Money Down the Drain
NEW YORK (MainStreet)I've written in this space before about ways to save money while you're on the road. Today I'm going to take things in a different direction. As important as it is to know how to spend money well, it's just as important to know where not to spend it.
Here are eight easy ways to lose, waste or otherwise throw perfectly good money away while traveling.
#1. Scam Artists
Let's get the low-hanging fruit out of the way early. Scam artists are just about the easiest way to lose cash and have absolutely nothing to show for it; after all, even the airport gift shop leaves you with a couple of trinkets to show for the mugging. A good scam artist, however, leaves you with nothing more than a lighter wallet and the lingering impression that you may have just been had.
As long as there are tourists, there'll be enterprising locals trying to fleece us of our cash, or, as the Bangkok Post put it "it is a certainty, proved many times over, that where tourists gather, con artists show up." This paper should certainly know what it's talking about, since Bangkok is home to one of the most legendary rip offs of all time: "the Bangkok Gem Scam," in which a seemingly honest shopkeeper attempts to sell some pretty bits of glass disguised as diamonds.
The Gem Scam is easy enough to avoid, but it's just the tip of the iceberg, so keep up a healthy air of skepticism. (Is it really likely that monastery opens just one day a year and this guy happens to run a tour bus right to it?) If someone's offer sounds a little too good to be true, it probably is.
Beyond that, the best advice is just to go along with it. I've lost plenty of money to con men over the years, and I'm quite certain I'll do so again.
At a certain point it's just part of the price of admission. Shrug, admit you've been had and maybe take an extra long lunch. Speaking of...
#2. Comfort Foods
I'll start by saying there's nothing wrong with a bit of comfort food far away from home. For someone fighting off homesickness, sitting down to something that smells and tastes familiar can make all the difference in the world. I myself used to frequent an absolutely awful little pizza shop while living in Cambodia for no better reason than that it reminded me of late night pies with my friends back in the United States.
The problem is, you're not the only one who knows this. When someone shows up at a Sri Lankan pub looking for a burger and fries, the owner knows he can pretty much name his own price. It never ends well.
It isn't always because the chef is a swindler. Here in America we've gotten pretty spoiled on the idea of massive, inexpensive supply lines, but much of the rest of the world has to eat what comes locally. Getting cheese in a country that doesn't raise much dairy or beer in a land where nobody drinks alcohol means expensive, imported goods. The price goes up, and your dinner gets more expensive.
Instead, try to remember why you left home in the first place. Stick to the local foods as much as possible. It'll be a better adventure and a heck of a lot easier on your wallet.
This one should probably be number one on the list, except it's frankly too simple and far too short.
Keep a hard eye on your bar tab. Absolutely nothing blows a travel budget faster than the alcohol, and it has a way of getting more expensive as the night goes on. I've seen too many people cancel plans, because they spent too much money on tequila shots and beer. In one disastrous case, I knew someone who had to end his trip altogether.
Don't let that happen to you.
#4. Paying Sticker Price
This is one of those many times where buying a used sedan should involve the same purchasing philosophy as traveling through central Bulgaria: never pay face value.
As the good people at HotelTravel point out, "for most Brits (and Americans, too) haggling isn't something we do naturally. But it's really worth it." They're absolutely right. For the most part in America, bargaining doesn't come up in day-to-day business. Sure, it's a part of big ticket items like buying a house or a new car, but the last time I negotiated over a pair of jeans nearly ended up with a lifetime ban from the Gap.
It's just not part of the culture is what I'm saying.
However in many parts of the world, that gets flipped on its head. Most cultures actually expect haggling as a natural part of the process, and they set their prices accordingly. When a shopkeeper expects negotiation, his sticker price always starts too high; he'd be foolish to do otherwise, since any customer will take that as nothing more than a starting offer. The result is that paying asking price means you'll end up shelling out $40 for a $10 pair of earrings.
