1. Can I afford overseas vacations?
Overseas travel is an expensive commodity-with a price tag consisting of the cost of flight tickets, stay, food and incidental expenses.
However, smart planning can lead to substantial savings, and generate extra mileage for the money that we spend. To put this another way, lack of smart planning can result in significant stress and unwarranted loss of money.
The good news is that compared to three or four decades ago, flights have become a lot more affordable to the middle class. There are more international airports now. Besides, with modern technology and the arrival of smartphones, the average traveller has ever-increasing access to the information and tools that were once only available to established travel agents. All of these factors have widened our travel horizon.
The choice of destination and the type of vacation depends heavily on ones’ individual financial status; it must definitely not be influenced by peer pressure. Not everyone can afford an overseas vacation at the beginning of their career. While travel ads and others’ vacation pictures can be tempting, it is worth noting that many of those who go on overseas vacations now have worked hard for many years in the past; and lived on very little when they started their career.
That being said, some things in life can’t be measured by money. The pleasure derived from travel is just one of those. It is hard to put a price tag on memories from a great vacation, which can last a lifetime.
People from the middle class who love to travel, as is my case, plan well-ahead and save money by cutting down other expenses. See my article “How to make less money and become rich” for money-saving ideas. Simply put, living frugally can free up money that can be spent on meaningful things such as travel.
This article is written for those who are thinking of going on their own for overseas vacations—to assist them with smart planning. It is a personalised narrative, based on my own experiences and preferences, with input from a few friends. I am aware that people have varying styles, expectations and attitudes about travelling and spending.
2. Know the difference between stingy and smart
Many people confuse saving money with being stingy. The last thing we want to do while traveling is to be stingy. In an attempt to save money, many naïve people focus excessively on tangible items such as food; while unwittingly conceding big losses in other travel-related areas. The phrase penny wise and pound foolish describes this behaviour.
The following step-by-step smart tips will definitely save money, making it available to enjoy finer things while travelling.
3. How can I save money while booking my vacation? Should I use a travel agent?
Booking flight tickets and accommodation early—that is several months ahead—is the key to saving significant amounts of money. Booking can be done independently or through a travel agent.
While discount travel websites can sometimes provide good bargains, an experienced travel agent will have access to better rates than the general public, besides giving out practical advice about flight connections, airport pickups and local attractions.
The travel agent can help put together a detailed point-by-point itinerary customised to our taste, and take away all the planning headache, in addition to assisting with visa and other paperwork.
Those opting for the convenience of ‘package group tours’, however compromise on freedom to explore on their own, spending a lot of time on a tour-bus and getting off in front of designated attractions for a limited time.
On the other hand, many seasoned travellers do all of their booking and visas independently; with travel websites providing them with all the necessary information.
4. Don’t convert Euros to Rupees every time.
While travelling abroad, obsessively calculating the value of each item in rupees is an undesirable habit. To tune ourselves into thinking in local currency, it is helpful to find out the average price of a few everyday items even before venturing to that country. For instance, before visiting Italy, check out the price of a cup of coffee, a sandwich or a slice of pizza in euros.
While abroad, it is frustrating and vaguely humiliating to convert the price of each item in the store or restaurant to rupees and then deciding to buy or order. I would say, if it looks reasonable, just buy it. To prepare for this psychologically, for those few days, I imagine myself to belong to the middle class in that country.
5. Hotels are expensive.
Hotels have their own merits—and many people prefer them because of their reputation, dependability and safety. For travellers who are starting out, I believe that hotels are a better option. Tripadvisor is a helpful website for selecting hotels and for deciding what attractions to visit in a region.
Although discount booking websites list attractive hotel deals, such low rates need not include taxes, airport pickup or breakfast. One option is for the customer or travel agent to contact the hotel directly and negotiate a better all-inclusive deal than advertised on the hotel’s own website.
Opting for bed and breakfast accommodation is cheaper. B&B’s frequently offer more amenities such as kitchenette and washing machine, besides giving us a chance to interact with local people.
Various types of B&B’s are available, starting from where we can have the whole apartment to ourselves, or stay in a private section of the owner’s house. We can also opt to share the house along with the owner’s family. For larger groups, booking a house or apartment will cost much less than booking hotel rooms. AirBnB is a popular gateway to B&B’s, with over 4 million listings, but is more suited for seasoned travellers.
Hostels are still cheaper, preferred by solo travellers on a budget. Staying with friends and family is another option—for those so inclined.
6. Do your homework.
That includes finding out the places to visit, local weather, availability of regional public transport, proximity of local supermarkets (to buy cheap meals and to understand local trends), kid-friendly options and any local festivals or concerts during our dates of travel. Accommodation can be expensive during peak season, and also during public holidays, long weekends and festivals in the host country.
