- Natalia Lusinski
- I’ve been living and traveling abroad for two years, and I’ve learned plenty of budget hacks along the way.
- You can save a ton of money while traveling by using certain credit cards, traveling with just a carry-on, and remembering that everything – even hotels – can be up for negotiation.
- Here are 13 of the best budget hacks I’ve learned throughout my travels.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
A couple years ago, I impulsively left America to take a job at a farmhouse in the Swiss Alps.
The job was unpaid, but I had my remote journalism jobs for income. Naïvely, I didn’t think much about all the expenses that would crop up as time went on.
I liked living abroad so much that I made it a lifestyle and started switching countries every one to three months. Although living abroad is often cheaper than my old life in the US – my rent in Los Angeles was around $1,100 a month with two roommates, while my studio apartment in Bucharest was just $650 a month – the longer I stayed abroad, the more I realized how much money I was wasting.
But no matter what country I’m in, I’ve learned that many budget hacks are universal and can be used worldwide.
So take it from a perpetual traveler. Here are 13 of the best ways I’ve learned to save money while living and traveling abroad.
Use a debit or credit card without foreign transaction fees
- Thomas Cooper/Getty Images
You may not even realize that your favorite ATM or credit card charges you a foreign transaction fee for each purchase until you’re reviewing your statement after your trip.
While 3% percent – which is a common fee – may not seem like a lot at the time, each transaction adds up. (Do a tally; you’ll see.) For my first 22 months abroad, I was constantly charged these fees and could have saved a lot of money had I done some pre-planning.
Also, when choosing a card without foreign transaction fees, aim to get one that will work at most ATMs so you don’t get charged an out-of-network ATM fee, too. For instance, with a card from Charles Schwab, you typically won’t be charged ATM fees worldwide; if you are, they’ll reimburse you.
Or, if you don’t have any travel-friendly cards on you, but you’re traveling with someone who’s not charged fees, ask if they can pay for things. Then, you can use a payment service, like Chase QuickPay with Zelle or PayPal, to immediately pay them back.
Pay in the local currency with your card and take out cash as infrequently as possible
- Chris McGrath/Getty Images
When you do use your card to make purchases, always choose to pay in the local currency. Otherwise, the merchant can choose the exchange rate instead of your credit card network, and this can cost you – literally.
And, if you can’t get a card without fees in time, use your debit or credit card sparingly. Get out one set amount of cash and be charged a fee all at once versus getting charged transaction by transaction. (Note: Overall, cash is a great negotiating tool on everything from local market purchases to housing.)
Use credit cards with travel rewards
- Pattanawadee Kuntaro / EyeEm / Getty Images
A great way to save money abroad is by using credit cards with travel rewards. Not only can some offer you credit for Global Entry and TSA PreCheck application fees and airport lounge access, but others can help you get reduced – or free – hotel stays and flights. And, if you use travel rewards and points on top of frequent flier programs, even better.
Don’t use your American phone number — instead, get a SIM card when you arrive
- Feng Li / Staff / Getty Images
While you may think it’s no big deal to use your American phone data and “roam” when you go to Europe this summer – what’s a few days? – you’ll probably regret it when you see your phone bill. (A friend of mine recently went to Spain and owed her US phone provider about $600 in roaming charges.)
For a bit less than the cost of a drink in a trendy LA bar – $15 – you can get a SIM card in Croatia with a month’s worth of data and phone calls. Similarly, in Madrid this month, I got a Vodafone SIM card with 15 GB for 10 euro (approximately $11) for 28 days.
As for calling home, you can make voice or video calls for free using WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger, or buy an economical international phone plan from Skype. (Mine costs $2.99 a month to call the US.)
Use ridesharing services, not taxis
In the US, it’s no secret that taxis are usually more expensive than ridesharing services, and the same is true abroad. If you cannot walk or take public transportation someplace, think twice before you hail a cab. Instead, have at least one rideshare app on your phone, such as Uber, Lyft or Cabify, and use that.
If you don’t have a SIM card to order the ride, do so from an area with Wi-Fi and make sure to confirm the ride before you lose Wi-Fi access.
Travel with just a carry-on bag
- Shutterstock/eldar nurkovic
I’ve learned to travel with just a carry-on bag. Now, I have less back pain from not carting around a bunch of stuff I won’t end up wearing or using, but perhaps more importantly, it also means I don’t have to pay baggage fees for checking luggage.
