By Chris Biggs
People often ask us if we’re budget travelers or luxury aficionados while on the road, with the implication being that you’re either one or the other. Black or white. Team Edward or Team Jacob. Someone who either gets Thai massages every night while wearing a bathrobe woven from Donald Trump’s wig, or a person who sleeps in bunk beds covered in stains from old Cooler Ranch Doritos near unshowered 19-year-old backpackers.
More realistically, we consider ourselves people who vacillate between the two ends of the travel budget spectrum depending on various factors such as pricing, location, mood, etc.
Over the last month, as we’ve traveled to India, Nepal, Thailand, and Laos (with plenty more stops to go!), we’ve found a happy medium. In terms of accommodations, we’ve successfully targeted hotels and guest houses in the $20-$40/night price range, scouring online reviews to make sure we’re staying in places that have clean sheets, hot water, and solid service (note: remind me to tell you - over a beer - the story of the guest house in southern Thailand that we checked in to...and then promptly left an hour later, after Lori and I cringed in unison: “There’s *no way* we can sleep in this place”).
Given that we’re full-time travelers, keeping costs to a minimum is essential for the survival of our bank account. So beyond simply looking for low-cost lodging, there are a host of tactics we employ to avoid unnecessary fees along the way.
Even if you only travel once a year (or less), all of these tips can be used to help cut down on travel expenses. Think about it this way: the money you save by following these can be applied instead to something awesome while you’re traveling, like zip-lining or getting a much-deserved spa treatment.
Aaaaaannnnnnndddddddddd here we go:
1: Just say no to currency exchange
You see them at every airport, and often you’ll find them straddling street corners in popular tourist destinations. You’ll know them when you see them - the little booth with a big sign that reads, “Currency Exchange!” in bright letters.
What happens at a currency exchange location? Well, let’s pretend you’re at a restaurant and your waiter brings out a plate of delicious french fries. Before she puts them down, she remarks to you, “Hey, you know what? I can actually get you sweet potato fries instead - would you like that?” Your heart skips a beat. You immediately say yes. And when the new plate comes out, there are about half as many sweet potato fries as you expected. When you ask the waiter what happened, she replies, “Sorry, the conversion from Russet potatoes to sweet potatoes just changed, plus the restaurant took a 10% convenience fee.”
For the record, if anyone ever tried to mess with my sweet potato fries, I would shank them like in that prison scene from the final season of Breaking Bad.
And if I’m that protective over my food, you can bet I protect my money. No one ever wins at a money exchange (except the company running the exchange itself). Their exchange rates are often subpar and, in virtually all instances, they charge fees that can range from 5-20% just for giving you a handful of bills.
We all know that obtaining local currency is necessary in many countries, where credit cards aren’t widely accepted (or where restaurants, hotels, and other vendors apply a fee directly to the buyer for the convenience of using plastic, often 3-6%). But using money exchange should be your last resort, not a first option. Instead, consider using an ATM for the reasons noted below.
2: Never pay another ATM fee
I used to HATE using the ATM overseas, and I’d do crazy calculations before withdrawing money to estimate how much I’d spend while in the country - all in an effort to avoid multiple withdrawal fees (typically $5 per transaction).
When we started gearing up for full-time travel, Lori and I decided we needed a better way (especially because my calculations were always wrong).
Reading other travel bloggers, we noticed that a significant percentage of them opened a Charles Schwab Bank checking account, which has no ATM fees anywhere in the world. Yep, you got that right. NO FEES. They reimburse all ATM fees. So now, rather than crunching the numbers, I just hit up the ATM as often as needed with no negative financial consequences.
This is great for a few reasons. The first, obviously, is that you avoid parting ways with your hard-earned money each time you visit an ATM. More importantly, however, you now never have to use a currency exchange again!
Each time we land in a new country, we head straight to an ATM at the airport, where we take out spending money that not only has zero fees, but which virtually always employs a fair conversion rate verified by the financial institution behind the ATM.
Our Charles Schwab account is not our primary account, but we move money in there on an as-needed basis because it’s just so darn useful. When we get back to the U.S., too, I’m going to start using my Schwab ATM there as well, since my bank doesn’t have an ATM near my house.
