Last Updated: 1/7/21 | January 7th, 2021
Travel writers always talk about what to do when you travel. It’s all must-see this, must-see that, stay here, eat here, spend this, etc etc.
But what about all the things you shouldn’t do on the road?
A lot of the old conventional travel wisdom is out of date in an increasingly digital and connected world. Moreover, since the Internet changes so quickly (as well as society), tips and tricks are constantly changing. There are plenty of travel mistakes that lead to wasted money, lost time, and missed opportunities.
However, there are a few pillars of wisdom that are immutable.
Today, I want to share some of the things you shouldn’t do when you travel. If you avoid these common mistakes, you’ll be traveling cheaper, smarter, and longer. (Keep in mind there’s always an exception to every travel rule so, in some places, these rules might not apply but they do 99% of the time you’re on the road.)
1. DON’T eat near a major tourist site
The food near any major attraction is going to be double the price and half the flavor of what you’ll find elsewhere. When restaurants know people aren’t coming back, they don’t have to worry about consistent quality.
And what do tourists know about quality local food, anyway? They just arrived! It’s all amazing to them, and many are happy to return home talking about how they ate “amazing” pizza in front of the Colosseum. Restaurants in tourist areas lack the incentive to be top-notch.
However, local, non-touristy restaurants must be high quality or else locals will stop going there. These places can’t get by serving slop.
Instead of eating in a tourist trap, walk at least five blocks away from one. The further away you are, the cheaper (and tastier) the food will be. And avoid restaurants with glossy menus in multiple languages. That’s a sure sign of a tourist trap.
If you aren’t comfortable walking into a random restaurant, you can use these websites to find out what the locals are rating highly:
- Yelp – People offer reviews and ratings here, so you can figure out what’s good on the menu or if the restaurant is worth visiting at all.
- OpenRice – Like Yelp but for Hong Kong, Malaysia, Japan, Macau, China, Mainland China, Taiwan, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand.
Moreover, Google Maps is really smart these days and if you type in “best restaurants in X”, you’ll find a lot of locations that are local favorites near you.
When you look at these websites, don’t just look at the star rating. Look at the number of reviews the place has. If there’s a lot of reviews, that means enough people thought something of it to take the huge hurdle of leaving a review. That means, good or bad, the place is definitely going to be interesting!
2. DON’T exchange money at the airport
You’ll get the worst exchange rates if you do. You’re better off lighting your money on fire. To get the best rates, use an ATM or credit card — once you get into the city/away from the airport. This is will be as close to the interbank rate as you can get and ensures that you are not getting ripped off.
Never exchange cash unless you absolutely have to (and there are times when you have to). I once had to exchange cash in an airport in Romania when my ATM card didn’t work, but that was an emergency. If you do need to exchange money, try to do so at a bank downtown where you’ll get better rates and fewer fees.
But stick to plastic as much as possible.
3. DON’T use traveler’s checks/pre-paid cards
Traveler’s checks are checks issued by banks for a predetermined value that allow the bearer to exchange the check for cash anywhere in the world. In the time before widespread ATM and credit card acceptance, it was the best way for travelers to have access to money without carrying a lot of cash. Now, no one uses them but, if you were thinking about them, don’t. They aren’t useful anymore.
Moreover, don’t get those pre-paid currency ATM cards either. These cards are loaded by your bank in a preset currency (i.e. you’re going to Australia so you get one loaded with Australian dollars). The purpose here is that you won’t pay any fees because you’re always paying in the local currency. However, the problem is that the exchange rate you bought at could change. All you’re doing is trying to hedge against a major drop. That never works out. Just use a regular credit card.
4. DON’T use a bank card with fees
I don’t like giving banks my money. I’d rather use it for travel, and it’s been years since I paid a bank fee of any kind. Get a bank and credit card that has no foreign transaction fees so you can avoid ATM fees and other surcharges.
In the United States, my favorites are Charles Schwab for a no-fee ATM card and Chase Sapphire Preferred for the simplest no-foreign-transaction-fee credit card because you can earn points with it.
For non-U.S. residents, here are some resources to find no-fee cards:
5. DON’T look at only US-based search engines
All search engines have blind spots, no matter where they are in the world, but by limiting your searching to only the large search engines, you are reducing the chance you’ll find a deal.
Many sites don’t feature smaller budget airlines or seasonal carriers. While no flight search website is the best 100% of the time, avoid sticking to just Kayak or Expedia. Expand your horizons!
I always start with these three when I look for cheap flights:
- Skyscanner – This great website searches a lot of different airlines, including many of the budget carriers that larger sites miss. They always seem to find airlines that offer the best deals and their calendar view lets you see which days are cheapest to fly. Start with them.
