How can I save money traveling overseas this summer?

I have two trips planned: St. Thomas and London. And I have two concerns: phone calls back to the U.S. and spending money.

For the phone calls, should I take my cell phone, rent one at the airport, buy a phone card, etc.?

For the money, should I use my credit card, bring dollars, etc.?

Thanks for any tips about the above or any tips in general.

  1. I don’t believe your US cell phone will be compatible with European standards.

  2. Why not just leave your money at home and use local ATMs? I’ve had no problems accessing cash in the UK, Taiwan, Philippines, Malaysia, etc.

In London, use your credit card, or get pounds Sterling out of ATMs. Few shops will take dollars, and those that do will give you a lousy exchange rate. Don’t bother about getting British money in advance: get your first lot from an ATM at the airport.

“How can I save money traveling overseas this summer?”

Row your own boat?

One more suggestion for saving money: do not tip in restaurants in Britain. It’s not expected or required that you leave any tip at all. (I had a discussion with a waiter originally from Canada, but working in England, and he was quite adamant that tips were not given in English restaurants).

As others have said, your best bet for a good exchange rate is using ATMs. The rate will be better than at exchange kiosks or banks. Try to avoid exchanging money at the hotel, it will be a terrible rate with lots of fees attached.

When you do get money out of the ATM, get enough to last you for a few days. Avoid many trips to the ATM. The service fees from you bank back home can add up.

If you do have a cell phone that can be used overseas, it will be expensive. I have a T-Mobile phone that works just about anywhere. On their website it lists rates by country. Your provider probably has the same thing. You are better off getting calling cards. Some hotels will let you rent a cell phone, but unless you are going to be making a lot of calls, you probably can get by without a cell phone.

Have a great time.

Ditto on the ATMs. In 2000 I went all across Europe using mostly my ATM card, and had no problem other than having to figure out how much local currency to take out. But watch those overseas ATM fees!

Sunspace’s little bag of travel tricks:

If you are going to be in one country for the whole time, get an unlocked GSM mobile phone and use a local SIM card (which gives you a local number). Avoid paying those freaking expensive roaming rates. You may be able to get your existing GSM phone unlocked, if you already have one.

Send text messages for simple inquiries (“Are you at our meeting point yet?”). Cheaper than roaming calls, and quieter too. Of course, this assumes that your companion has a mobile phone as well.

If you want to be on the bleeding edge telephonically, get a Skype account with SkypeIn and SkypeOut capability, buy a WiFi-enabled Skype phone, and make all your calls across the internet from WiFi hotspots for pennies a minute.

Stay in youth hostels. Despite the name, you don’t have to be a youth to use them; in most cases they accept travelers of any age. I have a lifetime membership in the IYHF, but there are other organizations of hostels. Often they have the word Backpacker in their names.

Join Pasporta Servo or another hospitality exchange and stay for free. (Meals generally not included.) I stayed in Copenhagen for three days this way.

Buy simple food at grocery stores and prepare it yourself rather than always going for fast food or restaurants. If you stay at a hostel, there is often a kitchen area for the guests to use. You may need to bring your own pots, dishes, cutlery, etc.

About half the cellphone networks in the US and Canada use GSM. Some of those GSM phones will work in Europe. Best bet if you are getting a new phone is to get a quad-band phone (unlocked, of course); it will work pretty much everywhere GSM is offered (not Japan or South Korea, though).

Thanks for all the suggestions so far. I have two follow-up questions.

Is there any phone card which is a better deal?

Do I get a better exchange rate if I use my credit card or an ATM?

Thanks again.

My impression is that, unless you are changing a LOT of money, the difference in exchange rates between ATMs and credit cards is completely overshadowed by the service fees. I’d start by checking out the service fees.

When I was in the UK, at least one bank didn’t charge a service fee for using their ATMs; I only paid the international service fee from my bank. A savings of L1 or L2 was more than the difference in exchange rates for the amount of money I was withdrawing.

Now, if you are using your credit card directly to buy lodging or whatever, that may be different.

Unfortunately, I know little about phone cards.

As you do quite a bit of walking, you will probably want something to drink or a little snack.
Don’t go to the vending cart or 7/11 type stores. Walk down the street to an actual grocery store. The stuff you want will be much cheaper. Plus, going to the grocerystore in a strange country is its own cultural expierence.

You can get phone cards virtually anywhere. Wait till you’re overseas to buy them. Just go to whatever tobacco shop or corner market and ask what is a good card to use for calling the States. When I lived in London a few years back, I would buy five pound calling cards at the shop around the corner, and calls home ran something like 10 p. a minute (around 16 cents or so) during prime hours. I wouldn’t be surprised if it has dropped. By contrast, your US cell phone will probably charge you roaming fees in the range of a dollar or two a minute.

Don’t do cash advances with your credit card. The interest rate is much, much higher than you want to pay. Just use your ATM card. When backbacking, I find it useful to set a budget for each day and stick to it. That may be a particularly good idea for London, which is a really expensive place to be an American tourist.

Ditto what has been said about buying your own food and preparing it, and the hostel thing. You may also want to plan out your day’s transportation in advance. For example, cabs in London are expensive (there’s a reason why they are the best taxis in the world, though!). If you know what you are going to do in a given day, and you’re moving around a lot, you may wish to buy a day pass for the Tube rather than individual tickets, or the other way around if you’re not moving around a lot.

If you smoke, bring cigarettes with you. Don’t buy liquor, bring it with you if you want to have a snort before bedtime (though beer is reasonably priced). If you do any shopping, keep receipts, as you may be eligible for a refund of VAT taxes. (But you have to be insane to buy anything in London that you could get in the States – London prices are significantly greater than in similar stores in most places in the US.)

Be sure to sign up for a frequent flyer program for your trips so you can rack up miles for future trips!

You usually get the same rate; in the ATM you may get charged a fee, but you still need to use the ATM at least once because not every place takes credit, specially for small expenses. More places take Visa than MC; AmEx doesn’t fly much in Europe. Discover is unknown.