Europe on a Budget – Tips for Traveling on the Cheap

This August Casco FCU teller-to-the-stars Paige went on the adventure of a lifetime. She and a group of friends went on a trip to visit her German exchange student from high school. While abroad Paige got to travel all around Europe – to Iceland, Germany, Italy, France, and Austria. It was a month-long trip jam-packed with fun. Trust me, I’ve seen the photos.

Paige & Friends at Eiffel Tower

Paige & Friends at the Eiffel Tower.

Because she works at a credit union, Paige was very well prepared financially for her vacation. She might have been gallivanting around Europe, but that doesn’t mean her bank account was left hurting. And now Paige has returned from her trip with more than just fancy German chocolates to share – she sat down with me to give me her 7 best tips for saving money while traveling. Here they are:

  1. Get your home finances in order – Step number one when you travel (even within the U.S.) is to let your financial institution know where you’re going and the dates. Your credit union or bank has fraud prevention systems that track your debit card use for unusual transactions. If out of the blue you start using your card in Switzerland when you’ve never made a purchase outside of Maine before, those systems might think someone has stolen your card. Your debit card might get frozen and you might not be able to access your money right away, which isn’t a problem you”l want to have while traveling overseas. If you notify your FI beforehand, however, they can often modify settings on your card to make sure it works correctly while you travel. Step two of financial prep for your trip is to make sure all of your bills will get paid while you’re gone. Set up auto payments to insure things like car payments, credit cards, student loans, and your rent are taken care of while you’re gone. Then you won’t have to deal with late fees or other hassles when you get back.
  2. Save more than you need – Paige estimated that she would need between $1,000 to $1,500 for her trip. This was based on the fact that she would be gone for 4 weeks and some research she did into accommodations, transportation, and activities. She began putting money into a savings account for her trip over a year before she left and aimed to save $3,000. Knowing she had more money than she would necessarily need to spend meant she was ready for any unexpected expenses that popped up along the way (like a $25, 5 minute cab drive when it started raining in Paris). Plus it meant that she knew she had wiggle room in her budget for splurges like one fancy hotel room in France or some clothes shopping at Michael Kors. Lastly, saving money beforehand meant that even if she charged things on her credit card while she was there, she would have the funds to payoff that card when she returned. You want to enjoy your trip, not be worried about how much money you’re spending. The more you can save beforehand, the more enjoyable your trip will be.
  3. Get creative with lodging – Hotels can often be a traveler’s biggest expense. You gotta sleep somewhere, right? Paige saved money on lodging by exploring other options. She stayed with a friend from Germany for a lot of the trip. She also stayed in hostels, which are usually much cheaper than hotels because the accommodations are less fancy and you often share a room with other travelers. Paige recommends using websites like booking.com to check out a hostel before you book, just to make sure it’s safe and clean. Another option that can save travelers money is AirBnB, a site which lets you stay in someone’s apartment or home while they are gone.
  4. Buy tickets early – Most people know that often the earlier you can book a plane ticket, the cheaper it is. But the same goes for other traveling tickets, like trains, subways, museums, tourist attractions, and more. Paige, for example, got a $10 ticket to visit the Vatican online in advance. Tickets on site the day of are $42. That’s a big difference! The only downside to buying in advance is that if you don’t end up making it to that city or site, it can end up being a waste. So just make sure you don’t overbook.

    Paige Venice

    Paige took this herself in Venice. Look how cool the reflection on the boat is!

