Travel agents, common scams, and even numbers: Travel budget tips that may surprise you

Guest post by Channamasala

This was such an epic comment from Homie Channamasala on our post about international travel tips that we had to turn it into its very own post.


When planning a trip, obviously the smart thing to do is to check online — Kayak,, and the airlines’ actual sites. Then get a good travel agent to book the trip you want. Yes! Travel agents usually get their commissions not from you but from the airline, so if you want an unusual ticket they are actually a great bet. They can help you better avoid annoying layovers, let you know if changing your plans by one or a few days will significantly reduce your fares, and can get you the best rates on open-jaw and layover tickets.

For example, I live in Taipei. Most affordable flights from Taipei to New York require a layover. If I book it myself it’s hard to plan a short stay in a third country or get a good layover. With my travel agent, I manage to weekend in Tokyo, or take a four day mini-vacation in Seoul, or take advantage of the Shanghai 48-hour transit visa so I can enjoy Shanghai for a day without getting an expensive Chinese visa.

I love to travel and do so often. So here are more of my traveling tips based on my many experiences…

Clear all cookies

Or use Tor to search kayak and other sites. They absolutely DO offer different fares based on what they’re mining of your cookies and other data they can get their hands on says you will pay. Get rid of all of that, and then compare the Kayak fares against what you can find on the actual airline sites.

If you bother with frequent flier programs

Just sign up for the biggest (One World, Star Alliance) and only use them when they benefit you — as in, don’t pay more for airfares because “I can get miles!” Carriers have, for years, been lessening the benefits of frequent flier memberships, and making it harder and harder to accrue or use miles. So use ’em when it works for you, but don’t pay significantly more because you think you’ll get the reward in miles. You probably won’t. Frankly I find most programs so worthless that I don’t even bother.

Always book in-country or short regional flights separately

When we did our Panama-Guatemala bus trip, we took one small flight from Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica to San Jose because there was no other good option. We wisely booked that separately, for less than $100 per person. If we’d bought it with our main ticket it would have been several hundred dollars.

Red eye flights and train rides

It’s tempting to take overnight train or bus trips to save $$ on hotels. That’s fine if you’re on a train with a real sleeping compartment or you get an actual bunk. But if you think you’re going to save money by sleeping in a bus or train seat, think again. You’ll just be tired and cranky. Always check airports out online before deciding you’ll save money by taking a red-eye and staying at the airport. That’s fine in, say, Singapore, but it’s a TERRIBLE idea in Cairo where your choices are a wooden bench in a smoke-filled cafe or a metal folding chair just inside an open door in the departures terminal (they won’t let you check in early). You just need to trust me on this. It may have been the worst night of my life.

Pick and choose museums carefully

They can be hellishly expensive, so pick the one you want to go to, and not the four others that sound “pretty good.” It’s more fun to explore the city you’re in anyway — at least for me, I’d rather see what life is like for real people in the place I’m visiting and will minimize my time looking at old artifacts.

Travel in even numbers

Two people can get a cheaper hotel room than 1, and 4 people can split a hotel room for about what 4 hostel beds will cost in many countries.

Save $$$ by picking a hotel or hostel with free pickup and breakfast

Then stuff yourself at breakfast, so all you need is a snack at lunch. The free pickup will save you the cost of the always-expensive taxi.

Be aware of common scams and hard-sells

If you hire a car and driver to go to a famous historic site far from the main city (say, the Pyramids, the Terracotta Soldiers, Ephesus, the Great Wall, and so many more) they will almost certainly try to take you to a “traditional shop” where “traditional artisans” craft anything from essential oils to rugs to jade to papyrus to calligraphy. These will always, NO EXCEPTIONS, be shoddy pieces of crap. Just say no.

They will insist you need to pay this or that guy or tip this or that fellow — know in advance what the tipping rules are, and don’t be afraid to say no.

If they insist you need to pay for some other service (e.g. horses to ride to the Pyramids from some back parking lot, or a boat to see the Taj Mahal from the river when that’s not really necessary), you probably don’t. Research these things in advance.

They will give you the hard-sell. Stand firm. Say no. They’ll insist. “NO.” They’ll say that you can’t, in that case, see what you came to see. Insist that you WILL see it, and they WILL take you, and if they don’t, you’ll make many complaints to whomever helped you book them. They’ll back down. They’ll grumble, but they’ll back down.

Know your taxi fares

Ask at the hotel, or research before you go. If you get in a taxi, especially in India, and they hand you some pre-printed paper with high prices on it for various well-known destinations, say NO and walk away. Be nasty. Be a bitch. It’s okay. They’re scamming you. Don’t be nice.

Most souvenirs are overpriced crap

If you really want it, try to get it for half of what it’s being sold for. Better yet, research (online or in a guidebook) a shop known for quality products, go there, and buy one thing as your souvenir. Let all the fake silver, fake turquoise, fake silk crap go. If someone presses you that it’s “real” or they are an “artist” and they “made it themselves,” they didn’t, and it’s fake. Almost every time.

