You got a great deal on a flight and comparison shopped for accommodations. But when you’re on the ground in a fun foreign locale, how do you stick to your budget so you can splurge where you want? I’ve found that the key is to live like a local.
I love to travel more than almost anything else, and so far I’ve been to 41 states and 25 countries. I’m not a travel blogger and I won’t be quitting my 9-5 to backpack around the world anytime soon, but I am always planning my next getaway. I’ve made traveling a financial priority, and I save and scrimp where I can both before a trip and while I’m on the road so that I can travel while also achieving my other financial goals. Through trial and error (sometimes heavy on the error), I’ve found that living like a local no matter where the road takes you is much cheaper than living like a tourist with a bull’s eye on your back. Here are some of my common sense and not-so-common tips for sticking to a budget on a trip.
1. Go to the grocery store and buy breakfast foods, a picnic lunch, snacks to have in your bag for emergencies, alcohol on the cheap, and more. This is an easy one, and if you’re traveling with a group or even just a partner who has different hunger priorities than you (“not a morning person” meets “must eat the moment I open my eyes,” anyone?), it can be a lifesaver. Bonus: I love to go to the grocery store in foreign countries and buy candy with labels I can’t understand, fruit I’ve never seen before, and a bottle of the local wine or beer to enjoy in a park or back at my accommodations after a long day of sightseeing.
2. Pop into the public library or a big hotel to use the facilities instead of having to buy something at a cafe or restaurant. Raise your hand if you’ve ever had a bathroom emergency you were willing to pay someone a pretty penny to, erm, relieve. Especially if you’re out sightseeing all day long, these little stops can add up. I’ve found that swinging by the public library, city hall, the tourist information center, or a big hotel or event space that’s open to the public is a great way to refresh yourself, maybe refill your water bottle, and get back down to the business of sightseeing instead of frantically searching for the nearest coffee shop or restaurant with the least-disgusting restroom.
3. Food halls or public markets are your best friend, and a crowd pleaser no matter whether you’re traveling solo or with 10 of your friends. The food is almost always fresh because of the volume and high turnover, everyone can get (and spend) what they want at whatever stall strikes their fancy, and it’s a great way to see how the locals live and eat. I’ve snacked and dined my way through food halls from Philly’s Reading Terminal Market to the Papieren in Copenhagen to the Mercado Central in Quito, Ecuador, and have been rewarded with some of the tastiest and most budget-friendly meals to be had across the globe. Especially in Copenhagen. Wow, that city is expensive.
4. Do a free walking tour. You can often find “tip what you wish” guided walking tours by doing a quick internet search, but if you don’t have luck there or if you’re traveling off-season, check out a guidebook from your library or download a tour to your phone or tablet. You can do a self-guided tour at your own pace or read about points of interest on your phone, even if it’s in airplane mode, with just a little planning ahead. Pro tip: if you’ve always wanted to do a beer tour or bar crawl of your destination but balk at the idea of paying someone a fortune to walk you from brewery to brewery, map it out ahead of time and do your own! Just make sure you pay attention to hours and see if you need to sign up in advance for a tour or tasting at various destinations. This is what my husband and I did in Brussels and it was really fun to go at our own pace instead of being at the mercy of someone else’s schedule.
5. Go to church. Even though I’m not particularly religious, I’ve found that the churches and other religious buildings in almost every city or town I’ve ever been to are one of the best places to visit, and they’re usually free or almost free. Sure you’ve heard of Notre Dame in Paris, but far less famous synagogues, temples, and madrassas across the globe are good places to see beautiful historical buildings, appreciate some architecture, get a feel for the town, and maybe even rest your feet for a second. Ducking into a church or other religious building has saved me from heatstroke in Rio de Janeiro, given me a break from the windy snow in Prague, and provided a dry spot for me to pull out my paper map and check directions while in Rabat, Morocco. Bonus: if you’re traveling over a holiday and find yourself without much to do on, say, Christmas Day, these buildings are almost always open to worshippers and respectful sightseers alike, even when the rest of town is buttoned up.
6. Know the tipping rules in the country you’re visiting. Many places don’t have a tipping culture like the U.S. does, and you’ll want to know this before you go around making your bill 20% more than it needs to be every time you dine out. By that same token, know if haggling is a thing, and do a little research to figure out the dos and don’ts of haggling at your destination. In some countries, you’re expected to haggle, and in some it’s taboo. You don’t want to get taken for a ride, but you also don’t want to insult everyone you make a transaction with and leave them with a bad impression of all tourists from your country.
I’ve found that keeping these tips in mind makes for a much smoother trip. They help minimize bathroom emergencies, keep everyone from getting too hangry, and make it a bit easier on the wallet to boot. As for what to do with any cash you were able to save? Well, I always sock it away for my next trip.
A grant writer by day and personal finance fanatic by night, Marisa is an avid traveler who lives in Pittsburgh, PA. When she’s not reading or writing for work or play, she enjoys running, thrifting, and searching for the most authentic Mexican food in the city.
Image via Unsplash