37 Ways to Save Money & Time When Traveling Internationally
Here at Money Crashers, we’re all about money-saving tips. In the past, we’ve written about saving money as a wedding guest, talked about saving money on books, and have taken multiple deep dives into saving money on holiday gifts.
But we haven’t covered everything – yet. In this guide, I’m going to review a slew of opportunities to save money when traveling abroad, whether you’re taking a once-in-a-lifetime trip to a faraway honeymoon destination or simply jetting down to the Caribbean for an extended weekend.
Travel is a particular passion of mine. I’ve written frugal travel guides for such popular destinations as Miami, San Francisco, and Lisbon, Portugal, among others. Over the years, I’ve learned a thing or two about saving money on longer, out-of-country trips. And since time really is money, I’ll even throw in some time-saving tips gleaned from personal experience.
Frugal international vacations begin weeks before takeoff. These are the top tips and tricks for saving money before you leave, while in transit, and during your time abroad. Do these things before you leave:
As we’ve said before, you should have three types of savings: personal, emergency, and retirement. Where in that rubric does travel fall?
Since travel is a luxury, it must come after emergency savings and retirement savings. Once you’ve accounted for those two buckets, you’re free to focus on your travel fund, which can certainly be your top non-essential savings goal. (It’s my family’s second-most-important goal after replacing our aging, inefficient boiler – an unwelcome but necessary home improvement project.)
Segregate your travel fund in a separate, FDIC-insured savings account. Add to it early and often – if you save more than you need for a single trip, you’ll have a head start on saving for your next trip. Once you’ve done some rough planning and have a good estimate of the likely cost of your proximate vacation, you can adjust your saving rate to meet your target dates and budget.
Worried about getting nickel-and-dimed abroad? Your bank or credit card issuer might be one of the biggest culprits, thanks to annoying foreign transaction fees that can add 2% or 3% to the cost of each card transaction.
If your bank or credit union charges foreign transaction fees, consider switching to a competitor that doesn’t. Alternatively, at least a month before you leave on your trip, apply for a no-foreign-transaction-fee credit card. They’re increasingly plentiful. As long as you don’t have any major credit issues, you should find one for which you qualify.
The Discover it family is a good place to start, despite the fact that they’re not as widely accepted as Visa or MasterCard products. If you have excellent credit, consider a higher-end travel rewards credit card, such as Chase Sapphire Preferred or Citi Prestige.
When cost control is paramount, it pays to be flexible. If your heart is set on a particular destination, consider a range of different start and end dates. If you must travel within a fixed time frame due to work-, family-, or education-related obligations, be opportunistic about your destination.
Note that this flexibility doesn’t require leaving huge chunks of your calendar open or sacrificing your dream vacation because you expect it to cost too much. Minor scheduling tweaks can have a major impact. For instance, savvy international travelers avoid Mexico and other Latin American countries during Semana Santa (Easter week) because many locals hit the road during that time. Moving up or delaying your trip for a week may be all that’s required to avoid peak crowds and higher costs.
If your travel dates are flexible, consider traveling during the shoulder seasons – the dead periods between peak seasons.
Shoulder or low seasons vary by destination. For instance, many urban destinations in Europe (including London, Paris, and Zurich) are extremely busy during the summer and early winter. They’re much slower in spring and fall when the weather is less predictable and there aren’t any major holidays. In tropical locales, the low season is synonymous with the wet season – usually one to two stretches of three to four months per year, depending on the destination.
Because demand is lower, big-ticket travel expenses like airfare and lodging are more reasonable during the shoulder and low seasons. If you’re planning your trip on short notice, you may also have an easier time finding higher-end lodging, such as all-inclusive resorts, without running outside your budget’s rails.
Purchasing travel insurance means spending money up front with no guarantee of a return on the back end. Still, in the unlikely, unfortunate event that you need to cancel your trip for a covered reason, or your trip is interrupted for reasons beyond your control, it can pay off many times over.
According to Lifehacker, you can expect your one-time travel insurance premium to run about 5% of your total trip cost when purchased directly from a travel insurance provider, such as Allianz. If you’re booking through a travel agency, your agent can arrange travel insurance on your behalf, again at the 5% rate (or possibly a bit higher, depending on the agent’s compensation structure).