There are always extra fees for the things that seem like you really can’t miss them

But sometimes there are workarounds. For example, it’s worth it to go see the Pyramids. It’s not necessary at all to pay the fee to then go inside one (you can go inside an older pyramid not far away for free). There are exceptions: if you go to the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, it is worth it to pay to go to the harem quarters.

Plan your trip around awesome things that are free

For example, Istanbul is great and you absolutely should go. But the admission fees to some of the great stuff are very high (the same is true in Cairo and Luxor). But if you go to Cappadocia in Turkey or Aswan in Egypt, you get all of the astounding countryside and natural views for free.

Stay in one place for longer

It’s cheaper to stay awhile in one place and have a routine, than to move from place to place. You’ll get to become more confident walking (and saving transport costs) as you familiarize yourself. You won’t feel guilty about spending an afternoon just sipping coffee. And you’ll save yourself the long-distance transport costs too.

Western food may seem cheap compared to back home, but local food is cheaper

A bowl of noodles or an “everything pancake” is cheaper in Japan than a sandwich. A bowl of pasta might seem cheap in a backpacker cafe in Laos, but larb gai with baguette or banh mi (they have those in Laos, too) are cheaper.

It may seem cheaper to go off the beaten track, but it’s actually not

If a spot doesn’t having a lot of infrastructure, what accommodation and transportation there is is often more expensive. It’s actually cheaper to bum around hostels in Rajasthan (just beware of the scams) than it is to plan your own trip around Kannur and Wayanad in Kerala. (The downside is the “off the beaten track” stuff is usually better).

Look for amazing spots that haven’t been monetized yet

The Taj Mahal and the Hagia Sophia are amazing, and you should go see them, but they are $20 each. But the best parts of Hampi in India, and Bagan in Myanmar, are basically free (in theory there is a ticket for Bagan, in practice nobody will even tell you where to get it, nor will anyone ask for it).

Hiking is free

You should go hiking. Bring a prepaid local cell and your hotel’s number, lots of water, research natural hazards, and bring a partner especially if you are female (I know, SO SEXIST, but it is true around the world that women face increased risk of sexual assault). You can spend ZERO DOLLARS hiking Bugaksan in Seoul, or Love Valley or Rose Valley in Cappadocia, or Yangming Mountain in Taipei, or Ometepe in Nicaragua, or Semuc Champey in Guatemala, or the area around Hampi in India (be careful around there though).

In places without potable tap water

Your hotel, and many restaurants, probably do have “filter water” that you can safely drink. Buy a large hiker’s water bottle (aluminum is better than hard plastic) and fill it at the hotel every day (if they won’t fill it, get one several-gallon jug of mineral water and fill it from that daily, rather than buying mineral water in smaller bottles). But always ask for the “filter water” first, especially in India, China etc. where that’s a big thing. It’ll save both you and the environment!

Taking the subway

Many cities now have what amounts to a tourist tax on the subways for non-locals who won’t be there long enough to buy a local card. It’s now actually worth it to just get the card, especially in Washington DC (get a SmarTrip — otherwise it’s an extra $1 per ride and it adds up) and Boston (get a Charlie Card or it’s a similarly elevated price). Other useful international cards to get are an Octopus Card for Hong Kong (makes it easier to take the ferry) and a Suica for Tokyo (uh… just trust me on this).

What surprising travel tips can we trust YOU on? Budget hacks, lessons learned, places to see… let us know!

Comments on Travel agents, common scams, and even numbers: Travel budget tips that may surprise you

  1. Great article!

    Also re: water — When you are purchasing sealed bottles of water, make sure they’re really sealed, not just refilled/recycled bottles with tap water. Make sure that if you’re in a place where you have to drink filtered water, that you’re also using it to brush your teeth. It’s really easy to forget and just turn on the tap, but your belly will thank you later.

  2. If you *are* an old artefacts person though, check what discounts there are before you go! There are some weird and wonderful reasons for getting discounts and free tickets, and you can save yourself a ton of money, or make sure to visit only museums that are free if you’re on a tight budget.

    If you’re 25 or under and from the EU, all the museums in Paris are free.
    If you’re a student or teacher of art, art history, architecture or archaeology from the EU, most of the museums in Italy are free.
    If you’re 19 or under and from the EU, all the museums in Athens are free.
    The majority of the museums in London are free for everyone.
    Rome even has a discount for people who have given blood that day.
    (I might have got the age details of some of those wrong, but you get the idea.)

    Note that if you are relying on a student discount, bring a student card! If you need to prove you’re from the EU, or to prove your age, bring a driving licence or passport or similar! And (if you need to prove you study a particular subject) bring a letter from someone at your university!

