As a budget traveler for most part of my backpacking journey, I pride myself in taking the road less traveled, having those authentic experiences, and trying to accomplish the most with least amount of resources. What started as an impulse to just stretch my saving as far as possible, and travel as long as I could, quickly taught me that sometimes, less is more. By skipping the metro and walking those 7 stops, I got lost in Paris and discovered the magic in its boroughs. By forgoing the buses and hitchhiking through Northwest China, I encountered some of the warmest souls, and will forever cherish those memories on the Silk Road. By skipping the hostels and pitching my tent in west Ireland, I befriended just the loveliest Welsh family huddling next to their camper van, and I still keep in touch with the elder son who had just so much love for the world.
But I have also learnt that there is no one singular way of doing anything, and what works for me doesn’t necessarily work for you. Sometimes saving a few bucks, for better or worse, could lead to an entirely different experience. Ain’t nothing wrong with hiring a cab for the whole day, and capture as much as a new city has to offer. And sometimes you just gotta forget about those Menu Del Dias, and fork out some cash for that life-changing meal in Pujol, D.F. Needless to say, there are definitely more than one way to see a country. But regardless of your budget or your travel preference, here are 5 simple, surefire ways to save money on the road, without any significant impact to your overall experience.
SAY NO TO ATM FEES…
ATM fees are no jokes. On any given transaction, you are charged $3 to $7 from a local ATM in the country you are visiting. Almost instantaneously, your domestic bank tags on a similar fee back home… talk about a double whammy. Causally taking out $100 on streets of Chiang Mai could easily cost you $15. And those fees add up quickly.
What many backpackers quickly learn is to bring as much cash as they could for a short trip. And for those long journeys, they take out the maximum amount allowed each time at an ATM.
But who wants to carry all that cash in downtown Bogota?
The best solution is to find a bank with no ATM withdraw fees. My personal favorite has always been Charles Schwab. To grow their deposits and help cross-selling their trading platforms, Schwab is one of a handful of banks that offers free checking with no ATM withdraw fees. And wait for the best part… their rebate program reimburses you for any fees charged by 3rd party ATMs. Yes, you literally won’t incur a penny on any withdraw, so withdraw away, my friends. (During my 4 years on the road, Schwab has reimbursed each and every one of my ATM transaction, without a single hiccup.)
I am not sure how feasible applying for Schwab (or other American banks) is for my non-North American readers. But look for similar banks and services in your region. If not, make sure to have a checking card from one of the larger banks in your home country. Chances are, they have the most ATMs available abroad. Additionally, larger banks usually have international alliances with their counterparts abroad. Do some research on your bank’s web page, and avoid those ATM charges by using their partner’s branches in a foreign country.
ALWAYS PAY IN LOCAL CURRENCY…
Coming from a finance background myself, this is an area where I see a lot of travelers lose out on, simply due to lack of awareness. If given the choice, always use the local currency. And yes, that includes those credit card transactions.
In most popular tourist destinations, especially Central America, U.S. dollars are widely accepted in shops, hotels, and restaurants. For obvious convenience reasons, and perhaps not so obvious shenanigan reasons, the price in dollars is always higher than its equivalent in local currency, sometimes by a large margin. There are Casa de Cambios on almost every street corner. Look up the international market rate beforehand, and use those exchange houses.
In fancier establishments where credit cards are accepted, you should be presented the option between paying in local currency and your home currency. Always choose the local currency where the transaction took place. For example, if I am in Mexico, I want to sign a receipt in Pesos. And if I am in Germany, I want to pay in Euros. Almost always, the spot rate used by Dynamic Currency Conversion (DCC) to convert your bill back to your home currency is quite awful (usually ~7%). You credit card company, on the other hand, actually gives you a much fairer rate. So it is always better to pay in local currency, and have your credit card company take care of the conversion on the back end, which will show up on your next statement. On that note…
OWN A CREDIT CARD WITH ZERO INTERNATIONAL TRANSACTION FEES…
This goes without saying, if accepted, you should always use a credit card as a method of payment. With availability of mobile and online banking apps, it really helps to keep track of how much you are spending. More importantly, ~2% cash back per transaction might not seem like much on your €1 cup of espresso in Venice. But it sure adds up when you redeem that Paris – Tokyo flight or a 3 night stay in that fancy smancy hotel. Cash back is widely available, so why not take advantages of it? (More on this topic in our Best Travel Credit Cards article)
What a lot of backpackers don’t look into is the amount of international transaction fees your bank charges. Say I am getting 2% cash back, but the bank charges 5% on each transaction outside of the U.S. I should probably put my card away as soon as I board that flight. One of the cards I own offers 1%, 2%, & 3% on everything, grocery, and gas respectively. But it also charges a 1.25% per swipe foreign transaction fees. So I will probably break even, unless I am renting a car and driving a whole lot.
