Best Budget Travel Systems and Strategies
1. Avoid ATM Charges and Bank Fees Abroad
ATMs have truly revolutionised the way modern globetrotters access money when they are travelling. Gone are the days of carrying large amounts of cash, dealing with travellers’ cheques, and grappling with shady currency exchange practices.
Despite the benefits of ATMs, many travellers end up making the same avoidable mistakes that lead to unnecessary charges and increased losses due to unfavourable exchange rates.
But, fear not! With my three-step guide to avoiding ATM fees, I’ll guide you on how to outsmart the ATM and keep more of your money for your travel adventures!
(i) Choose the Right Bank Card
Many conventional banks charge you for withdrawing money from an overseas ATM, which can either be a fixed fee per withdrawal, a percentage of the cash withdrawn, a combination of both, and occasionally, an additional charge depending on whether the bank aims to cover their expenses or earn from you.
These fees can quickly accumulate, especially on extended trips, prompting you to withdraw larger sums at a time, which isn’t ideal for travellers on a budget.
In the past, some banks offered accounts that waived these fees. With those benefits now gone, several travel money pre-paid cards emerged, offering reduced or zero fees on withdrawals, charging a small percentage to upload cash to their account. They partially addressed the issue and became a popular choice, but often had unfavourable exchange rates.
Luckily, in recent years, start-up fintech banks have started providing fantastic, secure, user-friendly technology via their apps and no ATM withdrawal fees abroad. These banks are excellent for travellers, especially with app-based banking technology that allows you to instantly freeze a lost or stolen card.
The best fintech banks for travellers include:
💳 Revolut | This is my preferred option and a fantastic choice for travellers and digital nomads. Revolut supports multiple currencies and targets various uses. It allows customers to withdraw up to £200 a month from international ATMs without any charge, after this a 2% fee is levied. Account creation is swift and free, and the card is delivered free of charge in the UK.
💳 Monzo | Customers can withdraw up to £200 every month for free. After this limit is exceeded, Monzo applies a 3% charge on withdrawals. Account creation is also quick and free. I only stopped using Monzo as they no longer offer accounts to customers living in Jersey 😭
💳 Starling | I haven’t actually used this bank yet but have heard great things about them. Sterling provides limitless free ATM withdrawals internationally, without any covert charges and offer an excellent exchange rate.
(ii) Use Only Bank-owned ATMs
Having chosen the right bank card for travel, the next challenge is to navigate the world of ATMs.
While your card may not charge withdrawal fees, the ATM you use might. That’s why it’s advisable to stick to bank-owned ATMs. These ATMs often have no additional withdrawal fee. From my past experiences, I’ve found that local banks are usually the best option for avoiding ATM usage charges, as opposed to international banks such as HSBC or Santander.
If you’re looking for an easy method to locate a bank-owned ATM, just type ‘ATM’ into Google Maps and select the options that appear in or adjacent to a bank establishment.
AVOID non-bank ATMs owned by private companies like Euronet, which often charge crazy withdrawal fees and offer terrible exchange rates! These independent ATMs can also deceive you into unintentionally withdrawing significant sums of money, as their ‘typical’ withdrawal options are frequently in hundreds.
Concerningly, I’ve observed a rising prevalence of these ‘independent’ ATMs in areas like airports and train stations. Because they appear and function similarly to regular ATMs, they capitalise on your need for convenience and possible disorientation in a foreign land. However, it’s best to steer well clear of them.
In most transit hubs, including airports, there is typically a bank-owned ATM available for use – it might not be in the most conspicuous or easily accessible location.
(iii) Select the Local Currency
Another common pitfall is the currency exchange scam, where an ATM abroad will offer to convert your withdrawal to your ‘home currency’ at a ‘fixed’ exchange rate.
Always opt for the ‘local currency’ option, which will ensure your withdrawal is charged at the correct interbank or MasterCard / Visa exchange rate. The ‘home currency’ option allows the ATM to give you a fixed and unfavourable currency exchange rate, costing you more money.
The setup and presentation of this system by the banks is purposefully confusing, making you believe that you’re scoring a better deal by opting for a fixed rate. However, this isn’t the case, it’s a deceptive practice and you should always prefer to withdraw your money in the local currency without conversion. This principle also applies to card transactions in foreign shops and restaurants.
This deception is actually called dynamic currency conversion. It’s estimated that one-in-five foreign transactions are affected, with UK travellers alone wasting around £500 million a year falling for it!
