I didn’t leave the U.S. for the first time until my 20s. Like most Americans, I thought traveling abroad would be too expensive. In fact, most Americans don’t even have a valid passport.
Today, my family and I spend most of the year overseas, visiting as many new countries as we can. And we do it all on my wife’s teacher salary.
As you plan your next (or first) trip overseas, follow these tips to make your trip cheaper and easier.
Money Tips for Traveling Abroad
My family and I have made every travel mistake in the book. But you can save money, time, and panic attacks by thinking ahead and paving a smooth path for your journey with these tips.
1. Set a Travel Budget
When people plan trips, they tend to fixate on the cost of flights and accommodations and underestimate the costs of everything else.
From meals to entertainment to getting around your destination country, everything costs money. You’ll incur countless little expenses as well, such as coffees and snacks.
Research helps. Read travel blogs about your destination, pick up guide books like “Lonely Planet” or “Frommers” for reputable, up-to-date information.
Budget for every expense you can think of, then budget another 20% to 30% on top of that. Once you have a plan, be mindful to stay within your travel budget.
2. Notify Your Bank and Credit Card Companies
Banks use algorithms to detect unusual credit and debit card activity. When transactions start taking place in a foreign country, that often triggers them to lock your card, which could leave you in a serious bind.
So log into your online account and fill out a travel notification. Trust me. You don’t want to find yourself in a foreign country with no way to pay for anything.
But don’t panic if you can’t find that on your bank’s website. Some banks and credit card issuers no longer require — or even allow — travel notifications.
For example, Bank of America no longer uses them. They use a combination of your purchase history, GPS location when you log into your Bank of America app, and artificial intelligence data points that exceed my pay grade to monitor your card security.
3. Get a New Rewards Card
International travel is expensive. But those high costs come with a silver lining — they offer the perfect opportunity to meet the high minimum spend requirement for a new rewards credit card.
For instance, the Chase Sapphire Preferred card offers 60,000 bonus points if you spend $4,000 within three months. Depending on your typical monthly budget, that might pose a challenge.
But traveling internationally, you might spend several thousand dollars on airfare alone. You could knock out the entire minimum spend requirement between booking flights and accommodations.
Plus, if you choose a travel rewards card, you may never have to pay for flights again.
Note that the best travel rewards credit cards come with perks that can directly save you money as well. For example, some cards provide rental car insurance coverage. Others come with airport lounge access, which often means free food, better Wi-Fi, and more comfortable (and spread out) seating.
4. Avoid Foreign Transaction Fees
Some credit and bank cards charge foreign transaction fees when you use them abroad. And at 1% to 2% or a fixed fee of a few dollars for each transaction, they can add up quickly when you spend thousands of dollars overseas.
Double-check whether your current debit and credit cards charge foreign transaction fees. If so, open a new credit card account without foreign transaction fees.
One card may suffice, although it always helps to have a backup card when traveling abroad. Research the best credit cards with no foreign transaction fees before leaving.
While abroad, keep those cards handy at all times and tuck your other cards deeper in your wallet. Or better yet, lock them in the safe in your room. They can serve as an emergency backup in case something happens to your wallet.
5. Check Your Cellphone Plan
Most U.S. cellphone carriers hit you with international roaming charges if you use your phone overseas.
Double-check your phone plan to see what they charge for international data and minutes. Some offer a certain amount free each month, while others start racking up fees the moment you take your phone off airplane mode in a foreign country.
In most cases, you’re better off swapping out your SIM card when you travel.
6. Look Into a Local SIM Card
My wife and I once traveled to the Republic of Georgia. When we booked the rental car, we opted in for a Garmin navigation system, thinking that would suffice.
It didn’t. The language uses a different alphabet, so translations to our Latin alphabet varied widely. The trip tested our marriage, as the Garmin repeatedly failed to provide results for the street names and business names we entered from Google.
We could have solved that problem by paying $25 for a SIM card and having live data and access to Google Maps.
Beyond navigation, having abundant local phone data helps you choose better restaurants and sites to see. It gives you the flexibility to adapt on the fly, leaving room for spontaneity on your trip.
You can often buy local SIM cards at the airport when you arrive. Alternatively, you can buy SIM cards that work in most countries worldwide. Check out The Broke Backpacker’s list of the best international SIM cards when you plan your trip.
7. Look Up the Exchange Rate
It helps to understand the local currency value when you book your trip. Because currencies fluctuate in value, you can sometimes travel at a discount simply due to a local currency dipping against the US dollar.
For instance, my family and I spend much of the year in Brazil. When we moved here a few years ago, the Brazilian real (pronounced hey-al) traded at around R$3.50 to US$1. It now trades at roughly R$5.50 to US$1 — a huge difference in value.
These examples crop up all the time. The Turkish lira plummeted in value in late 2021 and early 2022, for another example.
One way to score deals on international travel involves keeping an eye out for struggling currencies. Run the occasional Google search for best exchange rates for travel at that moment, and stay open-minded as you plan your next trip.