    If you’re an academic or PhD student at a university, and you’re visiting a museum relevant to your studies which you can’t normally visit for free, it’s always worth calling or writing ahead (with the help of a native speaker of the museum’s language if needs be). If they are expecting you, they will often let you in free, and even give you a special tour of whatever you are interested in or introduce you to a member of staff who specialises in the same thing. You can meet some amazing people this way too.

    • Thank you for adding this! I couldn’t help but cringe at this part of the article. While I know that I’m likely in the minority of readers as a museum staff person, I actually choose my destinations at least in part based on museums to attend. I want to see all the old artifacts!

      My advice would be to research the local museums in advance to find out about fees and discounts, also to know what their hours and days or seasons of closure are. You don’t want to show up only to find that they won’t be open while you are in the area. Also, some cities have passes you can purchase to visit multiple destinations (museums and other cultural sites) for a set number of days. It’s worth taking a few minutes to cost compare in advance to see if that might save you some money with a pass if you want to visit several attractions while you’re there.

      • I’m not anti-museum! They’re not really my thing, I like to go to maybe one per city and will only go to more if there’s a very good reason to (eg. in New York or London there are multiple museums worth visiting – and London museums aren’t really free, it may be subtle but it’s something of a faux pas not to put some money in the donation bank).

        It’s just…it’s not that I begrudge museums their high entrance rates, I know they have to stay afloat, it’s that I just don’t have the budget to go to so many. I also get burnout – after awhile all the pottery or Renaissance art etc. basically start looking the same to me and I’d rather take in street scenes or the rhythm of the everyday lives of living people.

        But mostly, we travel light and cheap, and $20 a pop ($40 for 2) adds up. We aren’t eligible for any discounts (not students, not EU citizens, not teachers of subjects relevant to museums, not under 25, not over 65 – we’re straight-up full price) and we usually don’t pay for other attractions either (like in New York, I would not pay to see the Statue of Liberty or go to the top of the Empire State Building).

        What I will pay for is historic sites. I would rather spend a few hours ogling the Hagia Sophia or Tikal than galleries of exhibits under glass. It doesn’t mean museums are bad, they’re just expensive and not my first choice.

        Or, I’ll do something like go to MoMA on a Free Friday. I’d rather enjoy it for free with crowds, honestly. Or go to the Met and Cloisters on the same day (you don’t have to pay twice if you do that).

        • It’s definitely not a faux pas if you don’t donate to museums in London! They’re free for a reason, just going in and enjoying is what they’re there for. If you want to contribute, that’s lovely, but please don’t feel obliged.

          • I’ve always just tossed a few pounds in there, whatever was rattling around in my pocket at the time, kinda like a tip jar at a coffee shop ;-P

      • I’m with you! Last time I was in Europe I didn’t get to see nearly as many museums as I wanted to. And not all of them were stuffy old artifacts. I went to a history of sex museum, and the Salvidor Dali museum both in Paris that were definitely exicting and awesome.

    • I like museums, and I usually opt for the ones that are cheap or free unless there is something very special that I want to see. That way, I don’t spend extra money and I don’t end up spending my whole trip indoors.

      In both Europe and the United States, I also would recommend small local (county, city, region, etc) museums. They often have really interesting bits of local knowledge, stories, and histories that you probably wouldn’t come across otherwise. They are usually only a few dollars/euro, and they can give you a pretty good sense of the region you are visiting. Some of my favorite museum experiences have been in small local museums.

      This is more in the United States, but sometimes there will also be an overenthusiastic docent, who will give you even MORE information than you bargained for, which makes for its own interesting story.

      • Oh yes, I love museums, and tiny local museums in the US are some of the most interesting/amusing/bizarre I have been to! And I’ve definitely been to a few with really enthusiastic docents who just talk your ear off, and it just amazing how much they know about their region/subject.

        About a year and a half ago, I surprised my fiance by taking him to the Morrison Natural History Museum ( near Denver when we went for a small vacation out there (he LOVES dinosaurs). It’s a very small museum, but they have some absolutely spectacular examples of fossils there, and at the time we went, there was a young man who was interning at the museum while working on his degree in paleontology, so this kid knew a TON and gave us a fascinating lecture on all of the different fossils at the museum as we walked through.

        AND THEN, he even brought us and the two other people who were there up to the small lab that’s at the museum, where we actually got to work on excavating a fossil from a rock. It was ridiculously awesome, and my fiance was just over the moon with the whole experience. I don’t think I’ve ever learned more about dinosaurs in one go than that day. Tiny, local museums are the best!

        • Loving these comments! I’m a former museum curator – and I absolutely agree that sometimes the smaller museums are really worth a visit. also, it’s nice to support smaller, independent institutions (in the same way that it’s nice to support smaller independent shops).

          I was in Venice a couple of years ago and there was a card you could buy that gave you access to all the museums for a few days – this worked out really good value for us.

    • Also if you do some research you can find that some museums have a by donation or a cheaper day and if you plan accordingly you can hit each of them on their cheaper days

      • You definitely can do this – but beware of crowds on these days. In Italy, the first Sunday of the month, all the museums are free, but by the afternoon they have very very long lines.

