the expat diaries | how to go broke while traveling

Happy December and welcome to another installment of The Expat Diaries! I’m excited for this one because the lovely Betsy Transatlantically is co-hosting and she has a special guest on her blog. Be sure to check it out. :)

Most of you probably know that I was having issues with my website. If you could replace your current Expat Diaries button with the one on my sidebar, I’d appreciate it so much.

And now for the good stuff. I’m going to be talking about how to go broke while traveling because I’m certain my family has made every mistake in the book. Hopefully by reading this post, you’ll save money on your next vacation.

How to go broke while traveling: What not to do

You can go broke by…

1. Forgetting to print your boarding pass
If you decide to purchase seats on a discount airline, make sure you print the boarding pass at home. Sometimes having an airline print the boarding pass for you at the airport counter is much more than the actual ticket and no one wants that — especially when you’re trying to save money! Be sure to read my discount airlines post for other tips.

2. Excess luggage
Checking luggage was a fortune when we booked flights with Ryanair, easyJet and Jet2, so we always brought one carry-on each. Plus, instead of having to haul around large suitcases in the city, we only had to deal with small backpacks; this made our time more enjoyable.

3. Leaving your toiletries at home
When we were headed to Stockholm, I forgot to pack my travel-size bottle of face wash and didn’t realize this until we got to the hotel. I’ve mentioned before that I have trouble skin so I absolutely need to wash my face every night, especially when I wear makeup all day. Since not washing my face all weekend wasn’t an option, I dragged B to a store to find something cheap. One issue. Cheap doesn’t exist in places like Stockholm. The most reasonable bottle of face wash we could find at the store was around $60. After buying the bottle and realizing I’d have to throw it out because it didn’t meet carry-on guidelines (and after we figured out it was $60… holy shit), we returned the bottle and I used a bar of soap all weekend. I broke out lots (sad face). Avoid this issue by purchasing these small carry-on containers. Convenient and cute, right?

4. Trip Insurance
If you’re young and healthy, I don’t see any reason to buy trip insurance because it’s expensive and only covers a limited number of situations. Unless you know of a potential conflict and it’s explicitly stated that your particular situation will be covered, you really shouldn’t bother. But that’s just how I feel.

5. Currency exchange counters
Currency exchange counters are always a big fat scam. In our experience, you get a considerably better exchange rate when you use a bank ATM. My husband compared the exchange rate we received from the bank’s ATM against the posted rates at a currency exchange counter and it wasn’t even close. However, when taking money out of the ATM be sure to only take out what you need since exchanging it back requires a currency exchange counter.

6. Speaking of exchange rates… not being able to calculate this
Make sure you have an app on your phone to calculate the exchange rate. Sometimes this is easy to figure out, but when you’re traveling to the Czech Republic and Morocco, you honestly have no idea. And then you’ll pay way too much for something and it’ll suck.

I’ve mentioned a few travel apps I like here.

7. Eating like a tourist
We’re big fans of street food and cafés the locals frequent. If you’re in a tourist-heavy spot in the city, you can bet those restaurant prices will be steep. Save money by finding food stands, hole in the walls, or buy groceries if you’re renting a place with a kitchen.

Tip: If you’re staying at a nice hotel, big breakfasts are your friend. We always eat the included breakfast and then find something small for lunch. And I may or may not stash muffins in my purse… Shhh.

8. Buying souvenirs like a tourist
The biggest mistake you can make is buying souvenirs at the airport. And then there’s hotel souvenir shops and souvenir shops located in tourist areas. Venture off the beaten path and have fun finding unique treasures for your home. Some of our favorites include paintings and handmade Christmas ornaments, depending on where we go. We’ve also purchased vases and other decorative items to remember our fun times abroad.

9. Taking a cab instead of public transportation
Avoiding cabs means more cash in your pocket. We’ve taken public transpiration in almost every city we’ve traveled to and it’s definitely less expensive. Public transportation can also be more efficient, assuming the train or bus doesn’t break down. I mean, if it’s late at night and you’re in an unfamiliar area, feel free to take a cab. Or if you’re a little tipsy after Oktoberfest in Munich… you should probably hail a taxi cab then, too.

Do you have any money-saving tips?


Filed Under: Expat, Travel44 Comments
  • Mallory

    Great tips! Ever since travelling on my own, I try to avoid super touristy stores and restaurants since I know the prices aren’t so wallet friendly (even though it’s super tempting sometimes to buy things).
    I also try to avoid cabs because I know that in some countries, you’ll even end up paying more than what the actual ride it, just because you’re a foreigner (and they think they can rip you off).

