12 Ways To Travel Abroad While Spending Less Money Than You Would In The US

Is it possible to explore the world while spending less money than you would living in the U.S.?

By Alyssa Rinelli7 min read

Traveling abroad can be a rewarding experience, but it often comes with financial considerations that can deter even the most enthusiastic globetrotter. However, with careful planning and strategic choices, it turns out that it is possible to hit every location on your bucket list while saving some cash. From leveraging volunteer opportunities to finding free accommodations and maximizing your currency exchange rates, there are numerous ways to stretch your travel budget.

As someone who makes a living writing about my travel experiences, these are some of my tried and true ways to save money while traveling.  

Whether you're dreaming of a European adventure or exploring the bustling markets of Southeast Asia, these strategies will help you navigate expenses while immersing yourself in new cultures and experiences. Discover how to travel smarter and more affordably, making each journey abroad not only memorable but also financially sustainable.

Volunteer in Exchange for Free Accommodation 

Volunteering at a hostel in exchange for free accommodation is an increasingly popular way for budget-conscious travelers to extend their adventures while minimizing costs. This arrangement, often referred to as "work exchange," typically involves committing a set number of hours per week to assist with various tasks at the hostel. These tasks can range from reception duties, cleaning, and maintenance to organizing social events and activities for guests.

The specific requirements and benefits of volunteering vary from hostel to hostel. Some might ask for as few as 15-20 hours of work per week, while others may require closer to 30 hours. In return, volunteers are provided with free lodging, which can be a significant saving, especially in popular tourist destinations where accommodation costs are high. Some hostels might also offer additional perks like free meals, laundry services, and discounts on local tours and activities.

The commitment is usually a couple of weeks, so doing this is a time commitment, but it allows you to gain a deeper cultural immersion and build a community. Volunteers often have the opportunity to meet travelers from all over the world, share stories, and form lasting friendships. By organizing and participating in events like city tours, cooking classes, and pub crawls, volunteers also help create a welcoming and engaging environment for guests.

When I stayed in Mexico City, for instance, our hostel had the volunteers organize excursions for us, allowing them to try new restaurants or take us to shows in addition to their free accommodation. 

Leverage Airline Deals or Miles

Leveraging airline deals or miles can significantly reduce travel costs and make flying more affordable. When airlines introduce new routes to the U.S. or other destinations, they often offer special promotions and lower fares to attract travelers. These deals can be an excellent opportunity to explore new places at a fraction of the usual cost. 

Additionally, credit card deals can further enhance your savings. Many travel credit cards offer substantial sign-up bonuses in the form of miles or points, which can be redeemed for flights, hotel stays, and other travel-related expenses.

Transferring points between loyalty programs is another effective strategy to maximize your travel budget. Many credit card programs allow you to transfer points to various airline and hotel loyalty programs, often at favorable rates. This flexibility enables you to consolidate points and use them where they provide the most value. For instance, you might transfer points from a credit card program to an airline's frequent flyer program to book a free or discounted flight.

By staying informed about new routes, taking advantage of credit card offers, and strategically transferring points, you can significantly cut down on travel expenses. These strategies not only make air travel more affordable but also open up opportunities to explore new destinations that might otherwise be out of reach.

I have personally taken tens of free domestic and international flights from racking up travel credit card points. I place all of my expenses on my travel cards, pay them off, and rack up points to use for future trips. 

Visit Places with a Favorable Currency Exchange 

Leverage places with a favorable currency exchange to make your travel budget stretch further. Thanks to the ever-shifting tides of the global economy, the U.S. dollar sometimes enjoys a favorable exchange rate against various foreign currencies. For example, the current exchange rate between the U.S. dollar and the Japanese yen is at an all-time high for U.S. dollar holders, making it significantly cheaper to travel to Japan now than it was a couple of years ago.

By keeping an eye on exchange rates and choosing destinations where the U.S. dollar is strong, you can save substantial amounts on accommodation, dining, and activities. This approach allows you to experience more of what a country has to offer without straining your budget. 

Do note, however, that you will run into a lot more Americans during favorable currency exchanges. I had a layover in Tokyo earlier this month on my way back from Jakarta and have never in my life seen so many Americans in one place from my multiple trips to and living in Asia. 

