- Our favorite way to find accommodations is through vacation rentals by owners http://www.vrbo.com/. We have had great places in the United States, Costa Rica, Argentina, Hawaii, Beijing, and New Zealand this way. They typically cost about what a hotel room at a nice hotel would cost, with way more room.
- Try not to change places to stay every night.The amount of work to pack, check out, find the new place, and check in subtracts considerably from the time you have available to sightsee. Find a centrally located site and then take day trips. Other countries tend to be far more compressed than the US. For example, most of Northern Italy (e.g. Florence, Sienna, Venice, Milan) is an hour or two train ride away from Bologna.
- Lower your standards. You probably aren't going to spend much time in your room--so save a lot of money and skip the pool and the fancy lobby. Less expensive hotels are often more centrally located and hence more convenient for getting around or they are out of the city in rural areas that have a charm of their own.
- We like to book accommodations ahead. It is usually pretty easy to just find them once you are in an area, but we find it is not worth the stress of not knowing where you will be staying. Travel agents, the Internet, etc., are good resources.
- When language is a barrier it is usually better to write stuff down (e.g. email or fax) rather than try and do things verbally
- Use charge cards whenever you can--you get the best rate that way. Hotels give you the worst rates for changing money.
- Before you leave the USA call your credit card companies and tell them where you plan to be. If you don't you will likely find your attempted charge will be declined. You will then have to figure out how to call your credit card company from a foreign country to fix this, which can be a non-trivial task.
- It is usually easy to exchange some money at the airport when you arrive, the rates are not that bad and you often do need money immediately for things like taxis. Don't forget you have already spent a lot on the vacation, another $10 or $20 in exchange fees to get a fast start on the day is well worth it.
- It is even better to use the ATM machines with a credit/debit card and a PIN code. Look at the machine to see if there is some hope that English is supported before putting your card in.
- In a pinch you can get a cash advance with your credit card at a bank.
- Cities have lots of currency exchange places and many banks provide service too
- Exchange significantly more than you think you will need, it is much better to pay the small (e.g. 5%) cost of converting into the next currency you need rather than to deal with the stress of not having enough cash and having to finding a place to exchange money or an ATM machine. The Euro makes this a lot easier in Europe.
- Places that take charge cards are common (at least in Europe and Japan), but many smaller hotels and restaurants do not accept them.
- Keep it simple with exchange rates. For calculating what something costs in dollars come up with a simple approximation. For example the Chinese RMB is 7.75 to the US dollar right now. Round this up to 8, and just divide the cost in RMB by 8 to get the dollar amount. If there are 1.3 US dollars to the Euro, make the multiply factor 1.5 and just recognize you are overestimating a bit.
- I have stopped carrying traveler's checks. They cost money, many places don't take them, and the exchange rate for them if they are not in the local currency is usually not very good. I bring cash as an emergency fund if I have trouble with debit / credit cards and stash it in my luggage somewhere.
- We haven't quite figured it out, but in many countries people seem to really hate break big bills when you buy something. Even a bill that is equivalent to $15 to $20 will generate some consternation. It could be that their managers always leave them chronically short of change. Since an ATM will typically only give you big bills you need to be on the lookout for good places to get change. Places that handle a lot of cash or a lot of tourist like museums, shopping markets, or big hotels are good choices. When I put bills into my wallet I try to sort them by size so I can find the small bills when I need themm (I know, engineers are weird). If you can pay a bill for an odd amount (e.g. 23.11) exactly in cash and coins it often results in a smile, or even laughter on their part. They probably appreciate that you have taken the time to figure out their system.
- In poorer countries dollars are often welcome and sometimes can be used to negotiate a significant discount over the standard exchange rate. Tips in dollar bills are fine in these situations too.