Growing up, my biggest dream was to be a globetrotter: learning new cultures, making foreign friends and seeing sights in real time instead of in a book. I assumed I’d be rich by the time I was 18 and could just jet away whenever I wanted.
Five-year-old me clearly didn’t understand I needed a fair amount of money to travel. But what about moving to another country? That was never in my plans, but at 19 years old, I found myself moving to London, England from Detroit, Michigan by myself and on a tight budget.
If you’ve considered moving abroad but think money is too big of a barrier, think again. Whether you’re a first-time traveler or someone who’s traveled extensively, living in a different country can be done on a budget.
Once you’ve decided to take the plunge, you can live, work and travel locally inexpensively if you prepare and do your research. Below we showcase different ways to save money once you’re in your new surroundings.
Make the Most of Your Money
Oftentimes, credit card companies tack on a 1%–3% fee for spending abroad. If this is applicable to your current card, consider applying for a different credit card with no or very low foreign transaction fees. Be careful, though: Some cards that claim they have no transaction fees have annual membership fees, which could cost more in the end.
Use a card that rewards you for traveling. I brought my American Express Delta SkyMiles card to England with me, and I loved it. There were no foreign transaction fees, and I earned Delta Airline miles with every purchase. They charge an annual $95 fee, but as a Delta customer, I received perks like priority boarding, so it was worth the cost for me.
Understand your debit card before you use it. Foreign transaction fees and out-of-network fees can be slapped onto every transaction you make and add up quickly. Find a debit card that doesn’t charge a fee or reimburses you if you are charged a fee.
Sometimes there is no way to avoid the fees. In that case, take out as much money as you think you’ll need so you only incur the fees once. Be sure to store the extra cash in a safe place until you need to use it.
Shop around for the best currency exchanges. Many larger cities offer several exchange kiosks, and they’ll provide the daily exchange rate on their websites. Usually, the closer you are to the city center and touristy areas, the worse an exchange rate you’ll get, but do your research beforehand. You’ll always have to pay a fee for exchanging money, but it doesn’t have to be exorbitant.
If you’re working, you’ll be paid in the country’s currency, so you won’t need to worry about exchanging locally. If you need to exchange to other currencies, you can do so directly with your bank for a fair rate.
Understand Currency Rates
This might be intuitive for some, but be mindful of the exchange rate; $100 isn’t the same as £100 ($130) or €100 ($110). A candy bar that costs £3 isn’t that good of a deal when it equals $4, but a meal for 1,120 Hungarian Forint, which also equals $4, is a great deal.
If you find it difficult to convert currencies in your head, consider using a converter app. OANDA Currency Converter allows you to include typical credit card and ATM fees when you’re converting, giving you a realistic exchange.
Make a Priority List and Budget Accordingly
Think about what you want to get out of your time living abroad. Is it important for you to have a large house, or would you rather live in a smaller apartment and use the saved money toward testing out different restaurants? Would you like to buy designer clothes from boutiques, or could you forgo those to do more sightseeing?
Once you’ve determined your priorities, you can create a budget to encompass them. This will help you avoid impulse purchases and keep you on track to do everything you want to during your time there.
Use Transportation Wisely
Compare flight prices before purchasing a trip. Check out apps, such as Hopper, which can save you up to 40% on flights or websites, such as Priceline and Kayak, which will compare thousands of flights for you. Once you’ve found the best rate, go to the airline’s website and compare their prices with what you found on the comparison website. You may find a better deal buying directly from the airline.
If you use a particular airline often, sign up for frequent flyer programs. Even if flights are slightly more expensive, you can earn miles for free future flights and reap other benefits, including priority boarding. Some even allow you to earn miles when you fly with partner airlines.
Think before you cab it. While taking cabs is an efficient way to move, they can put a dent in your budget if you take them too often. Try using public transportation; it can be difficult at first, but you’ll get the hang of things after a few rides.
Don’t automatically purchase a weekly or monthly transportation card when you get to your destination. Instead, take a few weeks to determine if you will even use it enough to make the pass worth the cost.
