The first time I ever left the country I was 20 years old. To be honest, I didn’t really know what I was doing and my lack of research and preparation cost me a lot of money, money that could have been used to extend my travels. The trip was just 3 weeks long, but I had spent as much money in those 3 weeks as I did on my 7 week trip the following year. I’m now 26 and have been traveling off and on since that first trip, and I want to share some of my insight to current and future travelers on how they can avoid some of the travel mistakes I made and save themselves both money and time. These tips are mostly geared towards beginner travelers, but are useful to anybody considering traveling internationally.
One of the most common questions I get asked is “When should I exchange my money?”. The first time I ever went overseas, I had exchanged currency at a local Travelex office. You see them in malls usually, and they also have offices at the airports. It was a terrible decision. They royally screwed me on the exchange rate, and to get a slightly better rate than the advertised one, I had put the bulk of the money on a Travelex debit card. This sounds like a good idea, because you won’t have to carry around a ton of cash with you. Wrong. It was also a terrible idea because the card didn’t work at all ATMs, just the Travelex ones. This was 6 years ago so the program has gotten better, but I will never use them again. Another mistake is exchanging at the airport, and airport kiosks will give you the worst possible rate imaginable. Just stay away.
Your best bet when it comes to currency exchange is just withdrawing money from an ATM. Of course, there’s a caveat to this: your bank account must provide ATM fee reimbursement in order for this to be ideal. Many local banks and credit unions provide this on their accounts. For example, I use Salem Five Bank, based out of Massachusetts for all of my ATM withdrawals. When you withdraw from an ATM, the bank will give you a rate that is almost exactly the daily rate, and it doesn’t get much better than that. Charles Schwab also has this feature on one of their accounts and is a popular account for many travelers, especially those who do all of their banking online.
If for whatever reason you can’t get an account that provides this feature, there are some other options. Many large banks around the world have sister banks that the customers can go and not pay as high of a fee compared with going to a random ATM. For example, Bank of America has sister banks around the world where they will drop their “Foreign ATM Fee” should you use them. Keep in mind, you will still have to pay a 3% foreign transaction fee, which is why this particular deal isn’t perfect, but better than some of the companies like Travelex.
Flights are one of those things that nobody wants to talk about, because they fear they got ripped off. I’ve been there. My first trip my travel mate and I went to STA Travel, a travel company that caters to students and youngsters, to purchase our flights and Eurail passes. The price we paid wasn’t terrible, and we actually got a pretty decent deal on the Eurail passes, but had I just done some research on my own I would have saved hundreds of dollars compared to what we paid.
Right now is a great time to fly, due to the low oil prices and the expansion of budget airlines such as Norwegian and Wow Air developing routes across the US. The budget flights are not only cheaper, but they increase competition with the larger companies and in turn they have to lower their prices to continue to stay competitive. Last year I flew from Boston – London one way for $136 in the middle of the summer. Five years ago that would have been impossible, but times are changing. This, combined with some really great search engines have made it easier than ever for people to purchase their flights outside of a travel agent and spend less than they ever have.
My go-to website for searching for flights is Skyscanner. Like some of the other big sites such as Kayak and Expedia, Skyscanner aggregates information from all airline sites in one place, saving you the hassle of searching each site individually. What Skyscanner does that the others don’t is it has an option to enter your destination as “Everywhere” and it will pull up prices for every country in the world. This is particularly useful if you know you want to go somewhere, but you just don’t know where yet. Just pick the cheapest destination and you’re off!
Another site that I haven’t used yet, but I have been following closely the last couple months is Secret Flying. This site advertises uber cheap flights due mostly to crazy sales and error fares. I’ve seen some insane deals such as US – Asia for $400 round-trip, US-Europe for $300 round-trip, and so on. It’s not just flights based out of the US either, they have deals for all over the world. Like most crazy deals though, you’ll need to book these flights immediately as they will book up in hours, sometimes even minutes if the word gets out fast enough.
The last site I will talk about is AirfareWatchdog. I haven’t used this site in some time, because Skyscanner has been pretty good to me, but it’s still a site worth mentioning. They often have unadvertised deals on their site you wouldn’t normally be able to find elsewhere so it’s a good place to look before you finalize a purchase. They also have an email list, where you could input a certain route and they will send you emails whenever that route drops below a certain price. This saves you the hassle of going on and searching every day.
