When you’re young and adventurous, international travel is the dream. You jump at any opportunity to go abroad without a second thought, start packing your suitcase, and promise yourself you’ll work out the details later.
But traveling — especially post-pandemic traveling — requires a bit of planning if you want a safe, inexpensive, and (relatively) stress-free trip. 🏖️
Whether you’re traveling with friends or going solo, staying for one week or six months, traveling is much easier when you plan ahead with money-saving tips. Here are our best ideas to make your next international trip easy on your mind and your wallet.
1. Be flexible with your dates and destinations
If you have flexibility in terms of where and when you travel, you have a major advantage: the ability to plan your trip around whatever amazing deal you can find. Without limitations on where and when you can travel, you can search within a specific timeframe or geographical area and shop around for low airfare and accommodations.
If you’re totally set on a particularly expensive destination, try to plan your trip for the off-season. You can often save big by traveling during less popular times, even in expensive areas. Conversely, if you have a specific window of time for travel, shop around for a destination that offers a good bang for your buck for that time of year.
A little flexibility goes a long way when you want to save on international travel.
Read more: Affordable international travel destinations that won’t empty your wallet
2. Decide what’s important to you and prioritize your spending
Before you hop on a plane with cash burning a hole in your pocket, take some time to think about your spending plan while you’re away.
I don’t necessarily mean you have to budget — although if that’s your style, stick with it. What I do suggest is you think about how you want to spend your money while traveling — starting with what’s most important to you.
- Do you want a direct flight, or is a layover okay?
- Do you love museums, or is seeing one enough?
- Do you want to stay in a specific neighborhood, or wherever’s affordable?
- Are you a big foodie, or is your dining experience an afterthought?
For example, if food is your thing, plan to spend big at restaurants. You’ll probably have to cut back in other categories — like lodging, cultural attractions, or transportation — but that’s okay. Giving this some thought before your trip will help you prioritize your favorite things.
Read more: How to travel for cheap: 7 ways to see the world for less
3. Get travel insurance
If you’ve traveled at all since COVID-19 upended the world, you know how different it is. After months — even years — of lockdown, many of us are jumping at the chance to travel abroad again. But after enduring such a lull in travel, it’s even more disappointing when things don’t work out.
That’s why travel insurance is a lifesaver.
The last thing you want is to plan an epic trip and miss half of it due to a flight cancellation. So even though you might bristle at the added expense of travel insurance, work it into your budget and enjoy the priceless feeling of security should something go wrong.
Like credit cards and bank accounts, there are lots of options when it comes to travel insurance. Several popular credit cards provide travel insurance, so you might already be covered. If not, shop around for a policy that fits your needs and budget. Sites like SquareMouth.com, TravelInsurance.com, and InsureMyTrip.com can help.
Read more: Best credit cards for travel insurance
4. Save digital copies of important documents
You know that feeling when you misplace your phone? Your stomach kind of drops, and panic sets in. (And approximately 12 seconds later you find it on the kitchen table.)
Imagine that feeling — x100 — when you misplace your passport while traveling internationally. 😨
I know — you’ll do your best to keep all your stuff secure and organized. But things happen, you misplace this, you forget that. You’re human, and you should have a backup plan.
Make digital copies of all your important documents before you leave. Store them in multiple places, and make sure they’re accessible to you while abroad. I suggest making copies of the following documents:
- Travel insurance paperwork
- Vaccination information
- Driver’s license
- Travel itinerary
Store photos on your phone, in your email, in the cloud, and give copies to a trustworthy person at home.
5. Learn language basics
If you’re traveling to a country that speaks another language, take some time to learn key phrases and words.
Learning a new language opens all kinds of doors when you travel. The better you can communicate with locals, the more you’ll get out of your trip. Plus, having some basic language skills means you can better navigate outside of the main touristy areas — potentially saving you money by staying, eating, and shopping in under-the-radar locales.
Learning language basics can also give you a better cultural understanding of wherever you’re traveling. Not to mention locals will appreciate your interest in their language and culture.
If you’re thinking there’s no way you’ll ever learn to speak another language, start small. You don’t have to be fluent to reap the rewards of language skills. Instead, think about some simple words and phrases you know you’ll need often.
There are tons of accessible, free ways to learn a new language these days. You can download an app like Duolingo or Memrise, join a language exchange, or even take a community college class.
6. Have some local cash before you land
There are a million and one things to plan when traveling abroad, and it’s easy to neglect to get local cash before departing. You might just plan to use your card and withdraw money when you get there — but you can’t always count on this strategy.
You never know when you’ll have trouble with a card, and you’ll definitely need money when you land — to feed yourself and get to your lodging, at a minimum. So take the extra step of getting some local currency before you even step foot on the plane. And be sure you have enough to get situated when you get there.
Oh, and don’t wait until you get to the airport to exchange your cash. If you go to your bank or credit union, you’ll pay a lot less in fees and pay lower exchange rates than you will at an airport kiosk.
7. Get a local SIM card for your phone
Roaming data and temporary data passes are expensive, and there are better — and cheaper — ways to use your phone abroad.
