Previously in this Travel Secrets column, we discussed ways to stretch every hard earned dollar while planning for a trip. This week, our focus is on making every dollar go further in the magical midst of travel.
You’ve created a realistic budget. Invested in a travel fund. Selected a reward-rich credit card, with points already accumulating. You even scored a shockingly cheap flight through smart research. You’re ahead in the savings game and don’t want to blow it now. Yet even the most determined and dedicated among us risk getting infected with a condition that consumer advocate Andrea Woroch aptly calls vacation brain. The minute our feet hit new soil and an exotic breeze sweeps past our cheek, it’s easy to get swept away and throw financial caution into that wind. In other words, to spend, spend, spend.
So how can we stay cool on daily spending during the heat of travel? By making smart decisions in areas that won’t dampen the experience while seeking out value at every turn. For instance, a good place to start is with this golden rule: Do As Locals Do. Finding a balance between tourist attractions and more local activities is where sweet savings reside and a destination’s true essence shines. Using the DALD philosophy, here’s a specific conundrum: Paper or Plastic? Most of us use a mix of cash and credit when traveling. With either payment method, what at first may seem like small transaction and withdrawal fees can add up to big spending … or, savings, if used smartly.
Here are a few tips—broken into categories—to help you make the next vacation one that doesn’t break the bank well into the future.
Avoid high fees at money exchange kiosks, in particular airport outposts, at all costs. Your bank ATM card delivers the best exchange rate. To maximize cash withdrawal savings, ask these questions before travel. Is my ATM card chipped? If not, it’s likely the card will not work in a foreign ATM, potentially forcing you to higher cost withdrawal and payment methods.
What are my withdrawals fees?
“When using your debit card internationally or withdrawing cash abroad, expect extra fees from both your bank and the merchant,” says Woroch. “According to NerdWallet, your bank can charge anywhere from $1 to $5 for local currency withdrawals, plus 1% to 3% of the transaction amount.”
Discuss (in- and out-of-network) withdrawal fees with your bank.
Many institutions offer a range of account types with advantages for different phases of life. For instance, you may be eligible for upgrade to a premium account not possible when initially enrolled. Top tier accounts often offer a set number of withdrawals – domestic and international – for free each month.
Woroch also recommends researching international transaction and withdrawal fees offered through online savings accounts for better rates.
What is my maximum daily withdrawal limit and can the amount be raised?
Taking out a smaller number of larger cash withdrawals is a smart way to save on fees. However, be sure not to keep big wads of cash in one place. Leave a stash in your hotel room’s safe while exploring.
Depending on your destination, paying by credit for purchases like lodging, train tickets, and expensive dinners is a no-brainer. As long as you employ a card with no international transaction fees.
As The Points Guy Zach Honig discussed in the last column, choosing a card with no transaction fees and the most value for your preferred type of travel is key to saving money. Plus, with every travel purchase, you rack up points for future travel. However, Woroch cautions to keep in mind that in many countries cash is the preferred method of payment and local merchants may charge more for paying with a card. Always ask before paying.
Global nomads Ana Vega and Eva Serra, known as 2 Femmes en 2 CV, say the biggest mistake travelers, themselves included, make is thinking the more you spend, the better the experience. By veering off the more expensive tourist path, they adhere to budget while gaining a deeper perspective of place.
Limit attraction tickets and tours to a top-three list. Take a skeptical approach to “tourist cards” bundling multiple attractions. Examine each component for value to decide if it’s a deal. Will you really visit all seven museums included? If not, it may be smarter to buy individual tickets.
Close to departure, search “destination name” and “free events,” and you will find gold. From walking tours to art gallery openings, most cities are overflowing with free to low-cost entertainment.
Food & Drinks
Woroch says: It’s tempting to try a new restaurant for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but these costs literally eat into your budget. Instead, stock up on snacks for your room and try to limit your dining out to once per day. Lunch will often be less costly than dinner, giving you the chance to try local cuisine without the markup of dinner prices.”
Check out local markets where vendors are cooking up fresh, regional specialties for cheap. Plan a picnic in a park sourced from local goods. Big savings come when you eat and drink from the region where you are traveling.
Order a margarita in Italy, for example. Expect to pay a premium. Instead, try a glass of house wine, usually selected by an expert at balancing taste and affordability. Pro tip: In wine regions, ask locals where they buy to connect directly with the producer.
Search “destination name” and “happy hour” and watch deals materialize. Yesterday this author enjoyed $2.75 cocktails in ultra pricey central London simply by researching key words.
Skip expensive car rentals and taxis. Instead join locals on the bus or train for a real sense of daily life in the city.
Also, for getting around, consider sharing a ride through BlaBla Car, which is usually less expensive than a bus or train ticket on the same route. And, if you must drive, Woroch suggests harnessing the power of crowd-sourcing by finding the cheapest gas in your area through GasBuddy.
Sharing Equals Saving
Thanks to the rise of the “sharing economy,” it’s never been less expensive to travel for those willing to venture outside the typical-tourist box.
Sure, part of the joy of traveling for you may be staying in a luxury hotel. Consider a balanced approach: splurging on a posh room for a few nights then sharing space with a local or renting a short-term apartment through Couchsurfing, Airbnb, or VRBO. Usually you get more space for less cost, plus gain valuable insight on your destination from a built-in local expert: your host.
Another big plus is getting outside tourist zones and into a neighborhood where restaurants and markets are less expensive too.
Recently this column profiled new social dining platforms like Vizeat and BonAppetour where for less than the cost of comparable restaurant meal diners enjoy home-cooked dishes while meeting locals and fellow travelers.
Last weekend, this author enjoyed a five-course, multi-hour Spanish feast, complete with sangria, with ten other strangers in a host’s home for less than $45 per person.
Vega and Serra recommend platforms like Workaway and WWOOF as tools for trading volunteer labor in exchange for free lodging.
Personally, this author is enjoying 33 nights of free lodging over the next six weeks through housesitting and pet care assignments. Clearly, the sky’s the limit for travelers when it comes to sharing and saving.
Image: Pictures of Money, CC-BY
Jess Simpson is a writer chasing a dream of slow travel in a fast world. Currently, she’s pretending to be a local in London while housesitting and serving as pet nanny for the galaxy’s cutest dog. Find her on Facebook and Instagram.