While it may seem impossible at first, practice does make perfect. Not only is packing less very freeing, but you’ll also appreciate the money you save along the way, especially if you country-hop and take several flights.
Go to travel hotspots off-season, or go someplace with fewer tourists overall
- Flickr / Jared Kelly
In some popular tourist destinations, vendors will increase prices depending on the season. So it’s a smart money-saving move to either avoid those tourist hotspots altogether, or visit them during off-season months.
I didn’t realize this until I was in Dubrovnik, Croatia, one spring and they accidentally gave me a “summer menu” with higher prices across the board.
The same goes for housing. For instance, in Dubrovnik, the price of lodging goes through the roof in July and August. It’s difficult to find anything in the historic Old Town for less than $100 a night. In the off-season, however, I managed to snag a room for $24 a night, which was easier to negotiate since demand was not as high. Definitely don’t underestimate traveling during off-peak times.
Always negotiate housing
No matter if it’s the height of tourist season or an off-peak time of year, I negotiate all housing costs, and often succeed. Although I love using Booking.com and Airbnb, particularly because the former has all fees included, I also tend to show up at accommodations like guesthouses and negotiate in person. (Note: It’s best to negotiate with cash.)
Many places will give you a reduced rate, especially if it’s late in the day or night. Plus, it’s hard for people to turn down cash, and they’ll usually give you a discount for using it, as well as if you stay for a week or more. You’ll never know unless you ask.
Eat and drink in sometimes
I get it – having coffee at a local café is fun. But when an espresso or Americano averages $5 in Iceland and you can buy a jar of instant coffee for $6 that’ll last you months longer than your trip, that café money can be better spent on a unique country-specific experience, like glacier hiking.
Better yet, bring some instant coffee packets with you from home, such as Cafe Bustelo’s instant espresso sticks. The same goes for food – make some meals in and befriend locals to teach you insider recipes.
Of course, eating in or out will be contingent on the city: An Americano at a Lisbon café is around $1 and many prix fixe menus in Madrid are around 10 euro for several courses. But with some research, you can decide to spend no more than X amount of your budget on food and go from there.
Bring a water bottle
In many European countries, tap water is safe to drink. Yes, this varies from place to place, but in countries like Iceland where tap water is true spring water, there’s no need to spend money on store-bought water.
If it turns out the tap water where you are doesn’t taste good or is not deemed safe, buying a water filter or using a personal one, like LifeStraw, can help you save money, while also helping the environment by not purchasing plastic bottles.
Use flight aggregator websites, like Skyscanner
Skyscanner is my best friend when it comes to finding cheap flights.
Like other flight aggregator sites, it lets you set up flight alerts, but the thing I love most is being able to look at an entire month’s worth of flight prices at once. So if I don’t have an exact travel date in mind, I can see all the flights to Warsaw in the month of August versus one date in particular.
The same goes for a flight location – if you’re not sure where you’d like to go, you can select “Everywhere” to get some ideas. You can then select “Whole month” and decide on a location that way.
Clear your cache and use incognito mode
- Africa Studio/Shutterstock
If you’ve looked up multiple flights and hotels and other travel-related expenses and activities, your computer and phone have been keeping track.
But if you clear your cache, you’ll appear to be looking for your flight to Hong Kong, for instance, for the first time – hence, you may see lower prices this time around.
Browsing in incognito mode helps, too, but make sure you only have one incognito window open at a time.
You can also try using a VPN, since a flight to Canada may be a different price if you book it from the US instead of from France.
Make a budget and limit yourself to a set amount of money per week
While it may be difficult to estimate how much money you’ll spend in your travel destination, you can do some research and make an educated guess.
For instance, although it’s possible to do Iceland on a budget, it tends to be pretty pricey if you’re not careful – a burger can easily cost $25, for example.
So, make a travel budget: Try to get a set amount of cash out for the week and limit yourself to that. I like to think in terms of my income. If I make X amount an hour or day, that’ll pay for X, Y, and Z.
Similarly, it pays to get creative. If you forgot to bring a sweater and there’s suddenly a temperature drop, thrift stores will help save the day. Plus, they’re a great way to get local fashion for less.
Since I tend to live places longer, I often end up trading American clothes with a local I befriended (they appreciate it as much as I do), which is another cost-effective option.