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Monkey sitting on a fence with Kyoto Japan in the background

Tips to Have a Successful Foreign Vacation

By David J. Haas CFP®
June 19th, 2023

I just got back from a family vacation to Japan. My wife, my adult children, and I had a wonderful time and we brought back many memories. In my family, we have a long history of international travel and I have developed some habits and tips that I thought other people might benefit from. These are things I have learned from others or learned the hard way during my travels.

  1. You don’t need to be on a tour – Lots of people are afraid of traveling the same way in a foreign country that they might travel within the US. Instead, they might book a tour or a cruise. Yes, this can be a good way to go if you don’t want to do the planning work, but I want to tell you that you can do all the planning yourself. In our case, my wife is usually the planner. She finds hotels online or apartment rentals through AirBnb or VRBO.

    Sure, we sometimes have little surprises (like the cabin in the middle of the woods in the Czech Republic), but even those surprises usually work out into an enjoyable and memorable time. Meanwhile we are enjoying the food and culture without the tour company giving us a “vanilla” version. With the internet, you can get a pretty good idea about accommodations ahead of time.

  2. Don’t be afraid to rent a car – Why do people buy those rail passes? They might be great if you’re a teenager backpacking through Europe, but they are usually more expensive than buying your rail tickets directly and far less flexible than renting a car. If you are more than two people, or are planning to stop in a rural area, then renting a car is a far better and even cheaper option. Here are a few car rental tips:

    1. I never take the all-inclusive loss-damage-waiver in the US because my own car insurance covers rentals and my credit card covers the rest (check your card because many providers have stopped covering rental cars). But internationally, I like to pay for the full loss-damage-waiver. In Europe, they will inspect your car for every scratch. With the LDW, they are responsible. Your car insurance might not work in Europe and there are car restrictions with credit card coverage. Take the LDW.

    2. Automatic transmissions might not be as available internationally. Make sure you book one if you can’t drive a manual transmission. I learned to drive a stick when the rental car garage attendant gave me a 5-minute lesson in the middle of Dusseldorf in German. I can’t even count the number of times I stalled it out. If you book an automatic, that is what you are likely to get.

    3. Be aware that the rental car companies sometimes restrict certain cars in certain countries. So, if you rent a car in Germany and expect to drive it into Poland, they may not let you rent a high-end car such as a Mercedes. Find out ahead of time and ask when you pick up the car.

    4. In Europe, there is a highway tax that is paid by using a little windshield sticker called a vignette. Your rental car may not have a valid vignette, but you can usually buy one at the first rest area on the Autobahn (Autostrade, Autovia, etc.). Every country will require a different one. You can usually buy one that lasts a month.

  3. Get local currency from an ATM – The cheapest way to get local currency is to withdraw it from your bank account using an ATM in local currency and use the international Visa or Mastercard network to do the foreign currency exchange for you. They give you a wholesale rate, but you should be aware of fees that could occur. Your bank may charge a fee per ATM withdrawal and the ATM itself might charge a fee. If you are lucky then your bank won’t charge a fee AND might refund ATM fees. I have a brokerage account at Fidelity, and they give me an ATM card which refunds fees and that is what I use internationally. You might be able to find an ATM card with your bank or your brokerage account which also refunds fees. Betterment, one of Cereus Financial Advisors’ custodians offers a checking account with a no-fee ATM/Debit card and they refund fees.

    Whatever card you have, test it before you go if you don’t normally use the card to make sure it still works at home. Fidelity, Schwab, and Betterment also do not charge separate foreign transaction fees. Some cards also charge that.Check with your provider ahead of time. Try not to use the foreign exchange vendors at airports or tourist areas. They offer a poor exchange rate and charge extra fees. Bank ATMs work the best, but I found out that in Japan, the bank ATMs were not connected to the international Visa/Mastercard network, and I could not use them. There, I had to use ATMs at 7-11 stores (they were everywhere) or post offices (only during post office hours).

