While you might be psychologically ready to hop on a plane, however, it's important to develop some 21st-century travel techniques before leaving your home soil. A few precautionary steps can protect your pocketbook and help you get the best exchange rates.
Here's a checklist of what to do before you head off:
- Let banks know where you are. If you don't venture across borders often, it's a good idea to give a heads-up to your banks and credit card companies. When they see international or other unusual activities, financial institutions take notice and have been known to freeze cards in order to protect their clients from fraud.
- Use your ATM. The savvy traveler no longer needs to shell out a 1 percent commission and get poor exchange rates with travelers checks. With the world increasingly becoming ATM-dependent and with that pesky Y2K bug out of the way, the best bet is to use ATM cards overseas. The exchange rates are better, local currencies are available in small amounts, and your institution will probably charge its normal fees for using another banks ATM. (Note: Check how much the bank will charge ahead of time - Canadian institutions have been known to hit ATM users with a $20 charge for using out-of-country banks.)
- Set up PINs. One risk of using your cash card is that ATMs in Europe have been known to chew them up, so back-ups are necessary. You should call your credit card companies and set up PIN numbers on each card you'll be carrying in case you need alternate access to cash. Many international ATMs won't spit out cash unless there's a four-digit PIN number - nothing more, nothing less - set up on the card. And make sure your card links to your checking account, as some international ATMs won't let you withdraw from savings.
- Keep one card separate. Using credit cards for purchases abroad is usually a good idea, because most cards convert charges based on the best exchange rate of the month, even if you use it on a day when your currency plummets. (Again, check with your credit card company on this.) However, if your wallet gets snagged and all of the cards are inside, an international trip could turn into a financial disaster. That's why it's important to keep one credit card separate from the others. (A hotel safe is a good place to stash it.)
- Write down your account information. Picture this: Your wallet's been stolen with your calling, bank and credit cards inside it. How do you phone home to cancel your accounts when you only have your bank's collect phone numbers on the now-missing cards and you can't get the numbers through directory assistance because your calling card was snagged?
- Consider joining American Express. It's true that AmEx has irritatingly high annual fees for its services, but those services are definitely worth it if you travel overseas often. The company has offices in pretty much every major city in the world, and it will process a new card for you within 24 hours.
- Carry U.S. dollars. No matter your nationality, you should always carry $200 U.S. as an emergency fund when you travel internationally. It's enough cash to get you out of a bind but won't ruin your entire trip if it's stolen. U.S. dollars are king throughout the world and will be accepted for exchange or straight up.
This scenarishows why it's vitally important to write down the international phone numbers of your credit cards and banks as well as your account numbers and keep them in a safe place. Its a good idea to do the same with your calling card. Most of the time, financial companies have non-800 numbers that you can call collect if you're in trouble. If you're carrying a laptop or hand-held computer, keep the phone and account numbers in a password-protected area.
Tiare Rath, a former personal finance writer for CBS MarketWatch, spent six months traveling internationally and now lives in Beirut