There is nothing quite like seeing a new country, but international travel can be expensive. Before you grab your passport, here are 17 ways to save money when traveling abroad.
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Pack Your Bags
The world is a great big place, and when you see a part of it that isn’t the little corner you live in, it’s a transformative experience. You meet new people, eat new food, see new sites, and hopefully learn a little about how people live in the country you’re traveling in. International travel is an experience everyone should have.
But many people hesitate to travel abroad because it can be costly. That’s why we gathered all of our tricks and tips into an article that can show you lots of ways you can save money when traveling abroad.
1. Choose Your City
When people think of Italy, they often think of Rome. And Rome is a beautiful city to visit, but it’s definitely expensive. There are plenty of other cities in Italy that are less expensive, like Merano, Bologna, and Verona.
If you really have your heart set on seeing Rome though, you can still see it. But rather than spending the entire time there where accommodations and restaurants are expensive, just spend a few days in Rome and the rest of your trip in a less expensive place.
Traveling this way also allows you to experience more of what a country has to offer. Imagine if you were from another country and came to the U.S. but only saw New York City. One city in any country can’t give you a full picture of a whole country.
2. Make a Budget
Don’t worry, a vacation budget doesn’t have to be as detailed as your real life budget, but you do have to have one. It’s dangerous not to for a few reasons. You’re on vacation which for some people means they leave their normal inhibitions at home. “Parasailing? Why not? Who knows if I’ll ever get another chance!” “Karaoke? Why not? I’ll never see any of these people again!”
Our money inhibitions can be tossed aside too. You’re on vacation; you want to have fun and not be bothered by everyday worries like how much everything costs. But that’s a dangerous mindset and can lean to ridiculous amounts of overspending.
“I love every single person in this bar! I’m going to buy a round!” “When am I going to get another chance to eat at a Three Michelin Starred restaurant? Bring me the tasting menu and the wine accompaniments!”
You also may not be familiar with the currency. I am baaaad at math, and even if I know the conversion rate, I can’t work it out in my head. “Are 10,000 forints a million dollars or is it ten cents?” Dealing in foreign currency totally throws me. And if you’re traveling to more than one country, (that all aren’t on the Euro) it’s even harder.
Make your budget in U.S. dollars and then convert it to the local currency (you can find a calculator online to do it for you). Whatever that number is in dollars isn’t going to mean much when you hit the ground at your destination.
3. Avoid the Crowds
Certain destinations are more expensive at certain times of the year. Why is it always more expensive to fly in the U.S. around Thanksgiving and Christmas? Because that’s the time of year when tons of people want to travel so airlines, hotels, and car rental companies can charge more. People are willing, if begrudging, to pay more to see family at that time of year.
Summer is typically one of the most expensive times a year to travel abroad because many countries have the same school break schedule the U.S. has so kids are out of school. Find out what the “high season” is for the country you want to visit and see if you can schedule your vacation outside of it.
Even if you want to do a beach vacation, most places with warm beaches in August will still be warm in September.
4. Use the Right Credit Card
Some credit cards, even credit cards considered “travel cards” charge a foreign transaction fee. The fee is usually 3%, and for every dollar you charge (and it will be charged in dollars. All credit cards covert every transaction from the local currency to your home currency at the prevailing exchange rate), your credit card company charges you $0.03. That doesn’t sound like much, but if you charge a hotel stay that is several nights long, 3% adds up.
Fewer and fewer cards still charge a foreign transaction fee, but some continue to do so. Make sure you’re putting all of your in-country expenses on a credit card that doesn’t charge this fee.
5. Speaking of Credit Cards
A few days before you leave for your trip, notify your bank and credit card companies (for the cards you intend to use on your trip) that you’re leaving the country and where you’ll be traveling. If you don’t and they see activity outside of what is typical for you, it may trigger a fraud freeze.
