Making the Most of Your Cash While Traveling

Note: This is a post targeted mostly at #301 Milenomics, but value can be found by others in it as well.

I had originally planned to add this post as a section in the post, “The Rule of 7 and Using it to Find Your Limits.” However I decided to spin this off into its own post because Cash is important enough to warrant a separate post. 

We introduced limits to our game the in the post Removing Inefficiencies in your Churn and MMR. The limits we’ve talked about are: Store imposed limits, Credit Card AA limits, Your limit on time/travel, and cash flow limits.  Today we’ll talk about cash, but also about how much you really spend on travel, and not letting that get away from you.

Cash. is. King.

My wife and I were on a small island just outside of Bali, with some locals.  The island was small enough to not have its own power generation; no hospital, no markets–everything had to be delivered via the daily ferries.  We were getting a ride from a local, who asked how long the flights were, and how much they cost.  I didn’t know how to explain the cost was paid with miles.  So I hemmed and hawed and said “well, we didn’t pay cash for the tickets.”

“Oh, Frequent Flyer Miles?”  He replied.  I was shocked that he knew about these, when we struggled to hold down a conversation about much else.  On an island without a single car, no gas stations, or chain hotels, and only a few thousand residents this man knew about Frequent flyer miles.

The end of the motorbike ride dropped us at the edge of the world--and one of the most beautiful, beaches I'd ever seen. It would turn out to be the highlight if our trip to Bali/Indonesia.

The end of the motorbike ride dropped us at the edge of the world–and one of the most beautiful, beaches I’d ever seen. It would turn out to be one of the highlights of our trip to Bali/Indonesia.

When it came time to pay for our ride had I offered him frequent flyer miles–or even asked him to swipe my credit card for the ride he would have thought me crazy.  Frequent Flyer Miles can do a lot–and have a value to me.  But Cash is king, the world over, and should be treated as such, and revered over our miles and points.

Favoring Our Digital Wallets Over Our Real Ones.

-How Many frequent flyer miles do you have?

-How much cash do you have in your savings?  

   -Are you trading one for the other?  

These are important questions to ask yourself.  Even with Miles, we’re paying for travel one way or another–and when we lose sight of that we can hurt our personal bottom line.  

Today’s post is more about your overall financial health and well being than it is about miles and travel.  I’ll use a food analogy to get my point across: If all food was free, would you eat more of it?  I think so, as the price of a good is a limit on how much we each can consume of it.  When we assume travel to be free, do we not make a similar mistake–and “over-eat” from it? 

I love to travel.  In fact just today my wife and I were discussing all our favorite places we’ve gone. We’re getting ready to leave to Florida next month to visit with friends and family, and I’m throwing around ideas for a spring break trip. Make no mistake, we could travel more often than we do.  Our limits are our budget for travel, and our time off.

Knowing your personal limits is important. If you have plenty of time off, but a tight budget focus on stretching your dollars for each trip as far as possible. That might mean cutting expenses, and trying everything you can to save on the trip.

Budgeting for Something Everyone Tells You Is Free


We’ve gone over it before here on Milenomics–Miles are not free.  Travel is not free.  You can argue that you earn money on cash back cards and then spend that to cover your trip expenses–but cash is fungible (miles are not), so you might use $500 in cash back to cover your travel expenses, but I could argue that those same $500 might also have been spent on groceries, or saved for retirement, or spent on anything else.

The only way to know your limit is to have a travel budget.  Setting a yearly travel budget will allow you to make sure you don’t overspend on “free” travel.

“We got this hotel for free-we can afford to splurge” That kind of thinking is fine–when you have a personal limit set. When you don’t have a limit set, you return home, tally up the charges, and realize that had you bought the flight, and paid for the hotels with cash you’d have spent less.

What Works For Me (Might Not Work for You)

I take what I’d normally spend on a trip–and budget as if I was going to still spend it.  Sure the flights might have only cost me a total of $1300, but I still budget a daily amount while we’re on a trip.