You can also buy travel insurance through your transportation carrier, such as an airline or cruise line. In that case, your premium is likely to be lower, but may only cover the carrier’s portion of your trip – for instance, the flights or cruise.
If you have a higher-end travel credit card, especially one that focuses on travel rewards, your card’s benefits may include complimentary trip cancellation or interruption protection up to a pre-defined limit – often as high as $5,000 to $10,000.
You’ll want to read the fine print on your card’s benefits statement to determine whether this protection is adequate for your needs, but if so, you can avoid paying potentially hundreds of dollars in travel insurance premiums. While most credit cards with complimentary travel insurance charge annual fees, you’ll likely still come out ahead if you take advantage of the benefit at least once per year.
Pro Tip: You can use the same trick for rental cars. Many credit cards offer complimentary loss and damage coverage on rental cars purchased with the card, rendering the car company’s add-on insurance policy moot.
It’s not hard to find travel deals online. You just have to know where to look.
Preserve your sanity by breaking your travel deal search into discrete funnels:
This is just a taste of the online travel deal smorgasbord that awaits frugal international vacationers. Do your research and let us know what you find.
Booking aggregators are great for getting a broad view of the deal landscape for your chosen travel dates and destinations. Just don’t take their word for it.
Before you book, try the “hidden city” strategy, a clever tactic wherein you book a multi-leg airplane journey with no intention of completing it. For instance, say you’re trying to fly from Chicago to Rome as cheaply as possible. Due to capacity constraints, seasonality, and a slew of other opaque factors, it might be cheaper to book a flight from Chicago to Nice (France) through Rome – and then simply skip out on the Rome-Nice leg. (That’s just one example – the possibilities are nearly endless.)
Pro Tip: The best website for “hidden city” travel is Skiplagged. No matter where you’re headed, check it before you book.
If your trip dates and destinations are flexible, consider building part or all of your trip out of a series of extended layovers (or stopovers).
Even for single-destination trips reachable by nonstop flight, it’s sometimes cheaper to purchase two one-way flights rather than one round-trip flight. For multi-destination vacations, this strategy is more likely to succeed.
Start by identifying each city or region you want to visit, figure out how long you’ll stay in each place, and then find the cheapest flight from place to place. (For proximate destinations, look at rail fares too.) Book a one-way from your origin to your first destination and another one-way from your last destination back to your origin. Voila!
To avoid airline fees, such as checked bag fees and overweight charges, pack as efficiently as possible. Make sure your carry-on bags fit your airline’s size guidelines, which are usually available on carrier websites. Make sure your checked bags are within the acceptable weight range – many airlines charge extra for bags that weigh more than 50 pounds.
Packing efficiency requires intentional thinking about what you’ll need in your destination and how much convenience you’re willing to sacrifice for lower costs. I’m no expert in ultra-light packing, but I try to follow these basic ground rules:
Pro Tip: You can also avoid or reduce certain airline fees by signing up for certain branded airline credit cards. For instance, the American Express Gold Delta SkyMiles Card waives baggage fees on your first checked bag, knocking $50 off the cost of a round-trip flight.
This is another tip that requires an upfront investment. However, if you travel frequently (not just on once-in-a-great-while trips abroad), an airport lounge membership can quickly pay for itself.
Assuming you’re not intensely loyal to a particular airline, Priority Pass is your best airport lounge membership option. It offers access to more than 1,000 (and growing) independent and airline-owned lounges worldwide, including hundreds in popular European and Asian destinations.
A Priority Pass Prestige membership, which entitles you to unlimited complimentary lounge access anywhere in the world, costs $399 per year – compared with full-price entry fees ranging from $30 to $60 per person at most lounges. This understates the value, as most lounges offer complimentary WiFi, food, beverages (alcoholic and non-alcoholic), and other perks. Airport food, drink, and even Internet are all notoriously overpriced, so your “splurge” is likely to pay for itself faster than you think.
If you play your cards right (literally), you might not even have to pay. Some high-end airline and hotel credit cards, including the Ritz-Carlton Rewards Card from Chase, offer complimentary Priority Pass memberships. The catch: most such credit cards have hefty annual fees, to the tune of $300 to $500.
