How to Plan an Inexpensive but Awesome Trip Abroad

There is a widespread (and erroneous) belief that traveling has to cost a fortune.

Let me let you in on a little secret- it doesn’t.

I have traveled to 35 countries and besides family vacations as a kid, all on a tight budget. With a bit of finagling, you can save money both by saving hard before your trip as well as watching every euro, lira and rupiah you spend on the road.

Here are some of my tricks that keep me traveling enjoyably and inexpensively.

 

Before your trip:

 Buy the ticket far in advance, using points if possible.

I’m definitely no points ninja (see The Points Guy on how to rack up frequent flier points) but I am vigilant about looking for flights far in advance.

Remember when I scored a $430 one-way flight from LA to Hong Kong? I booked that flight in April for the end of August.

I find flights using a few methods: first I do preliminary research using the Kayak Explore tool, which estimates how much it will cost to fly to various destinations from the airport of your choice.

Kayak Explore Tool

How much it would cost to fly to various airports in Europe from Detroit.

Then, before booking a ticket I compare prices on Skyscanner, Travelocity and Orbitz. I also sign up for Skyscanner Price Alerts to monitor price drops.

To date I have found my cheapest international flights with Skyscanner and cheapest domestic flights with Orbitz.

I also subscribe to lots of airline newsletters to get the cheapest deals. I highly recommend Nomadic Matt’s newsletter- he finds so many great bargains, from on-sale airfare to discounted tours.

 

Book local budget flights in advance too.

One way I save money on flights is by finding the cheapest possible flight to get to the continent where I will be traveling (i.e. Europe or Asia) and then buying another local budget flight to get to my primary destination.

For example, a few summers back I booked a cheap flight from Chicago to Ireland with AerLingus, spent a weekend enjoying Dublin and then took an inexpensive EasyJet flight to Paris. Doing it that way about $400  cheaper than flying directly to Paris and plus- I got to add a few days in Ireland to my itinerary.

Budget airlines in Europe: Ryanair, Easyjet, Wizzair (flies to Eastern Europe)

Budget Airlines in Asia: AirAsia, TigerAir

Keep in mind when flying budget airlines there are few perks. There is no free checked bag, no free water or food and you usually have to print out your boarding ticket in advance.

And with European budget carriers like Ryanair or Easyjet some flights are seasonal- certain routes are only available in summer.

Also some airports are extremely far from the actual destination- Paris Beauvais is two hours from Paris and Frankfurt Hahn is two hours from Frankfurt.

 

Favor inexpensive countries.

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You’re much better off paying in Turkish lira than in British pounds!

Your dollar will go further in some countries than others.

For example, if I were backpacking Western Europe, I would budget about €50 ($70) a day (less if I found accommodation through Couchsurfing, of course). And this would be a bare-bones budget: Hostels, picnics in the park, few adventure activities.

By comparison, I lived comfortably on $20 a day in Cambodia. And by comfortably I mean comfortably: Eating out every meal, daily massages, hostels with a pool.

So when planning a long backpacking trip, favor cheaper countries. Why live like a pauper when you can live like a king?

Nomadic Matt has great country guides that can help you set a budget for the countries where you will be traveling.

Consider working abroad.

au-pair

There are so many ways to work on the road: Picking fruit in Australia, au pair-ing in Europe, teaching English in Asia… though some opportunities are much better paid than others.

The most lucrative job abroad at the moment is teaching in Korea. My friend Audrey saved up more than $17,000 teaching for a year in Korea. In comparison, I left France with $1,200. (For more info on teaching in Korea check out FarsicknessCuriosity Travels and Atlas Sliced.)

Alex in Wanderland has a great new series called Earning Abroad in which she interviews travelers who work abroad, from co-owning a bar in Thailand to crewing a sailboat in the Caribbean. I would highly recommend checking this series out if you’re considering working on the road!

 

Use Mint.com to keep track of your money.

I LOVE Mint.com. Mint.com is a free web-based financial management system that monitors your bank accounts among other things. My favorite Mint.com feature is the weekly email telling me how much I spent, where I spent it and my total net worth and credit card debt.

Mint is perfect for travelers- it will notify you if you are unnecessarily paying any foreign transaction fees and alert you if there is a sketchy drop in any of your bank accounts.

I would highly recommend Mint.com both for saving up before traveling as well as budgeting on the road. I only wish I had started using it sooner!

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My weekly money update. I need to get out more…

Apply for a Charles Schwab debit card so you won’t pay any foreign ATM fees.

The Charles Schwab debit card has changed my life as a traveler- never again will I suffer a $5.00 foreign ATM withdrawal fee! (cough, Chase).

