Use SMS affordably while traveling

If you’ve traveled with your mobile phone internationally — or have done any research on this topic — then you already know that international roaming can be crazy expensive. Making and receiving phone calls and accessing the internet both carry hefty charges that add up quickly. Sending and receiving text (SMS) messages can also be expensive, but this cost is a more manageable.

Travel Tip: Use SMS to stay in touch with your friends, family, and colleagues at home while you’re traveling.

For receiving messages, check with your carrier to see if your domestic texting package allows the text messages you receive while traveling international to be deducted from your monthly allotment of messages. This is the case with AT&T in the US. For example, I have a text messaging plan that allows me to send and receive up to 1,000 messages per month while at home. This means I can receive up to 1,000 messages per month while traveling internationally at no extra cost.

For sending messages, first check to see what your carrier will charge you on a per message basis while you’re traveling. For example, AT&T charges $0.50 per SMS that is sent from outside the US. Then, see if your carrier offers an international texting plan. AT&T’s Global Messaging 50 package, which costs $10 per month, allows you to send 50 SMS messages while outside the US, which reduces the per message cost from $0.50 to just $0.20.

Also, if you’ve you gotten used to have an unlimited texting plan at home, then you’ve probably picked up the habit of sending short, one-phrase messages. While this works with an unlimited plan, this will cost you dearly while traveling. So, be sure to use all 160 characters allowed in each message!

Avoid hefty foreign transaction fees

I stopped using travelers checks almost 15 years ago and instead rely on my ATM card for getting cash and my credit card for large purchases, but the foreign transaction fees that banks and credit card companies charge can quickly add up — especially on a long trip.

Travel Tip: Before you leave, check with your bank and credit card companies to find out what they’ll charge you for using your cards abroad. Banks once hid this fee to the dismay of travelers reviewing their statements once they returned home. Starting in 2009, they’re now required to disclose this fee separate and apart from the other fees they charge.

Credit card companies most often charge a percent of the transaction amount (usually 3%) while banks charge either a percent or a flat fee (often whichever is higher) for foreign ATM withdrawals. Knowing which type of fee (percent vs. flat) can help you manage the cost of accessing cash. For example, if your bank charges a flat foreign ATM withdrawal fee of $5, larger, less frequent withdrawals will make more sense.

If you travel frequently or for long periods of time, consider getting a credit card that doesn’t charge a transaction fee on foreign purchases. For example, Capital One has a policy of not charging a foreign transaction fee on any of it’s credit cards and in November the British Airways Visa Signature became the first airline rewards card to waive fees on international purchases.

You may also want to consider opening a second checking account with a bank or credit union that charges a more favorable foreign ATM withdrawal fee. For example, I used to bank with Washington Mutual (which was “bought” by Chase during the bank solvency crisis a few years ago), which charges 3% on ATM withdrawals. The credit union I switched to only charges 1% and when I asked them if they were able to adjust or waive this, the explained that this was a fee charged to them by MasterCard.

Hire a train porter in India

Traveling by train is a quintessential India experience, but finding and boarding your coach can be a challenge. The coaches aren’t always in numerical order, the trains can be quite long (1/3 miles  / .5 km), and if the train doesn’t originate in your departure city, you only have a few minutes to get on board.

Travel tip: Hire a porter. For about Rs. 50 (about $1) per bag, the porter will transport you and your baggage to your seat.

Known as “Coolies” and wearing their official red smocks and brass arm badges, they can be found outside train stations, often near the car park. If your taxi drops you off immediately in front of the station, you may need to walk away from the station a bit to find a Coolie.

Be prepared to show your ticket (with train, coach, and seat numbers) and after you’ve agreed on a price, get ready to follow at a quick pace. The porters are quick and efficient.

Keep in mind that you’re not paying for somebody to carry your bags, an uneasy idea for westerners; you’re paying to get to the right spot at the right time, which is challenging for all of the reasons mentioned above. It’s some of the best rupees you’ll spend.

Thank you to HTT reader, Kevin, for reminding us about this great and inexpensive way to protect your sanity while traveling by train in India.

Bring along a pint-sized power strip

Philips 3-outlet Travel Power Strip

How many times have you been desperate to recharge your dying gadget only to find the one electrical outlet that does exists is already taken?

Travel Tip: Bring along a mini power strip like the one pictured here:

Philips 3-outlet Travel Power Strip

According to HTT reader, Scott K, he puts the one he bought to good use and simply asks “Do you mind if I plug this in so we both can share the outlet?” to which everyone responds, “I have to get one of those…”

Thanks for the tip Scott!

Free trip planning info from Lonely Planet

One of the challenges of planning a multi-month, multi-country trip is figuring out how much time spend in each region/country and what the best time of year is to visit.

