Are you handicapping your budget when you travel?
At the beginning of this decade I published an evergreen tips book called Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune: The Contrarian Traveler’s Guide to Getting More for Less. The point of it was to show infrequent travelers what frequent travelers do regularly in order to travel more often. It’s full of advice on what to do, but just as often what not to to.
Here are a few wrong moves I still see happening over and over again—and what to do instead.
Doing No Research Before Leaving
I was meeting with some Bahamas Tourism officials yesterday and they were moaning about how often tourists fly into the wrong airport or take a boat to the wrong island. These vacationers didn’t even bother to look at a map when making their plans.
People have actually gotten worse about this rather than better in the smart phone age. When everyone bought a guidebook for their trip, they tended to at least flip through it a bit when figuring out their itinerary. Today they just post a few newbie questions on social media and figure Google will work the rest out for them after arrival. This can result in a lot of unnecessary expenditures, especially on transportation. Sure, it’s great to just wing it sometimes, but if you don’t even know which end of a 100-mile island you’re staying on, you could be facing a lot of costly delays. If you have no idea what kind of deals are available and where the locals go out to eat, you could be overspending on almost everything you do.
Smart move: Guidebooks are still the most authoritative source with good maps. They’re a great value. But if you want to do everything online, find in-depth articles, read them, bookmark them.
Only Checking the Big Booking Sites for Flight Options
You won’t see this option on Expedia.
It’s a common misconception that if you search Expedia, Priceline, or Kayak, you’ll find all the flights available for a given route. They’ll show you the best price. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
First of all, they don’t usually show all the multi-airline options available and it’s quite hit-and-miss. Often I’ll find flights on Vayama that don’t show up on Kayak—for $100 or more cheaper. If I use Skyscanner or Google Flights I’ll find alternate airport options that didn’t show up anywhere else. Then you have the issue that many budget airlines—and Southwest—don’t share their information. So if you want to check Southwest, Allegiant, or Viva Aerobus, you’ll need to visit their websites individually. In Europe and Asia it can get even more complicated since there are more budget airlines and you haven’t heard of most of them.
Smart move: Figure out who flies to where you’re headed (try the tourism or airport website) and poke around. Use Skyscanner for most airlines, then individual sites to fill in the holes.
Exchanging Money Before Your Trip
If you want to lose money before you even take off for your international journey, go change some money at your local bank or departure airport.
I’m mostly speaking to Americans and Canadians here, because if you live in Europe or a developing country where people routinely buy euros or dollars, you’ll find lots of exchange booths with decent rates. Even there though, you’ll get a much less advantageous rate that you would if you just waited until you arrived at your destination. My in-laws used to do this all the time. They would go to their bank before leaving and exchange hundreds of dollars, getting an awful rate that set them back upon arrival. When they came to visit us in Korea when I was living there, they got 900 to the dollar (after fees) at home instead of the 1,150 they would have locally.
It’s not always that bad, but sometimes it’s worse. Recently I was in a U.S. airport that was selling Mexican pesos at 14 to the dollar. The real rate when I had just left Mexico was 19.8 to the dollar.
Smart move: Unless you’re exchanging currency with a friend or relative, wait until you arrive at your destination. Use an ATM card (preferably one with low or no fees) and take out cash as needed. Use a no-foreign-exchange credit card for large purchases. Bring some newish Andrew Jacksons along as back-up: they’re worth something almost anywhere in the world.
Destination First, Budget Second
Closer and cheaper than Spain
Can you afford a week-long trip to Switzerland in the summer? You should really be able to answer that question before…you commit to a week-long vacation in Switzerland in the summer.
I see chatter exposing this problem constantly. Even though many families and couples only take one big vacation a year, they act like the first place they think of is where they need to go, instead of actually figuring out where they can go based on their budget. If you travel to The World’s Cheapest Destinations, you can backpack on $50 a day or be loving life on $150 a day as a vacationing couple. Try to do either in Norway, however, and you’d better be camping, hitchhiking, and turning into a tea-totaler.
Even next-door neighbors on the map can have radically different prices. Hungary is a bargain; Austria is not. Nicaragua is dirt cheap; Costa Rica is not. And on it goes. Is there really only one place you two want to go or have to visit for some reason?
Smart move: Take an honest look at what you have to spend and evaluate the alternatives—including the cost to get there.
Where I’ll be living large, thanks to getting the right card.
Passing up Free Travel From Credit Cards
Most middle class people who moan about not having enough money to go on vacation could solve all that by taking one step: changing which credit cards they use. If you’ve got bad credit or are over your head in debt, this last tip won’t help, but for others it’s huge. If you’re not getting travel rewards back for most of your non-travel spending, then let’s just admit that travel is not very important to you.
Here’s what I mean. A typical sign-up bonus for an airline-affiliated credit card is 30,00 to 50,000 miles. Sometimes it goes higher. With that amount and a few months of spending, you’ve got more than enough for a domestic round-trip ticket and probably enough for a ticket to Mexico or Central America from the USA. If you and your significant other both do this, boom! Transportation covered for your vacation. Keep putting all your regular spending on there (that you were going to do anyway) and eventually you’ll earn enough to do it again. Some other cards like American Express and Chase Sapphire let you earn points for multiple programs. The airline ones give you other perks though, like removing the checked bag fees.
Now, get a hotel credit card next when you see a fat sign-up bonus. The bonus alone will typically be enough for two or three nights’ lodging. Have your traveling companion do the same. Boom—you’ve just covered your lodging on that vacation where you already had airfare covered.
You’re welcome. Have a great time.
Some of the hotel cards give you elite status too, which may put you in a better room than you booked when staying with that chain. The IHG card even gives you one free room night at any of their properties upon renewal. I just paid a $49 annual fee and got a $349 IntercCntinental room in pricey D.C. out of it. I like that math.
Smart move: Grab what’s there for the taking by choosing the right credit cards.