Basic Rules of the Road for International Travel

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I do a lot of international travel. I write a lot about international travel. But I also see lots of foundational questions about international travel, whether it be via twitter, on other blogs, and via the Ask Tagging Miles, so I thought it’d be good to cover some here.

Rule #1 – Know what credit cards you can and cannot use without a foreign transaction fee.

This is important both before you travel as well as while you are overseas. Sometimes I’ll buy tickets on a different countries’ site (which breaks no rules, unlike the misrepresentation that was required for the Untied Mistake Fare, but will not avail you the 24-hour cancellation option you get in the US). Of course the charge will be in the local currency. Often times when traveling overseas, my preference is to use plastic over paper, because I want the miles, and I want to be able to easily track things. In no case that I can think of, does it make sense to pay a ~3% foreign transaction fee.

Some of the cards I use overseas are: Barclay Arrival, AMEX Platinum, Chase Marriott Rewards, and my AA Citi Executive.

Rule #2Always pay in local currency.

When charging things overseas, assuming you follow rule #1, I always pay in the local currency. I haven’t done studies on this, but I think others like Wandering Areaman have. It always seems like you’re paying a premium to pay for a hotel stay, a box of chocolates, or duty free items in your home currency vs. just paying the local currency. Most likely because the vendor is charging an exchange fee.

Rule #3 – Get your currency from the ATM, not currency exchanges.

When I first started traveling, USAA was my go to card. I knew way back then, that they would give me the best exchange rate. I haven’t done the analysis lately (I need to), but the general consensus that I’ve found is that ATMs are still the best place to get your local currency. Banks like USAA will cover some of the ATM fees as well, which makes it an even better deal. One thing I would caution you on though is, in some countries, ATMs are specific to Visa or Mastercard. In Ghana for example, there were only two ATMs in the entire city of Accra, that took MasterCard. If you had a Visa debit card, you had plenty of options, but only 2 for MasterCard.

Rule #4 – Research, and know what you want, and be confident to get what you want.

This is probably too broad, but for example, a couple days ago, I flew into Dubai, and they have a selection of taxis. They have the standard taxi that starts at 25 UAE Dirhams, then they have the VIP Taxi (a black vehicle) that starts at 50 UAE Dirhams. When we got to the front of the cue, the official looking person asked where we were going. We said “Park Hyatt Dubai” and he immediately pointed us to the VIP Taxi. I explained that I preferred the standard taxi and he budged. By knowing the difference in costs, I was able to save a third of the taxi fare, at least.

I’ve also had hotels push their “Hotel Car,” or taxis quote a standard price and not turn on the meter. Generally speaking, unless I’m in a rush (in which case, I’ll pay the premium), I will strongly request that meters be running. In some cases, I’ll accept the fixed price offer after confirming it, as long as it is within 10 percent of the price I have paid in the past. Again, this becomes a convenience thing. In no circumstances though, do I accept a fixed price offer, if I don’t know what it *should* be with a meter.

Rule #5 – Be aware of, and respect local customs.

Not doing this is why there used to be the phrase “Ugly American”, its probably why Thailand is issuing a manners pamphlet to Chinese tourists.

Most recently, my wife and I have been traveling to the Middle East. This means wearing more conservative clothing–long pants for me–and for my wife, the consideration of wearing a head scarf. In Egypt she chose to do this and felt it to be the right choice. Yes, we saw women without scarves, but we probably stood out that much less because we acknowledged the local custom and tried our best to respect it. In other countries its not as prevalent, like in Dubai for example, it doesn’t “feel” as necessary, so it is very much a case by case basis on comfort.

Rule #6 – Perception is reality

This is a hard one, and one I think I’ll have to write on more indepth in the future. I’m a top tier Hyatt GoldPassport member. When I walk into a hotel, I immediately go for the Diamond check-in. I don’t generally like porters to take my bags–just a personal thing–and sometimes won’t necessarily “dress the part.” Most recently, when I checked into the Grand Hyatt Dubai, I really got the feeling that they didn’t think I was a Diamond Member, until they got my reservation pulled up. We were just coming from the Park Hyatt Dubai, and being that it was warm in Dubai, I was wearing shorts and a golf shirt, just carrying my sports jacket. In fact, this was the first time that I’ve checked into the Grand Hyatt Dubai where I didn’t even have a porter offer to take our bags. What I mean to say by all this is, I suspect that they perceived that I wasn’t a high spender, or an elite because of the way I was dressed, and as a result, I was treated that way, until it was clear I was a Diamond GoldPassport member–in fact, we were proactively offered welcome beverages once that was clear.

The same can be said about flying. Folks boarding the plane in sweat pants, don’t necessarily fit the mold for what one would expect in Business or First Class. When I started flying, I’d wear a suit and tie. Nowadays, I wear jeans or slacks. If I fly Southwest, I may occasionally wear shorts, but, I figure that’s ok because the flight attendants do it too. Perhaps it all speaks to Rule #5, in that you want to “play the part” so to speak.

Wrapping up

This is just a quick rundown of some of the high points I see when it comes to folks asking questions about International Travel. I find myself very blessed that I can travel overseas as much as I can, but I have to remember that not everyone has the same opportunities. That said, a few basic rules to go by, can make a first time overseas trip, the first of many. For further ready, you can also read about how I prepare for international trips.

5 thoughts on “Basic Rules of the Road for International Travel

  1. Good tips, especially #2 and #3. Another tip: If you have checking accounts at more than one bank, bring an extra debit card. You never know when a machine will deny/eat your card, and then you’re stuck without cash.

    • @Nick – Thanks for your comment.. and that is a great point on having multiple debit cards. Traveling for work a few years back, I had one of mine eaten by an ATM in London. Luckily I had a back-up, but would’ve been bad!

  2. Pingback: Ask A Blogger Series: Best Little Known Or Unknown Credit Card Benefit - Doctor Of Credit

  3. Saw your blurb on Doctor of Credit’s best lesser known credit card benefits.

    Charles Schwab is superior to USAA. Has unlimited (not $15 worth) of ATM refunds worldwide, and no foreign transaction fees at ATMs or points of sale.

    • @Fiby – Thanks for your comment – I will have to check into Charles Schwab! I didn’t realize they had no fees at all. Thanks!

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