Friday, 25 January 2013

The Long & Winding Dollar: Saving Money While Travelling

The foldable bowl... budget saving magic.
“I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move.”

When Robert Louis Stevenson wrote this, he was reflecting on his two-week trek by donkey through the Cévennes mountains of France.

But who knows what his expenses were? Travelling for the sake of travel is great, but you can do so much more of it if you can make your money go further – and most 21st century travellers have many more expenses than donkey feed.

Drawing on my own travel experiences, here’s a baker’s dozen of tips on stretching your travel budget:

1. Pack light. The obvious benefit of taking minimal baggage is mobility, but it also saves cash. For a start, budget airlines normally charge more for luggage stored in the hold. Secondly, if you only have a small pack you can save money on taxis by walking or catching public transport. For more details, check out my post last year on how I pack ever so lightly.

2. Plan ahead with transport bookings. Inevitably, flights become more expensive the closer you are to the date you want to fly. I remember one time I had to book a flight from Kraków to London just a week before, and it was cheaper to fly British Airways than the usual budget carriers. And that wasn’t cheap at all, either. The same applies to train fares, especially in the UK.

3. Check out transport passes. There are a number of good-value rail passes which can only be bought outside that country before arrival, which can then save stacks of money if travelling frequently. The BritRail Pass, for example, is only available to non-Brits before arrival. The venerable Eurail Pass, by comparison, can be bought in Europe but at a 20% mark-up. Much better to buy before you go.

4. Catch local trains rather than international. In Europe, international trains tend to be pricey. A way of saving money is to catch a cheaper local train to the border or just beyond, then switch to a local train in the new country. Fiddly, but saves €€€.

5. Buy a local SIM card with plenty of data. Everyone should know this by now, but you should never be tempted to use your smartphone’s data roaming capabilities while overseas. Telstra, Australia’s biggest telco, charges about $15 per MB while you’re roaming; to put that in scarier context, that’s $15,000 per GB – about the size of the average movie download.

Instead, drop into a local telco when you arrive in a new country and ask for a SIM card with plenty of data allowance, or pick one up before you go from a local company which imports them. It's well worth doing this when visiting Australia in particular, as free wi-fi is not so common here.

6. Get a stored-value cash card loaded with foreign currency. You can obtain one of these from a bank before you go, rather than withdrawing cash via your credit card once there. Although withdrawals from these cards still attract fees, they’re generally much lower and easier to understand than the fees charged on credit card withdrawals.

7. Take advantage of tax-back schemes. Some countries allow travellers to recoup the tax they’ve paid in the country while visiting or working, subject to various rules and limits.

8. Take out travel insurance. I know, it’s counter-intuitive – insurance costs money. But it can save you a truckload of expenses if you should be robbed or injured. Insure yourself with a company with a good track record, and check the fine print first to make sure the cover is what it seems to be.

9. Haggle (if it’s part of the local culture).
In plenty of countries, the locals are happy to negotiate the prices of goods. But you should only haggle if you’re serious about reaching agreement and buying the thing, and you should always remain good-humoured during the process.

10. Aim for the free days.
Sometimes local museums will have a day of the week when entry is free (this is common in Poland, for example). It does mean you’ll be there in the company of a crowd, but it’ll save you money.

11. Eat standing up. In some places, restaurant dining is vastly more expensive than eating at a street stall. When we first visited Berlin in the 1990s on a tight budget, I remember living off stand-up kebabs.

12. Shop at supermarkets. An obvious one – you can save plenty of money by self-catering. And while you’re there, pick up some muesli for use with my final tip…

13. Buy a fold-up plastic bowl. Camping stores sell these origami-like sheets of plastic, which magically fold and tuck to form a usable bowl [pictured above]. I carry one of these flat in my backpack (with a lightweight spoon), for those days when I’m exhausted by nightfall and just want to eat something quick and easy in my hotel room. It’s brilliant.

This post was sponsored by Taxback.com. Visit its site for information about how to apply for tax refunds after you've been working in Australia.