  4. Get a credit card which does not charge foreign transaction fees – I try to use a credit card a lot, because if you have a card which does not charge foreign transaction fees, then it’s the cheapest way to pay. Chase is one issuer who has many cards that don’t charge the fees. I have an Amazon credit card from Chase which has no annual fee and no foreign transaction fee.

    Watch out when you travel because many vendors abroad have figured out they can make some extra money by charging your card in dollars and doing the exchange for you. They give you a bad rate AND charge a fee. You should always choose to pay in the foreign currency, not dollars and let Visa or Mastercard do the exchange. I had a fight in Barcelona a few years ago with a restaurant who insisted on charging me in dollars and said they couldn’t change it. My solution was to pull out the cash and forget about the card.

  5. Make sure you notify your credit card and ATM card issuers that you will be traveling — Some issuers don’t want to know about your travel, but others do want to know ahead of time. Check their website or call the toll-free number on the back of your card.

  6. Have foreign cell phone coverage – In the USA, there are three main carriers, Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile. Verizon and AT&T both charge extra for foreign service and sometimes make you get a different phone. I have T-Mobile, and my phone just works everywhere. I mean everywhere! They now provide 5 Gigabytes of data at 4G speeds at no extra cost. Text messages are free and phone calls are $0.25 per minute (of course calls using Facetime or WhatsApp are free when you have internet). The data service means I can use Google maps to help me navigate public transportation internationally. Google maps is simply amazing. We figured out all the trains, subways, and busses using Google maps in Japan. We used it to find restaurants and our hotels. Sure, we got lost a couple of times, but not really lost.

  7. Google Translate – We don’t speak Japanese, although my wife made an heroic effort to learn some before we travelled. Her few phrases made us some friends at restaurants and helped us, but Google Translate helped us too. You can use the camera on your phone and hold the phone up to a sign and it will translate. Great for restaurants without English menus or signs in the subway.

  8. Buy the right trip insurance – There are several parts to this recommendation. First and most important, you need medical insurance, and your US medical insurance might not cover you overseas. Medicare does not cover you internationally and commercial insurance varies. Trip insurance which includes some medical coverage is not expensive and will also give assistance if you really need emergency medical assistance. We had to use it once, when my son broke his leg in Munich when he was 12. He needed emergency surgery and business class on the way home because of the thigh to ankle cast he had to wear. The trip insurance paid for the upgrade. The other important point of trip insurance is to refund the cost of the trip if it has to be cancelled because of the health of a traveler or a close family member prior to the trip.I use a website called insuremytrip.com to buy my travel insurance. It lets you shop around insurance offerings from many different companies to buy a policy with the features you want at the least expensive price.

  9. Put a credit card in your shoe – OK, maybe not your shoe, but my point is to put a credit card someplace other than your wallet. Maybe hidden in your suitcase or backpack just in case you get pick-pocketed and lose your wallet. This has never happened to me, but my son lost his wallet twice. Maybe he was pick-pocketed or maybe his wallet “dropped” out of his pocket. All he knew was that it was missing. Luckily, he was not traveling alone, but I like to hide a card just in case.

After a lifetime of traveling internationally, I have many more tips and not enough space to write them. I’m sure you have some too and I would love to hear some of yours. I think foreign travel is amazing. I enjoy learning about other cultures, seeing how people live differently, eat different foods, but also seeing how many things are not that different. I hope you will also be able to enjoy international travel and I hope a couple of my tips help you.

Disclaimer: My advice is based on my knowledge, experience, and a little research. I believe that all of the information is correct as of the day I have written it, but the companies I mention might have changed their offerings at any time. You need to do your own research. None of the companies I have mentioned has paid me in any way for this mention. Betterment is a company that Cereus Financial Advisors uses as a custodian, but neither I nor Cereus has been paid specifically for this mention, nor are we paid for any balances in a Betterment checking account or usage of a Betterment ATM/Debit card.

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