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How to manage your money when traveling abroad

You probably have a lot of questions about your money when preparing for a trip abroad. Do you need traveler’s checks? Will you be able to find an ATM? Can you avoid pesky foreign transaction and other fees while enjoying some off-the-beaten-path destination?

The answers to the first two questions are no and almost always. The third I answered for Melissa Fiorenza, author of “Twentysomething Girl: 1001 Quick Tips and Tricks to Make Your Life Easier,” when she tapped me to share tips on how to save money while traveling abroad. She included five of my best money-saving tips in her recently published book.

While her book might target younger women, my tips apply to everyone who travels abroad. I’ll share my two favorites with you here.

  1. Never exchange money until you arrive at your destination. You will always get a better exchange rate than if you change money in the U.S.
  2. Let your credit card company know you’ll be traveling and where you’re going. That’s the best way to avoid the embarrassment of an overprotective security policy denying the charge.

To check out all of my tips, as well as the rest of Melissa’s advice for young women, you’re in luck! We’re giving away three copies of her book here on the blog. All you have to do is fill out the form below. One entry per person, please. Good luck!

UPDATE: Congratulations to our winners — Mike Nemecek, Maria Mazas, and Susannah Starkweather! Your prizes will be shipped out shortly. Thanks for participating in our giveaway!

More on how to save money on a trip to Asia

The other day I told you how to save on flights and hotels when designing your own trip to Asia.

Today I’m giving you more tips on how to save on tours, currency exchange, and restaurants once you’re in your destination. So let’s get started.

Tours
Unless you are fluent in the local language, it’s probably best to book tours through a known agency. But check carefully to determine how much touring you really need to buy. I always begin my exploration of a new destination with a simple city tour.

This is for orientation purposes. I like to get a feel for the city and to get an overall idea of what there is to see. An orientation tour also gives you a great feeling for the lay of the land, that is, how far (or near) things are. Once you’ve oriented yourself, you can quickly determine how much touring you want to do with a guide and how much you can do on your own.

In some places, signs are not translated into English, making self guiding a real problem, so check carefully before you set out on your own. In other places, signs are posted in many languages making a self-guided tour a joy.

Book tours to the places you’ve always dreamed of visiting to be sure you don’t miss any of the important facts and details. Or, prepare yourself well in advance. Use a guide book to supplement your tour, but never use it to replace a real guide.

It’s better to save money by booking only those absolutely necessary tours through a reputable agency than to hire a private guide off the street (or even through the concierge at your hotel).

When you don’t go through a reputable agency, you don’t know your guide’s experience or knowledge of the city. Again, do the research before you depart. The Internet will give you lots of information about local tour companies. Even if you book and pay on the spot, you’ll already have identified whom to contact, saving time and trouble once you get to your destination.

Currency exchange
Never change money prior to departure. Every airport I’ve ever been in has a “change” desk where you can get enough money to see you through your first day. If you’re on a guided tour, your guide will know precisely where to change money.

And if you have an ATM or credit card that allows you to take out cash, that’s going to be your best bet. Capital One is the very best credit card for this purpose. It has no foreign currency service fee associated with it, and it’s the one I carry when I travel abroad.

However, even my AMEX or ATM card does the trick. After fees and exchange rates, I’m still generally getting a better deal than at the bank. And I can put my card into the ATM machine and ask for a modest amount of money to get me through a couple of days. Because in every Asian city and town I’ve visited, there are ATM machines readily available.

Restaurants
My main consultants for restaurants have become shop owners. I love to browse and wander, and shopping is part of that experience. Shopping doesn’t even need to include buying, but those shop keepers and clerks are eager to talk to foreign tourists, and they always know their towns well enough to give great recommendations. I’ve gotten tips about incredibly inexpensive spots to enjoy a meal with locals, where the food has been awesome and the socializing spectacular.

A good tour operator will give travelers plenty of advice and suggestions on most of these issues. Friendly Planet Travel offers every traveler a comprehensive destination guide for each place we visit, complete with great tips on where to shop, what to buy, and where to dine.

