If the travel bug is biting, you may as well think big and plan an international trip. The ramen restaurants of Japan, the rainforests of Costa Rica, the markets of Marrakech — they’re all calling, and there’s no time like the present to plan a trip.
But no question, it’s a lot more expensive to plan a foreign trip than a domestic one. Airfare is pricier, the exchange rate might not be great, and it’s less likely you’ll be bringing your own car or staying with friends. But if you plan in advance and pay attention to these smart tips, you can take your dream trip on a budget. Get packing — the world is waiting.
Choose your destination strategically
Few people know how to make international travel inexpensive better than Pauline Frommer, an award-winning travel writer and the editorial director of frommers.com. Her legendary father, Arthur Frommer, published the seminal guidebook “Europe on $5 a Day” in 1957, and their company publishes nearly 100 guidebooks as well as a newsy travel website. (Full disclosure: I’ve edited books for frommers.com in the past.)
Pauline Frommer’s advice is to “go where the dollar is strongest.” Use a currency converter, such as xe.com, to show the current and historical rates for different currencies in the countries you’re considering. Right now, she’s recommending Japan and Argentina, among other places.
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Rent lodging through home-sharing services
Look into renting lodging through home-share networks such as Airbnb or Homestay. This can be a far cheaper option than hotels, especially if you have a group of people who are willing to share rentals. Most homes have multiple bedrooms, so you can split the rental cost and yet retreat to a private space if your buddy starts to get on your last nerve.
Cook for yourself
One of the joys of international travel: eating. But dining out in a restaurant for every meal can blow your budget fast. You can’t cook for yourself in a hotel, but if you choose an Airbnb or HomeStay for lodging you can select one with a kitchen. By shopping local markets and grocery stores you can save money and try your hand at regional dishes.
Splurge on lunch, not dinner
When you do visit those well-reviewed restaurants, Pauline Frommer points out that there are ways to dine on the cheap. “Don’t feel you have to eat all three meals in a restaurant,” she says. She also urges travelers to create a picnic meal based on items from local markets. “It can be an exciting and fun peek at local culture,” she says.
Be cautious about sightseeing passes
Even before you leave on your trip, you may be seeing ads for sightseeing passes that claim to save you money on top attractions. Investigate what such passes really offer before you buy. They’re “not a sure thing,” Frommer says, noting that you may not want to visit a “torture museum or a tennis museum.” And when you do plan a cultural deep dive, limit yourself to only one or two museums a day, she says. More than that is just too much to absorb.
Buy souvenirs in regular stores
From tiny Eiffel Tower keychains to elegant Japanese fans, you will want to bring items home, both for yourself and to give as gifts to friends and family. But you don’t have to buy them at dedicated souvenir shops. Frommer notes that regular stores, and even supermarkets, can offer take-home items that are just as much fun, and likely cheaper.
Consider boat-sharing sites
Dreaming of getting out on the water at your destination? Frommer suggests you look into getmyboat.com, a boat rental and water experience site that may be cheaper than going through a local marina. The site is kind of like an Airbnb of watercraft. Owners of everything from kayaks to motorboats to sailboats list their craft for rent on the site. (There are RV sharing sites, too, though that’s perhaps more valuable for domestic travel.)
Look into flights on lesser-known airlines
This is a good time to fly out of the country, Frommer says, noting that international airfare is “really cheap right now.” When looking for a deal, don’t automatically eliminate an airline just because you may not have heard of it before. “Don’t be nervous,” Frommer says, noting that in order to fly into the U.S., a more obscure airline must meet the same safety requirements as the big names, and, thanks to current competition, there are deals to be had. (Malaysia’s low-cost airline AirAsia is one of the lesser-known airlines she recommends.)
Be smart about your smartphone
You’re going to want to use your phone — maybe not so much for phone calls, but for maps, booking attractions, choosing restaurants, even as a language translator. But you don’t want to get burned with expensive roaming fees. Call your cellphone company before you leave the country, explain to them where you’re going, and see if you have to activate international calling, or if they have other tips. And make sure your phone’s not automatically checking for email and wireless connections, which could bump up your bill.
For more tips, check out: “The Very Best Cellphone Plans for Your International Travel.”