This can result in a huge, expensive hassle. Your payments might be declined, and if you can’t straighten the situation out right away, you might be stranded with no way to pay for anything.
6. Don’t Buy Cash
You will need a little cash no matter where you go in the world but there is no reason to pay the crummy exchange rate you’ll get at currency exchange places. The U.S. isn’t the only place that has ATMs! Just get cash out with your debit card when you arrive at your destination.
Do a little research and estimate how much cash you’ll need while planning your trip. If most of the places you plan to eat, drink, and visit accept cards, you won’t need lots of cash. You’ll always need a little for incidentals, but if your local bank doesn’t have branches in your destination country, you’ll have to pay ATM fees.
7. Don’t Sell Cash
The reverse of the above advice holds true as well. You don’t want to come home with a pocket full of foreign currency (well, keep a little because it’s a fun souvenir) but you don’t want to get the bad exchange rate when you turn it back into greenbacks once you’re home.
As you near the end of your trip, spend down most of the local cash you have left. If you have a little more left than you need, don’t spend it on silly stuff just to spend it. Do something nice for someone with it. Leave an extra big tip for a friendly server, buy the person you’ve been chatting with at the bar a drink or two or ask the counter person at the coffee shop to pay it forward and use your money to buy the next X number of people a coffee until the money runs out.
8. Go With the Strong Dollar
Your dollar goes further in some countries than others. This information fluctuates a lot but currently a few places where you can get more bang for your buck include India, Cambodia, Chile, and Colombia.
9. You’re Not the Only One Who Wants a Vacation
Taking a vacation overseas usually means you’re going to be gone for at least a week. It’s too far to travel just for a long weekend. Since you’re going to be away for a bit, consider renting out your own home on Airbnb while you’re gone.
10. Check Out Groupon
You might look at offers on Groupon if you want a cheap facial or a discounted restaurant meal when you’re at home but did you know Groupon sells international travel packages too?
And they’re really affordable! I checked out a few, and these are some of the offers I found; eleven days in Greece for $2,249, eight days in London and Paris for $799, and seven days in Dubai for $999.
Most of the Groupon trips include airfare (typically from New York City), hotels, some meals, and activities. If guided tours aren’t your thing, just ditch the group part and take advantage of the cheap flights and hotels.
11. Free Walking Tours
A lot of cities offer free walking tours. And the guides are typically locals which means you’ll get an insider’s view and can pick the guide’s brain for cheap restaurant ideas. The tours are indeed free in that you don’t have to purchase them but it’s expected (but not required) that you tip your guide. And please do so. These people are often students, and they are doing you a very great service.
No one’s time is free. Remember, there is a difference between being cheap and being frugal.
Even with a nice tip, these tours are often a lot cheaper than paid, pre-booked walking tours.
12. Learn the Public Transit System
Taking public transit is always going to be cheaper than renting a car, taking a cab, or using a ride-sharing service. Sure, an unfamiliar transit system can be a little intimidating, but it’s not like you’re in a hurry because you’re going to be late for work. You’re on vacation, who cares if you get lost!
In fact, getting lost in a strange city can show you things a typical tourist would never find on their own. And people everywhere are kind. If you approach a stranger in a polite way, most of them will be willing to help a lost visitor.
Another good way to save money when traveling is to also utilize public transit to get to and from the airport. This option won’t be available in all cities and if it isn’t you’ll be stuck paying for an expensive cab or at best, a shuttle (which is a good option and cheaper than a cab but not as cheap as public transit). It might require a few transfers or a bit of a walk from the drop off point to your accommodations, but it really can save a lot of money.
If you can’t do this, maybe chat up some of the people who were on your flight while you’re all waiting in customs or to collect your bags and see if anyone is going to the same area you’re going to. You might find someone willing to share a cab.
13. Do Your Research
Researching information for a vacation is one of my favorite things to do. It’s a great way to save money too. Find inexpensive restaurants in each neighborhood you plan to be in.
