We made the mistake ourselves. Before setting off on a long-term travel career break, we thought we had our budget nailed. We had a big spreadsheet (I loved that spreadsheet!) with detailed daily costs for accommodation transport, food and activities. But it didn’t take us long to realise that some travel expenses are not so easy to anticipate. Here, we compile the many hidden costs of travel you should know about before a big trip, and how you can sometimes avoid them.
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In this article:
Hidden costs of travel: self-care and maintenance
Doing laundry is an ongoing expense that is so easy to forget about when planning a trip. Dirty clothes pile up quickly when you are constantly on the go and burning the candle at both ends. Even with careful resource management, as a couple we wash at least one full machine load every week while travelling, and usually more.
The cost of laundry services racks up quite a lot over time. Over the course of an 11-month round-the-world journey, we spent £192 / $235 on laundry for the two of us.
How to avoid laundry costs
It’s very difficult to avoid laundry costs entirely, but there are steps you can take to keep them to a minimum.
You might have the option to do your own laundry in your accommodation. That isn’t always possible, though. If you stop in a place for one or two nights at a time regularly, there isn’t time for clothes to dry. When staying in hostels, there is also competition for space on clotheslines, and of course the dent in your free time that washing clothes makes. When you put all this together, paying for laundry services is usually unavoidable.
Laundry prices vary hugely, not only from country to country, but also within towns and cities. Don’t just take the first price you find. Shop around for good prices, and sometimes you can barter as well. One time in Bolivia, we turned to walk away after being quoted a price – assuming it was a fixed one – and the shop owner shouted after us offering lower. When you do find laundry services for a good price, get as much done there as possible.
Public toilets are not free everywhere in the world. In many places – and particularly in highly touristed areas of developing countries – a small fee is charged. We found this to be the case in several countries in Southeast Asia, as well as Peru and Bolivia in South America, for example. These fees can build up to a significant amount over time.
How to avoid toilet costs
When nature calls, there isn’t anything you can do about it – if you’ve gotta go, you’ve gotta go! You can always try to minimise the cost by using facilities wherever they are free, such as in most restaurants, hostels and hotels.
Basic toiletries are one the few things that cost more in most places outside the UK. When we’re at home, there’s always a cheap deal in our local supermarket for shower gel, deodorant, toothpaste and the like. That’s rarely been the case when we travel overseas, and so we underestimated the cost of replenishing toiletries when we began a long-term trip.
How to keep toiletry costs down
Unless you’re willing to live back to nature, this is another cost that it’s not possible to avoid entirely. Sometimes hotels (and in fewer cases, hostels) will provide complementary toiletries, so make use of these whenever possible. But for the most part, you’ll need to buy your own.
You can keep these costs down by stocking up with as much as you are willing to carry whenever you find good deals. Budget supermarkets and local markets are usually the best bet.
Medication and other treatment while travelling can be divided into two categories: foreseen and unforeseen. If you have an existing condition that requires medication, you will no doubt have already factored it into your travel planning.
But anyone can fall victim to an unexpected illness or injury that needs to be dealt with. When we were in the Peruvian Amazon, Lisa had hundreds of mosquito bites, and so we had to buy some special cream. At other times we had to buy medicine for flu and other short-term maladies. This can’t be helped, and it’s also impossible to anticipate.
How to keep medication costs down
This isn’t an area you should be seeking to make shortcuts – personal health is more important than saving money. But if you travel prepared by carrying a basic mini first aid kit, you may find that you already have exactly what you need, and can access it straight away.
Haircuts (and other grooming)
If you’re planning to travel for more than a few weeks, then you will probably need to factor in costs for personal grooming, such as having your hair cut. The needs will be different for everyone, of course. Some people like to get a haircut every couple of weeks, while others don’t bother with it at all (or don’t need to). Then there’s nails, colours, makeup…
At this point I’ll give a shout-out to a blogging friend of mine who runs the fabulous YouTube channel Haircut Harry. He travels around the world having his hair cut in unique, interesting places, and makes videos about it. Check it out – it’s seriously cool.
