I’ve been fortunate enough to have lived and traveled all across Europe for the past three years. I’ve visited 16 countries, walked the hallowed grounds of history’s battlefields, and reveled in the beauty of some of the greatest cities in the world.
These new adventures sometimes came with never-before-made mistakes. I’ve made my fair share when it comes to figuring out the best ways to save and spend money in a foreign land. There are things you will never think about until it’s too late—whether it’s on the flight over or a few weeks into your journey. Hopefully, these helpful money saving tricks will mean you don’t make the same mistakes I did.
My experience and this article focus primarily on Europe, but the principles remain the same no matter where you travel or live. Here’s some of the money-saving tips I’ve learned that can be applied all over the world:
1. Cash is king
Many who live in the United States are used to this common principle: credit cards are accepted wherever you go. If you’re not used to carrying paper currency every day, be prepared for the reality that cash is still king in a large part of the world.
For example, the majority of local stores and restaurants in Germany accept only Euros. Your credit and debit cards are not welcome in some places, and it’s always a good idea to have some local currency on hand.
2. Save money in exchange fees
The best way to save on exchange fees is to wait until you arrive at your destination airport before obtaining the local currency through an ATM. If you exchange money beforehand, your home bank will charge a service fee, and you’ll have to keep track of a large amount of cash during the movement phase of your trip.
You will almost always get a better exchange rate on ATM withdrawals versus what you would pay to an exchange service in the airport or a touristy location. Notify your bank that you’ll be traveling at least one week prior to departure to ensure your ATM card will work without interruption.
3. Save money at the ATM
Always choose the “charge in local currency” option when withdrawing cash. When you travel to or live in a foreign land, you can always withdraw the local currency at any ATM. When I use my ATM card in Europe, I’m presented with two options: withdraw in local currency or withdraw with conversion to my home currency. Either option will put Euros in my hand, but the conversion to home currency option will always cost more.
The ATM’s offered rate will always be less than the real rate and represents a commission much like what you will pay at the airport kiosk or the exchange booth. The bank that runs the ATM service is looking to make a profit off of you, so choosing the local currency option allows you to avoid high exchange fees and commissions. In some cases, I’ve seen savings of $10 on a single ATM withdrawal.
(Hint: Another way to save on cash is to ask your bank if they will redeem all international ATM service fees.)
4. If the country has a National Currency, don’t be afraid to use it.
The Czech Republic is a great example of an economy that accepts both Euros and the local currency (Czech Krona). Recently when booking a service, I had the option to pay in either currency. Having done some research beforehand, I knew the exchange rate and general value of the amount I was about to spend. I was quoted 100 Euro or 2300 Krona, and the cost in local currency equaled about a $20 discount! You can’t beat that price difference.
Bouns helpful tip: grab an index card, piece of hotel stationary, or a make a digital note on your phone after you research the exchange rate of the local economy. Think in multiples of five and ten. Write down the current exchange rate, and create a chart with what $1, $5, $10, $25, $50, $100, etc. is equal to in the local currency. This handmade cheat sheet can help you determine if the prices you’re seeing are fair, while allowing you to track what you’re actually spending.
5. Buy a local SIM card.
If you plan on traveling for more than a few weeks, consider purchasing a pre-paid SIM card once you get settled in to your hotel or new home. A “host-nation” pre-paid SIM card with voice and data will allow you to make dinner reservations, call a taxi, research the next stop on your tour, and check those work emails you were supposed to ignore.
Depending on which country you’re in, prepaid phone cards can be incredibly cheap. If your host nation SIM card provides a lot of data but limited talk/text, you can download a VOIP application to make phone calls. Services like Apple’s iMessage and FaceTime allow you to communicate instantly back home in exchange for a few megabytes of prepaid SIM card data. This option is cheaper than purchasing an international plan from your home cell phone provider, but you’ll need to make sure that your phone is unlocked prior to departure.
6. Unlock your phone before you travel.
When I first moved overseas, my phone was not unlocked (I didn’t know it needed to be). After negotiating with my phone service provider and phone maker, I was able to get an unlock key for my device that allows me to use any SIM card that will fit the device.
