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TPG Special Contributor Eric Rosen spends about six months of the year on the road, much of that traveling abroad for weeks at a time. Over the years, he has come up with a handy checklist that makes traveling international easier and more efficient. Here are his tips.
When it comes to travel, heading abroad is an entirely different animal from your typical family beach vacation. Not only do international trips tend to be longer than domestic ones, but also there’s a lot more things travelers have to keep in mind, from passport and visa requirements to avoiding nickel-and-dime fees for ATM withdrawals and credit card transactions. Over the years, I’ve compiled a list of tips and tricks to make traveling abroad easier, cheaper, more efficient and most importantly, stress-free.
Get a credit card with no foreign transaction fees: We talk about this all the time at TPG, but one of the best and easiest steps you can take to save money while traveling abroad is to be sure you’re carrying a credit card that waives the 1-3% foreign transaction fee many banks charge for using a card overseas (which can negate the value of any points or miles you earn by using them). This is true even for many popular travel cards. Luckily, several of the top points cards out there waive foreign transaction fees, including the Chase Sapphire Preferred, and Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard and plenty of others. For a full list, check out this post.
Get a Smart Chip card: Most developed countries have credit cards with smart chips in them. These cards are less susceptible to fraud, and in fact, many payment machines in other countries simply cannot (or merchants refuse to) process a magnetic strip card like what our cards in the US have. However, several major issuers including Amex, Barclaycard, Chase and Citi are offering more and more cards with smart chips, such as the Sapphire Preferred, the Amex Platinum and the Barclaycard Arrival Plus. Granted, most of these cards are still chip and signature instead of chip and pin (the notable exception is the Arrival Plus), but they’re still more functional than our traditional credit cards and worth carrying on an international trip.
Avoid ATM fees: I often use my ATM card to withdraw money while abroad, because the exchange rate my bank gives me is better than those offered by most currency exchange bureaus. However, travelers should look out for fees charged by banks and ATMs. Most banks charge either a flat fee of up to about $5 or a percentage of the total withdrawal, usually between 1-3%. One bank that notably does not do this is Charles Schwab, whose Visa Platinum check cardholders and High Yield Investors receive full reimbursements at the end of the month for any ATM fees incurred. For more information on this, as well as what other banks charge, check out this post. Make sure you’re aware of the fees imposed by your own card before using it abroad.
Have some foreign currency ahead of time: Like I said, I’m loathe to actually exchange currency, since most bureaus charge either a flat fee or a percentage of the transaction (usually whichever amount is higher). Still, I have found it necessary to have at least some foreign cash on hand before I land. Though you can usually find an ATM at the airport, I can’t count the number of times that there has been only one, even in a major hub terminal, that it has been out of cash, or that there has been a problem reading my card. That can be nerve-racking, especially since many taxis and even public forms of transport like buses and shuttles will only accept cash. It pays to have a few euros, yen or pesos with you when you arrive.
Notify your bank where you will be traveling: You’re already going to be combating jetlag, don’t compound the problem by being woken up at 4 am to calls from your bank notifying you that your credit card account has been suspended due to suspicious activity, and then having to call in (at a cost of several dollars a minute!) to get your account reinstated. Save yourself the hassle by calling your bank ahead of time and letting them know when and where you’ll be traveling.
Avoid dynamic currency conversion: Dynamic currency conversion is like the sneaky little brother of foreign exchange fees. Many merchants these days, including major hotels and restaurants, will offer you the ability to pay for your purchase in the local currency or in your own currency, supposedly as a convenience for travelers. However, by opting to pay in your own currency, you’re actually accepting a commission or transaction fee that usually runs around 2-3%. Stick to the local currency and save.
Get a currency conversion app: Save yourself the temptation of dynamic currency conversion and the trouble of doing complex calculations in your head by simply using a currency conversion app. I personally prefer XE.com’s free app for the most up-to-date conversions and features like simultaneous currency monitoring, and you can even use it offline.