Get Those Steps In
Oh yeah, walking: The easiest way to save money on transportation, for most people, is to use your feet. I walked 45 minutes each way to school in London. Due to traffic, my commute would have taken about the same time had I taken the bus or the Tube, so I opted to save money and get exercise. For me, it was a no-brainer.
Remember: Your safety is what’s most important. Use common sense when using transportation or walking late at night or early in the morning. When it comes to safety, cost doesn’t matter.
Be Prepared for Anything
You can never be too prepared when traveling and living abroad. Carrying small items you know you’ll need is always a good idea. If you’re prone to headaches, bring a small container of Advil in your purse or backpack. If you know you’re going to be walking a lot and could get blisters, take along bandages.
Always carry a reusable water bottle and non-perishable snacks with you. Sometimes water and snacks will be way overpriced, and sometimes you won’t find any stores open (ahem, Europe on Sunday evenings).
Keeping these items handy will save you from overspending when you really need them. The only thing worse than spending $5 for a water and $3 for two aspirins is having no options to buy them when you really need to.
Check Discount Websites
Scour the internet for deals and coupons wherever you are in the world.
BlaBlaCar.com and other sites offer free or cheap transportation between cities by pairing up drivers and passengers to make road trips together.
My personal favorite is Groupon, which offers discounted meals, tickets and getaways in 48 countries, including Israel, India, Puerto Rico and Ukraine. This allows you to try out new restaurants or check out a local band while paying a lot less to do so.
Most countries have smaller, local sites that offer similar deals like the big companies do. For example, lastminute.com is a popular UK-only site that offers discounted London theater tickets and meals; the Chinese site Meituan.com is similar to Groupon.
Consult with the Locals
If you want to know the best deals around the city, just ask. Consult with co-workers, neighbors and friends to find out which grocery, clothing and home good stores offer the greatest values. Ask them which banks they use and what a fair price for rent is in your area.
Long-time locals will know the best stores to shop at, what restaurants to eat at and which bank offers the best rates. They’ll enjoy showing off their city and how much they know!
Save on Side Trips
Part of the fun of living in a different country is traveling to neighboring places. This can be expensive if you’re looking for luxury but fairly cheap if you’re resourceful.
Hostels can offer accommodations for next to nothing, but make sure you understand what’s included with your stay. Oftentimes they provide free Wi-Fi and breakfast, but sometimes they’re extra, which can add a lot to your bill. Avoid unnecessary frills when it comes to travel accommodations. Do you need a hotel with fancy bathrobes? Do you need extra legroom during a one-hour flight?
Pack as light as possible so you don’t pay baggage fees. Not only will that save you money, it will make maneuvering around much easier.
Even if you’re not in school, you can travel like you’re on a student budget. Purchasing a travel pass can save you a lot on public transportation, and a city pass allows you to visit several attractions at a fraction of the price. Using a tour group can also be an inexpensive way to travel, particularly if you want someone else to do the planning for you.
Take advantage of 26-and-under or senior deals, as you may be able to receive free or discounted entrance to museums and attractions, including meals. These are very popular in certain countries and can save you big.
Keep Calm, It’s Only Money
I spent a little over two years studying and working in the UK before spending four months backpacking in Europe. I took on no debt and paid for the majority of travel costs on my own.
The key is to be smart: Do your research, be prepared and expect to give up small luxuries for the bigger picture. I packed light, made do with what I had and took advantage of all the free and low-cost options of travel, sightseeing and eating. I shopped at grocery stores more than I ate out, walked more than I thought I ever could and researched before I booked or transferred anything.
Some days were more expensive than others, but to me, the experiences I had and memories I made were well worth the cost. Living abroad is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I crossed everything off my bucket list. I made sacrifices, and I compromised; I saved, and I skimped. However, I never sacrificed safety.
No sacrifice, no compromise I made was too great. So if you think moving to another country is too expensive, reconsider. It’s more affordable than you might think.
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