Thursday, November 23, 2017

International Travel Tips

I've traveled to 26 countries (including 25 separate trips to Spain), mostly as a touring musician. I've developed some pre-trip to-dos that might look like a bit much, but it's the result of deep experience.

While you're in trip prep mode, ticking down a 100 item to-do list, it's easy to forget that not every step's of equal priority. You'll need to invest a solid hour in the following, but it prevents huge potential pain; way more so than if you, say, forget to pack suntan lotion (Globalism is your friend, by the way; you can find Pepto Bismol or bobby pins most anywhere now).

I'm preparing this for The Niece in Greece (she's headed over to cavort with shiftless millionaire sponge-diving playboys), but hopefully this will be of use to others, as well.

Cautious Stuff

1. Make a copy of the photo page of your passport, and carry it in a different place than you carry your passport. If you lose your passport, this puts you way ahead of the game in getting a replacement (and/or temporarily keeping you cool with local authorities)

2. Your phone may house beautifully organized trip info, but what if you lose your phone (or it runs out of juice at the wrong moment)? Write up a one page document with all flight and ground transportation details, hotels, credit card cancellation non-800 numbers, etc. Print up a jillion copies, and put one in every suitcase and carry-on, plus one in your pocket or pocketbook.

3. Start a word processor document with a big, bold 14 pt header titled "In Case of Emergency" (google-translated into the local language). Beneath, in 9 point text, with very narrow columns, add a name and local contact number (hotel, Airbnb host, local friends or work contacts), and make clear (again, using Google Translate) that this person is local (e.g. "En Barcelona"). Also add your email address and any medical information (allergies, conditions, medications - remember, if you're in a health crisis, you won't otherwise get your usual meds for a few days).

Print it out, scissor-trim it into a tight, narrow strip, and feed it into a wallet slot, prepped so the "In Case of Emergency" header is clearly visible. Also: save the document on your computer to use as a template for future trips.

Take a moment to carefully consider your choice of contact. This will be your sole lifeline and means of referral back to friends/family in USA. Consider adding an American contact (most foreigners have a cheap way of calling abroad these days...more so than Americans do). Set up the number carefully, with local international call prefix plus American country code, and specify (in local language) the languages your American contact speaks (e.g. "Ingl├ęs solamente").

Don't rush this step; you want it done right! Imagine how various scenarios would play out.

4. Prepare a similar document, without the medical info or American contact. Just include a local contact plus your email address (local EMS will check your wallet; this one is just for a lost phone or informal street help in the event of a problem). Photograph this document, and make it the "lock screen" on your smart phone, so it's what everyone sees when they turn on the phone, prior to enterring passcode (take the time to make it look right, and save the document - not the photo - on your computer so you can use it as a template for future trips).

5. Call your credit cards to let them know you'll be abroad, otherwise they may assume someone stole your card.

Using Smartphone Abroad

You want lots and lots of data abroad. Many people shut off data to escape roaming charges, and only connect via wifi. They're horribly wrong. This is when your smartphone shines! You want to use tons of Google Maps, Yelp, Uber, local mass-transit apps (add research/downloading these to your to-do list), plus stay-in-touch email and US news checks. You want loads of data! But don't pay thousands of dollars by doing so on your home mobile plan. What you want is a local SIM (which gives you a local phone number plus a daily/weekly data allowance plus text messages). Again, get one with high data allowance (upwards of 10g/week). Don't be cheap on this!

Note, per #1 below, that you'll need an unlocked phone.

T-Mobile, last time I checked, offers free local data everywhere, but it's super slow. Know what? Screw it! Even if you're on T-Mobile, spring for the local SIM with fast data. It's never expensive (figure $15-30/week). Live a little!

Downside: phone calls to your normal home number won't ring through. You can give important correspondents your foreign local number for emergencies. And call back to your home phone number via Skype to grab voicemail (always keep a balance on Skype). As for text messages, see #4, below.

Smartphone Pre-Travel

1. A week or more before you leave, call your smartphone carrier to verify that you have an unlocked phone (so it can take a local SIM). If not, and they balk at unlocking it (they can do so remotely), threaten to cancel your plan with them (if they mention penalty charges for breaking your contract, tell them T-Mobile offered to pay the penalties for you).

2. Google your destination plus "local SIM", and ignore all results over a year old. Find out which week-long packages are available for travelers. Often, there's not much choice or price variation (seriously, don't waste too much time comparison shopping here), in which case, great, get it done right in the airport as soon as you land. Otherwise, hit a cellphone kiosk in the most touristy town center. And bring your passport, they usually ask for it. 

3. Bring a small paper clip for opening the SIM tray. When you buy the SIM, they'll take care of that for you. But you'll need the paper clip to open it up to pop back your original SIM when you arrive at your home airport.

4. Send text messages to all your frequent correspondents saying you'll be out of range, but inviting them to email you. Note that you SHOULD be able to connect via text even with a new SIM, but only if your correspondent uses the same platform (iOs or Android) as you....and, even so, it won't work if your phone's not properly configured (and Apple keeps changing the config options, so I'm never quite sure). Text messages are voodoo, so be safe and assume it won't work (if you use WhatsApp, you're all set, of course...and that app's super popular abroad, fwiw).

