So, you’ve created a travel budget and saved enough money to finally book your flights — great! But even if you’ve already researched the best value accommodations, know the cheapest food is local fare found off the main strip, and are planning to visit museums during free or reduced-fee days, it’s easy to make money mistakes when traveling.( It’s even easier to err when using a foreign currency or navigating a financial culture different from your own.) Use these tips to avoid common financial mistakes on your next trip — you might be surprised by how much you save!
Get the right cards
We’ve mentioned this before, but it’s worth mentioning again: get a credit card that doesn’t charge you foreign transaction fees, and get a debit card and checking account that won’t charge you withdrawal fees for using non-institution ATMs. Even if you do nothing else on this list, getting these two cards builds a great foundation to savvy travel spending!
Use those cards correctly
Did you know many foreign ATMs (especially non-bank ATMs) will offer to convert your withdrawal for you? They make it look like a good option, but you could be paying $40 more for a $300 withdrawal if you accept the ATM conversion. Decline, decline, decline! (Often, the ATMs will even ask you, “Are you sure? Accepting our conversion is the only way to lock your rate in!” Yes, you’re sure. Your home bank will almost always offer you better rates than the ATM; I haven’t come across a case yet where I would have been better off accepting the ATM conversion.)
Similarly, many businesses (restaurants, retail stores, etc.) will ask you if you want to pay in local currency or your home currency when using a credit card. Choose the local currency to avoid paying a higher conversion rate. (This advice applies as long as your credit card doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees; if your card charges you an extra fee to pay in the local currency, you’ll need to do a little more math to see which option is best for you.)
Have back-up cards ready
Losing our purse or being the victim of theft isn’t what we want to think about when taking a vacation, but it can happen. Just in case, save all the phone numbers for your financial institutions in your phone before your trip, and keep an extra credit and debit card hidden in your luggage in case your primary cards are lost or stolen.
Understand currency conversions
If leaving the country, know which currencies are accepted in your destination, and what the conversion rates are. I like the XE app (free for Apple and Android) for checking up-to-date exchange rates. The conversion calculator also works offline if you don’t have an Internet connection, but be sure to memorize a ballpark exchange rate in case you can’t check the app. Some currencies are easier to remember (i.e. “25 hryvnia is about $1”), but for countries with a messier equivalent to 1 USD, it works best if you come up with a sample conversion for quick mental math (e.g. “5 Bosnian marks is about $3”).
It’s especially important to know the current rate before you exchange cash; expect to lose a few dollars as commission during the exchange, but having an approximate figure in mind helps you know you’re getting a reasonable rate. Also, avoid exchanging cash at airports or major transportation terminals, as those exchange counters often have the worst rates. And do not change your money on the street!
Familiarize yourself with the local culture
Is negotiating appropriate? If so, for what items? In many countries, bartering is considered friendly and even fun. But be sure to ask a local about best practices; it might be welcomed to negotiate prices for handicrafts in the market but rude to bargain for prepared food on the street.
Also, do you need to tip? Of course we’re not encouraging you to be miserly with your tips (if you can’t afford to tip, you can’t afford to travel!), but some countries actually pay their service workers a living wage and therefore don’t expect tips. That being said, growing tourism means tipping is now expected in more places than it was just a few years ago. Also, some places already include service charges in their prices or automatically add it to the final bill; check your menu and your receipt to see if a service charge is already included. You can ask for the charge to be removed (in some places) and leave your tip in cash if you are afraid the service charge won’t actually go to your server. (And always feel free to leave more if you were especially pleased with your service!)
Check your receipts
Speaking of checking receipts, always check your receipts. I know this seems obvious, but it’s easy to fall into the habit of swiping (or signing) without actually reading the receipt. I’m not saying places will try to cheat you, but it’s possible you could receive the wrong bill at a restaurant or be overcharged for a sale item in a store. If you don’t see a price list somewhere, ask before you order to avoid any unpleasant surprises.
Similarly, always read the itemized list before you sign any agreements for rental cars, hotels, etc. Maybe you verbally declined insurance from the rental car agency, but it somehow ends up on your bill. Maybe you didn’t use the minibar at your hotel, but you were charged for an item. Ask the charges to be corrected before you sign anything.
Carry (and spend) coins and small bills
Make it a point to carry small bills and coins while traveling. This makes tipping easier, and some small places may not be able to break large bills (which is often what you get from ATMs) for small purchases. Also, if taking a cab, many taxi drivers do not carry change (or don’t offer it), which means you might end up leaving a much bigger tip than you had planned if you don’t have exact change.
If traveling in a foreign country, remember to use up any leftover coins before you leave, as coins often cannot be exchanged for your local currency. Tips or souvenirs are a nice way to use up extra change, or you can look into donating the coins when you return home.