My neighbors and I talked for weeks about their upcoming European vacation with their teenage kids.
We discussed every single place they planned to visit. But when I asked if they knew how much their European train and ground transportation, smartphone data plans and meals out were going to cost, they shrugged and said, "We're not worried. That's the cheapest part of the trip!"
They might have been right, if they had planned ahead. Sometimes it's not the airfare and hotel bill that get you, it's the failure to monitor small expenses that can turn into big ones in a hurry. No matter where you go, there are hidden money pits. That's why smart money management before you travel is so important. Whether you meet or exceed your budget depends on how you plan and execute your spending.
Consider these five tips to help you conserve funds in all major areas of vacation spending:
1. Start by sweating the small stuff. Take some time to do a bit of research on basic expenses at the various locations where you're planning to go. Talking to friends can help and so can travel magazines and sites.
2. Keep the costs of ground transportation in mind. The convenience of cabs or rental cars will likely cost more, and, depending where you go, some options might be safer than others. So study options like reloadable city smart cards or continental rail passes. Paying individual ticket prices for short hops or long journeys can drain your budget. Also, consider traveling at off-peak times of the day to get cheaper rates on train travel.
3. Know what it costs to use your electronics. You've probably heard about people getting socked with huge cell phone bills. To avoid this, call your carrier before you leave to make sure your phone will work wherever you're going. If so, check if they offer an affordable international talk and data plan. If not, consider options like an international SIM card, a small chip card that fits inside your phone for specific use within that country. Or try a prepaid phone.
If you're downloading any apps to supply maps, translation or reading material on your phone or computer, do it while you are home to avoid chewing up international data at your destination. Also, be careful with Wi-Fi. Many recognizable global restaurants and fast-food chains offer the service for free, so check before you pay for it. Once you're home, be sure to cancel any international services you've ordered.
4. Eat like the locals. The Internet and the myriad travel sites it offers make it easy to find good places to eat at all price levels practically anywhere in the world. But eating food out can add up. Focus on the cheapest and safest ways the locals eat.
5. Travel insurance can be smart money management. Lost luggage, missed connections or a medical emergency won't just ruin your trip, they can potentially wreck your finances. Check your personal home and health insurance to see what they might cover on a trip and back your protection with a leading travel insurance policy. Visit websites that will allow you to compare coverage you need to select the best option for you. Make sure to check any travel insurance policy closely for any exclusions or pre-existing conditions that could void your coverage.
Bottom line: It's surprisingly easy to overspend when traveling overseas if you don't do your research. Take the time to analyze all possible expenses large and small before you leave. Your travel budget will thank you.
Nathaniel Sillin directs Visa's financial education programs. To follow Practical Money Skills on Twitter: www.twitter.com/PracticalMoney.