Don’t Check a Bag

Yes, you can travel without checking a bag and still dress fashionably and enjoy shopping abroad. I have personally traveled for multiple weeks with everything I needed packed into a backpack. This included outfits for going out, stylish daytime looks, pajamas, casual wear, and even cute and practical shoes. The secret is to pack a capsule wardrobe – a collection of versatile pieces that mix and match to create multiple outfits for various occasions. You don’t need a separate outfit for every day. By planning a cohesive wardrobe, you can travel light and stylishly.

Packing light also saves you considerable time and money at the airport. You can skip the check-in counter altogether by checking in online, avoiding the hassle of baggage claims and the risk of lost luggage. Additionally, if you're traveling on a budget, avoiding checked luggage can save you money, as budget airlines often charge high fees for checked bags. Embracing the carry-on lifestyle not only makes your travel more efficient but also allows you to focus more on the adventure and less on the logistics, all while keeping your travel costs down.

House Sit or Pet Sit  

House and pet sitting through platforms like TrustedHousesitters can be an easy way to save money while enjoying the comforts of a home and the companionship of pets during your travels. 

However, it comes with its own set of challenges and considerations. According to experienced house and pet sitters, getting started can be particularly tough. Without reviews, it's common to face multiple rejections – one Reddit user shared that they were turned down at least 20 times before finally securing their first few reviews. To increase your chances, you might need to apply for less popular or local house sits, or those requiring niche skills, like experience with farm animals.

The application process itself can be frustrating, as it’s normal not to receive any response at all. Even when you do land a house sit, the experience can vary widely. Some house sits with glowing reviews might still turn out to be problematic. Red flags to watch out for include listings without photos, a lack of reviews from previous sitters, or homeowners who avoid calls or video chats. These could indicate potential issues that might make the sit more challenging.

Additionally, there's the risk of last-minute cancellations by homeowners, which can leave you stranded with non-refundable travel expenses. TrustedHousesitters does not provide compensation in such cases, as one user learned the hard way when a homeowner canceled the day before their sit.

Overall, house and pet sitting can be a mixed bag. Some experiences will be wonderful and make the effort worthwhile, while others might be so difficult that you consider quitting altogether. It's important to manage your expectations and be prepared for stress. If you can navigate these challenges, the rewards of free accommodation and the opportunity to care for pets in new locales can make house and pet sitting a valuable part of your travel strategy.

Purchase in the Local Currency, Not U.S. Dollars

When traveling abroad, always opt to purchase items in the local currency rather than in U.S. dollars if given the option when using a credit card. Sometimes, credit card readers in foreign countries recognize that your card processes in U.S. dollars and will offer to convert your purchase on the spot. This usually means you'll be given the choice to pay in either U.S. dollars or the local currency. Always choose the local currency.

When the credit card machine converts the purchase to U.S. dollars, it typically adds a fee for this service, increasing your overall cost. Most international credit cards offer free foreign transactions, so buying in the local currency can save you money. This way, your bank or credit card company handles the currency exchange, often at a more favorable rate and without additional fees.

Get a VAT Refund

Make sure you save your receipts when shopping abroad, as many countries offer VAT refunds at the airport, allowing you to reclaim the sales tax from your purchases. Most international airports have a VAT refund area located in the departures section, typically before you go through exit immigration and customs.

To take advantage of this refund, keep all your purchase receipts organized and easily accessible. When you arrive at the airport, head to the VAT refund counter with your receipts and the items you bought. The process usually involves filling out a form and showing your receipts and purchases to a customs officer. Once approved, you can receive your refund in cash or have it credited back to your credit card.

This simple step can lead to substantial savings, especially on high-value items like electronics, fashion, and luxury goods. By ensuring you claim your VAT refund, you can make your travel budget stretch further and enjoy additional perks from your international shopping experiences.

Rent Local If You Can

When looking for accommodations abroad, consider alternatives to Airbnb for potentially cheaper rent options. Airbnb, designed primarily for Western customers like myself when I lived in Cape Town, tends to be priced at Western standards and can be more expensive as a result. If you're able to rent from a local provider, that's often the most economical choice, though it typically requires committing to a minimum lease of six months to a year.

For shorter stays, Airbnb might still be more affordable than a hotel, but this isn't always the case. It's wise to compare both hotel and Airbnb options when deciding where to stay. By exploring local rental providers alongside these options, you can find the best deal for your budget and length of stay abroad.