And not only does Charles Schwab not charge you a foreign ATM withdrawal fee, it refunds you any money that foreign ATMs charge you by depositing a lump sum into your bank account at the end of the month. Wow.

When traveling abroad I always carry at least two debit cards and two credit cards in case of theft or loss. (I also make sure to keep my backups in separate places.)

Here’s more info on which credit and debit cards are best for backpackers.

Sell things you don’t need before you leave.

If you’re looking for quick cash look into selling some things you don’t need. While many swear by eBay I’ve had great luck selling with Amazon. I’ve already made a couple hundred dollars in the last few weeks while home!

If traveling to Europe, consider getting a card with chip and pin technology.

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In Europe, the credit and debit card system is completely different. In Europe there are many automated machines that only accept cards with chip and pin technology, and not having a chip and pin card can be a huge hassle.

My Chase Sapphire Preferred thankfully has this technology (see that little silver chip on the left) and will come in handy in Europe from purchasing a ticket on the Paris metro to buying a coffee at McDonalds.

For more information on maximizing smart chip credit cards in Europe, check out The Point Guy’s helpful post.

Other credit cards with chip-in technology: British Airways Visa Signature, Barclaycard Arrival World Mastercard, Hyatt Credit Card, among others

 

Once you’re there:

Stay at hostels.

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The unglamorous side of budget travel- a $6 hostel in Vietnam.

I regularly use Hostelworld to find hostels when traveling Europe or South America. I’m very careful about checking reviews and rarely stay at a place that is rated less than 85%.

And while it is a great idea to book hostels in advance in Europe or South America, it’s not necessary in Southeast Asia- most hostels are less than $7 anyway! Just show up in town and ask other backpackers where they’re staying (and preferably check the hostel’s ratings on Hostelworld)- it’s that simple.

That being said, I would book in advance when traveling to expensive Asian cities like Hong Kong or Singapore. I also always, always book a hostel for the night after a flight- the last thing I want to do when arriving to a foreign city is worry about where I’ll be sleeping.

 

Consider Couchsurfing.

And what’s even cheaper than hostels? Couchsurfing! While I had little luck with Couchsurfing in Asia, I’ve had incredible Couchsurfing experiences in Greece, Germany and California.

Not only is Couchsurfing is an incredible way to save cash, it’s a great way to meet locals. All you have to do is create a profile, add lots of info and photos and reach out to potential hosts. Personalized messages always go further so read their profile!

Track on the ground expenses with Trail Wallet.

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My spending for a month in southern Thailand. Also just for the record I spent around $1,200- I forgot to add the last five days or so.

When I’m traveling I use Trail Wallet to track my spending- it really helps me stick to a budget. Because I pay mostly in cash when backpacking, it’s easy to lose track of where your money is going.

I love Trail Wallet’s pie chart feature because it shows you what percentage of your money you spend on various amenities, including accommodation, transportation and food. (You can add and remove categories too which is a very cool feature.)

Find cheap transportation.

I use Megabus frequently when traveling in the U.S. (and plan on using it in the U.K.) The last time I was in Europe I discovered car-sharing and it is definitely a service I will use again. Essentially you pay a stranger for a ride in their car- and while it sounds sketchy I have friends who use it all the time.

They have carsharing in many European countries: BlaBlaCar (France), Carpooling (UK), Flinkster (Germany) among others.

My money set-up:

Finances

Charles Schwab- My go-to debit card.

Chase- My back-up debit card. Has a high foreign transaction fee and foreign ATM withdrawal fee so I only use it in case of emergencies.

Paypal- How I am paid for most of my online jobs. (Just an account, not a card.)

American Express Starwood Rewards- My main credit card.

Chase Sapphire Preferred- My backup credit card. I also plan on using this in Europe because it has a smart chip.

More of my money-saving trick posts:

How to Eat Cheaply Abroad

How to Drink Cheaply Abroad

How to Open a Bank Account in Europe

Your turn! What to you do to cut costs abroad?

 I was not perked or paid by any of these companies for the mention. I honestly use them all when I travel and wanted to share them with you.

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Ashley Fleckenstein

Ashley is an American travel blogger and freelance writer who moved to Paris at 21, traveled the world for a year and now lives in Denver. She's usually in pursuit of skiing, languages and perfectly ripe cheese. Her writing has been featured in National Geographic, Viator and Jetstar Australia.
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48 Comments

  1. These are all great tips! I’m going to have to check out some of the budgeting apps. Lords knows I need some serious help in that area…Also, I’m seriously upset my Chase Sapphire Preferred doesn’t have the chip! I might have to call them and see if I can get one with.

