8 Tips for Planning an International Trip on a Budget
From flash airline sales to public transportation, a boutique travel agent shares her tips for cost-effective travel
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There’s no getting around it: Traveling abroad is expensive. Long flights, hotel rooms, and eating out add up quickly, and it’s incredibly easy to blow your budget. But there are ways to mitigate some unavoidable expenses.
This summer, my wife and I spent two weeks in Belgium and the Netherlands. We saved up a long time but still had a fairly limited budget to work with, so we had to get creative in planning. For us, that meant hiring a travel agent. The words “travel agent” and “budget” may not seem like they go hand in hand, but the money we saved by getting help from a professional who knows the ins and outs of the business—like the best time to book flights to get a good fare and how to score deals on lodging—saved us a ton of money in the end. Plus, if something goes awry, you’re not on your own.
The key is finding someone who understands your needs. We used Passiflora Travel, a small travel consulting firm in Santa Fe, New Mexico, owned by Sullivan Peraino. Her knowledge of our destinations and tips on where to spend and where to save were priceless. Here’s her advice on how not to break the bank.
Don’t Pay for Too Many Things in Advance
Doing so can actually cost you more money. “Unless you’re traveling in the peak season and have no flexibility in your schedule, wait until you arrive in country,” Peraino says. “Paying online with a credit card for things like boat trips to the trailhead or gear for glacier trekking in Patagonia will always entail extra fees and leaves you no room to bargain. Plus, if you book on the ground, you’ll be able to pay with local currency.”
Cash Is King
Speaking of paying with cash, it’s always best to bring U.S. dollars and exchange it for local currency as soon as possible. Peraino says making purchases with a credit card will likely entail foreign transaction fees and puts you at the mercy of the day’s official exchange rate.
Book Lodging Directly
You’ll often be able to negotiate a better rate by getting in touch with the lodge or hotel owner or manager directly by phone or email rather than by booking online, Peraino says. This is especially true if you’re traveling during the off-season.
Use Public Transportation
Public transit just about everywhere else in the world puts the United States to shame, and it can offer more benefits than just being cheaper than expensive in-country flights. Buses in Chile and Argentina, for example, usually include free movies, regular meals, and hot tea and coffee. “Book a sleeper seat, or salon cama, for a fully reclining chair and relax,” Peraino says. Not only will this save money, but you also won’t be at the mercy of the regional airlines, which are known to cancel flights and go on strike with remarkable regularity.”
This is easier said than done, but padding a few extra days into your itinerary can save you money. “This flexibility allows you to change your plans on the fly. Say you meet another group of hikers on the street, and they’re headed out one day later than you. If you can push your schedule back a day, you could share the shuttle costs with them,” Peraino says.
Watch for Flash Sales
It’s never too early to start scouting airline websites for flash sales. “LAN Airlines, the main carrier for South America, will often have 24-hour sales where you can fly to Patagonia for half the normal price,” Peraino says. “Icelandair is renowned for offering sale fares to Reykjavik for less than $300. Similarly, expedition cruise companies that sail to Antarctica will try to fill their remaining berths by offering mind-blowing buy one, get one free promotions for trips leaving within a few days or weeks.”
It pays to do your research and look at all your options, even for expenses that seem obvious. For example, while grabbing a Eurorail Pass may seem like a no-brainer for a trip across the pond, after a ticket-to-ticket comparison, Peraino found that buying individual tickets for each leg of your journey is often cheaper. Sometimes it’s even more economical to rent a car. “If you’re headed to Western Europe, rentals often cost just $200 a week, and you’ll have the ability to explore the remote mountain roads and coastal hideaways between the big cities.”
Look into Opening a New Credit Card
A lot of cards, like Capitol One’s Venture Rewards Card, offer an incentive of 50,000-plus airline miles just for signing up. That’s a free plane ticket, depending on your destination.