So i just returned from France for the first time. Can you believe i’ve lived 100 miles from the border for more than a year and hadn’t been to the beautiful country yet? Well, finally i fixed that (pictures throughout this post).
As i was planning my upcoming quickie to the Riviera, i got to thinking about all of you guys who will be leaving the desk, clients, bosses, and parents behind this summer in pursuit of a new adventure in lands unknown.
While i’m no travel expert, i do know a thing or two about jumping the pond. I’ve been a European resident for a little over 1 year now. I started traveling internationally when i was 12, and since then I’ve had the opportunity to fill up my passport with many stamps and my life with many experiences. In total, i’ve made about 25 trips out of America (still a lightweight compared to the real “travelers”).
This post took me much longer to construct than most. It’s actually more like 4 posts in one, but i really wanted to get some super practical information out that will help you travel like a seasoned veteran – for cheap – even if you have never left your home country before.
I was motivated to write this for 2 reasons:
- I recently had a friend say, “Man i’d love to come visit you in Spain, but i wouldn’t even know where to begin with booking or planning a trip like that.” I’ve also had several friends express interest in visiting Europe under the stipulation that i purchase their plane ticket. I’d love to but…Ha! Maybe next year.
- I would love to see those of you who are planning travel – or have a dream of traveling – in the near future to be able to save a whole bunch of money and have the best trip ever!
Sound like fun?
Lastly, there’s a lot more information in the tank than just this bit. If this is something that you guys are interested in, please let me know by commenting below. Even though this isn’t a travel blog, travel is a priority for people like us! If there’s enough demand, i’ll gladly offer more content about travel that i’ve learned so far over the years.
Now to the good stuff. Here’s some quick and practical advice for the summer warrior this year.
1. Basics of flying frugally
Rule of thumb: Follow the deals!
The best way to economically find a great destination for your trip is to follow the deals.
Following the deals requires flexibility. Some people won’t be up for that, but in order to find extraordinary deals you have to be willing to do things other people won’t do.
If you’re willing to play some of your trip by ear, give/take a few days with you trip dates, use nearby airport locations, and even transfer from different airports in the city, you may be able to workout an airfare that is substantially cheaper than normal. Also, traveling on week days (tuesday-thursday, or Saturday mornings) may get you a more favorable deal.
The age old question is: When should you books your flights? In my experience with international flights (and the advice of many “experts”), the price curve on airfare dips lowest about 6 weeks from the date of travel. So booking flights too far in advance can actually cost you more.
Here are some good sites to check out when trying to find all the competitive prices:
Another cool trick that i haven’t personally tried yet is tracking deals on flights and potentially getting a refund if the price drops. Only certain airlines with let you do this, but among the ones who do are Alaska, JetBlue, Southwest, United, US Airways and more. Check out yapta.com for more info on this.
2. Intro to accommodations on the cheap
Rule of thumb: You have to decide how comfortable you want to be, then search for the best value.
The good thing about Generation Y is that many of us have connections with people abroad.
I’ve hosted many friends from home, college, friends-of-friends, etc. For the most part i enjoy it. If you can ask around or think of someone (that knows someone, who knows someone, who might have a distant relative) you should look into it. If you don’t ask, you’ll never know.
Most people enjoy hosting, but don’t expect everyone you have 3-4 degree of seperation with to host you for free. If you can’t roundup a free place to crash, don’t worry, there are plenty of great options.
- Priceline – Most popular for the name your own price tool, but “Express Deals” is also a useful method.
- Hotwire – by selling off unsold travel inventory at discounted prices.
- AirBnB – if you haven’t been under a rock then you’ve heard of this company (if you have been under a rock, im sorry, that sounds terrible). Search the site to see if you can find a cozy home to borrow for a fraction of the price of even a 3-4 star hotel.
- Hostels – a shared hotel rooms with other travelers (stranger). It’s sounds weird because it is. But that doesn’t stop millions of people all over the world from using them, including me. It’s not my preferred method, but it’s quite economical. Private rooms may also be available if you have 3-4 in your group.
- Couch surfing – your parents probably won’t be thrilled about this one. But hey, what can you do. If you really want to make it happen, the option is there. I have heard nothing but successful and safe couch surfing stories.
3. Use phones abroad w/o getting screwed
Rule of thumb: Wifi works just fine most places in the world. You have to decide how connected you want to be while traveling.
This can be one of the scariest things for anyone when traveling out of the country because they don’t want to end up like this guy . Let me help you…don’t worry.
Option 1: Forget about your phone. Put it on airplane mode and only use when you can access wifi. For some of us that’s actually preferred. Though i typically prefer to stay connected, on my last trip i used this option and really enjoyed it. You can still listen to music, use offline apps, and take photo/video on your phone, you just have to wait a little while to Instagram or hang them on Facebook.
