8 Ways Travelers Waste Money

Piazza Campo De Fiori in RomeTourists eating outside Pizza in Rome
Kasto80/Dreamstime

You won’t believe how much you may be tossing away on vacation.

Sure, vacation is supposed to be your time to relax, to recharge your batteries. But there’s a big difference between going with the flow and allowing yourself to be ripped off simply because you’re not paying attention. From your choice of restaurant to the kind of bank card you carry, the way you pack your bags, and your willingness to do a little bit of homework before leaving home, here are some of the most common ways you may be wasting money when you travel - and, most importantly, how not to waste money next time.

1. EATING LIKE A TOURIST 

We would never suggest that every well-trod touristy restaurant serves sub-par, overpriced meals. But we will say that eating at the most obvious open-air establishment in, say, an Italian piazza or the eatery with the biggest neon sign in Times Square may increase your chances of paying top dollar for food you probably could have made better at home. The reason is good old supply and demand: The public spaces that attract the biggest crowds are often the most expensive places to open a restaurant, and the temptation to cut corners when you sense your clientele can't tell the difference is, well, y'know... 

Do this instead:

Use guidebooks, local tourism boards, reliable travel media (yup, that’s us), and word of mouth to find authentic joints that cook local favorites with good quality ingredients. We’re also fond of our parent company Lonely Planet’s inspiring @LonelyPlanetFood account on Instagram, delivering a world of great food suggestions each day.

2. PAYING FOREIGN TRANSACTION FEES

If you don’t check with your bank or credit card company before heading overseas, you may be in for an unpleasant surprise: Foreign transaction fees whenever you use your U.S.-based card to make a purchase. And while 3 percent, a common transaction fee, may not sound like a lot while you’re living it up on vacation, it can sure add up by the time you get your next bank statement.

Do this instead:

Before you travel anywhere (even domestically), it’s a good idea to stop by the local branch of your bank and tell them where you’re headed. You’ll not only learn about foreign transaction fees (and how to avoid them), but also any concerns the bank may have about your using the card in your travel destination. If you plan to use a credit card overseas, make sure to get one that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees.

3. GETTING A BAD EXCHANGE RATE

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One of the biggest money-wasting mistakes travelers make is waiting to exchange dollars for foreign currency until they arrive at the airport or at their destination. Airport kiosks, hotel desks, street vendors, and shops make extra money by charging an undesirable rate of exchange.

Do this instead:

Before you leave the U.S., research exchange rates online and obtain currency from your bank or a currency exchange. If you don’t already have a debit card from your bank, get one so that you can withdraw cash from most foreign ATMs at a favorable exchange rate. (And remember that some destinations, including Cuba, do not honor U.S.-based bank or credit cards at all and you’ll have to arrive with cash.)

4. CHECKING TOO MUCH BAGGAGE

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This one’s an easy one to brush off a few weeks or even a few days before your trip: You’ll “pack light,” you swear. But in the heat of the moment, especially if you’ll be away from home for a week or more, it becomes easy to pack a rolling suitcase so that it exceeds the weight limit, incurring extra fees, or to decide that although your airline allows you one or two complementary checked bags (of course, not all airlines do), you’re going to have to check just one more.

Do this instead:

Truly “packing light” means carefully considering what you’ll really need on your trip, and taking into account the possibility of doing laundry while you’re away. (I personally had a super-convenient and affordable laundry experience at the Ventura Beach Marriott’s excellent laundry room last July, which allowed me and my family to pack light for a three-week trip and stay within Southwest’s two-bags-per-passenger complementary checking policy. Also consider mailing some clothing and souvenirs back home instead of trying to cram them into your already-groaning bags.

5. RACKING UP CREDIT CARD DEBT

We mentioned above that traveling with a credit card is a smart choice - you’re prepared for unexpected expenses, and you can confidently make hotel and transportation reservations. But that doesn’t mean you should use your credit card to pay for a vacation (or a souvenir, or a meal, for that matter) you won’t be able to pay off with a month or so once you get home. Some credit card rates, not to mention penalties and late fees, can mean paying double for your dream trip over time.

Do this instead:

It’s simple to say it, harder to do it: If you wouldn’t borrow money from a friend or relative for your trip, don’t borrow it from a credit card company.

6. MISUNDERSTANDING TRAVEL INSURANCE

There are two ways of misunderstanding travel insurance: One is to assume you don’t need it, the other is to assume you do. It’s way more nuanced than that. Misunderstandings of this kind can lead to travelers handing over tons of money unnecessarily to car rental companies and tour operators for insurance they already have thanks to their debit or credit card or auto or home insurance policies. On the other hand, misunderstanding travel insurance can also lead to travelers being stuck in a medical emergency in which they unexpectedly have to hand over hundreds or even thousands of dollars because they did not obtain an appropriate medical insurance policy for travel overseas.

Do this instead:

Learn what kinds of insurance your bank card or credit card covers, and review what your auto, home, and health insurance policies cover when you’re traveling. Chances are, this will reduce the amount you have to pay to car rental companies, and it will clarify whether you need something like medical evacuation travel insurance, which can save you a bundle in the event of a health crisis.

7. MISSING OUT ON DISCOUNTED ADMISSION

Most major cities will have a handful of must-see museums, some guided tours, restaurants you’ve been looking forward to trying, etc., and every one of those experiences is going to cost you something, of course. If you're a savvy traveler, it’s easy to turn up your nose at passes and discounts that require a fee - the more experienced you are, the more you may assume that offers like that are just another rip-off. Think again.

Do this instead:

Programs like CityPASS and similar offers in Europe may seem pricey, but if you spend some time comparing the discounts offered at the attractions you most want to visit against the price of the pass, you may discover that ponying up for the pass may actually save you big in the long run.

8. BOOKING HOTEL & AIRFARE TOO SOON

"Booking a vacation is a well-researched, steely-eyed, analytical affair," said no passionate traveler ever. We know it's all about dreams, aspirations, and a bit of denial. You want booking to be easy, and especially when you find a decent hotel rate or airfare on a trip you’re really looking forward to, it’s easy to convince yourself to hit that “purchase” button. But we've seen over and over again, and now more than ever, that sticking with the tried-and-true domestic U.S. travel booking sites can mean you’re overlooking potential savings elsewhere.

Do this instead:

Repeat after us: Take a deep breath and shop around. Sure, use Expedia, Kayak, and others sites to start your research. But branch out to Skyscanner, Hopper, and others to see what else is out there. Be flexible: Being open to a range of departure and return dates, a range of airports, a range of hotels and neighborhoods, can yield big savings.

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