One of the best things my grandfather ever had me do was make a budget sheet for my study abroad program to Japan. I knew when I studied abroad that I definitely wanted to see other parts of the country because at the time I didn’t know when or if I would have the chance to go back. However, I am also a very spontaneous person and I don’t often plan things out beforehand. So when my grandfather first told me about his conditional contribution to my cause, my first reaction was “Ugh, what a pain!”
But my former self was in for a surprise because I actually gained a few advantages from doing this:
- I actually thought about what was worth my time
- It allowed me to make the most of my limited time abroad
- It helped me plan my itinerary which in turn helped me plan for and make my reservations
- I didn’t get stuck short on money. Woohoo!
- When it was finally time for travel, I could relax and enjoy it so much more because I had an idea of what I was doing that day rather than trying plan it last minute.
So, without further ado, here’s how I planned for travel outside my program!
Create an Excel Spreadsheet
When I created my excel sheet I used seven columns:
- Expenses/event/side trip- this is where I listed the activity I’d be doing
- Amount- the cost of that activity
- Total- this is where I listed the total for each section
- Amount2- not a very creative name, but this is where I listed what money I would be able to contribute
- Resource- where I would be getting the money for the Amount2 section
- Paid- when I started paying for things, like airfare, this is where I listed it
- Saved- this is where I listed any money I saved between what I had listed in Amount and what I actually paid
Account for the Necessities
The first thing I accounted for was all the necessities. Since my original purpose was to study abroad, that meant things like my program fees, airfare, and my homestay fees. Oftentimes programs have this sort of info on their webpages. Luckily for me, my study abroad program through University Studies Abroad Consortium (USAC), gave me a very specific breakdown of of my program costs in an interactive budget sheet. It looked a little something like this:
This was especially handy because it also gave me an idea of what students typically spent on average for personal expenses and textbooks. It’s also important to note that some of these fees might fluctuate a little from year to year. I took the higher number for the estimated expenses that had ranges or I took the higher number from my own research. For example, when I first started looking at flights, the average airfare I was finding was $1000 more than what I actually ended up paying. But I think it’s good to plan for more and have money left over than under plan and be stuck. At the same time that I was planning for other things, I was keeping up to date with things as I bought them and how much I saved between what my original budget was and what I actually paid. This is what my own excel sheet was starting to look like. I colored all my program specific expenses in red for required because I like color coding things.
Research with TripAdvisor and Google Maps
Now it’s time to plan for the fun stuff! When I started this section, I went big and listed everything I could possibly do. I spent a lot of time on TripAdvisor and Google Maps looking at reviews and things people listed as “must do’s” for the cities I wanted to see; in this case: Kyoto, Tokyo, Osaka, and Nara, in that order. A quick google search of trains from one city to another gave me some ideas on how long and how much these trips might cost. I took the average of hotel prices I was finding in the area (making sure they were conveniently located by train stations so that I had a way to get around). Another thing I considered was transportation passes. I saw them mentioned often in a lot of my TripAdvisor investigating, but I didn’t actually ever end up purchasing one.
When deciding what I wanted to do in each city, I spent a lot of time on TripAdvisor and a lot of pages in my notebook. I made notes on locations, prices, time it took, as well as where they were in relation to other attractions and train stations and my initial thoughts on it. Was I on the fence about whether or not to see it or was it a must see? Was it worth it to spend x amount of time going all the way to one attraction and then come back? The sections labeled “x-city sightseeing” are the totals of all the things I wanted to do in that city; in this case it was mostly entrance fees. Keep in mind that this was an extensive list; this list included anything and everything I was interested in.
Something to note on hotels: On my excel sheet I have the total amount for all the days I would be staying there. I considered where the attractions were in relation to each other and how much time people said it took to see those attractions and made a sketchy itinerary of about how many days I would need to be in the area to see everything. I also had specific dates between when my program ended, December 23, and when I had to be home to attend Western Washington University, January 1. Hotels can be listed as cost per night or as a total. Just make sure to be clear so you know for yourself.
Map Your Trip
For an added bonus, if you wanted to, you could also map out where your sightseeing locations are on google maps. I’m a very visual person, so for me this was a quick and easy way to see what sort of things were near each other and plan my itinerary. For example, my friend and I quickly decided we would see kinkakuji and ryoanji in the same day since they were kinda out of the way but relatively close to one another.
