Saturday, September 12, 2009

Guest Post: Save a bob when you travel abroad

More travel tips from the pros. Sorry, we've been bitten by the bug. We just can't stop . . .

If you’re reading this blog, chances are you know what it’s like to be fresh out of school and loaded down with about a million dollars in debt that you can look forward to paying off for the next thirty years.

If you’re also like me, you refuse to let a little thing like a lack of funds get in the way of having fun. Certainly, there are plenty of cheap ways to stay home and have fun—but what about those of us with the travel bug? The desire to see the world? The need to see different cultures? A rabid desire to sit in a stuffy container full of obnoxious people for hours on end in order to reach this aim?

Well, we must figure out ways to travel on a budget.

I recently took a sojourn “across the pond” to Oxford, England, so I feel highly qualified to report on the subject. What, what!

First, when buying tickets, it’s important to look at your options. Do you have frequent flyer miles with a certain company? Maybe you can use some of them to help you on your way. No brand loyalty? Aggregate sites such as collect data from many different airlines to let you compare prices. For those who haven’t seen the commercials, now offers a unique price-tracking service. You can sign up for emails that show trends or tell you when prices hit a low point. You can also sometimes get better prices by going to a different airport than you might ordinarily. For example, I live in the greater Washington, D.C., metro area and, while it takes much longer and an extra bus ride to get to there, I usually fly out of the Baltimore airport because the tickets are substantially ($100+) cheaper than flying out of DCA.

So there you are, you’ve bought your ticket, taken the trip, and arrived at the hallowed foreign (or domestic) port. If your destination is a foreign country, be sure to have brought a bit of currency with you that you bought at your bank back home. This is much cheaper than the foreign exchange companies at the airport, and trying to take cash out at a foreign ATM can be just as costly. While you can use credit cards abroad, there is usually a charge involved. Check at your bank before you leave to see what it is. In addition, be sure to tell your bank when and where you’re going abroad so they don’t block your card, thinking someone has made off with it!

When it comes to lodging, maybe you’re lucky, as I was, and have friends or family or distant fifth cousins twice removed with whom you might stay. Jolly good! For those of you without such good fortune, there are always cheaper options than a five-star hotel. Most cities have hostels for those who aren’t too picky about sharing rooms and bathrooms. Let’s be honest, you aren’t picky because you are POOR. Look into information for students visiting the city, because often the suggestions don’t require you to actually be a student. The internet is a wonderful resource, but you can also . . . buy books, Shoestring guides, and whatnot.

Getting around in new place can be challenging. Research forms of transportation first. Is it easy to walk around? Stick to the sidewalks. Need to go further? Try trains and buses instead of cabs. It’s always easier to take a taxi when laden with luggage, of course, but the truly spirited (and bereft of currency) can make do on public transportation. I have wandered many a city with two giant suitcases and other sundry bags. Sure it’s a pain, but then you can afford something else . . . like food!

Sustenance, if not debauchery, is always required when traveling. Every meal needn’t be a blowout. Find a grocery store and buy some cereal, fruit, and granola bars or crackers for breakfast and snacks. Dying to try the local cuisine? Decide on a few things you cannot live without tasting and save your money for those. Limit the amount of alcohol you buy—unless, as was my case, alcohol is a primary interest in your visit. Yes, I visited a different pub (or two) every day whilst in England. I limited myself to one or two beers, tried to always get something different so as to get the most out of the experience, and bought the cheapest food on the menu. Let’s face it—no one goes to England for the food. Okay, maybe some food, but there’s only so much fish and chips you can eat in one go.

Of course, seeing the sights is what it’s really all about. Every place has the things you can do for free and the things that cost an arm and a leg. I had quite a fine time walking around Oxford, seeing the colleges, the free museums, the “dreaming spires.” One tourbook I’d bought featured a selection of walks through the city or surrounding countryside. At one point, I spent an entire day wandering along canals and through fields, getting a bit lost here and there along the way, but having a smashing time nonetheless.

But what about when something you simply must do costs money? Sometimes, there’s no choice—you didn’t travel four thousand miles to not do things. Find out if there are discounts, cheaper hours, rush tickets, or other ways to get in on the cheap. It might take some digging, or perhaps the usage of that student ID that conveniently has no date on it. . . . In the end, decide what it is you absolutely cannot miss out on and budget for it.

Finally, what to do about all those people who want presents when you get back? Perhaps you can’t afford to buy everyone a T-shirt, and who knows if they’d really wear it all that often anyway. But, you can be almost certain, everyone loves a good postcard. Postcards are a great way to let the friends you’ve left behind know that, even though you’re a fabulous globetrotter, you remember them. They get to see a bit of where you are and have a personal message to match. For those for whom you absolutely must get gifts, be thoughtful and practical. Very few people really want that model of the biggest ball of twine.

With a little research and some self-control, traveling on a budget can be fun and easy. Decide on a maximum amount you’re willing to spend, and stick to it. Figure out what’s important for you to see and experience on your trip, and what frivolities can be lived without. Keep this in mind whenever you’re making a purchase and you’ll come home with a guilt-free conscience, a bank account with some wiggle room, and amazing memories.

Thanks to the brilliant Miss Elana Devereux for this fabulously helpful article. We can only hope she keeps TAiMH in her favor and writes more for us.

Thanks to Military Finance for including this post in the Money Hacks Carnival.

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