    I’m preparing for my trip abroad for winter break and I’m having trouble decided where I’m going to exchange my money. Since I’m not staying a hotel, I can’t use that option. Also finding an ATM that accepts a foreign bank card may be a bit of a trek. I’ll probably have to go with the currency exchange… at the airport [insert crying]

  • Elle

    Awesome tips!! I definitely agree with them all! Taking the public transportation is so much more of an experience (as well as cheaper, of course). You get to see how the locals travel through the city. And a big YES to street carts/stands and buying groceries. I would much rather spend more money at a museum than a big dinner. I also think Museum Passes can sometimes be a cost-effective way to explore a museum-drenched city like Paris. I love museums, so I knew I would visit many. The Paris Museum Pass saved me money and time too (I got to cut through long lines. Wohoo!) They can sometimes be a scam so I do research before buying to make sure it’s worth it, but I was pleasantly surprised in Paris!

  • Dee

    I’m always going broke on travels, and it’s usually due to poor planning and committing one of the gaffes mentioned here. Great tips!

  • Nicole @ Treasure Tromp

    oh gosh, don’t remind me of the excess baggage and the time I spent close to $1,000 in fees traveling to South Africa. worst experience of my life.

    • Postcards from Rachel

      We paid a ton moving to the UK with all of our stupid suitcases. Luckily Brandon’s company reimbursed us. Otherwise we would be screwed. Ha.

  • Danielle E. Alvarez

    Oh, such good tips! I’d also suggest paying attention to eating habits of locals. In France, for instance, breakfast is light and lunch is a real sit-down meal (though that’s changing) so there are plenty of overpriced breakfast options and great lunch deals.

    • Postcards from Rachel

      That’s so true! Great tip.

  • Sara Louise

    I’m so guilty of number 9!

    • Postcards from Rachel

      I’m really bad in Boston. I always beg Brandon to take a cab instead of the T when it’s cold. Haha.

  • Chelsea @ Lost in Travels

    yup, pretty sure we would travel well together : ) i try to stay away from ‘touristy’ areas when we can and explore other areas of the city, especially when eating. of course it’s not always possible but there’s so many other amazing areas to eat, shop and visit! food stands and mom and pop shops are my favorite! the only thing i do differently is the travel insurance. this is mostly due to the fact that we travel to mostly third world countries and we go through world nomads insurance. we paid about $100 each for two weeks and EVERYTHING was covered. lost luggage, medical care, dismemberment (cuz you know, you might be mauled by a tiger and it’s comforting to know you’re covered haha)

  • Jamie

    my husband recently visited Beijing and bought some tshirts at the Great Wall… he realized immediately after that he just paid $80 US for 2 thsirts. sad for us, but I bet the old man selling shirts never had such a great day :)

    • Postcards from Rachel

      Hahaha! Oh no! You’re right, though – it probably made that old guy’s day. :)

      We had something similar happen in Morocco when people put monkeys on our shoulders. We didn’t want photos with monkeys in the first place, and then they demanded money and we were completely flustered. We ended up paying way too much! It’s all part of the experience, I suppose.

  • Casey C

    Public transportion is a great tip! We love the metro, bus and train systems over here…they’re so inexpensive! Eating street food is always fun…and we, too, never use those rip off money conversion services at the airport or otherwise. Our ATM card works just fine for exchanging money everywhere we’ve been. But if you travel internationally and want to use your credit card to get train tickets at machines in certain countries (like Italy), sometimes they require an international pin number (separate from your regular pin) that you have to call ahead and have mailed to you before you travel. We found that out the hard way one visit to Italy!

    I gotta say, though, I’m a big fan of travel insurance. If you find the right kinds, they’ll cover everything. Of course, being a military family, for any of our big trips (week-long trips or cruises) we absolutely invest in travel insurance…but that’s mostly because his commander could revoke leave at any time or, heaven forbid, he could deploy and then we’d be out tons of money. This has almost happened to us twice! On the other side of the coin, I’ve had friends who aren’t military reap the benefits of travel insurance when they’ve lost luggage, had a child fall ill in another country, and have to cancel a trip due to being laid off. You never know when crazy things will happen! But for weekend trips and stuff around the US…I’d skip it, too.

    • Postcards from Rachel

      I could definitely see how important travel insurance would be for a military family or someone with kids. We’ve only had to cancel a few trips because of Brandon’s job and his company has reimbursed us for every penny so it just doesn’t make sense for us. But we should probably look into it when we have a family.

      And oh my gosh… the pin number. Even in the UK, people would ask me for my credit card pin number ALL the time even though my foreign credit card worked perfectly there. Sometimes we would seriously have to grab our credit card and swipe it for them because they were confused. Hahaha.

  • Noor Unnahar

    These tips are great . I always have to deal with food and travel , which is worse because you can’t get well along without food .

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  • Betsy Transatlantically

    omg #7 – it’s why we love to stay at places that have a self-catering option! otherwise you eat out (and make an occasion of it) every time and WHEM there goes all your money.

  • Dannielle @ Chic-a-DeeDee

    The currency exchanges are always such a rip off. Some banks will offer no exchange fees as long as you order your cash a certain amount of time in advance before your travels, so there’s that option too. I’ve never taken a cab traveling in a different country because have been so scared of getting a huge fare at the end of it.

  • Jess (TheGapYearGuru)

    Thank god im not the only one who stashes muffins in my purse :L loved this Rachel!

