywhere. But what about going to an elephant sanctuary? Or swimming with wild dolphins? Or seeing the salt flats of Bolivia?
These experiences are usually pretty expensive (because they’re awesome and everyone wants to do them) but they’re also once-in-a-lifetime happenings. Suck it up and pay. You will be so, so glad you did.

5. A unique-to-that-country, locally made souvenir

I occasionally get all bad-attitude-y about souvenirs. “But what does it doooooo? And where am I going to put it?” And then I get home and realize I have one thing (one!) to commemorate six weeks spent in Europe.
I’ve found the best souvenirs are the ones you really, truly can’t get anywhere else. Maybe that’s a Brazilan blow dart gun, a cannibal fork from Fiji, or super weird Japanese stationary. Buy something you love and that you can’t find at Pier 1.
How do you splash out when you’re traveling? Do you ever get overly budget-minded and miss out on awesome stuff?
photos by Pura Comunicação and Jakob Owens // cc

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  1. Naomi

    My travel splurges besides the local meal (and the time I finally caved and bought the dirndl after so many months in Bavaria) are amazing museums/galleries and pastries!

  2. World Traveler In Training

    An alternative to the local SIM card is to get a texting app for your smartphone or similar device (I use Pinger EX on my ipod touch) that will assign you a phone number. On the upside, it's free, your number won't change county to country and if you're an expat like me it's a great way to text people back home. On the downside, you need to have wireless internet access which can vary dramatically from country to country.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Soooo helpful! Thanks for sharing!

    • Mirella

      WhatsApp and Viber are my favourites!

  3. Jessica R.

    I hear you on the night or two of decent lodging. I went to Japan a few years ago with a friend and we saved by spending the night in hostels, most of which were very nice. But we arrived in Tokyo to a run down hostel with NO doors, cramped quarters in a questionable part of town and I just could not handle it. We hiked it 10 blocks or so with our luggage to a nice hotel and enjoyed one night of privacy with a bath tub, towels and a phone in our room I had people call me internationally on. It was a heaven sent break.

  4. Kindra

    Yes to decent lodging! We usually splash out on a nice place at the end of our stay.

  5. DaniellaBella

    I think definitely to the local meal because food is partly how you come to know a culture. And also little treats like a creamy rich hot chocolate in Slovakia or a massage in Vietnam. Something cheap but that makes you feel a bit special…

  6. Jessica

    Decent hotel/lodging indeed!
    I have, though, foregone on the cheapest places already. My friend wanted to travel through India on a shoestring-budget. I'm sure that there are nice places but this was in Kerala, hostels were crammed and one tiiiny fan was supposed to create some air circulation.

    Eating locally is also very nice. And be sure to get what's in season. If you're in Germany over christmas, then eat christmas-y Foods until you can have no more. ANd I like souvenirs. Perhaps not the keychains with the name of the city on it (people actually collect those!) but stuff that I know will remind me of that place forever.

    If you want a Swedish crayfish party in Sweden; they're a traditional early to mid-August thing. There used to be fishing regulations on crayfish. The same weekend you could begin to fish them for the season is when people threw parties.

  7. ellept

    You are SO right about accomodations! I've had that breakdown too… Prague. Ugh.
    I like your souvenir advice too. I started looking for jewelry or clothing as souvenirs… scarves, small things from local artists or boutiques. Then when someone asks where I got those great earrings, "These? O, years ago at this tiny shop in an alley in Sevilla." And suddenly you're back there in the late afternoon summer sun wandering through the old town…

  8. Amy

    I totally agree with this. When we planned our trip to Paris, I tried to be as frugal as possible, but my boyfriend's family has always held the travel motto, "You're already there, you might as well have a good time." When we were in France, we rented a place and bought a Metro pass to avoid taxis, but we made sure to splurge on good food and daily pastries, as well as a few really amazing meals out (we love food!).

    • Amanda

      I'm going to try to keep that motto in mind! Thanks, Amy! (And also thank you for linking to Sarah's blog last week! I'm happy I found it!)

  9. EcoGrrl

    Fantastic advice.

    Completely agree with finding a decent place to stay. I'm doing just that when I head to Melbourne on holiday next month. There's nothing like a stinky room or a bed that gives you a sore back to ruin your adventuring. I've found the TripAdvisor reviews to be invaluable 🙂

    It's amazing how hard it can be to find souvenirs that are actually made in the country, much less the town, you are in! I was in a very small town in northern Scotland a few years ago and the one shop in town had nothing non-perishable that I could take back with me. Ultimately, my photographs were my great souvenirs 🙂

  10. toliveinspired

    Great reminders. I don't travel often but have some coming up this year and next (hopefully!) The thing I always get when I am traveling is a piece of jewelry from there, something I know I will continue to keep wearing.

  11. Kim

    Great list, and I totally agree with every point!

    One thing I would say though, is that sometimes a local meal doesn't even break the bank. When I was in Hong Kong, the food over there was *so cheap* compared to at home that it really was a surprisingly inexpensive experience.

    I'm hopefully going back to Australia this year, and hope to do some more 'once in a life time' experiences while I'm there. I didn't get to see any wild kangaroos last time, so that's one giant box I want to tick!

