There are plenty of helpful hacks that will let you see the world for less. But some budget travel rules are simply myths touted by businesses that benefit from them. Others are created by well-meaning travelers who mistook an exception for the norm. Here are 11 budget travel lies you should be wary of.
Myths You’ve Been Told about Budget Travel
Budget Travel Myth # 1: “Unlock Your Phone”
Talk of enabling your phone for international use (dubbed “unlocking”) usually centers around avoiding hefty roaming fees. But most budget travelers don’t need to unlock their phone anymore thanks to Wi-Fi calling and downloadable apps.
Only set up an international phone plan if you know you’ll absolutely require phone or data service on your trip—meaning, if you’ll need to make voice calls on-the-go, or won’t have any reliable Wi-Fi. If you’re staying in lodging that has Wi-Fi or will be visiting a city that has public networks, you can easily make calls on apps like WhatsApp and Viber, and should download offline travel tools like CityMaps and Google Translate guides. GPS location works on your phone without data enabled, and even your entertainment can be pre-downloaded now.
Editor’s Note: CityMaps, like SmarterTravel, is a part of TripAdvisor Media Group.
Budget Travel Myth # 2: “Rental Cars Are So Cheap There”
It feels like I hear this budget travel myth every time I go to Europe or the United Kingdom. Most people share it with good intentions and are simply used to driving everywhere in the States. But, considering the price of gas outside the U.S. coupled with the popularity of ridesharing and rail passes in Europe and beyond, renting a car should be a last resort. Instead, utilize public transit and rail passes. Both are flexible to your time schedule, and the latter can double as lodging if you’re taking a long overnight journey. Bonus: You won’t need to learn to drive a stick shift or on the other side of the road.
If you truly need a rental car, it’s possible to get one for cheap or free in many destinations thanks to Transfercar, a free rental car relocation service, and BlaBlaCar, which sets up drivers who have empty seats with passengers willing to pay for them. While rental prices might be low, gas by the liter probably isn’t.
Budget Travel Myth # 3: “Stay Outside the City”
It can be nice to stay outside an expensive city if you prefer peace and quiet, and if there’s cheap and reliable public transit to get you into town. But this shouldn’t be a budget travel rule. If you end up spending the difference on getting into the city every day, why waste your vacation time?
Average hotel prices in hubs like San Francisco and London can be sky high, but there are usually cheaper options like rentals that are still within the city limits. Even hotel deals are pretty easy to find: A new hotel booking service called SnapTravel offers exclusive rates on hotels, and some of the best savings are in big cities. It also doesn’t hurt to take a look at Airbnb options (which tend to be cheaper than hotels overall) before you exile yourself.
Budget Travel Myth # 4: “Exchange Money Ahead of Time”
I’m not sure why or how this lie still persists. There’s nothing budget travel about buying foreign currency or exchanging your own cash ahead of time: You’ll almost surely get hit with hidden fees by the service, and it only saves you a minimal amount of time, if any.
The best way to get foreign currency is to simply go to an ATM to withdraw cash upon your arrival, or use a credit card that doesn’t have foreign transaction fees (remember to notify your bank of travel plans ahead of time). You’ll be charged a small ATM fee for withdrawing cash, and should therefore try to minimize the amount of times you use an ATM—but it beats using a service or bank that can take a sizable percentage as a service cost. If you don’t already have a bank that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees, switch to one.
Budget Travel Myth # 5: “Book Early”
Booking far in advance is more likely to save you money on a hotel than it is on a flight. Airlines usually start listing their prices months in advance at a premium, and then reduce them until they hit a low about six or seven weeks before—which is the best time to book. Slightly after that you could get lucky if your travel dates are flexible and seats don’t fill up, but a good rule of thumb is to book no more than two months out.
Budget Travel Myth # 6: “Book Last-Minute”
While booking a flight at the last minute is rarely going to save you money, booking a hotel at the last minute depends largely on the destination. Big cities almost always have rooms that need to be filled, so it could be wise to wait for a deal. In smaller locales, you’re more likely end up without a place to stay if you wait too long.
