International Travel on a Budget

photo (2)I had the unexpected pleasure of a pre-honeymoon jaunt to Europe, thanks to the fiance having to travel for work.

He had customer visits in Russia and then I met him in Switzerland, where he was completing trainings for a Europe-based branch of his company.

We both headed to Paris where I ran around on a few day trips while he attended the Paris International Air Show with customers, and then we regrouped for a few days to ourselves.

How were we able to do all this? Thanks to careful planning, the business nature of his trip and travel points.

I think people underestimate the value of airline and hotel points, and credit cards that do not charge transaction fees and allow for cash back on travel expenses. I also think people overestimate the cost of international travel and think international trips can’t be done right on a budget.

It’s simply not true. It can be done.

This was my second time in Geneva and third time in Paris, and it’s been different every time.

My first forays, while I was in college, were on a shoe-string budget. We stayed in hostels, ate two euro paninis off the street or made one euro packs of Raman noodles in our hostel kitchens, walked all over instead of paying to ride the metro/bus and picked only a couple of things we wanted to pay to visit. We also didn’t shop except for a couple of postcards or cheap souvenirs. I was able to do it on money I saved from working at McDonald’s and scholarships I applied for to study abroad.

Was I lucky to be able to go? Of course. But I also think I made good decisions and planned for a long time for something I really wanted to do.

This time around was really not that different. We didn’t stay in hostels or limit our transportation efforts to walking, but we did eat some meals from street vendors, limit our shopping to just a handful of gifts and choose our ventures wisely.

For doubters, here is what my personal expenses, for 10 days in Europe, looked like:

  • Round-trip Airfare: $47.50 (plus frequent flyer miles)
  • Round-trip Train Rides: $270.49
  • Metro/Bus Rides: $28.54
  • Hotels: $683.17
  • Passes/Entrance to Sights: $147.51
  • Food: $62.84
  • Souvenirs: $118.03 (plus cash back on travel expenses)
  • Total: $1,358.08

The fiance didn’t spend a fraction of this since he was there on business. I could have spent half this had I opted out of my day trips, chosen hostels over hotels or limited all my dining, shopping and transportation costs. But I wanted to indulge just a little now that I’m traveling as a young professional versus a college kid. As it is, I think I accomplished a great deal for very little cost.

I am not suggesting $1,300 is anything to sneeze at, but you could easily spend triple that on a 10-day trip to Disney World. I know some people who could easily put that on their credit card in one month just going out to eat and buying new clothes. That could easily be the cost to do some simple aesthetic renovations to your home.

All I suggest, is that if travel is something you love, something you save for and something you make a priority, it is something you can do.

Here are some things I did to help keep the expenses in line:

  • Travel Date Flexibility: If you can be flexible on the dates you travel, you can save. Flying on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Saturday, which are off-peak days, often results in lower fares. This is not just for flights–this is also true of rail travel in Europe. The times you travel can also make a difference–not surprisingly, most people want to travel at dawn to arrive at their destination in time to enjoy a full day. If you’re doing a day trip and can leave at a less popular time for your destination, you can save and also have less hassle and less people. In my case, being flexible on the dates and times for flights also meant lower numbers of frequent flyer miles I had to employ, so I have some left over to start saving for my next adventure.
  • Frequent Flyer Miles: The fiance and I both earn frequent flyer miles through travel and our debit and credit cards, which we use for every day purchases and bill pay. If you get a credit card that earns miles and use that card to book other flights, you can earn double or triple miles, which can go a long way on saving you money on future flight purchases. Be careful to make sure there isn’t an annual fee for these cards, or that the annual fee is low enough that the flight savings is worth it.
  • City Passes: I scour each city’s tourism website before I travel to see what things you can do for free (this is usually a called out section on their site) and if there are any deals for grouping sight-seeing. Often there are. Many cities offer a ‘travel pass’ or ‘city card,’ which is often a one-time purchase that results in a card that gets you access to the majority of the major tourism sights and sometimes priority entry. The Paris Pass, which I bought for myself and the fiance, also included free, unlimited transportation for the days covered under the pass–which was a huge savings–as well as discounts on souvenirs shops, which we employed. Another benefit is that you can order them online in advance, which may help with budgeting. I was glad to have already paid for the passes several months ahead of our trip, which made their use feel free since the cost wasn’t hanging over my head.
  • Cash-Back/Zero Transaction Fee Credit Cards: I highly recommend the Capital One Venture Card for use during international trips. You earn points that can be redeemed for cash back on travel expenses you charge, and there is no fee for foreign currency exchange rates, which are typically as high as three percent on regular credit cards and which can add large expenses to your budget very quickly. Visa is also widely accepted so you don’t have to worry about being turned down. I also always get a AAA Travel Money card prior to our trips, where you can upload funds and then use the card for credit or debit purchases abroad. This is very handy for use at ATMs in foreign countries as it allows you to withdrawal cash for nearly any ATM in the currency of the country you’re in. For instance, I was able to withdrawal Swiss Francs in Switzerland and euros in France without interruption.
  • Street Food and Grocery Stores: Not everyone is adventurous or wants to eat items prepared by street vendors, but it can sometimes save you a lot of money and give you a real ‘taste’ of the local culture. We ate breakfast in the hotel (if it was free) and lunch off the streets by way of paninis or crepes for a couple of euro and saved our eating money for a nice dinner. We also nixed the snacking unless we bought something at the grocery store, which was much cheaper. For instance, it was upwards of 90 degrees F the first half of our trip so we were hot, sweating and in constant need of water. A bottled water street-side was easily three or four euro–about $5-6–but a bottled water off the shelf in the grocery and cooled in the hotel mini fridge was 20 cents!

Obviously the typical 10-day trip to Europe wouldn’t cost $1,300/person, but by planning ahead, tagging along and cutting certain expenses, it can be done … and will be done again!

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