19 Things Most Tourists Overpay For, and How You Can Avoid Them
It's almost a given that tourists overpay for things. Sometimes it's because we don't know the actual (local) cost, or are unaware of negotiating tactics. Sometimes we think we're getting a good deal, but are actually unwittingly crippling local economies.
And before you think, "I'm fine with overpaying, the money means more to them than me," think again. In some countries, the potential profits are so disproportionately high for locals that working in the tourist sector — even just selling cheap souvenirs to tourists — means a higher income than highly trained (and necessary) doctors, for example. This can shake economies negatively such that there's no incentive for locals to sustain their own infrastructure in aspiring towards valuable and necessary careers in their own country. If everybody wants to work in the tourism industry, and hard times hit the tourism sector, the local economy suffers unduly. (See also: 9 Travel Expenses You Forgot to Budget For)
And sometimes, it just sort of sucks to get ripped off.
Whatever your motivation, your goal should be to get a fair deal. Here's how.
Often, those little "local" trinkets were mass produced somewhere else for a song, and are being sold for "locally handmade" prices. Check out a few markets and shops before you buy; if you see identical stuff, it's not as special as it may seem. If you still want it, make sure it's priced (or negotiated down) accordingly. If you're in a foreign language country and you want to negotiate, learn a few phrases in the local language; you'll endear yourself much more to the vendor.
2. Hotel Laundry
$10 for a clean shirt? You've got to be kidding. Chuck some shampoo in the sink and hand wash that puppy. Or better yet, pack enough clothes to make this a non-issue. Who wants to spend vacation time fighting stains?
Some dodgy taxi drivers will take you on the (not so) scenic route, if they're charging by the mile and it's obvious you're not familiar with the territory. Ask a local (such as hotel staff) how much a taxi should cost to your destination and how long it should take, and either pre-negotiate the fee with the driver, or if it's a metered cab, confirm with them how long it will take to get there.
But the best way to avoid overpaying a taxi driver? Take public transportation instead.
4. Airport Junk
Almost everything at the airport is overpriced, especially after clearing security, since they have you hostage while awaiting your flight. Eat before you go, or take food with you. Bring an empty water bottle and fill it at the fountain after clearing security. And for goodness sake, don't impulsively browse airport shops.
5. Currency Exchange
You can't avoid currency exchange fees and commissions, but you can minimize them by avoiding airport currency exchange counters, and if you're using a credit card, decline the vendor's offer to charge your card in your home currency (which comes with extra hidden fees). (See also: 37 Hidden Travel Fees You've Probably Paid But Shouldn't Have)
We don't always overpay for flights, but if you're like me, you're afraid you do. Just in case, use a site like Yapta to track prices and ensure you get the best price — even after you've bought your ticket. (See also: How to Get the Lowest Price on Airfare Even After You Buy)
7. Guided Tours
Many guided tours have higher overhead than necessary. Research the cost of average tours before traveling, and go local if you want a more local scoop. Also keep in mind that some cities (especially in Europe) offer "free" guided walking tours whose guides operate only on tips, meaning they're incentivized to make sure you have a great experience. (See also: How to Tap Into the Local Scene While Traveling)
Hotel minibars are categorically overpriced. Avoid overpaying by walking down the street and buying what you want locally.
9. Room Service
If you want to splash out and get (often mediocre quality, and always overpriced) food delivered to your room, go for it. Otherwise, you'll get better food at better prices in your hotel restaurant — and even better-priced food down the street.
In some countries the local water isn't potable, but you don't need to buy bottled water. Some hotels have water coolers for you to fill your own bottle, or you can filter or sterilize water yourself, for example using a SteriPEN.
And if you're in a country with potable water, there's no excuse for overpaying and creating waste with bottled water. Fill reusable bottles at fountains, or if you must buy bottled water, avoid overpriced concession stands in touristy areas.
11. Restaurant Gratuity
Few countries have such rich tipping policies as in North America. In most places servers are paid proper hourly wages, and tips are nice but not expected. And even if it's expected it's not 18% plus. Research tipping etiquette before you travel.
Also beware of automatic gratuity being added to your bill. Before you chuck on an extra tip, read the fine print to ensure you're not double-tipping.
Hotels aren't your only option for accommodation; hostels have comfortable options including private rooms, and for a more local experience, you can get free accommodation with hospitality exchanges, home exchanges, house-sitting, and more.
Restaurants in tourist districts are usually overpriced. If you want to (or need to) eat in that area anyway, lunch is a cheaper option than dinner, with a similar (if not identical) menu and portions.
14. Food at Concession Stands
Concession stands in parks, tourist areas, and amusement parks are consistently overpriced. Avoid overpaying by bringing your own food, or buying snacks at a local shop down the street.
15. Cell Phone Roaming
Taking your cell phone abroad with your home SIM card could result in hundreds of dollars of roaming charges, even if you don't use the phone. Avoid this entirely by having an unlocked phone and buying a local SIM card, or using an international SIM card with no roaming charges. (I'm currently using one from G3 Wireless that works like a charm.) And failing that — make sure your emails and Internet notifications aren't being pushed to your phone! It could cost you hundreds.
16. Airplane Meals
Don't assume meals are provided in the fare, even on long flights. Confirm whether meal service is included with your ticket, and if not, buy your meal at the airport. You're still paying more than you should, but it's less than you would if you wait until you're on the plane.
17. Car Rentals
Look for alternatives to renting cars like car sharing, ride sharing, or using a vehicle delivery service. If you must rent a car, remember that rates are negotiable, and you can usually get a free upgrade simply by asking for it.
Also remember to check your credit card's automatic insurance policy so you can waive the comprehensive (and expensive) insurance offered by the car rental agency. (See also: 5 Best Travel Reward Credit Cards)
18. Foreign ATM Withdrawals
There are two things to be aware of when using foreign ATMs. One is that you should use bank-affiliated ATMS so you don't incur the extra fee (ranging from $1.50 to $5) charged by private ATMs. The other is to avoid withdrawal charges levied by your home bank (usually $5 per withdrawal).
Some banks automatically refund ATM charges or offer free foreign ATM withdrawals. Check your bank's terms and conditions, and if necessary, upgrade your account to include free foreign ATM withdrawals (and maintain any necessary balance to avoid monthly charges for the upgraded account). (See also: Using Your Credit Card While Traveling)
19. Baggage Fees
Baggage fees are becoming increasingly common when flying; avoid charges for overweight or checked bags by traveling with carry-on only (check out this sample carry-on packing list). And if you need extra carry-on room, check out this sneaky little trick.
Remember to Have Fun
Don't be so concerned about overpaying that you forget to have fun. I remember once getting really upset that I couldn't negotiate my desired price with a taxi driver — before realizing I was squabbling over the equivalent of less than a dollar. Be aware of the exchange rates, and don't sweat the small stuff (too much).
What else have you overpaid for while traveling? Share your experience in comments!