        So if you like your museums quiet (like me) you may think that’s a price worth paying.

    • Agreed! Museums are always on my to-do list; half the reason I travel is for history.

      Always research ahead of time on admission prices. Many big name museums (the Louvre, the Uffizi, etc.) sell advance tickets &/or museum passes that will save you time &/or money. Paris’ museum pass is legendary — it includes most (but not all) of the major museums & will let you sail past the typically long lines. Advance tickets in Florence & Rome will save you hours of waiting. And I don’t just mean in summer high season (which I’ve honestly never traveled in). These museums have long entry lines almost year-round. You can also find out about special exhibitions in advance or if certain things are not on display / closed when you’ll be there. This can help you plan, & time is money when you travel.

      I also second & third the comments about offbeat local museums. If you have a particular interest, like an author or a topic like historical costume, you may find some fascinating smaller museums here & there.

  3. What a great post! Outside of Europe and the US, I’ve only been to Japan, and a few of these definitely apply. We didn’t get a Suica (weren’t in Tokyo for long anyway), but we got a JR pass for foreigners only, and were able to plan a lot of our Tokyo public transit trips using JR trains, so we didn’t have to pay extra. The passes were also great for the city-hopping we did, though expensive up front (~$450 for two weeks).

    Off the beaten path, we made it to Cat Island, though the cab ride we took to the ferry alone totaled twice as much as the one we took back to the train station when we split the cab with two native Japanese speakers…oops. We also couldn’t have done it without the help of a travel agent (who printed out and highlighted the Japanese language-only ferry schedule so we could show our hotel) and forum posts online, since no guidebooks mention Cat Island.

    Finally, things would have been much slower and more frustrating if I didn’t have free roaming data through my phone plan (T-Mobil; also has free international texting and calls). Very few Japanese people were comfortable giving us directions in English, and street signs don’t work the same way there, so it was invaluable to be able to pull up Google Maps and just follow its walking or public transit directions. The other option would have been to ask at the hotel every morning, which would have involved a lot of planning in advance and cut out spontaneity, or get lost a lot more. YMMV in places where it would be dangerous to have a smartphone out constantly, of course. Japan felt much safer than New York as far as being two female foreigners who didn’t always know their way around.

    • One handy thing to know if you don’t have free data roaming is that GPS is free even if you have your data turned off. What costs you data with Google Maps is downloading the maps themselves – that little blue dot that tells you where you are is free.
      So when you’re at your hotel or have wifi somewhere, download the map of the area you’ll be walking in and voilà, free GPS!

  4. Great advice, thank you. I’ve had my fair share of travelling, so I can relate to a lot of your advice. Here are a couple more:

    In many countries, bargaining is such a thing that if you don’t, you’ll make yourself look bad. Bargain anything and everything in artefacts markets, and start by offering one fourth or half the face price if you don’t feel that confident. If the vendor keeps bargaining, you’re going well. If you went too far, they’ll just tell you to go away and it’s okay. Bargaining doesn’t work every time 😉 If you convene of a price with a seller, it is fixed in stone: don’t try and bargain some more after you’ve said you’ll buy it. Similarly, if you convened a price and the seller tries to increase it, you have every right to walk away.
    Reminder on bargaining: try not to rip off your seller. A good price is a price that satisfies both. Don’t forget how much you’ll pay for that couple of beers later on, and how much 20 cents is worth to you and to the person you’re buying from.

    In Europe, find free walking tours. They’re tip-based and they’re almost everywhere, especially in Eastern and Northern Europe. You usually get a two-hour walking tour with a local guide and fellow travellers for the price of the tip. Don’t be an ass and tip. If you don’t intend to tip, don’t go. But if you’re willing to tip 2 to 10 euros, just do it, as they’re usually offbeat tours which really show you the city in a different light.

    If you travel to a county where you dn’t speak the language, learn a couple of words, which will go a loooong way. This especially true in countries where locals are known for not caring about visitors and/or not good with foreign languages, such as Russia, China or France. Learn those couple of words which will mollify your local cashier or waiter: hi, bye and thank you. You don’t really need more for a start.

    Always pay a visit to the local visitor information center, and grab a map. With a map, you can do anything. Not getting lost, for instance. Or pointing to your destination when you ask for your way. Usually tourist maps have nice little walking tours which will bring you to areas you had no ideas were interesting.

    • I’m American, and maybe it’s because I speak French . . . but I NEVER felt like the locals in France – whether in large cities or small towns – were discourteous in any way whatsoever. My French wasn’t always great, and in small towns people thought my American accent was “cute.” Or maybe it’s because I’m from New York where people aren’t always super chatty to strangers, so to me “discourteous” usually reads as “someone just doing their job and trying to get on with their day.”

      • New York was one of the friendly places we visited in the US. Only place I have ever been where you have locals falling over themselves to help you find somewhere if they see you pull out a map! It was lovely to have all the random interactions with people out on the street as we navigated around the city.