  5. Travel like the natives – Whichever mode of transportation is most popular with the natives of that city is probably also the cheapest. Instead of renting a car or flying, try alternative modes of transportation like trains, boats, and subway systems. Paige traveled from city to city in Europe mostly by train, because it was the cheapest. What was the most common way she got around once she was in a city? By foot! Walking not only saves on cab fares, but it lets you see more of the city up close and personal. Plus it’s free. Can’t beat that.
  6. Bring snacks – Food is expensive, but you gotta eat. Especially after a long day of sight-seeing. Obviously eating out can be a huge part of travel experience, but if you only eat out for your whole trip it can also be expensive. Try having at least one meal a day be “homemade” or rather something you buy at a grocery store and prepare on your own. If you’re going to be out for a long time sightseeing, bring snacks so you’re not tempted to buy food while you’re out. Plus bringing snacks means you get to check out foreign grocery stores, which will look a lot different than your local one. Who knows what yummy treats you’ll find for less.
  7. Keep track – This last one might seem obvious, but as she was climbing the Eiffel Tower I’m sure Paige was not thinking about her current checking account balance. It’s easy to lose track of how much you spend when you’re busy and having fun. But it’s also integral to making sure you stay within your budget. Use your mobile app to check your balance and recent transactions. Compare receipts to your app to make sure you got charged the correct amounts. Keep a list of what you’ve bought for gifts and souvenirs so you don’t overspend. Lastly, if you use a debit or credit card even once while abroad, checking your account online will help you prevent fraud on your account. If you see a transaction on your account that you didn’t do, let your financial institution know ASAP.

Although it sounds like if she had been able to Paige would have stayed in Europe forever, her return to reality has been a little easier because she’s in such great financial shape. She came back with money to spare, rather than being over budget or worried about how she was going to make credit card payments. That sounds like the right way to pay for Europe if you ask me!

Debit Card Travel Tips

Are you traveling this summer? Whether you’re backpacking across Europe or just taking a road trip to a neighboring state, nothing ruins a good summer vacation like debit card problems! Luckily I am here to save the day with these easy tips for using your debit card on the road.

  • Alert your credit union or bank before you leave. Before you leave for your trip, call your financial institution and tell them where you are going (countries, states, etc.) and the dates you will be gone. Now-a-days, every financial institution has a fraud monitoring system for their debit cards; when your card is being used outside your typical area of activity, it can automatically be frozen to prevent any further fraudulent activity. The last thing you want while you’re away from home is for your debit card to stop working without your knowledge! Alerting your credit union to your travel plans before you leave means they can alter settings in their system so that your card will not be shut off for use out-of-state or out-of-country.
  • Give your credit union or bank your phone number. Does your financial institution have your cell phone number? Or do they have your parents’ home number from 15 years ago when you first opened your “Lil’ Savers” account? When fraud is detected on your debit card, your financial institution will try to contact you immediately. If they have the best phone number to reach you at while you’re traveling, that might mean fixing a problem before your debit card gets denied. If they call and leave a message at your nana’s house because that’s the number they have on file, you might be in trouble. I’m sure Nana would let you know they called, but it will likely take her a while to get you the message and in the mean time you might not be able to use your card. Make sure your credit union has a record of the best way to contact you while you travel so you can handle any issues ASAP.
  • Traveling abroad? Make sure your debit card works in the country(ies) you’re visiting. Not all countries accept American debit cards. Before you leave, check with your credit union or bank to make sure your debit card will work in the country you are visiting. If it does, great! But if not, you’ll want to know that beforehand so you can plan to bring cash. You don’t want to wait until you’re at your destination to find out your debit card won’t work.
  • Know your daily limit. Every debit card has a daily limit for how much you can withdraw at the ATM and a separate limit for how much you can spend on POS transactions (Point of Sale or at the cash register transactions). Find out what your limit is before you travel so you don’t get caught exceeding it. In some cases, your financial institution can even raise your limit temporarily while you travel.
  • Debit cards often give better exchange rates than currency exchange bureaus. If you’re traveling overseas, consider using your debit card instead of cash. Often your debit card will have a better exchange rate on foreign currency than you will get at an exchange bureau for cash. Plus, you won’t have to worry about having left over foreign currency that you need to exchange back to U.S. dollars when you get home; paying with your card means you only have to exchange exactly what you needed.

If you plan ahead, your debit card can be your travel buddy not your financial foe. Happy adventuring!

