Decisions dictate the dollar when you are traveling abroad. Every choice you make has a consequence on your wallet. Sometimes you will feel the effects immediately, other times you may realize it later when you review your monthly bank statements. However, consequences don’t necessarily have to be negative and making good financial decisions could make your trip even more enjoyable knowing you aren’t breaking the bank. I’ve personally spent weeks relaxing on world class beaches and paid less than my monthly phone bill whilst doing so. This list specifically highlights a few cost-saving decisions that have made my trips affordable and exciting.
Packing Light- In the United States, we are conditioned to buy big bulky suitcases for traveling. The airlines have caught on to this and have charged exorbitant fees in order to accommodate the typical American traveler. As I point out in The Common-Sense Packing List, the less you pack the better. Not only do you avoid the astronomical baggage fees, but there are benefits such as paying less for laundry and allowing for flexibility when it comes to using public transportation (good luck trying to ride a chicken bus with a roller suitcase). In addition, having less room in your suitcase will help control your urge to buy unnecessary souvenirs.
Eat Local- Whenever I’m in an airport, either going to or from a foreign country, I always eat McDonalds. I do this because, while I’m in that said country, I stay away from any restaurant that has its origins in the United States. American restaurants thrive off of a capitalist business model. This means that they don’t necessarily have prices that correspond with the local populace’s income level and are usually comparable to what they charge in the United States (even if it is in the local currency). However, family-run local restaurants tend to cater more towards the service and experience side of things as well as pricing towards their customer base. While a cheeseburger at Burger King will still cost between $3-4, no matter where you are in the world, a 3-course meal at a local cantina could cost you even less depending on the location. With the advent of hostels, food tends to be the biggest expense for budget travelers so if you can pay less to eat more, then you are already ahead of the curve.
Say No to Alcohol- While I don’t drink on a regular basis to begin with, I definitely don’t do so when traveling. While you can surely find cheap beer (in quality and price) throughout the world, many people fall into the trap of buying so much of it that it nullifies the money that you would be saving. Alcohol also effects your judgement which may cause you to make other questionable financial decisions. In addition, alcohol is actually more expensive in tourist destinations (i.e. Punta Cana, Cabo San Lucas) than it would be at a 7-Eleven in the United States. This is because when you buy alcohol at such places, you are also paying a premium based of WHERE you are buying it (i.e. the nice beach overlooking the ocean).
Cashing Out- While conventional wisdom says never to have too much cash in your wallet, the opposite is true for when you travel abroad. You WANT to have as much cash as possible before you come into a foreign country. This will allow you to minimize you visits to the dreaded ATM. With various transaction fees, it generally costs between $13-18 USD to take your own money out of a foreign ATM. If you do this 4 times in a 3-week period, you are paying the equivalent of a 3-night stay in a mid-range hostel or hotel. While US dollars are welcome in most countries throughout the world, you can probably do yourself a greater service by arriving in a country with the local currency already in hand as you will almost always get a more favorable exchange rate at your bank than you would at the airport currency exchange window.
Beach, Beach, and More Beach- 95% of the beaches that I have been to throughout the world have been public beaches. In this sense, public is equivalent to free. While some higher end tourist destinations may have sections blocked off for resorts, there is always another section available for the public. Even renting a beach chair with an umbrella will cost you between $4-6 a day. You can use that chair for 6-8 hours while a 6-8 hour full day tour or activity may cost $80-160 in a day. Is laying at the beach day in and day out the most exciting way to spend a vacation? Probably not. However, people generally go on vacation to relax and not having to break the bank on a so-so snorkeling excursion is definitely a good way to do so.
Public Transportation- Is being crammed in a 5-seater van with 15 people the most comfortable way of traveling? Most people would say no. However, comfort often translates into dollars when traveling abroad. You could get a nice air-conditioned taxi for $45-100 or you could get in that crammed van for 45 cents. I am not saying you should never take a private shuttle or taxi, I am saying that those methods shouldn’t automatically be your first options and should only be reserved for special circumstances. Cheap and efficient public transportation is the one thing that you can find almost anywhere as it is usually needed to support the local population in their everyday lives.