Take the Red-Eye — And 11 More Tricks to Save on International Travel

A woman looks at her phone while taking a red eye flight.
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With the worst of the pandemic behind us, international travel is way, way up this year. But be prepared for it to be expensive. You’ll need to plan ahead and think strategically to get the biggest bang for your travel buck.

More Americans are wanting to get out and see the world in 2023, so international travel bookings are up more than 200% compared to 2022, according to AAA booking data. The heavy demand is driving up airfares, with ticket prices for international trips costing 30% more than last year.

“Travel is in full swing and bookings are incredibly strong, so it pays to plan ahead,” says Debbie Haas, vice president of travel for AAA-The Auto Club Group.

Europe and Canada are the most popular destinations. London tops the list, with a nearly 350% increase over last year. Rome, Paris, Dublin and Barcelona are other European hot spots, with Vancouver, Toronto and Calgary the most popular Canadian cities.

We’ve got 12 tips to help you save money and see the world without piling on debt.

12 Ways to Save on International Travel

1. Travel During the Offseason

The offseason is when fewer travelers flock to a particular region. It’s all about when you travel and where you’re going. For Europe, the offseason is November through March. In Southeast Asia, it’s June through October. North America’s offseason varies by the region.

During the offseason, you’ll save money with cheaper international flights, more budget-friendly lodging options and smaller crowds.

2. Choose a Good Travel Credit Card

Make sure you’re using a travel credit card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees. The going rate on most credit cards is 3%, meaning you’ll be charged $30 for every $1,000 you spend overseas.

Some credit cards have rewards programs to earn free or discounted travel and include travel insurance, which can cover lost luggage and expenses (such as meals, lodging, rental cars) that come with delayed or canceled travel.

3. Avoid Airport Parking

Daily parking at larger metropolitan airports — and smaller airports too — can be really costly. In just 10 days, you can easily spend more than $100.

Instead of driving yourself, save money by catching a ride with a friend, taking public transportation or using a ride-sharing service.

Even if you don’t live close to the airport, paying for a ride with Uber or Lyft may still be cheaper than parking nearby. To be sure, Uber and Lyft provide ride estimate calculators you can use, then compare the estimate to your parking costs.

4. Research All Your Lodging Options

Sure, look at hotels in the area, but don’t rule out other options like Airbnb. You could very well find that it’s less expensive to stay in a short-term rental — either the whole place or just a room — than a hotel room or suite. For example, the average cost of an Airbnb in Rome is $166 per night. A three-star hotel in Italy will cost a lot more.

Choosing an Airbnb will not only give you more space, but you’ll also have access to a kitchen. You’ll be able to buy groceries and make your own meals, avoid spending extra at restaurants and enjoy cooking with what you find at local markets.

5. Be Smart When Converting Currency

Yes, look into a credit card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees, but also make sure you don’t get dinged by currency exchange fees.

Check with your bank about purchasing foreign currency before you leave. For example, Wells Fargo offers 70 currencies available for use in more than 100 countries — meaning you can put foreign cash in your pocket before you even leave home.

Avoiding exchange kiosks at airports can help you save, too. Not only can it be a hassle to find local cash when you land, exchange kiosks charge services fees and exchange rates much higher than banks.

6. Check on Your Phone Plan

What’s in your hand and could cost you a pretty penny in extra fees when you travel internationally? Your phone. If you just hop on the plane, travel to another country and start using your phone, you could rack up hundreds or even thousands of dollars in roaming fees.

Check with your provider before you leave instead. You may be able to temporarily switch to an international plan or buy a travel pass to dodge roaming fees. With AT&T, you can use your phone like you normally would for $10 per day while overseas. Similarly, Verizon offers a monthly plan that costs $100 and a daily plan for $10.

Another option is to buy a local SIM card, which can be cheaper for longer trips than a daily travel pass. There are pros and cons to switching SIM cards, so do your research before you leave.

7. Consider Travel Insurance

If you don’t have travel insurance through a credit card, you should consider purchasing coverage. Premiums may cost up to 10% of your total trip when you buy a travel insurance policy from a provider.

Travel insurance may seem like an unnecessary, additional expense, but that policy protects your investment, just like property insurance. You’ve spent thousands of dollars on your trip. If something happens, you won’t recoup any of that money — and may spend even more in an emergency — without travel insurance.

Travel insurance typically covers trip cancellation, trip interruption, emergency medical care (including transportation), delayed and damaged baggage and travel delays.

8. Pack Light

It goes without saying, but we’ll say it anyway: Pack light and stick to carry-on bags as much as possible! Checked baggage fees can run into the hundreds, especially if you have several flights.

Think about versatility as you pack, wear bulky items and be thoughtful about your toiletries to get everything you need into a smaller bag. Also, don’t waste your personal item on a small purse or bag. Take a backpack or a larger bag if you can — you can always tuck a smaller bag in the larger one if you want to carry something lighter once you’re at your destination.

9. Get Creative With Laundry

You can pack even lighter when you’re intentional about laundry — because who wants to spend time looking for, then sitting in a laundromat in Paris?

You may have access to a washer if you rent a house, but you can also do laundry yourself in a hotel bathtub or sink. It’s free, though not the easiest solution.

If you’re a frequent traveler or tend to rough it, investing in a wash bag may make sense. The portable 5.3-ounce Scrubba wash bag folds down tight and doesn’t require electricity, yet has a flexible internal washboard to help you wash your clothes anywhere — hotel, tent, RV.

For a nine-day trip, you might need only a few outfits if you’re able to quickly and easily take care of laundry.

10. Take the Red-Eye on a Weekday

Late flights are almost always the cheapest flights, especially compared to international flights that leave in the morning on weekends. Maybe not the most comfortable option, a red-eye flight on a weekday helps you save on airfare and possibly lodging if the flight covers one night of your trip.

Head to the airport early, grab dinner and a drink and relax before your long trip. The long flight will allow you to rest onboard and get mentally ready for the vacation ahead or your return to home.

11. Be Intentional About What (and Where) You Eat

You’ve done your research on everything else, it only makes sense to do the same about your dining choices.

Do you want to eat out for every meal or once a day? Are there certain restaurants or foods that you want to try? You can save money on food when you travel by eating out for lunch instead of dinner, bringing or picking up snacks from a store and carrying a water bottle that you can refill.

Research your dining options ahead of time so you can budget and take advantage of discounts where you can, like happy hour prices.

12. Save Early and Often for Your Trip

Long before you depart, set a target amount for your trip and start a sinking fund to begin saving money. A sinking fund is simply a way to budget and save for big expenses such as a new roof, a car or a trip overseas.

Let’s say you’ve set a $3,000 budget on a trip you’re taking in two years. If you set aside $125 per month in your sinking fund, you’ll have the trip covered in 24 months. Just take how much you want to save and divide it by how long you want to save ($3,000 divided by 24).

Even without a specific trip in mind, you can set up a revolving sinking fund to save for travel. Whether you save the full amount or not, you’ll have a good financial base for your next trip abroad.

Robert Bruce is a senior writer for The Penny Hoarder. Senior writer Mike Brassfield contributed.