I hope these tips come in handy when you travel to Asia! And remember, you can use Friendly Planet’s new travel search engine to search thousands of deals on flights, hotels, and rental cars in Asia. And better yet, if you use our search travel engine, you still get Friendly Planet’s great savings and award-winning service. Enjoy your time in Asia!

Friendly Planet Travel’s top 7 posts of 2010

I have to admit. A year ago at this time, I was shakin’ in my boots. We were about to re-launch the Friendly Planet Travel blog on a new platform and I wasn’t sure if our readers would follow us. Then my worries subsided when I saw that our readers did, indeed, come visit us at our new home on the Web. Thank you!

Upon this reflection, I thought I would share with you the blog posts that you loved the most since we made the switch. Here are our top seven posts of 2010.

1.) Vietnam is Anthony Bourdain’s favorite place on Earth to eat. The Travel Channel’s Anthony Bourdain traveled to his favorite place in the world to eat, Vietnam, for his show, “Anthony Bourdain No Reservations.” I share the Tony’s enthusiasm for Vietnamese food, and tell you how I happily ate my way through the country last year on my trip to Vietnam.

2.) Should you carry cash, credit, or a traveler’s check when traveling? A lot of us are accustomed to paying for most things with our credit or debit cards. It’s easy and convenient. But when you’re traveling, using a credit card might not always be the best option. So before you leave the U.S., I help you determine whether you should be carrying cash, credit, or a traveler’s check.

3.) The best travel apps for your smart phoneIf you have a smart phone, you probably have apps. So which travel apps are worth it? I can’t tell you (just yet), but Becca Torres of the Planet Travel Reservations team can. See which apps made Becca’s cut.

4.) Get exclusive savings on Friendly Planet tours with Hot Deals. For the first time, Friendly Planet Travel started giving subscribers to the Hots Deals mailer exclusive coupon codes on Friendly Planet tours. We told you all about how to sign up to not only get announcements on deals and new destinations, but how to save even more bucks on select tours.

5.) Advice on what you shouldn’t pack in your suitcase. Some people like to pick up every knickknack and souvenir they can get their hands on when they travel. From the hotel shampoo to the restaurant matchstick book, they shove it all into their luggage. Find out what you should keep and what you should toss.

6.) Friendly Planet review: A snapshot of the Best of China tour. Ron and his wife Jan booked the Best of China tour for October 2009. They came back with over 1,600 photos to share. We talk to Ron in a podcast to get the stories behind the photos and what travelers shouldn’t miss when they’re in China.

7.) What to do if you’re stranded in an airportWhat do travelers need to know in the event that some force of nature grounds air traffic and throws their plans into gridlock? I share a few suggestions you can follow if you find yourself stranded, sharing an airport with hundreds of other travelers in the same boat as you.

That’s my wrap up. And if there are any topics you’d like to see covered in the New Year, leave them in a comment on this post.

10 travel gotchas to watch out for

No one likes to get hit with unexpected fees when traveling. Even I, an experienced traveler, sometimes get tripped up by extra airline and hotel costs. To help you avoid getting snagged too, I’ve listed my top ten fees to watch out for. Some of these you might not even know exist. At the end of my post, I bullet them in a short list that you can print and keep with you.

Baggage size and weight limitation fees. Airlines make carry-on and checked baggage fees obvious, but what about the fees a associated with exceeding weight or size limitations? Bags over 50 pounds and/or 62 inches long will cost you extra, which will vary by carrier.

However, these fees can be easily avoided. Check the website of the carrier you’re flying for its specific baggage weight and size limitations. Then weigh and measure your baggage before you head to the airport.

Standby fees. Years ago you never had to pay an additional charge to standby for a flight if you missed the one you were originally scheduled to take. Today the airlines are finding another rich source of revenue by charging you up to $75 — in advance — to have the right to switch your flight or standby for a seat to open up the day you’re scheduled to depart.

It’s kind of like insurance, in case you need to switch to another flight. If you haven’t paid for this in advance, though, you might find the fees to change even higher. Unfortunately you can’t avoid these fees if you need to switch your flight or need to standby, but you can check airlines’ websites before booking to see which one has the lowest standby fee to keep your costs down.