    • Postcards from Rachel

      And rolls. ;) Haha.

  • Bailie @ The Hemborg Wife

    I never got travel insurance when I was on my own traveling but my husband has a medical condition that could need emergency medical care suddenly so he always has gotten it and this summer he had both of us get it for our trip to America and it felt so strange for me to have travel insurance in my home state!
    Also I totally feel you on trying to buy face wash in Sweden! Items like that are really expensive here if you do not know where to look and even then we often order from!

  • Lola

    Love these tips– definitely true from my experience!
    An added bonus of public transit is that many European cities (and perhaps elsewhere, though I haven’t traveled that much outside Europe) have a bus or tram route that’s the ‘tourist’ route and will take you past most of the major attractions.

    I’ve started getting really picky about what I buy while traveling, picking one or two special things over lots of trinkets (which, I’ll admit, I definitely did the first few times I traveled abroad, getting caught up in the novelty of the experience!) I check to see where things are made and try to focus on buying things produced locally. My favorite souvenir from my time in Poland is a beautiful wood and amber ring that I watched being made – the man making the jewelry even took the time to explain to me the kind of wood it was and why he chose the color amber to go with it.

  • keely@theveryhungrytraveller

    The low cost airlines are generally great for flights around Europe, but the extra fees can be a pain. I once booked an extra bag to come home at Christmas on Ryanair but didn’t realize I’d paid for an extra bag but this didn’t give me extra weight allowance.100 pounds excess luggage fee – I was a student and that really hurt my bank account!!

    • Postcards from Rachel

      Exactly. If you don’t read up on all of the possible fees, your flight might be more expensive than something on Delta/BA/AF. It’s crazy!

  • Jenn

    I agree with this whole post! Especially about the cabs. I feel like taking a cab is just asking to be ripped off. Maybe that’s just because of my experience.

    • Postcards from Rachel

      I’ve heard so many horror stories from friends re: getting ripped off in other countries!

  • espresso&lace

    so true, currency exchange counters made me cringe at their exchange rates!

    • Postcards from Rachel

      Oh, I know! We still have foreign money we’ve never exchanged because when we moved back to the states, the exchange rates at all the counters were terrible!

  • Emily

    I agree with all of the above- except the travel insurance. My mantra is if you can’t afford travel insurance, you can’t afford to travel. I used to be a travel agent and would see so many cases come through- you just never know whats going to happen. Saving a few dollars in the short run may cost you a fortune in the long run. I have seen many claims from my own clients ranging from $200-85,000 and they were all so thankful they took it!

    • Postcards from Rachel

      I guess we’ve just never needed it! Our trips are usually pretty cheap anyway because we fly on discount airlines and find great hotel deals, but we might need travel insurance when we have a family.

  • Dianne

    Yes, hotel breakfast is a must!! I always check for hotels with breakfast included and have a good hearty breakfast to get me through to a late lunch…and maybe stash a roll or two too! And, I always use public transport, it’s cheap and such a great way to see what the city and people are really like.

  • adventuresofalondonkiwi

    The best hotel breakfast’s I’ve ever had were the ones in my Prague Hotel – they ran from 7am-12pm so everyone raided it for breakfast and then returned for lunch. Meat, boiled eggs, salad, bread, cereal, cheese – you name it they had it!

    • Postcards from Rachel

      I remember our hotel breakfast in Prague and it was similar! I think I had 4 plates of food. Hahaha. :)

  • gabrielle

    omg, i almost fainted when i saw how much the face wash cost in stockholm. i totally agree with the eating tip. everyone went on and on about how expensive it was to eat in japan, but we didn’t spend much at all! we just ate at local places. thanks for the tips!


    • Postcards from Rachel

      I know! I can’t believe we didn’t realize it was $60… eek.

      Local restaurants are the best. And for some reason they’re always more fun! I remember a little Greek restaurant we went to in Athens and all of the locals were drinking and dancing. We had a blast!

  • Sarah Benson

    This post was so perfect! I need all the tips I can get since I’m so new at this!

    • Postcards from Rachel

      Thanks so much, Sarah! Glad they helped.

  • Chantal

    Great tips!

    • Postcards from Rachel

      Thanks, Chantal!

  • Lisa

    This is a really great list of tips! And I agree/have experience with most of these…I take combi’s (small vans) everyday to get around Lima because otherwise I’d spend a fortune on taxi’s. And let’s face it, I’d rather spend that on food or traveling :) And right on with muffins in the purse hehe I’m guilty too!!

  • Fran

    Exchange counters really are the biggest scams ever lol

    • Postcards from Rachel

      Yep! They make my husband cry.

  • Jamie @ Expat Tales

    These tips are so excellent! And seriously, #3 couldn’t be more accurate. It’s kind of amazing how expensive normal things can be in Stockholm. If you’re arriving as a tourist and have no idea where to buy cheap, you’re going to end up in Sergels Torg at Åhléns City or something and drop $100 really, really fast.

  • Synnøve Rakbbevåg

    haha, if you think sweeden is expensive you shud not travel to Norway.