How to Save Money While Traveling
When I was packing for my trip to Argentina, a friend advised me, “Put everything you're taking on the bed. Now put back half the clothes, and take twice the money.”
Good advice. I tried to follow it and still ended up bringing more clothes than I could possibly need. I didn't bring much money, though, because one of my goals for this trip is to keep saving even while I'm traveling.
Saving for travel is relatively simple: You set up a targeted savings account and put a little money aside each week or each month. Setting a schedule and sticking to it is the key to saving for anything. Travel is no exception.
Saving while traveling is a bit more complicated. Even the most carefully-planned vacation is plagued with unexpected expenses. Over at I Will Teach You to Be Rich, Ramit Sethi suggests budgeting 20% more than you think a trip will cost to pay for sundry expenses along the way.
That's a lot of dough. Where does it all go?
- Taxes and fees. Many countries levy special taxes and fees on tourists. A little research can let you know what these will be, so you can plan ahead. To find local tax, toll and fee information, check the websites for each state or country you plan to visit, or talk to your travel agent. At the airport in Argentina, for example, we had to pay $140 per American citizen to enter the country. A fellow behind us in line hadn't know about that fee, and was miserably explaining to the ticket agent that he didn't have that much money on him and didn't know what to do.
- Unexpected needs. Baby Tylenol. Adapters to plug in our electronic gadgets. Groceries from the corner market. I knew we'd need something day to day on our trip, but I didn't know what. It wouldn't have made sense to travel with every possible thing I might need. These things were cheaply and readily available here, and would have taken up valuable space in a suitcase. Bringing cash to cover incidental needs made more sense than imagining every possible occurrence and packing ahead.
- Impulse spending. Part of the joy of travel is seeing new things and having new experiences. Some of those may cost more than you'd expected. In our travels in Argentina, I've had the chance to visit Eva Peron's grave, fall in love with a local winery, and take a river cruise. Better to budget in advance for museum tickets, scenic tours, and souvenir shopping than to find yourself pinching pennies halfway through your trip because you splurged at the beginning.
- Emergencies. On our last visit to Argentina, my infant daughter caught a terrible ear infection and needed hospital care. Our insurance ultimately paid for her care, less our normal co-pay. But at the time, we had to pay out of pocket for everything here, and then chase down reimbursement for it through a maze of paperwork once we got home. Having a comfortable cushion of while traveling lets you handle real emergencies as they crop up.
There's no doing away with all these expenses, but there are plenty of things you can do to keep your overall costs low. Here are some easy ways to save while traveling:
- Be prepared. I mentioned planning to buy some small needful things, like infant Tylenol, while you travel. A little research on your destination can help you figure out what necessities are going to be cheaper where you're traveling to, and which ones might cost a lot more. I planned to buy a fancy dress for the party I'm attending, because clothes are generally cheaper here. But I bought my husband a video camera before we left, because electronics cost quite a bit more in Buenos Aires than they do in Boston.
- Travel with frugal companions. Just like your friends influence your spending at home, they can pressure you to spend or save on the road. I have a close friend I've traveled with several times during the past year. She's more frugal than I am, and she's great at checking my impulse to spend excessively just because I'm on the road.
- Know your weaknesses. I splurge when I'm stressed and when I'm celebrating. Travel tends to push both those buttons. I worry about making it on time through the airport, so I throw caution to the winds and pay for overpriced food rather than packing a picnic ahead of time. I want to treasure the memories of where I am, so I spend money on knick-knacks or clothes that I don't really need. This is a habit I picked up from childhood. My normally tightwad mother would open her purse with abandon when we were traveling, and I've never quite shaken the habit. Knowing this about myself makes me look twice at any purchase I want to make when I'm on the road.
- Make a game of it. See how low you can keep your daily travel budget. Can you get through a whole day in a foreign country without spending a dime? Can you clip coupons in a language you barely speak? Take advantage of local specials at the neighborhood diner instead of eating in your hotel? Score points with your spouse by finding ways to save on your vacation.
- Have a savings goal in mind. What are you going to do with the money you don't spend on this trip? Having a prize in mind helps keep me focused on saving. I have a pool of money I can afford to part with here in Argentina. Any money I take home will go into my high interest savings account towards my next savings goal: paying off our car loan. My goal is to shave time off that deadline by bringing home enough unspent “travel money” to make a full months' car payment.
Of course for some people part of the joy of travel is being able to let go the reins of frugality and spend freely. If you've saved diligently and have that 20% cushion Ramit Sethi suggests, there's no reason not to.
But if you enjoy frugality, there's also no reason to leave your frugal habits at home. Careful spending while traveling only reinforces wise fiscal habits at home, and if you come home with part of your travel fund untouched, you're that much closer to the being ready to book your next trip.
I've become a huge fan of the packing list. As I begin to travel more and more, it's very useful to have a fixed list that indicates the things I need to take with me. This keeps me from panicking with last-minute worry that I've forgotten something, but it also helps me keep costs down because I have a sort of mini-inventory of travel stuff I need. (I used my last Breathe Right nasal strip in Denver last weekend, so I bought more today because I had a coupon.) I have two packing-list apps for my iPhone, have bookmarked several packing-list sites, and even have a packing-list book on hold at my library!
The packing list also helps me to pack light, which is another way it saves me money. When I pack light, I know what I have and where I have it. Plus, I don't have to check a bag. (My goal — even for our upcoming month-long trip to Europe — is to travel with a single carry-on bag.) In extreme cases, I've known people who have packed so much Stuff they've actually had to ship some of it home. From Europe. Now that's expensive!
Finally, on long trips, I keep a daily log of what I'm spending. I know my overall trip budget (and what that works out to per day), so my daily tracking lets me know when I need to pinch pennies and when I can cut loose a little. And in my case, I use a specific credit card that waves overseas transaction charges while also giving me 1% cash back.
Sorry for hijacking Sierra's post. I'll go to the gym for deadlifts and burpees now…[Wait! One last tip! If you're traveling in the U.S., order an Entertainment book for the city you're traveling to. When Kris and I do this, we recover the cost very quickly.]
Photo by Rick.