        • Wish I could say the same. My husband and I went to New York for my honeymoon and quickly learned to ignore anyone who spoke to us after getting scammed. It didn’t make for a nice holiday, and it was truly demoralising as a once in a lifetime honeymoon.

    • A lot of places don’t have visitor’s centers, or the maps are quite bad. What we usually do is if we can’t get a map before we go (standalone or in a guidebook – guidebooks aren’t all bad) we print out what we think we’ll need from Google Maps as there’s no guarantee of 3G access.

    • I thought this was so well put by Nya, it bears repeating: “Reminder on bargaining: try not to rip off your seller. A good price is a price that satisfies both. Don’t forget how much you’ll pay for that couple of beers later on, and how much 20 cents is worth to you and to the person you’re buying from.” Even when bargaining is part of local customs, it is still possible to come across as a real jerk when doing so when not done properly. I am not a born bargainer, and stumbled across a great technique that worked well for me whilst traveling. When I was quoted a price on something, from a taxi fare to a souvenir, I would simply repeat the price in a tone of surprise until I received the same price quote twice. So, here’s a sample conversation for a taxi driver:
      Me: “How much to go from point A to point B?”
      Driver: “Twenty dollars.”
      Me: “Twenty?”
      Driver: “Fifteen.”
      Me: “Fifteen?”
      Driver: “Ten.”
      Me: “Ten?”
      Driver: “Ten.”
      Me: “Okay!”
      It helps when this conversation occurs in the local language, if possible, but I was always happy with this method, as it didn’t involve much by way of bargaining skills, and I didn’t worry about making an insulting, low-ball offer.

      • A million times THIS!

        I’ve lived in Indonesia for a long time now, and I’ve come to a point where I expect to pay more than a ‘local’ (even though I AM a local) – and I’m totally okay with it.

        When you’re traveling in developing nations, keep in mind that it’s not as black and white as it might seem. Getting charged $5 USD for a sarong might seem like a lot. And you might talk the vendor down to $2.50 USD. But who needs that money more? The couple of bucks you saved on the sarong will be quickly forgotten by you and spent on something else. Those couple of dollars could have been new shoes or school fees for a child, or the difference between eating plain rice or a complete dinner for that vendor’s family.

        I’m not saying anyone should happily allow themselves to be taken advantage of, just that all things should be kept in perspective. The way I handle it is:
        -Before I ask the price, I decide how much I would be willing to spend on the item. This is based on a bit of market research, knowing what my budget is, and a simple gut check.
        -Ask the price. If the price is under my budget, I just accept it. No haggling at all. Could I have saved a few bucks? Probably. Does the vendor need it more than I do? Definitely.
        -If the price is more than I was hoping for, I ask myself two things: did I underestimate the cost? Or is this just outrageous. Either way, I will attempt to bargain to get it to the price that I hoped for. I don’t feel comfortable haggling too far, however, because a vendor WILL sell at a loss. They have to put up the capital to get their wares and if they’re short on cash flow, they might sell at a loss because, in that moment, something might be better than nothing.

        There’s a common perception in many developing countries that being a Westerner = being rich. Obviously that’s not true, but the fact remains: if you can afford to take a holiday and buy the plane ticket, you’re probably far, far richer than the person you’re haggling with.

        I often call the higher prices that I pay the ‘Pajak Bule’, which translates to ‘Westerner/White Person Tax’. I consider it my (small) contribution to the local economy and have made my peace with it.

  5. Last summer my partner and I went to 6 countries in 2 weeks. (Sounds crazy, but as a Canadian, that’s actually only the distance from where I live to Winnipeg- so from a coast to half way across). We went to Ireland, the UK, Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, and Norway.

    I have no idea what the final cost of the trip was, this was an inheritance-based trip with a philosophy choose the cheapest option that also will not make me go crazy. This might be a good time to mention I am an introvert with lots of social anxiety, with pretty much no previous travel experience!

    Here are some things we learned:

    If you have the time, do the math on how to get from country to country. Sometimes flying the cheap airlines looks cheaper on paper, however they often out of the way airports. Meanwhile, trains are usually city centre to city centre, the extra cost of the ticket might be less once you factor in transport from the airport.

    My favourite travelling between countries experience were overnight ferries with private cabins: they were basically mini-cruise ships where you paid for food, and they actually seemed to have mostly people from Europe on them.

    We used them to get from London to Amsterdam (train-ferry-train), and from Copenhagen to Oslo (we were able to walk to the ferry terminal in Copenhagen, it was amazing!) They were not necessarily the cheapest option, but it also meant not needing a place to stay overnight, and you can always bring on your own food.

    Know some German if you go to Germany: probably my biggest regret on the trip. Everywhere else was fine only speaking English, but in Germany knowing a few phrases makes a huge difference.

