Tips for International Travel - Page 2

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Image of elephant and tourists in Jaipur, India
Tourists mingle with local, um, transportation at a palace in Jaipur, India.  (Glowimages/Getty)

4. Tee up your mobile devices
When: Four weeks before departure
It's time to think about how you want to use your cell phone, if at all, while overseas. Planning on making a bunch of international calls from the road? Call your carrier and find out (a) whether your phone can operate in your destination, (b) how much it will cost if so, and (c) what the international customer service number is, should issues come up while you're traveling. It may make the most financial sense to sign up for an international service plan—or just leave your phone at home. "I would use local phone shops," advises Intrepid's Wallace. "They are quite common in a lot of parts of the world, particularly Europe. They're basically little booths around the streets where you just pop in and use a phone, and they just charge you landline rates." If you plan on receiving a bunch of calls from home or elsewhere overseas, Wallace advises buying a local SIM card for you phone, which enables you to take international calls for local rates (unbeknownst to many, carriers can charge a fortune for received calls, even if you have a good international roaming plan).

Regardless of how you choose to make and receive calls, it is imperative that you come up with a data plan. "We actually have experience with a lot of people who are very concerned about massive phone bills," says Wallace. "And it's not the calls that they're making, it's the actual data that's being pushed to their phone—because it's accessing the Internet on roaming rates, which are incredibly expensive." As in thousands of dollars expensive. Wallace simply asks her carrier to shut off data roaming before she travels (you can also do this manually on most smartphones, but settings can be tricky, so always call if you're unsure). If you decide to keep data roaming active, consider downloading an app such as Netcounter or e-office Mobile Data Alerter to help you keep close track of those pricey megabytes.

5. Buy travel insurance—if you need it
When: Up to two weeks after you book your trip
To buy or not to buy? According to Travel Guard Vice President Carol Mueller, only about 25 to 30 percent of American travelers purchase trip insurance. But if you want to play it smart, ask yourself two critical questions: Can I afford to lose the money I've invested in this trip so far? Can I afford to pay $50,000 or more for medical evacuation if I have an emergency overseas? If the answer is "no" in either case, start looking for a plan. "The best time to buy your travel insurance is when you've made your initial trip deposit," says Mueller. Not only will you minimize your exposure to cancellation losses, but you might also land additional benefits if you buy early.

Before you rush to the nearest travel insurance agency, take stock of your current benefits. Contact your domestic health insurance provider and ask what kind of medical coverage, if any, you have overseas—and pay extra attention to emergency protocols. "Read the policy really carefully," advises Graham Kingaby, the director of insurance at "Does it cover repatriation ... in every destination? And can your American health insurer come and get you if you need evacuation?" You should also check in with your credit card company, as many offer some form of free travel insurance. Coverage can be spotty and/or subject to a litany of conditions, but it's worth investigating.

When choosing a policy, think carefully through the specifics of your trip. Many plans don't cover adventures like caving, motorcycling, or even horseback riding, so check the activity exclusions carefully. Bringing your new telephoto lens? Make sure to cover the cost of your most precious valuables, even if that means pushing up the premium. All told, you can expect to spend about 5 to 7 percent of the total trip cost on travel insurance—and receive a safe, worry-free trip in return.

6. Stock your wallet
When: Four weeks before departure
"You can never have too many backups when it comes to money," says Leah Griffin, a destination manager for Gap Adventures and a veteran international traveler (44 countries and counting). She's right: All international travelers should depart with two to three credit cards and enough emergency cash to cover their first day or two on the ground. Traveler's checks are becoming more obsolete, but if you still prefer that method, it can't hurt to bring a few of them along, too.

"I usually research the place that I'm going to, to figure out what's recommended for that particular place," says Griffin. Call your credit card companies and ask if you will be able to make purchases in your destination (Visa and MasterCard are the most widely accepted names worldwide). If the answer is no, it's time to apply for a new card—and ideally one with a reasonable foreign transaction fee. Capital One is probably the only issuer that charges 0 percent; all other credit cards typically charge 2 to 3 percent.

A week before you leave, alert your credit card companies to your travel plans (this is critical—most banks will put a freeze on your account if you don't); make copies of the front and back of each credit card and pack them separately from your wallet (be sure these copies include the card's 24-hour emergency phone number); and stock your wallet with some cash. "I usually try to have a couple of hundred dollars, usually in U.S. [currency], but it depends on the country you're going to," says Griffin.

Read more about safeguarding your cash while abroad.

7. Learn the cultural code
When: One week before departure
If you haven't done so already, familiarize yourself with your destination's culture. It sounds obvious, but a lot of travelers skip this step and their experience suffers for it. Pick up a phrase book (or download one to your phone) and learn the basics: hello, yes, no, please, thank you. Find out if there are any sensitivity issues. In certain parts of Asia, for example, it's considered extremely inappropriate to point with your hands or feet. "I've just learned over time that being able to do what the locals do and say a couple of things that they say makes the whole trip so much better," says Intrepid's Wallace.

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