Of course, you can always connect to Wi-Fi. But if you want to be able to use your phone without a Wi-Fi connection — say, to find the nearest pub while walking the rural English countryside — you can avoid exorbitant roaming fees by buying a local SIM card instead.
After you land at your destination, go to a local telecom store and buy a SIM card. Look for a pay-as-you-go or temporary SIM, which you might see being marketed to travelers. Choose a popular telecom store with lots of locations — that way, if you have issues later on, it’s easier to find help.
All you have to do is replace your regular SIM card with the temporary one (unless your phone allows dual SIM cards — then you can have both in at once) and make sure your roaming data is turned off. Voila! You’ve got yourself a working phone.
8. Stay in a local neighborhood
Rather than paying an arm and a leg for a bland hotel in the main tourist zone, look for a rental in a local neighborhood when planning your accommodations abroad. Aside from getting a unique experience, there are lots of benefits to doing this:
- You can often save money by staying even a short walk from the hot spots
- You’ll experience more of the local culture and cuisine
- You can meet the locals — whether it’s an Airbnb host, a barista down the block, or a neighbor
If you’re traveling somewhere for an extended period of time (and depending on your risk tolerance), you can wait to find your long-term accommodations until you get there. Find a place to stay for a week or two while you get a feel for the area and chat with the locals. You’ll have a much better idea of where you want to be — plus some insider tips — by getting situated first.
9. Book a walking tour
If you ask me, there’s no better way to explore a new city than on foot. You see more, you start to orient yourself, and you can stop in whatever shops, cafes, and museums you see along the way.
To start your trip off on the right foot (literally), book a walking tour as soon as you arrive. They’re a great way to immediately learn about the city and scope out the places you want to revisit. Plus, walking tours allow you to meet other travelers. If you’re traveling solo, you’ll likely meet other people interested in exploring with you.
They don’t cost much — in fact, a quick Google search usually turns up lots of free walking tours.
10. Use local currency when paying with a credit card
When you’re traveling abroad and paying with a credit card, you may be prompted to choose between local currency or U.S. dollars when checking out. You may not realize it, but you’ll likely pay more by selecting your home currency.
Even if your card doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees, there’s usually a fee associated with paying in your home currency. The only real benefit is seeing what you’re paying in terms of the currency you’re familiar with. But this convenience comes at a price — usually around 3% of the charge — which can really add up over time. If prompted, always choose the local currency when paying with a credit card.
11. Use public transit
One of the best ways to save money when traveling abroad is to use public transit. And I promise it’s not as scary as it seems!
The reality is, Ubers, Lyfts, and cabs will quickly eat away at your budget. While convenient, they’re not cheap. If you can, rely on public transit to get where you need to go.
Depending on where you’re traveling, public transit may include:
The ins and outs of navigating public transit vary widely, but it’s not as intimidating as it looks. Taking public transit will give you a chance to practice a foreign language and give you more of a local’s perspective on the city.
Plus — and I can tell you from experience — you’ll feel a huge sense of accomplishment (and relief) after navigating a foreign city’s public transit system.
One more note: it’s not a bad idea to set aside an emergency stash of money for a cab. If you’re out late or, for whatever reason, don’t feel safe taking the bus or train home, a cab is always worth the peace of mind.
12. Make use of grocery stores
No, you don’t have to go full Julia Child while abroad, but grocery shopping and cooking in a new country is a worthwhile adventure in itself. Plus, shopping for snacks, groceries, and ingredients — and cooking meals yourself — can save you a fortune while traveling.
When I went to Iceland, my flights and rental car were relatively inexpensive. Meals out, however, were pricey. I ended up saving a lot of money by shopping for groceries and cooking at home. There were some… interesting meals, but I saved money I wanted to spend on other things — like museums and awesome lodging.
If your hotel room, rental, or hostel has a kitchen, you can cook simple meals at home. Have fun browsing the shelves at grocery stores, specialty shops, and farmer’s markets for fresh and exotic ingredients, and see what culinary masterpiece you can cook up.
If your lodging doesn’t include a kitchen, you can still stock up on snacks. You can easily piece together a cheap and delicious picnic with grab-and-go-items.
Read more: 9 ways to save money on food and drinks while traveling
13. Check out local meet-ups
No matter how far from home you are, you can find community at a variety of local meet-ups. A quick online search can help you find free local meet-ups in whatever city you’re in — no need to spend on every experience while traveling. Plus, if you’re traveling solo, you’re almost guaranteed to meet other solo people with similar interests as you.
Not sure where to start? Check out these ideas for inspiration:
- Creative Mornings — a live gathering of creatives who want to inspire, connect with, and learn from one another.
- FuckUp Nights — a series of events showcasing stories of professional failure, vulnerability, and empathy.
- MeetUp.com — a platform to help you find groups, events, and activities wherever you are.
If you meet locals during your stay, ask them about local events and meetups. It goes without saying, but stick to gatherings that feel safe.
International travel isn’t out of reach — especially if you take the time to plan wisely. There are lots of great ways to save on flights, food, transportation, and accommodations, as long as you’re willing to do your research.
Remember to take care of yourself and be a responsible traveler, too. The more effort you put into planning a safe, responsible, and wallet-friendly trip, the more enjoyable it will be.
Featured image: Africa Studio/Shutterstock.com