5. Make sure you have my app, "Eat Everywhere" loaded on your phone to help not just with the the local cuisine, but also for other cuisines cooked by local immigrants. We offer helpful local pronunciations and background on the food. Don't eat out without it!

Smartphone After Arrival

1. After the insolent kid in the cell phone kiosk tells you you're good to go with your new SIM, step to the side, turn off wifi, and try to load a web page. If it doesn't load, don't leave until it does. Also, ask him/her to text you, and you text back.

2. Guard your old SIM with your life. I shove it, hard, into an unused bottom corner of my wallet. Sure, you can always get a replacement back home, but you really want a working phone once your plane lands back home.

3. Go to the "Cellular" section of your device's settings and make sure LTE is enabled for voice and data (it probably is at home, but for some reason this setting often gets toggled off when you add a new SIM).

4. Sometime that day or the following (most often at the 24 hour mark after buying the SIM), data may stop working. If so, follow the instructions (probably dialing a number with some asterisks and pound signs) for initially setting up data (carry the SIM instruction paperwork in your wallet). Often you just need to do this again...every day (after calling, a text will tell you you've already been set up, and data should now work). No idea why.


ATMs are expensive. Not just due to the usual fee, but also the hefty foreign transaction charge. I've tried alternative ways of getting money, but they're all bad (trust me: you don't want to fool around with traveler's checks). So I take a huge ATM withdrawal right at the airport. Several reasons:

1. I won't need to make as many subsequent withdrawals, each with terrible fees (they add up!).

2. I won't have to use my credit card as much (again, terrible rate plus an international fee - though some cards are better than others; do some research if you travel a lot).

3. If the big withdrawal is lost/stolen once every ten trips, I'll still have saved money overall compared to paying multiple int'l transaction fees.

4. My thief will be far happier with me (and less inclined to conk me over the head) than if he'd found just twenty five bucks for his trouble.

Other than this big-gulp strategy, I don't stress over foreign transaction fees. Certain travel expenses can/should be squirmed out of, but this one (like the high data local SIM plan) I just suck up.

One ATM tip: always request a granular amount of the local currency, so you don't wind up with a wallet full of the local equivalent of $50 or $100 bills (which nobody wants to break). Ask for 310, 320 or 325 rather than 300 or 350. This will allow you to purchase whatever doodads you need right from the beginning. And start trying to break up bigger bills as soon as you get to your hotel.


If you carry it everywhere with you, you may be sorry (if it's lost or stolen).

If you leave it in your hotel room, you may be sorry (if it's required and you don't have it with you).

My rule of thumb is that the more authoritarian or alien the country, the more likely I am to bring it everywhere with me. But if you leave it in your hotel, leave it well hidden, or even in the hotel vault (leave out a big, honking, hardcopy reminder to yourself to re-claim it before you leave). Don't leave it in the same bag as the copy of the passport you made before leaving.


Unknown said...

If interested in such: I have 2 cards I travel with that charge no international transaction fees: Capital One Visa and Amazon Visa

Jim Leff said...

Yup, there are other ones as well. But you do pay in the end. You're not getting frequent flyer points, cash back… etc.

It's like you get to choose which minuscule payback category they bribe you with. Me, I prefer cash back of frequent flyer, because they accrue with every type of transaction. But mileage literally varies....

Unknown said...

Jim, I also follow this philosophy of infrequent large withdrawals while traveling abroad, but I'm a bit confused by your assertion that foreign ATM withdrawals are expensive. Relative to what, exactly? TravelEx? I don't think so.

When I started traveling in earnest in the early naughts, I believe it was Rick Steves who trained me to always use foreign ATMs, for the simple reason that ATMs use the bank to bank conversion rate, which is among the most favorable exchanges available. Yes the "transaction fee" is the bank putting their thumb on the scale, but unless you're exchanging on the black market, everyone is charging a few bucks per transaction. That means when considering how to exchange your funds, you can effectively cancel out the transaction fee and pay attention instead to the main variable, the exchange rate itself.

If you know of methods where you'll get a more favorable international exchange rate than the bank to bank rate offered by ATMs, I'd like to know.

Mr Taster

Jim Leff said...

I'm not sure where we disagree. As I said, you face some combo of fees and bad rates wherever you turn, no alternative is best (bough some credit cards offer certain deals, per comment above), so your best bet is ATM. And since there's a steep international charge for every ATM transaction, you're best off doing as few withdrawals as possible (though, as I said, it's not worth going nuts over).

Unknown said...

Where we disagree is when you say that ATMs provide "awful exchange rates". If better rates are available, I'd love to know where, as I haven't found any (aside from isolated circumstances in black market situations where the "official" government rate is an extortionary scam and the free market rate is much better.)

Jim Leff said...

Ok, you'd like a word changed. Done.

Unknown said...

Hey man, don't do it for me! Do it because precise use of language is important (unless you're the US President, that is).

Mr Taster

Jim Leff said...

I'll get there one day! Thanks!

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