Hotel search sites and apps like Hotel Tonight can often get you a great deal, as long as being unprepared in a big city doesn’t bother you. But don’t depend on short-notice booking options if you’re in a small beach town during peak season. If you find yourself without a room on a whim, the room-booking app Overnight might be able to help.
Budget Travel Myth # 7: “Tours Aren’t Worth the Price”
Most tours and trips that book accommodation and transportation for you are usually pricey. But there are some budget travel bundles and tour options that could save you both money and time. Some have added bonuses, like a seasoned local guide that could make your trip an unforgettable one.
Bundled vacations like those on Groupon Getaways, for example, can go on sale for crazy-low prices, like London and Paris airfare-inclusive trips from $900 if you leave from New York. Even without airfare included in a tour, you can snag incredible value on dream trips like an African safari—which would usually cost thousands. Geckos Travel, a tour provider for travelers ages 18 to 29, for example, offers a Journey Through Botswana safari ending at Zimbabwe’s Victoria Falls from as low as $1,050. With local guides, meals, transport, and nature walks included, you’re unlikely to find a better value.
Budget Travel Myth # 8: “Clearing Search History Doesn’t Do Anything”
Clearing your cookies, or search history, is a good habit to have as you browse hotels, research suggests. This fact is considered by some to be a myth, or at least an unsupported claim—but it turns out there is some truth to it. Northeastern University researchers have found that some popular hotel booking sites present slightly cheaper results to users without any hotel search history stored—though only by an average of about $12 to $15 dollars. Still, why not simply clear your history every now and then if it’ll save you a few bucks?
Budget Travel Myth # 9: “Stick to Budget Airlines”
Budget carriers like WOW air and Norwegian get a lot of the credit for record-low transatlantic fares that have come to define modern budget travel, but more and more mid-range airlines are competing with them, and some have a lot more to offer. Don’t discredit them without keeping an eye out for deals, especially since you can usually rack up more frequent flyer points for better rewards if you fly with a mid-range airline.
Most of the under-$100 international fares advertised by budget airlines like WOW are on near-impossible travel dates or don’t include hidden fees. The actual price for your travel is likely to be higher, and a bag bigger than 16 inches and heavier than 22 pounds will cost you $40 to $100 with WOW Air. Don’t discount other airlines, which often have flash sales and seasonal deals that could get you a lot more comfort for less than you might think.
Subscribe to fare alert newsletters (like our City-to-City and Departure City Alerts) to hear about the best deals in real time, and keep an eye on new routes you might want to subscribe to alerts for. Here are seven new airline routes to consider for cheap flights.
Budget Travel Myth # 10: “Don’t Eat Out, Grocery Shop”
Whoever says this probably doesn’t live in a city. Grocery stores can charge an arm and a leg for basic items in city-proper areas, but tourist-frequented destinations usually have cheap-eats spots worth sampling. Noodle shops in Asian hubs and doner kebab spots in cities around the world serve up huge-yet-affordable meals that are also part of experiencing the local culture.
Even if you’re not worried about trying new food and want to cook for yourself, get the ingredients at farmer’s markets instead of a grocery chain. Buying from local vendors with much lower prices than the middle-man stores will make up for the savings divide, and you’re more likely to experience the local food culture first-hand.
Budget Travel Myth # 11: “Skip Insurance”
Whether it’s passing up medical coverage abroad or insurance on a car rental, the person that gives this advice as a budget travel tip is probably not a frequent traveler. The more you pass up insurance, the more likely you are to need it one day. Some don’t realize that insurance can be as affordable as a few dollars a day. Car rental and health insurance should be at the top of your list, especially if you’ll be traveling abroad. Coverage could save you thousands, even hundreds of thousands of dollars in an emergency.
More from SmarterTravel:
- 10 Rookie Mistakes People Make When Booking a Flight
- 7 Stupid Travel Mistakes We’ll Never Make Again
- The Worst Travel Advice We’ve Ever Heard
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.