Some people just hate credit cards. I, on the other hand, am very much pro credit card, as long as you’re responsible and don’t start spending money you don’t have. They can be a great tool when used correctly, and even help you travel for free or very cheap, but I will save that for my next post on Advanced Travel Tips. Either way, everyone should have at least 1 credit card when they travel and this card must have two things: no foreign transaction fees and either chip and pin or chip and signature.
Foreign transaction fees are usually 3%, added on to the total cost of whatever you’re charging to the card. If you’re traveling for a long period of time, or on a luxury vacation where you’re spending thousands of dollars, 3% can add up to a lot of money. I will never travel internationally with a credit card that didn’t have no foreign transaction fees, because you’re just throwing your money away. In my Advanced Post I will give some recommendations on good cards to get.
Chipped cards have been around for a long time in Europe, but in America they are a relatively new concept. Six years ago during my first trip, I couldn’t use my card anywhere because all of the credit card processing machines in Europe only accepted chipped cards. Now, all the major credit card issuers have come to their senses and rolled out new chipped cards to make life easier for the American traveler.
Also, one last side note about credit cards and debit cards in general. Make sure you inform your bank before you leave that you will be travelling internationally. If you don’t, your card will likely be frozen after your first attempt at using it, and if you don’t have a phone with an international plan it can be a pain to get a hold of your bank. My first trip abroad my travel mate forgot to do this and it took hours to get a hold of someone. Luckily, times have changed, but it will still be a pain. Just get it done before you go.
Tourist traps suck. They’re usually more expensive than other, better attractions, and you’ll usually walk out regretting you spent your time and money there. One that comes to mind is Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin. It doesn’t actually cost money to walk past the checkpoint, but everything within a half mile area is so overpriced and the food is garbage. That, and the checkpoint isn’t really all the great to begin with.
As a rule of thumb I’d say don’t eat or buy anything within a few blocks of any tourist destination, because you’ll end up paying a massive premium and the quality will more often than not suck. I remember once I got a pizza within a stone’s throw of St. Peter’s Square in The Vatican. It was double the price of all the other pizzas I had in Rome and it was also the worst pizza I had.
Like everything else, just spend 5 or 10 minutes doing some research online and you can save yourself an afternoon of aggravation. For things like this, I turn to TripAdvisor or in the case of Southeast Asia, Travelfish, to find decent places to eat in less touristy areas. Also, don’t just judge a place by it’s score but take the time to read some reviews. Things can change fast so just because a place was great 2 years ago doesn’t mean it’s still great today.
Packing for a trip is one of the most difficult things you will do before you go, especially if you’ve never done it before. Currently, Breada and myself are away for what could potentially be multiple years. How do you pack for something like that? It’s not easy, and if you read my post and her post on the subject you’ll see this is something we still struggle with. The problem most people have is they want to bring every last thing imaginable with them, and unless you have someone lugging your bags around for you, you will regret this within the first day or so of leaving.
Another problem with packing too much is you leave no room to buy things while you’re away. I personally don’t buy souvenirs anymore because they weigh my bag down, but I know some people that love to buy them. Should you want to buy things, you’ll want to keep room in your bag or suitcase in order to fit everything. My first trip I overpacked by a lot, and had no room for the things that I bought. I then had to ship them back from Amsterdam, which cost a ton of money, and half of the things I shipped back broke while in transit.
Moral of the story: take half of everything you want. You can always purchase things along the way. This is especially true of Southeast Asia, where I am now. Most clothing is made in this part of the world, and you can find things for so cheap compared to prices back home. If I could do it over again I would bring 2 or 3 shirts and 1 or 2 pairs of shorts and buy the rest here. I bought a nice Under Armour Cold Gear shirt here for 100,000 Dong aka $4.50, and had I had more room I would have bought more.
Hopefully this quick write-up can help someone out in terms of not getting screwed over in their upcoming travels and avoid some of the travel mistakes I made when starting out. The more you travel the easier it gets and eventually these things will become second nature. Stay tuned for my next upcoming post on more advanced tips on travel including an expanded section on credit cards, searching for more advanced flights using ITA, and others.
Please feel free to ask questions, comment, and share!