My 10 Commandments of Budget Travel, From a Full-Time Nomad

I spent $27K traveling the world in 2022 — $74 a day — and one thing I keep hearing is: “Teach me your ways, Julie!”

Well, did you know, I DO teach?!

  • I have a ton of in-depth, free information available on my blog, and I put out new posts about once a week (subscribe to get them by email!)
  • I hold webinars for those visual learners and do one-on-one mentoring for people who want a little extra attention
  • I recently published an eBook entitled “Money and Mindset: How to Take a Sabbatical” — because finances are one of the biggest deterrents to having the lifestyle we want most of all — and limiting beliefs are the other

It’s a mission of mine to prove to YOU that a fulfilling life, full of travel and immersive experiences: is ATTAINABLE and POSSIBLE… so I’m counting down my best tips for saving money on travel — my 10 commandments of international budget travel!

Rule #10: Never pay an unnecessary fee while traveling internationally

Fees like these can ADD up — and you get absolutely nothing for them in return.

Foreign transaction fees (usually between 1.5-3% of every transaction)

Traveling out of the U.S.? Foreign transaction fees are charged by your bank or your credit card, so they don’t show up on any receipt and you may not even know you’re being charged between 1.5% to 3% of every transaction. But there are several U.S. credit cards geared towards travelers that offer NO foreign transaction fees: I have the Chase Sapphire Preferred, which has a $95 yearly fee (which more than pays for itself), and I highly recommend it. Sign up with my referral link and I get a bonus. 

»If you want to sign up for the Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card, use my referral link to make my day — I get bonus points!

ATM fees (usually between $2.50-$10 per withdrawal)

If the bank where your checking account is doesn’t operate in multiple countries (and few do), you will be charged per withdrawal — and typically, you will be charged both by YOUR bank AND the bank of the ATM you’re using!

There are ATM fee-free debit cards that NOT charge you an ATM fee, and will refund any fees that you were charged by other ATMs. I have the Fidelity Cash Card, and it refunded me over a hundred dollars in ATM fees in 2022. 

Currency conversions

Speaking of the ATM, when you withdraw cash in a foreign country, the ATM may ask you if you’d like to take their currency conversion — and oftentimes the screen will make it look like it’s not optional. It is, and don’t! If you decline, your bank will convert the currency, which will be more in your favor than the foreign ATM’s conversion. Similarly, if you’re paying a bill at a card reader or website abroad, it may ask you if you want to pay in the local currency. In this case, pay in the local currency vs. taking the currency conversion the card reader or website offers. Your bank will give you the better rate, so always pay in the local currency if given the option.

Credit card processing fees (3-4%) and cash discounts

This is much more prevalent in other countries than the U.S. or other western countries — a small business or restaurant may add 3-4% onto your bill if you intend to pay with a credit card. (This is because retailers pay a little slice of the total to the payment processor, which they usually swallow, instead of passing it along to the customer.) Pay in cash to avoid this extra fee.

By the same coin (no pun intended), if you are quoted a price, you can ask if there is a discount to pay in cash. I actually recently saved 5% on a bottle of wine at an American liquor store for paying in cash, so this is a thing!

Learn the quick math vs. using currency calculator

This is less related to fees, and perhaps more related to scams — but try to learn the quick math when it comes to converting currency when you travel! This way, you can do the math in your head instead of relying on your phone and looking like a tourist (and risking a mistake!). For example, to get the U.S. currency equivalent to the lek when in Albania, you’d divide by 108.2 — but that’s not easy to do — so divide instead by 100 or move the decimal over two points. You will know instantly if the quote you’re getting from a vendor seems legit. 

Ask “How much is it?”

This can sometimes be construed as stingy, but one of the biggest tourist scams in the book — ordering something without knowing the cost, and getting stuck with a big bill!  

I always ask what it costs before I pay it (even if it makes me look cheap), and I also tend to keep the menu with me when I’m at restaurants — to make sure what shows up on the bill is what I ordered. It’s happened a few times that I got charged for things not disclosed in advance. It’s the principle for me!

Rule #9: Do your research and shop around

To be honest, this is one of the least enjoyable parts of traveling for me — I’d love not to think about money and just book the first thing I see that looks good, but alas… I gotta look out for good value AND a good price!

I always spend a little time comparing and contrasting hotels, hostels, Airbnbs; amenities and locations; and ratings and reviews. Don’t forgot to calculate in taxes and fees for the sites that do not show them to you, or any additional costs like parking and pet fees. 

