After going over my credit card charges from a weeklong trip to Canada to visit my in-laws, I was shocked to see how much I overspent.
Despite staying with relatives and mostly eating in, I still managed to rack up hundreds of dollars in unplanned charges.
As is often the case when I fly (half-awake and with a little one in tow), I committed most of my financial sins en route, at the airport or on the road, rather than at my final destination.
The problem: I’m usually so focused on getting through the trip and making sure my family’s needs are taken care of that I don’t take the time to track my spending or critically evaluate what I’m buying.
For example, charging $50 on drinks and pastries at an airport Starbucks doesn’t seem so bad if it’s the only way to feed my family before we’re scheduled to depart.
Similarly, I recently justified dropping another $50 at an airport gift shop so I could load up on “survival” essentials – such as activity books for my 2-year-old and Tylenol for me – that, in retrospect, we didn’t need.
The little voice inside my head that usually warns against such overpriced purchases seems to always go silent when I travel. The farther away from home I am, the less critical I tend to be of dubious markups and tourist traps.
Determined to change my ways, I asked some travel and money experts for their tips on traveling on a budget. Here’s what they had to say.
1. Set spending limits before your trip.
Travel bloggers Katie and Ben of twowanderingsoles.com say it’s crucial to track your spending while you travel if you want to avoid surprises when you get home.
“Set a daily budget for yourself and stick to it. You will always overspend if you don’t give yourself guidelines,” Katie and Ben wrote in an email.
“We use an app to keep track of all our expenses, so we know we can splurge on a fancy dinner or if we have already hit our limit. If you go over your budget today, be extra careful tomorrow to even it out.”
2. To avoid pricey markups, plan ahead and be patient.
It’s also wise to plan ahead when you’re traveling somewhere that has a reputation for pricey markups.
“Airports and train stations are notoriously expensive,” say Katie and Ben. “On days that you know you’ll be on transportation, plan ahead and pack a homemade lunch and snacks.”
You also can score free snacks and drinks on the plane, travel finance blogger Danielle Desir of The Thought Card says, so be patient if your flight will be taking off soon.
“I found when I get to the airport, a lot of times it’s early morning or late afternoon and I’m exhausted,” Desir says. As mentioned above, this is often how I arrive at the airport.
When you’re so tired, it’s tempting to just grab a coffee at the airport, even if the price is marked up several dollars. But the instant gratification you get from buying a drink or snack immediately often isn’t worth the cost.
“I just try to hold off on drinking coffee and wait for free coffee when the flight attendants come by,” she says.
3. Look for deals before your trip.
You also can make up for occasional splurges by searching around for small savings and promotions.
For example, tourist destinations often post promotions on their websites, Desir says. “Before you head out, quickly go on the website and see if there’s a discount,” she says. “That’s a really great way to save a couple bucks here and there.”
You also can help shave the price of your trip by purchasing discounted restaurant gift cards before you leave, says personal finance blogger Erica Holland of ModMoney.
“Instead of paying full price for meals in a new city, leverage platforms like Restaurant.com or Groupon to purchase restaurant gift cards for less than they are worth,” Holland said in an email.
Another good way to save: “Consider a spontaneous hotel stay,” says Holland. “If you’re open to leaving some gaps in your travel plans, you can access some nice hotel properties for a steep discount up to one week out. Hotel Tonight is an app that offers last-minute deals on unsold hotel inventory.”
4. Audit your spending once you get home.
To avoid overspending the next time you travel, save your receipts and go through them when you get home, Desir says.
After every trip, she sorts through her receipts and puts her spending into categories, then “I look at where it is likely I’m overspending.”
That can be useful for spotting moments when you let down your guard and overspent, she says.
For example, Desir recently went to Iceland for a birthday trip and didn’t realize until she got home how much she overspent on extras, such as beer and coffee.
“It was kind of mindless,” she says. By combing through her receipts when she got home, she was able to identify where she went wrong so she could avoid making the same mistake in the future.
“A post-trip debrief really helps you rein in your spending.”
Final thoughts? Now that I’ve gone through my expenses from my Canada trip, I agree: All four of these tips are great.
Next time, I’ll try to practice a little more mindfulness and patience while I travel – and look around for deals to make up for the times I slip up and overspend.
See related: One-click shopping leads sleepy mom to overspend online, Beware of overspending when shopping on your smartphone