Most people don’t know that you can actually still use your phone’s GPS system even if you don’t have data connection…but you can! Simply turn on your wifi. As your phone constantly searches for networks, it triangulates you location and shows where you are on the map. Google Maps allows you to save locations offline, so when you are out and about without service you can locate that perfect coffee shop or bakery without a data connection.
Option 2: Do what it takes to make your phone work. If you are traveling in a group, i recommend that a few people stay connected so you can communicate for safety and planning purposes. Here’s the simple version of how to do this without getting too technical:
If you have T Mobile, you’re in luck. You’re pretty much set. They offer unlimited data and free texting while abroad. You can even call back to the States cellularly at dirt-cheap rates. Just call T Mobile before you leave and make sure you are covered.
For all of us others, it gets more complicated. Almost all carriers will provide a up-sell for international data, texting, calling, etc, but the rates are extremely steep and generally a bad value. There is a work-around for most companies but you have to do the following:
- Safely get your phone network unlocked – There are online services that can do it for you. Search the web to find a service you can trust. Be careful, and only use one that has a great reputation and published reviews from previous customers. You can also get this done at kiosks in the mall pretty cheap. Unlocking your phone can take a few days (or up to a couple weeks), so don’t wait until the last minute. Lastly, your phone must operate on GSM technology or most global carrier won’t work with your phone.
- Buy a SIM for the country you are going to – you can do this before you leave (even online), and buy pre-paid minutes for the countries you’ll be visiting. Also, you can until you arrive and find a cheap, pre-paid SIM. The best place to buy them is a vending machine or convenience store. You may have to find a local carrier and get one from the store using your passport. Do some research on local carriers beforehand so you’ll know what’s a good price.
Using a data messenger service over data is cheaper than sending SMS international. I recommend iMessage (between Mac devices), WhatsApp, Viber, or Voxer.
4. Don’t get ripped off exchanging currencies
Rule of Thumb: Never exchange cash for cash (even at your bank or in airports)!
The reality is when you exchange cash for cash, you will always take a hit. Period. Even if you’re bank or a 3rd party offers a better than average rate, they will still profit from the transaction at your expense. Not that there’s anything wrong with that (that’s in fact why they are in business).
A great way to get access to local currency in another country is to use an ATM. The money comes out of your home account in dollars, but comes out of the machine in local currency. It’s a beautiful thing. Before you leave on your journey, call your bank in advance to see which ATM’s you can use free in the place you are going. Using these banks’ ATMs will possibly save you $3-4 per withdrawal.
Most banks offer cards that have no foreign transaction fees. This means that swiping your card in Shanghai – for example – would be the same as swiping it in Texas (expect for the currency, which your bank automatically handles for you and reports on your statement in USD).
5. Plan experiences and memories
Rule of Thumb: Trust your gut, and do what you want. It’s your trip!
Ok. So you’ve picked your city, booked your flights and accommodations…now comes the fun stuff. Planning out your actually activities can be one of the most stressful aspect of a trip. You only have a certain amount of time to spend there and you want to make the most of it.
I personally like a healthy mix of local stuff & tourist activities. I love the cultural experience that comes with doing life like a local for a day, and i enjoy imagining what it would be like to live in the place i’m visiting. If you’ve never done something like this, you should try it. Ask around at your hotel/hostel/couch where the best local restaurants, coffee shops, delicatessens, and bars are. They will be glad to offer advice. You can even ask them if they want to come along with you.
You don’t to get too consumed with all the local stuff, because you might miss some signature sites. After all, there is a reason most of the touristic attractions are so touristy – because they are cool. TripAdvisor is a great sources to see the best-rated activities in many areas of interest, read reviews, see pricing, etc.
In general, you don’t have to plan most things concretely. However, if you know you want to take specific tours or eat at the best restaurant in the city, it’s a good idea to make reservations weeks/months ahead of time.
*A few bonus tips*
- You don’t have to be nervous to fly. But if you do get a bit woosy, just remind yourself that planes are still the safest way to travel (by farrrr).
- Stuff may happen (weather, delays, cancelations). It’s part of the traveling experience, so enjoy it before you return to your timecard. The moments when you feel the most helpless are the moments that make the best stories later 😉
- Taking pictures is fun and important to help you relive experiences. With that said, challenge yourself to put down the camera sometimes and just live the moment “without the distraction of the camera.”
- NEVER use the phrase “but that’s not how we do it in America.” If you have this mentality you should just stay home and go swimming or something. There’s much to be learned if you’re open to other cultures and ideas.
If you learned something from this article, let me know below what the most helpful topic was for you. Also, if you are interested in content on similar topics, please let me know that as well (I want to write what you guys want to read).
Over to you! Do you have any tips to help other readers travel cheap and have a great time?