The Frugal Foreign Traveler’s Survival Guide

Note: this article was one I originally wrote for Money@30 last year but I thought it’d be perfect to share here — enjoy!

As I write this, I am just a couple of days away from visiting Paris, France. This will actually mark my first trip to “real” Europe (England doesn’t really count, as current events made clear) following our recent foreign travels that have taken us in the opposite direction to Asia. On a personal note, this trip will also make me a member of the “Six Castles Club” as I will have visited all 12 of the Disney theme parks around the world.

But onto the matter at hand — I thought this upcoming trip would give me a good opportunity to talk about traveling overseas. More specifically, how to do so while still being frugal and budget conscious. Below are some of the things my wife and I have learned from our recent travels together as well as some tips we’ve picked up just in time for our Paris excursion.

Mind the conversion rate

One aspect of international travel that seems to mess people up is using foreign currency. While obtaining foreign cash usually isn’t a problem in and of itself, being unfamiliar with how the local currency compares to U.S. dollars could lead you to overspend. Furthermore, while credit cards are accepted in a number of places, foreign transaction and ATM fees can add up if you aren’t careful.

Here are a few tips related to foreign currency exchange and how to get the best deals possible.

Buying and booking online

As we’ve been preparing for our Paris trip, we’ve had to make a few purchases online, including nabbing tickets for the various museums and attractions we’ve noted as “must-sees.” The challenge is that these sites may actually be charging different prices depending on what version of the site you’re using. For example, displaying an English language site or selecting the U.S. as your location may cause the site to give you prices in dollars. However, the conversion on those prices may not be an actual reflection of the current rate.

I ran into this dilemma first hand when trying to book my tickets for Disneyland Paris. The site extension geared toward American tourists quoted a price of $170 while changing to the regular default site showed that the actual cost in dollar should be $156 based on the current Euro exchange rate. As a result, we were able to save $28 simply poking around a bit. Better yet, we found Expedia also sold tickets for Disneyland that were based on the current exchange rate but charged in USD, allowing us to also avoid the 3% foreign transaction fee assessed by our bank.

Credit card fees

While we’re on the subject, many credit cards will charge you a fee for having to convert your foreign transactions from the local currency to dollars. Thankfully, there are many cards — especially those geared toward travel — that waive these fees. In my case, my Discover It card offers 0% foreign transaction fees, although acceptance in Europe is apparently pretty low. Before you go, be sure to look up your card’s policy and, if you have some time and it makes sense otherwise, perhaps you could even consider getting a new card that doesn’t charge a foreign fee.

Getting cash

Before I head out on any foreign adventures, I always like to obtain some my destination’s local currency to take with me. This ensures that I’ll be able to take a cab, get on a train, or do whatever else I need to do once I arrive without worrying about credit card acceptance. While this isn’t always the cheapest option, the peace of mind it provides me makes it worth it.

Once again, the key to getting a good deal on foreign currency is to shop around. Before our trip to Shanghai and Hong Kong last year, we discovered that Bank of America offered better rates than Wells Fargo did and that both bested well-known chains like Travelex. Granted, all of them still charged a fee that added to the cost. If you’re in a more populous area, you may be able to find local exchange shops that offer better rates. I found this to be the case in Los Angeles where a small place in Van Nuys sold me Japanese Yen for far cheaper than the banks were offering — and without an additional fee!

So how do you know what a good rate is? The first step is to simply Google it, as the search engine does a pretty good job of updating current rates and allowing you to compare various types of currency. Keep in mine that you will pretty much never find a shop to sell you currency at that exact rate (they do need to make a profit, after all), but at least it gives you a jumping off point.

Lastly, many countries do offer ATMs for foreigners that actually will give you a straight conversation rate. That said, your bank might charge your normal “out of network” ATM fee or perhaps even a higher one since it’s out of the country. Again, it’s a great idea to check on your bank’s policy before your trip. If, like Wells Fargo, they charge per transaction, be sure to make the most of your ATM visits by pulling out more cash at one time, which will cut down on the number of withdrawals you need to make.

Doing the math

A huge mistake tourists often make while away on foreign vacations is purchasing expensive items without even realizing how much they’re really spending. That’s why it’s always advisable to have a rough idea of the conversion rate in your head as you eat and shop around town. In the case of Paris, the Euro is currently worth around (a historically low) $1.06, so I know just to add a few cents to whatever I’m buying. However, on previous trips I’ve had to divide prices by six in the People’s Republic of China, by eight in Hong Kong, and drop a couple of digits in Japan. Being able to quickly do this rough math has allowed me to spot and avoid over-priced items as well as seek great deals.

Another tricky situation I ran into in Hong Kong is that certain locations will allow you to choose whether to pay in dollars or the local currency. At first we thought this was great, as it would help us avoid that 3% fee, but then we realized that the dollar amount quoted was marked up a bit from what the conversion should have actually been. Again, this is where knowing the rate definitely came in handy… even if it sometimes took us a minute to run the numbers in our heads. For those instances, you can also try downloading an app that will help you calculate conversion rates more easily.

Know how to get around and keep yourself safe

Part of the fun of traveling to a city or country for the first time is experiencing all sorts of new things. At the same time, that’s also what can set you up for trouble. From getting lost to getting taken advantage of, there’s good reason to take precautions on your trip.

Luckily, getting a head start and learning how city transit works as well as taking steps to protect yourself from crime can be relatively simple.

Understanding public transit

If you’re heading to a large city, there’s a good chance that public transit — including buses, trains, and subways — will be your best bet for getting around on a budget. However, each city’s system has its own quirks you should know about. For example, some systems require you to buy a ticket to your specific destination ahead of time while others offer options to pay as you exit. It’s also important to get a sense of how the different lines and routes are situated and how to transfer between them. Understanding how each public transit works ahead of time will make navigating the city much easier and prevent you from making costly (sometimes literally) mistakes.