I like to travel during off season because I prefer to stay away from large crowds, and because I can get better rates for the same level of service. Sometimes, during the time we have earmarked for travel, flights to another comparable destination can be substantially cheaper. Hence, being flexible with our choice is a good thing.
The paperwork and visa requirements vary by country. For instance, some countries require a yellow fever vaccination certificate.
7. The checklist.
Always pack according to a checklist, so that important items will not get left out. Keep all travel documents in hard copy, duplicated in two separate pieces of luggage (in case one goes missing), and have soft copies both on the phone as pictures as well as in our email—just in case our phone went missing. Carry all emergency contact numbers separately.
8. Choosing our travel bags
I prefer luggage that is lightweight when empty, easy to carry and of an uncommon colour. Many bags look alike. Those who own luggage of common colours like black or red, can tie a brightly coloured ribbon on the handle, so that bags do not get mixed up at the carousel.
9. The right footwear—the most overlooked item.
Travel can involve a lot of walking, and it is imperative that we wear really comfortable shoes that can take the stress of walking on uneven surfaces such as cobblestone streets, which are so typical of European cities. It is not uncommon to cover distances in excess of 10 km in a day while exploring a city or countryside on foot.
Brand new shoes are a bad idea, as shoe bite can be a bummer. I use Bata’s old-fashioned Power canvas shoes. They are economical at Rs 1499, comfortable, and excellent for long walks.
I always pack an extra pair of shoes, just in case one gets wet in rain or while trekking. This is because buying a replacement shoe abroad can burn a hole in our pocket.
10. Allow adequate gap between flight connections.
Most long-distance travel involves a change of flight at a major airline hub. While booking, a gap of at least two hours between flights is advisable. This will help absorb minor delays in the first leg. Remember that even if the flight lands on schedule, in large airports, the transfer to the next aircraft can sometimes take a really long time.
Transfers frequently involve a slow drive on a bus from the plane, brisk walks through long corridors, standing in queues, passing through security checks, going for quick bathroom breaks and searching for the right gate—all of which eat into the time between flights.
11. How to use the airport lounges.
Whenever there is a gap of a few hours in between connection flights, instead of sitting on a chair, we can avail of the airport lounge for a nominal cost. This provides us a private place to lie down for a few hours, along with toilet facility.
Certain credit cards provide free access to such facilities; some cards even entitle the holder for free food in certain airports. In contrast, checking into an airport hotel on our own will be expensive.
For longer gaps in between flights, the airline will arrange a hotel at no extra cost.
12. Flight matters. The little things that make a long flight pleasant.
The comfort of holiday travel starts even before reaching the destination. For instance, flying to Europe, US or Australia can take several hours. Being stuck in the wrong type of seat can take away much of the pleasure of air travel. It is a lot more fun being in the window seat than in the middle. Some people prefer the aisle seat for long flights, as it is easier to get up and walk about.
Unfortunately, by the time we reach the check-in counter at the airport, most of the better seating options would have been taken. The good news is that it is possible to book the seats of our choice in advance. This can be done at the time of purchasing the ticket, or 48 hours prior to departure through online check-in. For instance, the Boeing 777 aircraft has several rows of two seats each in the back, which are perfectly suited for a couple travelling together. These seats provide more space and privacy, without having to squeeze into the middle seat.
Sitting in the extreme back row does not allow the seat to recline. Tall people will find the seat next to the exit window more comfortable because of greater leg room.
Noise-cancelling headphones block out the aircraft’s noise and help us sleep well during the flight, as do warm comfortable clothes and easy footwear. Staying awake during the flight can result in fatigue after landing, reducing the time we get for pleasure. Travel experts prefer reading a book while travelling, as it is easy to sleep off, as opposed to watching movies on a bright screen that can be stimulating to the brain.
Though the airline’s menu and the aroma during mealtimes can be tempting, it is better to eat half-portions or skip meals if we feel full. This is because we are sitting on the same seat for several hours on end, and digestion slows down. I specifically avoid butter and oily spreads while flying, as they can slow the stomach even more and cause travel sickness. On long flights, it is important to drink plenty of water and stretch our legs, neck and arms every now and then.
13. Book a shuttle from the airport.
After landing, the transfer from the airport to our place of residence requires some prior homework. Those travelling with family and luggage will find a shuttle service to be the best option. These can be booked well in advance. Payment typically is made directly to the driver using local currency.
Alternatively, we could arrange with our hotel to send an airport pick-up, with the driver’s details sent in advance.