How to avoid haircut and grooming costs
This idea won’t appeal to everyone, but… there is always the option to live free and let it grow. The travelling lifestyle often makes people tend towards this anyway, through a mixture of laziness and convenience. I grew my biggest ever beard while travelling.
Other than this, there’s just the usual drill of doing research and looking for good deals. Ask locals for recommendations on barbers and hairdressers. Buy grooming gear whenever you see a good price. Small efforts like this make significant savings over time.
Hidden costs of travel: money management
ATM withdrawal charges and card fees
The simple act of withdrawing cash from an ATM can be costly when travelling overseas. In many places around the world, local banks charge fees for withdrawals.
Sometimes this is also compounded by restrictive withdrawal limits. For example, during our last Argentina visit, we were charged $6–$7 per withdrawal, but could only withdraw a maximum of around $130 at a time. This meant we were paying a minimum of 5% extra just to access our money.
On top of this, there may also be additional fees charged by your own bank at home. We had to use our emergency credit card in Argentina after our travel money cards were lost in a robbery, which added extra cost.
How to avoid cash withdrawal fees
In many places, you will have no choice but to pay withdrawal fees. But the charge amounts often vary. After we first arrived in Phuket, Thailand, I went to a mall to get some cash. I found several ATMs in one little hall. When the first one I tried flashed up a message asking if I accepted their fees, I hit ‘no’ and tried the others. The fees were all different, and so I used the cheapest one.
Get a feel for the typical fees, and whenever you find an ATM charging the low end, withdraw as much as you can. This will keep your costs down over time (but don’t withdraw more than you are likely to use before leaving the country).
To keep the costs applied by your own bank to a minimum, it’s best to get a travel money card or banking app such as Monzo or Revolut, which offer free withdrawals up to a certain amount each month. We’ve used both of these, and they make life a lot easier and cheaper on the road. They also have super useful additional features like savings pots and bill-splitting.
Whenever you convert money from one currency to another – something that is hard to avoid when travelling through multiple destinations – you pay commission in the form of a rate mark-up. The amount varies from the small and reasonable to the exorbitant.
Dodgy currency exchange is a common form of scam around the world. Honest Guide, a vlogging duo from the Czech Republic, ran a video campaign to highlight exchange scams in Prague, which resulted in the perpetrators being taken down. It’s a fantastic piece of activism, and it emphasises why it’s important to be careful when exchanging money.
How to avoid currency exchange charges
The best guiding principle is to avoid the need to exchange currency in the first place. Use a travel money card to withdraw cash, take out only what you will need, and spend up before you move on to another country. We managed to get by exchanging currency just a couple of times in 11 months of travel.
If you do find yourself in a situation where you need to exchange currency, then do your research first. Find out the correct rate and shop around to find the best deal. If you’re unsure, ask your accommodation; we did this when we needed to change money in Vietnam, and they pointed us to one of the cheapest exchanges in the city.
Hidden costs of travel: getting around
Baggage at airports
No form of transport comes with more annoying hidden costs than flying. Baggage fees are among the various bolt-on expenses you can encounter, and they can come as a surprise if you are not thorough when booking.
When travelling long-term, there is little wiggle room when it comes to reducing your baggage. Some people like to pack light. However, there is a bare minimum you need to carry when your life is literally in your backpack, and it often exceeds the baggage allowance of airlines.
Always check what the baggage allowances are at the point of booking a flight. If you need to pay for extra weight or bags, it will often be cheaper if you do it at the first point of booking.
On the day of travel, optimise your allowance and pack up to the limit for your hand and hold luggage to avoid paying for extra. An electronic luggage scale will help with this, and is compact and light to carry around with you.
Hiked prices at airports and in-flight
The costs directly associated with a flight do not constitute the full expense of flying. If you need to eat, drink or buy essentials at an airport, you can expect to pay more than the regular street price. You’re a captive audience, and the operating costs for shops and restaurants are higher than usual, which equates to higher prices – as this article on the Wall Street Journal explains.
The extra expense doesn’t stop once you step onto the plane, either. Food, drink and flight accessories are often even more expensive to by in-flight than in the airport.