Snacks on a Plane! The Horror of Unexpected Travel Costs

Budgeting money while you travel be difficult. Not only because you’re on vacation so you want to let loose a little and forget about your budget; it’s also because traveling can include all sorts of hidden expenses that you didn’t plan for before you left home. For example, I knew the drinks in Las Vegas would be expensive (I paid $20 for ONE cosmopolitan at the Britney show), but I didn’t think twice about how much cash I would need for cabs. Here are a few “hidden” travel expenses to make sure you account for when making your travel plans:

1. Taxis –

One thing I learned in Las Vegas is that even if your destination is on the same street as your starting point, that DOES NOT mean you can walk. We took taxis to get almost everywhere in Vegas and they were a lot more expensive than the cabs back in good ol’ Portland, Maine. Plan to have cash on you for cabs, including a lot of smaller bills so you can split the cost with your travel buddies or tip the cabbie easily. Also, check out the public transportation situation before you get to your destination. A weekend subway pass may only cost $15, whereas a cab will cost $30 each time you ride. Riding the bus might mean saving enough cash for an extra drink or dessert!

2. Hotel/ Airport Parking –

 If you drove for part of your trip, where do you plan to leave your car? Keeping your car in long-term parking at the airport can be costly (as much as $50 a day in some places). It might be worth it to see if you can get a ride to the airport or take public transportation. Remember to factor in cost of parking when you’re comparing flights from different airports, as well.  When I went to Vegas, flights out of Boston were between $300 to $500 cheaper than flights out of Portland; this meant it was still cheaper to fly out of Boston even with the extra cost of parking and gas than it was to fly out of my hometown, but this might not always be the case.

If you’re driving to your destination, check with the hotel about parking before you get there. They may have limited parking spaces available or they might charge a fee. In either case, you’ll want to know in advance so you can budget accordingly.

 3. Snacks in the Airport/ on the Plane –

I am very guilty of buying snacks in the airport. Why is a Cinnabon bought after I’ve been through security always so much more appealing than that PB&J I packed in my carry-on? Calories consumed inside an airport don’t count, right? We all know anything you buy at the airport is super expensive ($4.50 for a bottle of water, anyone?) but you can combat those costs by planning ahead. Bring a few snacks in your bag that you know you’ll enjoy, but also allow yourself a treat here and there. For example, plan to treat yourself to one airport item traveling to your destination and one on the way back, then cut yourself off from any other impulse buys. That way you still get a treat but you don’t spend all of your vacation money before your flight boards. Also, bring a water bottle. Leave it empty to get through security and then fill up once you’re inside. As for the snacks they sell on the plane now, forget about it! They’re tiny, not very tasty, and a waste of your money. Whatever happened to the free peanuts, anyways?

The next time you’re traveling, I hope these tips help you stay on track. After all it’s YOU who should be letting loose and having a good time on vacation, not your wallet!

Las Vegas: The Adult Disney World

This is my most tourist-y/ instagram-ish photo from Vegas.

This is my most tourist-y/ instagram-ish photo from Vegas.

Ladies and Gentleman, I am proud to report that we have officially returned from the Bachelorette-Las-Vegas-Britney-Spears-Weekend-Extravaganza without anyone getting stuck on a roof or getting themselves on the no-fly list, which I think makes it a success. We had an amazing, whirlwind of a weekend and I think it was well worth the trip. This was my first visit to Las Vegas, and while several different people tried to tell me what to expect, Vegas is most definitely one of those places you have to see to believe. As a Vegas-Newbie, I think I made the following comments about 100 times each while we were there:

1. “Why is everything SO HUGE?!” – Like, actually though. Everything there is unnecessarily large. You’re at one hotel and you’re like, “Oh the Bellagio is right next door, let’s just walk.” And then 20 minutes and half a mile of walking later you are no closer to getting there than when you started. All you’ve done is walk by like 10,000 people, a bunch of casinos, bars, and some over-the-top hotel decor involving fake flowers. Lesson learned: just because your hotel is on the strip does NOT mean you should walk anywhere.

