The biggest lesson I’ve learned from traveling is how quickly money disappears (and I don’t mean from pick-pocketing).
When you’re visiting a new place, it’s tempting to blow your budget on conveniences and experiences. Even if you usually save money effectively at home, paying for an hour-long cab ride or Michelin-starred meal while on holiday seems perfectly reasonable. But if your bank account always feels too empty when you return from vacation, you should learn to save money effectively while traveling, too.
Now, I’m a big believer in spending money where it matters. If you’re a foodie and love eating at pricey restaurants, follow your bliss. If you’ve always wanted to stay in a high-end Japanese ryokan, make it so! But unless you’re flush with cash, you’ll need to cut back in other areas to balance out your spending.
Saving money effectively is all about compromise. It’s easy to go overboard in the name of “getting the full experience”, especially if you aren’t planning a return visit to the area. However, the travel savings tips I’ve put together won’t deprive you of having the trip of a lifetime. In fact, they’ll help you afford your must-haves and sustain your travel fund for future adventures.
I use every single one of these travel savings tips on all of my trips. During my recent visit to Belgium, I saved at least €150 in just three days with minimal effort!
If you want to stretch your travel budget, here are 15 simple tips to save money effectively while traveling.
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Food & Dining
Know the tipping rules for the area
If you’re traveled internationally, you know how complicated tipping can be for non-residents. Some countries include it on the bill as a line item, others bake service charges into their menu pricing, and a few are culturally opposed to tipping. By researching your destination’s tipping rules in advance and carefully examining your bill (and sometimes the bottom of the menu), you can save yourself money and embarrassment. Rounding up your bill to the nearest dollar would be appropriate in Sweden, but insulting in the US.
Pass on room service and paid hotel breakfasts
Hotel dining is notoriously expensive. I still can’t get over the time I paid $11 for a bowl of French onion soup… When you tack on delivery fees and a tip to already-inflated prices, room service becomes as expensive as dining out in a fancy restaurant!
In many countries, hotel breakfasts are also unusually pricey for what’s provided. I’ve often found that when making hotel reservations online, many booking websites overcharge for “breakfast included” rates. Either the rates are higher than what you’d pay through the official website, or they price breakfast for two adults even if you’ve indicated you’re traveling solo.
Instead, opt for breakfast at a local cafe, or grab something light from the grocery store. If you don’t normally eat a big breakfast, doing so while on vacation will be harder on your wallet and your stomach.
Split a starter and entree between two people
Depending on the country and restaurant, the portion size of a main entree may be too large for you to eat in one sitting. Starters and first plates are not only smaller, but also generally cheaper. By splitting a starter and main dish with a travel partner, you can taste more variety for less money.
When I travel solo, I often order just a starter unless I’m feeling particularly ravenous. I can’t bring myself to leave food uneaten when traveling, and it’s no fun trying to sightsee on an overly full stomach.
Get some meals from the local grocery store
My favorite way to save money effectively when traveling is to pick up a few meals from the local supermarket. No, I’m not talking about buying ingredients to cook a meal. After all, this is supposed to be vacation! Instead, I head to the prepared foods section to pick up some cheap eats.
I’ve found everything from chicken tikka to sandwiches to ramen at grocery stores around the world. Your mileage may vary, but I’ve frequently found the quality to be quite good. Buying meals from the grocery store also saves on time, which is precious when you’re on holiday.
Use public transit over car service
Metro lines and train timetables can feel intimidating to first-time visitors, but the money savings are worth it. In heavily congested cities like London and Tokyo, figuring out the local public transportation system could save you hundreds of dollars and hours of time. Even if the distance from point A to point B seems short, taxis and Uber fares rack up quickly, and fixed price fares can be quadruple the cost of a one-way transit ticket.
Apps like Citymapper, Google Maps, and local transit apps will help make your journey a smooth one. Local apps are especially useful, as many countries implement digital tickets that riders can purchase right from their smartphones.
Lonely Planet travel guides are another excellent source of public transit information, as they include maps, nearby stops, and tips for buying tickets.
Finally, many global cities offer a shareable bike system, such as the red Santander bikes in London. Fees are generally quite low (it’s only £2 to rent a Santander bike for 24 hours), and you’ll get to see the city in the open air instead of through a window or not at all.
Evaluate “express” transit options
Like I said before: saving money effectively is all about compromise. In the case of “express” trains, you’ll need to evaluate whether the convenience and time savings are worth the cost. Sometimes, the express train is the clear choice over regional options, such as the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto. Other times, you can save yourself $15 and lose only 20 minutes by taking the commuter train from the airport into the city, like in Stockholm.
When unusual timetables and transfers come into play, you may decide that the simple option is best, and that’s okay! But don’t blindly pay for the “express train” without doing a little research.