One of our most ridiculous experiences of an airline cashing in came when we flew from Miami to Lima. It was a hot day, and high temperatures were forecasted at the other side too, so we didn’t think we’d need to wear particularly warm clothing on the flight. Shortly after takeoff, however, a stream of cold air started blasting into the plane from the ventilation system – and a few minutes later an attendant came down the aisle selling blankets for $5! We couldn’t believe it.
How to avoid hiked prices at airports
If you’re on a long-haul flight or a layover and you need to eat, there is little you can do to avoid the marked-up prices at airports. If possible, eat before you travel to the airport, and bring some filling snacks, such as energy bars.
Bottled water in airports comes with one of the highest mark-ups, but you will often find drinking water taps that are free to use. Carry a bottle or other water container (such as a camel pack), and fill it up once you’re through security.
Finally, make sure you pack adequate layers into your hand luggage so you can wrap up warm enough on the plane. If it’s a long flight, bring a travel pillow in your hand luggage too (they’re great to have for travel in general).
Getting to and from airports
Transport between airports and the nearby city or town is often expensive, and it’s a cost that’s very easy to miss when planning travel budgets. Taxis often charge premium rates, especially to arriving tourists who are none-the-wiser about the standard fares.
How to keep airport transfer costs down
Public transport is often the best bet. This can be a drag when you arrive after a long flight, and it’s tempting to just jump in a taxi – but it’s also an unnecessary expense if you’re on a tight budget. Do the research before you fly and find out about any shuttle bus or train services at the other side, and then you won’t waste time trying to work it out on arrival.
If you must take a taxi, then make sure you use an official service. Most airports have approved taxi ranks. In some places you might find a cheaper ride by walking a short distance away from the airport, but this could expose you to scams too. Again, find out ahead of time what the typical local rates are. If you’ve got accommodation booked, then drop them an email to ask.
Fuel for hire cars
If you’re planning any road trips on your travels, don’t forget to factor in fuel costs. You should be able to work out a ballpark figure by looking up the typical fuel prices, checking the car’s fuel consumption, mapping out a basic route, and doing the maths.
How to keep fuel costs down
There are a few simple measures you can take to avoid overpaying for fuel or churning through it excessively. Be observant as you start driving in a new destination to gage the fuel prices, and then take opportunities to fill up when you find the cheapest stations. These are often in cities, as rural areas are more expensive to supply.
Your driving speed has a significant effect on fuel consumption. If you’re not in any rush, then try to keep your foot off the pedal. The optimal speed for fuel economy on highways is around 55mph/90kph. Try to avoid driving in urban areas at busy times, and avoid taking unnecessary short journeys.
One-way car rental fees
When you hire a car for a one-way road trip, you will usually incur an additional fee for dropping the vehicle off at a different location to where you collected it. This fee isn’t always clear and can be hidden in small print, so check the details rigorously when booking.
How to avoid one-way car rental fees
It’s not usually possible to avoid one-way fees, so the first port of call is to compare the prices available. To find the best deals for car hire in any destination, use rentalcars.com to compare local services. Sometimes companies don’t charge one-way fees, but then they typically make up for it with higher rental rates.
Depending on the location, and with some crafty research, you can sometimes find cheap or even free car rentals if you return a car to its original location. In New Zealand, for example, many more people pick up cars at Auckland on the North Island and drop off at Christchurch on the South Island than in the opposite direction. On TransferCar you can find free rentals to return vehicles to Auckland (and sometimes they’ll even pay your ferry transfer as well!).
In Europe, using a similar service called DriiveMe, you can find car relocations for just €1 if you can travel during specific windows of time. In the USA and Canada, services like Auto Driveaway match drivers with cars that need to be shipped from one location to another.
Peak time premiums
Transport, like many things, is usually most expensive when the demand is highest. When you travel during peak times and seasons, you pay more for the pleasure. The experience is often worse at these times too, as it’s when the services will be most crowded.
How to avoid peak time premium costs
The obvious solution to this is to aim to travel outside of peak times and seasons. The more flexible you can be, the more money you will save. At the most basic level, public transport around the world is usually more expensive during the peak hours of business travel. So avoid these times when you can.
Scaling this up, you can make bigger savings by visiting places during the off-season. This CNN article highlights many great examples, from taking boats in hurricane season to visiting winter destinations in summer.