    I did an Alternative Berlin tour which was one of the best choices I made on the trip. Tip based, and a great way to see all of the amazing street art while learning a bit of history.

    We stayed in AirBnBs the whole trip and had a great experience! The nice thing about AirBnb is that we were able to choose different options for different cities depending on how cheap or expensive they were. For example, we were able to rent an entire one bedroom apartment in Berlin for the cost of staying in a room in someone’s house in Copenhagen. It also meant we got to stay in a “treehouse” bedroom in Ireland and in Norway we stayed in what was literally listed as a “hipster camper van”.

    A benefit that came up consistently with AirBnb is that it often meant that we were staying just slightly out of tourist-ville. As a non-traveler but not someone who is super touristy either it was the perfect balance. Plus staying in AirBnbs generally means kitchen access, which helps cut costs considerably. Staying at Airbnbs does not necessarily mean skipping out on paying the taxes either, for people who are uncomfortable “cheating the system”. It varied from host to host.

    A hop on, hop off bus was perfect for our one day in London. Don’t avoid tourist things just because they are touristy. We tried to balance between the two. Looking on the local yelp equivalent is a great way to figure out where the locals eat.

    If you are country hopping, I recommend staying more nights as the trip goes on. We finished our trip with 3 nights in the Norwegian countryside, which included a day where I did nothing but lay in a hammock and read. So amazing.

    (my trip continued with a week in Sweden, but that involved travelling with people who were from and/or lived in Sweden, leaving my only advice about that part of the experience being travelling with people who speak the language and know where you are going is the best!)


    • Ugh . . . I’m about to head to Germany for a week, and I’ve never been, and I don’t know any German. It makes me nervous because I’ve mostly only traveled to countries where I speak or am very familiar with the language (French, Spanish, Italian). I better get to some studying!! Thanks for the advice. 🙂

      • The language thing is definitely a bit of a generational thing: my partner met a mid-twenties couple who were insanely helpful with ingredient lists at a grocery store. Older generations are less likely to speak English, in Berlin it may also have to do with what side of the wall they grew up on!

        One thing that was helpful in hindsight was that one of the reasons some people don’t like to speak English is because they are extremely self conscious of not speaking it perfectly- its not necessarily just them disliking tourists.

        Just a few phrases can make a huge difference- and numbers for $$. I have heard that the rest of Germany has quite a different feel from Berlin.

        • Thanks! I’ll be in eastern Germany, actually – Bayreuth and Munich mostly, and possibly Nuremberg for a bit if I have time. It’s for a conference, which is going to be all in English. But I’ll be doing a bit of traveling afterwards. And I already failed at talking on the phone to someone at a hostel who spoke no English and I spoke no German . . . after I hung up the phone, I realized I should have tried French.

          • Hi! Offbeat German here. I just want to point out that when people say they don’t speak English in Eastern Germany, they don’t think about the actual geographic notion of “east” but rather of the Ex-DDR, the part of Germany which went to Russia after the second world war. Because Germans learn English in school, but for 40 years, kids in the DDR were learning Russian instead.
            Bavaria shouldn’t be a problem. I’d like to give you more advice, but I’m from the North, and dialect, temperament and landscape differ so much that I can’t.
            So there’s one thing I’d love to see in tourists from everywhere: Don’t assume you’ve seen Germany when you’ve only been to Bavaria yet. A lot of people regard Bavaria like US citizens regard Texas. The rest of the country is more like Oregon or Maine. 🙂

            30-40somethings might be your best bet for someone who speaks English. Maybe get a translator app. And don’t be put off by us being blunt. Whatever you do: have fun!

      • I’ve traveled in and around Germany several times in the last 10 years. I don’t speak a lick of German but I found that I got by perfectly fine on all of my visits. As far as say reading ingredient labels, the words look so close to English that oftentimes I could guess at the English equivalent. (ETA I am a vegan so reading ingredient labels is crucial for me). All in all, I would definitely not worry about knowing German in advance (other than hi, goodbye, thank you, which is nice to have in your vocab!)

        • Yes, agreed! When I was a high school student on exchange in Germany, I actually found it frustrating how often people would default to English with me! I know this depends on the generation and where you are in Germany, but I found that it was easier to encounter English speakers than not.

          • I think it most likely depends on what part of Germany you’re in. I’ve only been to Berlin before and the attitude to tourists was awful at times- we struggled to eat out anywhere as they didn’t want to serve us. We ended up eating at restaurants run by immigrants in the end as speaking the little German we knew made no difference.

  6. Book local flights in-country: Agreed! When my husband and I went to Vietnam, it was the quickest way to get around the country. Train was obviously cheapest…but if you’ve ever been on a Vietnamese cross-country train (yes I have), the flights were SO MUCH BETTER. In-country tickets were, on average, $50-$70 per person. Outside they were around $150-$250 per person.

