5 Clever Tips for Avoiding Fees & Saving Money While Traveling
Do you ever have the urge to hop onto different travel sites and start pricing out a trip to a new city or an old favorite? Admittedly, this is something I’ve indulged in many times over the past few years, with some of my findings eventually working their way into actual travel plans. The only problem with this practice — beyond the temptation and frustration it leads to when you realize a getaway is not yet possible — is that the hotel and flight costs don’t tell the whole story about how much a trip will cost. While those are typically two of the larger expenses travelers will face, time off work, dining, ground transportation, activities, and much more will need to be considered. And then there are all those annoying fees…
As my wife and I have enjoyed more and more trips together, we’ve also caught on to a number of added expenses that hotels, airlines, and others like to charge. At the same time, we’ve also picked up a few ways to avoid said fees. So, if you have your eyes set on the perfect getaway and are looking for some extra room in your budget, here are a few tips and options for avoiding some common travel fees:
Given my propensity to work while traveling (regardless of whether it’s a business trip or actual vacation), in-room WiFi is an absolute must. Yet, given this status, I always balk at the thought of paying for such a service. Luckily, in the handful of harsh times that I’ve booked a room that did want to charge for Internet access, I have been able to find a way around such fees.
There are a few different options for navigating around hotel WiFi fees and your path will vary depending on the situation. For example, earlier this year I stayed at a hotel in Hong Kong that was going to charge $16 a day for WiFi. However, by reading up on their website, I learned that this fee was waived for members of their (free) loyalty program. Naturally, I signed up faster than you could say, “What does WiFi even stand for?” and enjoyed a complimentary connection during my stay.
Another potential but less convenient option is to look for nearby cafes or other establishments near your room that offer free WiFi and where you could go to work for a bit. Incidentally, going back to my Hong Kong room, the mall that surrounded the hotel offered its own free network and also contained not one but two Starbucks. So, really, I would have made do even if I didn’t find that loophole. I’ve also heard of certain hotels offering free WiFi in their lobby and business centers but not in-room, so be on the lookout for that arrangement as well.
Finally, you may consider purchasing a portable WiFi hotspot or tethering your smartphone to your laptop in order to get a connection. While the latter may be a better option if you have plenty of data to use, a separate hotspot may come in handy otherwise. Just keep in mind that there are several different hotspot providers and services, many of which will charge you a service fee. Thus, you’ll want to do the math to see if it really makes sense to go this route or suck it up and pay the hotel.
Hotel Minibar Fees
Speaking of things hotels like to charge way too much for, you surely know that items placed in your room’s minibar have infamously and laughably high markups. So while that $5 bag of potato chips might be super tempting around midnight, there are plenty of reasons why that’s a bad idea (not the least of which is the further need to wash it down with a $4 can of Coke). To prevent a horrifyingly pricey scene like this one, it’s always a good idea to have some of your own snacks on hand.
The most obvious plan for curbing your cravings and leaving the minibar unscathed is to simply pack some snacks with you for your journey. However, the problem here is that you may be limited by space (as we’ll discuss more in a bit) and liquids are a no-go altogether. That’s why, while I will typically bring some sustenance with me in my bag, I tend to stock my own minibar, as it were, on a daily basis.
In addition to scouting for a room with free WiFi, my wife and I always seek out hotels that are near train stations while traveling overseas. Clearly this is convenient from a transportation perspective but, in our experience, there’s often the added benefit of having a convenience store located in or not far from said station. Because of this, we simply make a stop in on our way back to our room each night and pick up dessert, snacks, or even breakfast for the next morning. Not only does this save us money but frequently saves us time as well.
Airline Luggage Fees
There are several ways to score a great fare on a flight but, unfortunately, those savings can be compromised by some of the various fees that airlines may enact. One fee that’s become more or less a part of life in recent years is the checked luggage fee. Unless you’re traveling internationally, flying Southwest, or have one of the fancy airline-branded credit cards, chances are you’ll have to pay upwards of $25 to check a bag to your final destination. That’s why it pays to travel light and pack smart.
My wife and I have gotten into the habit of only taking carry-on-sized luggage for our trips. Since there are two of us, we are each permitted one regular carry-on as well as “personal item,” which gives us all the space we need for our clothes, electronics, and toiletries, while still saving space for some souvenirs. How? It’s a combination of knowing what to pack, how to maximize the space in our luggage, and being strategic with how we utilize that extra personal item.
First, my wife has become very proficient at creating lists of everything we’ll need for a trip. This includes determining what outfits we plan on wearing and how many of each clothing item will we need, along with a list of electronics and snacks we’ll want to bring along. Not only does this help us with the packing process itself but also ensures we don’t leave anything behind.
Next, we employ my wife’s patented (note: not really) clothes rolling process. Basically, she’ll take one pair of underwear and a shirt and roll them together. As it turns out, this can actually save a lot of space in our luggage. Plus, since we can rarely be bothered to utilize the dresser drawers in a hotel room, this method makes it easy to grab our outfits each day while keeping our luggage load organized.
Last up is the all-important personal item. In my case, this typically consists of a messenger bag or small backpack. What I like about messenger bags is that they’re great for holding my laptop and various chargers but, more importantly, I’m usually able to prop them up on their side under the airplane seat so I don’t have to completely sacrifice my legroom.
