Whatever our background and wherever we travel, we are all constantly confronted with decisions that can have a significant impact on our trip, both in our enjoyment as well as how much we spend. Here are some typical travel crossroads and how you should proceed in order to make your trip more fun and affordable.
DO use public transportation, DO NOT take cabs
Even if I had a limitless travel budget I would still take public transportation for the unique cultural experiences it provides. Public transportation is also a great way to save a lot of money when on vacation. Obviously, this is easier to accomplish in an urban setting where there are a variety of options including subway and bus. Not only is it infinitely cheaper than renting a car or taking taxis everywhere, but it can be faster depending where you are. I know that in my hometown of Washington, DC, it takes me less time to metro into town than it does to drive. Also, for the green traveler, public transportation is key in minimizing your travel carbon footprint.
DO ask locals for restaurants, DO NOT eat near tourist areas
One of the most important aspects of the travel experience is food. There is no better way to learn about a culture than by participating in meal-time rituals and sampling the same culinary staples as the people who live there. If you are gone for a week, your opportunities to participate in this experience are limited, so don’t waste your time. While it’s fine to eat at McDonald’s or something similar once or twice, don’t make this a habit. Instead, seek out the street stalls, cafes and restaurants that will provide you with rich, meaningful food memories. In Paris try a crepe; in Madrid snack on churros and in Singapore don’t miss the hawker stands. These experiences don’t have to be expensive and the most meaningful ones will be some of the cheapest. While touring the city or area, take note of small bistros or food stands that aren’t too pricey, but which can provide an authentic food experience. Better yet, check out the street food offerings. Some of the best meals I’ve consumed anywhere in the world have been eaten while standing up.
DO shop at supermarkets, DO NOT buy anything from your hotel
Hotels have mastered the art of convincing their guests to spend more money than they intend. That’s fine, I like capitalism, but I don’t like wasting money. Before you even leave home, ask your hotel to either remove or empty the mini bar; that way you won’t be tempted by $7 Mars bars late at night. After you check in to your hotel, walk around the neighborhood and find the local convenience and grocery stores. These neighborhood institutions will be your best resources for saving money on food. I always stock up on water, Diet Coke and some snacks to pack for day-long sightseeing adventures. It’s better to buy these items at a neighborhood store instead of a tourist souvenir stand where the prices will be double or triple normal.
Grocery stores are also a fantastic way to gaze into the stomach of a new country. I first started visiting supermarkets as a way to save money on sodas, water and snacks. It became quickly apparent though that the visit was about much more than just saving money. While perusing a store on the outskirts of Madrid last year, I noticed something odd. There wasn’t just a nice selection of olive oil, there was an entire olive oil section. Hundreds of different kinds lining at least two rows in the huge store. Obviously the Spanish mean business when it comes to good oil. Many groceries are pretty generic, but there are always regional oddities that pop out and reveal a lot about the area.
DO use debit and credit cards, DO NOT use traveler’s cheques
When traveling overseas, the best exchange rate is found through the nearest ATM. It is a financial and safety mistake to withdraw your entire travel budget before leaving home, with the intention of exchanging it overseas. You also won’t have the best rate using traveler’s cheques. Instead, you should plan on withdrawing money a couple of times while on your trip. The problem with this however are the fees associated with this practical travel behavior. Some countries, such as Thailand, attach a charge on all foreign debit cards regardless of bank or location. Not only will you sometimes incur charges from the ATM bank, but you may also be charged by your own bank. The best way to avoid all of these fees is to first find a bank with minimal or no fees for ATM withdrawals. One of the best products available to beat these fees is the Charles Schwab Credit Card. In addition to not charging their customers for international withdrawals, they also reimburse for fees incurred at other banks. That means you can access your money for free; novel concept, right? If you’re worried about being charged at a higher interest rate for cash withdrawals, then prepay your travel budget on the card so that you are essentially using it as a debit card. Even better, if you want to use the card as a traditional credit card, there are no extra exchange fees for international purchases, unlike most other banks.
DO be a tourist, DO NOT miss out on important experiences
Popular tourist attractions are popular for a reason. They are usually unique experiences that everyone should enjoy. Some people may want to shy away from the crowds and avoid looking like a tourist, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Unless you have permanently relocated to a new city, everyone is a tourist and there is nothing wrong with enjoying some of the cheesy activities that make certain areas of the world fun and unique. In Paris you should see the Eiffel Tower and in London a trip to the Tower Bridge is a must-do activity.
But don’t stop there. In Paris, rent a bike one day and see the city on two wheels, take the train out to the Fontainebleau Forest for some hiking or take a cooking lesson in the heart of the city. Do some research, think creatively and seek out experiences that will create a more robust, and fun, vacation. Don’t limit yourself to the top ten landmarks in your guidebook, instead look around you and find ways to step back and REALLY experience the area.
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What are your favorite Do This, Not That travel tips?