≡ Menu

How Travel is a Continuous Exercise in Buying Shit

How to navigate the excessive amounts of purchases you will be making when traveling.

Support VBJ’s writing on this blog:

Ultimately, travel can be reduced to one drawn out episode of buying things. It’s an exercise in petty commerce unlike anything else the capitalistic world could otherwise kick out. When you travel you generally don’t carry many things, you don’t have a home and places to store loads of misc gear, food, and stuff, so you find yourself making purchases all day long. You go from restaurant to grocery store to cafe to restaurant to the bus station to the hotel to the bar to the . . . and make payments every step of the way.

You want a drink? You buy a bottle of water. You want to eat three meals a day? You make three separate purchases. You want to go somewhere? You pay for transport to get there. You want to do something fun? Chances are most travelers are going to pay for it. Want a set of Thai pants and an Indian shirt so you can fit in with the other tourists? You’re going to pay for it. Want somewhere to sleep? More than likely you’re going to give money to a hotel or hostel . . . Almost everything you do during conventional stretches of travel is topped off with an exchange of money. You will make far more minor monetary transactions when on the road than you ever could at home. Far from being a reaction against consumer culture, travel is a reveling in capitalism of almost metaphysical proportions. 

So as you are going to be making an incredible amount of purchases as you move through this world a good standard operating procedure for buying things is needed:

1. Always ask the price first. This subverts potential misunderstandings and cuts down on the possibility of being overcharged. If you know the price in advance you can decide if you want to pay that much or not. If you don’t ask the price until after a product is used or a service is given it can create a tenuous situation if the provider demands way too high a price or you just assumed it would be cheaper.

2. When possible, only pay after you receive the item. This prevents shopkeepers, clerks, and service providers from pocketing your money at the start of the transaction and then asking for payment again after the product is given to you or the service is provided. They will tell you that you didn’t pay them, then it’s a matter of their word against your memory — and it is very easy for the memory of a single transaction to blend indistinctly into the seas of other purchases you make during a day of travel. If you’re in a situation where the person wants you to pay in advance be sure to make them ask for it and mnemonically bookmark the interaction (do, say, or notice something unusual that will stick in your memory).

3. Always be ready to break larger bills. Small money always spends without an issue, trying to pay with large bills can sometimes be a hassle. Some countries — like Guatemala and the Philippines — have monetary denomination systems that naturally err towards vendors running out of change. Most things that you are going to buy in these places are very cheap, and people tend to pay for things with slightly larger bills, sucking a vendor’s change reserve dry. This is a problem for you because it is not uncommon for the vendor to just say, “Sorry, no change,” and then it’s your choice to either magically produce it or just let them keep the entire amount.

For obvious reasons ATMs tend to spit out cash in large denominations, so when you fill up your coffers be sure to break big bills down whenever you can. Doing so is relatively simple: look for big stores that should have big change reserves and buy something small. Department stores, supermarkets, multinational fast food chains are prime targets for this.

4. If by some chance you are not able to stock yourself with small change and a vendor says they can’t make change for you (sometimes honestly, sometimes as a way to cheat you) simply take your money back and tell them that you will pay only when they have change available. 95% of the time they will grab your larger size bill, walk to the shop next door, and return with your change in a matter of moments or mystically manifest change from their till.

5. If paying with larger size monetary demoninations be sure to say the amount of the bill aloud and make it very clear that you’re aware of what it is. This inhibits the possibility of a vendor giving you change for a smaller demonination (i.e. change for a 10 when you paid with a 100). Once your bill is in the vendor’s drawer and mixed in with the other money it is very difficult to claim what you actually paid with — especially if you can’t really speak the local language. If you are in a country where this type of short changing is common (i.e. India, Morocco) make the vendor give you your change before you hand over your money. Just hold up or lay down on the counter what you want to pay with and don’t let go until your chance is produced.

6. If you are short changed, don’t just eat it and walk away, justifying it by saying something woosy and condescending like, “Well, they are poorer than me so they need the money more than I do.” No, stand in front of the vendor and loudly proclaim what happened to every customer that comes into the shop. Try to embarrass or shame the vile shit, disrupt the course of his/ her business, and be as much of a hassle as possible. Make it known that you are not going to go away until you are paid off with your change. If you do it right this procedure usually takes all of two minutes. 


The only way I can continue my travels and publishing this blog is by generous contributions from readers. If you can, please subscribe for just $5 per month:


If you like what you just read, please sign up for our newsletter!
* indicates required
Filed under: Money, Travel Tips

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3717 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

Support VBJ’s writing on this blog:

VBJ is currently in: New York City

1 comment… add one

Leave a Comment

  • DeJav “My traveld Road” Spelle June 23, 2015, 8:31 am

    All good valid points to keep in mind.

    Link Reply