Find out if attractions you want to visit offer free days, free or discounted hours (some museums offer free or reduced price entrance later in the day), see what discounts any memberships you have (AARP, AAA) offer. If you’re a student, a senior, or a member of the military, see what discounts might be available.
If you don’t want to plan every single drink or meal, I understand. Part of the fun of travel is stumbling upon a place that looks inviting and just going in. But research what is a reasonable price for things like a beer, a cup of coffee, or a meal. High-end places or those in tourist-heavy areas tend to be more expensive, but if you just happen upon a place, you might not be aware that it’s high end or in a tourist center.
14. Know the Culture
Tipping is a big part of American culture, and many of us just automatically tip 20% (unless the service is really terrible!) but not every country has a tipping culture. Learn the tipping culture of the country you’re traveling too. It might make your meals and drinks out a lot less expensive than they are at home!
Also, research the bargaining culture. A lot of countries have many more small, independently owned businesses than we’re used to seeing in the U.S. so while you can’t bargain in Macy’s, you might be able to in a local boutique. It might even be expected!
15. Know the Rules
My first trip abroad was to Budapest (which I thoroughly recommend!), and the city has a terrific subway system. The trains were clean, frequent, and prompt. When you entered you fed your paper ticket (purchased from a vending machine or an employee selling them from behind a window) into a reader, and it popped out the other side.
You had to keep the ticket on you until you exited from your stop! If you didn’t, and you got caught by the person whose job it was to check you had it, you were hit with an on the spot fine. I don’t remember how much the fine was (because I knew this ahead of time and held onto my ticket for dear life!) but I didn’t want to pay it.
Ignorance of the law is no excuse so while you might get a sympathetic bureaucrat who gives a silly tourist a break, you might not. Understand these kinds of rules and laws when you travel abroad.
You don’t have to dig too much; any dedicated tourism site usually explains the finer points temporary locals (a much nicer ring to it than “tourist”!) will need to be aware of.
16. Skip the Breakfast
If you’re staying in a hotel, some of them offer a breakfast option for an additional charge. This is almost never worth it. It can tack an extra $10-$20 onto the price of each night, and the meal isn’t usually some sumptuous spread of local delicacies. It’s the same stuff you get when you have the “free” breakfast in an American hotel chain.
Take half (or less!) of that money and go to a cafe or bakery and buy a local pastry and a cup of coffee. It will be cheaper, better, and you’ll get to sit, and people watch the locals going about their mornings.
Of course, if your hotel includes free breakfast, eat until you burst or at least enough to tide you over until dinner. Eating out three meals a day for a week or more adds up fast.
17. Choose the House Wine
I know some of you are wine snobs and in some places, it pays to be one. You might travel to plenty of places without much of a wine culture so if you order the house wine you might end up with the local equivalent of Boone’s Farm.
Quelle horreur! But if you’re in a region that has a strong wine industry, drink the house wine. It will be high quality and high value.
And do some research on this. Just which places have a wine culture might surprise you.
Before I went to Hungary, I had never heard of Bull’s Blood, a wine from Eger, Hungary that has been in production since the 16th Century. But we had it, and it was delicious and cheap! It wasn’t exactly a Bordeaux, but it was a good wine that I had never tried before.
Or indeed, the local beer. In Prague, the beer was literally cheaper than water!
Grab Your Passport
If your social media feeds are full of posts about your friends’ exotic travels, you probably wonder how they afford it. They take advantage of tips like these sure, but even a million tips about how to save money when traveling abroad won’t work if you don’t make traveling a priority.
That’s how most people afford it. While the rest of us are spending money on the latest tech gadget, new clothes, dinners out, and an expensive car, those who travel are spending that same money on traveling instead.
And no new shiny thing is going to give you nearly as much pleasure as you’ll find when you get out of your everyday life and routine for the bigger world.
So that is our final and most important tip, prioritize travel, and you will have money to travel.