One of the most frequent questions we get asked is “How do you afford travelling for so long?”. Pre-trip savings are obviously our main resource, but being smart with that money during our travels is what makes the real difference. After one year of travelling around the world, we have picked up many simple travel tips on how to save money, here are eleven of our favourites:
TRAVEL TIP #1. Always Pay in Local Currency
Generally speaking, if you’re paying for something in a foreign currency, you’re not getting the best deal. That goes for both cash and credit card purchases. In some countries, when making purchases with a credit card the teller may ask which currency you want to pay in – local or your own. It might seem more convenient to pay in your own currency but it’s always better to select the local currency; the exchange fee charged by your bank is more than likely less than the rate charged by the machine.
This tip extends to online purchases as well (flights, buses, accommodation…). Keep an eye on what currency you are being charged in and the exchange fees that are associated with it (which aren’t always obvious). We have noticed that some sites will actually charge more (up to 10% sometimes!) for the product/service if you pay in a foreign currency like USD, EUR or CAD without openly showing any exchange fees. It’s often much better to pay in their local currency and take the 2.5% exchange fee from your bank. For online sites, the local currency is generally the currency of the country that the company is based in. For example, if you’re booking a flight with Air India (even if you aren’t in India) select the currency to be Indian Rupees to avoid additional exchange fees. Either way, it only takes a minute of your time to note the currency and fees and to do a little math to figure out which is cheaper.
TRAVEL TIP #2. Avoid Travel Agents
With the amount of online travel booking services these days, there is no excuse to not search for you own deals. Using a travel agent in my opinion is the easiest way to throw money away. I can’t think of a single time anywhere in the world where using a travel agent was cheaper and therefore, we don’t use them. Even for shorter journeys such as a regional bus or train, it is almost always cheaper to book it yourself online or in person directly from the company. There is no need for a middle man to collect commission (this goes for booking through your hotel reception as well). Additionally, if you book yourself you can usually choose your seats (which can make a huge difference in comfort) and also take advantage of ‘online’ only deals which are becoming very popular.
Our most-used booking sites:
Accommodation: Booking.com – this is our favourite resource for booking budget hotel/hostel/guesthouse accommodations (alternative accommodations are in tip #4). Most of the time you can even get free cancellations (plans change!) and you don’t pay until you get there. Become a ‘Genius Member’ to receive an 10% discount on certain properties and get perks such as early and late check-in/out times, free airport shuttles and welcome drinks. I think you need to book 10 accommodations through them to get the ‘Genius’ status. Nothing beats being able to check in early after a sleepless red-eye flight/train/bus or being handed a nice cold free beer after a long bus ride with no air-conditioning.
Flights: Skyscanner.net – this is by far our favourite flight search engine. It blows all the other ones out of the water in my opinion. You can set price alerts on destinations you are interested in and it will send you an email everyday with the updated prices. But the best part: you don’t have to select a specific airport or even city. If you know you want to spend some time in a country and travel through it, set your destination to that country and it will find the cheapest airport to fly into. Not picky on your destination at all, set it to ‘Everywhere’ and it will find the cheapest flights to anywhere in the world from your departure airport. This next tip is something that shocked us the most when we discovered it. Most people have their browsers set to automatically use their IP address location as their current location and skyscanner will search airlines using that location. This can be bad since some airlines will charge significantly more for foreign customers. Instead, try setting your search country to the country you are departing from or travelling to and you might find a significant difference in price, sometimes even different flights all together.
TRAVEL TIP #3. Search in ‘Incognito’ Mode
Another tip we learned is to always clear your browser data or use your browsers incognito mode when searching for accommodation or flights. (Use CTRL + SHIFT + N to open an incognito browser if you use Chrome.) If you don’t do this, here’s what happens. You usually don’t book your flight on the first search, instead you keep it in mind and keep searching or waiting, possibly for a better price. The problem is that when you search that same flight again, the price has often increased, sometimes even when it is just a few minutes later. The sites you use track your search history and if you continue to search the same thing – they know you want it – and increase the price. Make sure to clear your browser data if this happens and try again to get the original price you found.
