12 Things You Must Do to Avoid Money Disasters While Traveling Abroad

Here's a fun game to play with yourself: Book a long-overdue vacation abroad and naturally become excited. Now, think of every single thing that can go wrong. You might consider political upheaval, sudden bans on everyday electronics, unpredictable weather, squabbles among traveling partners, or exotic and previously unknown tropical diseases. Oh, and we'd be remiss not to mention the financial disasters that might await you on the other side of that red-eye flight. Lucky for you, we've experienced nearly every financial misery that can occur while traveling and are here to make sure the same doesn't happen to you. With that in mind, we've collected the top financial advice that you'll need to make your next trip a smooth one.

1. Tell your bank that you're going abroad well before leaving.

Image courtesy of J Aaron Farr via Flickr

Warning your bank about upcoming travel may sound like a no-brainer, but it's a critical step in making sure you have access to cash and credit reserves while abroad. Most banks and credit card companies allow you to take care of this through online banking, but there are often lag times in processing your travel note. (For instance, HSBC will tell you that it may take at least a week for the warning to be registered in the system.) We recommend putting the travel note on your account well ahead of time, preferably by calling and speaking to a representative. If you don't alert your bank in some way, they may temporarily place a block on your card, meaning you won't be able to withdraw cash or charge anything without calling them to clear up the matter. Still, it's worth noting that even after placing a travel note on your account, a bank may still temporarily block the account after you've successfully used it for a few days while abroad (read on for how to navigate this).

2. Take multiple credit cards with you.

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Do not assume that retailers, hotels, and restaurants in every major city around the world accepts all credit cards. American Express, for instance, charges high fees from the outlets that use it, and is therefore not as commonly accepted as Visa or Mastercard. However, it's not just accessibility that's an issue. Having a backup card or two is imperative in case your primary bank card gets shut down for any reason while traveling. And yes, you should absolutely make sure each credit card company knows that you are traveling abroad (see above). 

3. Write down your bank's international customer service number.

Banco de España image courtesy of Jim Anzalone via Flickr

Counter to logic, most banks print the number you should call when your card has been lost or stolen on the actual card itself. Therefore, it goes without saying that you're in a bit of trouble if that card suddenly goes missing. With that in mind, write down all relevant international customer service phone numbers in a notebook or piece of paper that you store separately from your wallet or purse. You'll also need to have cash handy in order to pay for any international dialing if you're not able to do so by using your own cell phone. Keep in mind that the collect number most banks provide for customers who are traveling outside of their home country is often not the same toll-free number you'd use if you were at home. In fact, dialing a 1-800 number from abroad generally isn't possible depending on where in the world you may be. 

4. Learn how to dial your home country from abroad.

Dialing your home country from abroad can be challenging, particularly if you're trying to reach the collect number provided by your bank. If you're using a landline in the country where you're traveling, you will need to know the international access code, as well as your own country code (if the number is in your home country). Keep in mind that in some destinations, like Bali, the outlets that can dial internationally are surprisingly few and far between, and there are almost no public phone cabins available (as you might find in Buenos Aires or Madrid, for example). If you're calling your home country using your own cell phone and without a locally purchased SIM card, the dialing procedures vary. This is because certain companies work with local carriers, essentially turning your phone into one that has a local number (and thus requires a user to follow international dialing protocols). Other companies lack these arrangements and will essentially work like your phone would back home, meaning that international dialing procedures won't be necessary. 

5. Keep a reserve of cash in dollars.

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We at Oyster.com don't advocate overthinking potential travel disasters, but you should prepare yourself for the ones that you can control. Since credit and debit cards rely on a whole network of often-unconsidered factors, take some steps to guard yourself in case you're not able to use either. Even here in New York City, internet outages mean that impromptu cash-only policies spring up in whole boroughs on occasion. Depending on your destination, there may be a surplus of cash-only establishments as well -- particularly in South and Southeast Asia. Having a reserve of cash also gives you a temporary solution should your cards be lost, stolen, or otherwise disabled for any reason. Depending on your destination, take anywhere from $100 to $250. These can be exchanged for the local currency in case of an emergency. 

6. Check ATM availability ahead of time.

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Don't assume that you will have an infinite amount of ATMs to choose from when you go abroad. For example, the Thai islands and many of their beach-oriented neighbors -- as well as the more exotic reaches of Laos and Vietnam -- are often lacking in readily available ATMs. The same goes for any remote destination as well. However, there are more extreme cases to consider. For instance, if you're traveling to Cuba from the United States, you won't be able to use an ATM at any point in your trip, and will need to have cash on hand to cover the entirety of your vacation. Additionally, check on withdrawal charges and any foreign transaction fees -- the latter can be particularly painful if they're charged every time you use your debit or credit card.