Some of my tactics for getting the best price on my accomodations:

  • Flexing the dates forward or back (being flexible on plans helps)
  • Staying for 8+ days (some hotels will offer significant discounts for “long-term” stays of 8 days plus)
  • Signing up for loyalty programs, email lists, and registering for points multipliers
  • Calling or walking in, and asking for the “best price” or whether there are any promos/packages

At the same time, it’s not always about the best price — it’s about quality, location, amenities, pet-friendliness, customer service, loyalty, and other intangibles. And I have a splurge stay about once a month!

Note: After encountering more than my fair share of issues with Airbnbs, I tend to stay in more hotels nowadays when I travel — generally, I find them to be more flexible, be more reliable in regards to quality, to have better customer service, and better cancellation and change policies.  

Rule #8: Earn points and practice travel hacking!

This one is about maximizing points and credit card rewards — and if you’re not doing this yet, you should be!!

Credit cards and cash back promos

Sometimes, credit cards have cash back promos or other kinds of deals with hotel chains (if you book with that credit card). For example: “15% back if you spend $100” at Marriott should be taken into account! I always check my credit card promos (and the terms and conditions) when researching hotels and booking. 

Redeem your points wisely

Some of us have earned points flying or staying, or with new card points promotions, but we are hesitant to redeem those points. Well, DO — but redeem wisely! I like to save my points for long-haul flights or big ticket hotels, because you generally get more for the value.

For example, I plugged in flights on American Airlines and found Phoenix to Chicago round trip is 23,000 airline miles and $11 in taxes (a distance of 1,400 miles, as the bird flies). Phoenix to Paris round trip, on the other hand, is 45,000 miles and $90 in taxes. So it costs you only double the points for four times the distance! Your points will go a lot father when saved for the long haul flights — just don’t let them expire! The same is often true for hotels. 

Flying last minute?

Last minute flights originating from the U.S. tend to be super expensive, but if you ever have to fly last minute, consider flying on points, as points values don’t blow up the same way that flight prices do. Not enough points? Buy them! In the case of last minute flights, it may be cheaper for you to buy points and fly, instead of pay the flight’s inflated cost. 

Rule #7: Budget-friendly activities & things to do

Travel can break the bank, but it doesn’t have to (it doesn’t for me)!

Free walking tours

Almost every major city in the world has one or more free walking tours. Read the reviews, sign up for a tour, and leave a tip! You learn a lot in a short amount of time, and it’s a good way to meet other travelers. I like GuruWalk.

Free museum days

If you’re a big history, art, and culture buff, those admission fees can definitely add up. But with a little research, you can go for free! Oftentimes, on state holidays, Sundays, or a designated weekday or weeknight, museums will be open for free to the public. Google “[your destination] + free museums” or “when is [museum name] free.” You can also visit tourism board websites or offices for information. 

3-day or 5-day tourist cards

On a similar note, consider purchasing a card from the tourism board that packages transit, events, and excursions together. Many major tourist cities offer such a card, and if you plan on going to a lot of museums and cultural centers, it can save you money. I was gifted the Budapest card by the board of tourism in Budapest, and I took advantage of a ton of its free and discounted offers during my visit. 

Facebook events and Eventbrite

Don’t forget to check out Facebook events for fun and low-cost activities in your destination, like outdoor concerts, karaoke nights, farmers’ markets, and the like. 

Rule #6: Go direct for longer term rentals

When I want to stay somewhere long-term, I try to cut out the middleman and go direct with the property owner. At first I was scared to go direct (because I know there are protections when you book through official sites like Airbnb), but as I travel, I’ve found that most people just want to make a deal and are not out to scam me. But, like anything, I do my due diligence and trust my gut. 

Some of my tactics for finding direct bookings

  • Join and post in Facebook groups for rentals/sublets
  • Join Whatsapp groups for accommodations 
  • Reach out to realtors who have connections in the world
  • Ask your Airbnb host to “extend” you, but pay a discounted rate off-platform: I did this in Mexico City and Split, Croatia

Rule #5: Eat smart and as the locals do

Food can cost a lot of money, but it doesn’t have to. During 2022, I spent an average of $15 a day on groceries, dining out, and alcohol together!