In addition to researching the official sites for various city transit options, one of my favorite resources is YouTube. Here you’ll almost surely find a video where someone shows you step-by-step exactly how to find your destination, pay for your ticket, and how to find your way out of what can sometimes be massive stations. Some of the most helpful tips include how to find the “English” option on ticket kiosks, how to read the station maps, and how to calculate fares. Speaking of maps, you may also be able to find train maps for various cities that are mobile friendly and can help you find your way around on the fly — some cities even have their own apps!

Others points to be aware of are all of the rules that various transit systems have. In Hong Kong, eating and drinking on trains or even in the paid areas of stations is strictly prohibited. Meanwhile, Tokyo’s subways designate certain train cars “Women Only” during rush hours. Screwing up one of those rules could be, at the very least, awkward but could also lead to hefty fine.

Lastly, if you’re going to be using transit a lot, you should also look into various multi-day options that are offered. These could save you money by allowing you to pay a flat fee for unlimited travel. Alternatively, pre-paid options (such as Octopus cards in Hong Kong) will give you greater convenience for your travels, while saving you a bit on per-trip fares. 

Keeping yourself (and your money) safe

Man Pack

Speaking of public transit, be advised that subway cars and other forms of transportation can get packed, especially at peak times. Furthermore, you never know who’s riding with you. Because of this, you should always be aware of your surroundings and keep a close eye on your possessions.

Personally, one item I always like to bring on trips is a backpack designed to be worn both backward and forwards (it’s called the Man-Pack, was featured on Shark Tank, and can be purchased on Amazon). That way, when trains get crowded, I can move my bag to the front and ensure no one is tampering with it. Better yet, the bag zips completely up and is covered by a flap, making it very difficult for anyone to access it without me noticing. Even if you don’t have anything quite as fancy, drawstring backpacks provide some of the same security without costing a whole heck of a lot. Depending on your destination, you might also want to use a money belt that conceals your cash and other important items discreetly under your clothing.

Of course, it’s not just transit you need to be mindful of — crimes and scams can happen pretty much anywhere if you’re not careful. Be sure to pay attention to your surroundings. This advice goes double when you’re in areas you’re not familiar with. Additionally, keep in mind that the presence of other tourists doesn’t necessarily mean a location is any safer. In fact, it could make a hotspot for scam artists and pickpockets.

With all that said, the point of this section isn’t to frighten you into being constantly scared, but just to make you aware. Also keep in mind that the vast majority of locals you will meet are good people and will most likely be willing to help you if you need anything. Still, there are precautions you should take to prevent yourself from becoming a target.

Learn to find frugal fun

While some people work all year just to enjoy taking vacations where they can spend money without even thinking twice, that luxury is certainly not something everyone can afford. For the rest of us, finding budget-friendly fun is a must. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t splurge a little on once-in-a-lifetime experiences, but that there are some frugal options as well.

If you’re looking for adventure that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg, here are few ideas to lead you in the right direction.

Dining on a budget

When you think of Paris, food is surely one of the first things that comes to mind. Yes, the City of Lights is home to a number of fancy, Michelin-starred restaurants that I’m sure are delicious. Unfortunately, few if any of them come cheap. Yet, that doesn’t mean you can’t find unique and tasty culinary treats to enjoy on your journey.

Some of my favorite items I’ve had on vacation haven’t come from expensive sit down restaurants but from street vendors and small counter service locations. As a result, I often find myself not really stopping to eat large meals on vacation very often but, instead, snacking and sampling a number of dishes throughout the day. This way you get to experience more but still end up spending less.

Another tip is to look for grocery stores or even convenience stores around your hotel where you can stock up on a couple of things. Even if your room doesn’t have a kitchen you can do some real cooking in, you can probably find a few items you can prepare easily or that are ready to eat out of the package. This will prevent you from resorting to the mini-bar or calling for room service in a fit of desperation.

Exploring the city and “getting lost”

In my experiences, the best days of my trips aren’t the ones where I’m keeping a schedule and hitting up specific sights but those where I’m casually strolling and exploring. To me, this is a great way to get a sense of a city’s culture and often leads me to stumble upon beautiful or unique things I wouldn’t have found otherwise. Best of all, such activities are usually free or very inexpensive.

Typically what my wife and I will do is find an area we’d like to explore by looking online and then finding the train station for that spot. Once we arrive at the station, we simply walk around toward anything that interests us, pop into different stores and eateries, and essentially let ourselves “get lost.” Well, we never get truly lost —thanks to technologies like Google Maps and other resources, we’ve never had a problem being able to find our way back to where we started or to another train station that could get us home. That said, as I mentioned in an earlier section, always be aware of surroundings and try to keep some track of the route you’ve taken just in case you do get turned around or (*gasp*) your cell phone dies.

Know before you go

If you really want to get ideas for fun activities to do on a budget, be sure to do your research ahead of time. There are plenty of online forums such as Lonely Planet and TripAdvisor as well as sites like TravelBlog where you can find recommendations from other travelers. Plus, social media makes it easy to solicit advice from both people you know and those you might not. Since every person is different, you probably shouldn’t just take one person’s word for it (unless you really, truly trust them) when it comes to activities they’ve advocated for. Instead, you can always follow up and get more information on their suggestions and see if it’s really something right for you.

Traveling overseas can be thrilling, fascinating, and unforgettable. Sadly, it can also be quite expensive — c’est la vie. As my wife and I prepare for our trip to Paris where we’ll be taking our own advice, I hope these tips we’ve discovered so far help you enjoy your next trip abroad while staying on budget. Of course, we’ll be sure to pack up anything new we learn and bring it home to share with all of you. Bon voyage!

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