General Travel Tips – Things to do before Leaving

There are always certain things I’ll do before leaving for a trip – either international or domestic.  Some you have to do, others will save you money or make your life easier.

Visas/Reciprocity Fees/Vaccinations/Safety/etc.

Most countries allow US Passport holders to visit the country for up to 90 days without having to obtain visa prior to arrival.  We have only been to one country that required you get anything before arrival – Australia, which requires a small payment for an electronic visa.

Some countries (e.g. Argentina, Chile) make you to pay a reciprocity fee.  Basically, these countries require that you pay whatever their citizens have to pay to visit the US.

I also always check if the countries require you have any vaccinations to enter or if you should receive any vaccinations for your own health.

The US government has a good site that summarizes most of these things.  I’ll also look at the UK Travel website and the Australian Travel website for second and third opinions.

Though, if you find yourself looking at all this and thinking that it seems like you don’t need to do much, don’t worry.  Many times you don’t have to do much.  Of all the countries we’ve visited, we have not had to get a single vaccination and have only had to pay one small fee (Australia).  That’s it.  Most places are visa upon arrival.

But one thing I know I’ve mentioned several times is to always have your airline/hotel confirmations printed out.  More than anything else, we’ve had to provide proof of onward travel and even that we had a place to stay once.


For calling home, Skype worked perfectly fine for us – all you need is an internet connection.  We used it on the laptop, the Ipad, and our cell phones without issue.  If the other party has Skype, you can call their skype account for free and even video chat if you want.  Otherwise, you can call US land/cell lines for a couple cents a minute or $3 a month for unlimited calls.  Skype also came in handy when we occasionally needed to call a local number.

I know Apple has Facetime, which lets you communicate with other Apple users…but I’m really not familiar with it.  That can be another option, but I think you miss out on the ability to call phones directly.

Cell Phones…International roaming is insanely expensive.  So if you want to carry a working cell phone (and actually use it), I’d make alternative plans.

I was able to get both of our phones carrier unlocked by AT&T, despite the phones being only a couple of months old.  You used to be able to get the unlock code over an AT&T internet help chat for android phones, but they apparently stopped doing that.  However, if your phone is over 2 years old, they will unlock it.  They might even unlock it if it is not quite 2 years old but is over a year.  Other options are to use an old phone (which can be unlocked) or buy a cheap unlocked phone.

What does it matter if your phone is unlocked?  You can use the SIM card of any carrier in an unlocked phone (assuming it has the proper cell band coverage).  This means you can buy a local SIM card when you arrive in the new country and pay the local data rate.  We usually got 500 megs to a gig of data for $20-$30 (US), which is about what you’d pay at home.  You could even get a voice plan if you wanted.

This strategy worked fantastically for us.  We would get a local SIM anytime we’d be in a spot for more than a couple days.  SIM cards were generally very easy to find and set up.  You can even research the coverage maps of the different local providers to make sure you’ll be covered.  I just found this link that gives a great overview of local SIM options for all countries.

The only downside to using local SIMs is that it is an extra thing you have to do when arriving to a new country.  Though, it was generally not too difficult to find a SIM and get it up and running.  Still, it could be a pain if you are moving around a whole lot (especially if you’ll be driving from country to country).  Otherwise, local SIMs will without a doubt be your cheapest and fastest option.

And actually, domestic providers now appear to be offering better international options…AT&T offers 800 MBs of global data for $120…Steep, but much less than the standard per kb rate of $.0195/KB.  At that rate, the same 800 MBs would cost you $15,600.  The moral of this story – don’t just go abroad and use your phone like normal.

T-Mobile actually offers free international 3G data, free international texting, and $.20/minute international calls as part of their standard cell package.  If being able to text is important and you are not overly concerned about the data speed, signing up for a month to month T-Mobile account is not a bad option if you don’t feel like dealing with local SIM cards.  If you already have T-Moblie service, you’re already set for international data.  This blog post and comments has some more discussion on T-Mobile’s international options.

Neither of the above options were available when we left.  Hopefully more competition in the international cell area will drive prices to being more reasonable…Who else remembers outside your home state roaming charges from 15 years ago?