Evaluate the Costs and Benefits- Prioritize
At the end of my spreadsheet I created a total for each section and then I created a total for both sections together. In the Amount2 column I started adding in what I felt I could contribute personally; in this case my personal savings and what I estimated I was going to earn from my summer job (based on what I had earned the previous summer). I totaled it again and then added in what I estimated I would get from financial aid for my program. The number left over told me I needed to think about whether I should cut some things or if there was a feasible way to come up with the difference. Was something on the list far away from the others and by itself? If so, is it worth the time going out of your way to see it? Consider not only how much it is, but whether you’re invested in it enough to pay for it. There were quite a few things on my list that, even though they were cheaper, I ended up crossing off simply because I wasn’t interested or I had other things I wanted to do over that one.
Overall, I would say going about my travel plans this way helped a lot. I ended up staying way under budget (also particularly because my friend joined me and that cut hotels in half). But my budget also ended up being a lot more handy for making my itinerary than I thought it would be. I’m very much a plan-it-on-the-fly type of person, however, when I compared my experience traveling to South Korea for a weekend (with very minimal planning) to my experience traveling Kyoto and Tokyo (with more planning than I ever thought I would do) I feel I got so much more out of doing the latter. I feel like I was able to use my time more wisely and see more things that I wanted to see. Similarly, I’ve used this spreadsheet strategy to help me plan my travels when my roommate and I wanted to go to Norway. It even helped convince her parents that it was actually a feasible idea! (Sometimes numbers help!) I’ll probably be using this multiple times in the future for other trips to make sure I get the most out of my travel experiences.
I spent the first portion of the day unpacking, trying to unriddle the buttons of the various instruments in the bathroom, and waltzing about the campus. My check-in with Akita International University was smooth, the volunteer students being incredibly kind and patient individuals, and my agenda was peppered with orientations spread across the grounds.
(My first cafeteria meal. Please note how balanced, well-presented, and distinctly not-pizza-or-hamburgers it is. Take note, America.)
At one point I noticed the aforementioned volunteer students of AIU frantically folding paper cranes to use as decorations for dinner tables. I told them their origami looked beautiful and I wished I knew how to make them myself, causing the whole group to promptly pull out a chair and urge me to sit with them and learn. I did! The first photo of this post was the result.
In the evening I attended the “Welcome Dinner”, where I cherry-picked from a massive spread of traditional Japanese food and flitted through social circles attempting to strike conversation. Unfortunately, I always find these events to be a little… Rough… At universities. It seems like no matter how animated you are or how many questions you ask, the overwhelmingly vast majority of the attendants would simply like to commiserate with their few friends. Still, I managed to meet many people and have some wonderful conversations! I even greatly enjoyed the icebreaking game of “musical introductions”, where we would mill about to music until it stopped then break into introductions with whoever we were standing around.
And now it is bedtime. I’m utterly exhausted and don’t doubt I will pass out as soon as I lay my head down, despite the massive disparity between the plush heaven of bedding I have at home in the states and the minimalist futon I’m glaring at right now.
(My first bad English souvenir! It’s truly Christmas in August.)
Today was the AIUlympics, a sporting event held by the RA’s on campus! The turn-out was much larger than I’d expected, which was lovely. It began with adorable warm-ups ala Radio Taiso, which truly put into perspective how uncoordinated we all are, then mozied along to a three-legged race, a scavenger hunt, Japanese “red light green light” (Daruma-san falls down), a chopstick relay, and extreme charades. Everyone involved got hilariously competitive in true sporting event fashion; friendships were ruined by the impassable divide between red shirts and white shirts.
(We are all equally great. But I personally find white team to be more handsome.)
I spent my evening as I imagine I’ll spend many evenings this semester: bumming around Komachi Lounge. It’s a natural water hole with its three televisions, game consoles, large tables, board games, and several vending machines. This particular night I had the pleasure of playing Cards Against Humanity with a group of very animated foreign exchange students, many speaking English as a second language. As you might guess, there was much explaining to be done for many of the cards. I had to use a combination of academically dry explanation and vulgar hand gestures to convey the meaning of the cards.
(“What is… How you say… ‘Leprosy’?”)
Every day I am meeting so many people, and making so many new friends, that it kind of blows my mind. I have added more people on facebook in the past four days than several years combined.