TRAVEL TIP #4. Travel in ‘Shoulder Season’ & Book Early or Last Minute
Booking during off-season will be your cheapest option no matter what though. Shoulder season, just before or after peak season, is our favourite time since you can usually get off season prices but still enjoy the nice weather without the crowds. The shoulder season varies depending on the region so do some research beforehand.
With respect to how early to book your trip, there are a couple options for this one and it really depends on how flexible your plans are and how much you like to gamble. We find that booking a minimum of one month early gives you the best savings. For example, we booked hotels for 86% off on the Greek islands because we booked two months early and during shoulder season. Then there is the last minute option. This one is a gamble because sometimes you get lucky and find a great deal and other times you strike out and have to pay the premium for the last minute booking. If your trip doesn’t have a route or any plans, then this can be the best way to save a lot of money and can make for some interesting journeys.
For flights specifically, we have found that the day and time you book your flight can make a significant difference. Friday-Sunday tend to be the most expensive days as this is when most people are searching and booking flights. I’ve read articles about this and some people swear that Tuesday afternoon is the “golden time” to book flights (the amount of research some people did can make it believable), but in our experience, as long as you’re not booking on a weekend then you should be getting the best fares.
It is also a good idea to check if there is a national holiday during your trip to a foreign country. You can be paying a lot more for your trip if it’s during a holiday week; it might be worth shifting your plans to a different week. This one would have been hard to foresee but in 2015 a Chinese superstar group made a video about Cappadocia, Turkey and come Chinese National Day, Cappadocia was completely booked up with every hotel, tour and hot air balloon sold-out! Not a time you want to be there.
TRAVEL TIP #5. Use Alternative Accommodation (*Airbnb*)
We use Airbnb whenever possible (about 75% of our accommodation all around the world has been through Airbnb). It works great for us since we like to have a well-equipped kitchen to cook our own meals and as well as a washing machine to do our own laundry for free (another two ways we save money). You can filter your search by neighbourhoods, price range, amenities, room types and much more. We find that staying in a private room in someone’s home is usually cheaper than booking a private room in a hostel or a room in a cheap hotel or even two dorm beds in a hostel. In some parts of the world, we were able to get an entire apartment for ourselves for less than a private room in a nearby hostel! In Rio de Janeiro we lucked out and were able to find a private room in a penthouse condo just one block from Copacabana Beach during the Carnival festival for a fraction of the cost of other forms of accommodation.
We try to stay with ‘Superhosts’ as they have the best reviews and usually equate to the best experiences. For example, our host in Italy took us out to his rugby teams clubhouse to have dinner in true Italian fashion. Our host in Belize would make us the most amazing breakfast every morning. Our host in Slovenia drove us an hour out of town to a beautiful lake where we went for a row to a castle on a small island. All at no extra cost.
Airbnb’s customer service has exceeded our expectations so far and is always there to help us out when things aren’t what we expected (it happens once in awhile). Just make sure to document everything clearly and report it right away. We’ve had two situations where we weren’t happy with the place and Airbnb gave us a full refund as well as additional credit for future bookings. I’ve never experienced or heard of that kind of service from a hotel or third party travel company.
If you don’t already use Airbnb, click here to sign up and receive a $20 USD (approx. $28 CAD) travel credit after your first stay:
TRAVEL TIP #6. Don’t Always Go for the Transport Passes
We always get asked if we have one of those ‘Round the World’ airline tickets. The answer is no. We did a bit of research beforehand and came to the conclusion that those airfare passes aren’t the cheapest option especially if you are flexible with your route. Star Alliance, Oneworld and Sky Team are the main alliances and they all offer many variations of round the world or multi-city airfares. They seem convenient at first, but then you read all the limitations and the adventurous and spontaneous parts of your trip slowly disappear since you pretty much need to have a detailed itinerary planned to use them. Overall, we are glad we didn’t get one because so far we have saved lots of money using tools such as Skyscanner to find the best deals. It also gave us the freedom to go wherever we want, whenever we want with whatever mode of transportation we pleased.
