Have you heard? Traveling is über expensive. I don’t mean to say that Uber is expensive—compared to public transit it is—but that’s not the point. Businesses know that tourists love to spend, spend, and spend some more, and they take advantage of that fact. So, it’s expensive to travel. But, it doesn’t have to be. Really. Below are some tips for traveling the world at a discount.
Disclaimer: if something sounds too good to be true, it is. We don’t claim to be able to find $50 transatlantic plane tickets or free resort passes. As you might expect from WLI, these are tips that require a tiny bit of patience, a little bit of planning, and a lot-a-bit of saving money. Read on, reader, for our tips on saving money when traveling.
Don’t F* with Uber, and definitely don’t F* with taxis.
Most destination cities in the western world are wonderfully connected via public transport. It may sound foreign to Americans not from NYC, but PT is a GT (great thing. It rhymes. Go with it.). Choosing public transport over Uber and taxis-who-must-not-be-named is one of the best things you can do for yourself when traveling. Not only is public transport cheap as all-get-out around the world, it provides a great opportunity to people-watch and see more of a city.
There is nothing like zipping through the streets of central Amsterdam on a tram, passing beautiful blonde women on bicycles and men with an actually decent fashion sense (sorry, men of the U.S.A., but you need to step your game way up). Trams have tall windows and smooth tracks that allow their passengers to bypass traffic and stress. They are quick, air-conditioned (or heated), and did we mention cheap?
Because the vast majority of us don’t have cell phones that magically work abroad without the payment of some complex fees, using Uber as an alternative to taxis can be quite difficult. And let’s face it: if you’re a foreigner hailing a taxi in a country where English isn’t the first language, you’re going to be overcharged. It’s a fact of life, brush it off and take the bus. By and large, buses in Europe are clean, fairly timely, and pleasant. By American standards, the drivers are often dressed up!
Above all, however, be safe. A high-priced car ride is a small pittance compared to the mental and financial tolls of finding yourself in a situation that is less than safe. Investment in reasonable security is a respectable investment. If you can manage to be thrifty, however, you’ll have more money to invest in activities that yield permanent, treasured memories.
For the love of all that’s holy in this world, don’t exchange money at the airport. Actually, don’t exchange money. Just don’t do it. Please, don’t exchange cash. Read on for an explanation of this absurd heading.
Changing money at your typical Travelex kiosk in the airport or, even worse, a downtown currency exchange shop, will shrink your money quick, fast, and in a hurry. Not only do these sorts of places use exchange rates that differ from the official ones (no, not in your favor) they charge high, hidden, middleman fees that dramatically increase the difference between the value of dollars you give them and the currency they hand back.
We stopped by a typical airport Travelex the other day and did a calculation. Had we changed our cash there, we would have lost 16% of its value. In two minutes we would have lost as much as one would hope to make in the stock market in two years. For someone traveling on a weeklong trip exchanging, say, $500, this would be a loss of a whopping $80. That’s enough to stay for two nights in a modern, spacious, secure apartment using Airbnb in Prague! (Check out our full article on the subject!)
So, what are the best ways to spend money abroad?
1. Apply for a fancy credit card: Obtaining a card with no foreign transaction fee is the dream. It might be the BankAmericard Travel Rewards, the Capital One Venture, or any number of others. Most developed countries take Visa and MasterCard in at least their destination cities and corporate retail stores. If you travel to a specific place more than once a year, do a quick Google search to determine whether Visa or MasterCard will be more useful in that country.
Credit cards, unlike debit cards, come with strong fraud protection, built-in travel insurance, and plenty of other benefits. Travel-specific cards virtually always come with the benefit of having no foreign transaction fee. This means that in a shop where you swipe or insert your card, you pay the true price of the product without any extra fees. You then pay off the purchase on the card in your native currency.
One more thing: When you swipe your lovely travel card in a shop, the cashier will often ask whether you’d like to be charged in the local currency or your home currency. For an American in France, the option would be whether to pay in Dollars or Euros. The American should pay in Euros. Why? The shop, or rather the shop’s payment system company, sets its own exchange rate. This artificial rate typically raises the price of the product by 3%. If the American chooses Dollars, the shop will have to do its own currency exchange, and pass on the charge to the customer.
If, however, the American chooses Euros, and swipes her fancy travel card, she will pay the true price in Euros and her credit card company (think Capital One, Chase, etc.) will cover the cost of the exchange. The smart American traveler will pay off the card later in Dollars, and lose no money to exchange fee.
