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Vacations near or far can easily break the bank. But there are ways to cut costs, even if you're going to another country. Here are 12 ways to save money when traveling abroad.
I’ve was fortunate enough to get to live and travel all across Europe before having children. Over the course of my journeys, I visited 23 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 often came with new mistakes, though, and many of them related to money. Figuring out the best ways to save and spend money in a foreign land was a trial-and-error type of effort. 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.

After learning from my own experiences, I wanted offer some suggestions to hopefully help some of you avoid similar missteps. These helpful, money-saving tricks could save you both frustration and cash, and ensure that you don’t walk away from your next trip wishing you’d done things differently.

While my experience (and this article) focuses primarily on Europe, the principles remain the same no matter where you venture. Let’s get started! Here’s some of the best money-saving tips that I’ve picked up, which can be applied all over the world.

1. Cash is King

Those of us who live in the United States are used to a common principle: credit cards are accepted wherever you go. Many places even accept mobile wallet payments, meaning that you can pay for your purchases with your smartphone or even a smart watch. So, 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. No matter where you go, there are probably many places that your credit and debit cards are not welcome.

Plus, it’s always a good idea to have some local currency on hand. If you’re sightseeing, grabbing food, or buying souvenirs, cash is likely to be your only option.

2. Save Money in Exchange Fees

If you are traveling to another country, you’ll need to trade your good old greenbacks in for local currency. And when you do so, you’ll be subject to 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. Plus, 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. You’re looking at an average difference of between 3-7%, in fact.

Make sure to notify your bank that you’ll be traveling at least one week prior to departure. That way, you’ll ensure your ATM card will work without interruption.

3. Use a Credit Card with No Foreign Transaction Fees

While cash is king, credit cards still have their place. They can offer certain protections when you’re traveling, and you can also use them to earn rewards. Using one, though, can result in foreign transaction fees–which you will definitely want to watch out for.

If you lose a wallet full of cash in a foreign country, you’re out of luck. Lose your credit card, though, and you can simply call to cancel the card, you won’t be liable for fraudulent charges, and you can easily order a replacement. That alone is a great reason to pull out the plastic when you can.

However, foreign transaction fees–which are imposed by your issuer when they convert the charges to your home currency–can cost you between 3-5% on average. By choosing the right travel credit card, you can avoid these fees altogether while also protecting your spending while you’re on-the-go.

The Chase Sapphire Preferred Card is a terrific travel rewards credit card that charges NO foreign transaction fee.  New cardholders can earn a 60,000 point bonus after spending $4,000 in the first three months.  Those points can be redeemed for $600 in gift cards OR $750 in travel (points are worth 25% more when you book travel through Chase).

4. If There’s a National Currency, Use It

Some countries have their own currency in addition to accepting a more broadly-used currency. And oftentimes, using the national currency can save you money.

The Czech Republic is a great example of an economy that accepts both euros and their own local currency, the koruna. 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 2200 koruna, and the cost in local currency equaled almost a $20 discount!  You can’t beat that, simply for choosing one currency over the other.

Bonus tip: Grab an index card, piece of hotel stationery, 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. Cut Cell Phone Costs

If you plan on traveling for more than a few weeks, think about how it will impact your cell phone bill and your ability to communicate.

You could consider purchasing a prepaid SIM card once you get settled in. This is much more budget-friendly than than roaming on your phone with your home plan. A “host-nation” prepaid 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. And it’s a lot cheaper than paying for international service.

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 Skype and WhatsApp allow for free calls to other users, and you can even purchase a local incoming number, if you want grandma to be able to call you.

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 will need to make sure that your phone is unlocked prior to departure.

When I first moved overseas, my phone was locked. I didn’t even know that it needed to be unlocked! After a bit of negotiating with my phone service provider, though, I was able to get an unlock key for my device. That allowed 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 phone bill and have the security and convenience of a cell phone, no matter where you are.

6. Bring Your Devices, But Also Your Adapters

This is one of those money-saving tricks you’ll need to address before you ever leave the country. Before you take off, buy an adapter to fit your device and your destination’s power grid. 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, where you can determine what type of adapter and voltage you’ll need for your electronics during your travels. 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.

Moving to an area that has a large population of people from your home country? Then 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. You can also look on eBay for used accessories that people no longer need after returning home.

7. Look Into City Passes

Some cities have special passes that offer access to museums or landmarks, provide public transportation, and even give discounts on food and services. These are usually great ways to experience an area en totale, and save quite a bit of money in the process.

For example, cities may offer things like Berlin’s WelcomeCard, which gives you access to public transportation as well as discounts on over 200 offers. Oh, and you’ll snag a free city guide and map, which will be handy for getting around.

Be sure to search and see if your destination has a similar offer, which can help you cross off all of the exciting attractions and save cash along the way.

8. Do As the Locals Do

The locals in your destination area are a great resource for finding the best and the most affordable, from food to attractions and activities. The rule of thumb when visiting a new area is to do as the locals do.

This means asking around about the best hole-in-the-wall restaurants. Not only will you avoid paying tourist area prices, but you’ll probably find some of the best-tasting food in the process. Locals can also be helpful when it comes to finding free attractions, local sports games, fun parks or landmarks, and other activities off the beaten path.

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, though, and never forget that they sell gas by the liter across the pond! 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, though, you won’t be disappointed.

The German Rail Pass is a phenomenal option that will carry you from Wurzburg to Munich to Berchtesgaden for as little as $30/day. If you want to travel across several countries, especially over the long-term, consider purchasing a Eurail Pass before you leave. This is the most cost-effective and flexible option, and is great if your plan is to see as many different places as you can. Just make sure to buy it early enough, so you have time to receive the pass 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. Short Flights Can Be Incredibly Cheap

For Europe, 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. The best part? Flights are usually very affordable both for long- and short-haul travel.

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. While airlines like Ryanair are no-frills options, they will get you where you need to do for cheap — I once flew from Cologne, Germany to Naples, Italy for only $33!

Want to know more? Here’s a list of Rick Steve’s discount national airlines, which is a great resource.

12. If It’s Free, Do It

The best way to save money in another country is to find things that don’t require you to spend any. Just like back home, there are always plenty of activities to be found that are entirely no-cost, no matter where you go.

This will take some research, but a simple Google search, a flip through a local book like Traveling on a Shoestring, or just ask the locals. You’ll learn about festivals, parks, sporting events, shows, free museum days, and more. You’ll get to enjoy something that you might not have done otherwise, without spending a penny.

Get Going

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.

How do you cut costs when traveling abroad?

Article comments

Anna Lucien says:

When I use my US credit card in Europe, is it better to choose to pay in USD or local currency?

Ken Laurence says:

Local currency because the credit card company will give you a better conversion rate than the vendor.

Mark Hull says:

I would pay in the local currency. Many credit cards offer “no foreign transaction fees” as well (Amex and Chase are two examples).