Another critical way we utilize our personal items is to carry an extra change of clothes just in case. This is a good time to note that, even though you may plan on carrying your bag onto the flight, there may be times when those coveted bins get filled and you’ll be asked to check your bag. In such cases, there is no charge for checking your bag but, if you have connecting flights (especially ones with little time in between), you may worry that your bags might not make it to your destination at the same time as you. That’s why we’re always prepared to be separated from our bags and will move those things we absolutely need to our under-seat items.
While I’m issuing warnings, I should also mention that some airlines charge for carry-on items as well. At this time, such practices are more or less limited to discount airlines like Spirit and Allegiant, but it’s always a good idea to check your carrier’s policies before packing.
If you’re headed overseas, the foreign transactions that your credit card issuer or bank may charge can really cut into your travel budget. In fact, many cards charge customers as much as 3% just for converting their purchases to U.S. dollars. That’s why, if possible, you should consider getting a 0% foreign transaction fee credit card before departing for your tip. But, if that’s not possible, there are a few ways to at least mitigate the damage.
On my first trip to Japan, I quickly learned that it was far cheaper to take money out of an international ATM than it was to stock up on yen while in the U.S. The only downside to this plan was that my bank would charge me $5 every time I pulled cash out. So, instead of getting $20 or $40 worth of yen at a time, I’d always take out whatever the maximum was (and that I could foreseeably use). That way, I only had to pay that fee a couple of times instead of letting those fees add up day after day.
Now, like I said, if you have a credit card that offers 0% foreign transaction fees, you’re probably not too concerned about this section. The only problem is, what if the retailers you visit overseas don’t accept your card? As I’ve learned, you might still be able to use your card even if the logo you’re used to isn’t showing.
Let me explain: some credit cards may have deals in place with other banks that allow them to use their payment networks. For example, my Discover card is apparently accepted in Mainland China wherever UnionPay is taken, while the same is true of JCB in Japan. Furthermore, there were a few times I saw Diners Club cards accepted in Paris, which would have also included my Discover. Granted, Visa cardholders probably don’t have to worry about this as much but, if you’re a Discover cardholder like me, check out their international acceptance map — it could save you a ton.
One other thing to look out for is the option to pay in dollars while abroad. When we were at the Hong Kong Disneyland Resort, this option was available nearly anytime we used our credit card. While selecting to pay in dollars did prevent our card company from charging us a foreign transaction fee, we quickly realized that the exchange rate being offered was not very favorable and likely was about even (if not higher) than the 3% we’d be subjected to otherwise. For that reason, it’s probably better to simply select the local currency and take the fee.
International Data Fees
First the good news: it seems that cellular network providers have grown more accommodating to overseas travel in recent years. For example, T-Mobile offers its customers unlimited cellular data (albeit at 2G speeds) in more than 140 countries while I can say from personal experience that AT&T has introduced some great products for international travelers. These plans can be a real lifesaver when it comes to keeping in touch with those at home and, of course, posting your adventures on social media, but you may be able to save even more if you play your cards right.
In this case, I’m referring to SIM cards. Depending on what device and network you use, you may be able to purchase a prepaid SIM card that will entitle you a certain amount of data at your destination. Sometimes these plans may even include voice calling, if that’s your sort of thing. These cards can be purchased on sites like Amazon ahead of time or you may be able to find them at the airport, electronics stores, or even vending machines once you reach your destination. However, I’d advise you do a bit a research on the topic specific to the city you plan on visiting so you’ll know where to head once landing.
While these SIM cards can offer some great deals, depending on the length of your stay, it may be easier and cheaper to just stick to your American plan. Like I said, this used to cost an arm and a leg, but AT&T recently introduced a program that allows you to utilize your regular data and text messaging plan while abroad for just $10 a day on days you use it. This means that, if you leave your phone in airplane mode the whole day, you won’t be charged.
What’s extra nice about this product is that it doesn’t go by calendar days but, instead, your $10 will get you 24 hours of use from when you first activated your data, messaging, or calling. As a result, I’ve been able to minimize the days I get charged by being strategic about when I enable my data. As part of this plan, I set an alarm to alert me when my 24 hours are nearly up so I can decide if it’s worth renewing then or waiting until a more opportune time. On my recent road trip to Canada, I was actually able to get my charges down to just three days despite being there for five — a $20 savings I happily took home.
Lastly, if you’ll recall the very beginning of this article, I mentioned personal WiFi hotspots. These can also come in handy around town and allow you to avoid both SIM cards and cell phone plans (you’ll just need to keep your device in airplane mode or at least turn cellular data off and turn your WiFi on). So, if you’re thinking about using a hotspot to avoid hotel charges anyway, you may want to look into getting one portable enough to throw in your pocket or backpack in order to keep you connected on the go.
Whenever you’re booking a trip, it can be easy to forget about all of the fees and expenses you’ll face when it’s time to do your traveling. Whether it’s hotels charging for WiFi and tempting you with their minibar, airlines tacking on charges for checked luggage, credit cards hitting you with transaction fees, or your cellular provider ransoming your data plan, these expenses can really add up. That said, by planning ahead and getting a bit clever, you can help avoid or minimize these fees and maximize your travel budget.