Some companies offer wireless hotspot connections, which will cover all of your data needs.  This post from Ben at One Mile at a Time goes over the two major options – the comments also have some good discussion on international data.  They seem to be a little more expensive, but they will cover all your devices and offer unlimited data.

There are some other options out there (like Global SIM cards), but the above options are probably your best bets.  The domestic plans really aren’t outrageous anymore.  They are definitely more expensive than local SIMs, but I guess it is a personal call as to whether dealing with local SIM cards is worth the savings.  Whatever you do, don’t just go abroad and use your cell as normal without signing up for an international plan.


I generally try to use credit cards for everything that I can when I’m abroad (and at home too).  Many credit cards offer no foreign transaction fees, and credit cards will always give you the best conversion rates…And don’t forget that you get reward points.

Having a card with a chip on it is probably a good idea.  I don’t know if not having one would have been a problem in the places we traveled because all of the cards I was using had a chip.  Some US card issuers are even starting to offer Chip and Pin cards, which are very common elsewhere.  That said, I have never had an issue in any of the places we traveled from just having a Chip card (as opposed to Chip and Pin).nobrand chip-and-pin-dt-431x300

One thing you’ll definitely want to do is notify your credit cards and banks when and where you will be travelling internationally.  You can call in and do this, or many banks actually let you do it online quickly and easily.

Another tip is to NEVER let the store/restaurant/whatever convert the currency for you.  If they offer the option to convert the currency, always decline it as it is a much worse deal than having your credit card convert it.  And if they tell you they cannot run it in the local currency (which has never happened to us), they’re lying.

I also want to have both US cash and local cash on me.  I generally don’t use the US cash, but you can always convert it in a bind.

The best way to get local cash from abroad is to just get it from ATM machines.  Check with your bank, but most of the big banks seem to charge no fees on foreign currency conversions from ATM withdrawals – mine just charges an out of network ATM fee.  This is a good discussion on foreign ATM withdrawal fees – I probably could have fared better by signing up for one of the accounts.  You will have to pay the ATM fee (unless you can find one of your bank’s ATMs).  Similar to credit cards, DO NOT let the ATM convert the currency for you.  If you do, you’ll be paying both the ATM fee and an outrageous conversion rate.

All airports have ATMs.  They will always be a better deal than the money changing booths.  The ATM fees may be higher at the airport, but the exchange rate is administered by your bank – so it is the same everywhere (unless you let the ATM convert the currency for you, which you should never do).  When withdrawing funds from an ATM, always aim high because with a fixed fee for using the ATM (as opposed to a percentage) using the ATM is cheaper the more money you withdraw.  It is also less expensive to withdraw money once as opposed to more than once.  Either way, ATM fees in cities were pretty reasonable (generally $3 from what I remember) and even the airport fees weren’t too bad ($5-$6).  So, don’t stress too much about it.

If you plan far enough ahead of time, you can have your bank order you foreign currency.  I found they charged a conversion rate that was not quite as good as the actual rate (which is charged by credit cards).  But, it was pretty cheap.  I guess I paid $20 to get over a $1000 total from 9 different currencies.  Plus it was really nice having the currency with you when you landed – not having to find an ATM was just one less thing to worry about.

When leaving the country, take any local cash you have with you.  If you exchange it at the airport booths, you’ll get crushed on the exchange rate.  You can always exchange with your bank back at home at a more favorable rate, or just keep the cash for the next time you visit that country.

Travel Insurance

The first thing to remember about travel insurance is that it is insurance.  That is, it is a gamble.  If you need it and have it, you’ll likely be very happy.  If you buy it and don’t need it, you’ll probably think it is a waste.

First, check with your health insurance and see if they cover injuries/illnesses while traveling internationally.  If not, you probably want something.

Then, you should be mindful of which credit card you used to purchase your airline tickets.  Many credit cards come with as good (or better) coverage than insurance you purchase for things like delayed travel, lost/delayed baggage, etc.  If your card has good coverage (most AMEXs do), then you might not need insurance for those things.  However, this gets more complicated when you mix in things like award tickets and multiple flights.