8. Get Foreign Currency Before You Leave Home
Visit your bank and pick up foreign currency for your destination country. Avoid the currency exchange desk at the airport, as they offer terrible exchange rates.
You want to have at least a little local currency when you arrive — if for no other reason than having cash for a cab to get to your hotel or vacation rental. But in some cases, you can score the best currency conversion deal by simply visiting an ATM when you get to the country.
But check with your bank. Some banks charge foreign transaction fees, and most charge ATM fees for withdrawing cash outside their network. Fortunately, most large U.S. banks partner with international banks to offer fee-free withdrawals from your bank account. Look up the local banks that have partnered with your bank, and find the nearest ATM to your hotel.
Some people also keep a few hundred U.S. dollars with them when they travel abroad as an emergency backup. If your bank freezes both your credit and debit cards and you run out of local currency with no way to withdraw more, you can always fall back on your emergency reserve.
Even so, aim to minimize your cash purchases, and stick with credit cards whenever possible.
9. Use Credit Cards for Purchases
Even if you can withdraw money at market exchange rates with no fees from an ATM, cash comes with other inconveniences.
To begin with, it’s easy to lose or have stolen. Once gone, it’s gone for good. But credit cards let you reverse fraudulent transactions if someone steals them.
Cash is also expensive to exchange back to U.S. dollars. You potentially get hit with two rounds of exchange fees.
And that says nothing of the potential travel or cash-back rewards you can earn by paying with plastic.
Just ensure you can pay off your credit card balance in full before it starts accruing interest.
10. Set Up Automatic Payments
We all have bills. If you leave town for more than a long weekend, you might find yourself overseas when you would generally pay those bills.
Even if you can pay those bills online, you must set aside time while traveling. At best, it’s a buzzkill on your vacation, and at worst, you forget entirely.
Either prepay the bills coming due during your vacation or set up automated recurring payments. Potential bills include your mortgage or rent, car, credit card, student loans, and utility bills.
11. Consider Travel Insurance
To paraphrase a common saying, stuff happens. And it does so unpredictably at that.
So you may find yourself needing to cancel or change your travel plans despite your best efforts. That’s precisely what travel insurance is for. It protects you from losing prepaid, nonrefundable travel costs and other travel-related mishaps. Examples of covered risks include:
- Trip interruptions due to non-excluded events
- Cancellations (entire trip or components of it)
- Lost or delayed baggage
- Airline or service provider failures
- Emergency evacuations
- Theft and other crimes
- Medical emergencies
The list goes on from there. Buy travel insurance, particularly as an inexperienced or infrequent traveler, to protect against common travel snafus. Research the best travel insurance companies before booking a policy to get the best bang for your buck.
12. Look Up Local Tipping Customs
Tipping customs vary by country and culture. In some countries, restaurants and bars automatically add the tip to every bill. In others, servers and bartenders earn a regular salary, so tips aren’t part of their income. Still other cultures do encourage tipping at restaurants and bars but in much smaller percentages than are common in the US.
But tipping etiquette doesn’t end with restaurants and bars. Look up who you should tip and who you shouldn’t in your destination country. The list may or may not include taxi drivers, bellhops, and tour guides.
Also note that while tipping might make you feel generous, it’s inappropriate in some cultures.
13. Look Up Local Car Hire Rules
I love Uber and Lyft when I travel internationally. It’s easy, safe, and you can charge the cost to your credit card rather than messing around with cash. But in some countries, the local taxi lobby or unions have blocked innovations in ridesharing.
After moving to Abu Dhabi, we learned that some powerful sheik had thrown all the Uber drivers in jail to protect his cab industry interests. I heard similar stories in several South American countries, where strong-arming unions or lawmakers who own fleets of taxis had banned ride-hailing services.
These countries have their own local apps everyone uses to call a ride. Look up how best to get cabs through your smartphone and download any necessary app before traveling.
As a final word of advice, if you must take a local taxi without a booking app that includes an estimated cost, ask for the price before you climb into the cab. In Colombia, we learned the hard way that unscrupulous taxi drivers didn’t turn on the meter for tourists and charged double, triple, or quadruple the going rate upon arrival. Get a quote upfront.
14. Download Offline Access for Crucial Apps
Wherever I travel, I always download offline access for at least two crucial apps: Google Maps and Google Translate.
You simply never know when you won’t have data service, even if you buy a local SIM card. And there’s nothing worse than getting lost in a foreign country, unable to communicate.
Download the offline map for all major metropolitan areas you plan to visit and the route between them if you plan to drive. Also download the offline data pack for translating to and from the local language.
15. Keep Cash and Other Valuables Safe
You need to protect your cash, cards, passports, and other valuables. Leave whatever you don’t need with you in the hotel safe or safely locked and hidden in your vacation home.
Regardless of your travel experience level, following some basic travel tips can save you significant money overseas.
As with everything else in life, a little foresight goes a long way. It can help you save money and avoid hassles and headaches on your next international trip. So plan now, and relax later.