Refillable water bottles are good for the environment and your wallet. It’s no wonder they’re more fashionable than ever before. Even in places with cheap bottled water, you’ll save a decent chunk of change by refilling your bottle at the airport, hotel, hostel, or anywhere else with clean water. If you’re worried about water quality in your destination country, invest in iodide tablets – a 50-pill bottle from Potable Aqua, enough to treat 25 quarts, costs less than $8 on Amazon.
Even if they lack children, pets, or valuable possessions, most international travelers make house-sitting arrangements for trips longer than a few days. Rather than hire a stranger to drop in on your place, recruit friends and family members. You probably won’t need to pay them, at least not directly. A thoughtful souvenir from your destination country, plus the perks that come with full use of an empty house or apartment, should suffice.
Do these things while in transit to and from your destination:
In early 2016, on the morning we were scheduled to leave for Key West, my wife and I made a disastrous mistake: We mistimed the alarm and woke up an hour late, scrambling our plans to take public transit to the airport.
In our haste, we decided that the fastest option was to drive in and park at one of the main garages next to the international terminal. The total parking bill for our weeklong trip was over $150. Though marginally slower, an Uber or Lyft would have cost about 70% less. But, at the time, all we could think about was making our flight before the gates closed. As it happened, we got on the plane with only a few minutes to spare.
Life happens. Financially speaking, driving yourself to the airport is a bad move. It is possible to limit the damage with a few tricks though.
Newsflash: Airport food is expensive. As a rule of thumb, I assume anything I buy at an airport will cost 50% more than in the real world. Some items, like bottled water and soft drinks, are even costlier.
Avoid airport price gouging by eschewing full meals and store-bought snacks, even on long layovers. Instead, bring nutritious, energy-dense snacks from outside. If they’re packed properly, you’ll get them through security without a problem. In many countries, you can’t bring outside beverages through security, so be sure to remember your (empty) refillable water bottle.
In many developing countries, cash is king. In others, it’s still the medium of choice for small businesses. With few exceptions, you’re going to need hard cash at your destination. But whatever you do, don’t get it at a currency exchange bureau unless specifically instructed to do so by a trusted travel agent or frequent traveler with deep knowledge of your destination country.
The reason? Currency bureaus charge ridiculous commissions, especially for smaller transactions. You can expect to lose up to 8% of your exchanged cash to these fees.
It’s usually cheaper (and often more convenient) to wait until you’re in country and can visit an ATM that accepts international debit cards. Many banks waive foreign transaction fees for cash transactions at ATMs. Among those that do charge, the most you can expect is 3% of the transaction fee. In the absence of a foreign transaction fee, you’ll likely still have to pay a small bank surcharge – on the order of $2 to $5, in most cases. But, on large withdrawals, that’s a far cry from 8%.
Do these things when you arrive at your destination:
Why stay in a hotel when you can rent your own place? If you’re willing to share an apartment with others, Airbnb’s private rooms are almost always more affordable than traditional hotels. They’re often cost-competitive with hostels, where you’re likely to be in even closer quarters. I did a cursory Airbnb search for a random midweek night in Paris and found hundreds of private rooms for less than $100 – a bargain for the City of Light, and about half the price of a comparable hotel room in the city center.
Beyond lower per-night costs, rented accommodations have other benefits. They’re often in residential neighborhoods, meaning more affordable grocery and dining-out options compared with upscale hotel districts. They usually have serviceable kitchens, meaning you can cook in as often as you like. And they frequently have free entertainment, such as TV, movies, and Internet – things you often have to pay for in hotels.
One of the easiest ways to save money on vacation is to reduce spending on restaurant meals. If your room has a mini-fridge, buy sandwich supplies or other low-prep food items. You can easily replace a few lunches this way. In rental rooms with full-scale kitchens, you can get more creative, cooking as many dinners as you have energy for. Either way, locate the nearest grocery store as soon as you get settled in your new digs.
Part of the fun of traveling abroad is trying new cuisines. Eating American-style sandwiches every other meal and trying to replicate at-home favorites in a rental kitchen will help you stretch your budget further. But they won’t supply any local flavor.
At the risk of violating my own advice, I firmly believe that travelers should eat out as often as possible. The trick is finding cost-effective options that deliver excellent, exotic flavors without destroying your travel budget. When you do eat out, opt for street food, coffee shops, and other low-cost options.
