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10 Travel Money Mistakes to Avoid

When budgeting for a trip, we often list the big-ticket items — airfare, hotel, lodging, car rental, attraction tickets — add them altogether and call it the final price. But the trickle of funds to other costs starts almost as soon as we start moving: gas to and from the airport, tolls, airport parking, overpriced bottles of water in the airport and more.

That trickle doesn’t stop when you arrive at your destination; think cell phone charges, bank fees, hotel Wi-Fi and housekeeping tips, to name a few. To avoid spending more than you have to, check out these 10 money mistakes to avoid while traveling.

1. Don’t forget to let your bank know you will be traveling.

Forgetting to call your bank before traveling abroad is a common error that even frequent international travelers make; it slips your mind until the plane touches down, and by then it’s often too late. These days banks have almost zero lag time in noticing a debit or credit card being used abroad, so you will get shut down on pretty much your first swipe in a foreign country.

As banks have gotten more sophisticated about tracking card use locations, this can be important even important for domestic travel, and most banks recommend that you let them know about those closer-to-home trips as well. Fraud detectors can be tripped if you’re suddenly using your card across the country, making more or different purchases than you usually do or charging unexpectedly large amounts (such as a weeklong hotel stay).

Note that this applies to debit cards as well as credit cards, and you sometimes need to talk to more than one department even inside the same bank to get them all approved for travel.

2. Don’t overlook bank and ATM fees.

While traveling internationally, each time you go get cash you will likely incur a fee of some kind. These can vary a lot depending on whether the ATM is run by a large bank or not, if the bank is on your card’s network and more. Keep in mind that fees can change from year to year, so it’s worth checking before every trip.

Here are a couple of resources to get a handle on how all this works, what it can cost you and how to save on fees:

The Best Way to Carry Money Overseas
ATMs Abroad

3. Don’t fail to make a plan for getting to your hotel from the airport.

That first taxi ride from the airport may be your most financially vulnerable moment of any trip — the time when you have no idea how far it is, what a fair price is for the ride, whether you have lower-cost alternatives such as a train or bus, or even whether your hotel has a free shuttle. It is best to figure all of this out before your trip; when you arrive you are tired, often without much cash and carrying a ton of luggage. You don’t want to be fumbling around trying to figure all this out on the airport curb.

4. Don’t forget to add an international roaming plan for your phone.

How much could a few texts, a bit of mapping, a few email checks and a batch of social media updates cost per day? Plenty, it turns out — so be sure to purchase an international roaming plan that will cover you while you’re away. For more information, see Avoid Smartphone Sticker Shock: How to Pay Less Overseas.

5. Don’t forget to research the local exchange rate.

Especially in the first several hours at your destination, having done a little research on the local exchange rate against your home currency can make a huge difference. Often it takes a couple of days really to have a handle on how much things cost, but this can take even longer if you are traveling in an area where prices may not be so fixed as they are at home. Knowing the exchange rate cold so you can do the math quickly in your head will help considerably. See How to Get the Best Exchange Rate for more info.

6. Don’t bring traveler’s checks.

Barely anyone accepts them anymore, they’re not cheap, you have to invest a fair amount of time in obtaining and purchasing them, and credit cards give you a far better rate of exchange in most parts of the world. Skip ’em.

7. Don’t assume you know how much to tip.

Tipping customs vary immensely from place to place, and not having knowledge of these can be both awkward and expensive.

Tipping practices can also vary from industry to industry as well; in Brazil, for example, a 10 percent tip is customary in a restaurant, but it might already be included, so you will want to check the bill. On a taxi ride you just round up to the nearest one (or five if you are feeling generous) for most rides (so for a 13.20 real taxi ride, you give 14 or 15 reais).

One note on U.S. travel: As the movement to pay restaurant workers higher wages gains steam, some restaurants are telling customers that they no longer need to tip. I saw this at two restaurants in Seattle last month (where a new $15 minimum wage law went into effect recently); check your bill to make sure.

8. Don’t tip your housekeeper only at the end of your stay.

Many travelers will leave it until the end of a trip to tip the housekeepers (usually by leaving some cash on top of the bed); this can backfire. On any given stay, you might have a different housekeeper from one day to the next, and to be the most fair and to get the best treatment, it is best to leave something each day. Many housekeepers live on subsistence wages, and this is both the right thing to do and also arguably a bit of blood money — most of our readers have seen the hidden camera videos of crossed housekeepers, and a small tip each day can keep you on their good side.

9. Don’t leave your valuables unsecured.

Shoving your wallet in your back pocket or your purse over your shoulder is such a natural and almost automatic action that almost all of us will do this at some point in our travels. It is also the easiest way to get pickpocketed or ripped off, as these spots are both obvious to thieves and difficult to protect.

This doesn’t apply only to your wallet; you will want to secure anything that someone could grab quickly. On a recent trip to Rio, we got on a train to the legendary Maracana stadium for a game featuring the local futebol favorite Flamengo. It was rush hour, and the train was insanely packed; despite living for more than a decade in New York City and having taken countless trips around the world, I have never experienced anything like it. If there was ever an environment ripe for pickpocketing and unseen thefts, this was it. I had a backpack with sweatshirts and a camera inside, so looked around at how the locals were dealing with it, and noticed that everyone had their backpacks and bags in front of them.

A button on your back pocket or an across-the-body bag instead of an over-the-shoulder purse can also help here; adding just a little bit of difficulty is often enough to inspire thieves to look for other victims. For more advice, see Money Safety Tips for Travelers.

10. Don’t use public Wi-Fi for financial transactions.

You will want to avoid checking bank balances, making online payments or entering financially sensitive passwords of any kind while using public Internet or Wi-Fi networks. Occasionally it’s unavoidable, and the number of hotel Wi-Fi systems with keystroke loggers installed by sophisticated hackers is extremely low — but it is always a risk.

Note also that a hack doesn’t have to be an inside job — that is, a hotel employee or system installer — but can also be a fellow lodger who has hacked into the minimally protected (if at all) hotel Wi-Fi network.

Hopefully by keeping your money on your mind just a little, these tips will help you keep your money in your bank account as well.

Which money mistakes have you made while traveling?

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