2. You’ll need some cash virtually anywhere you travel: The best way we have discovered to get physical cash is to use the app/website TransferWise. TransferWise is a fresh-faced, transparent, millennial-focused business. If you know and trust a local at your destination city/country, you can use TransferWise to send her money for a miniscule fee. TransferWise takes 1-2 days; once your local contact receives your transfer, she can make a withdrawal free of charge from her bank’s ATM. It’s a roundabout solution but is super cheap. TransferWise is free to download, has a perfectly fluid app and website, and charges a minimum fee of $3.00, which begins to slowly grow after you transfer more than $250.
3. If the TransferWise scheme is too convoluted, heading to an ATM is often cheaper than exchanging money at a currency exchange business. In many places, you will withdrawal cash for a small ATM fee, and pay the true exchange rate. This is something to Google before you travel: we can guarantee that someone out there has been to the country you’re headed to and has figured out which ATMs are best. With ATMs, it’s good to withdraw a lot and store extra cash in a safe place at your apartment, hotel, etc. when you leave for the day. This allows you to pay the flat/fixed ATM fee less frequently and lets your money travel further.
Airbnb vs. Hotel:
Do we even need to cover this subject? Hotels are obscenely expensive, their rooms don’t have kitchens, the pricey breakfasts suck, etc. Airbnb is a godsend alternative to a hotel. Finding a pleasant apartment with a kitchen and a homey, local feel is an instant upgrade. The fact that Airbnb is far less expensive than hotels is an equally wonderful benefit.
Staying in an Airbnb also allows you the pleasure of meeting a local upon arrival. Airbnb hosts are usually friendly and eager to share their city with their visitors. This choice is cost-cutting but, more importantly, an entry-point into a new community. Being able to skip a restaurant here and there and cook a tasty, inexpensive breakfast in a furnished kitchen isn’t so bad either. Check out Airbnb, skip the tourist trap hotels, and be happy.
So listen, one of the great side effects of traveling is being able to eat delicious, different food in a nice, new place. Take our simple and thoroughly tested advice when it comes to eating, and your stomach and wallet will thank us!
- Step away from the city center: Would you eat in Times Square? You should answer with an emphatic, ‘No!’ Eating in the touristy downtown destinations of the world’s wonderful cities is a big mistake. Take a ten-minute walk in any direction away from the central square—there always is one—and you’ll find restaurants with 2x the quality and ½ the price.
2. Shop at the grocery store: Taking a walk around one of a foreign country’s typical supermarkets is supremely fun. It’s an opportunity to step into the mind of the average consumer of whatever country you happen to be in. Enjoy tasting foods you’ve never heard of, not finding foods that you would expect to be readily available, and trying local variations of foods you know and love. Shopping at a supermarket is less expensive than eating out, makes for a fun trip, and gives you a chance to cook in your Airbnb’s kitchen.
3. Spend too much on a street vendor, and then forgive yourself. What would a trip to Prague be without honeyed wine? Or a trip to England without fish-and-chips? So, do it. You’re traveling somewhere to which you won’t return soon, if at all, and you’re a diligent saver each month. So spend a little money and try the local cuisine—just try to find a spot that’s worth it! Ask a local! Ask your Airbnb host! (yes, we really like Airbnb)
And when flying…
The advice is almost too easy: Buy your tickets with Hipmunk, StudentUniverse, or Google Flights. Make sure to check the discount airlines that often don’t show up in aggregate searches, and try booking directly from the airline’s website. If possible, fly with the points you’ve earned by using your credit card. Paying with points offers enormous value: some credit card sign-up bonuses will pay for your round trip ticket to Europe.
Try to also book each segment of your flight separately, sometimes you can beat the round-trip, single-airline package by creating your own. Just be wary of checking your bags, as they won’t be automatically brought to the hold of your next plane. And on this subject, why are you flying?
If you’re traveling domestically, consider taking BoltBus, Megabus, or Greyhound. Pack snacks and download shows or a movie to make the ride fun; you’ll save hundreds of dollars. When you factor in security lines, baggage fees, taxis, terrible food, expensive food, pickpockets, lost suitcases, and high-stress atmosphere, the inexpensive, luxury buses of the 21st century are quite appealing. The same advice holds for Europe but includes their ultra-efficient trains and a cool new rideshare program called BlaBlaCar.
Let us know in the comments section below how you maximize your money when traveling!
If you enjoyed your reading, consider following our weekly, life-improving article!