2. “How do we even get of here?! Is there a door to the outside world? HELP!” – All hotel/casinos in Vegas are black holes of food, adult beverages, gambling, and stores. There are no clocks, no windows, and no exit signs because they want you to get lost. It’s intentionally confusing. They’re hoping that after half an hour of unsuccessful searching for the door, you will just give up and stay at their casino. Example: Darcie and I got lost at the Venetian. We called the other group, who we planned to meet outside the Grand Lux Cafe. We got there, didn’t see them. Called them, they said they were there. Turns out – there’s TWO Grand Lux Cafes in the same darn hotel. With the same name. HOW DO YOU EXPECT ME TO FIND ANYONE, LAS VEGAS?! I’m from Maine, I get lost easily in urban settings. They were setting me up for a loss on that one.

A picture of the wolf pack pre-getting lost at the Venetian.

A picture of the wolf pack pre-getting lost at the Venetian.

3. “Why is everything inside a hotel?”– Apparently, nothing in Vegas is in its own building. Every restaurant, club, or tourist attraction we went to was inside of a hotel. I’m pretty sure you could go to Las Vegas and never actually go outside, which seems like a waste of sunny, 80 degree weather to me. It reminded me of this swim meet we used to go to every summer in St. John, New Brunswick where the hotel was connected to the pool by this walking tunnel so we wouldn’t go outside for basically the entire meet. Except there they built it like that because it’s Canada and it’s cold, so it made more sense.

4. “This is like Disney World for Adults.” – Las Vegas is the most American city of all time, in that you can visit attractions from all over the world without ever having to leave the comfort and safety of the good ole US of A. You can see the pyramids (the Cesaer’s Palace version anyways) without having to encounter someone who doesn’t speak English. Or you can see the Eiffel Tour and the canals of Venice at the same time while making your way to lunch at Toby Keith’s “I Love This Bar and Grill!” It’s a consumer-friendly version of traveling the world. Also, if the architects of Las Vegas know one thing, it is how to take a theme and go ALL OUT. You asked for bar with a chandelier theme – you got a 5 story night club INSIDE of a crystal chandelier. Looking at you Cosmopolitan . . . Las Vegas reminds me of the Rain Forest Cafe at Disney, where even the menu items are renamed with puns like “Python Pasta” or “Gorilla Grilled Cheese Delight.” Really, every restaurant, ride, and store at Disney is like that. It is also like that in Vegas. Basically, Las Vegas is not a town, as much as it is a theme park. What I’m getting at here is that it was wicked fun for a vacation trip, but I think I would find living there overwhelming.

5. “OH MY GOD! We’re at Britney Spears! Like that is Britney Spears right there! This is my 1st grade dream come true!” – I shouted this at Kathleen, the other little sister of the crowd, repeatedly while we were at the concert. Any time we weren’t singing along with Brit’s greatest hits, I was saying any combination of these statements. The concert was the highlight of the trip. Britney was FABULOUS. She did not disappoint. She didn’t sing much, but she did what she does best – entertain. The sets were amazing, the back-up dancers were great, and she changed outfits pretty much every other song. As I think I have mentioned before (but it’s hilarious so I’m bringing it up again, sorry I’m not sorry Darcie), my sister spent most of our formative years in faux-leather pants and a head-set lip-syncing to B. Spears in our living room; I cannot think of a better way to send her off into married life at a Britney concert, also in faux-leather pants.

That's Britney, rolling around on that stage somewhere.

That’s Britney, rolling around on that stage somewhere.

So that was my Las Vegas experience in a nut shell. It was the bachelorette weekend of a lifetime. And if you thought that I didn’t learn any important financial lessons while I was in Vegas – think again! My next post will be about unexpected travel expenses and how to avoid them. I was just too excited about Britney to fit all that into this post. 🙂

If you're having trouble reading this guy's mohawk, it says "Britney, Piece of Me." The other side had the full "Welcome to Las Vegas" sign. #dedication

If you’re having trouble reading this guy’s mohawk, it says “Britney, Piece of Me.” The other side had the full “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign. #dedication

P.S. The end of the bachelorette means that this wedding is only 5 weeks away. And I have a bridal shower to throw in less than a month. EEK!

 

The Hangover Meets Bridesmaids

Last week I had quite possible the best idea ever. Literally. I’m a genius.

