The MoneySavingIdiot tackles travel: 'I basically felt like a cross between Martin Lewis and Michael Palin'

If you missed my debut MoneySavingIdiot blog from last month (on claiming for a train delay), first of all – how dare you. Secondly, the basic premise is that while I help people save money every day by writing for MSE, I'm not always so clever when it comes to my own cash, so I'm sharing my quest to be better with it in the hope of inspiring other non-natural MoneySavers. This week: travel tips. 

Most MoneySavers know, especially if they read the Money Tips Email three weeks ago, that there are many things you can do before you go on holiday to save while you're away. But unfortunately the only things I usually do before going away, as a MoneySavingIdiot, are A) leave everything until the night before, B) panic and C) gird my loins for wild overspending.

But when it came to planning my trip this Easter bank holiday weekend, I decided to change tack. This time I wouldn't buy the first travel insurance policy I found on my phone en route to the airport. This time I wouldn't subject myself to rip-off exchange rates and unexpected currency fees. This time I wouldn't come home to a self-inflicted financial crisis.

This time I'd be a MoneySaver abroad. And here's how I (sort of) did it.

1) I booked my flights well in advance

I went to Prague, capital of the Czech Republic, to see my mate Allan who lives there. When I went to see him last year, having been promising to book flights for a few months – because if there's one thing a MoneySavingIdiot likes to do it's dawdle – I ended up doing it seven weeks before I was due to travel and paid £140 return for my Easyjet flights.

I arrived back having had such a good time sampling Allan's favourite bars and going to my first Czech football match that I wanted to arrange my next visit as soon as possible.

With that in mind, and determined to use the old hat rack for a change, I had a butcher's at our Easyjet Tricks guide and saw that the budget airline was due to release tickets for March-June 2019 a month later. As the day of release is usually when tickets are cheapest, I bided my time, got in there early doors when the fares were launched (29 weeks before I wanted to travel) and boom, this time I landed a return to Praha for £84.

  • Time before travel: Seven months 
  • Saving: £56

2) I got an overseas credit card to avoid being fleeced with exchange rate fees

Having secured my flights for 40% less than last time round I was feeling pretty pleased with myself. So pleased, in fact, that I actually forgot to book time off work to go away, leaving me to sort it hastily six weeks before I was due to fly (thanks to my boss MSE Steve N for his understanding/familiarity with my disorganisation).

Having done that I got back on the MoneySaving horse and, using our Travel Credit Cards guide and Credit Card Eligibility Calculator, netted myself an Aqua Reward card which charges an exchange rate fee of 0% in Europe AND pays 0.5% cashback on all spending. Given the card I'd previously used overseas charges a 2.95% fee, by now I basically felt like a cross between Martin Lewis and Michael Palin.

  • Time before travel: Three weeks
  • Saving: £4 (turns out I didn't actually do that much spending on my card. Still, that saving is two pints in Prague. Or about two-thirds of a pint in London.)

3) I actually remembered to buy currency in advance

This one was so simple even I couldn't screw it up.

As our 19 cheapest ways to get travel money guide explains, you should NEVER just change money at the airport. It's much better to compare rates before you go – though for fellow MoneySavingIdiots, it's worth noting that even if you leave it until the very last minute you can STILL save by ordering online to pick up at the airport.

This time I did it right. Using our free TravelMoneyMax tool it took me five minutes to find the cheapest place to buy Czech korunas within five miles of MSE Towers, 10 minutes to print out the confirmation email required to get the rate I'd reserved (the printers at MSE Towers were playing silly buggers) and 10 minutes to walk to the bureau de change to get the cash.

If you've got it, flaunt it

By comparing, I got a rate of just over Kč29 to the pound. Had I bought at Gatwick on the day I was flying it would have been a different story...

Believe it or not, these arrows weren't added by a trained graphic designer

Yerp, I'd have got a rate of just over Kč22 to the pound, meaning instead of paying £148 for the Kč4,300 I bought, I'd have paid £195. Ouch.

  • Time before travel: One week
  • Saving: £47 

4) I didn't just buy the first travel insurance policy I found (though I should have bought it much sooner)

As mentioned previously, my record of remembering to buy travel insurance before, you know, travelling is not one to be proud of. That's despite the fact I've had to make use of it on more occasions than I'd like to admit - including in the early Noughties when I had my wallet and passport (and shoes) stolen on a night out in Santiago.

I can't claim I was exactly on it this time round (OK, I bought it the night before I flew out, rather than as soon as I'd booked like you should do). But I did at least do a thorough comparison using the sites listed in our Cheap Travel Insurance guide.

While the £11 I eventually paid was more than the cheapest single-trip cover in the guide, which starts at £6, my policy covered a pre-existing condition and had NO excess (when you've had to use travel insurance as often as I have that's worth considering).

But most importantly, buying similar cover via the airline when I booked my flights would have cost me from £21 – another clear win.

  • Time before travel: One day (but it should have been seven months doing it the proper way, as that's when I booked my flights)
  • Saving: £10

5) I remembered to take my EHIC with me – three years after applying for it

One thing I had remembered to do for a previous holiday to Prague was get a free European Health Insurance Card, which gets you free or discounted medical care in all 28 EU countries, plus some others. What I hadn't remembered to do was actually take it with me... which is useful if you end up needing to use it. 

This time I did remember (just) and while thankfully I didn't need to use it, had I elected to, say, break some bones while in Czech, according to the NHS I would have been charged in full for any healthcare I'd received without it, whereas with it I'd have been able to get reduced-cost or free state healthcare.

  • Time before travel: I packed it the day I travelled, but if you're applying for one or renewing yours, give it at least 10 days to be on the safe side
  • Saving: £0 as I didn't need to use it. But MSE forumites tell us they've been charged £100s for emergency treatment when travelling without an EHIC, so better safe than sorry.   

6) I didn't pay to drink at the airport. Well, not for water...

Another one that's so simple even I managed to do it without any unnecessary drama. As you'll no doubt know if you've flown in the past 20-odd years, the restrictions on taking liquids through security in your hand luggage mean shops and restaurants in the departure lounge can get away with pricing bottled water like it's polyethylene parcels of Aztec gold.

But what you might not know is that many airports in the UK now have water fountains after security, meaning all you have to do is pack an empty bottle or flask and fill it up when you get through. Which is just what I did...   

Sadly though you still have to pay for other drinks...

  • Time before travel: I picked up my water bottle and stuck it in my bag as I was leaving home, so two minutes. It helps if you've already got a bottle handy, obvs.
  • Saving: I got through a couple of 500ml refills at Gatwick, so I reckon that's £4. Plus as I had a bottle with me I refilled three to four times while in Czech instead of buying bottled water (saving about £1.50 to £2), so let's call it £6 in total. Plus I used less plastic as well as saving cash. What a guy.

So there you go. All-in I reckon practising what MSE preaches saved me around £123 over my five-night trip – and most of it was pretty simple. It just took a little thinking ahead (often the trickiest part for me, but maybe I'm learning...). For more hidden tricks to help you bag cheap flights, hotels, suntan lotion etc, check out our 60+ Overseas Travel Tips.