Not every culture bargains, obviously, so do your homework before you leave. For example, you won't make any friends trying to get a better price on the Champs Elysees. But where it's a way of life, make sure to bring your A game.
#5. Using Your Cell Phone from Home
Here's the problem with using U.S. cell phones outside the country: they cost a lot. An enormous amount. In fact, people have returned home to find bills for thousands of dollars for normal, everyday use.
I don't mean to belabor the point.
One of the best or worst things about taking a vacation, depending on your point of view, is the ability to disconnect from it all. Leaving home means leaving the office, the emails and everything else behind for a while to try and discover someplace new. In light of all that, it's easy to see how tempting it would be to bring the cell phone, just for emergencies, just in case people need to reach you.
That can have disastrous consequences. Using your cell phone overseas costs an enormous amount of money. Plugging into foreign networks isn't cheap, and the pain will show up on your bill. Even just having the phone in your pocket gets expensive. Whether or not you actively use it, most smart phones periodically communicate with their network to update emails, calendars and apps. Each burst of data costs money, sometimes a lot.
If you have to bring the phone from home I suggest keeping it on airplane mode. It can still link up to any wireless network and check for e-mails, but you'll face a whole lot less sticker shock upon your return home.
#6. Renting a Car
There are some good reasons for renting a car when you're spending time abroad, but saving money isn't one of them. It may seem like a fantastic way to skip the lines, tickets and hassle of dealing with in-country transportation, right up until the first time you need to fill up the tank. Feel like a drive through the rolling French countryside? That will cost $8.38 per gallon. Cross the border on your way towards Rome and that climbs to $8.87. Try to keep the car away from Amsterdam. Up in the Netherlands gas prices have climbed to $9.09 for each gallon pumped.
You get the picture.
Car rentals also come with a host of other inconvenient, potentially expensive, side effects and potentially hidden charges, not to mention any country where rule of law comes with an asterisk the size of a dollar sign. All you need is one fresh mark on that car's windshield and suddenly you're paying for every fender bender its ever had.
All of this also goes without mentioning the cross-border fees. My fiancée and I once planned out a trip across southern Europe. We decided to pick up a car near the border between France and Spain and make our way east, seeing the countryside as we went. The plan sounded perfect (mostly because we hadn't thought about the price of gas) until I priced out our transportation and got a glaring shock: to rent the car in France cost fairly little. To return it two weeks later in Rome, however, would cost an additional several hundred euros tacked on because we'd decided to drop it off across the border.
In the end, we took the train.
I love travel tech.
You know what I don't love? Useless travel tech. Things designed to do little more than soak up my time, money and (most offensive of all for a backpacker) precious, precious luggage space.
I'm talking about devices like: the wearable sleeping bag, the ultraviolet toothbrush sanitizer kit, the travel humidifier and, of course, the ostrich pillow.
These devices, and more like them, serve no useful purpose. Instead they simply answer an increasingly unlikely string of questions all beginning with "what if?" What if my toothbrush gets germs? What if I need to engulf my head in foam? What if I find myself desperate to dress up like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man?
My money saving tip: just don't bother.
On the other hand, the Vending Machine Urban Camouflage outfit is simply amazing. I will buy that the minute it goes on sale.
#8. Skipping Research
At the risk of sounding self-serving, nothing wastes money faster than not knowing what you're getting into. Just based on this article alone a little bit of research can tell you which scams to watch out for, whether a country bargains or not and how best to get around.
How to do it is, of course, purely up to you. The Internet is full of travel blogs just itching to give out free advice in exchange for a few new readers, while Lonely Planet, Fodor's and others have built empires on stitching those same words of wisdom into fairly convenient, brick-sized paperbacks.
Whichever works, make sure to give it some time. You'll more than make it back in money you don't waste by the end.
--Written for MainStreet by Eric Reed, a freelance journalist who writes frequently on the subjects of career and travel. You can read more of his work at his website www.wanderinglawyer.com.