Foreign transaction fees aren’t the only way to lose money on international credit card transactions. As in the United States, many small merchants abroad impose credit card processing surcharges – often a relatively low flat fee, but sometimes a transaction percentage as high as 3% or 4%.
The best way to avoid these fees is to carry enough cash to get you through the day or until you return to your home base for a break – whichever is sooner. However, to avoid petty theft, you don’t want to carry too much cash.
Petty theft can happen anywhere. Pickpockets love crowded areas where tourists tend to congregate: public plazas, busy sidewalks, and subway platforms, among others.
It happened many years ago, but I remember the evening I was nearly pickpocketed like yesterday. I was standing shoulder-to-shoulder on a crowded subway platform in Barcelona when I felt a rustle near my right cargo pocket (yes, I was wearing cargo shorts).
I looked down and, sure enough, an older gentleman was deftly reaching into the partially opened void, closing in on my oblivious wallet. I batted his hand away, moved laterally through the crowd, and hopped on an arriving train, keeping my eyes on the guy the whole time. He played it cool, never meeting my gaze; I don’t doubt he already had his next target in mind.
As I learned that day, the best prevention against pickpocketing and snatch-and-run thefts is to remain vigilant and take basic precautions to secure cash, cards, identification, and other valuables:
Also, take care in less crowded areas after dark. While you’re not likely to be pickpocketed in a dark, deserted alley, you’re certainly at risk of a mugging – a potentially more dangerous circumstance.
These days, not all pickpockets use their hands. One of the lesser-known ways to avoid theft while traveling abroad is to store your payment cards in an RFID-blocking wallet or sleeve. These accessories interfere with RFID waves, which high-tech thieves use to surreptitiously scan victims’ chip-enabled (EMV) credit cards and steal their payment credentials. Basic RFID-blocking sleeves cost as little as $10 – a small price to pay to prevent a potentially costly and inconvenient theft.
Unfortunately, the risk of theft doesn’t stop at the door of your hotel, hostel, or apartment.
Leaving valuables out of sight in your room isn’t always enough. Other people – housekeepers, management personnel, porters, repair technicians – are authorized to enter your room. They may be tempted to rifle through your possessions.
When booking accommodations, give preference to establishments that offer secure lockboxes or safes in private rooms or guests-only areas. Get in the habit of storing valuables, including extra cash, jewelry, and especially your passport, in these secure spaces.
Even the most experienced travelers get hoodwinked from time to time. Spend some time learning about common scams in your destination: how they work, where they’re most likely to happen, and how to spot and avoid them.
Travel scams take myriad forms – enough to fill up an entire post of this length. Here’s a small sampling:
Unless you have an international calling or data plan, your phone’s functionality may be limited or nonexistent in your destination. If you want to communicate with friends and family in-country or back home, download a free or cheap messaging app, such as Skype or WhatsApp.
WhatsApp is especially useful for SMS-style communications. Instead of local cell networks, it uses your phone’s Internet connection. This avoids SMS fees, which can be quite costly overseas. The catch: If you leave your phone’s LTE receiver on, it could inadvertently hook up to local data networks, resulting in unwelcome charges. Avoid this by turning off LTE and connecting to secure local WiFi networks only. In urban areas, you shouldn’t need LTE anyway; in remote regions, this could be a limiting factor. Be sure to invest in a VPN connection beforehand for added security as well.
If you don’t want to rely on WiFi while abroad, get an unlocked phone that accepts country-specific SIM cards. This obviously involves a considerable upfront expense (at least $50 for a serviceable phone). However, it’s probably worthwhile if you plan to travel in remote areas without reliable Internet access, where messaging apps are of limited utility.
Alternatively, check with your carrier about international calling and data plans. My wife and I considered doing this in Portugal. It would have set us back about $10 per day. Ultimately, we decided against it, as we didn’t need to contact anyone in country and we had reliable WiFi for our messaging app.
With notable exceptions, such as New York City, Boston, and Washington, D.C., American cities’ public transportation systems are less developed and reliable than other major Western cities. In virtually every European capital, it’s possible to move about the city center and outlying neighborhoods exclusively on foot, bus, tram, and rail. Ditto for major cities in Australia, East Asia, and parts of Latin America. Public transit is almost always the cheapest way to get around these places too.