- Momondo – This is another amazing search engine that searches the little websites most major companies miss.
- Google Flights – One of the best flight search engines out there, Google Flights lets you enter your departure airport and see flights all over the world in a map so you can see where the cheapest destination is.
6. DON’T skip travel insurance
It may seem like a ridiculous added expense, but travel is about the unknown. You never know what can happen on the road. You can break a leg, lose a camera, pop an eardrum scuba diving, or have to leave a country because of a natural disaster. Travel insurance protects you when you are overseas and shouldn’t be avoided — it’s the smart thing to get. It is there to protect you from both medical and non-medical emergencies.
If something does happen to you and you don’t have insurance, it can cost thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket expenses. I had a friend let her insurance lapse because she wasn’t using it; she later broke an arm in South America. It cost her thousands in doctor’s fees.
I use World Nomads insurance when I’m on the road.
- How to Find the Perfect Insurance Policy
- 10 Common Questions and Misconceptions about Travel Insurance
- The 6 Best Travel Insurance Companies
- The Best Travel Insurance Companies for Backpackers
7. DON’T rule out hostels
Most people think hostels are smelly, unclean, bedbug-ridden facilities aimed at poor college students. It’s a common stereotype perpetuated on TV and in movies over the years. My mom is always horrified when I tell her I stay in hostels. She pictures the ones she stayed at in the 1970s and pleads with me to be careful.
While hostels used to be that way, nowadays, most hostels are cleaner than most hotels! They offer a variety of amenities, from pool tables to movie rooms, video games, free computers, and laundry facilities, as well as organized tours, day trips, free Wi-Fi, and small private dorm rooms perfect for families, couples, or seniors who want affordable accommodation and a travel community without the hotel cost.
The modern hostel is not just for cheap backpackers but also for those looking to be involved in a community. They are hubs for like-minded, travel-loving individuals.
READ MORE: My Favorite Hostels from Around the World
8. DON’T avoid hospitality networks
Hospitality networks let travelers stay with locals for free and allow you to swap stories and participate in cross-cultural exchange.
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t always have to sleep on a couch. I’ve slept on couches and beds, in guest rooms, and in mansions.
Also, they aren’t just for single travelers. I’ve stayed with couples, families, college students, and twenty-somethings and have hosted single travelers, groups, and couples. Many traveling families use this as a way to meet other families from around the globe and expose their kids to the world.
It’s nice to have a free place to stay, but the real benefit of this is the ability to meet and make friends with people from different places and gain insider knowledge about your destination. I’ve made many friends through these networks. Don’t overlook them. These are my favorite:
- Couchsurfing – This website allows you to stay on people’s couches or spare rooms for free. You can also use the app just to meet people for events/museum visits/coffee if you’d rather not stay with them too!
- Servas – Like Couchsurfing, you can connect with locals here and arrange homestays.
- BeWelcome – Another hospitality/cultural exchange website with a widespread community.
- Warm Showers – This site is like Couchsurfing but specifically for cyclists.
9. DON’T take taxis
Taxis are where budgets go to die — they are almost always overpriced. Skip them. The only time these are worth using is if you are splitting the fare among many people or need to get somewhere super late at night. Instead, use public transportation as much as possible.
Stick to Uber or the local equivalent (if you can). Most countries have their own version of Uber these days.
For longer distances where you can’t find a bus or train (or if they are overpriced or sold out), consider using BlaBlaCar. It’s like Airbnb for cars: you search for someone driving to your destination and then you pay a small amount to join them. It’s a good choice for both medium and long trips.
10. DON’T be penny wise but pound foolish
Time is money. Since budget travelers tend to have more time than money, they save money at the expense of time. However, your time is worth something. It may save you $2 by walking instead of taking the bus, but if it takes you an extra hour to get to where you are going, is that really worth it? You may be able to save $30 by taking a flight with two connections, but is the savings worth it when you know you’re going to be miserable and arrive tired?
Budget travel is not a race to the bottom. It’s about being smart with both your money and time. Avoid wasting time as much as you avoid wasting money.
11. DON’T book your trip too early
I understand it’s easy to get excited about your trip and — to make it feel real — book your flight, hotel, or resort right away. It’s done and you are going! But that’s a mistake. You’ll be the person who ended up paying more than others. When it comes to travel, the early bird doesn’t always get the worm. Don’t be overeager. Wait for the deals.
For your flight, wait about three months before your trip to book. This is when airlines start to raise or lower prices based on demand.
For cruises or tour groups, wait until the last minute. Companies have to fill boats and tours, so they offer amazing last-minute deals to fill unused space — no one wants to set off with a boat half full.