    Thanks for the link :)
    Amanda @ Farsickness recently posted..Mangia, Mangia, Mangia: Where I Ate in Rome (Part 2)My Profile

    Reply
    • That’s what I did actually! It was super easy though so no worries. And just out of curiosity, do you like your Chase Sapphire? I’m not sold on it currently- I feel like a lot of other credit cards are better for building miles.

    • I can’t reply to your reply but I’m not really sure about the Chase card. I’ve only had it for a couple of months and rarely use it because it’s annoying to have to send money back to my US account to pay the bill (and I’m trying to be financially responsible). Also, I’ve never had a credit card before so I have nothing really to compare it to. I just really like the no foreign transaction fees.

  2. Mint is great until you look at it after five weeks in six expensive northern European countries and oh my god I didn’t really need to see in print how much I spent at bars.
    Edna recently posted..Instagrammed: Europe for the HolidaysMy Profile

    Reply
    • Hahaha I totally know what you mean. Sometimes it’s just best not to know.

    • It’s seriously the best debit card ever for travelers! I wish I would’ve gotten it years ago too.

  3. Wow, great tips and websites! I’ll definitely be looking into carsharing, I’ve never heard of that before! If you or any of your readers are traveling within Asia from Korea, I recommend Jin Air. Usually they have great deals! :)
    Vanessa recently posted..Do Wild Animals Go To Heaven?My Profile

    Reply
    • Thanks for the suggestion, Vanessa, I will definitely bookmark Jin Air!

  4. I would definitely recommend your blog for preparation for traveling.
    You have not only thoroughly researched it, but have practiced and experienced it.
    This information should be in anyone’s files for “How to plan”I for traveling
    abroad. Your suggestions make it possible for anyone who really wants to travel, can do so. Amazing.

    Love,
    Gamma
    !

    Reply
    • Thank you Gamma, I’m glad you liked the article! Love, Ashley

  5. Ashley, I think we are travel planning twins?! I’m a Mint, Trailwallet, and Charles Schwabb addict! My only issue with the Mr. Charles is that I lost my debit card and they have made it incredibly difficult to get me a replacement on the road (plus they are charging me $15, annoying). Good thing I always travel with a backup!

    Reply
    • I actually found out about Trailwallet from your site so thanks for that! :) And I lost my Charles Schwab too at the end of my first month in Thailand and had to use my Chase card for the rest of my time in Southeast Asia. And Mint kept sending me emails about all of the money I was losing from foreign ATM withdrawal fees… altogether more than $100 in 2.5 months! Ouch!

    • Luckily my backup TD Bank debit card has the same policy! I do have to keep a minimum of $3K in my account at all times though, which is stressful. Now here’s hoping I don’t lose that one…
      Alex recently posted..The Pursuit of HappinessMy Profile

    • Thanks so much Leah, I’m glad you found it useful!

  6. Great, thorough advice Ashley!
    Although some of your tips regarding credit cards don’t really apply to me as a European, I absolutely agree on getting a card with free withdrawal! I forget this when I moved to Portugal and each withdrawal cost me 7,50 Euros. Since I also had a 200 Euros withdrawal limit and I had to pay my rent in cash, you can imagine how much money I lost in the course of five months abroad… Oh it still hurts! I got myself a DKB credit card (simply the best one for German travelers!) right after I got back, and it makes such a difference!
    And just a little addition on traveling in Europe: Long-distance buses (like EuroLines) have become really cheap and wide-spread: I paid 40 Euros to Prague and back, 70 Euros to Paris and back.
    Julika recently posted..January Sunshine in GöttingenMy Profile

    Reply
    • Ah, I forgot to mention Eurolines! I’ve actually never used them though so I’d rather research it first and then recommend it. And I didn’t even think about what the differences would be for a European traveler, I’m glad you have a good credit card though for travel! :)

  7. What great trips! I love using Mint as well. It keeps me honest where my money goes. :)
    Quyen recently posted..weekend adventures: pierMy Profile

    Reply
    • Thanks, Quyen! Mint has seriously changed my life.

  8. I fly standby! I you know somebody working for an airline company, they have “buddy passes”. There’s not a whole lot of planning months in advanced, just about 2 weeks beforehand! It’s great for a random weekend getaway too. There is a downside to flying standby (i.e. being stranded on a connecting flight), but if your dates are flexible, it’s the greatest (and cheapest!) :-)

    Reply
    • I would LOVE to do that. Alas, no family or friends who work for an airline :(

    • The Kayak Explore tool is super useful, I found out about it through Nomadic Matt! And I’m so glad you found the list useful :)

    • Haha I know what you mean. And I’ll have to check out iExpensit, I’ve never heard of it!

