Travel Tips Part 1: Everything, Everywhere is the Same
The nuts and Bolts:
Taylor and I aren’t necessarily experienced travelers. There are a whole lot of people out there with much more time abroad in many more places than us. There are a few things we’ve learned though, from the travelling we’ve done, that seem to be universally good tips for most places we’ve been. They’re good for a European cruise, a backpacking trip around Uganda, or a years long road trip around the world.
In our experience anyway..
We’re going to do this post in two parts. This weeks will cover the basic nuts and bolts of generally making things work far from home. Money, phones, etc. Next week we’ll go over more nuanced, cultural considerations and tips for having a good time wherever you are.
Skip to the bottom if you just want a short list and don’t want to trudge through all my ridiculous blathering..
Probably the most important thing I can think of is to realize that going somewhere foreign doesn’t mean you’ll find it completely, well, foreign. This is actually an expectation Taylor and I still struggle with. Before each border crossing we stop into our favorite stores to stock up on anything we think we’ll need for the trip ahead. We can’t seem to shake the feeling each time that we’ll be entering some sort of backcountry wasteland with no recognizable products or services.
Of course, there can be steep differences from one country to another, especially if you’re flying in from thousands of miles way. However, unless you truly find yourself smack in the middle of a city under siege, or beset with extreme political unrest, the chances of finding wifi and a latte are almost disappointingly good.
Everything is available, everywhere:
America is a powerhouse of capitalism (yeah, ‘Murca!) and the sheer volume and selection of products and services available here can be mind boggling for someone returning home from a Central American road trip, but *almost* anything you can get here you can get in other parts of the world. You might have only one type of bacon to choose from, or you’ll have to go to several stores to find the knife sharpener you’re looking for, but in general you can find what you need.
We have to remind ourselves that people live in these places and that they want and need basically all the same things we do back home. There will be supermarkets, restaurants, hardware stores, gas stations, and autoparts places. If you’re in a major metropolitan area you’ll probably even have familiar global brands like Starbucks, Wal-Mart, and McDonalds just an Uber ride away. The menus and products will be slightly different (like beer at a Sicilian Mickey Dee’s..), but we’ve always found locations like Starbucks or McDonalds to be good places to snag some guaranteed free wifi and get a little taste of home. The more we travel, the less we need our recharging shot of Americana, but these places felt like well-appointed miniature embassies on our earlier international trips.
We’ve also found ride-share services like Uber and Lyft to be nearly ubiquitous in major cities and metropolitan areas. While they don’t quite offer the adventure of local public transit or traditional taxi services, if you simply want to get somewhere comfortably and efficiently, they’re great options.
For example, in Mazatlan we found ourselves taking the local ride of choice- the pulmonia. These are open air taxies built from converted VW beetles. They’re loud, hot, and expose you to the sounds and smells of both the city and the traffic. They’re also not metered, so you have to negotiate your price each time, as well as attempt to explain where you want to go. In Spanish. None of these things are exactly bad, and you should definitely take a few pulmonia rides if you find yourself in Mazatlan. They really are a blast and there’s one (or a dozen) on every corner.
That being said, for a ride that would cost us $80 pesos in a pulmonia, we could simply choose a point on google maps, which would then call us a clean, quiet, air-conditioned Uber to whisk us to wherever we wanted to go for only $50 pesos. No negotiating or botched directions at involved.
Of course, you should definitely try to take the local public transport and maybe argue prices with a taxi driver or two, but if you’re intimidated by the thought of trying to get around in a strange place using a language you’re not comfortable with services like Uber and Lyft can be great confidence boosters. We’ve used them in Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Costa Rica and always had good experiences.
Another thing we’ve found available nearly everywhere- ATMS.
We’re always surprised by how many people still change currency at the airport or before coming into another country. We’ve racked our brains and really can’t come up with a good reason for it. You’re forced to try and estimate exactly how much foreign currency you’ll need, then carry the balance with you through airports, in taxis and to hotels. You’ll have to figure out where and how to keep it safe, on your person and wherever you’re staying overnight.
As it turns out, the absolute best way to get cash in a foreign country we’ve found it to do it the same way you would at home- Just step up to an ATM and withdraw some. It turns out ATM machines pretty much always have an option for English, so if you’re worried about understanding the on-screen instructions, don’t be.
Of course, there are concerns to keep in mind, but they really aren’t any different than here at home. Try to make sure nobody is around watching as you enter your pin number, and try to use ATM machines at the airport, inside banks or inside busy grocery stores. Constant surveillance of these machines means that they’re much less likely to have been tampered with and these places typically have security to give you that little extra peace of mind.
Talk to your bank, and make sure they’ll allow you to withdraw from foreign ATMs. Basically all will, but many will charge you a foreign transaction fee. If you’re only going on vacation for a week or two, this isn’t really a big deal. You’ll pay a bit more for your money, but not much. Some banks (and most credit unions) however, don’t charge a transaction fee at all. Some, like the debit card we have though Charles Schwab actually will refund ANY ATM fee anywhere while still not charging us any fees themselves.
