Leave the debit card at home
Debit cards can be great at home, but they come with an extra risk while you are traveling. Some are both a debit & ATM card. If this is the case, do bring the card as you will need cash at some point on your trip, but you should not use this card at all to make a purchase. This card is tied directly to your bank account and if a bad merchant or wait staff makes a charge on this account while you are on a trip it may be days or weeks before you notice anything.
Worse if the fraud is done it could cause some automatic payments on things like a mortgage or other loan repayment to fail causing other more expensive problems.
When you travel, we always recommend you bring a credit card, more about that in the next section.
Also there are some banks which will wave international fees at foreign ATMs
Have a credit card with no international transaction fees
Many credit cards will hit you with something called a “foreign transaction fee” if you use your card outside of your home country. This is most common with people in North America. Not only is there this fee, there is often another for buying something in another currency.
You could easily be hit with a few dollar fee for the purchase, plus around 3% for the currency exchange. If you had a credit card without these fees it can save you quite a bit, especially if you travel a lot or are a full time expat.
We have a guide we’re setting up that will walk you through the better cards to have for travelers so that it will be one less thing causing your wallet to hemorrhage your hard earned money.
Don’t exchange your money in your home country
If you travel a lot, or you expect to visit this country again it is often worth it to keep the money. Usually the bank you try to exchange it at is going to hit you with an exchange rate that is just bad.
If you do plan to return having this currency already when you arrive is great because it will let you skip the airport exchange (the worst thing you can do) as well as the airport ATMs (also terrible with fees).
If you know that you will not be back for quite some time, or you just want the money back in another currency because it is a decent amount, then there are things you can do.
You can try to connect online with other expats and try to do a currency exchange with them. Be cautious of strangers you meet and only do exchanges in a very public place or a police station to be extra safe. Doing transactions with other travelers will let you get a much better price than you’d get by exchanging it just about any other way.
Also when you are about to start your trip, the same advice applies with your bank, often the exchange rate they’ll give you to get the other currency will just not be worth it. It will likely be on par with what the ATM at the airport charges you, maybe even more (I didn’t believe this when I first started traveling myself, wow was I wrong).
Lastly, if you must use an airport ATM, use it AFTER you clear customs. Any ATM before customs or near the baggage claim is going to have a lot more fees than the ones near the exit.
Charge your batteries when you can
We live in a time when everything is sucking batter quickly. That game you love to play on your phone that makes your phone very warm? That heat you feel is your battery rapidly draining.
Airports now have several charging stations, and many of the longer flights will now also have USB ports you can use to charge your devices. Sadly often the charging stations are full, or not at a place near your seat or even where you can watch your phone. If the USB port at your seat on your plane is broke, as they often are, then what?
There are some great mobile charging options that can fully charge phones +4 times before needing a recharge themselves. These can also be used to charge a laptop which is out of power too. These devices are becoming much more common now and if it runs on a rechargeable battery, there is a very good chance these USB battery packs can charge them for you.
Should you get a local SIM card?
If you are reading this, and from America what comes next may shock you, but you are vastly overpaying for your mobile phone services. In most countries you can buy a local SIM card with more data than you can possibly use on your trip for less than $10.
By far the most expensive plans I’ve seen have been in Israel or Turkey, but both were at the airport. I know for a fact that the providers in Istanbul airport charge far more than the stores outside of the airport.
In Kiev you can buy 8gb of data and unlimited calls for less than $5. In Kosovo you can buy 5gb of data and 1000 minutes of calls for about $6. Most countries will sell you a prepaid SIM card for less than $20 USD. In most cases it is worth it for at least 1 person in your group to have a local SIM. If you have others in your group you can always create a hotspot and let them connect to you.
My cousin came to visit me last year, and for some crazy reason he opted to keep his US SIM and At&t charged him $10 A DAY! to use the data when he could have bought a local SIM for about that. I know another person who was paying $200 USD per month just to keep his US number and be able to make calls from Europe.
Before you take your trip, make sure you Google the local providers and see what the rates are so that you can decide before you travel if buying a local SIM makes sense for you.
Your phone has to be unlocked for this to work. Do a little bit of Googling before buying a SIM card to make sure you find the best deal as well.
American Express, time to leave home without it
When people get credit cards rarely do they ever put any thought into the fees that vendors are charged when a sale is made. American Express has one of the highest fees that vendors pay per transaction. Because of this, many shops in the US will not take this card. Once you head abroad you’ll find that few will accept this card.
I was in a store where a girl asked the cashier if they accepted American Express, he told her no. She then went on a rant about how “no one in Europe takes this, I don’t even know what the big deal is”. If this is your primary card and you want to explore the world you really will want to get a travel credit card or carry cash with you. There are a number of great credit cards out there with no foreign transaction fees, go get yourself one of those and never worry about having to wonder if a shop will accept your card again.