    • It really is! And good luck planning your big trip :)

  9. What an awesome post, with great tips! I am for sure going to use some for the next few months while in New Zealand. One benifit of being married or traveling with a pal, is splitting the cost of things! I love being able to get a double hostel room for the same price (or couple dollars more) as it would have cost of the dorms.
    Kate @ Trekking Kate recently posted..Abel Tasman JourneyMy Profile

    Reply
    • I’m so glad you find it useful! And traveling with someone else is definitely cheaper- you can always share meals or rooms which makes it less expensive.

  10. Great post! A few things, firstly, why don´t I have that debit card and WHY doesn´t my chase sapphire preferred have a chip and pin?! they knew I was going to Europe and they never told me about that option!! Luckily now I only use my Spanish account but STILL! Argh!

    Trail wallet is great, and mint looks super helpful too. This summer I´m going to have to get myself to cheap countries. I totally agree….travel like a king if you can!

    Also, Blablah car is now everywhere in Europe I think. I plan on using it soon! :)
    Jessica Wray recently posted..How To Know If Teaching in Spain is Right for YouMy Profile

    Reply
    • I think it’s a pretty new feature actually! I got mine in December. And that’s awesome there’s Blabla car everywhere in Europe now!

  11. Brilliant advice!

    Just too much to take in all in one go. I’ll have to pin it to come back to later – this feels like the sort of post to read over every time I plan a trip!

    I’m always intrigued by couchsurfing, mainly for the same reasons that I worry about hitch-hiking: what if you find yourself tumbling into a horror movie?! How do you find it? Have you had any problems with it?
    Katie recently posted..72 hours in SingaporeMy Profile

    Reply
    • Yeah it’s definitely a lot to take in! And I guess with CS you just have to trust your gut- if it seems sketchy, just leave. (I always have a back-up hostel and also only stay with a guy if I’m with another girl. I will stay with a girl host by myself though.)

    • Seems like sound advice – thanks Ashley! :-)
      Katie recently posted..72 hours in SingaporeMy Profile

  12. such a good round up. I agree with alex we are travel twins lol, nomadic matt ( i think it was him) just had a post about charles schwab and i LIVE by that card. if only i got commission for all the friends i sent to them! lol I have to fly back home from india and might use your trick of flying somewhere in the states like NYC then booking another flight (but that might not work as well in the states, we dont have those cheap airlines like europe!)
    Rachel of Hippie in Heels recently posted..Breaking Stereotypes of American TravelersMy Profile

    Reply
    • That’s so funny! I should get a commission too, I tell everyone about it. And actually I’ve found pretty cheap flights with Spirit, I’ve been impressed! I got a one-way from Detroit to Los Angeles for only $120.

  13. excellent tips

    Reply
  14. Yes! Traveling doesn’t always have to cost a lot… It’s just a matter if you can do with out. People freak out when I tell them I pay like $6 a night for a guesthouse, and then they freak out even more when they hear I might have a shared bathroom, or ONLY a bed in the room. Really? It’s a place to sleep, are you hanging out in there or something? Love this post and I follow all the ‘rules’ hehe :)
    NIna recently posted..Happy 2014 from Koh LantaMy Profile

    Reply
    • The thing is that staying in hostels isn’t only cheaper, it’s also just a completely different experience- you meet more people and more interesting things tend to end up happening.

  15. Helpful tips. I always set my budget straight and my friends knows I struggle that much. They know how meticulous I am in planning and budgeting. Its not that I worry much on the cost – because yeah you really need to spend money in traveling. I just think that you should plan first and not just dive into it. Thank you for the tips, its very informative.

    Reply
  16. Thanks so much for all the helpful tips!

    Reply
  17. Thanks for the insight! This is definitely really helpful. I think that Priceline’s name your price tool has the best price, and ultimately, in my experience they a have the lowest price when you include taxes & additional fees. It’s a great way to book flights it if you have a somewhat flexible schedule.

    Characters & Carry-ons
    Joyce recently posted..Bangkok DiaryMy Profile

    Reply
    • Interesting! I haven’t used Priceline much but I will definitely give it a better shot. Thanks for the tip!

  18. Couchsurfing is obviously an essential resource for cutting travel expenses. There are other hospitality groups, also!

    I have another ATM/debit card with no foreign transaction fees but I might look into that Schwab one.

    Wonderful article.
    Charles McCool recently posted..Fall Foliage Guide 2014My Profile

    Reply
    • Couchsurfing really is the best! Glad you enjoyed the article, Charles :)

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