Without prior booking, airport taxis are notoriously expensive—an easy way to needlessly lose a lot of money. Buses, although economical, do not take us to the exact address, besides being cumbersome with large pieces of luggage.
If we expect to avail the taxi service in the host country frequently, it is better to buy a local sim card before getting out of the airport. This enables us to access locally established taxi companies and avoid being ripped off by unscrupulous individual taxi operators.
14. That critical food-stop.
On the way to the hotel, it is clever to make a quick stop at a supermarket and buy some sandwiches and fruit, so that the evening meal is taken care of. Finding a place to have dinner as soon as we check in to a hotel is often difficult and can be expensive, unless we select a hotel in the middle of a busy area. We are more likely to find suitable places the following day after exploring the area.
15. The hotel check-in.
Upon being shown to our hotel room, it is useful to ask for a complete demonstration of the room’s amenities including wifi, TV, remotes, the ever-so-variable bathroom fixtures and the assorted types of door locks.
It saves a lot of time and aggravation to know these things well; there are instances where guests locked themselves in the room because they did not know how to operate the door-lock. A quick glance at the nearest fire exit is always a good idea, just in case.
The same applies when we opt for B&B’s, to make sure that all the keys work and that we know how to operate all of the appliances safely on our own.
16. Don’t be stingy about food. Eat well, eat smart, save big.
One of the principles I follow while travelling is to never be stingy on food. There are better ways to saving money than buying the cheapest food or no food while travelling. A big free breakfast from the host or hotel can take care of the first half of the day. Bear in mind that a meal outside can cost as little as one Euro, to as much as 50 Euros. Choosing the place to eat requires experience and planning. Our hosts can suggest local options.
Eating at formal sit-down restaurants can be expensive—especially at dinnertime. Lunch menus cost less. Bistros and family-owned eateries, Boulangeries, Patisseries and Trattorias are less expensive, really friendly, and serve local flavours.
Sandwiches, rotisserie chicken, salads, fruits and chips from the local supermarket or farmers market can make an excellent inexpensive meal for the family while relaxing in the room after a long day. Occasionally, eating lunch leftovers for dinner—with creative modifications as necessary—is another way to cut costs. Some B&B’s permit access to a kitchenette, which allow for remarkable culinary customisations when coupled with clever purchases from the supermarket.
17. No bottled water please.
In most developed countries, tap water is safe to drink—so don’t lose money by buying bottled water. I carry my own water bottle—but make sure to empty it each time before security check-in.
18. Indian restaurant abroad?
Many Indians insist on eating only Indian food while traveling abroad. Food is part of local culture. Good food is delicious no matter what country it is from. We just have to keep our minds open. Not experiencing local cuisine makes our experience rather incomplete in my opinion. Besides, Indian restaurant food abroad is expensive, and need not always deliver the expected taste.
19. Hold the urge to shop.
While on a pleasure trip, another method to save money is to agree on a policy not to shop for clothes, shoes, gifts and meaningless “I’ve been there” kind of souvenir merchandise, especially in Western countries. Our own photos and short videos are the best memorabilia; these are free.
Unlike the past, almost all “foreign goods” are now available in local malls—and at much lower prices. The money thus saved can be used to provide a better experience while traveling, for instance to buy better food, tickets to local museums and other attractions.
20. The theme park trap.
Thanks to clever advertising, going to famous theme parks might be on the wish-list of many, but be prepared to stand in hour-long queues for each attraction, and lose money on horrendously overpriced food. And don’t buy those instant photos after each ride; they are not worth it.
21. Cash or card? What card to use?
I use Forex card for even the smallest purchases abroad. It is basically a card that is loaded with a certain amount of foreign currency, which can be used just like cash. Unlike credit cards, Forex cards do not have merchant service fees or exchange mark-ups each time we make a purchase.
We can load any foreign currency from home on our card before traveling, at attractive exchange rates when compared with foreign currency notes. The exchange value of the currency is fixed at the time of loading; it does not fluctuate as in the case of a credit card. It is safe and easy to use due to a chip and personal pin. It works at all points where credit cards are used.
Credit cards must be carried as backup. We must make sure the bank is notified before traveling, to alert them of our intent to use it abroad; if not we could be embarrassed by a declined card at the wrong moment. While paying by card, always choose the option to pay in local currency, to avoid hidden conversion charges.
Cash is convenient and universally accepted, but frequent withdrawals at overseas ATM’s can incur heavy fees. We must carry enough foreign currency, but never keep everything in one place.
22. Don’t be the snobbish tourist.
Tourists often travel in bunches and fail to mingle or talk with the local public. I believe that conversation is an essential part of travel to a foreign land. How to do this is an art; and does not require mastery of English. A smile can help considerably—no one likes to talk with a person who has a dull or serious expression.