  12. Stefan, Sarah and Lukka

    I so agree with this. I have never had a travel longer than 3 weeks, so the sim card–never done that. I've almost always had access, at least once, at a wifi joint or something that I can communicate that I'm still alive and well.
    I *really* agree with the "at least one night in a nice place", it's so true.
    Love your lists 🙂
    Sarah M

  13. Jen

    I grabbed the last ticket of the evening for a performance of Ian McKellen in King Lear on a trip to London. It was way out of my league, budget-wise, so I walked away from the ticket window initially. Then I wandered down the street for a while, changed my mind, and ran back, action-movie styles. Best eighty dollars I ever spent.

  14. Linda

    Love this list. Depending on where I'm at, I like visiting a local salon to get something new done to my hair. Or I bring back local skincare, perfume, soap – something I can only get there and I can use everyday to remind me of the trip.

  15. Jenny

    I always come back with something small I didn't pack on purpose (sometimes strategically) that I will use both abroad and at home (nail clippers, pair of extra shoes, scarf)- and when I need to buy them it becomes a scavenger hunt! My hope is to gradually replace all necessary items with much beloved reminders of a stay.
    It's even part of the experience to accept globalization. My Guatemalan nail clippers were made in India, and maybe I'd rather have an Italian made sweater from Lisbon than a take-home bottle of port. Better to have useful things you love than crap you just can't part with but doesn't serve you.

  16. Alisha

    Great list!

    Totally agree re the decent lodging. There's just something nice about being able to chill on a big bed, leave your room for the evening and not have to lock your things up in a locker, and leaving the bedsheets for someone else to deal with. Plus, with all the cheap websites around these days, sometimes it isn't that much of a splurge!

    And the souvenirs – agree! I always try and buy a little something from somewhere that means something to me. I try and keep it simple, as I don't want to think it's gaudy trash in five years time.

  17. adventuresandtea7

    A great post! I definitely splurge on the last two almost all the time! The others just not so often! 😛 There's just something about having a unique souvenir to a place that fondly reminds you of it.

  18. Sarah

    I especially agree with #4 – local experiences. I have to constantly remind myself that the reason that I spent all the other money (plane tickets and lodging and time off from work) is to be there and do the stuff you can do there. It seems like I am always arguing with myself, whether it is about an opera ticket in Budapest or paragliding in the Alps. Sure I could go to the opera at home, but I don't. There are lots of places to paraglide, but will I get to look at the Alps as I do it?
    Sometimes on a trip I feel like I am hemorrhaging money, and so I try to slow it down with cutting out some expensive experiences. Yes, hanging out in a sidewalk cafe was awesome (and cheap), but it was a distant second choice to the monkey circus ticket that I decided not to buy.

  19. Melanie Taylor

    The only international travel I've done was a month-long study abroad program (mostly Spain, a few days in Paris) in college, so I wasn't in control of some aspects, but I absolutely regret #1 and #5. We were broke college kids so we stuck to the cheapest food we could find. I wish we'd searched out local specialties, even if they did cost a little more.

    And I kick myself all the time for not buying an olive dish (similar to this: http://www.hotpaella.com/Products/Clay-Olive-Serving-Dish__CP100.aspx). They sold them everywhere. They weren't that expensive. I really wanted one. But, for whatever reason, I left without it. It's definitely iconic of Spain and evenings spent in the plaza mayor.

  20. marleisa.com

    I go on an 'overseas' holiday every year. I always aim to buy a gift for my house from every country I visit. That way I have a souvenir to remember the trip by (a canvas painting, a Turkish rug that hangs on the wall, a hand made floor rug from Tibet, statues etc. People always comment on them when they come to my house and I love that I get to talk about my travels again!

  21. Anonymous

    My number one travel splurge – paying to get your laundry done properly. After weeks of budget travel and washing EVERYTHING in sinks, fork out for one big load of laundry at a launderette or laundry service. Such luxury!

  22. Anonymous

    I really don't understand the SIM card thing. Maybe someone could explain in simple terms, s'vousplait. Do you actually pop yours out of your phone and replace with a local one? And then you can automatically text to anywhere? I contacted AT&T before going abroad and they wanted to sell me on an international plan but I knew that the roaming minutes would add up way too much, so I just used wifi whenever it was available and sent e-mail or sometimes Facebook messenger to send immediate notes. But it was sometimes hard to find wifi, and not everyone I know (like my parents) was on FB.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Yup, usually you buy a new sim card for $3-10 and then buy some phone time ($5-15) from the same corner store. Usually you scratch some stuff off the back of the card, go to a specific website, punch in your details, and then it'll be activated.

      It sounds a bit intimidating but I've done it in multiple countries – even non-English speaking ones and used Google translate to figure out the instructions on the back of the card 🙂

  23. Anonymous

    One time, in Chartres, I was in a shop and did not buy the gargoyle because I did not want to spend the $3. I continues to obsess about it until, ten years later, I went back when I was taking my Mom and two of my aunts on a tour. We stopped in front of the church, I said "there it is, I will meet you inside", and immediately went to the same shop and bought the darn gargoyle. I still have it and it has even more magical memories associated with it. Strangely, all three women somehow understood why I went to the shop immediately, and never questioned why I wanted my own gargoyle.