Public transit does fall flat in parts of the developing world. If you’re not sure about the safety, reliability, or extensiveness of the public transportation systems in your destination cities, check with impartial third parties (such as travel guides or travel agents) before your trip.
Saving time feels almost as good as saving money. Wasted time is inevitable on any international trip, but these tips can move minutes, hours, even whole days, into your vacation’s “productive” column. Use as many as practically possible before and during your journey.
Do these things while planning your trip:
By all means, begin researching your getaway on the Internet. Just don’t rely entirely on free online sources for your planning. Even the most reputable travel blogs can have erroneous or contradictory information. And all have limited resources, so they have to make tough decisions about what to include and what to pass over.
Established travel guide publishers don’t have unlimited resources, but they do have the wherewithal to pay research teams and local experts. I’d recommend purchasing an up-to-date guidebook for every country or region you plan to visit. Lonely Planet, Rick Steves (mainly for Europe), and Fodors are all great. Depending on the company and destination, plan to spend anywhere from $15 to $30 per paperback book. Used guides are significantly cheaper; guides from fellow-traveler friends are free.
For touring vacations, I can’t stress enough the importance of advance planning. Spontaneity is great, but if you want to see lots of sights or plan to hit multiple destinations on a tight timetable, you need to know where you’re going, when, and how long you can spend in each place. Combine Internet research, guidebook combing, and consultations with local experts (such as hotel concierges and tourist bureaus) to devise a realistic itinerary and schedule for the active portion of your vacation.
Not all vacations are touring vacations. If you’re planning to stay put at a resort or on a cruise ship for part or all of your trip, advance planning for in-country activities is less important and perhaps entirely unnecessary. Still, you’ll want to plan your transit periods carefully. On cruises, it pays to plan port days in advance as well, as time is often of the essence and crowds can be problematic.
Global Entry will not save you money. But the $100 non-refundable application fee could save you a great deal of time at border control stations. If you have a higher-end travel rewards credit card, you may not have to pay anything out of pocket – many include a one-time Global Entry fee credit in their travel benefit suites.
Applying for Global Entry does take time and effort. You need to complete a thorough application, agree to a comprehensive background check, and go through a detailed in-person interview. There’s no guarantee you’ll be approved, particularly if you have a criminal record or other issues in your past. And you must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. Still, if you’re willing to make the effort and feel you have nothing to hide, it’s worth the investment.
You don’t have to be fluent in every language you encounter on your trip, but you should take the time to learn basic words, phrases, and cultural customs. Knowing how to communicate properly can save time and reduce the risk of misunderstandings during everyday interactions and transactions. Cultural fluency is helpful for avoiding innocent mistakes that cause offense – for instance, in some cultures, it’s actually impolite to make direct eye contact.
Be sure to download and install the Google Translate app on your smartphone as well in case you need quick translations for words or phrases. There’s a nifty feature where you can use your phone’s camera to instantly translate signs and any other text on the fly.
This is not medical advice; I’m not a doctor. That said, the CDC encourages travelers to talk to their physicians about the risks of bacterial illness in their destinations and, if warranted, fill antibiotic prescriptions before they travel.
One of the most common and preventable illnesses is traveler’s diarrhea, a disruptive and highly unpleasant malady caused by pathogens in unclean drinking water. Traveler’s diarrhea is especially common in developing countries with poor or nonexistent municipal water systems, but it can happen anywhere – I was stricken years ago in Europe. A standard course of antibiotics can arrest the illness’s progression.
Do these things while you’re traveling or deciding where to travel:
If you don’t like crowds or waiting in line, avoid newly “discovered” destinations and peak seasons in general.
I learned this lesson firsthand in 2016, when I visited Portugal for the second time. My first visit, in late 2007, happened amid a deepening global recession and a period of unprecedented strength for the euro – 1 euro bought approximately $1.60 during my trip. Unsurprisingly, I encountered few non-European tourists in Lisbon, and the crowds were therefore quite manageable.
Fast forward nearly a decade, to a recovering economy and a weak euro (roughly 1 euro to $1.05 or $1.10), and Lisbon was packed to the gills with North American, Asian, and Middle Eastern tourists. I’m certainly still glad I visited Portugal for a second time, but the experience felt a lot more commodified than the first trip, which took place when Portugal had yet to be discovered by non-European tourists.
