There’s a wealth of resources about how to save money to travel but precious few about saving money while traveling. Contrary to popular belief, you can travel without blowing through your bank account; in fact, you can actually pocket more money on the road than you would living at home—if you act wisely.
I know that to be true because I’m sitting on a Vietjet flight from Siem Reap, Cambodia to Hanoi, Vietnam, circumnavigating Southeast Asia while saving more money than I ever have. I’m putting away money that I’d otherwise be spending on rent and the everyday costs of living—utilities, groceries, transportation and, you know, life. If you’re a sensible spender and are mindful of foreign fees and scams, you can actually build your bank account up while traveling, instead of woefully watching it wane.
Here are my seven secrets to saving money while traversing the far reaches of the globe.
1. The first currency exchange booth you find should never be the currency exchange booth you use.
There are a ton of places around the world where the exchange rate for Americans is a massive incentive—most of Asia and South America, plus places like New Zealand, Norway and more. This means that the cost of living for an American traveling could be significantly cheaper than the cost of living at home.
But if you’re traveling by air, the first currency exchange booth you find will likely be located in the airport. While the sheer convenience of these booths may tempt you to swap some dollars before venturing outside, you’re bound to be offered the worst rates. You and virtually everyone else around you needs to exchange money for the local currency, so airports can get away with poor rates.
That said, sometimes you’ll need cash for cabs or train tickets in areas where credit cards are not accepted. Exchange enough money to get you to wherever it is you’re going, and exchange the rest once you’re in the city center. If you’re going somewhere obscure with little chance of stumbling upon another currency exchange bank, of course, biting the bullet may be your only option. Use your discretion, just don’t be so quick to settle for convenience.
2. Try to avoid exchanging currencies more than once.
If you’re traveling to multiple destinations, take out only as much cash as you think you’ll need to get through the next few days or weeks. After all, you don’t want to be wandering with a wad of cash on you. And changing your dollars to Thai Baht to Malaysian Ringget, for example, could lose you money in the long run. One U.S. dollar is about 31.45 Thai Baht. And 31.45 Thai Baht is about 3.91 Malaysian Ringget. That means that 1 U.S. dollar is also equal to 3.91 Malaysian Ringget, but sometimes currency values change and banks may charge exchange fees. So by switching from one to the next too many times, you could end up losing money somewhere in the wash.
3. Rely on cold cash.
While you’re home, chances are that you’re spending a chunk of change on rent, and the rest on utilities and groceries and eating out and going out. Living off cash at home isn’t necessarily feasible. But when you’re traveling and you take out just enough cash to get you through a certain number of days or weeks in a city, you can budget better knowing that you only have that amount to spend. When you mindlessly swipe credit cards, it’s easy to forget how much you’re spending and fall off track. But cash is tangible, which makes it simpler to allot to meals, off-piste adventures and more — when you can physically see that you’re running low, you might be more inclined to go for street food in lieu of a nice dinner or a dorm bed in a hostel in lieu of a private room in a hotel.
4. Get yourself a foreign transaction fee-free credit card
If you must use a credit card, make sure you’re using a travel card to reap the rewards. With a credit card that doesn’t charge you a fee for foreign transactions, you can rest assured that you won’t find any random dollar amounts on your statement at the end of the month. Some options include the Capital One Venture Rewards Card, through which I have obtained 40,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 in the first three months. I get two points for every dollar spent on travel (cabs, ride shares, subway tickets, flights, hotels, etc.), and that equates to a rewards rate of two percent if I choose to redeem for flight miles. Other noteworthy travel cards include the Chase Sapphire Preferred card, the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard and the Capital One VentureOne Rewards card.
5. Find ATMs that are part of the Global Alliance
Speaking of cards, make sure your debit card is ideal for travel, as well. The Global ATM Alliance is a joint venture of several major international banks that allows customers of those banks to use their ATM card or debit card at another bank within the alliance with absolutely no international ATM access fees—which add up quicker than one might expect. While other fees like an international transaction or foreign currency fee may still apply for some account holders, the little bit that these ATMs save still count. Participating banks include Bank of America, Barclay’s, BNP Paribas, Banca Nazionale de Lavoro, Deutsche Bank, Scotiabank and Westpac.
6. Get SIM cards
If your phone is unlocked, you can purchase a SIM card for the country you’re visiting. This allows you to make and receive phone calls, send and receive texts and use data within that country for a certain price each month. It’s a cheaper alternative to international phone plans, which can run you close to an extra $100 each month, and you won’t actually need to pay for any phone plan if you’re using solely Wi-Fi or a SIM card. You’ll just have to reach out to your friends and family back home to alert them of your new phone number, and make sure to hold onto your original SIM card for when you return.
7. Take Public Transportation
Using public transit may take more planning and timing, but it’ll certainly cost you less than taking taxis or car services everywhere. Just think: You can spend about $120 on a subway pass for an entire month in cities like New York, where a 15-minute ride in a yellow cab could run you about $30 during rush hour. Besides, public transportation is an easy way to get to know the city, learn how to better navigate it and maybe even meet locals.
Photo: Getty Images/John Kuczala