As an avid traveler and a guesthouse owner down in Guatemala, I have witnessed firsthand many a vacation ruined by a lack of foresight. My clients book my house in advance and pay upfront. If they end up canceling at the last minute, they lose their money. It’s a fair system, but travelers will often try to avoid paying for the stay if their trip is derailed.
Vacation Nightmare Stories
The last few people who couldn’t make it to my place invoked a variety of reasons. One rented a car in Mexico to visit Guatemala and Belize and was denied entry at the border because he failed to let the rental company know he wanted to take the car abroad.
In another case, a couple got stranded by the side of the road when their car broke down. Another family had packed too much into an itinerary and had to skip my house because they were falling behind. One lady missed her flight altogether. And an expectant mother got concerned about the Zika virus and decided not to come.
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While I have never missed a flight, I have failed to properly look up the location of my hotel and found myself spending hours searching for it, only to give up and pay double to stay somewhere else.
I once tore my ankle while cycling around Austria as a teen. My parents had to pay dearly to repatriate me because they had forgotten to take out traveler’s insurance.
On another trip, my luggage arrived two days later than I did, compromising the rest of my itinerary.
Whatever the reason, it’s critical to ensure your vacations won’t get canceled, or that you will at least receive a refund if you can’t travel. Here are my tips to make sure your vacation is financially airtight.
Triple-Check Your Transportation and Reservations
These days, when I travel — on a motorcycle, mostly — I never make plans in advance. A flat tire can delay you a day or more.
When going on a road trip, the first thing you want to check is your car. Perform an oil change beforehand, inflate your tires properly, and make sure the car is in good enough condition to make the trip. Otherwise, consider a rental.
If flying, confirm that your connecting flight gives you plenty of time to go through customs. If you arrive at your destination late in the evening, arrange for the hotel to pick you up instead of having to figure out your way around a foreign country after dark. Sleep near the airport on the first night, if necessary, and move closer to the center of town the next day.
You should also check that your reservations line up with your slated travel itinerary. Let’s say you’re hitting a number of cities over a couple of weeks with a loose schedule.
If you arrive at your location, like the place, and want to stay there for a few more days, it will likely be no problem.
But if you’re just going away for a week, I would recommend you book accommodations in advance to avoid arriving somewhere only to find that all the hotels in your price range are full.
Keep a Photocopy of Your Passport on You
Lock your passport in the hotel safe when you arrive, and carry a photocopy with you. Scan all your important documents and send them to yourself via email.
Also add emergency contact numbers, such as your credit card provider’s line (to report a lost or stolen card), numbers for your embassy in the country you are visiting, and the numbers of friends or family back home as a last resort.
Hide a little cash in different places — like your pockets, luggage, and even a bra — in case your wallet gets stolen.
Have an Emergency Plan
I, for example, always have enough cash hidden to take a taxi back to the hotel or buy an hour of internet access at a café, just in case I need a family member to send an emergency cash transfer.
If you book your trip several months in advance, consider vacation insurance. It will provide reimbursement should you fail to make the trip due to illness, personal injury, or family emergencies.
You can also generally pay a little extra at some hotels for the convenience of canceling up to a day before you’re due to arrive. Plus, many hotels have a 24- to 48-hour cancellation window. Check your hotel’s website or call ahead to find out its specific policy on last-minute changes.
Allow for Plenty of Time Every Day
In Guatemala, when Google tells you that your next destination is five hours away, that actually means that between police blocks and speed bumps, you’re likely looking at a seven-hour drive. Add rest stops, lunch, and taking pictures, and it ends up being closer to nine.
It’s unreasonable to think you’ll drive to your destination, visit the landmarks, and arrive at the hotel by sunset.
Ask your hotel for more information about local transportation times. I often ask clients to describe their itinerary to me. That way, I can help them avoid frustration due to late arrival at my guesthouse.
Make Sure You’re Covered in Case of Medical Emergencies
A friend of mine was injured in Guatemala, and her family had to raise money to cover her hospital bill because she didn’t have insurance.
By planning ahead and getting appropriate cover, you’ll make sure that all your vacations go smoothly and stay affordable.
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Other Ways to Protect Yourself Financially
Taking the appropriate preparatory steps will ensure you don’t spend an arm and a leg on your next getaway. Here’s a quick rundown of simple things you can do to save cash before departure.
Notify Your Bank
Let your bank know that you’re going abroad, and know the fees you’ll be paying on each transaction. While it may be more effort than it’s worth to open a new debit account with lower international fees, being aware of the additional charge tacked on to each transaction can help you budget accordingly as you travel.
Pay Your Bills Ahead of Time
Or set up automatic payments. This way, you’ll avoid late fees. These financial obligations might slip your mind as you drink piña coladas in the sand. But you can avoid late fees by ensuring your bills will be paid on time.
Double-check exchange rates
Also withdraw cash in larger quantities than you normally would. This can help you avoid additional ATM or teller fees, which can add up if you are constantly withdrawing small amounts of currency.
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Use Mobile Banking and Budget Apps
These can help you double-check that you’re spending within your means. It’s easy to get swept up in new experiences and forget about your checking account. Stay on top of your daily expenditures so you won’t be eating ramen every day for six weeks following your vacation.
Pick an Affordable Cellphone Plan
If that’s not doable, try to use Wi-Fi for the duration of your trip. Check to see if an affordable data plan is within your budget. If not, turn off data roaming on your smartphone and stick to local wireless connections. Be sure to spring for international texting and calling, too. This way, you can contact friends or family in the event of an emergency.
Additional reporting by Connor Beckett McInerney.