There aren’t many topics more fruitful for a travel writer than tips to save money. In part that’s because it’s a convenient punching bag. I consider virtually any expense I disagree with as a “waste,” and there are a lot of things I don’t buy while traveling. Fancy hotel room? Waste. Guidebooks? Waste. Restaurant with cloth napkins? You’d better believe that’s a waste.
Still, one traveler’s savings are another’s luxury, and no one’s really interested in a blueprint to my ideal vacation. That leaves general financial risks on the road. Of course there are particular financial landmines that every traveler should watch out for regardless of budget. Here are eight to beware of. They’ll drain your pocket faster than Three-card Monte and leave you wondering how that carefully planned vacation got so expensive, so fast.
Alcohol can be a financial drain, but shots deserve a special call out, because, as any college kid on a bender will tell you, they are nothing less than a magic money pit.
If this were a checklist for how to waste money, shots would hit every item on the way down. They are expensive, forgettable, easy and marked up by several hundred percent. For all that, a shot is also over almost as soon as you get it. Up-cheers-down, and faster than that, anywhere from $5 – $10 is down the hatch. A drink will cost less money and last a heck of a lot longer, leaving you more time to swap stories or try and impress that cute French backpacker.
Anyone who has ever woken up wondering how he spent so much the night before almost always has the battle cry of “let’s do shots” to blame.
#2. On Scene Tour Guides
It’s one thing to book a packaged tour. I don’t go for them myself, but far be it from MainStreet to throw stones at someone who just wants to one-and-done his vacation. This entry, on the other hand, talks about hiring the tour guides who hunt right outside of monuments or joining their last minute group.
Just don’t do it.From time to time these guys really know their stuff. More often, though, the really good tour guides make formal arrangements ahead of time. The ones who are left have memorized the same story that you could pick up from any book. They don’t handle questions well and don’t deviate from the script, because they can’t. Either buy the book or hire someone more professional, but don’t roll the dice on someone hustling outside the front door.
#3. Expensive Coffee
In some cities, coffee summons an essential sense of place. Travelers to Indonesia or Brazil, for example, can’t afford to miss the outstanding local brews, not only for the quality but also for the culture. Grabbing a cortado on the go in a Sao Paulo market is just what people do, and you absolutely should.
On the other hand, trying to recreate the Starbucks experience with a rucksack is a great way to leak money. Writes Craig Philips, the author ofBackpacker Advice, “[M]y pet hate is seeing people on a backpacker’s budget visiting coffee shops, particularly when the hostel they are staying in provides free coffee. A coffee in developed countries will cost you £2-3 ($3-5) – I know people that have up to four a day – potentially £12 ($20) a day on coffee, more than I spend on accommodation a night. Even more scarily, that can be potentially £360 ($600) a month on coffee! You could do a dive trip in the Great Barrier Reef for that!”
Let’s face it, the morning latte back home helps us get through the workday. On vacation that’s less of an issue. Try the coffee when it’s something special or an inexpensive morning pick-me-up. Otherwise leave the caffeine bing for the office where it belongs.#4. Accommodation Frills (You Never Use)
In popular tourist destinations the hospitality industry has never been stronger. Use that. Every hotel and hostel charges for everything in the price of the room (sorry to break it to all the “free breakfast” lovers out there). For the amenities you’ll use, that’s great. For the stuff that just looks good on paper, what’s the point?
When was the last time you actually swam in a hotel pool? Attended movie night in the rec room? Stayed in for breakfast instead of finding the local flavor?
Every amenity adds to the bill, even if it’s not line-itemed. Don’t shy away from what you love; go ahead and pack trunks, all you swimmers out there, but there are just too many options to pay for unnecessary frills. Read the amenities carefully, then pick someplace based on what you’ll actually use.
Lost in the shuffle of most travel planning is a vast grey area of small, easily overlooked charges that can quickly add up to a big, scary number. In this murky country live the endless fees that an unprepared traveler can face if he is not careful.
The surest prophylactic against this is a little forethought. There’s no way to prevent every wasted dollar. A little entropy is inevitable and, frankly, the only alternative is to spend the entire trip obsessing. Instead just try to read up a little and make decisions with an eye toward one or two days down the road. Instead of withdrawing money for dinner, get enough for the next day or two. Don’t buy a souvenir that needs to be shipped. A lot of that lost cash can find its way home.
#6. Failing to Plan AheadOn a recent trip to Peru, I bought a hotel room that I didn’t use. It was a guesthouse in Nazca, a one-night town where I had foolishly booked my wife and myself for two. I did so purely because I hadn’t done the research to know better. It was avoidable, a total waste and also pretty common.
Occasionally failure to plan ahead can end up costing a lot of money, whether it’s on an empty hotel room or a trip to Machu Picchu when the train is closed.
“The one example I can think of is visiting a town in Australia called Port Lincoln,” wrote Philips, “About eigt hours from anywhere. The only reason people go to Port Lincoln is to cage dive with Great White Sharks – when I arrived, I found out they were fully booked for a month. I couldn’t stay there for a month, so I had wasted money getting and staying there for a night – about $100 that could have been spent on something else. Failing to plan can cost you a lot of money.”
#7. Relying on Hotel RecommendationsHotel recommendations can be a shortcut to some of the best finds in town, from restaurants to tour guides and even souvenir shopping (another expense to keep an eye on).
They can also be a great way to subsidize the receptionist’s cousin in his experimental Thai-Nordic fusion burrito joint. By the time you realize you’ve been had, the pickled herring salsa is already on its way.
Treat a hotel recommendation for what it should be: a good place to start. Then follow up by asking around a little bit, looking online or at least lingering a few minutes outside the restaurant to check out the dishes and prices. (Don’t be afraid to walk away even while an eager host acts like you’ve already promised to try the tasting menu.) Most importantly, trust your instincts. Most tourist traps wear their hearts on their sleeves, and most of us know when we’ve wandered into one. Walk back out before the jaws snap shut and you drop a crazy amount of money to fuel the family business.
#8. Find a Personal BalanceBefore traveling, it’s worth taking a few minutes to think about what you really value in a trip. There’s no need to live on a champagne and roses budget, for example, if you have a terrible flower allergy. Save cash for the bubbly and live all the better for it.
Metaphors aside, a little introspection can actually be a very practical tool. Sort out what is worth the money and what you’re ambivalent on. It will make it much easier to make conscious decisions about saving later on. Without that kind of internal guidance most of us default to something a little bit nicer, feeling like it’s the safe choice. There’s just no need.
“It all comes back to the balance of saving money and staying happy,” wrote Philips. “If you find an 18-hour bus ride utterly unbearable, you may see flying as a justifiable expense. I had enough money for a house deposit before I first went off on my travels and it’s nearly all gone now – I imagine a lot people think that is crazy and maybe a regretful decision, but I would never trade those memories back for the money.”
It’s easier to make smart decisions when you’ve considered them beforehand. A few minutes of thought can save on a hundred impulse buys.