2. Carry Multiple Bank Cards
Cards can become misplaced, stolen, malfunction, accidentally break in half, or even be swallowed by an ATM. Therefore, when travelling (especially if you’re a global citizen) it’s prudent to carry at least two debit cards and a credit card. Always store them separately!
3. Separate Your Money in Your Travel Bag
If you absolutely have to carry a lot of cash with you at any given time on your trip, it’s essential to manage it wisely.
Whenever I’ve made a large ATM withdrawal, I always avoid storing all my cards and cash in a single place or piece of luggage.
The predicament everyone wants to steer well clear of is being stranded abroad without any money or cards because it’s all been lost or stolen in one fell-swoop.
If you aren’t sure about how to organise your cash safely, you might want to buy this genius fake suncream bottle!
4. Familiarise Yourself with your Bank’s Limitations
Lots of banks have yet to fully adapt to the fact that modern customers travel more frequently, and require easy access to their finances abroad! For example, with one of my bank accounts, I still have to contact the bank to inform them about all of my upcoming travels, including where I might use my cards (just to ensure it’s not blocked after its first use abroad).
This isn’t the most daunting aspect of managing finances while travelling, but it’s a procedure that could certainly be streamlined. So, prior to your departure, resolve any such issues with your main bank to prevent a distressing situation like having your card blocked when you’re in the middle of nowhere with poor internet connection! This exact scenario happened to me on my first day in Vietnam and it was a total nightmare!
Before your trip, be sure to understand the fees your bank might impose for overseas transactions, and make a note of the international number to report lost or stolen cards.
5. Never Exchange Money at the Airport
Unless you’re Scrooge McDuck, steer well clear of airport currency exchanges! Their abysmal exchange rates prey on desperation and inadequate planning – you’ll end up losing far more money than anticipated.
6. Make Purchases with Your Credit Cards (Avoid Using Debit Cards)
The majority of credit cards do not charge fees or commissions for overseas usage, and transactions are converted using favourable exchange rates. So, where possible, I highly recommend using credit cards for your overseas expenditures including dining, grocery shopping, and settling hotel bills.
However, it’s important to avoid withdrawing cash from ATMs using your credit card, as providers usually levy hefty charges for this service. Instead, use your debit cards to make these withdrawals or to pay for emergency situations.
7. Stay Informed About the Foreign Exchange Rate
Having a reliable app on your phone is highly beneficial when travelling across multiple countries with different currencies. I highly recommend using XE Currency, which allows you to store up to 10 currencies offline for immediate exchange rate calculations. This feature comes in handy when transitioning from one country to another, or when you need to make a quick calculation for an unexpected expense.
8. Always Bring Emergency Currency
It’s prudent to carry reserve currency on any trip as a contingency in case of emergency situations. US dollars, and increasingly euros, are universally accepted, so keep some on you at all times, just in case.
Ensure these emergency bills are in good condition, stored securely in your luggage, and ideally in smaller denominations (i.e., 10s and 20s) rather than larger ones (50s and 100s).
9. Review your Bank Statements Online
The last thing you want to face is discovering unusual activities on your account or forgetting to pay your credit card bill, which basically undoes all of your travel budgeting!
To avoid this, set up a reminder on your phone a couple days before your payment deadlines, which will also serve as a prompt to review your transactions for anything suspicious. For example, I once experienced my credit card being duplicated at a supermarket in Guatemala. It wasn’t until weeks later that I noticed unauthorised expenditures on my account (luckily, my bank reimbursed the entire amount!)
10. Use a Budget App
After leaving Jersey and my lawyer salary behind, I had to swiftly transition from a decent disposable income to living on a backpacker’s budget. Everything from lodging, tours, meals, and intercontinental transportation had to come from a more limited fund.
Managing a tight budget required exact knowledge of the whereabouts of every penny, so I started using Wise, which became my financial compass. While there are numerous free apps available, Wise offers the best usability and complimentary features.
Yes, it’s the less glamorous, unseen aspect of travel, but its significance cannot be overstated.
Here’s my advice for traveling smarter, more affordably, and for extended periods using a budget app:
(i) Calculate your Daily Budget
Without a practical guideline to regulate your spending, sticking to a long-term budget can be challenging. For example, you might need to constrain yourself to £20 a day per person.
However, this limit will fluctuate for each person depending on your travel destination, duration, and style.
