Let’s face it – traveling can be annoyingly expensive. If it wasn’t, everyone would do it all the time. (I mean, I would. You probably would too if you’re reading this blog.)
That said, what constitutes a meaningful vacation will vary by person, and everyone is entitled to have different priorities. Some people would rather splurge on staying at a trendy boutique hotel, while others would be keen to see a live band play at a local pub. No matter what memories and experiences you want to take away from your trip, I’m sure you would agree that “running up the meter in your taxicab” is not one of them.
One of my primary goals for this blog has always been to help my readers optimize every vacation day and dollar to achieve the most meaningful trip possible. In order to continue with this mission, I wanted to share with you a few budget hacks that I’ve picked up over the years:
- Pack a small water bottle that fits in your day bag.
You need to stay hydrated when touring cities on foot, and you should try to avoid the pricey bottled water typically sold near tourist destinations. If you are going to a country where the water is safe to drink, you could save more money than you think by adding a water bottle to your suitcase.
When my boyfriend and I were in Bruges last July, we were stunned when restaurants did not offer free tap water with our meals. Instead, we had to pay between three and five Euros to split a bottle of tap water at the table! While this practice is not common in other European countries, it will always save money to be prepared. In our circumstance, we were in Bruges during the height of the summer and drank about three bottles of water per day. Had we brought water bottles, we would have saved roughly $9 per day, per person.
- Bring your breakfast!
I’m American and I eat breakfast. I’ll be first to admit that if I don’t, I will get HANGRY. So, I’ve started the habit of bringing my favorite instant coffee (Nescafe Taster’s Choice 100% Colombian) and instant oatmeal (Nature’s Path Organic Gluten Free Oatmeal – Spiced Apple with Flax) along with me on longer trips to avoid the cost of cafes.
I’ve always found access to a hot water heater and cups/mugs to make this work (even in hostels!), and I try to pack a small spoon as well for convenience. Needless to say, the coffee/oatmeal combo in the mornings has always gotten me through to lunch. Honestly, the last thing I want to be thinking about when I’m touring a new city is how many minutes until my stomach stops rumbling. I would guess that this habit has saved about $5 to $10 per day on trips – and it takes up very little room in my suitcase. (suggestion: you can even pack the individually-wrapped packets inside of your water bottle from tip #1)
- Use public transportation, if possible.
This point probably sounds like a given if you already live in a major metropolitan city. In fact, I currently live in NYC, and I only take a cab if 1) it’s pouring rain and the subway is many blocks away, 2) I’ve had too much to drink, or 3) I’m going to/from Laguardia Airport. That said, I acknowledge that folks accustomed to driving can feel intimidated by subway maps and bus routes.
However, it can be incredibly cost effective to educate yourself in advance on any safe public transit options at your destination. Trust me. I’m guilty of paying an $80 cab fare during the first time I went to London in order to simply get from Westminster to The City (only a few subway stops from each other!). If I had taken the underground, I would have avoided the traffic and paid less than $5. I mean, just think about how many fish and chips I could have eaten with that savings! Or how many Strongbows I could have drank! So, just think to yourself that if the locals can take the public transit system to/from work every day, it must be easy to use once you figure it out.
- Buy train tickets between major cities in advance.
Purchasing your train tickets in advance will almost always save money if you’re traveling between major cities. Some destinations abroad offer both standard and flexible rail passes that can give you a discounted rate if you travel by train more than once during your vacation. The type of rail pass that is best for you will vary by your age and travel itinerary.
If you’re on a strict schedule, you would be best off to book all of your tickets and passes in advance to get the lowest rates. Further, if your travel schedule is flexible or subject to change, some rail companies allow you to book passes that let you travel a fixed number of days during a specified time frame (i.e. three day in a two week time period).
If you’re American and would like to buy or research European rail passes, my go-to resource has always the rail pass section of RickSteves.com. Also, if you want to travel by rail within the US, you can access Amtrak.com for train ticket prices.
- Use the bathroom preventatively wherever it’s free.
Many public restrooms in Europe charge money to use the loo, so just go when you have free access – even if you “don’t have to” at the time. The same idea also applies to the US, where many restaurants and cafes require you to buy something at their establishment if you want to use their facilities. Just go after every meal and at any indoor attraction you visit. You’ll thank me later.
Oh – and if you’re not in an English-speaking country, do your best to learn the word for restroom. If the pronunciation is daunting, another option is to carry a flashcard with either an icon of a toilet or the local word written out. If that fails, use cross-cultural words such as “toilet?” before asking for “bathroom” or “restroom” in order to have the best chance of effectively communicating what you’re seeking.
- Take out cash before your trip (and later in bulk if you are in a foreign country).
It may make you very uncomfortable to carry large amounts of cash in your wallet. I don’t know about you, but I’m a stereotypical American living in a big city, so I rarely carry cash. I don’t need to – almost every establishment in New York accepts credit cards.But, once you arrive at your destination you may not always be greeted by the same prevalence of credit card machines. For that reason it’s always good to have at least one day’s worth of cash (in your destination’s currency if possible!) when you arrive.
For starters, it would be foolish to take chances that you’ll be covered in case of a special circumstance. This is a very extreme example: one time I got food poisoning on a flight from London to Seville while I was studying abroad. Since I was a poor college student, I had planned to take the bus to my hotel when I arrived in order to save money. However, taking a cab to the hotel became ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY. To no real shock of my own, the cab driver did not accept credit cards (hello, Spanish recession!). I am eternally grateful that I brought enough Euros to cover that unexpected cost, because I would have needed to call a Spanish limo service had that not been the case.
As a note of caution, most credit cards charge a foreign exchange and foreign transaction fee with all purchases made abroad. In order to reduce those fees, you can pay in cash for most things. ATM’s will usually charge a fee(s) as well, but in my experience they are typically lower than those from credit card purchases. With that said, try to avoid ATM’s that charge a usage fee. The ATM will warn you about before you proceed with the transaction if you will be charged a fee. When I studied abroad in London, Barclay’s ATM’s were my go-to for cash withdrawals because I knew they did not tack on an extra charge for using their ATM’s, which can save a few dollars per transaction.
Of course, the above is not a comprehensive list of the only ways to save money while you travel. You can also research flight deals, hotel rewards, free museum days, and more that would allow you to maximize both the spiritual and monetary value of your trip. I always recommend researching as much as possible in order to find the best deals and avoid any unexpected cash emergencies.
I will be following up to this post in the coming months with more clever budgeting tips on the go, but if you have any other tips you wish to share, feel free to add them in the comments!