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How to travel abroad: Here's a checklist

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If your vacation plans this summer include traveling outside the U.S., you should consider several things to make sure your trip goes as smoothly as possible. The two most important concerns while traveling abroad are having access to purchasing power and having sufficient medical coverage.

You'll want to take a few steps to make sure your credit and debit cards are ready to use in a foreign country. The first is to notify your bank or financial institution of your travel plans, so it doesn't freeze your account for suspicious activity. Do this at least two weeks before you travel. 

Let the institution know the dates of travel, the destination and the approximate amount you may be spending on your cards. While you have a representative on the phone, ask about the type of card you have and the fees.

By now you should have been sent a new card with an embedded chip used for added security and verifying payment details. You'll want to make that's the case because chip cards are all that's pretty much accepted in Europe and Asia. In Europe, transportation ticket machines, gas pumps, retailers and even vending machines accept only chip cards. If your card hasn't been upgraded yet, get a new one before you travel.

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Regarding fees when using your credit card in a foreign country, two are key: foreign currency conversion fees and foreign transaction fees. Some of the best cards for foreign travel don't charge a fee for converting a purchase from foreign currency to dollars, and they also give you a better exchange rate than you would get from a currency exchange vendor or ATM at a local bank. 

You also want to make sure your card doesn't charge a foreign transaction fee, which is typically 3 percent tacked onto each purchase. Look for a new credit card if yours charges this fee.

If you plan to use a Visa (V) or MasterCard (MA) debit card at an ATM for cash withdrawals, make sure to ask if your card waives ATM fees. Even if your card doesn't charge a fee, you may still get hit by the foreign bank where the ATM is located.         

When it comes to your medical insurance while traveling abroad, first thing is to call your health insurance company and learn what's covered and what's not.

Here are a few questions to ask:

  • Is injury resulting from high-risk activities (scuba diving, parasailing, mountain climbing, off-roading, etc.) covered?
  • Are preauthorizations or second opinions for emergency treatment required?
  • Does your policy guarantee medical payments abroad?
  • Will the insurance company make payments directly to foreign hospitals or doctors?

Most health insurance plans will pay for "customary and reasonable" medical care and hospital services abroad, but they'll rarely pay for medical evacuation from the foreign country back to the U.S. 

Also, if you're covered by Medicare, you need to know that in general the health care you get outside the U.S. isn't covered. For these reasons, you'll want to consider buying a separate travel medical insurance policy that covers the cost of medical services and evacuation you may need while traveling abroad.

Also, if you plan to bring prescription medications with you to another country, it's a good idea to carry a letter from your doctor that describes your medical condition, the medication you carry and the generic name of the prescribed medication. Make sure to take an adequate supply and leave medications in their clearly labeled original containers.

You may also want to contact the foreign embassy of the country you plan to visit to make sure your medications are permitted in that country.  

Finally, it's a good idea to make a copy of the front and back of your bank cards, ID, health insurance cards and passport. Keep this with you in a separate location, like in a bag you'll leave in your hotel room. Also save a copy on your smart phone or tablet and have it backed up using a cloud-based service that you can access online from anywhere, anytime.

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