5 Hidden Travel Budget Busters (and How to Avoid Them)

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“When preparing to travel, lay out all your clothes and all your money. Then take half the clothes and twice the money.”

It’s an adage that rings true no matter what your travel style. Whether you’re backpacking around the world or taking a two-week luxury vacation, chances are you have a budget — an estimate of what the trip will cost and what you can afford to spend — that includes your flight, hotel, car rental or other transportation, sightseeing, activities, and food and drink.

But there are lots of other “hidden” costs that, if you’re not careful, can add up and eat up much more of your budget than you might expect. Technically these costs aren’t actually hidden, but many travelers don’t think much about them or include them in their overall budget, which can equal an unpleasant surprise by the end of the trip.

Different trips may have different hidden costs, but here are a few of the most common potential budget busters you may not have thought of, plus a few tips to cut the expense.

Man on moving walkway at Dublin Airport
Travelling Without Moving, Dublin Airport © Victor Bayon

#1: At the Airport

For many travelers, the unbudgeted expenses start even before the trip … at the airport. Most airports are minefields of expenses, and we’re not even talking about the ridiculous luggage fees or upgrade charges.

Once you’ve trashed your oversize liquids and made it through the security strip-down, you might want a bottle of water. A buck or two is no big deal, but once you’re in the concession store, you might pick up a book or some trashy celeb magazines, a few salty snacks for the plane, and before you know it, you’re forking over the cost of lunch in Rome or a night in a beachfront cabana in Bali (and all you’ll have to show for it is a bloated belly and too much knowledge of the Kardashians’ personal lives).

Maybe your plane gets delayed so you stop in a restaurant and have some food or drinks to pass the time, and now you’ve doled out another $30, or $40, or more for a few Bud Lights and a greasy burger, and you still haven’t even left your hometown.

How to Cut (or Account for) the Expense

A few indulgences can take the annoyance out of time at the airport, and there’s no harm in treating yourself to what you want, so long as you don’t have to cut back later. Dropping $100 at the airport seems less like a good idea when it means you have to scrimp on your last meal in Paris or can’t buy the beautiful leather bag you fall in love with in Buenos Aires. Be realistic about what you can afford to spend on your entire trip, pick your priorities and set a budget that includes what you can spend at the airport.

If you’d rather save your money for the destination, planning ahead is all you need to do to avoid airport expenses:

  • Bring enough books or magazines (or just an iPad or Kindle) to get you through double your expected flying time.
  • Take your empty water bottle through security so you can refill it for free and bring plenty of snacks from home to get you through your flight and any unexpected delays.
  • Low-sodium, high protein, easy-to-eat snacks like PB&J sandwiches, hummus wraps, veggie sticks, almonds or granola, protein bars, and crackers with sliced cheese are all healthy, filling, and great on the go.
  • And if you like to have a few drinks before your flight, you can save money by portioning liquor into a few three-ounce reusable containers and adding them to your plastic bag of liquids. For a nervous flyer like me who likes to have a drink or two to take the edge off, it can save $20 or more every time I head to the airport. It may not be the classiest thing to do, but it’s not against the law (though drinking it on the plane is, so consume it in the terminal).

#2: On the Plane

Airlines keep figuring out more creative ways to make us pay. Checked luggage? You’ll pay for that. Food or drink? You’ll pay for that too. An assigned seat? Keep those dollars coming. On some airlines, pillows, blankets, entertainment, and headphones all come at a premium and if you’re not prepared to pay up, you could be in for an uncomfortable flight.

How to Cut (or Account for) the Expense

For many travelers, this becomes an issue of cost vs. comfort or convenience. If you’re facing an eight-hour flight and you have no food, if you have a crying two-year-old seatmate and you have no headphones, or if the cabin temperature is set to “Arctic” and you have no coat, you’ll likely say the fees are worth it to make your flight more pleasant.

But, this is another instance where a little prior preparation can keep costs low. Figure out what amenities are offered on your flights, and bring your own supplies to compensate for those that aren’t. Pack snacks, bring entertainment, and wear layers on the plane (which in turn lightens your luggage and helps you avoid fees) and you won’t spend a single dollar on even the longest haul flights.

water bottle
© liz west

#3: Bottled Water

It’s probably safe to say that if you can afford to travel the world, it’s likely that you’re a bit spoiled when it comes to fresh, clean drinking water. At home you probably just turn a tap or open your fridge and there it is; at a restaurant (at least in the US and Canada) it arrives at your table automatically and free of charge.

