A funny thing happens after living in a foreign place for a few months: The cost of living starts falling. It feels like magic, but it's not. What happens is that the new resident figures out who has the entertainment freebies, how to get around for less money, and where to get a great meal for a good price. Spending less becomes almost effortless.
You may not be a savvy local the first day you land in a new destination, but you don't have to be a clueless tourist with a wide-open wallet, either. If you just take on the attitude of a local, the battle is half won.
Eat where the locals eat
Backpackers on a budget sear this message into their brains the first week on the road: "Eat where the locals eat." Curiously, many short-term vacationers go for decades without hearing it. Too many tourists spend their vacations going to the same tourist restaurants every other tourist is visiting. The problem is, many of these dining spots are overpriced and coasting on their reputations, serving up food that is average at best. The locals shun them for a reason.
According to a study by the U.S. Department of Labor, food and drinks together comprise a larger part of the travel budget, on average, than any other category — some 25 to 28 percent of a vacation's cost. So why settle for the same humdrum meals you could be eating in your hometown? Your taste buds are going on vacation, too. Let them live a little! You will eat better food and spend less money in the process.
Of course, you will have to do some real detective work. You'll have to scrap the guidebook, forget the magazine clippings and rely on better sources. Ask locals questions like, "If I wanted to spend $50 on a great dinner for two near here, where should I go?" Or, "Where did you last take your family for a special-occasion meal?" Wander around residential areas. Ask people at your hotel for insider info and make it clear you want to eat where they would eat, not where you will be seated with dozens of other tourists.
When chefs and food writers are asked to talk about their most memorable meals, tourist restaurants and packed dining institutions seldom figure in the discussion. Neither do the chain restaurants you find on every highway offramp. Instead, the chef will invariably gush on about some little French bistro on a back street of Paris, a Chiang Mai street stall cooking up Thai food at midnight, or some rickety Southern barbecue joint with picnic tables and no air conditioning. Those are the places that give a trip real flavor.
Forget the rental car
If you are traveling to a different country — or to a progressive city like New York, Chicago or San Francisco — leave your U.S. transportation attitudes behind. You will spend less money and have more interesting adventures when you give up the idea of driving your own vehicle.
Local transportation is a great window into a culture. Sitting side by side with people who live in the place you are visiting, you are literally on their level. You see what they see. Apart from a few spots like London and Tokyo, public transportation is also a great bargain. You can ride the subway for days in Washington, D.C., or New York and spend less than you would in one day in a rental car. In most of Asia and Latin America, you can usually hire a car and driver for the day for less than the cost of renting a car — and you don't have to decipher any maps.
Remember, most of the world gets around by bus; if you follow their lead, you can travel comfortably on the cheap. You can take a double-decker bus from London to Glasgow for $6 to $40 depending on how far you plan ahead. A ride on a nice bus from one end of South Korea to the other costs less than $35. A top-of-the-line bus in Mexico, with three seats across and loads of legroom, costs only about $6 to $8 per hour of travel.
Get the inside track
There are ways to get a head start on local prices before you even set foot in a town. In the United States, read the local newspaper online for free events. Get coupon books such as the to load up on valuable two-for-one coupons. These can pay for themselves in just one day. You can often obtain passes and discounted tickets to local museums and other attractions through the local tourism office.
When going abroad, tap into some local expertise before you go. In many cases, the "six degrees of separation" phenomenon will suffice: Tell every friend and relative that you're going to Paris and you will usually turn up a friend of a friend who lives there. If that fails, use a hospitality exchange program. These programs are mainly geared to travelers looking for a place to stay, but they are also good ways to find locals willing to help with advice. Two of the free ones are and .
You may not know the ins and outs of every back alley after following this advice, but you'll be well ahead of the pack, with less money flowing out of your wallet or purse each day.
Tim Leffel is author of the books and “He also edits the award-winning narrative Web 'zine .