There are tons of credit cards out there catered especially to travelers. Most of them do come with an annual membership fee, although a good portion of these companies waive that fee in Year 1. (Again, we will talk more extensively in our “Ultimate Guide to Points & Rewards” article.) But just for a quick example, the card I really enjoyed having was the CapitalOne Venture Card. It’s widely accepted for its Visa partnership. It charges zero international transaction fees. It offers unlimited 2% cash back on every transaction, and you can earn up to ~$600 in sign-on bonus and travel credits. If you cancel within the first year, it costs you absolutely nothing.
DON’T JUST ASSUME YOU HAVE TO TIP. BUT DON’T BE AN ASS EITHER…
Tips are generally welcomed no matter where you travel, but don’t automatically assume it’s obligatory or expected. This is especially relevant for us Americans, since for better or worse, we are some of the “best” tippers around. (Now, I can go on for hours into this topic. Since my very first job was waiting tables as a scrawny 16 year old, and I have learned the hard way that our service industry is somewhat flawed.)
But just because you should, and sometimes need to tip in your home country, doesn’t mean you are obligated to tip elsewhere. By not wanting to look cheap, you might be doing an seemingly generous thing by tipping that standard 20% on the surface. But say this happens again and again in Kenya, where a tipping culture was none-existent, you are possibly setting an unrealistic expectation that could potentially affect social behaviors in a negative way.
For example, tipping is very uncommon in Asia. In some rare instances in Japan, it is perceived as a sign of disrespect. (I once had a lady running out of her soba shop to return the change… ooops) In most of the Latin American countries, a % tip is not expected. Since they are still largely cash economies, most folks just leave whatever the change comes out to be, and perhaps add on a coin or two. Even in Mexico, where the dining culture is somewhat influenced by flocks of tourists from its northern border, the standard, if you can call it that, is only 10%. Similar practice is observed in Europe, where the range is generally 5% to 10%. (Of course, this is the trend I’ve seen, and my interactions were mostly in middle class, mom and pop eateries.) Do your googling. See what the locals do next to you. When in doubt, ask the waiter.
LOOK FOR TERM BASED BUS/TRAIN PASSES…
There are tons of ways to save on transportation, most of which requires a tad bit of research. Train and airline tickets can fluctuate quite a bit, so you would have to do some planning to maximize your savings. I have always preferred traveling spontaneously (euphemism for my commitment issues/laziness), but there are still easy ways to save on transportation without much planning.
One simple way to save is to look for unlimited ground passes. If you have a busy sightseeing day planned in a major city, make sure you grab an all-day metro pass instead of paying each individual leg. Please, don’t get on those open top, hop-on-hop-off buses… save those seats for your grandparents.
Most countries offer term based, unlimited ground transportation packages. For example, without a fixed itinerary in mind, I sort of wanted to visit Aberdeen, Inverness, and the Isle of Skye after landing in Scotland. Instead of buying individual bus tickets as I hop from one city to another, I grabbed the £74 CItylink Pass in Edinburgh, which allowed me to roam about for 5 days in a 10 day window. It saved me at least £100, not to mention the added flexibility and ease of mind. Japan is another great example. It’s such an incredible country, and there are sooooo much to see. Whereas food and lodging is on par with what you would’ve expected, public transportation is hella expensive. I personally would recommend picking one or two prefectures, like Kansai or Hokkaido, and discover it in depth. So grabbing a Regional Japan Rail Pass makes sense. Or if you want to cover the whole country in a short period (very aggressive), make sure to grab a National Rail Pass beforehand, since it could only be purchased by visitors outside of Japan. Yes, $261 is a lot of dough. But Japan is also very, very first world.