It’s Your Money: 9 tips to enjoying international travel without wasting money

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NEWS: Lots of people were ready to travel once COVID restrictions were lifted, but rising costs are getting in the way of a lot of travelers’ plans this summer, according to Destination Analysts, a website that focuses on travel trends.

WHAT IT MEANS TO YOU: Maybe planning an international trip was all that got you through the pandemic years, and now you’re locked in, despite rising costs. Or maybe you’re taking a trip now that COVID-19 restrictions have eased, rising costs be damned. (Or maybe you’re hate-reading this because, with inflation, you can’t even afford to drive to the next state to your traditional beach rental this year).

If you’re a seasoned world traveler, then today’s column isn’t for you. This is for the occasional, or even once-in-a-lifetime, traveler. Travel has changed a lot, even in the last few years. We’re going to take a look at some simple tips to be smart about your travel expenses. 

According to Destination Analysts, the number of travelers who feel they’re better off this year than last year dropped from 33.6 percent to 31 percent between the first and second quarter of this year. Still, 43.4 percent think they’ll be better off next year, up from 42.8 percent. Travel decisions have definitely been affected by the downward trend in people’s finances. But more are still traveling internationally than a year ago. If you’re like me and my sister, who have been planning a trip for two years, you’re channeling the woman with the meat tenderizer on the Kayak commercial: “I am not canceling this vacation!”

With that in mind, here are some tips to make your money go further:

credit1) It’s all about the plastic

In 1995, my sister and I took a 10-day trip to the UK. Before we left, we got hundreds of dollars worth of American Express travelers checks and had to find American Express offices across England and Scotland at which to cash them. How times have changed! With credit and debit cards, all you have to do when you get to most countries is find the nearest ATM.

Before you go, call your bank to let them know you’ll be accessing your checking account from a foreign country, so they won’t issue a fraud alert when they see your card hit an ATM 4,000 miles away.

While many credit cards have foreign transaction fees, most banks that issue them have at least one card that doesn’t. Find out from your credit card company if your card has foreign transaction fees. Usually, they’re about 3 percent. If your card does, and you have time, you may want to apply for one that doesn’t.

Plan to use the card that has no fees, or your card with the lowest interest rate for most of your purchases, lodgings and food. Make sure you have a lot of credit available on the card, if you can. You may even want to ask for a credit limit increase from your bank.

Most businesses in first-world countries accept Visa and Mastercard, with others, like American Express, not as common. You may have trouble if you’re traveling farther afield. (If this is the case, find out what your ATM options will be, and how credit cards are received, before you go).

Bring your debit card, too, because just like New Hampshire, you’re going to come across places that don’t take plastic, and you want to have some cash on you.

cell roaming2) Watch out for cellphone roaming charges

Find out from your carrier if your cellphone will work where you’re going. Most newer smartphones will work in Europe – some other continents are more iffy. Also, find out about your carrier’s international roaming fees. They can add up.

If you don’t need to use your phone for anything but to take photos, then put it on airplane mode for your trip to avoid the fees.

If you need to use your phone, find out from your carrier what the international data fees are and if you will have service where you are going. The fees are usually between $10 and $30 a day, with extra charges for texts. If you’re planning a long trip, some carriers also have an option for a one-time fee, usually between $50 and $100 for 30 days. Be prepared for slow and spotty service.

Some people who are more tech-savvy get a SIM card from a local carrier in the country they’re visiting. Before you can do this, you have to have your carrier “unlock” your phone (this is different from the unlocking you do to access it), which will allow you to use an international SIM card. Some U.S. carriers make this difficult, and it’s a good idea to go to your carrier’s store and deal with someone in person well before your trip. When you get to where you’re going, you will buy an international SIM card and install it, either physically or digitally. You’ll have a new phone number during your trip and some apps won’t work until you get home and reinstall your U.S. SIM card.

If you’re traveling with another person, or a few people, you may want to have one cellphone be the go-to phone to use to check bookings, get texts from Airbnb or hotel managers (lots of touchless check-in out there) and more. Everyone else can go into airplane mode and save money. You may want to buy the designated phone person a meal, or chip in on the fees.

2 33) Plan ground travel in advance

Whether you plan on renting a car or taking public transit on your trip, make as many arrangements as you can in advance. Supply chain issues, and inflation, aren’t just American problems this summer. You want to be sure you’ll be able to get around. 

Many train and bus lines in Europe, and other places, have multi-day passes that make traveling cheaper, and also offer cheaper tickets if you buy them online. Then you just have to make sure that you are where you planned to be when you did. If you are relying on trains or buses, also check the schedules for your destinations to make sure they are running on the days and at the times you plan to travel.

If you can, book accommodations in advance. While some people love traveling by the seat of their pants, you don’t want to get to your destination only to find out there’s nowhere to stay – much more of a reality than it was even two years ago.

Check cancelation policies before you book, so you won’t get stuck paying for a room you don’t use if you don’t get there in time.

While, Expedia, Kayak and other travel sites are great, be sure that you understand cancelation policies related to using those sites if you’re booking accommodations. Read the fine print before hitting the final button the computer. This goes for Airbnb as well.