We went through a similar dilemma when we were planning the Europe portion of our trip. Do we get a Eurorail pass or book separate trains, buses and flights? After 100 days in Europe we saved about $1000 by NOT getting a Eurorail pass. We booked each train segment on its own (‘The Man in Seat 61’ is the best resource for finding train routes, prices and deals) and found some good flight deals which allowed us to go from Greece to Munich for the last week of Oktoberfest. ‘Rome 2 Rio’ is another powerful transport tool that we relied on. It shows you all the possible methods of getting from point A to point B in every price range. It will even tell you when switching to a bus or ferry part-way through your trip instead of transferring to another train is cheaper and maybe even faster.
We also noticed that getting an all-day metro pass or a tourist metro card can be more costly than just buying regular single fare tickets. In some cities, you need to use the metro system up to six separate times before seeing any savings from the all-day pass (Paris is an example of this). On average, we never use the metro more than four times in a day, so buying single fare tickets was cheaper in that case. However, in other cities, like London (Oyster Card), you can save a significant amount if you spend more than a couple days in the city. So before just buying the easy all-day pass, take a minute to think about what you want to do in that city and how you will be getting around.
TRAVEL TIP #7. Keep Alternative Transport in Mind (like Uber)
When we were in Medellin, we saw an ad on the internet stating that Uber has arrived in the major cities of Colombia and they were offering three free rides for signing up. A few clicks later I was signed up and there was my free credit. It didn’t really cross my mind to use Uber outside of North America (especially since it is still banned in Vancouver), but to our surprise it has been in most of the major cities we have travelled to. It was nice to have the comfort of an Uber in Colombia because taxi’s there are known to be very dangerous. It also completely solves the problem of being scammed, overcharged or having rigged meters since all fares and transactions are done through the app on your smartphone. You get a very accurate fare estimated by the app and the route is tracked by GPS so you know what you are paying for. Uber has been cheaper than taxis in every city we have used it in. Especially when going long distances such as to an airport, where Uber uses fixed rates that are usually half the rate a taxi would charge.
TRAVEL TIP #8. Use your VISA to Withdraw from ATM’s
To avoid fees from your home bank use your VISA for ATM withdrawals (most Canadian banks charge $5 per withdrawal if you use your debit card in a foreign country). This VISA trick only works if you keep your VISA at a negative balance at all times (i.e. the balance must still be negative even after the withdrawal amount). With a negative balance, you don’t get any interest charges or withdrawal fees. Note that for some reason this trick doesn’t work with our MasterCard.
Here are a couple other tips to avoid crazy fees from ATM’s:
- Be smart on where you withdraw money. ATM’s in airports, train stations or bus stations always have the highest fees, especially the ones that say 24-hours and are associated with multiple banks.
- Do a quick Google search on which banks in the country have the lowest fees and allow the highest withdrawal amount. There is always at least one that is cheaper than the rest. Often you can find an ATM that charges no fees.
- Always withdraw the max amount the machine will allow you too (or the max amount you will need for the duration of the trip) if you have to pay a fee. There is no point in paying the fee multiple times for small withdrawal amounts.
- It is ALWAYS cheaper to get charged the local currency for withdrawing. Some ATM’s will try to trick you by making it sound like their exchange fee of 3.5% or more is somehow a good deal, when really your home bank charges less (the Canadian standard is 2.5%).
And as a backup, always keep some US dollars on you. You never know when your bank/credit card might get locked, lost or stolen. The US dollar is the closet thing to a world currency and is pretty much accepted or exchanged anywhere in the world.
TRAVEL TIP #9. Sign Up for Frequent Flyer Programs
Sign up for a frequent flyer program, especially one that is associated with a large airline alliance. Star Alliance is the largest one and covers pretty much the whole world (other main alliances are Oneworld and SkyTeam). This way you can earn or redeem points on most of the flights you take. If you are only travelling in a certain region, it’s worth signing up for a budget airline frequent flyers program. They usually aren’t associated with an alliance, but if you only need flights in that certain region then collecting points with them can be more beneficial.
There are more benefits to collecting points than just redeeming them on flights. Once you get enough points to be a status member, things get good. For example, you get access to airport lounges where food and drinks are free, you get additional baggage weight allowances for free or you can get your seat on the plane upgraded for free sometimes.
