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, insanelycheapflights.com, 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!