Staying in a bed-breakfast is a good way to have conversation. Unfortunately, locals are wary of large groups that are loud and talking in their native language. Spontaneous conversation is more likely to happen when we are on our own, or in pairs.
23. How to have a conversation with anyone.
While taking with local people, it pays to be respectful of local culture and curb our natural instinct to compare between countries, criticise or dole out free advice. Food, weather, attire and local art are easy neutral topics to start conversations. As a policy, I avoid discussing the big three: politics, sex, and religion.
Western culture is different from the East; it is considered rude to touch people without permission, to stare or to point fingers at anyone. Loud conversations in public are a no-no.
24. Talk less, talk slow, and listen more. Know how to greet people.
Non-native English speakers have a tendency to talk fast while attempting to converse with native speakers. Even if our language is good, our foreign accent can make it hard for them to understand us. Therefore, one must try to speak slowly and clearly, and preferably with a smile.
Before travelling to any country, it is important to learn how to say the local greetings, thank you and goodbye. It is useful to rehearse these before travelling. Tourists who know even a couple of words of local language are looked upon more favourably by locals. Language translation apps are now available for smartphones, including a speech option.
In most developed nations, it is customary to greet the person before asking for what we need. For instance, while shopping, directly asking a question such as “How much for this watch?” is considered rude.
25. We are perfectly okay on our own.
Developed countries are invariably tourist-friendly. People are extraordinarily helpful, all that we have to do is to ask. We don’t always need a tour guide to hold our hands while traveling in such places. Looking up travel forums on the internet can prepare us for minor regional variations in etiquette, travel or cuisine. While visiting any town or village, if we just walk up to the tourist information centre, they will provide us with maps and directions.
26. Driving is conquering.
When possible, try to rent a car and drive—it is the best way to see the countryside on our own terms, and explore places off the beaten track. Rental car booking may be done online in advance, after browsing for the best rates. An international driving permit can be obtained from the motor vehicle department and used in many countries.
While driving abroad, we must obey local traffic rules, extend courtesy to other road users, keep speed limits, know all the traffic signs and show driving etiquette. For instance, when there is a cyclist on the road ahead, we must follow him at a safe distance until we can overtake him with a really wide margin—that is only when the oncoming lane is clear. Honking is an absolute no-no.
While driving through villages and towns, if a pedestrian wants to cross the road, we are expected to stop the car for them. It is helpful to figure out how to use the roundabout, which is a fantastic alternative to traffic lights.
We must know how to pay for parking; the methods vary by country. It pays to seek out free parking zones. Knowing local parking rules is important to avoid a parking ticket.
YouTube videos can help with road orientation, as would talking with friends who have done that before. Phone apps such as Sygic can assist with GPS navigation, even while offline. Add-on GPS unit and insurance cover can be purchased. Coins must be carried to pay for parking and for tolls.
27. Worried about shifting from Left to Right? Just do it.
Any task will seem more difficult till we try it. Driving on the right side of the road is not difficult, although it can initially seem confusing while walking on the road. It is my experience that as soon as we take the car on to the road, the doubts will vanish. While on the road, we just have to follow the cars in front for a while—this will quickly get us into the groove.
One must avoid looking at maps or getting distracted while driving, this can lead to accidents. If lost, we can always pull over to a parking space and check the GPS or map.
28. When not to rent a car.
If our aim is to explore a city, then there is no need to rent a car. Public transport is a great way to move around in all major cities ranging from Beijing, Singapore, Vienna, Rome, New York and London, to name a few. Many urban areas are walkable, and the metro can transport us swiftly from place to place at very little cost, with no interference from road traffic. Local trams and buses frequently accept the same ticket or card, but with minor regional variations.
29. The importance of Plan B.
It is a good habit to have a plan B at each step. For example, while packing bags, make sure there are enough clothes for each person in each bag, just in case one of the checked in bags doesn’t arrive on time. It also worth packing a few basic things including medications into the hand baggage so that we can survive unexpected gaps.
While on tour, things might not always happen as we plan. Keep a cool relaxed head, and be flexible. For every lost opportunity, there will be several unexpected bonus ones, but only if we look for them.
30. Above all, be nice.
Being nice to each other is important. As a policy, arguments and complaints must be avoided—a negative person can really ruin everyone’s mood. Team leaders can help keep the mood upbeat by keeping everyone fed at regular intervals. Keeping snacks handy can prevent unpleasant exchanges triggered by hunger pangs. Avoid being late, especially while travelling as a group.
