Trailblazing travel writer Eugene Fodor once said, “You don’t have to be rich to travel well.” As true as that statement may be, taking a trip overseas can be expensive. So to truly “travel well” internationally and make the most of that sizable investment, it pays to find ways to make your dollar go further.
Below are suggestions and insights from seasoned, financially savvy travelers to help you get more bang for your buck, yen, ruble, rupee, euro or whatever currency you’ll be using during the journey. Because when it comes to overseas travel, the wiser you are with your money, the richer your experience likely will be.
Top Tips for Maximum Vacation Value:
TIP: Be prudent about plastic. If possible, choose to use debit cards and credit cards that don’t charge foreign transaction fees. The fees that many credit card providers charge — typically 3% of each transaction — can mount quickly, as can foreign ATM withdrawal fees. So find out what your credit or debit card provider charges for those transactions by calling customer service or combing through the fine print of your cardholder agreement. If your cards do charge relatively high foreign transaction fees, saving on fees will mean using credit cards less and relying more on cash, while minimizing the number of ATM withdrawals you make (which entails making larger but less frequent withdrawals).
For an up-to-date list of cards with no transaction fees, check out www.nerdwallet.com/blog/top-credit-cards/no-foreign-transaction-fee-credit-card/.
Another option is to set up a debit account with a card that charges no foreign transaction fees. Certified financial planner Russ Weiss of the Marshall Financial Group in Doylestown, Pa., recommends the Schwab Bank High Yield Investor Checking Account, which comes with a debit card that has no foreign transaction fees. Schwab also reimburses account-holders for all ATM withdrawal fees, foreign and domestic. Having the ability to use a fee-free debit card means you’ll visit the ATM less and won’t have to carry as much cash when you’re traveling, adds Jordan Kunz, a certified financial planner with Sargent Bickham Lagudis in Boulder, Colo., who also endorses using the Schwab checking account for international travel. By withdrawing local currency directly, you also get a better exchange rate than if you were to exchange U.S. dollars or travelers checks. The Schwab checking account has no minimum balance but does require you to also establish a linked Schwab brokerage account, which costs nothing and which you don’t have to use.
TIP: Dwell in a place other than a hotel. Oftentimes housing found on such sites as VRBO.com, Homeaway.com and AirBnB.com beats hotels not only in price but in creature comforts such as privacy, access to a full kitchen and a yard, and more.
TIP: Store digital copies of important documents. If you lose a passport, credit card or other crucial items, all is not lost if you had the foresight to make digital copies of those items, then stored the digital files on a computer or in a cloud-based application (such as DropBox) you can access while abroad. They’re much easier to replace if you have documentation, notes Weiss.
TIP: Record all of your credit card account and customer service contact information, and leave it with someone at home, so if a card gets stolen or lost, you can access that information to cancel the card as quickly as possible.
TIP: Get selective — and creative — with your cell phone. As with credit cards, the fees for using cellphones overseas can pile up quickly if you’re not paying attention. One way to manage those fees is by purchasing an international data plan from your service provider (Verizon, AT&T, etc.) Another is to replace the SIM card in your phone with a SIM card equipped to work in the country or countries you’re visiting. The decision between these two options usually comes down to where you’re traveling, the length of your trip and how much you expect to use the phone for calls, email and text messaging.
In some cases switching out the phone’s SIM card — the small chip embedded in the device — is the most cost-effective option. Essentially that entails purchasing a SIM card once you arrive at your destination (many stores abroad carry them), then getting the new card installed (which you can do yourself or ask the card provider to do for you — be sure to keep your original SIM card someplace safe so you can slip it back in when you return stateside).
Once installed, the SIM card provides you with a new phone number that temporarily replaces your domestic phone number, plus a certain amount of prepaid data and minutes for calls in country, emails, texts, etc. “The value is more in the ability to make local calls and have access to an international data plan at a much lower rate than U.S. providers will charge,” explains Weiss.
If you’re traveling to multiple countries, you may need more than one SIM card, although some cards do work in multiple countries. Call your cell service provider and use the Internet to research your options in advance. Also be sure to confirm with your carrier in advance that your phone is “unlocked” and can accommodate a temporary SIM card.
TIP: Look beyond the banks if wiring money overseas, such as to pay for a rented vacation home. Weary of paying fees of up to 5% to wire money abroad, in-the-know international travelers are increasingly turning to peer-to-peer currency exchange via sites such as www.transferwise.com. This service allows a person to send money to their own account abroad or to another person or business overseas using a debit card or a traditional bank transfer, explains Ashley O’Kurley, a certified financial planner in Miami, Fla. TransferWise matches funds being transferred in one direction with funds being transferred in the other direction, converting that money to the local currency in each direction based on the prevailing mid-market rate. It then sends the converted money to the recipient’s target bank account in a process that takes one to four working days. The standard transaction fee is 0.5% — a fraction of what some banks might charge for the same service.
TIP: Be sure you have adequate overseas healthcare coverage. “You’ll want to check with your current health insurer before you go to verify what is and isn’t covered overseas,” says Steve Doucette of Proctor Financial in Sherborn, Mass. If there are gaps in coverage, consider getting international health and accident coverage to fill the void. This can be particularly important for seniors on Medicare, a program whose international coverage is very limited.
MORE TIPS: Invest in a multi-day public transit pass for a destination where you’ll be staying a few days. If you have access to a kitchen, try grocery shopping locally and preparing your own meals. Buy tickets to local tourist attractions in advance online. And don’t be afraid to leave the tourist track, as meals, goods and services may be cheaper away from the masses.
See our article for more cash-saving vacation tips: A Guide to Vacation Cash Conservation