I typically don’t think trip cancellation insurance is a good deal.  That will run your insurance costs up a good bit, and it can be very difficult to value what you cancelled/lost on a longer trip…Or you may have refundable reservations but are being charged cancellation insurance on them.  Either way, it is definitely not for me.  But again, it is insurance and is a personal call.

On our long trip, we did have some insurance.  It was pretty reasonably priced and covered medical/dental/delayed or lost baggage.  Most of our flights were award flights and we had a pretty complicated itinerary.  Even though we didn’t need insurance, Alyce was definitely happy we had it and I don’t consider it a bad purchase – even in hindsight.

These sites have some good info on travel insurance (reviews, quotes, etc.) if it is something you want to look into:

Getting to your Destination


I’m not talking about getting to the city you’re visiting, but getting from the airport/train station to your hotel/rental.  This is one thing I always look into before we get somewhere.  It is especially important in non-English speaking destinations, but I always make sure I know the options before arriving somewhere.

Catching a cab is always the easiest, but even that can be difficult.  I know I’ve recommended it before, but I always print out the hotel name in the local language with an address/map before I arrive somewhere now.  That is one thing I learned on the trip.  Rather than trying to struggle to explain where we are going (even in English speaking countries), I give them the map.  Everything is settled immediately.  Also, it can help keep you from getting scammed (or “driven in cirles” to run up your fare) because the taxi driver knows you have an idea of how long it should take.

And even if you usually take taxis, there are some situations where it is just too damn expensive.  Osaka Airport (KIX) to Kyoto would have been close to a $200 cab ride if I just showed up at the airport and just walked to the cab line.  Instead, we caught the limo bus for something like $20 a person.  Or sometimes public transportation is not only cheaper, but quicker for getting to/from the airport.

Likewise, make sure public transportation is ok with your situation if that is what you want to do.  Sometimes it is great, others you could be lugging a suitcase on to a very crowded subway and then walking up flights of stairs followed by blocks to save a couple bucks.  That all may not be a problem if you’re on a short trip and travelling lighter in a place with which you are familiar…But – if not – it may not be an ideal way to start your vacation.

Point being, I’d always know beforehand how you’re planning to get to your lodging and roughly how much it should cost.

Offline Maps

We have android phones with Google Maps, so loading maps for offline viewing is pretty easy.  All you have to do is have the screen on the area you want to save and then tell it to save the map for offline viewing.  You can’t search the map and it’s not as good as having data, but you’ll be thrilled to have it if you don’t have data.  There are also apps that save much bigger areas offline.  And while I can’t speak to them specifically, I would think Apple has to have something similar.

It’s simple, but offline maps and GPS have saved us a time or two.

Global Entry/PreCheck

This is definitely optional, but Global Entry is a program that lets you skip the immigrations and customs lines when arriving back to the US and a couple other countries.  It cost $100 (which you can get credited on a couple credit cards—Amex Platinum for example).  You also have to interview at a Global Entry center, which there is currently not one in Louisiana.  Still if you can time it right to interview on a layover or vacation, it is a nice benefit to have.

Global Entry also enrolls you in the PreCheck program.  PreCheck basically takes airport security back to what it was pre 9/11.  You don’t have to take off your belt/shoes/jacket.  You don’t have to take your computer/liquids out of your carry-on.  You don’t have to completely empty your pockets.  The PreCheck lines are generally shorter and quicker.  Basically, it makes the airport experience much smoother and less stressful.

Global Entry is certainly not necessary, but it definitely makes travel more pleasant if you do have it.

tsa-precheck-infinitelegroom-feature TSA-PreCheck

Try out Everything

Lastly—and really, only on extended trips—I’d try out everything.  Pack your bag and walk around in it for a while.  You’ll know if it is too heavy and whether everything you plan to bring fits.

If you’re planning on using quick dry clothes and washing them in the sink, do it for a couple days.  See what you think.

Anything else out of the ordinary you have planned – try it from the comfort of your home…and preferably early enough so that you can make adjustments if necessary.

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