Hidden costs of travel: fees and taxes
Tourist taxes and fees
In many places we have visited around the world, we have found that international visitors are charged more for certain services. For example, we’ve paid a tax at hostels occasionally that wasn’t made clear at the point of booking. Sometimes, tourists from abroad are charged more than locals for entrance to sites of interests such as museums and parks.
Another example is card payments. In Uyuni, Bolivia, we were told we would need to pay a 3% tax if we chose to pay using an international card rather than cash.
Unexpected taxes are not always exclusive to tourists, either. When using transport around the world, sometimes we’ve encountered extra taxes and fees at bus stations and airports that we didn’t know about. When we took a flight over the Nazca Lines in Peru, we paid an airport tax of about $10 that wasn’t explained when we first booked the tour. In Thailand, we paid a fee of around $2 to enter Koh Phi Phi island.
Anticipating tourist taxes
As travellers we have a duty to contribute to the local services we use. In some cases the extra fees may seem unfair for sure, but we should respect the local rules. So in this case, we just need to be aware that these extra costs will crop up, and be ready for them.
When booking tours, read the small print and ask if there are any additional taxes are charges that will be payable. Some groups of people, such as students, might be exempt. If you are eligible for an International Student Identity Card (ISIC), it can save a lot of money in discounts and fee exemptions when travelling.
Tips and services charges
In many countries of the world, tipping is an intrinsic part of the culture, and a way to show your gratitude for the hard work and support of service providers. In some places, tips are applied as a compulsory ‘service charge’, while elsewhere they are voluntary (but often expected).
Budgeting for tips and service charges
Tipping cultures vary from country to country. In restaurants in Italy, for example, you will often find a ‘coperto’ (service charge) added to your bill; and in the USA, a tip of 15-20% of the pre-tax food bill is normal in restaurants. At bus stations in Argentina, porters will expect a small tip for loading your luggage into the hold. On the Inca Trail in Peru, it’s customary to give a large tip to your team of porters at the end (we gave $50 each). These are just a few of the examples we have encountered.
Before travelling to a new place, research the local tipping culture. You can then factor into your budget the extra you will need to spend.
Crossing borders: visas and exit fees
When moving from country to country, you will often encounter fees to leave one place and/or enter another. During our travels we have paid for tourist visas to enter Australia and several countries across Southeast Asia, while in other places we’ve had to pay exit fees, such as Tunisia and Bolivia.
Planning for visas and exit fees
Unfortunately there isn’t anything you can do to avoid these costs, but – like others – you can anticipate and plan for them by doing research in advance. This might also help you to avoid frustrating situations. When we left Bolivia, for example, we were lucky we had enough currency left to pay the fee, or we might have been stuck.
Some countries only require people of certain nationalities to have a visa; for example, people from the USA need them for some South American countries. Other countries charge different amounts to people of different nationalities; to enter Laos it costs more if you are Canadian than if you are from Europe, for example.
Find out ahead of time what you will need to pay, and make sure you set it aside. Some visas need to be sorted online in advance, so make sure you get organised in good time to avoid being stuck.
Hidden costs of travel: mishaps
Replacing things that are lost or worn
Before setting off on a long-term trip, you will probably buy a bunch of new gear to see you through the journey. Unless you’re very lucky, not all of it will last the entire trip. Mishaps occur, and things get lost, worn or broken. Even if you invest in the best gear possible, there’s still no guarantee it will last.
From leaving a towel on a bus, to having a bank card swallowed by an ATM, to our shoes wearing too thin – we’ve lost count of the times we’ve had to pay to replace things on the road. And it’s not something we really thought about before our big trip.
How to avoid costs for replacing things
Buying decent gear in the first place will give you the best chance of avoiding replacement costs. Cutting costs on clothes and equipment will quickly turn out to be a false economy when things break and you need to replace them. But, as I’ve said, even the expensive stuff doesn’t always last.
Try to be careful with your belongings and look after them. We find it useful to keep a checklist of important possessions to go through each time we leave a place. Ultimately, it’s sensible to factor in some contingency budget in your travel plans to cover the inevitably times when you need to renew your gear.
