11 Expert Tips for Saving Money When Traveling Abroad
Sidestep any pricy surprises with these effective tricks.
Even if you’ve mastered traveling locally on the cheap, vacationing abroad is a whole different ball game. Maybe you’ve even figured out how to minimize the bigger expenses that come with the territory by finding the cheapest flights and packing everything you need into a carry-on. That’s a great start, but sometimes it’s all the little things that’ll get you—the exchange rates, the foreign transaction fees, and even the way you book your activities.
People tend to worry a lot about falling for scams when traveling, too, but the truth is that most of the people you encounter while abroad will be honest (and maybe happy to help you out in a pinch). Just keep a watchful eye on your stuff, avoid situations that make you uncomfortable, and don’t be afraid to say no when you’re offered something you don’t want. That said, it can be helpful to know how much things should cost where you’re traveling, and to learn more about local customs so you don’t make any mistakes that’ll cost you (think anything in the same vein as tipping and haggling practices). In other words, it’s always a good idea to read about your destination before you get there, and to continue to learn after you arrive.
Whether you’re a seasoned traveler or just booked your first overseas vacation, it’s not always obvious how to truly travel cheaply. But don’t worry, because we’ve got you. We quizzed pro travel bloggers and industry experts—people who really know their rand from their rupee—to discover their best tips for saving money while traveling abroad.
Get a credit card without foreign transaction fees
Imagine that someone stops you at the airport and demands 3% of everything you spend while you’re away. Now imagine that person is a zillionaire banker, with a diamond-studded monocle and tailored suit made entirely of $100 bills. You’d probably be very intrigued by their lifestyle and fashion sense, but would you want to give them your money? Probably not.
And yet, 3% is what you’re giving away if you use a regular bank card abroad. Tim Leffel, the brains behind the Cheapest Destinations blog, has some thoughts on how to avoid this situation. “Get a credit card with no transaction fees and a debit card that doesn't charge you on top of the local bank fee,” he advises. “The best ones are from Fidelity and Schwab, because they actually reimburse that local bank fee, too.”
Book your activities in person
If you’re the kind of person that prefers to have your travel itinerary mapped out, printed, and laminated before you go, take a few deep breaths before you continue reading. According to Anne Lowrey of Part-Time Traveler, “if you organize an experience in advance, you don’t always get the best deal.” She goes on to explain, “It varies case-by-case of course, but I saw this recently on a trip to Kerala, India. You can book a boat trip around the backwaters online, but you get a much better price if you’re willing to shop around in person. There are so many boats available, even in high season.”
Exchange your money after you leave the airport
The airport might seem like a convenient place to withdraw or exchange your money, but it’s truly a wasteland of high ATM fees and unfortunate (for you) exchange rates. Skip Travelex, leave the airport behind, and look for an ATM at a reputable bank in town instead.
Pay with local currency if you’re using a card
Depending on your location, you may be able to pay by card in shops and restaurants, though it’s still a good idea to have cash on hand. If you’re paying for something by card, the card machine might ask if you’d like to pay in local or home currency. Holly Johnson of Club Thrifty recommends that you “always go local,” explaining, “if you pay in USD, you’re basically allowing them to set the exchange rate.”
Look for meals beyond the tourist restaurants
It’s a hard and fast rule of broke travelers the world over: Come dinner time, veer off the main tourist strips. The restaurants in these areas may be conveniently close to the attractions, but they’ll often charge higher prices for food that may not be as tasty, so if you eat there just know you’re making a tradeoff for location. Be especially wary of cafes in famous, heavily touristed areas like St. Mark's in Venice or Prague’s Old Town Square, which will slap you with a fee just to sit there.
Where should you go instead? One cheap, tasty option is street food. Look for a cart or stand with a long line, so you know it’s good. If the cart is making food to order, that’s also a great way to know you’re getting something super fresh.
Find a good deal on phone data
So you really want to upload a video of yourself jumping into a cenote. That’s understandable. But if you haven’t secured a deal to get cheap phone data abroad, it’s going to cost you. There are a few ways to get around this. If you’re not willing to devote much time or energy to this issue, your best bet is to call your plan provider before you leave and sign up for the best international package for your needs (just don’t forget to cancel it when you come back). However, if you’re willing to switch phone providers, James Feess (aka The Savvy Backpacker), suggests signing up for T-Mobile or Sprint, because “they both offer free data to their customers, and it automatically connects when you arrive.” There’s a drawback though: “The data isn't fast. It's usually 2G and sometimes 3G— just enough to do the basics.”
The best option here, if you want fast speeds without paying a fortune, is to buy a SIM card and short-term data plan from the country you're visiting. “It's not too crazy a process, assuming you can get past the language barrier,” Feess says. This just requires a little bit of going with the flow, since you won’t be able to figure everything out before you arrive. However, it’s especially worth it if you’ll be traveling for a longer period of time, despite being fairly low-commitment.
Try haggling where appropriate
“Too many people are scared of bartering, but it’s completely acceptable in many cultures,” Anne Lowrey says. “It takes a bit of back-and-forth, but I think of it as a fun game. I usually try to reduce their asking price by around 30%.” Her top tips? “Never act like you want the item, find out a fair price for the item ahead of time, and be willing to walk away.”
Also, be aware that haggling often isn’t limited to marketplaces and street fairs. According to Monica Stott of The Travel Hack, “you can negotiate the price of taxis, tours, experiences, hotels… basically anything you buy directly from a vendor. If you're staying in a hotel for more than three or four nights, ask for a discount or even your fifth night for free. The worst that can happen is they'll only chuck in a voucher for the hotel bar.”
Research the local tipping customs
Americans are far (far, far, far) from perfect, but one thing we do well is tip. In fact, we might be the most generous tippers in the whole world. But don’t assume that you should be tipping in other countries the way you do back home. “Research the local tipping customs before you go, or ask around when you arrive,” says Feess. “In some countries, you’re not expected to tip at all, and in other places the tip is usually included in the check. You don’t want to waste money tipping twice, or giving way too much.”
Be careful about taxi pricing
If you’re carrying heavy luggage or exhausted from a long travel day, it can be tempting to slide into the first available taxi and close your eyes. But expert travelers know that ensuring a reasonably priced ride begins before you ever set foot in the cab. “Never, ever get into a taxi without first agreeing on a price or asking for the meter—period,” says Jackie Nourse, who has spent 15-plus years on the road as The Budget Minded Traveler. If you can, Expert Vagabond Matt Karsten suggests that before you hail a cab, you “ask the hotel or hostel front desk for an estimate of how much the ride should cost, so you know you’re not being ripped off.”
It’s always better to be cautious, which means sticking to official city-sponsored taxis. A trusted ride-share brand can be a good choice, too, but you’ll want to use what the locals rely on, which may not always be ye olde Uber or Lyft.
Choose a hotel room that’s firmly within your budget
We’ve all been there. You’re scrolling through the hotel options online, and you find one that looks nicer than you can afford, and you can just about afford it. But the headline price is just the beginning, warns Tim Leffel. “You'll pay more for parking, more for everything in the minibar, more for the taxi outside, more at the bar and restaurants.” Instead, decide which amenities you can comfortably give up, and book a room that falls comfortably within your budget. That way, if any unexpected expenses arise, you know they won’t hurt your wallet too badly.
Jackie Nourse has one simple tip: Be friendly. “Don’t act like you’re entitled to anything when you are in a new culture. A little bit of kindness goes a long way, and it will save you money in all kinds of situations.” Plus, even if it doesn’t save you money, friendly interactions with the strangers you meet on your journey are part of what will make it so memorable.