Planning my month-long trip to visit Thailand, Hong Kong, and China last July was a hassle. It was also a lot of money.
The expenses started even before I left the country: I had to manage all the paperwork: getting visas, renewing passports, calling the travel agency, and planning itineraries, which added a few hundred more on top of my flight and hotels. But that was not the end of it.
There are some things you should always do before travelling abroad — like booking your flight well in advance and making two copies of your passport should it get lost or stolen — but there were a few more choices that saved me from incurring small fees along the way that could have collected into one giant sum.
These are the five things I’m glad I did before I left the US:
I called my credit card companies.
Usually about 1% - 3%, depending on the card, foreign transaction fees might not seem like a big deal. My credit cards were from Bank of America and Chase, and both had 3% foreign transaction fees.
I knew how fast the fees could add up. Instead of taking out the option of credit cards completely, I vowed to only use them in an emergency.
I called the companies to let them know about my travel plans so they wouldn't lock my card if I were to use it abroad, which I have experienced even when shopping in the US through a foreign website. The credit card company doesn't let the transaction process until you verify the purchase by calling or texting them. Not only would it defeat the purpose of using it in an emergency abroad, but it would also inflict data roaming charges if I had to call the company (more on this later.)
Since I'd be gone for a month, I was also afraid of not making my bill payment on time, so while I had them on the phone, I switched my credit card payment due date to one when I would be back in the US.
I took out an ample amount of cash before I left.
Along with foreign transaction fees, I knew there would be ATM fees abroad. To prevent those, I withdrew US dollars from my bank to exchange when I landed, which would be easier and cheaper than taking out cash abroad.
It's also a lot easier to carry cash in foreign countries, because not all local markets or stores accept credit cards. Buying show tickets, paying for transportation, and tipping with cash is so much easier.
However, it might be dangerous to carry a large amount of cash when travelling, so you shouldn't do it if you don't feel comfortable. (I invested in a fanny pack so I could keep my cash as close to me as possible.)
Before counting on a foreign ATM, call your bank and seek out different options. My bank, Bank of America, allowed me to order currency to be delivered the same day to my home in the US, which would save me time and the hassle abroad.
I called my cell phone carrier.
I had heard about international rates and data roaming fees, but had never experienced it since this trip was my first time travelling out of the country in a very long time. So, I gave my carrier, T-Mobile, a call and they were surprisingly very helpful and transparent.
T-Mobile does have international coverage -- the list of countries it supports on their website. But, data is limited (very slow) and calls or texts are still 20¢ a minute.
So, I opted to take out possible data roaming charges completely. I notified them of where I was going and how long I was travelling for, and asked them to do anything they could to save me from international fees.
I thought that would mean simply disconnecting my line for the time being, but the T-mobile representative told me I would also have to suspend my voicemail feature to avoid getting charged. It's one of the sneaky ways cell phone companies get you to pay more.
I made sure my smartphone was 'unlocked.'
While you're talking to them, another thing to ask your wireless carrier about is 'unlocking' your smartphone.
Not all smartphones can be used abroad, so 'unlocking' your phone from its carrier will let you use SIM cards from different countries and their carriers. But, it might come with a small fee depending on the mobile phone company.
According to PCMag, there are two of the major radio systems for phones: Global System for Mobiles (GSM) and Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA). Phones that use GMS have SIM cards, which you can find from carriers like AT&T and T-Mobile. Phones that use CDMA are usually from carriers like Verizon and Sprint and do not have SIM cards, but may still have the slot to enable LTE, which is mostly for data usage.
Many countries outside of the US use GMS and SIM cards, which you can buy locally for a fairly cheap price. When I was in Hong Kong, the hotel I stayed at gave me a complimentary SIM card from i-Sim, which was easy to use and -- best of all -- free! To recharge data and network, you just had to download the app and interact with in-app ads.
Once you arrived with your hopefully unlocked phone, be sure to ask if your hotel offers anything before going out to buy.
I downloaded a virtual private network.
Travelling to China meant restrictions on websites and apps I could use because of the country's policy. In order to access certain sites like Facebook and Google (including Gmail, Google Docs, and Google Sheets) I had to download a virtual private network (VPN) before I left the US.
Downloading a VPN was free and easy. It allowed me to access my email, social media websites, and some smart phone apps I usually used to communicate, such as Facebook and Gmail. Without the two sites, I would have missed alerts from my credit card company and would not have been able to communicate with partners on a business project, which could have cost me money.