Scams and crime
Backpackers and tourists are common targets for scammers all over the world. However savvy you are, there’s always a chance that you will fall victim to a scam of some kind when travelling. It happened to us in a bad way when we were robbed after arriving in Buenos Aires.
Crimes against tourists range from small and petty scams, such as selling fake souvenirs, through to larger-scale thefts and robberies. It’s extremely rare for tourists to become victims of physical harm; these tricks are almost always about relieving tourists of their money or belongings, and nothing more.
How to avoid scams
The most important thing is to educate yourself about the commons scams in the destinations you plan to visit. Travelscams.org is a really good resource for this, and you can find more through some basic Googling. Armed with this information, be vigilant and stay on the look-out for the tell-tale signs of scams.
There’s always a possibility you will be ensnared by a scam even after taking all the precautions. If you invest in travel insurance before your trip then you will be covered if the worse happens, which will soften the blow immensely. Trust us, it makes a big difference! We recommend World Nomads for travel insurance. They offer secure and reliable policies and fantastic round-the-clock customer service, wherever you are in the world.
Another minor precaution you can take is to buy a disguised stash can, and store a float of spare cash in it – $100 or so. Keep it secure and separate from your other money and valuables. Then, if you lose your cards and money in a scam, you can access the float as an emergency fund.
This is essentially a sub-category of travel scams. Wherever we travel, we always come across people who try to overcharge us for goods and services. Whether it’s a tour, a gift or a taxi ride, overcharging is one of the most common ways that backpackers are parted with their money.
Overcharging can happen if you use a service without agreeing a fixed price first, and then find you’re asked for an extortionate amount afterwards. Another common trick is for a price to be quoted as a number, which you assume to be the local currency, and the scammer claims afterwards they were talking US dollars (which equates to a much higher price).
How to avoid overcharging
The two key ingredients to avoid being overcharged are knowledge and clarity. Firstly, inform yourself of what the typical prices are for the service. Taxis are a classic example; find out ahead of time what you can expect to be charged for a journey in a new destination. Then you will know if someone’s having you on.
Secondly, always agree the price for any goods and services before you partake in them, and specify the currency.
At home in the UK we are lucky to have access to free healthcare, but this is not the case in most places around the world. If you require medical treatment while travelling it will come with a cost, and it can be a huge one. Emergency recovery can run into many thousands of dollars. Meanwhile, even the most basic treatments can carry a significant charge.
How to medical fees
There’s no way to guarantee you won’t fall victim to injury or serious illness while travelling. The important thing is to protect yourself before you set off. We recommend buying a travel insurance policy with World Nomads for the peace of mind that you will be covered if something happens.
You can read more in our guide to career break travel insurance.
Hidden costs of travel: miscellaneous
Paying the ‘tourist price’ at local markets
Around the world, we often hear it said that there is a price for locals and a price for tourists. At local markets, where there are no fixed prices, some vendors see dollar signs when they see a tourist. If you don’t know the going rates and you’re not willing to haggle, you might end up paying more than you need to.
How to avoid paying the tourist price
Learn to haggle! It’s not easy, especially at first, but it can also be a lot of fun if you do it the right way. Even after practicing our haggling chops in North Africa, South America and Southeast Asia, we still have a lot to learn. Rick Steves has published a super-useful guide to haggling overseas, which is a great place to start.
If you’re really not comfortable with haggling, another option is to befriend a local who can help you out. In Vietnam, we visited some markets as part of a cooking class experience, and our guide did the haggling for us. He also gave us some tips and insights into typical prices. You can’t beat local knowledge.
Ultimately, though, if you feel that a price is fair then don’t feel bad about paying it. Tourism is an important provider for livelihoods all over the world, and it isn’t easy for market vendors to earn a living. If you pay a bit more as a tourist, remember that you are helping somebody to support their family.
Having a good internet connection is almost considered a basic human need these days, but it isn’t always free. It’s likely, when travelling, that you will occasionally be charged for wifi – and it won’t necessarily be where you expect it. After enjoying free wifi connection in our accommodation in many developing countries, we were surprised to find that it was a New Zealand hostel that first charged us to use wifi.