Frequent flyer fees. These fees vary depending on your frequent flyer membership level. Most travelers who want to make a reservation using miles within 14 days of travel can expect an expedite fee. I find this fee really interesting, because the processing of the reservation and issuing of your ticket is essentially instantaneous. So, the expediting part of your transaction is purely rhetorical. Try to book your frequent flyer trips as far in advance as you can to avoid these fees.

There are also surcharges to use miles to most international destinations, although you generally pay these fees in more miles, unless you are booking too close to departure when the expedite fee kicks in. Lastly, if you cancel a frequent flyer ticket, it will cost you to have the airline redeposit the miles. I’ve paid as much as $150 to redeposit miles, and as far as I know travel insurance won’t cover this cost. Make sure you read the fine print in your membership or ask your booking agent about these fees before you use your frequent flyer miles.

International transaction fees. If you plan to spend a significant time abroad and use your credit card for purchases, it’s worth it to get a Capital One credit card. It’s the only credit card company that doesn’t charge fees for international transactions. Or you can use cash. ATM machines will give you cash in local currency using your own debit or credit card, and the exchange rates charged by your bank will be better than those charged by local banks to exchange your dollars to local currency.

Plus, ATM machines are in many destinations, even those considered off the beaten path. The convenience factor is worthy of consideration. With ATM machines ubiquitous, you don’t have to carry large amounts of cash while you’re on the move, which is great for avoiding petty theft or fear of petty theft.

Value added tax (VAT). Similar to a sales tax, a VAT is added on to your purchase in most foreign countries. For example, you decide to purchase a carpet in India. But the price you’re quoted will not include the 18 percent VAT tax, which will make the actual price you pay much higher. Many countries, such as India, reimburse travelers the VAT they have paid on purchases. All you have to do is ask the merchant to give you the right documentation to be able to collect the VAT back when you leave the country.

This documentation has to be prepared at the time of purchase, so be sure to ask for it and make sure it’s on an official receipt. Then, when you check in for your departure flight, find the VAT refund station in the airport, present your receipts, and you’ll get your refund in cash. Be sure to check the VAT rules for each country you visit. In some countries, you’ll need to actually show the merchandise, in addition to the receipt, in order to collect your refund. If your merchandise is already packed in your luggage, you can ask for a mail-in form that will be processed later, with the refund generally done via your credit card.

International car rental fees. All of the same fees and taxes that you’re used to paying to rent a car in the U.S. apply when renting a car internationally. The rates will differ by city, but be prepared to pay for insurance. In the U.S. all you need is a credit card to get insurance on a rental car. This doesn’t apply internationally. Insurance can add anywhere from $20 to $50 a day to your bill. Talk to your car insurance company before reserving a car internationally to see what they can do to help you find a low insurance rate.

Some of the coverage might already be included in your own car insurance. But don’t be surprised that CDW (collision damage waiver) insurance is obligatory in some destinations. Pay for it without feeling bad about the cost. If you damage a car abroad, you might be horrified to find out that the cost of repairs can be two or three times more than you might expect to pay here. And even if the local cost of the repair isn’t really higher, the car rental company will charge the much higher fees anyway.

Hotel parking fees. Parking fees are an additional business for many hotels. Before you use the hotel’s lot or garage, ask what the daily rate is so you know what to expect when you get your bill at the end of your stay. At smaller hotels in smaller cities, you can sometimes negotiate the parking fee in your room rate if you stay at the hotel regularly, for being a loyal customer. In some cases, the hotel will provide parking as part of the rate you pay, but this is the exception and not the rule.

Hotel telephone fees. Most people have a cell phone, but not all of those cell phones work internationally. If you’re out of the country and you need to make a call, you might have to use the phone in your hotel room. However, if you plan on using a calling card, the hotel won’t let you use it with the dial-out code. If you’re using a calling card, use it from a pay phone. If you absolutely have no choice but to use the hotel phone, make the call very short. The fees for international calls from your room can be astronomical.

