international travel tips

As promised in my last post on this topic, here are some of the tips I picked up for traveling internationally. (You may feel free to read this as “mistakes Kevin made, so you can avoid them,” because that’s mostly accurate.) Without further ado…

  • If you are planning on using your US GSM phone internationally, you should unlock your phone before you leave the States. When in Iceland, I was pleased to discover that my provider, T-Mobile, will provide you with the unlock code for your phone if you just ask. The catch: you need to call T-Mobile. On your phone. You know, the one that doesn’t work in this country. Because it’s locked. Catch-22! I ended up finding a café with free WiFi and using Skype to call T-Mobile and get them to send me the unlock code, which worked, but I don’t recommend it. (Call center agent: “Is there a number I can call you back on?” Me: “…”)
  • VoIP software has been a huge lifesaver for me a couple times when my phone has been dead or otherwise out of commission, so you should find one you like, have it installed on your travel computer, and have credits on it as an Nth-level backup. You should also probably have it installed on your phone for use on WiFi, if your phone supports it. I’ve been happy with Skype. I’ve also had decent luck with Gizmo5, but since they got bought by Google they’ve been in the standard Google post-acquisition signup-freeze hell for going on a year now.
  • While in Iceland, I bought a Vodafone SIM for my phone which I believed would provide me with 3G data, but I could only get voice and SMS to work. I’m not quite sure what was wrong, and I’d be curious to hear other people’s experiences with getting data or not while traveling.
  • An aside: Why do you want to purchase a local SIM or a local prepaid phone while traveling? Because your cell phone provider will charge you frankly outrageous prices for international roaming voice and data. Like, $500 bill outrageous. I expect that this will change eventually, as soon as one of the providers gives it up in an attempt to get an edge on the others (cf. the ridiculous overage charges cell phone providers were charging in the early days of their mainstream popularity), but for the moment we’re stuck with it.
  • I was pretty happy to put all my purchases on my credit card when I was in Iceland. The card I had at the time charged a 1% currency conversion fee, which was totally worth it. It meant I could avoid carrying a ton of cash, and it also made it really easy for me to see how much I spent. Since I’m really new to this “vacation” thing, I’m still calibrating my sense of how expensive it will be. (Obviously having some cash for emergencies and places that don’t take credit is still a good idea.)
  • I didn’t tell my bank I was traveling, and I didn’t have any problem with my bank getting confused because my card was suddenly being used in Iceland. My friend with BoA cards did have trouble, and had to pull a similar trick with Skype to unfreeze them — their fraud protection seems a bit hypervigilant. I used the same card for purchases as I had booked my flights with, which may have helped — looking at my statements, some metadata about where and when I was traveling seems to have passed between the airline and my bank. I can’t find confirmation of this online, but it seems like the kind of clever thing the credit card companies might implement. (You talking to a human agent to tell them you’re leaving the country is expensive for them.)

So that’s what I learned about traveling internationally. What are your tips?

One thought on “international travel tips”

  1. Alternative financial tip

    Try to convince your credit card company to issue you a four-digit pin; the use of a signature as authentication is deprecated outside of North America (and areas serving lots of North American tourists).

    For those who like to work with cash: forex operations make their living from overhead, banks don't, so it is usually far cheaper to obtain cash from a local ATM once you arrive at your destination. Caveats:

    • Some interesting parts of the world may not have the kind of ATM infrastructure you're used to; but if you're flying to rural Benin I assume you know what you're doing.
    • It's still probably wise to have enough cash on hand to buy a taxi ride into town from the airport, should you need to go that far afield in your search for an ATM.
    • I try to have a couple of pieces of plastic (a bank card and a credit card) on different ATM networks, cleared for travel with their respective fraud-prevention agencies.

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