Compare prices for single fare tickets and travel passes
Another common international travel mistake is to buy a multi-day or tourist travel pass because it’s the easy option. However, most cities that offer transit passes also have multi-lingual machines and staff members to help you buy normal tickets or local travel cards. In Tokyo, for example, buying and using a Suica card is incredibly straightforward. Some travelers buy a Japan Rail pass just so they can avoid the hassle, and end up overpaying $100 or more in transit costs alone.
Don’t let your fear of the unknown take a bite out of your bank account. Read about the area’s public transit system ahead of time, download Google Translate on your phone, and ask for help if you need it.
Plan rail trips around discount days
If you’re wondering how to save money booking a vacation, this is one of the best travel savings tips. Many cities (especially in Europe) will have “off-peak” and holiday/weekend fares for public transit, particularly regional train travel. In Belgium, for example, train tickets from Brussels to Bruges are 50% off on weekends and public holidays. If you’re traveling in a group, that adds up quickly!
Doing a brief Google search of “weekend train tickets [city]” is a good starting point for finding discount fares, as are official transit websites for your destination. If you’re already at the ticket machine, pay close attention to the fares listed. This is how I discovered there was a 2-person ticket deal from Brussels to Bruges that saved me even more money on top of the weekend discount!
Save me for later!
Give yourself a daily budget
The foundation for saving money effectively while traveling lies in budgeting wisely. Depending on your financial means and goals, you could go about budgeting in two ways.
You might set a daily travel budget before you even choose a destination. This will inform your location choice and rule out any places that are too expensive to visit based on your daily limit.
If you already have a destination in mind, you can do some initial research into hotel costs, transportation, and must-dos, and use that information to set a reasonable daily spend.
Either way, successfully sticking to a daily travel budget can be challenging. Shiny things and unforeseen circumstances will always appear. The keys to success are staying flexible and planning wisely. If you have a $75 daily budget and simply must buy that vintage dress from the street market, swap your dinner plans for takeaway sandwiches.
Avoid foreign transaction fees
With so many debit and credit card options with free foreign transactions, there’s little excuse to lose money on fees when spending abroad. If you aren’t in the position to switch banks or credit cards to get this perk, plan your ATM withdrawals wisely. It’s better to take out one or two lump sums and keep the extra cash someplace safe than to incur dozens of foreign fees.
Don’t visit places just because they are popular
Between peer pressure and Instagram, people are spending tens or hundreds of dollars on experiences they don’t even care about just to snap a photo or say they did it. I can’t tell you how many disinterested visitors I saw wandering the Louvre, eyes fixed on their smartphones until they could beeline for the Mona Lisa to snap a selfie and walk out the door.
If you’re not jazzed to visit a popular museum or go on a whale-watching boat tour or ride a helicopter over a volcano, spend your money elsewhere! Unless your job title is Instagram Influencer, don’t “do it for the gram”.
Opt for self-guided walking tours
Between podcasts, audiobooks, blog posts, and travel guides, you have tons of options for leading your own tour around a destination. Sure, there are certain places that can’t be accessed without a paid guide. But unless it’s on your must-see list, try a self-guided walk instead.
Rick Steves’ travel guides are famous for their walking tours and often come with a downloadable audio guide. Travel bloggers like A Lady in London and Wanderlustingk have phenomenal (and free!) self-guided walking tours complete with photos, directions, and insider info.
Learn a bit of the local language
There are so many reasons to learn some essential travel phrases before you visit a new country, but it can also help you save money effectively while traveling. Although it’s easier to eat, shop, and stay in the touristy areas of town, it’s also a lot more expensive. Learning some local words and phrases allows you to get off the beaten path, where prices are more affordable.
Include free activities in every itinerary
Part of why my travel itineraries are generally budget-friendly is because I fill them with free things to do. I’ve never taken a trip where I didn’t set aside time to walk through a park or check out beautiful and interesting architecture. Many cities also have admission-free museums, or no-fee days at tourist attractions throughout the year. Googling “free things to do in [city]” will usually yield local websites with permanently free activities as well as limited time events.
Don’t feel compelled to wander the streets all day in order to save money. But including at least one free activity in your daily plans will help keep costs low.
Stick to simple souvenirs (or none at all)
Other than the occasional postcard, I’m firmly in the No Souvenirs camp. Mostly because I don’t want to carry anything around during a day of sightseeing, but also because souvenirs are so darn expensive!
If you find something you absolutely love in a souvenir shop that you can’t get anywhere else (and it fits in your daily budget), go for it. But if you want something for yourself as a memento, choose a simple item like a keychain or a postcard. They’re far more portable and cost effective.
More Ways to Save Money Effectively While Traveling
These travel savings tips are just the tip of the iceberg (see what I did there?) in the world of personal finance for globetrotters. From finding affordable family airfare to freelancing, here are a few additional ways you can save money effectively and stretch your travel budget: