There's nothing more exciting than an overseas trip, but that exhilaration shouldn't come with an unexpected price tag. Believe it or not, small expenses can grow fast and in unexpected ways.
For example, take my neighbors down the block with their two teen kids. They had a great time in London over the winter break, but the ugly surprise came when the parents started totaling up unexpected charges that they believed would be on the smaller side during a carefully budgeted trip.
Many travelers do most of their price watching on big expenses like hotel and plane fare. Smaller expenses, like cross-town transportation and smartphone bills that rack up pricey international charges if you don't plan ahead, are travel money pits waiting to happen.
To avoid these unexpected--and potentially financially devastating--surprises, consider these tips for conserving money in all major areas of vacation spending:
1. Sweat the small stuff before you go. It really does make sense to plan small expenditures before your trip. Talking to friends can help and so can travel magazines and websites. Compare your homework against the findings of reputable guides to your destination.
2. Keep a close eye on ground transportation costs. The convenience of cabs or rental cars will likely cost more--and depending on where you go, some options might be safer than others--so be sure to research options like reloadable city smart cards or continental rail passes. Paying individual ticket prices for short hops or long journeys can drain your budget. In particular, pay attention to overseas rental car costs, particularly what you'll pay for collision and liability insurance. Depending on your destination, your rental car premium can be prohibitive and insurance coverage may or may not be adequate. Check with your domestic property and casualty insurers to see if they have any advice as well as your booking company or travel membership organization for recommended car rental companies and specific requirements regarding rental car collision and liability coverage (see "Insurance," below).
3. Maximize points and memberships. From auto club memberships that put together reasonable travel packages to mileage and shopping cards that allow you to accrue points that can be traded in for miles or meals, learn to use every conceivable membership reward to replace money you would otherwise have to spend. Keep in mind that by frequenting certain stores, restaurants or other types of businesses at home, you can accrue points faster that would pay for future trips. One important tip--focus on the features you really want at specific destinations and find specific ways to accelerate points for discounts and upgrades. For example, long-distance trips can be made more comfortable through upgraded seating or particular hotel choices--strategize card choices and earning decisions based on where you want to go and how you want to get there.
4. Don't go broke using your phone. Before leaving home, call your carrier. First, make sure your phone will work at your destination. Second, check if your carrier offers an affordable international talk and data plan. If not, consider options like getting an international SIM card--a small chip card that fits inside your phone for specific use within that country--or using a prepaid phone. If you're downloading any apps to supply maps, translation or reading material on your phone or computer, do so while you are home to avoid chewing up international data at your destination. Also, be careful with Wi-Fi. Many recognizable global restaurants and fast-food chains offer the service for free. Once you're home, be sure to cancel any international services you've ordered.
5. Eat smart. The Internet and the myriad travel sites it offers make it easy to find good places to eat at all price levels practically anywhere in the world. But eating food out can add up. Focus on the lower-cost ways in which the locals eat. If you are staying in a hotel or apartment with kitchen facilities, shop at nearby grocery stores and make your meals there.
6. Insurance. What you'd pay out-of-pocket for a delayed trip, lost luggage or a health emergency abroad isn't exactly pocket change--and that's the point. Insurance needs to be part of the money discussion not because of what it costs, but the thousands of dollars it could potentially save you. Start with your health and homeowners insurers; see if any of your domestic coverage might work at your destination. For example, some homeowners/rental insurance might provide liability coverage for out-of-state or foreign trips and some domestic health insurance policies might offer full or partial evacuation insurance in case of a medical emergency. Start with domestic options first and then visit an aggregator website to compare travel insurance options that would provide the remaining protection you need. Finally, when buying travel insurance, check closely for any exclusions or pre-existing conditions that could void your coverage. Also, check forms collision and liability coverage for car rentals at your destination.
7. Finding Income. For years, travelers have financed trips by writing travel stories, teaching or getting a short-term job at their destination. If these options are available to you, consider taking advantage of them to generate income at your destination or to help pay off your trip when you get home.
Bottom line: Overseas trips can be surprisingly affordable with a little ingenuity and research. The key is making spending decisions that cost you less.
Nathaniel Sillin directs Visa's financial education programs. To follow Practical Money Skills on Twitter: www.twitter.com/PracticalMoney
This article is intended to provide general information and should not be considered legal, tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a legal, tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to you and about your individual financial situation.