(ii) Set Categories Aligned to your Travel Style
Customise these categories to your unique travel style and itinerary – if you splurge on souvenirs, it should be an independent category. If you have a preference for taxis, establish a ‘taxi’ sub-category under ‘transport’. This will help you realise its impact on your budget.
The following categories are essential to start with:
- Dining out
- Border crossings
- Sweets & treats
Avoid creating a ‘miscellaneous’ category as it may lead to confusion during end-of-month analysis.
(iii) Incorporate it into your Daily Routine
It only takes a few weeks for a practice to become a habit. Remembering or underestimating what you spent on a late-night convenience store run can slip from memory after a couple of days. Therefore, develop a routine for data entry as soon as possible after you head off on your trip.
(iv) Back up the Data Frequently
Avoid learning the hard way and export data regularly via email or to Google Drive. A malfunctioning tablet can result in lost data and struggles to recollect expenses.
(v) Review the Statistics
The frequency of this is a matter of personal preference. Be it weekly or monthly, it’s crucial to delve into the data. I analyse my data monthly or whenever I exit a country, allowing me to create specific budget breakdowns per country. These insights are invaluable for understanding spending habits and providing budgeting advice to fellow travellers.
I import the data from Wise into a spreadsheet and generate a pivot table, allowing for quick and straightforward dissection. This highlights daily spend, spend per category per day, and total for the month. The key focus is on the number of days I was under, on, or over my daily budget and what the average daily spend for the month was.
(vi) Adapt your Travel Behaviours
Every penny saved today can be allocated to future adventures! When under-budget, it’s gratifying to know your diligent tracking has paid off. But it’s also a reminder that some expenditures are more fleeting than others.
Occasional indulgences on expensive excursions or lavish nights out are okay. However, maintaining budget accountability means you’ll naturally strive to offset these over-budget days.
11. Check for Change Before You Leave
On the final day of your stay in a country, spare a few minutes to empty out pockets and purses. You’ll be amazed at how often you stumble upon a hidden treasure trove (or the money you were certain had been pilfered!). These unexpected findings can cover the cost of a couple of airport coffees or provide a satisfying final breakfast before venturing across the border for adventures in a new country.
12. Be Flexible
Kiwi is one of the best online flight booking platforms when searching for cheap airfares. Not only can you search an entire continent, but you can also select different destinations to find the lowest rates for the whole route. If you can be slightly flexible with your dates and exact route, you’ll find the best deals.
Check Kiwi out for yourself ⬇️
One of the best ways to save money when travelling is simply by being adventurous! If you’re up for an adventure to a potentially off-the-beaten-path place, you can find some amazing deals through Kiwi.
Simply set the dates you want to go (or the month/season), the trip duration and start exploring. This is a fun way to plan your travels if you aren’t sure where to go, as you can just let the deals decide for you!
Top tip: Look for the travel hack star icon on Kiwi for unique travel itineraries.
13. Low Season = Go Season!
I often travel to popular places during the low season – the advantages of this strategy go beyond what you might expect.
Firstly, you’ll likely get the best deals. In destinations where there are hurricane seasons, rainy seasons, cold winters etc. a huge number of hotels and airlines offer discounted rates, resulting in substantial savings on your trip.
For instance, I’ve just got back from a shoulder season trip to Whistler, Canada, which cost a third of the price compared to high season, and we had an absolute blast!
Secondly, off-season travel is amazing because you can steer clear of the chaos from hordes of tourists all vying to get the same shots of some random artefact or attempting the same hike at the exact same time etc.
Finally, based on my personal experiences, the rainfall during so-called “rainy seasons” is often minimal and actually enhances the scenic beauty of the surroundings. In fact, it tends to bring out the most captivating views: Trees and flowers in full bloom, vibrant colours, and misty mornings that infuse everything with a touch of enchantment. Some destinations are even rebranding their rainy seasons as “green seasons” to emphasise the beauty this time of year offers.
As they say in Norway, ”there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing!’
14. Subscribe for Flight Deals
Save money on your travels by signing up to a Flight Deals Tracking Service like Jack’s Flight Club, which is the largest cheap flights newsletter club in Europe.
Jack’s Flight Club helps travellers save a fortune every year – in the last 12 months it has helped save over £30 million on airfare! As this newsletter is totally free, it will never hurt to sign up – you could end up having the trip of a lifetime delivered straight to your inbox!
