Travel Tactics: Stretch Your Vacation Dollars

Seven tips for traveling abroad without breaking the bank.

By Hannah Wallace | Illustration by Mitchell Blunt

If you’re traveling to a country where your home currency is weak, it’s hard not to have sticker shock every time you pay a bill. But vacationing shouldn’t be stressful, and there are plenty of ways to maximize your dollar—and your enjoyment. We interviewed financial experts from the online financial resource NerdWallet and the Canadian couple behind ThriftyNomads.com for their top tried-and-true strategies.

1. Change money before you leave

Instead of waiting to change money at the airport or hotel—both of which tend to have less favorable exchange rates and charge exorbitant fees—try going to your branch bank. “They have better exchange rates and, depending on your relationship with the bank, you may not get charged any fees,” says Devan Goldstein, a banking expert at NerdWallet. Just be sure to do it at least a week before your departure; not every branch has stacks of currency at the ready.

2. Consider a no-foreign-transaction-fee debit card

When you withdraw cash from a foreign ATM, there’s typically an out-of-network fee from your home bank, a conversion fee and a hefty fee charged by the host bank for the privilege of using its machine. According to Goldstein, some online banks, such as Capital One 360, waive the foreign-ATM fees as well as the conversion fees. As of press time, Goldstein says, Charles Schwab Bank tops that by also reimbursing the third-party fee that is usually charged by foreign ATMs. If you forget or would rather not sign up for such a card, you might check with your bank ahead of time to find out if it belongs to an international network, which may charge a lesser fee

3. Tap into social networks

You can use social media to find travel deals and tips. Consider following the Twitter feeds of destination-specific tourism sites such as @SloveniaInfo or @TravelPortland.

4. Find fun free events

“One of the easiest ways to comfortably reduce spending while still getting a rich experience is to track down free events and activities in your area,” says Jen Avery, one half of the team behind Thrifty Nomads. For ideas, check local magazines, such as Time Out, or discounts sites, such as Groupon.com.

5. Eat smart

Be savvy about which meals you cook at your resort and those you enjoy out. Going out for breakfast or lunch will almost always be more wallet-friendly than dinner. Avery advises choosing a family-run eatery that’s off the main touristy streets. Or pack a sunset picnic. “You can visit a local baker, butcher or cheesemonger, while paying less for a meal,” Avery notes.

6. Take public transit

A great way to explore a new place is by walking or taking subways or light-rail lines. “It’s amazing how public transit can be a fraction of the cost of a taxi,” Avery says. Today many cities also have robust, affordable bike-share services.

7. Do the math

It pays to do some number crunching ahead of time. For instance, one may think it’s more affordable to drive from Edmonton, Canada, to Portland, Oregon, than to fly, but once you add up the cost of gas, meals and lodging along your route, it may actually be less expensive to book a flight.

  • NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
  • Published: Fall 2016