Investigate deals on special passes
Delve into research about your destination, and look specifically for recommendations on transport passes or packages to buy before you leave the U.S. The legendary Japan Rail Pass, for example, allows you to discover that fascinating country by train all for one fee — but you can’t usually buy it once you’ve already arrived in Japan. And in cities with super-hot attractions, such as the Eiffel Tower in Paris, you may want to scoop up tickets in advance, which allows you to proceed straight to the shorter Visitors With Tickets line.
Travel in the off-season
“Travel when others aren’t,” Frommer advised. If you have kids in school, you may be stuck traveling only during the summer or on school vacations. But if you have a more flexible schedule, research when everyone else is traveling and choose a quieter time. You’ll want to personalize this by destination, as major festivals and events happen at different times in different locales.
Walk or bike where possible
If you are staying in a major city and can avoid renting a car, do it. Relying on your feet or a rental bike is healthier and cheaper, and you won’t feel the stress of traffic jams while you’re trying to remember which side of the road to stay on. Public transit varies by country, but in a place like London, there’s no better way to get around.
Stick to a budget
Sure, it’d be nice to be able to grandly say “Money is no object,” but for most of us, it’s a really big object. Planning out a budget before you even get on the plane can help you allot how much money you want to spend for food, attractions, and gifts for those left at home. With a budget in hand, even if you have to tweak it a tad, you’re unlikely to bankrupt yourself playing blackjack or baccarat in Monte Carlo, Mr. Bond.
Investigate free entertainment
Some attractions are pricey, but every city, just like your own hometown, has plenty of freebie entertainment. Check out local publications and websites for guides to concerts in parks, small-town festivals and do-it-yourself walking tours of historic sites.
Consider travel and medical insurance
Sometimes you have to spend money to save money. Before you go, talk to your health-insurance provider about what is covered if you become ill while you’re thousands of miles from home. You may want to purchase a temporary travel policy to cover a catastrophic health event that might require you be airlifted back home. And trip insurance is a good item to consider as well, especially if you have an elderly or ill family member. If their health requires you to cancel or cut short your trip, you’ll want a policy to reimburse you for those expenses.
Pick a less-traveled destination
London, Paris and Tokyo are magnificent, but don’t overlook destinations with quieter pedigrees. Investigate places such as Croatia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Poland and Thailand. And if you’re set on a certain country, you can save by avoiding its biggest and priciest cities. Sure, if you’re going to Argentina, you’ll want to spend a day in Buenos Aires, but then hightail it to scenic Córdoba, famed for its Spanish colonial architecture.
Check out YouTube videos and free travel guides online
Use the internet to research your destination. There are wonderful, free guides and YouTube videos for every quirky hobby or pastime you might seek out on a trip. Looking for old arcade games in Tokyo? Genealogical research sites in Ireland? The web is your friend.
Do laundry as you go
You don’t need to tote (and pay to check) a pile of suitcases. Instead, winnow down your packing list and, if your clothes get dirty while traveling, head to a local laundromat. And if you’re staying in a home rental, there may very well be a washing machine and dryer in your place — another benefit over a hotel.
Use an e-translator
You can enroll in community-college language classes and buy all kinds of foreign dictionaries and textbooks, but when all else fails, your smartphone can help you decode another language for free. Google Translate is your friend. The free multilingual translation service is far from perfect. But when it helps you figure out which tube is the toothpaste and which is sunscreen in a foreign drugstore, you’ll want to say gracias, merci, arigato gozaimasu, or just plain “thanks.”
Consider a red-eye flight
Yes, red-eye flights are the enemy of good sleep and, some think, prevent you from starting your trip off right. Investigate them anyway. They can cost half as much as a prime time flight, and they’re often less crowded and more likely to be on time. Plus even the craziest airports can feel almost mellow late at night. To fight the inevitable sleep deprivation, be sure to stay hydrated, choose healthy snacks and try to stay awake until you can adjust to the local time zone.
Get rides to and from the airport
If you drive to the airport, you’re going to have to pay someone to store your car while you’re gone. Cabs and even ride-sharing services can be pricey, and who wants to lug baggage on and off public transit? It sounds simple, but here’s where you want to call in your friend chips and get that buddy who owes you one to ferry you to and from the airport. This works best when you’ve got reasonable departure and arrival times, of course, but bribe your pal with a great souvenir from your journey, and tell him you’ll play chauffeur next time.
What are your secrets to saving on international adventures? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.