What this blog is about

Bicycle commuting, bicycle touring, bicycle racing; bicycle ADVENTURING.
To the grocery store, up a mountain, across the country or to the finish line--
it's all an adventure.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

TransAmerica Q & A: How to Budget

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After completing a cross-country bicycle tour this summer, one common question I hear is: how to budget for a tour? It's a tough question to answer, because it depends on the kind of tour you want to ride. 

The above (abbreviated) chart is a colorful way to explain just SOME of the matrix of choices that lay before you. 

Our trip included a CX (cyclocross) and touring bike, fully loaded panniers, mostly camping and some homestays/parks/churches, and a mix of cooking, diner food and junk food, with the very occasional fancy food that we were treated to.

Another column that I could add would be 'People.' Do you choose to travel alone, with a friend, in a group or a paid tour? For our tour, it was just my friend and I. We split the cost of lodging, shared the weight of group gear and cooked meals together.

Another column that I could add would be 'Route.' Will you ride an established route and purchase the maps for it? Or will you purchase state maps and look for the skinniest lines on it? We traveled on a historic Adventure Cycling route, the TransAmerica Trail, established in 1976. Our Adventure Cycling maps included information specifically useful to touring-- such as an elevation profile, a list of camping/lodging contacts, bike shops, grocery stores and more.

Faced with so many ways that you could tour, just how DO you budget for a trip? This is my insight:

You will need some sort of bicycle (or tricycle..or unicycle! yes, it's been done..), panniers if you plan to go that route, and all the rest of that 'STUFF.' Before you go buying a new wardrobe, though, take a look at what you already have, be creative, and see if it's useful to your trip. And before you go worrying about having the "perfect set up", save enough money so that you can buy a new saddle, a new shirt or a new.. cowboy hat.. during the trip. You'll likely change your mind about what is a "perfect" set up.
Budget: depends what ya' got and what ya' want! Make a list of what you need and include cost estimates.

After acquiring the gear you need, you'll need to be able to leave your job (should you have one) and still pay the bills. This (health insurance, student loan, cell phone, credit card) was easily half of my trip expense. If you are dreaming wistfully of your summer tour, but don't know how to start: get out of whatever debt you can. That's step one. 
Budget: whatever monthly bills you have. 

How good is your self-discipline? Our trip started out with the best of intentions-- we would shop out of the grocery, cook our meals and zest them with a ridiculous mound of spices we carried around. The spices were surprisingly heavy. Then we learned to eat out of the gas station. I have eaten TWO ice cream Snickers bars, back to back, and then climbed a Montana-sized hill. Without throwing up. Yes, I am amazing. Anyhow, my point is that we probably ended up spending twice as much on food than we had anticipated. I have a sudden craving for donuts..
My guess: we strove for $10/day, but I probably landed closer to $20/day.

So, you shouldn't really PLAN on getting free lodging during your trip, but we were fortunate to be graced with a lot of free lodging during our trip. Free lodging is a result of both skill and geography. While in Oregon, we snaked through so many state parks, that we often paid for camping. However, while in KANSAS.. there really isn't "camping," so the little towns we passed through often let us stay in the city park and shower at the city pool for free. Yeah, don't diss Kansas. On the whole, we ended up paying less for lodging than expected.
We only once paid for a hotel and most often camped, whether in a state park, a barn, a golf course, a back yard, a living room, a guest room, a city park, a fire station or a church.
My guess: Paid lodging probably averaged $12/night (doesn't include free lodging). I split that cost with Mia, my touring partner.

Unless your route starts and ends at your front door, you will need to travel to your start and/or back home. This might be a car, plane, train or ferry-- but in whatever case, budget for it! In some cases, it is no small chunk of change.
Budget: however you need to get there.

A misc fund can be a trip-saver. It may be that lodging is TWICE as expensive, not half as expensive as you thought. Maybe your tire turns to shreds and you have to buy a new one. Maybe you saw a really cool cowboy hat and decided it would be a great idea to bring it with you for the rest of the trip. In whatever case, budget a little extra "just in case."

* * * *

So that's it! It's hard to come up with some hard numbers when advising someone to budget, because it totally depends on your riding style. But go ahead and get a pen and paper out and scratch out some numbers.

My main advice would be to give yourself a buffer once you've outlined a bare bones budget. You just don't know if you're going to need that extra ice cream Snickers bar every day, or a new tire, new saddle or even medical attention.

I once read a post written by an experienced touring cyclist who was encouraging the idea that a tour can be done on any budget if you're creative. I like this idea and support it. Except for the part where he didn't eat for a whole day because he was out of money. It was well-intentioned, but sorry, that is one BAD IDEA. Please eat. And buffer your budget.

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