Travel Tip: Lonely Planet offers free, online access to the Getting Started chapter for each of their guidebooks. In addition to providing an overview of the country, its history, and culture, the Getting Started chapter also covers the three most important trip-planning topics: when to go, costs & money, and sample itineraries.  Use this information to determine the best time to visit each country and how much you should budget in terms of time and money. This will allow you to develop a good, overall sketch for your trip. Once you have this established, you can then dive deeper into your trip planning.

Scan your important travel documents

Losing your wallet – or even worse, your passport – while traveling can be a major headache and having copies of the original documents or cards can make them a lot easier to replace.

Travel Tip: Before your trip, scan all of your important documents, including your passport, birth certificate, driver license, credit cards (front and back), health insurance card, medicine / eye glass prescriptions, any travel/medical evacuation policies, and, if you’re a diver, your certification card. Then store all these online, as PDFs, so you’re able to access them while you’re traveling. If you have a Gmail or Hotmail account, an easy way to do this is to simply email yourself the documents.

Travel isn’t a contest

If you have competitive or perfectionist tendencies like me, than it can be easy to find yourself comparing your travel experiences to those you meet along the way and conclude that you’re doing something wrong. I find this is especially true when I’m not enjoying myself in a particular place, and I quickly decide I must somehow be failing or deficient in my travel abilities. Everybody else seems to be relaxed and having the time of their life. Why can’t I?

Travel Tip: Stop worrying about what other people are supposedly doing and focus on your experience. If you’re not enjoying a particular city – or even an entire country – it’s ok. You’re not a bad person. It may be that you’re still recovering from the transit involved with getting to that city. It may be that you’re not feeling well. Or it may be that you just don’t like the city, and that doesn’t have to mean there’s anything wrong with you.

See if there’s a change or two you can make that would improve your experience. Perhaps some self-care would help – get a massage, spend the morning (or even the entire day) resting and mentally regrouping in the hotel, splurge on a nice meal, or even upgrade your room.

Talk about your experience with those around you. You’ll most certainly find that you’re not alone in your frustration and everybody isn’t, in fact, having the time of their life. It’s important to connect and share your experiences, rather than keeping it bottled up inside. Plus, fellow travelers may provide some practical advice or strategies for coping with the stress.

Lastly, if you feel like you’ve given a particular place a chance and the two of you just aren’t becoming the best of friends, then it’s ok to move on. There’s no contest and what’s most important is that you’re actually enjoying yourself.

Use the iPhone Maps app abroad for free

Map of Berlin

One of the things I love about my iPhone is the Maps app combined with the phone’s GPS capabilities. Together, these two help me locate myself and find my destination with ease. Because I have national coverage with AT&T in the US, my iPhone has become an indispensible domestic travel companion, but the cost of international data coverage can be prohibitive, so I’ve been reluctant to use the phone for this purpose while traveling outside the US.

Travel Tip: When you arrive in your foreign destination and before you head out for the day, find and connect your iPhone to an available WiFi connection (e.g. in your hotel or in an internet café). Make sure that Airplane Mode is Off and Locations Services (Settings > General > Location Services) are turned On. Both of these are required for you to use the GPS capabilities of your iPhone. You’ll also want to disable Data Roaming (Settings > General > Network) to avoid the hefty costs associated with international data roaming.

Then, launch the Maps app and cache the map for your current city or the part of the city you’re planning to visit. To do this, just zoom in to the level(s) of detail you’ll need for the day, wait for the map to download and become clear, and then move around in each of the four cardinal directions to download each tile of the map.

Now you’ll be set to use maps on your iPhone for the day – and without paying for international data coverage!

Bring extra passport photos

Passport-sized photos are often required to obtain a visa upon arrival, in countries like Nepal, and for purchasing a local SIM card for your mobile phone, in countries like India. They’re also handy to have in case you have to get a replacement passport while traveling.

Travel Tip: As you prepare for your trip, be sure to stock up on extra photos. If you’re visiting just 1 or 2 countries, bring at least 4 extra photos. For trips involving more countries, an extra 6 to 8 should be good. The cost of getting extra photos is often nominal and you’ll save yourself the hassle of getting them in transit.

Use your mobile or camera as a scanner

I often need to print, sign, and return documents. When I’m at home in the US, this is an easy and routine task – I’m simply scan the document to PDF using my multi-function printer/scanner/copier and then email the PDF. But when I travel internationally and rely on internet cafés, I don’t want to take the risk that a copy of the PDF (containing my signature and often other sensitive information like a social security number) might end up sticking around after I’ve departed. A more secure alternative is faxing (secure, as long as the fax machine you’re using doesn’t capture a copy of the page, which some do), but this can be a challenge in certain countries with poor quality phone lines, which often result in failed transmissions.

Travel Tip: Print the document at an internet café, then use the camera in your mobile phone or a digital camera to take a picture of the document once you’ve signed it. Then you can email the picture of the document to its recipient. It may not be as clean as a PDF created by scanning the actual page, but it will often suffice when the recipient just needs proof that a document has been reviewed and signed.

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