    Museums: I like a good museum. But word of advice if you are going to go to a museum…ALWAYS BOOK YOUR PASSES AHEAD OF TIME ONLINE. Most popular internationally-known museums have this option, you book your time of entry and the day you want to go…then just print your pass. When you go to the museum, there is a separate line/entrance for prepaid entrance fee/pass holders. You get in right away, and you get to skip the massive line that wraps around the block. Um…hello Anne Frank Museum, Musee d’Orsay, the Louvre, Accademia, Uffizi, etc. Or for some museums you cannot buy an entrance ticket at the museum itself. You must purchase ahead of time at a kiosk or with a vendor (Ghibli Museum).

    It’s also crazy-gratifying to walk past the massive museum lineup, present your pass, and get shuffled in all VIP-style.

  7. My advice for traveling in places where you have to be careful about clean water and the like – follow ALL the recommendations for wherever you are traveling, even if it means refusing things that you kinda want (juice, milkshakes, raw veggies, etc.). When I traveled in both Mexico and in West/Central Africa, I followed ALL the recommendations for what to do and not to do, and I didn’t get sick (except for once when I knowingly took the risk of eating raw vegetables because I just couldn’t take it anymore). It’s nice to be able to join in eating/drinking with everyone around you or accept offers of juice from locals, and if having stories about how you got ohmygodsosick in [insert country name here] is your thing, then be my guest. But it’s not my thing.

  8. Very good information! Thank you so much for sharing your wealth of experience.

    There is one point I’d like to make regarding choosing airlines for points : if you travel for business ( i.e. if somebody else is paying for it ) it’s totally worth it to get the points.

    • Of course!

      I just…never travel for business. Or rather I do, but domestically only and they send me on high speed rail so it doesn’t matter. If I did, I would get the points. But for independent/non-business travelers, it’s usually just not worth it.

  9. I like staying in places like hostels on both international and domestic trips because most often there are kitchen facilities. Not only do you get to cook your own food (when you want to) thus saving you money on eating out but by browsing local grocery stores, you can find really cool foods and souvenirs you wouldn’t have found elsewhere.

    • A lot of people do this!

      I usually don’t because I like to try the food of the place I’m visiting, and will pay for that, but at times it’s come in handy (like being able to eat breakfast at the hotel/hostel/AirBnB less expensively). But generally I like to be out up until dinnertime and beyond rather than returning to my accommodations. Also, the places I tend to go tend to be cheap to eat out in – you can’t cook more cheaply than you can eat out in most of Taiwan, for example!

      Notable exception: Istanbul. We spent four weeks there on a course, and rented a small apartment with a kitchen. It is definitely cheaper to pick up a bag of olives, bread, cheese, ezme (a type of salad) and beer and have that at home than it is to eat out there!

  10. Before I went to England, I bought, like, six plain black T-shirts that I didn’t care about, and that was the vast majority of my clothing. I wasn’t concerned about getting them ripped or stained, laundry was easy, and at the end of the trip, I threw them out to make room in my bag for souvenirs. Yes, it made for a boring wardrobe while traveling, but bringing home extra goodies was worth it.

  11. These are safety tips, not budget related but still worth noting:

    If you’re going to be carrying a cell phone at all (whether it’s your usual phone or a cheap burner phone picked up on the road), do yourself a favor and enter contact information (phone and physical address) for your home country’s nearest embassy. I have never needed this information while traveling, but if something does go wrong, every minute counts. It’s worth your piece of mind.

    If you are visiting a place where your preferred language is widely spoken in one of the hospitals, create a contact for that too (i.e. I am an English speaker, so while in Paris I had the British Hospital in my contacts). There have been cases of people seeking medical treatment while traveling and dying preventable deaths due to language barriers.

    It’s far better to have this information at your fingertips and not need it than it is to need it and not have it. (Bonus: not having to use operator assistance.)

    • About the cellphone info, I might add: if you’re travelling abroad with your everyday phone, do yourself another favor and enter once and for all your most frequent contacts under the international format, i.e. country code, area code and phone number. International formats work even in your home country, shouldn’t be charged more by your operator and saves you the hassle of remembering to dial the country code if you want to place a call from your cellphone.

  12. Ha – I started reading this and was all, “hey, that really sounds like something I’d say. Wait, I LIVE IN TAIPEI TOO! Does my new best friend live in Taipei?? Hey, I think I did say that at one point. This is totally my writing. Did they steal one of my blog posts, OMG they wouldn’t do that, what the…oh! It was from a comment I left. Cool!”

    So that was really interesting for me!

    Anyway if I could add one thing to this post, I would include the importance of bringing your own coffee. For some trips this isn’t necessary – free coffee service in the hotel, or a coffee-loving city where you have the budget to buy it every morning and the cafes open early. You’d be surprised how many places still exist where you can’t get coffee in the morning if you don’t bring your own, though (a very large swath of Myanmar, much of the non-urban Philippines unless you’re willing to drink instant which I’m not because I drink real coffee, even some small towns in Taiwan), or places where you can get coffee, but the cafes are for hanging out in, not for a morning fix, and don’t actually open until lunchtime!