If you can justify to the phone company that you need your phone unlocked (moving overseas, important business trip, extended vacation), then you’ll save money on your cell phone bill and have the security and convenience of a cell phone. You also won’t have to buy a new one!
7. Put your contract on hold.
Were you grandfathered into a sweet unlimited data plan? If you’re moving overseas for an extended period of time but plan on returning to the United States, you can put your cell phone contract on hold. No need to cancel your contract with this option.
Companies like AT&T and Verizon have offer to freeze customer’s accounts for over 36 months—during which time you pay no monthly bill and retain your current plan. When you return to the States, you can reactivate your phone plan with the same number and service as the day you left. This saves you money when you return by having a locked-in plan that is probably more generous than new customer plans in the future.
8. Bring them with you (but bring an adaptor and power transformers).
This is one of those money saving tricks you’ll need before you ever leave the country. Before you take off, buy an adapter to fit your device and your destination’s power grid. Most cell phone producers like Apple and Android offer travel kits with multiple adapters for several nations, such as those in the EU and Japan.
Adaptelec offers a database that shows what type of adapter and voltage you’ll need for your electronics during your vacation or move. If you’re making a long term move, consider purchasing power converters for your electronics. You’ll find that many kitchen appliances and home electronics can be more expensive outside of the United States, so take what you have if you can obtain some step-up or step-down transformers.
If you’re moving to an area that has a large population of people from your home country, chances are you can find someone willing to sell you their power transformers at a reduced price as they get ready to move on from the area.
9. Get an International Driver’s License.
The freedom that comes from being able to drive across Europe or any other destination is immense. Before you move or depart on your next European vacation, stop by AAA, and purchase an international driver’s license (IDL).
Most foreign rental companies in Europe don’t distinguish between your stateside driver’s license and IDL, but if you get pulled over by the national police, the IDL will cover you. Renting a car and splitting the bill can be a fun, convenient, and relatively inexpensive means of moving you and your travel buddies.
Keep in mind that you’re going to pay higher gas prices—and never forget that they sell gas by the liter! I recommend that you get your IDL even if you don’t plan on driving. It’s always good to have a contingency plan in case you need to adjust your mode of travel.
10. Take the train.
Train travel is relaxing, albeit slower and less convenient than using a car. If you spend some time researching your destination’s rail options and you won’t be disappointed.
Germany’s Bayern Pass is a phenomenal option that will carry you from Wurzburg to Munich to Berchtesgaden for as little as €23. If you want to travel across several countries, consider purchasing a EurRail Pass before you leave (but buy it early enough so you have time to receive it in the mail). Another option for traveling via rail is to catch a train to a border city and switch train services when you switch countries. International tickets will generally be more expensive than buying two separate tickets from two neighboring countries.
11. Flights aren’t just for crossing the oceans.
For Europe specifically, the Schengen Agreement allows you to move freely across most of the continent without the need for a visa or extensive border checks. Because of this, flying is relatively painless, and U.S. Citizens can move across international borders on their passports without issues.
Don’t be afraid to fly again once you reach your destination if it will reduce the time you spend traveling and maximize your time of relaxation. If you’re moving overseas, discount airlines are the perfect doorway to cheap getaways on long weekends! Airlines such as Ryanair offer services across the continent, and many countries have national airlines with cheap in-country service. I’ve included a link to Rick Steve’s listing of discount national airlines below in the summary section.
Now that you how to stretch your dollar, it’s time to pack your bags. Remember these tips and you’ll be able to save while you live and travel overseas.
Summary of money-saving international travel tips:
- Always carry some local currency; don’t expect to be able to pay with a credit card.
- Always withdraw the local currency after you arrive; don’t exchange money before you travel or in person once you arrive.
- Use an ATM to get cash and always choose the “local currency” option. Don’t let the ATM service provider charge you a high commission.
- Put your cell phone contract on hold before you move.
- Have your service provider or phone maker unlock your phone prior to travel so you can purchase a local SIM card with voice and data.
- Purchase your power adapters and transformers before you leave home. They’re much more expensive where you’re going.
- Obtain an International Driver’s License, even if you don’t plan on driving.
- Research train ticket options, and use the local rail system for deep discounts.
- Flights across Europe and beyond can be very time- and cost-effective on discount airlines (See Rick Steve’s List of Budget Airlines)