Being in a strange place can be invigorating and eye-opening. Some of my favorite travel memories include an early-morning run along the Danube River in Budapest, touring the temples of Angkor Wat, and having late-night drinks and steak in Uruguay.
There have also been plenty of business trips where the only sites I saw were those visible from my hotel room window, because I was too busy running from one meeting to another.
Regardless of what type of trip you’re on, there are several steps you can take to ease an overseas journey.
Hotel business cards
The first thing I do when arriving at a hotel overseas is take a business card from the front desk. That way, if I ever get lost, I have the name and address of the hotel in the local language. Large populations around the world speak English, but having something in a local language that I can show locals and taxi drivers is an extra bit of insurance.
The six-month passport rule
The expiration date on your passport is actually a bit deceiving. The U.S. lets you use your passport up to the date inside the cover. However, several countries will deny travelers entry if the passport expires in less than six months. Why? If for some unexpected reason you get stuck overseas longer than planned, that country wants to ensure that you have a valid passport to eventually travel back to the United States. To avoid any problems, I always renew my passport during a downtime in travel, about nine months prior to the expiration date.
The way to get cash is usually an ATM, but many U.S. banks charge steep fees for using an ATM that is out of network. You can take out a large amount of cash at the airport ATM so you pay that fee only once, but it’s never advisable to carry large sums of cash. Plus, you risk having too much local currency left over at the end of your trip. Charles Schwab and Fidelity both offer checking accounts that have no minimum balance requirements and reimburse you for all ATM fees, including those from overseas.
The best exchange rates are often found using your credit card. However, many credit cards will tack on a foreign transaction fee, sometimes as high as 3 percent. It’s a pointless fee that no traveler should ever pay. The Chase Sapphire Preferred card and Platinum American Express are two of the cards that don’t levy this fee. Also, never have a hotel or restaurant convert a charge into dollars first. It’s a bad deal.
Notify your credit card company’s fraud department of what countries you will be visiting and on what dates. This way, they won’t think your card is stolen and shut it off just when you need it the most. Be mindful of any countries you might be changing planes in; you might need to make a charge during your layover, especially if there’s a delay.
Credit card chips
U.S. credit cards rely on magnetic strips on the back that are swiped at vendors. In Europe, cards have a chip embedded in them which—when paired with a PIN—are used for purchases. It’s a much more secure way of charging goods, but hasn’t been adopted in the States. Most vendors overseas can still swipe your card. But train ticket machines, gas stations, and other machines where we pay without interacting with a person often reject cards that are swiped. Getting a chip and PIN card from a U.S. bank is hard. But many credit cards are now coming with chip and signature technology.
I always carry an eye mask and earplugs in my medicine bag because you never know what your hotel room is going to be like. But I also carry Advil, NyQuil, Imodium A-D, Tums, and a handful of other key medications. Yes, even the most historic European neighborhood has a drugstore. But do you want to be running around Germany late at night, trying to translate “diarrhea”? If you’re heading to third-world countries, stocking up on the right drugs is even more important. Many travelers fill a prescription in advance for the antibiotic ciprofloxacin and bring it with them just in case.
It’s a good idea to check the State Department’s travel warnings and alerts. It’s also smart to print out the address and contact information of the local embassy.
Foreign airline sites
If you are on a tight budget—and don’t have to book through your company’s travel department—look at overseas airlines’ sites in their home countries. I recently booked a ticket from southern Italy to northern Italy on Alitalia. The airline’s U.S. site wanted twice the price of the Italian site. I’m not fluent in Italian, but Google Chrome translated every page for me. I paid in euros, using a credit card with no foreign transaction fees.
Set up your cell phone to avoid international data roaming. Many business travelers have an international calling and data plan. But infrequent travelers don’t. The biggest costs can come from transmitting data overseas. I was in a remote part of southern San Diego last summer, and my cell phone provider sent me a text alert welcoming me to Mexico. Apparently, I had jumped onto a cell tower in Tijuana. I immediately shut off my data roaming, turning it back on only once I was out of that area.
I have a great sense of direction and rarely need a map. I know others aren’t as lucky, though, and have come to rely on their cell phones to get around. If you don’t add a data plan to your phone while abroad, you can still jury-rig a crude version. Using the Wi-Fi in your hotel, plot out a few routes you plan to walk that day. Then take a screenshot of those maps. You can later find the photo, zoom in, and follow the path. It’s not ideal, but it’s a work-around.
Unwanted local currency
I figure out on my last night how much cash I will need and then set aside the leftover money. At checkout the next morning, I take that cash and ask the hotel to apply it to my bill and then pay the remaining balance with my no-foreign-transaction-fee credit card.