    I have since discovered “coffee sachets” and the high-end ones aren’t bad: ( – these are from Muji, but they’re sold elsewhere too and even Muji has ones that are not “low caffeine” like the ones in the pic)

    So if you bring a non-breakable mug and maybe some creamer/sugar if you’re into that, all you need is hot water to have coffee each morning. Now I never leave without them unless I am absolutely sure they won’t be necessary.

    • As a Brit, for me it’s tea I have to take everywhere (especially Europe, being a coffee drinking continent). I can live with weak tea made with luke warm water at a cafe, but just the quality of the tea in available for breakfast in hotels etc is poor.

  13. Oi, this post reminds me of all the reasons I’m okay with being too poor to travel much, haha. Any situation where I have to be a bitch in order to acquire basic goods and services without being ripped off, I’m gonna be wildly uncomfortable. It takes all the fun out of it for me. (That, and I’m a major germa/emetophobe, which takes a lot of the fun out of eating adventurously, haha.)

  14. Have a phrase book (or know the terms) that includes terminology for menus and bills/receipts. There are some cultures that will peg you for a foreigner if you don’t speak the language and will then charge you for things you didn’t purchase. Always get an itemized bill at a restaurant, and if something doesn’t look right, point it out to your server. Usually they dutifully remove the item and bring you a correct bill afterwards.

    It’s worth it to do some research ahead of time on dining customs in your destinations. This can help you save money, and also save you some confusion and embarrassment.

    And definitely learn about tipping! How much, when it is required, when it’s just nice, etc.

  15. I wanted to chime in on the Boston Charlie Card, as a native.

    Yes, it does save you a TON of money if you’re beholden to the T. However, it can sometimes be hard to track down the right MBTA worker to give you one. The card itself, btw, is free, but unlike in other places like DC, it doesn’t come out of the fare charging machine when you select the option.

    Also bear in mind that the parts of Boston you’re most likely to be wandering around (City of Boston, not Cambridge, not Newton, Not Quincy, not Charlestown which is A VERY IMPORTANT local detail in asking how to get around) is within walking distance of itself. You literally can walk from Newbury St to the North End in a day, with ample time to stop and appreciate the sites along the way.

    Once you get outside the T’s reach (Red, Orange, Blue, Green and Silver lines), getting around can be difficult as you’ve left the immediate metropolitan area. You probably won’t want to go too far outside, anyway, as it’s suburbs upon suburbs, but there are some points of interest that are currently beyond Boston’s rail system (Cape Cod is the prime example).

    There are also suggested donation/free days at most of our museums once a week. I have a soft spot for the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and have taken advantage of their free day myself. It’s super simple to do.

    Just like New York has a reputation of being prickly (which is TOTALLY UNFOUNDED), Boston has one, too. We tend to live up to it a little more, though. We want to know what you need to know so we can help you. We don’t know you; we don’t need to know where you’re coming from or how long you’ve been here. We know you’re lost, just tell us what you need and we’ll get you where you need to go. It’s jarring to “outta towners”, but it’s how we all communicate with each other, too. Don’t be afraid to walk up to someone who seems to know where they are and say “excuse me, I’m trying to get to (place).” They’ll tell you if they know. If they don’t, they’ll tell you that and where you can get the directions you need, if they can. Say “thanks” and roll on. Conversations between strangers is very transactional.

  16. When we went to Italy, research was absolutely key. For example in Rome they have the Roma pass which gets you a whole boatload of awesome admissions plus you get to skip the line to 1 attraction every day. This was crucial at high touristy stuff like the Colosseum, man let me tell you we got some nasty stares from people as we entered the line with 0 people in it. The pass also gets you on their subway for free for 2-3 days, however long you buy the pass for. The cool thing you have to activate it, so your time doesn’t start until you tell it to. Places like Vatican City have their own website, so I just did some research and bought tickets through the website for like 15Euro a person. This is WAY better than the scammers trying to sell you a tour for 70Euro a person. Again, since we had tickets already we went to a different line and got right in. With Google translator, I recommend going to as many local websites as possible. Most of the time you can get an idea of the local cost and avoid paying the “tour” fee. Although some tours are absolutely worth it IMO.

    Key take home message, do your research.

  17. In London, my dude and I got Oyster cards since we were there for over 3 weeks. Totally worth it. But one of the coolest things (and something I regret NOT doing) is that they did have places to donate your Oyster card to those in need if you don’t need it any more. Oyster cards work for the tube (subway), bus, London Overground, etc. If you register your card, you can also get a refund on unspent money on the card (I meant to do that but didn’t get around to it).

    As a little aside, if you are travelling as an academic, definitely contact ahead anywhere you want to visit, especially if you hope to fit in a little research. You can get access to the British Library collection and reading rooms but make sure to find out what you’ll need to prove your credentials/need to research so you don’t end up scrambling or being unable to research.

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