The Two Gallivants

Managing Your Travel Money – we learnt the hard way, so you don’t have to!

money2Me: Xin chào, how much for watermelon? (pointing to a large juicy piece I’d shown a keen interest in)

Hoi An fruit seller: 50,000 dong (after placing it on a scale but not bothering to look at the weight)

Me: Oh, ah, that’s a bit expensive (blank look on her face), 30?

Hoi An fruit seller: 50 (shaking her head)

Me: OK, mmmh, 40? (showing her the money)

Hoi An fruit seller: Cảm ơn (nodding her head and taking my money)

I walked away with my melon feeling very pleased with my haggling skills.

The next day I got the same for a meagre 10,000 dong because I was with Pen, my Vietnamese landlord. Bitter sweet eh? On one hand I got a great price, but I also realised what a fool I had been with my money the previous day! I’d not sussed out beforehand how much I should be looking to pay for that type of product, I’d shown too much interest in the product, I hadn’t went low enough with my counter offer nor joked around that her price was way too high. Also, I was silly not to use the textbook walking away shaking my head trick to get a lower price. In short, my haggling technique was awful and it lost me money.

I am slowly getting the art of haggling though as I always trying to learn from my mistakes – and I’ve certainly made a few on the road. As I’m not afraid to embarrass myself, here are 9 more of my travel money mishaps. Hopefully you can avoid doing the same and save yourself some cash!

1. Buying malaria tablets and other expensive things before I set off

I bought 200 doxycycline in the UK for £60 (100 US dollars) before I left for Asia. I bought 100 of the same in Cambodia for 10 US dollars – you do the math! This also goes for clothes that I got at home before travelling. It would have been better to wait until I was abroad before buying those things and saved myself a few extra quid for jungle treks and fruit shakes.

Not all things will be cheaper on your travels though (electronics, for example, seem to be similarly priced in Asia as in the UK), so do your research before you jet off.

2. Getting done over by taxis and tuk tuks when arriving somewhere new

tuktukYou arrive in a new town, feeling rank and tired having had little sleep listening to the horrible snores of fellow passengers and getting rained on by the leaky air-con on your overnight bus. You grab your bags, rub your eyes and try to clear the fog in your head to decide on your next move. Then a tuk tuk guy pounces and before you know it, you’ve agreed to a price to get to your hostel. You think it seems a bit high but you’ve not fully got to grips yet with the currency or being awake for that matter, so you let it slide and just want to get into a warm bed for an hour. The next day you figure out you should have paid a tenth of the price!!

This type of scenario happened to me in Guangzhou, Hanoi and some other places. But it need not have happened. Had I just done a bit of research beforehand, I could have found out which station I would be arriving at and could have checked 1) whether any public buses or underground trains (more for China) ran from the station to anywhere near my hostel and/or 2) checked the typical taxi/tuk tuk price I should be paying for my intended journey. I have done that plenty of times since and saved myself a few bob.

To repeat, at train and bus stations, waiting taxis and tuk tuks will massively up their price and may also try to take you to their mates’ questionable guesthouses, so be prepared!

Which leads me conveniently to…

3. Not pre-booking accommodation

At the start of our travels, we were swayed by the romantic traditions of nomads across the globe who just rock up to a new place and find accommodation when they arrive. However, after a few stressful situations wandering around in the heat with heavy bags, inevitable bickering with each other and sometimes paying over the odds for mediocre accommodation, we decided to opt for a more pragmatic approach. So we now pre-book accommodation online before we arrive. This has various benefits including paying less for certain hostels and hotels than you would if you just showed up, you can earn rewards/discounts with the booking websites, like we do with Agoda, and of course it relieves a lot of stress!

That said, while this approach works for us as a couple, those of you who travel alone may want to meet people en route and then decide where to stay with your new friends. So just bear in mind your own style of travel before following this advice or any other travel tips that I’ve set out here.

4. Tipping too much

Obviously this one depends on where you are travelling. For example, in America you’ll likely have to tip big, up to 20%, whereas if you tip someone in China you are likely to insult them!

For the first few months in South East Asia, we regularly tipped at least a couple of US dollars between us for every meal, not fully getting that the restaurant staff would have been lucky to earn 70 US dollars in a month. So, although we could be said to be doing a nice thing, after having chatted to expats it was clear we were tipping way too much as they suggested a half or even a quarter of a dollar between us for a ten dollar meal was cool. So we’ve saved well over 50 dollars a month by tipping appropriately, not excessively.

Also, when eating at local places with local people, which are usually ridiculous cheap, tipping is not expected at all. So…once again I’ve craftily set up my next mishap…

5. Eating in too many “Western” restaurants, instead of with the locals

In Asia the food is comparatively cheap to that in the West no matter where you eat. But if you eat in a proper local restaurant, and I mean a little dark canteen with an old woman out front with a single gas stove and massive wok serving up rice noodles and vegetable soups, you can eat a filling dinner for 50p/90cents. Add 20p/35cents to that for a beer, and naturally they will only have one local brand for sale. If you go to a “local” place frequented by only expats and tourists with nice table and chairs, a mix of local dishes and western food with a selection of beers and other alcoholic drinks, you can expect to add on an extra 5 US dollars per person. But if you make the really big mistake of eating in Western chains such as Pizza Hut or Western style burger joints owned by expats, then add 10 US dollars or more per person.

So save the home comfort food for when you are really, really craving it and stick to real local canteens the rest of the time. You’ll notice your wallet getting fatter while your belly doesn’t!

6. Paying travel agents for tickets instead of buying direct

Independent travel will almost always work out cheaper than package tours, so travel independently (if you can, that is)! For example, instead of paying a tour agent 20 US dollars to drive you an hour to a cave and back, rent a motorbike (automatics are very easy to control), drive and pay the usually small entrance fee yourself. That will likely work out less than a third of the agent’s price!

Be careful not to go traipsing into any jungles or dangerous areas by yourself though, use local guides where you must!

7. Using ATMs that charge a service fee

ATM in HueOut of sheer laziness, I often use the first ATM I come across instead of researching beforehand which banks provide the service free of charge. So, to give you a helping hand, check out our previous advice on free to use ATMs in Cambodia and Vietnam.

8. Using a non-reward credit card

I still use the credit card my bank gave me a long time ago. It doesn’t have any reward scheme attached to it, so I’m missing out on lots of goodies and discounts. When I enter the “real” world again, this is something I will rectify to get the best possible deal.

The experts at offer information and comparison tools for different types of credit card, although their focus is generally for US consumers. That said, they also provide more general and very useful tips for managing money, including when working/studying/travelling abroad.

9. Being a careless idiot!

This mistake could cover all of the money misadventures above, but I am more specifically thinking about my own forgetfulness and carelessness with my things! A few times while away, I have lost bank cards by leaving them in the bank machine (as in Asia ATMs don’t spit out the card automatically after use) and not securing them properly in my wallet. I have also forgot to update my travel plans on my online bank accounts and have had cards frozen because of suspected fraud! These incidents have cost me the price of long international calls to my bank, which could have been easily avoided!

With all that silly experience behind me, I am getting better with my travel money and can see tangible results each month when I check my bank balance. So use my painful lessons as you see fit and, to help you out some more, the above can be boiled down into three easy to remember principles for managing your travel money:

  1. Do your research
  2. Be Independent
  3. Go local

I’d love to hear of your travel money mishaps or anything you can add to the above, so don’t be shy and leave a comment below!


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