How to avoid wifi charges
The first thing is to ask yourself: do you really need to use the internet? Some of our best travel times are when we completely switch off and disconnect for a few days. If you’re staying somewhere that charges for wifi, can it wait until you’re somewhere with a free connection?
If your accommodation doesn’t offer free wifi, then you might find somewhere else nearby that does. Another option is to check if your phone provider offers free roaming, and use your phone to tether. We use Three in the UK, and our package gives us free access to mobile data in 71 countries around the world.
Clean water is not a free commodity everywhere in the world. Tap water is not always safe to drink, and so you may need to sterilise it or buy bottled water.
How to keep costs down for water
The first thing is to check whether tap water is safe to drink in the location you’re visiting. If it is, then you’re good to go. Take a a camel pack and fill up at the beginning of the day, then you won’t need to buy bottled water as you go.
If the tap water isn’t safe, there are a couple of options. If you’re staying somewhere that has kitchen facilities, you can boil tap water to kill the parasites and bacteria. Alternatively, you can use a water purification device such as SteriPen or use water purification tablets.
If you must buy bottled water, you can still keep costs down by buying a big bottle from a supermarket and decanting it into smaller containers.
Books and e-books
One of the many things I love about travel is the time and space it gives me to read. So many long bus journeys and free afternoons to enjoy a good book! If you’re a book-lover as well, it means you will probably get through a lot of material, and you will regularly want to buy something new to read on the road.
How to save money on books and e-books
A lot of hostels these days feature book exchanges. These are very simple; you can take a book for free, as long as you leave one in its place for someone else to read. Effectively, this means you could buy one book when you start travelling, and carry on reading for free as you go. It’s brilliant.
Another idea is to try out local book shops in the places you visit. This is a fun activity in itself; we’ve found some amazing book stores around the world, and they’re always fascinating to look around. Sometimes you can find markets that sell cheap books.
The problem with books, however, is that they’re cumbersome to carry around when travelling. It’s much easier to read from a Kindle or other e-reader. Keep an eye out for deals on Kindle books, and stock up when you find them.
When travelling by bus in various parts of the world (and sometimes by other forms of transport), you will often need to bring a printed ticket in order to board. In these cases, you typically need to pay a small fee at your accommodation or a local service to have your tickets printed.
This is a small cost in isolation, but it can build up quite a bit over time, especially if you like to stay constantly on the move.
How to avoid ticket printing costs
Before you print a ticket, make absolutely sure that it is a requirement. Read the terms and conditions of your booking, and check whether a digital ticket or phone screenshot would be acceptable. Printed tickets are being gradually phased out, and you may find that you don’t need one.
Perhaps you have made some bookings ahead of your trip. We booked a few weeks of accommodation and some tours before we began our travel career break. Check all the requirements and print any tickets you need before setting off; if you don’t have a printer at home, see if a friend or family member can help you out.
Sometimes, tickets are provided in the form of an email that you are required to print. It’s usually only the details of the first page you need – don’t waste money and paper by printing off any extra pages of small print.
Gifts and souvenirs
Travelling from place to place, it’s likely you will want to pick up some personal mementos and gifts for people at home. There are obvious limitations to this, as you can only carry so much when backpacking.
It’s difficult to know how much money to budget for gifts and souvenirs, as prices vary so much from place to place, and you never know what you’re going to find.
How to save money on gifts and souvenirs
It’s a cliché, but the most thoughtful gifts are not always the most expensive. Try and get creative and find the little things that will mean a lot to people. One idea is to find a gift theme that you can get for everyone. We found handcrafted wristbands in almost every country we visited – they’re cheap, make lovely gifts and they’re small and light to carry around.
Take time to shop around and you will be able to save money too. You will usually find that prices drop the further away you get from the touristy areas. It can be annoying to buy something and then see the same thing for a third of the price just around the corner. What’s the hurry? Browse at your own pace and find the best deal.
In terms of personal souvenirs, why not keep hold of tickets, paper currency, receipts and other scraps, and then compile them into a booklet of memories when you get home. You can mix in some print-outs of your travel photos add context to each place and bring it back to life. Then you can rock it out any time you want to relive your amazing travel memories.
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