But we know that’s not the case everywhere. In many countries the water will make you sick, leaving bottled water the only option. In others, don’t expect it to come free of charge anywhere except out of the tap. In either scenario, hydration comes at a cost, which, if you normally drink your (recommended) 64 ounces of water each day, can really add up over the course of a week. On a ten day trip to Italy, between bottles on the go and water with restaurant meals, I realized I’d spent nearly $100 just on water!

How to Cut (or Account for) the Expense

In places where the water is potable, simply reusing your regular water bottle can eliminate the need to buy water during your trip. Just fill it up at your hotel or from public drinking fountains.

If you’re traveling where you can’t drink the local tap water, a purifying water bottle or purification system (like SteriPEN) can reduce the cost of your water supply and ensure you’ll have safe drinking water at all times.

#4: Dining Cover Charge

In some countries, particularly in Europe, sitting at a table to eat incurs a nominal “cover charge” which accounts for plates, napkins, sometimes water, or just the luxury of taking up more space. It’s a small price to pay for comfort during dinner, but if your budget is small, sitting for every meal or drink isn’t an economically wise habit.

In other countries, like Portugal, the “couvert” refers to food brought to your table before the meal, and though many people first assume it’s included in the cost of the meal, it can come with an even bigger price tag. The couvert can range from a few pieces of bread and butter to a heaping platter of meats, cheese, olives, and breads, and the price can vary likewise, from 1-2 euros to the price of an entrée. For a budget traveler unaware of the custom, a small taste can be an expensive mistake.

How to Cut (or Account for) the Expense

Where the charge is for appetizers or bread, the solution is simple: don’t eat it unless you know you can afford it. If a couvert is placed before you, ask how much it is before you sample; once you take a bite, you’ll be charged for the whole plate no matter how much of it you eat.

In other destinations where you pay a premium to sit at a table and eat, rather than stand at the bar, just be aware of the added cost, which is usually noted on the menu. After a long day of exploring, or if you plan to have a lengthy meal, comfort trumps the minor cost of sitting down to dine. But if every dollar counts, opt to take your morning coffee or afternoon snack while standing at the counter. The savings may not be a lot, but it will be enough to buy one more round of drinks.

Watermark Bar in Ventura, California
Watermark Bar in Ventura, California © michael (Flickr)

#5: Taxes, Tips, and Insurance

Like death, taxes are a certainty in this world, no matter where you travel. It all adds up as we buy souvenirs and pay for meals, but unless we make one very large purchase, we usually don’t pay much attention to how it impacts our budget.

One place where tax can take a bigger bite out of your travel funds is at the hotel. Depending on the country, the hotel tax may not exist at all, or it could increase the cost of your stay by 10-25%; it may be included in the nightly rate or it may not. But consider that a 15% hotel tax would increase your nightly rate from $100 to $115, and it’s easy to see how not accounting for the cost could affect your bottom line after multiple days.

Tips are another small expense that we pay in such small increments we barely seem to notice or just roll into our budget for dining. But tips for tour guides, drivers, or concierges, or for more luxurious services like spa treatments, personal training, or the services of a private chef or butler, aren’t exactly small change. The tip I gave my fantastic guide in South Africa was well-earned (and only a small portion of the overall safari cost), but it might have hurt my budget had I not planned for it.

Insurance, of the car rental variety, is another hidden-in-plain-sight extra that many travelers seem to forget since it’s not usually included in the quote. But at $10-$20 a day, a two-week road trip could be twice as pricey as you thought it would be, once insurance is added to the bill.

How to Cut (or Account for) the Expense

There’s really no way to avoid these three fees, but knowing what they are and adding them to your budget can help you manage, and possibly reduce them.

Tax is set by law, but in many countries, you can recoup a portion of the sales tax on qualifying goods; you just need to get the proper paperwork when you make the purchase, save your receipt, and visit the designated office to get your money before you leave the country.

Rental insurance is usually required by law, at least to some extent, in most countries, and where it’s not, it’s still a good idea to invest so you aren’t held liable in case of an accident, whether it’s your fault or not. Some credit cards offer coverage to card holders; check out the policies on your card so you can avoid paying for insurance twice.

As for tipping? Well, that’s just good manners. You shouldn’t purchase goods or services if you can’t afford to tip the provider, but you should research the local tipping customs to make sure you’re giving the right amount.

The Bottom Line

Some of these hidden costs may seem — and in fact are — pretty minor. But over the course of even a one-week trip, they can add a few hundred dollars to your trip’s grand total.

If you’re aware of them, you can choose to save extra to cover the costs you’re willing to pay or you can use your knowledge to eliminate unnecessary expenses and put your money towards the things that matter most to you.

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