It might as well be the fundamental law of travel: No matter where you go, how you get there or how long you stay, you'll spend more on day-to-day costs during your trip than you would staying home. To anyone who travels for pleasure, that's an acceptable price to pay for the benefits of a trip. But when you're trying to determine just how much a trip should cost, the details can get blurry.
Costs such as airline tickets and hotel rooms are givens: You're likely well aware of these costs in the early stages of your trip planning. Budget-conscious travelers may also calculate their per diem, or daily costs for food, sightseeing and other recreational activities.
But what if someone gets sick? What if it rains unexpectedly? And what if the only way to get from the hotel to a must-see destination is by a cab or rental car? There are a number of unexpected -- and sometimes hidden -- costs that can quickly spike the total cost of your trip to an uncomfortable height.
Thankfully, a little awareness and wise pre-planning can help you mitigate the worst of these unexpected travel costs. And while it's always a good idea to have reserve funds on hand in case the unexpected occurs far from home, here are some basic tips on avoiding five of the most common sources of unexpected travel costs.
Airlines have charged fees for excess baggage for decades, and the policy makes sense. An airplane required to carry the additional weight and bulk of a few extra bags burns more fuel per person, meaning it's more expensive to fly a handful of overpacking tourists the same distance as a crowd of light-traveling businesspeople.
But as the airline industry took an economic nosedive in the early 2000s, baggage fees became a quick fix to boost profits. By 2010, most major airlines charged $50 for one checked bag, and some raised fees to $70 or more for an additional bag [source: Hipmunk].
The budget-conscious traveler isn't out of luck, though. In fact, this is an expense that's relatively easy to avoid for many trips. Most airlines do not charge for carry-on luggage: bags that fit within the cabin's overhead bins or under the seats. If you can pack everything you need for your trip into one or two carry-on bags, you'll avoid this fee -- and the need to stop by baggage claim to pick up your things after you deplane. Check the dimensions of your bag against the dimensions listed on your airline's Web site before you pack, and you'll be well ahead of the baggage-fee game when you reach the airport.
Imagine arriving at a long-awaited tropical destination. What's in your bag? A bathing suit and sunscreen might be high on the list, but what about a light rain jacket and umbrella? Depending on where you're going for fun in the sun, these might be important, cost-saving additions to your luggage.
Many tropical regions owe their lush vegetation to long periods of precipitation -- monsoons or extended rainy seasons in many equatorial regions. Booking a trip during these times of year may let you save on hotel fees, since you're gambling that your visit will coincide with unseasonably clear weather. But you could eat much of that savings if your group doesn't bring clothing appropriate for the weather.
Packing a light rain jacket, umbrella and shoes that you can wear in wet weather can mean the difference between enjoying the trip and needing to find a local shop that sells these items -- likely for a much higher price than you'd pay for them at home. And investing in a lightweight but cozy cool-weather jacket (sporting goods stores have lots to choose from) can save the day in case a cold snap that wasn't on the 10-day forecast hits. These items don't take up much room in your luggage and have the added benefit of helping you get out and enjoy the destination, regardless of the weather.
This one doesn't just catch tourists: Tricks and scams that manipulate the exchange rate -- the value ratio between two nations' currencies -- can even catch savvy government officials. The United Nations revealed in 2008 that it lost millions of dollars in aid to Burma after officials in that country manipulated the exchange rate to swindle the international aid agency during an aid donation [source: Buncombe].
Many developed countries have national regulations on who can exchange currencies, and their exchange rates are typically set on a nationwide level. Travelers can trust that the rate won't fluctuate between two banks on the same street, although some countries may allow moneychangers to charge varying service fees.
In less regulated countries, however, the money exchange game can be tricky -- and costly -- to play. Anyone with access to a little cash could set up an exchange booth, charging whatever array of fees -- and manipulating the exchange rate -- as they see fit.
The best way to avoid the expense of an unfair exchange rate is to exchange your money before reaching an unregulated destination. You will need to carry the money in a secure fashion as you travel, but you'll know that you didn't pay more than necessary to switch to the local currency [score: Scambusters].
Any trip away from home will place you in a situation where you must fulfill three basic needs: a place to sleep, a place to eat and a means to travel between those places. Nearly every trip involves more than these three factors, but leaving one of them unplanned is a sure-fire ticket to vacation disaster.
Transportation often gets overlooked, especially with the rise in popularity of destination resorts where travelers need not leave the grounds to stay sheltered, well fed and entertained. Travelers seeking to go beyond one resort's version of the ideal vacation will quickly find that transportation can make or break a unique trip, and can have a major effect on that trip's overall costs.
Before you travel, research transit options in your destination. Is it a city with a thorough bus or light-rail system? Can you travel around the region by train? These public-transit options often cost substantially less than car rental or frequent use of taxis, both of which could be priced to target unwary, deep-pocketed tourists.
There may be times, however, when a taxi or rental car will be useful. A large group could benefit from the logistic ease gained by renting a large van. Likewise, a car could be perfect if you plan to make a number of specific trips, such as running errands for a destination wedding. And if you'll only be making one or two trips and want to pay a little extra for convenience, a taxi may be your best bet. Just make sure to do your homework: An Internet search should reveal taxi services that make costly detours or practice other price hiking maneuvers [source: U.S. Department of State].
You hope and pray this one never happens to you, but it's not all that uncommon: A family member gets sick, an unexpected hurricane hits a resort or some other unforeseen circumstance strikes out of the blue and cancels your trip at the last minute. If this is a once-in-a-lifetime vacation, you may have invested a large sum of money well in advance. How do you protect your investment?
The first step, as with preventing other unexpected costs, is to do your research. Airlines, cruise lines and hotels all have their own cancellation policies. Can you simply call and reschedule? If so, how much advance notice must you give to ensure you don't lose money? Will there be an additional charge for changing a reservation? You should know the answers to all of these questions before taking out the credit card to make any payment.
You may find that certain situations, such as a last-minute cancellation due to an illness, are not covered by one of these services' refund policies. In this case, you might want to consider purchasing travel insurance.
Travel insurance is exactly what it sounds like: an insurance policy that guarantees a refund of part or all of your vacation investment if you have to cancel the trip. These policies are available from a number of insurers, and often charge a small fee for the peace of mind they offer. They also come with stipulations, however: Be sure to read the fine print before buying a policy so that you understand exactly what reasons for cancellation are covered [source: REI].
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More Great Links
- Hipmunk. "A Visual History of Baggage Fees." March 21, 2011. (Oct. 29, 2011) http://blog.hipmunk.com/post/6493948216/a-visual-history-of-baggage-fees-infographic
- Buncombe, Andrew. "UN loses $10M aid in Burma Exchange Rate Scam." The Independent. July 30, 2008. (Oct. 29, 2011) http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/un-loses-10m-aid-in-burma-exchange-rate-scam-880326.html
- Scambusters. "Airport Travel Scams." (Oct. 29, 2011) http://www.scambusters.org/travelscams4.html
- Pascarella, Sarah. "Five Ways to Avoid Theft on Vacation." USA Today Travel. June 24, 2010. (Oct. 31, 2011) http://travel.usatoday.com/deals/inside/2010-06-24-avoid-petty-theft_N.htm
- Federal Trade Commission. "Driving overseas? Steer clear of bogus international driving permits." June 2003. (Oct. 31, 2011) http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/consumer/alerts/alt126.shtm
- U.S. Department of State. "Traveling Abroad." (Oct. 31, 2011) http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/cis_pa_tw_1168.html
- REI. "How to choose travel insurance." (Oct. 31, 2011) http://www.rei.com/expertadvice/articles/travel+insurance.html