Here are some of the ways I find affordable food on my travels:

  • At farmers markets for in-season and homemade 
  • In college cafeterias that are open-to-the-public, for affordable meals
  • By ordering lunch specials or the menu del dia (sometimes I eat a bigger meal at lunch, so I can eat a smaller meal during dinner)
  • During happy hours or on the tapas menu (depending on the country, this may be more affordable than “dinner”)
  • By ordering the bigger portion and taking leftovers
  • By going meatless (or cheese-less!) — in some countries, meals with meat are going to cost more, in other countries, meals with cheese are going to cost more
  • Taking it to-go! Sometimes you pay a premium for dine-in or table service 

Rule #4: Travel insurance

Plans interrupted? You don’t necessarily have to swallow the cost. 

One, you would be surprised at how many times I bought a non-refundable hotel room and got it refunded by calling the hotel, being polite, and explaining my reason for cancelling. Two, some credit cards, including the Chase Sapphire, automatically comes with limited trip interruption or cancellation insurance due to sickness, accidental bodily injury, and severe weather (if you bought your travel with the card).

Add-on insurance policies offer even stronger coverage, for example: in the event of a lost passport, missed connection, layoff, or even if your employer requires you to work: I can recommend Chubb Travel Protection

Rule #3: Companionship, culture, giving back, and swapping

Couchsurfing and Couchers are platforms for hosts to offer free accommodations to travelers, or travelers to request accommodations from hosts — no money is exchanged, only culture and camaraderie! I think couchsurfing is great to meet like-minded people, and I’ve gotten to do a lot of cool things and experience cities in a way that I wouldn’t otherwise have, had I not had the guidance of a local.

The Host a Sister Facebook group is a women’s only group where you can request accommodations or post your willingness to host other women and meetup.

Crewbay is specific to boating and sailing, and allows you to set up a profile and land opportunities from “friendship/company”, to novice crew, to boat sitter, to nanny! is a platform that links up budget travelers and businesses all around the world to exchange skills for free accommodations and meals — from marketing, to teaching English, to cooking, gardening, or “party planning,” and more. You can save $10 on a yearly membership with my promo code JULIEBROSE.

TrustedHousesitters is a platform that connects pet parents and pet sitters. Membership is pricey, but if you land a sit, it can pay for itself!

Read this blog that goes more in-depth on the above.

Rule #2: Set a budget and stick to it! 

It can be easy for travel costs to run away from you — heck, it’s easy for all kinds of spending to run away from you! And on the flip side, others have the problem of not spending while traveling — they’ve been in the practice of saving for so long, that spending their hard-earned savings can be scary.

The solution is to make a smart budget. Once you’ve made a budget, you have free reign to spend within it. Don’t feel guilty about spending… it’s in the budget! While on the surface, a budget can feel restrictive, it’s not — it helps you make a conscious choice about what you really want. And once I realized that budgeting is not a tool to restrict me but a tool to help me stay within the priorities and the goals that I have set for myself, things changed for me. 

And #1: Be flexible!

Two and a half years of full-time travel has made me a believer: spontaneity can save you money! The old way of booking travel is to pick a place, pick a time and then search the flights and hotels. And that’s literally how search engines are built! But that’s not the best way to do it, if you can be flexible. 

If you reverse engineer a loose time frame or a season, and maybe a general place like this continent or this region, you can find some great deals. Just enter your departure airport in Google Flights, SkyScanner, and Kayak, and see what deals pop up. 

When I do want to go somewhere a little bit more specifically, I also use Google Flights and then I set up a flight alert. Google will watch this flight fluctuate day after day, and will send me an email when the price drops. You can also sign up for Going (formerly Scott’s Cheap Flights) to see cheap flights from your departure airport. 

My number one piece of advice, as a full-time traveler who’s been doing this a long time — plan on the fly. For me, travel is really about living in the moment. I don’t book things out very far in advance because I depend on how I feel, how the weather is, and who I meet along the way… because if I spent all my time researching, planning and booking… when would I get to enjoy the destination I am in? I think this is a really special and organic way to travel.

This information is originally from one of my webinars. Watch it here!

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2 thoughts on “My 10 Commandments of Budget Travel, From a Full-Time Nomad

  1. Just happened upon your blog. Some great info. I myself have been a nomad off and on since 2019. .not digital just plain nomad/Zingara and pirata, formerly lived in Caribbean.
    I am a retired American, presently in Montenegro for the month of February, followed by two weeks in Sicily and then on to Ireland for a month, and then back to Sicily to apply for my Italian citizenship. I will take note of much of your info, and look forward to reading your newsletter. Ciao!

  2. I love the Host a Sister group and also recommend Travel Ladies app which is a couchsurfng app for female travellers.

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