Hotel mini bar fees. Some hotels now have an electronic monitor in the mini bar. If you move something, or take it out and then try to put it back, you are automatically charged — whether or not you opened the item. Hotels might also leave bottled water out for you in your room. Look for a note on the label that says whether the water is complimentary or will be billed to your room. If you’re not sure, ask the front desk before opening anything.

Hotel Internet fees. It’s not always clear if there is a charge for this service. Unlike U.S. hotels, most hotels abroad charge for Internet use, whether you use it in your room or at the hotel’s business center. If you need Internet access when traveling abroad, you can purchase your own data plan from a mobile provider and bring a global mobile broadband card to get access anywhere.

In some hotels, you might find free broadband in the lobby area, but even there, you should expect to pay for a plan that is charged by the half hour, the hour, or 24 hours. If you are staying in a hotel for an extended period (more than two nights), ask the front desk if there’s a special plan for the duration of your stay. Sometimes you’ll get a special rate for a three-day stay that turns out to be less than the best 24-hour rate times three.

As you’re packing bags for your getaway, I hope you find this list to be helpful. And remember to print out our shortened version of the list for you to take with you, and share with your friends and family. If there are any fees you think I should include in this list, leave them in a comment on this post.

(click to enlarge and print)

Should you carry cash, credit, or a traveler’s check when traveling?

A lot of us are accustomed to paying for most things with our credit or debit cards. It’s easy and convenient. But when you’re traveling, using a credit card might not always be the best option. So before you leave the U.S., be sure to determine whether you should be carrying cash, credit, or a traveler’s check.

A good starting point is this CreditCards.com article. It gives you best practices to find out which countries you should carry cash in, the safest way to do it, and more. Susan Ladika also featured some of my advice on this topic in her piece, so click over and read it.

But there’s more advice where that came from and I’m posting it here.

In today’s world, it’s hardly ever worth it to carry traveler’s checks. You can find ATM machines in many destinations, even those considered off the beaten track where you can get cash, in local currency, using your own credit or debit card.

Typically, the exchange rates charged by your credit card company or bank will be better than those charged by local banks, and the convenience goes without saying. You get money as you need it, without having to carry around lots of bills, and without having to pay commissions and fees to cash the traveler’s checks.

If you simply can’t imagine taking a trip abroad without traveler’s checks, by all means get the ones that are free. If you belong to AAA, or your bank offers free traveler’s checks to their depositors, get them.

But make sure you get them in small denominations because you pay fees based on the amount you’re changing. If you’re like me, you’ll bring them home with you again to redeposit into your own checking account. That is, of course, if you have anything left!

When I travel abroad, I usually bring about $300 in cash so I can quickly convert some dollars to local currency upon arrival. That gives me time to find out where the ATM machines are located, without having to stress about not having money in local currency.

I also carry enough $1 bills to take care of incidental tipping, too. Having $20 to $30 in single dollars buys me time to figure out what a good tip should be in local currency (and I can assure you that tips paid in dollars won’t be refused).

I use the hotel in-room safe to store extra cash, so I don’t need to walk around carrying a bundle of bills in my purse. I also take two different credit cards with ATM capabilities, but I only carry one at a time. I leave the second card tucked away in the room safe. If I ever lose my purse or if it gets stolen, I have another card on hand.

And remember, before you even depart the U.S., it’s a good idea to call your card companies and bank to let them know when and where you’re going. The last thing you want is to have your bank account frozen while you’re abroad.

In today’s security-conscious world, where identity and card theft is rampant, cards are often declined because the charge doesn’t fit a normal profile. If your credit card profile is annotated with your travel details, you’ll never face this embarrassing inconvenience.

Write to me or leave a comment on this post if you have any other questions about what form of money to bring abroad.

Don’t let your wallet get swiped abroad!

FP_wallet.jpg

Perhaps one of the worst ways to have a perfectly wonderful vacation go to ruin is to lose your wallet, or worse, have it stolen, especially while you’re traveling abroad. You feel helpless, sick to your stomach, and fearful, because everything you need to transact even the most basic functions of daily life are contained in that little piece of leather and plastic. All doesn’t have to be lost, though, if you keep three basic, easy-to-remember rules in mind as you travel.