(Note: we do not receive ANY compensation from Charles Schwab for our blog post. But DAMN, maybe they should pay us. We love that card).
3: Keep that cell phone bill down overseas
Back in the dark ages (pre-2015), traveling with my phone was the bane of my existence. My previous service provider (rhymes with “Borizon”) was so difficult to use overseas; I would either not be able to get a signal OR end up with huge charges, even after attempting to coordinate with them prior to the trip. And forget about taking a trip to multiple countries...that was simply out of the question!
Those days are long gone. Lori and I both switched to Google’s Project Fi service (read about it in detail on the “Our Faves” portion of our website). It has saved us tons of money AND it works in almost every country on the planet. Booyah, Borizon!
Here’s a brief overview of how it works: for those living in the United States, unlimited voice and texting costs $20/month (we have a group plan, so two phones gets a discount at $35/month). For data, you pay for every GB of data used at a rate of $10/GB, so if you used 2.1 GB of data during the previous month's billing cycle, you would pay exactly $21 for data. The plan is geared towards people who don't use massive amounts of data each month, although you can read a few tips here about how we keep our data usage down to astronomically low levels. In an average month we spend $55 for phone service ($35 for voice/texting and $20 for 2GB of data). Yes, you read that correctly - we spend less than $30/person each month for awesome phone service.
The kicker, however, is how well the phone is set up for international use. It works in 135+ countries and doesn't require ANY additional work on your part. Simply get off the plane and boom - your phone instantly works in the new country. The only difference for overseas service is pricing for voice calls; there's a per/minute rate of roughly 20 cents. However, that's easily avoided if you wait to make phone calls when you're on wi-fi in your hotel or hostel, where you can use a service like WhatsApp, Google Hangouts, or Skype for free.
No more SIM cards, no more outrageous fees, no more heartache. Plus you save a bunch of cash.
4: Tip appropriately
This isn’t a reminder to tip your waiter (although good service should always be rewarded). Instead, this is actually the opposite.
While traveling in a new country, you should always research how much to tip waiters and other service providers (such as taxi drivers, tour guides, etc.). Do not assume that your home country’s tip rates apply overseas.
How do you get good intel on how much you should be tipping? A Google search will typically provide the answer, and there are also great articles like this to use as a reference.
Is my point that you should avoid being generous while traveling to save money? ABSOLUTELY NOT. The takeaway is simply that people from the U.S. and Western Europe - especially those who don’t travel a ton - are sometimes prone to tipping more than local custom dictates. So save a few pesos, baht, or yen by doing your research first.
Seriously, do tip your waiter. And your tour guide. And anyone else helpful.
5: Eat like royalty...but only pay for dinner
I like free food. I’m going to bet you do, too.
For the better part of the last month, Lori and I have been able to get away with only paying for dinner, while getting breakfast and lunch at no additional cost. And we’ve done it without stealing, prostituting ourselves, or eating out of dumpsters.
How? We typically prioritize staying in hotels and guest houses known for having good breakfasts - and where the cost of breakfast has already been baked into the per night price of the room. When we’re looking at dozens of hotel options across Asia, for example, and two nice hotels are at the same price point, the tie-breaker for me is always whether they offer a good breakfast at no additional cost. A decent western breakfast can set you back anywhere from $4 to $20 per person, so it’s no small benefit.
But wait, there’s more!
Where there’s breakfast, there’s lunch. Meaning: we always look for ways to take things from the breakfast meal (like toast, bananas, oranges, etc.) and turn them into a free lunch. Our saviour in Asia has been peanut butter which, while hard to find, has been an amazing way to turn leftover breakfast toast into a delicious peanut butter and banana sandwich to help sustain us during the afternoon.
Does this make us cheap? Maybe. Does it make us smart? Definitely. On a good day we’re only paying for dinner, plus water and any snacks we buy while moving around. The added upside is that since we have a lunch packed with us, we don’t have to stop and find food around noon - we can eat on-the-go and enjoy more of the day.
Have any other tips or tricks you use to avoid spending unnecessarily while traveling? We would love to hear them. Feel free to include them in the comments section below!