12. DON’T skip the local tourist office
I’m always surprised at how few tourists visit the local tourism board. It’s always my first stop on any trip. They have advice on current events, festivals, and off-the-beaten-path information you aren’t going to find in any guidebook. Their job is to literally know everything about where you are. They get paid to help you.
When you get to a new city, be sure to head to the tourism office and ask for information on what to see and do, and where the deals are. They have maps and discount cards, and they can help book cheap accommodation.
13. DON’T avoid the sharing economy
Every year, new companies, apps, and platforms are created to help travelers travel better (and cheaper). These platforms connect you directly with locals so you can have a deeper, more authentic trip. While most people are familiar with Airbnb there are a ton of other sharing economy apps out there (beyond the ones we mentioned above).
Here are a few suggestions to help you get started:
- Trusted Housesitters – A site that connects house/pet sitters with people who need them. Get free accommodation in exchange for looking afer someone’s pet while they travel.
- BlaBlaCar – A ride-sharing platform that lets you “rent” a spot in someone’s car.
- EatWith – A meal-sharing service that connects you with local cooks who serve private meals.
- Turo – A car-sharing service. Like renting a car, but you rent it from locals instead of a car rental company.
- RVShare – Airbnb but for RVs. Rent a campervan or RV directly from locals.
- Campspace – Find unique private camping and RV spaces, ranging from super budget to glamping.
14. DON’T skip travel hacking
Travel hacking is the #1 way I’ve been able to travel the world on a budget. By leveraging my regular spending on things like groceries, eating out, and buying flights I’ve been able to earn dozens of free flights and hotel stays — all with just the regular spending I would have done anyway.
If you’re not collecting points and miles for free flights and free hotel stays you’re missing out. Sign up for a travel credit card as soon as you decide you want to travel. Many cards include welcome offers that essentially translate into a free flight and most hotel cards also include free hotel stays as well. Sign up as soon as you can to maximize your rewards.
- How I Earn 1 Million Frequent Flier Miles Every Year
- Is Travel Hacking Really a Scam?
- The Ultimate Guide to Travel Hacking
15. DON’T use unknown third-party airline sites unless the savings are really good
I love searching for flights. In addition to checking with the airlines directly I use sites like Skyscanner to find deals on third-party booking sites. Often times these are legist websites but, as we find out during COVID, when things go wrong, you have very little support or recourse.
By booking direct with an airline, you are guaranteed support from the airline should your flight be delayed or canceled. When you book via a third-party, all of that support goes out the window. Getting assistance for a delayed or canceled flight can be tedious and end up costing you a lot of money when you need to rebook.
For that reason, I only book via third-party if the savings are substantial. If the price difference between a third-party site and booking direct is less than $50 USD, I’ll book direct. While it’s not as cheap, the peace of mind is worth the extra money.
Avoid third-party sites unless they are reputable and unless the savings are huge! (You can look up their reputation online to find out.)
16. DON’T ignore responsible travel
Whenever you go somewhere, be respectful. This means, among many things, being mindful of cultural norms and traditions as well as the environment. Ethical travel is the name of the game and it’s your job to be considerate and respectful everywhere you go. Plan your trips in a way that is sustainable.
We should leave places better than how we found them. We owe it to the places we visit to be ethical, responsible, and respectful.
Avoiding these common travel mistakes will help you stop wasting money, save time, find more rewarding and cheaper travel experiences, get off the beaten path, and be a better traveler.
People who follow the guidebooks and just “click and go” when they book online end up paying more. If you put in some extra work, you’ll save big, and the less you spend, the more you can travel!
Be smart, be savvy, and learn to travel with ease.
Book Your Trip: Logistical Tips and Tricks
Book Your Flight
Find a cheap flight by using Skyscanner. It’s my favorite search engine because it searches websites and airlines around the globe so you always know no stone is being left unturned.
Book Your Accommodation
You can book your hostel with Hostelworld. If you want to stay somewhere other than a hostel, use Booking.com as it consistently returns the cheapest rates for guesthouses and hotels.
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. My favorite companies that offer the best service and value are:
- SafetyWing (best for everyone)
- Insure My Trip (for those 70 and over)
- Medjet (for additional evacuation coverage)
Want to travel for free?
Travel credit cards allow you to earn points that can be redeemed for free flights and accommodation. They are what keep me traveling so much for so little. Check out my guide to picking the right card and my current favorites to get started and see the latest best deals.
Ready to Book Your Trip?
Check out my resource page for the best companies to use when you travel. I list all the ones I use when I travel. They are the best in class and you can’t go wrong using them on your trip.