Even using miles for airfare and staying at a hotel on points, A low end budget for my wife and I is still going to have to cover food, transportation, and tours.  Do we grenade our budgeted amount some days? Sure, but we also do walking tours, and cook our own meals some days. If you end  the trip under budget, you can either splurge on your last night with your savings, or go home with cash in your account.

I often take the cash back I’ve earned on my cash back cards and use it to reimburse taxes and fees on award tickets, or to cover a few day’s per diem while we travel.  However that’s real money I’m spending, and it should not affect the budget I put together for travel.

There’s a reason a blog like blends travel, savings, and finance; the three are often one in the same. A great example of this is the Fidelity Rewards card–one which Matt and I got into a great conversation about on this post.  Focusing on Travel cards only means missing the true value the FIA Rewards card can have; not only in the short term, but in the extreme long term.

Pay yourself first is a great motto to have in life.  Sort out your savings first and then budget against the rest.  A large reason why I created Milenomics is because I love to travel, but don’t want that travel to ruin my long term financial plans.

Tips for Making the Most of Your Cash

1) When it comes to longer trips, having access to a kitchen is the #1 tip I can offer to save money.  Eating out is exciting, and a very important part of travel to some of us.  Having a kitchen allows you to decide to stay in, and cook your own meal, even if you only do it one night.  This means looking at time-shares (on airbnb for example), as well as extend stay hotels which offer kitchens. If my wife and I go back to Thailand we’re getting a kitchen. For no other reason than to cook our own Thai food with fresh ingredients.

2) A wonderful side-benefit of renting an apartment/time-share is that you often will find a washer/dryer.  This not only saves you money, but means you can pack lighter! Something I’m always trying to do.

3) When I travel out of the country I purposely bring very little cash.  As long as I read there are plenty of ATMs I feel comfortable in traveling with as little as $40 in my wallet.  So if you see me in a foreign country and think you’ll score big by pick-pocketing me, guess again.  The reason for bringing little cash is twofold: not only do I not have to deal with money exchanges; but I don’t feel tempted to spend it all.

Update: Reader Bobby reminds us that the Charles Schwab Checking account features an ATM fee rebate at all ATMs worldwide.  I use this exact card and can vouch for the exchange rate being very good, and the fees being refunded.

4) Ask your hotel before your trip if they offer credit card cash services (charging a fixed amount in the local currency to my Credit card, and cashing that out). If they do you can take a fixed amount out and just sign for it. This is usually to spend the cash around the hotel, but you can use this to your advantage as a convenient pseudo-ATM.

5) Ensure you’re using a good no-foreign transaction fee credit and ATM card, and always insist on being charged in local currency. The spot exchange rate from your bank will be much better than any the establishment is offering.

Side-note: I’m a huge fan of 7-11 outside of the United States (not sure what that says about my pallet), not only for the different food options, but also for the “refreshing beverages” as well. These, as well as local supermarkets can be a great way to avoid overpriced food/drinks during long trips.

Many people travel on less than $50 a day, including lodging.  Hostels, airbnb, couch surfing, all can be very affordable.  Eating where locals eat also offers a significant savings, and a glimpse into their world.  I’ve been blown away by amazing foods that cost pennies.

One reason I really enjoy Jon’s blog, at is that he really immerses himself in the local areas he visits (McDonalds and all!). If you haven’t read his blog yet, I recommend you check it out, for examples on how to travel and see the world reasonably and responsibly.

Seeking Your Input

Travel is about the experiences, and the places life takes us. It isn’t always about seeing the highest end hotel every city has to offer.  There’s a wonderful inner peace that comes from spending some time with locals; seeing the world from their point of view.  When you’re at a resort filled with everyone who looks like you, talks like you, and thinks like you you’re missing the world out there.

I need your help; What are your tips for saving money on travel? Not just flights and hotels–but what’s the best way you save on transportation, exchange rates, tours, etc.  If you have little ones, what are some great tips for saving money when you travel with kids? Leave a comment in this post, or tweet @Milenomics.  I’ll update with any good tips I receive on Twitter.


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