We typically take out only enough money for a couple days at a time, to keep from carrying too much cash at one time. Take a little extra cash out if you’re heading somewhere a little more remote. Chances are good that there will still be ATM’s available, but we’ve found that in places like Baja, Northern Uganda, or Utah they can be unreliable. Occasionally the remote nature leads to situations where the machine is literally out of cash, or that the internet connection has gone down and the machine is unable to communicate with the outside banking system.
For a little extra security, we only transfer a few weeks’ worth of cash into the checking account, which helps isolate the damage were our card to be stolen or account somehow compromised.
Since we’re travelling long-term, we keep 6-12 months of expenses in a high interest savings account, then use that account to fund the checking account as well as to pay off any balance on our credit card.
For a credit card, we searched for a card aimed at travelers. Our Capitol One Venture card gives us double points toward travel reimbursements which we can use for anything from hotel stays, to rental cars, to flights. They also don’t charge us any sort of foreign transaction fees. We use the credit card for almost literally anything that doesn’t require cash. Restaurants, grocery stores, and certainly gas. A lot of people feel that cash is more secure, but in our experience the credit card is much safer. If your cash is stolen, you lose it. All of it. A good credit card is backed up by a very robust system designed to prevent fraud.
Capitol One (and Charles Schwab for the Debit Card) almost immediately flag and notify us of suspect charges. In the case of the credit card, we aren’t liable for any charges made without our approval and Visa reverses any unauthorized charges.
Speaking of Visa, we’ve had very good luck with their services and from our experience so far, they’ve been the only card we’ve found to be universally accepted everywhere we’ve travelled for both ATM’s as well as vendors and services.
Additionally, make sure and call the service provider of any card you plan to use and tell them when and where you’ll be travelling out of the country. If they’re doing their job and suddenly see charges in Spain instead of Nebraska, they’ll shut off your card faster than you can imagine. It’s usually not hard to get them to turn it back on, a simple phone call will suffice (this happened to me in Barcelona and Northern Uganda) but can be a definite inconvenience.
Part of the reason many people travel is to disconnect from their lives back home for a while. It’s nice to put those work emails on the back burner or to put the habit of mindlessly scrolling through facebook to rest, even temporarily. Lets face it though, having a functioning phone is still pretty damn helpful.
For shorter trips you might be surprised how accommodating most of the American carriers can be these days. Most don’t charge anything additional for travel within North America and oftentimes they still offer free or cheap data in much of the rest of the world. Like with your banks though, you’ll want to call them first. Most still require you to “activate” some sort of international roaming plan, even if there is no additional cost.
If you’re planning a long trip (T-mobile took three months to realize we weren’t on vacation so much as just living in central America before shutting our service down for a violation of TOS), or your carrier can’t support international travel or simply charges you an arm and a leg for the service, simply buy a local sim card when you get where you’re going. This is always our second stop after the ATM for local cash.
After our very first international trip, at least one of us has always made sure to have an “Unlocked” phone capable of taking a sim card. When we get to a new country we do a little research on the local carriers to find out who has the best coverage and cheapest data rates, then load up and install one of their cards in one of our existing phones.
Of course, switching cards will change your phone number, so we both adopted google voice numbers. Google Voice allows us to make calls using data over both the cell network and over Wifi, and that number stays the same no matter where we are or what network we’re using. For shorter term travelers the switch probably isn’t necessary, but it’s been great for us to help keep some consistency.
With services like Facebook, skype, and all that other new-fangled stuff the kids are using these days it is easier than ever to stay in touch with family and friends no matter where you are. Aside from staying in touch though, data is great to have on your phone for the other obvious reasons- mapping/location services, local calls, and googling things like “Brewery, Leon Nicaragua” come to mind.
You can also rely on free Wifi if you’re phone service is lacking. Wifi is almost globally ubiquitous now and most of the time it works. We found quite a few places in Mexico that advertised wifi, but after connecting to it we’d discover there actually wasn’t any internet available. Just the local network. Clever.
We also found that quite a few places in Guatemala, or local TIGO service offered 4G while the local Wifi networks would barely upload our daily #instagood. We’ve found it’s definitely good to have both options.
So, for a quick summary-
-Things still exist. You’re not going to the moon. If you need a basic item or service, so do the locals and somebody is there providing it
-Use credit card for any expenses you can
-Pay cash for everything else.
-Use a Debit card (NOT your credit card, they charge a ridiculous amount of interest for cash withdrawals) to pull local currency from ATM’s.
-Unless you’re in the rare place where they actually prefer USD, always pay in local currency. You’ll get the best rate and the vendors will appreciate it not having to go through the extra step of converting your cash.
-Call your banks and cell providers before you leave to make sure their services will work abroad
-Snag a local sim card for your unlocked phone if necessary
-Wifi is pretty much available everywhere (although, not always INTERNET.. 😊)
Thanks to Gene and Angel for suggesting this blog post. We spend a lot of time answering questions and offering (mostly) solicited travel advice, so it was a great idea to place all the most common items into writing.
Standby for part II: Everything, Everywhere is totally different!