15. Volunteer Abroad
When it comes to travelling on a budget, one of the best things you can do to make your money go further is volunteering. Although this might not be what you initially had in mind for your globetrotting adventures, it may be the best thing you ever do.
From conservation projects in the Galapagos Islands to an orphanage in China, volunteering has taken me all over the world. Not only is volunteering an amazing experience that allows you to make a difference and grow personally and professionally, it is also a fantastic way to live more frugally.
One of the best ways to volunteer abroad is by working with an organisation that arranges volunteering missions around the world. Volunteering programs are often combined with cultural experiences and adventuring too.
When you do a volunteering program, you can usually travel for much less than you would if you visited the country as a tourist. Often, the volunteer organisation will provide host accommodation or place you with a local family who may offer authentic home-cooked meals for a small donation.
So, instead of spending your money on expensive tourist activities, you can spend time on building deep personal connections with locals and having some amazing cultural experiences.
When you volunteer, some of your expenses might even be tax deductible charitable donations (depending on your home country). But even if certain expenses aren’t eligible for tax deductions, you can still return home with the satisfaction of knowing that any money you invested was directed towards a noble cause and with memories to last a lifetime.
16. Live Like a Local
This will almost certainly save you money as compared to staying at big resorts. Although you might not get room service or a fancy spa, you will get to immerse yourself in the local culture and probably get some amazing local tips and travel advice, as well as some delicious local food.
I’ve lived like a local all over the world, from remote parts of China to local villages in Cuba, and although I’d describe the experience as being ‘no frills’ it was amazing to form connections with locals, see how they live, and save tons of money!
17. Negotiate like a Pro
An invaluable lesson I learned during law school was to never pay full price for accommodation. Believe it or not, hotels often impose exorbitant markups on their room rates, creating a growing incentive for them to offer discounts for upcoming dates.
While booking a hotel at the last minute doesn’t always work in your favour (as it involves a delicate balance of leverage between you and the hotel), when reserving rooms just a few days or a week in advance, you have significant bargaining power to determine the price.
Hotels often prefer to have their rooms occupied at a reduced rate, typically around 40-50% of the standard price. The prospect of having an occupied room outweighs leaving it empty.
It’s worth noting that negotiating success may vary, but it’s advisable to try your luck with smaller or local hotels and Airbnbs. You can also put your negotiation skills to the test in other areas, like securing hotel upgrades, negotiating taxi fares, or organising excursions. As a general rule, it never hurts to ask politely and see if favourable arrangements can be made!
18. Be Your Own Guide
Although it might be simpler to book your trip as a package, you will almost certainly be paying a premium. If you’re planning to travel the world on a budget, I highly recommend trying to navigate logistical aspects of your trip by yourself, as this is one of the best ways to reduce your travel expenses. It’s actually not that challenging to figure things out yourself, so when you’re trying to cut costs, why pay someone to do what you can do for yourself?!
An amazing new travel hack is to leverage Artificial Intelligence to plan your adventures. I have recently started using a nifty piece of AI software called GuideGeek. This is basically a robot you can contact on WhatsApp to ask any travel questions you have! From giving you some awesome travel itineraries to travel advice and food recommendations, GuideGeek has you covered.
However, as AI is still in its infancy, sometimes it will generate errors or give you outdated suggestions. Also, AI is not capable of giving you personal recommendations, so I’d still suggest doing a bit of fact checking before booking anything, and of course reading a few blogs for some well informed and more personal travel advice.
19. Fix Your iPhone for $5!
Forget putting your iPhone in rice! This hack will save you tons of money if you accidentally drop your phone in water or you just feel that your iPhone (or iPad) is muffled.
All you need to do is download the aptly named ‘Water eject – Speaker Cleaner‘ app, which will help you to clean the speaker from dust and water.
The unique app offers a combination of sounds and haptic patterns to help get rid of any water and dust from your speaker.
Vibrations and sounds should start once the power button is pressed. The ‘manual eject’ can be switched between light, medium and heavy modes, with further settings to alter the intensity.
If this fails, perhaps because your iPhone has been submerged in water for too long, you can try putting your iPhone in cat litter. Believe it or not, this is one of the best ways to recover a water-damaged phone.
So now there’s no need to rush out and buy a replacement iPhone! This super hack should majorly help you to travel the world on a budget.
I hope this article helps your travel budget planning! If you have any alternative money saving travel tips please let me know in the comments below! I’d love to hear them! 💚
Happy Travels! 💸
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