    Always purchase what "you can't live without". You may never be back that way again. You will not regret it.

  24. Ethony*

    Totally agree with you on all of these. Good lodgings after a long flight is also something I do not scrimp on. It is important to recharge after 36 hours of travel time (Australia is a long way from a lot). I have never regretted paying for amazing experiences. I would ad to this list:

    Take the time to take good photos. You don't want to go home with all of your photos blurry and crap. Also back them up!

  25. Amanda

    I just started traveling this year (I'm 23 and moved to China to teach) and I'm trying to pay off student loans but want to see and do as many things as possible. The idea of spending money on things "I don't need" (what I tell myself) is hard. SO glad you posted this, especially since I'm going to Thailand next month and already thinking about cost. I checked out the link to the elephant sanctuary and that's on my Must Do list!

  26. selena

    I like to see local music that I might not get a chance to see at home. I saw Robyn Hitchcock in Bristol, Ryukyuuan folk music in Okinawa, a flamenco guitarist at a little restaurant in southern Spain… these things are big-deal "world music" back home, but you probably won't ever get a chance to see folk musicians and indie acts because they don't tour (not that RH is small time – but it was still cool to see him in a little theater on his home turf for like 10 quid!).

  27. kathrynoh

    So true. I never used to splurge on meals esp travelling alone then one night when I was on hols in Japan, I went to an expensive sushi place by accident (I got it mixed up with the cheap ramen place the barman had also recommended) and it was divine. About 50 miles out of my comfort zone, going into this fancy place alone but I sat up at the counter and got lots of free samples off the sushi master.

    I rarely buy souvenirs but wish I'd started some kind of theme collection when I first started travelling, like maybe earrings or scarves, something practical.

    Local SIM cards or those special international ones are so not a splurge compared to the $1000+ bills you can run up on international roaming! I'd cry if I got that bill.

  28. Paige

    I have done almost no traveling in my life (so little, in fact, that I am eagerly anticipating a business trip to San Francisco next month where I will take my third plane flight ever), but my fiance and I are starting to plan our honeymoon for this fall. Suddenly, now that I'm doing so much research, I want to go ALL OF THE PLACES and we're beginning to create a travel list. This post is helpful…Unless we happen to miraculously become billionaires in the next few years also, we're definitely going to have to keep budget in mind as we travel. Thanks for the suggestions for what we might want to prioritize during our adventures!

  29. Steve

    Wise words, obviously you can hardly enjoy your travels if you are constantly in a state of discomfort. Splashing out on a decent hotel every now and then will help to keep you sane. Also, it's very important to get those unique local experiences. The feeling you get when you experience something that you wouldn't be able to experience anywhere else, is something that every traveller loves.

  30. melissa

    I love this and it's so accurate! I agree with every single one- I think these are the only things I actually splurged one when I traveled all summer. Traditional meals & unique souvenirs are the BEST.

  31. sometimessheblogs

    This list is perfect. I so need to figure out how to buy souvenirs, because I have the same general feelings as you (I try to make up for it by taking crazyawesome photos, I would love to get rid of all "art" and prints in my home and replace stuff like that with travel photos that are by ME of awesome things I've actually seen myself), I know some people who always get a certain thing, like a scarf or a dish or a piece of art, but I have yet to find my go to souvenir. Oh, and traditional food is ALWAYS worth it.

    Things that are not worth splurging on, for me, include transportation. Sometimes necessary, but I will plan my day around a 40 minute, $3 bus ride to avoid a $60 20 minute cab ride (it happens!).

  32. Anonymous

    This is a boring splurge, but… $50 to get the flight with a 1 hour layover vs the flight with a 5 hour layover in a boring airport in the middle of nowhere? so worth it.

  33. Anna

    I enjoy taking local transportation ie chicken busses when I travel. It's part of the adventure. But at the end of my trip, if I have a multiple hour journey to get to the airport city I'll splurge on a mini-van with a driver. It's a small splurge that makes the end of my trip more enjoyable.

  34. Bruja

    super bueno el post!

  35. Bruja

    super bueno el post!

  36. Good Golly Miss

    My splurge usually comes before the trip. I buy cute shoes that are comfy. I know that I will be walking around ALL day and I want my feet to be comfortable. There is nothing that makes me crankier than aching feet (and as a result aching legs, back, butt, etc.). If the shoes are comfy but not cute then I will not wear them as much as I should. So, I search long and hard and splurge a bit and get good shoes before I go.

  37. JQ

    Yes and yes to those ideas! I'm new on the road and must splurge…I'll learn though!

  38. Shereen @ Shereen Travels Cheap

    Great list! Food is hands down the most important aspect of a trip to me. I will make sure to splurge on a few great meals and then look for recommended restaurants that are more affordable or, even better, food trucks/carts. Doing things is fun, but sometimes it can get expensive, so we try to mix fun free things with the must-do activities and attractions to stay on budget.

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