When seeking affordable accommodations abroad, leveraging personal connections can be a game-changer. Reach out to friends you know in your destination or connect with local influencers who are often eager to share insider tips on saving money. They might recommend hidden gems for accommodation or even know someone renting out their place for short or long stays. 

These connections can provide invaluable insights into local rental markets, helping you find budget-friendly options that might not be advertised widely. By tapping into local networks, you can gain access to trustworthy recommendations and potentially secure a more cost-effective and authentic travel experience.

Stay Somewhere Longer

If you have the flexibility of working remotely, staying at a destination for an extended period can maximize your travel budget. By staying longer than two weeks, you can benefit from lower costs of living, including accommodation and food, which can help offset the initial flight expenses. 

As a U.S. passport holder, you have visa-free access to many countries worldwide. For destinations that do require visas for U.S. citizens, obtaining a visa is generally straightforward and grants you a stay ranging from 30 to 90 days in most cases.

It's important to note that in some regions, such as the Schengen Area in Europe, there are specific visa rules to be aware of. For instance, if you stay for 80 days in Italy, your subsequent stay in another Schengen country like France may be limited to 10 days within that same visa period, unless you exit the Schengen region (e.g., traveling to Turkey) and re-enter. This strategy can reset your visa allowance, allowing you to stay in another Schengen country for up to 90 days.

Make Multiple Stops in the Same Region

To make the most of your travel budget and maximize the value of your plane ticket, consider planning multiple stops within the same region. During my last trip, for example, I visited seven cities across Southeast Asia, which allowed me to fully leverage my lengthy and expensive airline ticket.

By strategically planning your itinerary, you can leverage the cost of your international flight across several destinations. This approach not only spreads out transportation costs but also allows you to experience diverse cultures, landscapes, and attractions within a single trip. In regions like Southeast Asia, where countries are relatively close together and well-connected by affordable flights and efficient transportation networks, exploring multiple cities can be both economical and enriching.

When planning multi-stop itineraries, consider factors like visa requirements, travel times between destinations, and local transportation options. This strategy not only enhances your travel experience but also helps you make the most of your time and money spent on international travel. 

Get Beauty Treatments Done Abroad

Getting beauty treatments done abroad can be a savvy way to save money while traveling. Through my various travels, I've noticed that beauty treatments are often significantly cheaper abroad than in the U.S. I've saved hundreds of dollars on services such as laser face treatments, chemical peels, and manicures. 

The caveat, of course, is finding a reputable treatment center. The last thing you want is to damage your skin or nail beds by visiting an unhygienic business. To avoid this, I meticulously go through several layers of Google reviews, website recommendations, and influencer endorsements before committing to any treatment, even something as simple as a manicure. Health standards can vary greatly abroad, so ensuring safety is paramount.

Despite the need for careful research, there are many places that meet high standards. I've had excellent experiences in cities like Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, and Cape Town. It is indeed possible to find reputable establishments, but diligence in your research is key. Once you identify trustworthy places, you can enjoy affordable and indulgent beauty treatments that would cost a small fortune in the U.S.

Travel with a Group

Traveling with a group is an excellent way to reduce costs and enhance your travel experience. By sharing accommodation, you can significantly cut down on expenses, especially if you’re comfortable squeezing multiple people into a single space. This approach not only makes lodging more affordable but also creates a fun, communal atmosphere.

Group travel also allows you to try a variety of food items by splitting dishes, making it easier to sample local cuisine without overspending. Additionally, many tour operators offer group discounts, enabling you to explore and enjoy more activities at a lower cost per person. Whether it's sightseeing, adventure tours, or cultural experiences, group deals can help you make the most of your budget.

Beyond the financial benefits, traveling with friends or family makes the journey more enjoyable. Sharing experiences, discovering new places together, and creating lasting memories with your travel companions adds a special dimension to your trip.

Closing Thoughts

Traveling abroad doesn't have to break the bank. By leveraging volunteer opportunities, seeking free accommodations, maximizing favorable currency exchanges, and making strategic choices like packing light and traveling with a group, you can significantly reduce your travel expenses. These tried-and-true methods will help you explore the world affordably while enjoying rich and memorable experiences.

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