3 24 Plan travel in advance II

When my sister and I went to England in 1995, you could pretty much walk right up to Stonehenge and touch it. Now you have to book a time and get a ticket well in advance. Same thing for that big castle in Edinburgh. No matter where you’re going, if there’s something you really really really want to visit, check online to make sure you can. If it’s possible to book in advance, do it. Just make sure you’re there for the day and time you booked – most bookings like this are not refundable.

In fact, as you plan your trip, don’t forget that the internet exists for a reason.

The other night, I booked ferry passage for me and my sister from Dublin, Ireland, to Holyhead, Wales – a month in advance. It was no more difficult than making a same-night restaurant reservation in Manchester. My sister said, “Wow, if this had been 1995, we would’ve had to wait until we got there, then would’ve had to go to the ferry terminal and buy the tickets.” Have I mentioned things have changed?

The internet is a wonderful, glorious thing that’s made travel easier and efficient. There’s no reason to not do your research and plan. This will help keep crisis and travel anxiety to a minimum.

4 25) Don’t wonder if you should get travel insurance, just get it

International travel has become a lot more uncertain than it used to be – canceled flights, positive COVID tests – you name it, there is a lot that can disrupt your plans. Most experts recommend getting travel insurance, not only for international flights, but for cruises and flights around the U.S. as well.

If you’re buying travel insurance when you book your tickets, be sure to read the small print and see what it covers. You may want to buy travel insurance from an online site that has more coverage, though it will cost more. Travel insurance costs around 3-8 percent of your ticket price, more if you want to be able to cancel for any reason.

If you buy from an online site, check the Better Business Bureau, A.M. Best (an insurance-specific rating site) or the U.S. Travel Insurance Association to make sure the company you’re buying from isn’t a rip-off.

Before you buy travel insurance, understand what you’re already entitled to, so you’re not paying for something that you don’t have to. Check with the credit card company you bought your tickets with, since you may be covered for refunds for a variety of reasons. Check your home and auto insurance, too, to see if you have any travel insurance coverage you weren’t aware of – you may be surprised.

By U.S. law, you are entitled to a full refund if your flight is canceled. The U.S. Department of Transportation has a webpage that explains how it all works and what you’re entitled to.

5 16) Carry-on is the way to go

Get yourself a smallish suitcase – check your airline’s max for what can be carried on – and don’t check any luggage. Even for a month-long trip, there are ways to pack light (that’s what my sister and I are doing). Quick-dry clothes (particularly underwear) and packing cubes can work wonders. If you’re a clotheshorse, keep in mind that you may never see your clothes again, given the chaos in the airline industry across the world. It’s much better to resign yourself to wearing light, sensible clothes that don’t take up a lot of room. My sister, much more of a world traveler than I, is the kind of person who dresses for dinner when she’s home (I know! Right?), but is happily planning to pack a months-worth of wardrobe into a bag that can be carried on. She’s done it many times for trips just as long.

One pair of comfortable shoes that are good for walking, with maybe a light backup pair in case you walk into a raging river and they need to dry out, should be good enough.

If you find once you’re at your destination that you need a heavy coat, or some other item that you didn’t bring, consider buying something cheap where you’re going, then donating it to Oxfam or another nonprofit before you fly home. 

On top of the very real possibility of your bag ending up in some giant warehouse of lost bags, most airlines charge extra for checked luggage – who needs the extra expense and the hassle?

I know many people are resistant to this advice, but it will save you money and anxiety to pack light.

67) Get a COVID update from your destination

Look up the country or countries you are going to online to find out if there are restrictions, what the deal is with masks, if you will be required to take a COVID test and more. Be sure to look up official government travel sites, including the U.S. embassy site, to get the latest, accurate information. 

78) Don’t forget your passport and your COVID-19 vaccination card

It takes eight to 11 weeks for a passport request to be processed, five to seven weeks and an extra $60 to expedite processing. If you need a passport, don’t wait until the last minute. If you only have a passport card, the only country you can use that to travel to is Canada by car – you still have to pay the full $130 for an actual passport to get on an airplane anywhere outside of the continental U.S.

You may not need your COVID-19 vaccination card on your trip, but it’s a good idea to bring it in case you do. What, haven’t been vaccinated yet? You should probably get that done, too.

89) Enjoy yourself

If it’s a once-in-a-lifetime trip, make sure you have fun. With the miracle of the internet – yeah, that again – you can research the daylights out of anywhere you’re going and find things to do that may not cost much. Don’t over-schedule, and always have a Plan B if your Plan A falls through. Enjoy local food and local culture – the more local you go, the cheaper it’ll likely be. See if there are things you can do for free that are just as fun as the expensive things. Even if you’re not outdoorsy, consider easy hikes and self-guided city walking tours rather than paying for a guide. Bon voyage!


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About this Author

Maureen Milliken

Maureen Milliken is a contract reporter and content producer for consumer financial agencies. She has worked for northern New England publications, including the New Hampshire Union Leader, for 25 years, and most recently at Mainebiz in Portland, Maine. She can be found on LinkedIn and Twitter.