If you’re exploring on foot, game out your route before you leave your room each morning using paper and digital maps. This is especially important if your phone doesn’t get voice or data service in your destination, as you then won’t be able to rely on it for real-time way-finding. (This happened to me and my wife in Portugal.)
You also don’t want to be “that tourist” who fumbles with maps at every corner. Beyond simply looking awkward, you’ll mark yourself as vulnerable to petty thieves and others looking to take advantage of lost tourists.
Avoid disappointment by knowing exactly when the attractions you plan to visit are open. For popular sites, this information is almost always available online or through local tourist bureaus. The TripAdvisor app should also come in handy for this purpose.
In some countries, especially in Europe and areas with heavy European influence (such as Argentina and Brazil), popular museums and cultural attractions follow strict 9am or 10am to 4pm or 5pm schedules. Sunday open hours tend to be abbreviated, if they’re open at all.
Such museums and attractions usually have at least one closure day per week: often Sunday, Monday, or Tuesday. Due to pent-up demand, it’s best to avoid the day following the closure if possible. In Lisbon, my wife and I made the mistake of visiting a popular cultural district on the post-closure day. We saw almost everything we wanted, but it took a lot longer than anticipated – and involved a lot of jostling and waiting in line.
If your itinerary is structured as a tour with multiple urban destinations, do a cost-benefit analysis of your intercity travel options.
In most parts of the world, air and rail are the two fastest transportation options. Air is obviously faster, but the benefit narrows when destinations are relatively close together, as getting through the airport takes longer and presents more logistical hurdles (and opportunities for delay).
Rail is often cheaper, though not always. In recent years, budget airlines, such as easyJet and RyanAir, have revolutionized intercity travel in Europe by competing with rail carriers on price. That said, very short-distance trips (say, less than 100 miles) may not have air options at all.
Bottom line: If you’re willing to spend more to reduce travel time, air makes sense for most trips longer than 100 to 200 miles. If price is paramount, rail is often, but not always, the way to go.
In less-traveled destinations with major cultural or linguistic impediments, a local guide can mean the difference between a bewildering, overwhelming stumble and a confident, transcendent glide. The obvious caveat is that local guides need to be paid, a potentially insurmountable challenge for frugal travelers in developed countries. However, in low-cost countries, the relatively modest expense may be worthwhile even for tight-fisted tourists.
Competent local guides serve as day (or multi-day) planners, history and culture experts, interpreters, and fixers. They can dramatically enhance your trip’s efficiency, protect you from those who’d take advantage, and bring you to places you may not have discovered on your own.
If you’re returning to the United States from a relatively remote, distant international destination, you might not have a choice in the matter. However, if you’re faced with a choice to begin your return journey in the evening or the following morning, choose the former – even if the cost of the morning flight is a bit higher.
Flying out in the evening cuts out a lot of dead time. You’re probably not going to leave a major wish-list item until the last night of your trip, especially if your flight is early the next morning. More likely, you’ll relax in your hostel or hotel room. Why mark time waiting to leave when you can get a head start? If you’re crossing multiple time zones on your return trip, you’re going to be jet-lagged when you get home anyway, regardless of when your journey began.
Going abroad is so often memorable precisely because it’s unusual. Unless you’re visiting the country of your birth or a place where you continue to have close familial ties, international travel takes you out of your comfort zone and deposits you in a new and unfamiliar realm where the customs and logic on which you rely don’t necessarily apply.
Yes, international travel is a great privilege. Not everyone has the time or budget to head overseas, even for a few days. And, yes, not everyone enjoys traveling. But if you’ve ever felt the pull of the unknown, the drive to discover something new about the world we share with so many of our fellow humans, why not go abroad? If you plan carefully, save stringently, and follow these money-saving tips, an unforgettable international trip is closer than you think.
How do you save money while traveling abroad?
Brian Martucci writes about frugal living, entrepreneurship, and innovative ideas. When he’s not interviewing small business owners or investigating time- and money-saving strategies for Money Crashers readers, he’s probably out exploring a new trail or sampling a novel cuisine. Find him on Twitter @Brian_Martucci.
37 Ways to Save Money & Time When Traveling Internationally
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