There are literally hundreds of blogs out there that detail every frequent flyer program imaginable and explain which ones are the best but the main takeaway is – sign up for them.
TRAVEL TIP #10. Take Advantage of Credit Card Rewards and Benefits
There are hundreds of different credit cards designed for travel, so I’m not going to tell you which one is best for you (they all vary depending on bank and location). Once you finally chose one, use it as often as possible! It saves you money by avoiding withdrawing cash and you also collect reward points. If a place accepts credit card I have no idea why anyone would choose to use cash. Our credit card of choice (for Canadians) is the Capital One Aspire World Elite MasterCard. Its highlights are:
- 2 reward miles for every $1 on all purchases – no matter where you shop
- One-time bonus of 40,000 miles – equal to $400 in travel – once you spend $1,000 on purchases within the first 3 months
- No limit to the amount of miles you can earn
- Bonus 15,000 miles every year (which negates the yearly fee for the card)
- Add an authorized user for $0 and earn even more miles with their purchases
- World Elite MasterCard Travel benefits, including Travel Emergency Medical insurance and Trip Cancellation insurance
While travelling we collect approximately the equivalent of $100 of points every month. We usually use them to treat ourselves to a nicer hotel or an extra activity.
Take advantage of your cards other benefits too. For example, our card automatically covers all medical/accident insurance needs for trips up to 8 days so there is no need to buy third party travel insurance for a short trip. Also, when buying a vacation package online pass on the trip cancellation/interruption/flight delay/baggage loss insurance they offer you; most travel credit cards already cover that. The same applies when renting a vehicle, pass on the CDW insurance if your card already covers it.
My favourite perk: Anything purchased on this credit card is automatically insured against theft, loss or damage (anywhere in the world) for 120 days from the date of purchase!! It also doubles the manufacturer’s warranty for up to 2 years. Knowing that if I accidentally dropped our brand new camera in the water or spilled beer all over it or if someone stole it that I would be reimbursed the full amount made me so much more comfortable (for the first 120 days).
Note: Make sure you read all the terms and conditions of your credit card before passing on additional insurance. Every card is different, I only mentioned some of the benefits my card offers.
Don’t be scared to have multiple credit cards. Sometimes signing up for a card that is offering 20,000 – 50,000 sign up bonus points is worth it if it means you get moved up to the next status tier on your frequent flyer program (Aeroplan does this often). It’s also useful to carry multiple cards in case one gets locked (which happens way too often when travelling) or stolen. We carry three VISA’s and one MasterCard between the two of us.
TRAVEL TIP #11. Make a Budget and Follow it!
This is something that everyone should do on any trip. It doesn’t have to be an intense multi-page excel spreadsheet with graphs and charts (ours may or may not be a little over the top). Something simple written on paper or an app on your phone will do and is better than having no budget. Keeping track of your money will allow you to make the most of your trip and will reduce the chance of cutting it short from running out of money.
I can’t stress how important this is. And it doesn’t have to be time-consuming or limiting to your trip! I’ve gotten the argument “why bother keeping track of your spending, you’re going to spend that money anyways?” But the truth is if you take a minute to think about how much things cost and where all of your money is going you often think twice. Sure, another Starbucks doesn’t hurt but at basically $5 a cup, do you really need one every day? And if you’re in Asia or Latin America it’s even more painful when you compare to what $5 can get you! Simply being conscious of your spending makes a big difference. We don’t sacrifice things that really matter or would make us unhappy – I still get a Starbucks once in a while and we splurge for snorkeling tours or a hot air balloon ride; but we save where we can. If you split your budget into categories (accommodation, food, liquor, activities, etc.) you can narrow down on where you’re over-spending.
In conclusion, even if you only use a couple of these tips, you can easily save hundreds or even thousands of dollars – depending on the length of your trip. To put things in perspective, for a thousand dollars you could relax on a beach for a month or more in Southeast Asia or catch a long-haul flight to an exotic destination on your round the world trip!
As a final note: please know that we are not associated with any of the above mentioned companies, although sometimes I wish we were so we could at least be getting something for sharing all these tips!