World travel used to be limited to the wealthiest of individuals. However, these days I get stuck sitting next to jabronis wearing sweatpants and grass stained EEE New Balance sneakers.
I’ve had the privilege of traveling through twenty-three countries on five continents. Throughout my travels, I’ve picked up many tips and tricks to make adventures cheaper and less stressful.
Many of these seem obvious to the personal finance and travel hacking world but I’ve come to realize that the average person is very much unaware.
Good, fast, cheap. Pick two.
That’s typically how it works when you’re booking a flight. Sometimes you only get one or none of the three! You can fly for free with enough preparation, which makes this method slow. Or you can get a good, fast flight in first class but it will cost you.
Given enough time, I travel hack most of my flights. Why would I pay for something I don’t have to? I currently have about a dozen credit cards but currently focus on hitting the minimum spend on my Chase Sapphire Reserve. That card should cover our flights to Europe next year.
It should be noted that travel hacking isn’t for everyone. If you haven’t mastered the basics of money and spending within your means, don’t even consider it.
Other, more obvious ways to get a cheap flight is to book as far in advance as possible and avoid doing so on weekends.
The worst place to convert your money is at the airport terminal. You get a terrible conversion rate. Few people know this.
The best place to get cash is actually at the ATM using a debit card. The biggest issue with this are the fees accrued from your local bank and the bank of the ATM you are using. Sometimes they can total over $6 per use so make sure you are taking out enough to make it worthwhile!
When I visited Toronto earlier this year I used Tangerine bank after many Canadian personal finance bloggers recommended it. Tangerine only charged me $1 CAD to use their ATM. However, my local American bank charged me all sorts of crazy fees and a 3% conversion fee!
In order to avoid these fees, open a Charles Schwab checking account. They will reimburse all fees and give you a great rate on your conversion.
I’d also recommend getting a credit card that has no currency exchange fees. It’s super safe to use a credit card because fraudulent fees will be dismissed with a phone call.
Some of the best cards with no foreign transaction fees include Chase Sapphire Reserve, Chase Sapphire Preferred and Barclays Arrival. All three have generous signup bonuses and perks but there are annual fees. Capital One VentureOne Rewards is a great card with no foreign transaction fees and no annual fee but fewer perks.
Each country is different. Some countries like Sweden, prefer credit cards for everything while others like Colombia prefer cash. I always recommend carrying some USD ($20-100) and some local currency. Enough to be useful but not enough to cry about if lost or stolen. I also like to have a debit card and a credit card on my person with a couple other cards in my hotel.
Keeping in touch is cheap and easy these days. This wasn’t the case during my first international trip to France, Spain, Italy and England in 2005. This trip involved paying for weekly long distance phone calls from my hotel room, costing a few dollars a minute if I remember correctly. I never sent any emails because although I had one of the original MacBooks at this time, I wasn’t going to bring that around a continent!
Nowadays you can travel with an unlocked phone and put in a SIM card from the country you are visiting. This will allow you to use the internet freely and call throughout the country worry free. When my wife went to visit family and friends in Korea earlier this year, she brought her unlocked iPhone SE and bought a $20 SIM card for her stay. She was able to call, text and use the internet throughout the country without stress.
So make sure your phone is unlocked and pick up a SIM card for the duration you’re staying. If you’re on a payment plan for your phone, see if you can add international calling for cheap or pick up a prepaid flip phone upon arrival. You can also use local Wi-Fi on your American phone, just make sure not to call on it without knowing the cost is reasonable first! T-Mobile offered free unlimited text and calling for $.20 a minute in Colombia so I saw no need to buy a SIM card there other than to use reliable internet anywhere that didn’t have Wi-Fi.
Before visiting a new place, figure out the best ways to get around the city. Some emerging countries have amazing modes of public transportation while other developed nations like the USA only have a few.
In most of USA, you will need a car to get around. A handful of American cities has respectable metro systems, while all except the most bureaucratic of cities allow for ride-sharing apps such as Uber and Lyft.
My advice is to do some basic research and trial and error. For example, on our trip to Medellín, Colombia we discovered that while the metro was clean and extremely cheap, Uber and taxi rides were much quicker and barely more expensive. From our hotel, it was a 15-minute walk to the metro. The metro was about $.65 per person and could take you to many of the best areas of the city. However, we could take a 20 minute Uber from our hotel to the same area for about $2.50. To me, it’s worth a couple of bucks to save tens of minutes.
Different continents have different views and prices on accommodation. In the USA we have tons of Airbnb and hotel options. Major cities usually have expensive hotel options so unless I have lots of hotel points, I’ll choose Airbnb or a friend’s guest bedroom.
I traveled through Southeast Asia in the summer of 2010 and I stayed in hostels and on couches because I was poor and cheap at the time. I was able to get a hostel bed in Siem Reap, Cambodia for $2 and my own hostel room in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam for $8. I did couch surfing in Bangkok, Thailand, and Singapore while staying with a college friend in Malaysia. I did this whole trip for about $30 total per day, including flights.
In South America, Airbnb seems to be geared towards ripping off foreigners. After a few hours of searching, I found that hotels were the same price and often times cheaper than Airbnb! I ended up getting a Medellín hotel for about $50 a night that included a hot breakfast each morning for me and my wife free of charge. I was also able to get maps, recommendations and questions answered from the front desk and bellboys. I had heard great things about Hotels.com because you get the 10th night free! But the price to book directly through the hotel’s website turned out to be 30% cheaper in this instance. Again, shop around!
My best advice is to simply do your research based on your preferences. For example, I’m very sensitive to noise so even the most expensive of hotels typically disappoint me. With walls made out of paper; I can hear a door shut or a blaring TV from across the hall. And don’t even get my started on ice machines and elevators!
When I visit Europe next year I plan to Airbnb the whole trip (get $35 off your first booking) but will continue to stay in hotels during my travels to South America.
I know I missed some great tips so feel free to let me know in the comments!