Unless you’re among the top 1 percent of the wealthiest people in America, you’re probably interested in saving money during your trips. After all, it’s widely believed that just getting to your destination is already incredibly expensive (although many of my readers know that doesn’t have to be the case) — so of course you want to be efficient with your money elsewhere. Here are the four basic principles I follow whenever I travel to get the best, most authentic experiences, for the least amount of cash.
1. Do your homework
Every place is different. I am frequently asked about places I’ve yet to travel to, and my advice is always the same: You’re going to have to do some research. I’ve found the single most effective way to save money on travel is to read as much as you can about the place you’re going before you leave so you’re smart and savvy about your options, the local culture and economy and how much things like meals, tips, transportation, services and souvenirs should cost there. Of course this takes time, but researching your destination can be a lot of fun. According to a recent study, anticipating, daydreaming about and researching a trip can give you a big happiness boost.
Before I book a trip, the first thing I do is general research about my destination city or town. Wikitravel is usually a good place to start, and I also check destination guides at TripAdvisor (type your destination city into the search bar to find these general guides). When I get to the point of booking accommodations, I often find that I’ll get good information and a better sense of what to expect at my destination simply by reading guest reviews on Hostelworld or Airbnb. Occasionally, I’ll buy a travel guide from Lonely Planet, Rick Steves, Rough Guides or Fodor’s.
2. Think outside the box
Wherever there are high rates of tourism, you’re likely to find inflated prices. As I wrote last week in How Budget Travel Can Lead to More Authentic Experiences, you can avoid some of this by taking the road less traveled and choosing off-the-beaten-path destinations — but the principle of thinking independently about your trip really applies to everything from when you travel to where you wander when you’re there.
Consider traveling during an off-peak time. In many cases, the weather will still be quite nice in the shoulder weeks or months surrounding the high season, such as spring or fall for Europe, which sees most of its tourists during summer. You’ll encounter fewer crowds, and that lower demand equals more savings for you. Prices for everything from accommodations to meals, souvenirs and entertainment can drop significantly during off-peak times, saving you a lot of money simply for making an unconventional (but wise) choice.
Avoid spending money in common tourist zones such as areas immediately surrounding major attractions, airports or areas with lots of chain hotels. Prices can be so inflated in high-tourism areas that it’s worth going even a few streets over to a small, local bodega to buy that bottle of water. In general, it’s important to compare prices for everything you want to buy. You may find the exact same souvenir for a lower price in a less touristy part of town. Find out if negotiating is a normal part of a transaction in your destination — if it is, you should never pay sticker price for goods or services. And in most cases, the man who approaches you at baggage claim to ask if you need a taxi is going to rip you off, charging double or more what it would’ve cost for you to simply exit the building and grab a taxi outside (this is why knowing the appropriate rate for a taxi to and from the airport beforehand is important, as is negotiating that price before you let him take your bags).
3. Blend in
Regardless of whether you’ve chosen a little-known locale or a top city for tourism, it’s important that you don’t stick out like a sore thumb when you’re there. In some areas, such as the Middle East, it’s impossible to avoid standing out. I was certainly stared at everywhere I went simply for having blond hair and generally not looking like I’m from there. But I’d have looked even more unusual (actually, shocking and offensive) if I had continued to follow Western clothing trends like baring my legs or showing any skin below the neck. It made me a little uncomfortable to dress differently than I would have at home or in Europe, as I think I already dress fairly conservatively, but it’s important to see the larger picture. In addition to looking like an idiot (or worse), I’d have been presenting the idea that I’m not a savvy traveler, which means I’m an easy target for price gouging, pickpocketing or scamming. Do your best to blend in as much as you can. You’ll be respecting the local culture, and you’ll look smarter and potentially save some money.
Not appearing to be a completely clueless tourist also requires learning what you can of your destination’s language. Even a few simple phrases will help. For a few weeks before a trip, I like to practice the language I’m about to be immersed in by listening to audio courses in the car during my daily commute. If you’ll be in a place long enough, it may be worth investing in a Rosetta Stone course. Locals will be grateful you took the time to learn at least some of the language and are actually trying to speak it — and that goodwill could translate to better treatment, including better pricing.
4. Know your priorities
To get the most satisfaction out of your trip while staying economical, it helps to determine priorities ahead of time. Chances are you’re excited about your trip and hungry to do it all. But if you don’t have the money (or don’t want to spend it), something has to give. It’s all about the trade-off: Ask yourself what’s negotiable. What are you OK with giving up so you can afford to have something else?
Maybe you really care about hitting the ground and doing as much as possible each day, but it’s not that important to you that your accommodations be top-notch, especially because you don’t plan to be in them that much. In that case, choosing a less expensive hostel or renting only a single bedroom from an Airbnb apartment (sacrificing some privacy) may be a good trade-off for you.
Perhaps it’s important that you’re comfortable wherever you’re staying — if you’re with a significant other and want more privacy than a shared hostel room or if you need a soft bed to get enough rest for the day ahead. If so, would you be willing to shop less, or even not bring back souvenirs and gifts at all? Could you shop for groceries and make some of your meals cheaply, rather than dining out at every occasion?
Or maybe you cut off a leg of your trip completely, forgoing a short side trip and saving the money it would’ve cost you to get there in favor of more time exploring your primary destination.
I make these kinds of trade-offs in some form or another on all of my trips. Recently, my boyfriend and I traveled to Barcelona. We stayed for four nights, longer than any of the other cities we traveled to on that trip, which meant a higher accommodation cost. Barcelona is not a cheap city to sleep in. We also had reservations at Tickets, an expensive and famous restaurant in Barcelona known for molecular gastronomy and creative culinary inventions, started by the pastry chef of El Bulli. Reservations had to be made months in advance, and we were lucky to get them. We were happy to spend money on this because we love great food and the dining experience is worth it for us. In exchange, we stayed at an extremely low-budget hostel, a pension, sharing one bathroom with an entire hallway. There was no air conditioning, and the building smelled like a toilet, but it was far cheaper than anything else we found. And because of the money we saved, we were able to dine at a restaurant like Tickets.
Pricing norms and budgeting advice often vary quite a bit from destination to destination, but some principles remain the same everywhere you go. I’ve found that following these four principles for managing money efficiently on trips has made me a smarter, more savvy traveler — and saved me a lot of money in the process.
This is the latest post in a new eHow Money weekly series on Budget Travel. To read more of Megan’s advice about travel, visit her blog, travelpaintrepeat.com.
All photos by Megan Van Groll.