I’m still in the UK but couldn’t help but take a few minutes to share some tips with you for the next time you travel overseas! While these tips are tailored toward readers in the US, they’re applicable to those that live elsewhere, too. Without further ado, here are the nine things you should remember before traveling abroad!
1) Get a Google Voice Number and a Local SIM Card
If you’re like me, being able to use voice and data service abroad isn’t just nice, it’s a necessity. Having access to a smartphone’s full capabilities overseas can be immensely helpful, whether you’re hailing a ride via Uber, looking up directions or checking a local eatery’s menu and reviews, your trip can be greatly improved by a data connection that’s prohibitively expensive to maintain through any US carrier’s international use plans, much less through their regular roaming charges.
Our guide to using your phone overseas the smart way is a great place to start. We recommend using a local SIM card, which typically means drastically lower voice and data charges for those with unlocked and compatible phones, but also means your phone will take on the number and characteristics of that local carrier.
That means you need a smart way to stay in touch with home. If you have a solid data connection much of the time, Google Voice can be a great option for this. Our guide has detailed information on how to sign up and place calls over the data network home via an app for iOS and Android.
Additionally, consider one of the many, many free texting apps available for smartphones. Texting folks at home is simple if you both have a modern iPhone, as messages sent using iMessage are delivered over the data connection. Traditional SMSs are different. Prepaid SIM cards overseas will rarely if ever include support for sending texts back to the United States. These apps will allow you to do so free of charge, leveraging the data included with the local SIM you purchased.
2) Stop Your Mail with the Postal Service
If you’ll be gone for more than a few days, it’s a good idea to have the postal service hold your mail for you until your return. That way, if you receive any important mail or packages, you won’t have to worry whether they’re exposed to inclement weather or, if you’re more cynical, about whether or not they might be stolen by someone.
The United States Postal Service makes this easy to accomplish online. Simply go to their hold mail request form and you can fill it out online. If it’s somehow more convenient, you can also call or fill out a form at your local Post Office branch, but by the time you finish reading this sentence, you could have had the form completed!
3) File Credit Card Travel Notifications
Place yourself in the role of your credit card company for a moment: if a customer that typically places charges in Illinois suddenly started placing charges in Europe or Asia, wouldn’t you wonder if someone else might have gained access to their card for fraudulent use? Your credit card company might simply be looking out for you (and themselves since they’re typically liable for any fraudulent charges), but having your card frozen while legitimately traveling can be a major pain.
This can be avoided easily. Most credit companies, including Chase, Citi, Barclays and American Express, make it easy to file a travel notification online. This lets creditors know you have travel planned and minimizes the possibility your card will be frozen. Can’t find the form on your particular card company’s website? Check the back of your card for the customer service phone number. Give them a call and let them know. It should only take a minute and it could save hours of hassle.
While you’re at it, take note of which cards charge a foreign transaction fee and which don’t. Give those with no fee preferential treatment while abroad. Not sure which do and don’t? Our Sign-Up Links page has the details for most great points-earning credit cards.
4) Converter or Adapter? Know the Difference!
Electric plugs aren’t the same everywhere, and neither is voltage. The US runs on a 110/120V electrical system, while many other countries run on 240/250V power. Some devices are able to work on either voltage and only require an adapter in order to function. Your device or your device’s power supply should make it crystal clear which voltages they support. Many hair dryers, for example, support both the lower and higher voltages, but have a toggle that must be switched from one to the other. More sophisticated electronics often support both voltage levels without the need for a toggle.
Other devices may require a converter that can change down the voltage a device receives to the 110/120V level in order to function. If you plug a 110V device into a 240V outlet and it’s unable to handle the higher voltage, a host of terrible things can happen, from your device breaking to even sparking or catching fire. One thing is certain: it definitely won’t work. When shopping for converters and adapters, be certain to know both what you need and what each can do for you.
5) Register With Your Embassy
If you’ll be gone for an extended period of time, or if you’re traveling to a country not known for its security and stability, you should consider registering with the US State Department or your country’s embassy during your travel. This will make it easier for the government to get ahold of you should an emergency occur, and also make it easier for anyone inquiring with the State Department about your present location in an emergency to find you. It may be a truly worst-case-scenario kind of thing, but this is another step that takes just a few seconds and could prove extremely valuable if any kind of disaster were to occur while you’re gone.
The State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program makes this easy to accomplish quickly. Don’t discount the albeit remote possibility of natural disasters, such as earthquakes or severe storms, when considering whether you should take a few moments to register with your embassy.
6) Bring the Right Currency
Make sure to bring some local currency with you before embarking on your travels! Most major US banks will provide foreign currency to their members upon request, and at a much better rate than is offered at the travel exchanges found at airports. If you need more money while abroad, consider an ATM before using one of these travel exchanges. Most credit and debit cards allow withdrawals in local currency at essentially spot exchange rate, without tacking on an additional premium the way exchange kiosks do.
However, be aware of any foreign transaction fees that apply to all uses of your card overseas and of any fees charged by the ATM’s operator. Look for signs offering free cash withdrawals. These will only charge you whatever fee your bank charges, as opposed to an additional surcharge specific to that ATM.
7) Consider a Translator App
If you’re traveling abroad and don’t have a firm grasp on the local language, the communications gap can be severely disconcerting. Modern technology can help bridge this gap. Many great smartphone apps can help translate typical phrases from one language to another, while some, like Word Lens, go beyond this in actually offering live translations of signage and documents by harnessing your phone’s camera and image processing capabilities. Take a look at your phone’s App Store for great choices before traveling. Consider which use data and which store most or all of the information they need on your device, as this will determine how useful the app may be when you don’t have active data service available.
8) Pay Your Bills in Advance
There’s nothing worse than coming home from a great trip to a late bill charge. Avoid this by paying ahead on your bills or scheduling payments prior to due dates while you’ll be gone. This is very simple to accomplish through all major credit card companies, and utilities and mortgage companies are always happy to receive a check early if that’s what it takes in order to ensure you won’t be late!
9) Bring Important Contact Information With You
Many credit cards offer excellent assistance overseas in cases of emergency. This includes stolen and lost wallets and purses. However, it can be difficult to take advantage of these services if your only record of your card company’s phone number is on the back of your card! Take note of the customer service numbers for all of your cards before traveling. Many offer collect numbers that can be used from almost any phone while overseas when you’re really in a bind. This is another simple step that, with a few minutes of effort, can avert a potential disaster situation while away.
Do you have any additional tips to share for preparing to travel abroad? Let us know in the comments!