Pay bills ahead of time or use automatic payments: While you’re on your vacation, your bills are not. It seems simple, but that’s exactly why it’s easy to forget. I try to pay my bills including rent, utilities, credit cards, etc., ahead of time so I don’t have to worry about them while I’m away. However, that’s not always possible (sometimes you just have to wait for that paycheck to clear!). In those cases, another option is to set up automatic payment ahead of time. That way you can forget about your bills while traveling, but you’ll avoid late payments or interest, which can negate the value of any points you earn and potentially damage your credit score.
Get Global Entry: I seriously don’t understand how anyone who travels abroad more than a few times a decade does not have Global Entry (or at least hasn’t applied for it) yet. Not only is it very easy to apply online, but there are even several ways to score it for free, including by carrying the Amex Platinum card or Citi Prestige card, or holding United 1K or Platinum status, or Delta Platinum or Diamond status. Global Entry not only gets you through customs and immigration faster, but also qualifies you for TSA PreCheck (which normally costs $85 to apply for on its own) so that you can use faster (well, in most cases) security lines at domestic airports. For more information on Global Entry and ways to get it for free, check out this post.
Be aware of visa and passport requirements: As our friends at Allied Passport pointed out in this post, you have to be aware of the visa and passport requirements of any countries you’re traveling to, including: whether you must apply for a visa ahead of time or can pick one up on arrival, how many months post-departure your passport must be valid, whether you need fully blank pages, and more. If in doubt, check the Department of State website.
Health and Travel Insurance
Check the CDC and consult a travel doctor: This mostly pertains to travelers heading to developing parts of the world rather than the average European summer jaunt, but no matter where you’re headed, it’s a good idea to check the CDC’s travel page to learn of any health concerns and requirements relevant to your destination. Even if there’s no threat to your health, some countries require proof of vaccination against certain diseases, and can refuse entry to travelers who cannot present such proof. If you find that you will need some vaccinations, or that certain medications like anti-malarials are suggested, call your primary care physician and get a referral to a travel doctor in your area who will be able to prescribe what you need. This goes as well for those who are traveling with a medical condition, even a benign one like pregnancy, since it’s important to know what level of care will be available to you should you need it.
Travel insurance: As we’ve discussed in the past, travel insurance can be a mixed bag. Travel insurance is widely available and can be a very good idea for expensive trips where there might be a medical emergency or emergency evacuation could be necessary, as well as if you are going to areas of potential political unrest. However, many plans offer only minimal coverage and have tons of exceptions. Before you buy, be sure you look closely at the terms offered and the maximum coverage allowed, and consider whether it aligns with the ways your trip might go awry to make sure you’ll be covered.
Phone plan: Most major phone carriers these days offer international roaming plans that can save you money on both data and calling while abroad. A lot of folks who plan to be abroad for a long time, especially in one or just a few countries, choose to get a local SIM card and just use a new number and carrier service while they’re away. However, my trips tend to be either just a couple weeks, or involve roaming from country to country, so I just use my carrier’s (Verizon) global roaming feature, which automatically bills me $25 for every 100 MB of data I use, and gives me discounted rates for calling from abroad. Though it’s not the cheapest deal, it is convenient and not too much extra out of pocket. T-Mobile users might just be the luckiest of the bunch now that the carrier offers an unlimited global roaming plan. Hopefully other major US carriers will follow suit. For more information on saving money using your phone internationally, check out this post.
Put your mail on hold: Especially if you’re going to be gone for more than a few days, it’s a good idea to put your mail on hold. Not only do you cut your risk of having your mail stolen (where did that check go?), but also it’s a good security measure since would-be burglars will be unable to tell if and when you’re away.
Planning ahead: This is more of a general point, but anything you can do to prevent or stave off unexpected setbacks will make your trip that much more relaxing. That may be as simple as mapping the airports you’ll be traveling through to figure out the best way to get from gate to gate on a tight connection, or researching disruptions that tend to occur at the time of year you’re traveling and having a list of alternate routes and carriers ready to go in case your flights are canceled or delayed. Being prepared can mean the difference between maximizing your time away or getting stuck in layover hell.
Have any other great tips for international travel? Share them below!
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