I was sitting at home, casually eating dinner while flipping through the channels when I landed on an E! News Special “I Am Britney Jean.” This gem of a television program is all about Britney Spears, her new album, and how she now lives at the Planet Hollywood Casino in Las Vegas where she preforms almost nightly. And then all of the sudden it hit me – SEEING BRITNEY SPEARS IN VEGAS WOULD BE THE BEST BACHELORETTE PARTY EVER!

I immediately text my sister, feeling only 35% confident that she would think I was being serious. Lucky for me, her inner 16 year-old came through and she liked the idea enough to start checking when they had concert tickets available. I should have had more faith in her because she did spend most of her high school years in our living room wearing a head set and pleather pants and dancing to Britney, but then again she laughed me off when I suggested that she have a bacon bar at her cocktail hour so you just never can tell with her (I mean it’s a bacon bar. BACON.)

So, after much looking at tickets, hotels, and flights online, debating whether it was crazy of us to go through with it, and me sending pleading/threatening e-mails to the other bridesmaids, we made it official. We are going to Las Vegas in April to see Britney Spears for what will be the greatest bachelorette party in the history of weddings! Even if I do nothing else for the rest of the wedding, I feel like this contribution should get me some sort of “World’s Best Maid of Honor” award.

Legend . . . wait for it . . . DARY!

Legen . . . wait for it . . . DARY!

The purpose of this post is not just to brag about how great of a little sister I am. Although someday they will make a combination “Hangover”/ “Bridesmaids” type movie about our Vegas weekend, I think I learned a few money-saving tips in the process of booking the trip that are probably more applicable to your everyday needs.

I am by no ones a frequent flier, but I’d say on average I fly once or twice a year, which is just enough to be familiar with buying plane tickets but not enough to be a pro. I’m never 100% confident that I got the best deal on a plane ticket. So I’ve done some research and complied a few useful tips for purchasing flights on the cheap. I think they helped me find tickets to Las Vegas that didn’t totally empty out my “Darcie’s Wedding” Account (I think I have $0.25 in there 🙂 ).

1. Book Early – most sites seem to recommend booking your flight 6-8 weeks before you plan to travel. If you’re last minute, airlines can charge you more because there are less seats available and they know you need the ticket. Buying early gives you time to comparison shop for the price as well as the flight itinerary that best meets your schedule and your wallet.

2. Use Bing.com Travel – http://www.bing.com/travel/?FORM=L8SP22 The great thing about using Bing to help book your flights is that they actually seem to want you to get the best price! You type in your travel information (departing, arriving, date, etc.) and it not only lists possible flights but also gives you an indicator of whether or not now is a good time to buy. It gives you a green upwards arrow if prices are expected to rise and now is a good time to buy, or a downwards red arrow if you should wait because prices will drop. It also automatically pulls up results from travel sites like Priceline or Orbitz when you search with Bing so you can compare prices. It’s a great place to start your search.

3. Search Alternate Routes – Is you travel route flexible? How about your destination? Are you flexible about the dates of your trip? The more flexible your travel schedule, the better your chances are of finding a low-cost deal on flights. For example, it is way cheaper to fly on a Tuesday than on a Friday. Or having one or two lay-overs might be less expensive than a direct flight. Be open to different travel routes and you may save yourself some money. If you aren’t set on a certain date or location, maybe just looking into a vacation, try the Kayak Exlpore feature http://www.kayak.com/explore/. It lets you view a map of different locations around the world and deals on travel based on the date you fly. Very cool and great for the whimsical adventurer.

Where do you want to go?

Where do you want to go?

4.Get a Refund if Fares Go Down – Don’t be shy! If you booked a flight and a few days later you see it go down in price, ask the airline for a refund for the difference. They might not give it to you, but it doesn’t hurt to try. Orbitz even has a “Best Price Guarantee” where they pledge to refund you the difference  if another user books the same itinerary as you for less. Check it out here: http://www.orbitz.com/mktg/best-price-guarantee/.

Even if your next trip doesn’t take you to see Britney in Sin City, it can still be cheap and easy! Hope these trips help you travel happier.