1. Don’t carry your wallet. That’s the simplest and best way to avoid the problem of a lost or stolen wallet. Have I lost my mind, telling you not to carry your wallet? What about the money, the credit cards, the ID? You don’t need a wallet for any of these things. I  always put some cash, one credit card, and my driver’s license in a small "purse" that I’ve bought expressly for travel. This purse is small enough to strap to my leg (under my slacks) if I’m not carrying a purse, and has a little pouch for change. But you don’t need anything fancier than a small plastic zip lock bag, which will easily do the job just as well.

2. Call the police. If you are carrying the wallet (despite my best advice) and it’s been stolen, call the police right away. Even if the police can’t recover your wallet, you will need the police report to make an insurance claim. And sometimes, the police even recover your wallet for you, in which case you can lock it into your hotel room safe for the rest of your stay. Even if you’ve lost your wallet, you should report it to the local police. A lost wallet can often turn up (without cash, most likely) but with ID and other important items still inside. Filing a police report will increase your chances of ever getting the wallet back into your hands safely. Otherwise, no one will have a clue how to contact you as you travel.

3. Keep change, receipts, business cards, etc. in your wallet tucked inside the hotel room safe.
If you really want to be able to avoid having that wallet with you as you travel, you’ll have to get used to getting rid of all those collectables you acquire during the day. Chuck the small change, cards, notes, receipts, and other odds and ends that make your normally feather-light wallet feel like a cannonball. These should go into the wallet and be left inside the room safe, unless you absolutely must have the item with you. If you need an item you’ve stored in your locked wallet, take it out, put it into your baggie or purse, but don’t take the wallet out of the safe. Regarding small change, in most currencies, it’s not worth much in terms of buying power. And if you leave what you collect in your hotel room when you check out, your maid will appreciate the tip.
 

Cash, traveler’s checks, or credit? What’s the scoop on money when you travel?

FP_Creditcard.jpgIn today’s world, it’s hardly ever worth it to carry traveler’s checks. You can find ATM machines in many destinations, even those considered "off the beaten track" where you can get cash, in local currency, using your own credit or debit card.

Typically, the exchange rates charged by your credit card company or bank will be better than those charged by local banks, and the convenience goes without saying. You get money as you need it, without having to carry around lots of bills, and without having to pay commissions and fees to cash the traveler’s checks.

If you simply can’t imagine taking a trip abroad without traveler’s checks, by all means get the ones that are free. If you belong to AAA, or your bank offers free traveler’s checks to their depositors, get them. But make sure you get them in small denominations. Typically, you pay fees based on the amount you’re changing. If you’re like me, you’ll bring them home with you again to redeposit into your own checking account. That is, of course, if you have anything left!

When I travel abroad, I usually bring about $300 in cash so I can quickly convert some dollars to local currency on arrival. That gives me time to find out where the ATM machines are located, without having to stress about not having money in local currency.

I also carry enough $1 bills to take care of incidental tipping, too. Having $20 to $30 in single dollars buys me time to figure out what a good tip should be in local currency (and I can assure you that tips paid in dollars won’t be refused).

I use the hotel in-room safe to store extra cash, so I don’t need to walk around carrying a bundle of bills in my purse. I also take two different credit cards with ATM capabilities, but I only carry one at a time. I leave the second card tucked away in the room safe. If I ever lose my purse or if it gets stolen, I have another card on hand.

And remember, before you even depart the U.S., it’s a good idea to call your card companies and bank to let them know when and where you’re going. The last thing you want is to have your bank account frozen while you’re abroad.

I always call my card company before leaving for any trip. The trip details go into my credit card file. If you’ve ever been in another country, tried to make a purchase, and had your card declined, you know why the preemptive call is important. In today’s security-conscious world, where identity and card theft is rampant, cards are often declined because the charge doesn’t fit a normal profile. If your credit card profile is annotated with your travel details, you’ll never face this embarrassing inconvenience.
 

About Peggy

Peggy Goldman is a specialty tour operator and travel expert, who owns and operates Friendly Planet Travel, a full-service company that specializes in tour packages to exotic worldwide destinations at affordable prices.   More about Peggy

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