7. Prepare for hefty deposits and holds.

While many hotels and rental car companies won't require you to pay for your room or vehicle when making a reservation, this doesn't mean that you're off the hook for hidden holds once you've checked in or picked up your car. And some of these holds can be steep. On a recent trip to Cabo San Lucas, two of our hotel investigators had authorization holds in excess of $750 placed on their cards at one resort. In most cases, this freezes that amount of money, preventing it from being available to you until the hold is released. Additionally, the hold was not conveyed to us before arriving at the resort, so it's important to check ahead with the property. Remember to ask for the receipt that cancels the authorization hold. In our case in Los Cabos, one of the investigators discovered that the hold was still on her card after a week. 

8. Don't bother with traveler's checks.

There was a time when every cautious traveler loaded up on traveler's checks before heading off on their international voyages. In fact, American Express once had offices in nearly every city in the world for this exact purpose. However, those days are long gone and the traveler's check is an outdated travel resource. To be clear, they do offer some peace of mind -- they're insured and will be replaced when lost or stolen. However, exchange rates on traveler's checks are worse than on cash, and at this point in time, many banks simply do not take them. The more modern alternatives are pre-loaded travel-centric debit cards. These are essentially electronic traveler's checks that have a set amount of money loaded on them; some work in multiple currencies without fees. Additionally, they aren't linked to any bank accounts, which helps protect you against card skimmers that may be attached to ATMs and other places where you swipe your cards.

9. Check your cell phone's international dialing policy.

Image courtesy of Gonzalo Baeza via Flickr

If you're an American, traveling abroad with your cell phone can be frustrating -- or at least that was once the case. These days, things are relaxing a bit, and both AT&T and Verizon offer per-day packages that are relatively reasonable and come with passable data and text allowances. Additionally, American phones are supposed to be unlockable now, meaning that you are ostensibly able to buy a local SIM card when you land. However, in places like India, getting that new international number activated involves paperwork that can take weeks to process. If you don't have international dialing set up ahead of time on your cell phone -- and opt out of the packages offered by your company via text upon landing  -- be prepared for hefty roaming and per-minute calling charges. These can add up quickly if you're on hold with your bank while sorting out any account-related issues. It's also important to turn off cellular data while abroad, as unintentional roaming charges can be racked up for data that your apps are using without your knowledge.

10. Don't use public Wi-Fi to take care of banking.

Image courtesy of Alper Cugunvia Flickr

For those of us without internationally ready cell phones or who don't want to incur roaming charges, public Wi-Fi in parks, airports, cafes, restaurants, bars, and museums can be a godsend. But keep in mind that these networks are rarely secure and that any information you send while using them is ostensibly open for others to see. Simply by the sheer volume of traffic on public Wi-Fi networks, hackers and cyber-criminals are able to install hijacking programs that can replicate security certificates, and collect any sensitive information you are sending. Opt for a VPN if you absolutely have to take care of banking via public Wi-Fi -- and yes, this includes hotel Wi-Fi networks, which are almost never provided on a room-by-room, single log-in, and password-protected basis. 

11. Consider a money belt.

While it's not a necessity in many parts of the world -- there is some value in having this accessory in certain travel circumstances. They may be uncomfortable, sweaty, and not easily accessible, but they do make it exceptionally difficult for thieves to steal your most important items. These can come in handy on long train rides -- when you're sleeping, in particular -- or in exceptionally crowded urban settings, like festivals. Stash your cards, passport, and cash reserves inside of it, but take a tip from us and wrap everything inside a Ziploc bag, particularly if you're traveling in the summer or in tropical climates. Otherwise, you may end up with a sweat-soaked passport or cash -- neither of which is pleasant.

12. Divide up your valuables.

Image courtesy of Dan Moyle via Flickr

As any waiter in any major city will tell you, if you're walking around late at night with a full night's worth of tips on you, it's smart to separate the cash into different groups. While it won't save you from being robbed, it will prevent thieves -- most of whom operate as quickly as possible -- from hitting up all of your hiding places in one go. Divide your stash in your money belt, pocket, wallet, sock, and bra -- or any combination thereof. 

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