31. Break free. The world doesn’t need us every single day.
Don’t carry your work with you. Being on vacation is a good time to stay away from social media and work-related stress. Delegating work to responsible colleagues and friends can go a long way in achieving this.
32. Less can be more.
This might seem counterintuitive, but I make it a point not to do too much while on an overseas holiday. A common mistake made by beginner travellers is to try to cram too much into the day’s schedule that the stress of completing the tasks is worse than the pleasure of being on vacation. I keep time apart for getting some rest, doing nothing, going for long aimless walks and browsing local markets.
On a personal note, the logic of ‘I want to make the most for my money spent by visiting as many places that I can’ doesn’t work for me. I would rather see fewer places in my own time, than get stressed out by trying to beat the clock all day.
33. We don’t have to please everyone else.
Peer pressure can often push us to do more than we can handle. It helps to periodically remind ourselves that what we do on our vacation is our own business. Unlike a study tour, we don’t have to convince other people at home that we have ‘completed our tasks’.
For instance, if we decide to visit Rome, there is no need to explain to anyone back at our workplace as to why we did not visit the Vatican or do a stopover at Venice.
34. Prevention is cheaper than cure.
An important aspect of saving money is prevention of adverse events. A sprained ankle or a fracture after a fall can really spoil the fun, besides creating unexpected expenses. Carelessness can prove to be costly. For instance, looking at the mobile phone or map while walking on uneven ground or while going down the stairs is literally asking for a fall. Travel insurance and a small bagful of essential medications are a must.
Becoming the victim of theft or robbery is another way to lose money. No one goes on vacation wanting to get robbed. But robberies do happen occasionally, and careless tourists are easy targets. The following tips can help reduce our risk.
1. Do not wear flashy clothes or jewellery; avoid designer watches and shoes, these are things that tell thieves that we might be carrying money.
2. Do not carry too much cash while wandering outside. Keep most of the cash and cards safe in the room, so that even if we are robbed, we don’t part with much.
3. Keep passports in the hotel room and carry a photocopy in the wallet instead.
4. Be alert always for pickpockets. Do not show big purses or wave money around while making purchases. Thieves are known to track us from a distance. They even know which pocket we keep our purse or phone. A secret pocket sewed inside the jeans is where I keep some spare cash—just in case a pickpocket makes off with my wallet. One can also purchase a money pouch that can be kept inside our clothes. Never keep the wallet in the back pocket.
5. While carrying a bag containing valuables, strapping it across our chest instead of hanging it over one shoulder makes it harder to snatch.
6. Pickpocketing frequently happens near crowded tourist attractions where we are easily distracted. Thieves operate in groups or pairs; and can appear very well-dressed. One person might distract us by bumping into us or telling us something, while the accomplice completes the task.
7. While riding the metro, standing near the door is an easy way to get robbed, someone can grab our bag and run away just as the doors are closing.
8. While shopping alone, do not enter closed spaces where someone can suddenly pull the shutter down on you.
9. A good principle that I follow while walking outdoors is not to carry anything that I can’t live without. In other words, if someone robs me at knifepoint, I’d rather let him have it than risk my life resisting or chasing him.
35. What if we get separated?
We must have a family assembly plan made ahead of time, just in case we get separated in a crowd and can’t find each other. This can range from, “we will meet in half hour at the Migros store at the metro station”, or “if we don’t find each other within one hour, go straight to the hotel lobby”. Keeping roaming plans active and making sure our phones can call each other while abroad, are important.
36. Phone calls abroad can cost a lot of money.
To make phone calls, there is the option of either activating international roaming for a small fee and paying a lot of money for each phone call, or to pay a lumpsum of around Rs 4000 to purchase a few hours of ‘free’ talk-time package.
Those who expect to make and receive a lot of phone calls will find the latter option useful. Remember that answering an incoming phone call is also expensive with the first option.
One way to make free phone calls is to use FaceTime audio through wifi; this is an effective way to reach local phones that work on ios. Whether our hosts have Facetime can be found out even before traveling. Google+ hangouts and Skype are similar. Social media can also be used through wifi to make calls.
Data must be turned off at all times, the costs are exorbitant. All browsing must be through wifi.
In summary, compared to the past, overseas vacations have become a lot more affordable now. There are a lot of ways to make our vacation more independent, enjoyable, stress-free, economical and safe, as outlined above. Avoiding complications is an effective strategy to keep expenses down.
I believe that a good trip should be like a gourmet meal. It must be enjoyed slowly and thoroughly; and should not like an “eat all you can” buffet where we try to stuff ourselves till we get sick.
(The author is a senior consultant gastroenterologist and deputy medical director, Sunrise group of hospitals)