Pro Tips: Using Your Smart Phone Abroad

Pro Tips: Using Your Smart Phone Abroad

It’s often the bane of the international traveler’s existence, the thorn in his/her side, the unscratchable itch.  It’s the dreaded international data charge!  These days, humanity is more connected than ever, with smart phones and tablets being more of an appendage than an accessory.  The long storied problem with staying connected on international travel is quite simply, the exorbitant cost.

Data roaming charges can easily leave you facing a four-figured cell phone bill upon returning from your travels.  And, while times are changing in the mobile industry, you can still very easily “buttonhook” yourself if you don’t go in prepared.

In this entry, I’m going to discuss some of the ways that we’ve had the best success with staying connected during travel, and how we’ve managed to keep the costs at an affordable level.

First, let’s talk about why you would need to be connected abroad.  Some of you may be thinking, shouldn’t vacation be a time when you unplug, exhale, and recharge?  In a word, ABSOLUTELY!  But, there are reasons that still having some access to the worldwide web can make your travels much more streamlined.  I’m going to quickly delve into a few reasons why having mobile access abroad is a GOOD THING.  Those reasons are:

  1. Navigation – If you travel like we do, we often travel on our own via train, rented car, or on foot.  Having access to a bit of mobile data can be major when it comes to the efficiency of your trip.  Being able to access a mapping or transit app on your phone can save tons of time over wandering around lost or aimless.
  2. Emergencies – You never know what you’ll encounter during your next adventure or what may happen with friends and family while you’re away.  While an emergency situation would warrant contact no matter what the cost, not having the added stress of a giant phone bill in addition to the emergency only helps the situation.
  3. Research – This again relates to traveling on your own.  As our train approaches its next stop, or as we come over a mountain pass and happen upon a small town in our rental, it’s really handy to have a web browser to perform a quick search to decide whether or not the town is worth the stop.

While we’re definitely advocates of leaving social media, email, and work behind for your adventure, we certainly see some benefits to having a usable phone that won’t cost you an arm and a leg to utilize.  That said, let’s discuss a few of the ways that you can stay connected and avoid those unbearable international roaming charges.

First, the key to being able to connect overseas at all is having a global capable phone that is unlocked by your U.S. mobile provider.  To confirm that you have a global phone that is in an unlocked state, contact your mobile provider.

Types of SIM Cards

  • Local SIM Cards – Often, the cheapest way to connect abroad is to connect like a local.  Most countries (especially in Europe) have mobile providers with prepaid mobile plans.  In Europe, Vodafone and T-Mobile are basically everywhere at this point.  You can simply walk in to a local carrier’s store, check out plan options, by a prepaid plan, and insert the local SIM card in your unlocked global phone.  There are a couple of major keys here.  1) Don’t lose your U.S. SIM card.  Make sure to put it in a safe place, so that you can replace it when you’re back stateside.  2)  Make sure that you know what plan you’re purchasing, and that it will be enough to get you through your trip.  As an example, our last trip to Ireland was 10 days long, and we were driving on our own in a rental.  We purchased a Tesco Mobile prepaid SIM card for the equivalent of about $20 USD.  This SIM card included 2GB of data to be used anywhere in Ireland and unlimited calls and texts within Ireland.  That was more than enough to get us by.  We just made sure to shut our data off when not in use.
  • Global SIM Cards – Our next trip will take us through 5 countries.  This would mean purchasing 5 different SIM cards to avoid roaming charges in Europe.  In this case, we’ve opted to utilize a Europe SIM card by Mobal.  This card is $60 per month for 1GB of data, but it works all over Europe.  Additional GB of data are $10 each.  While this isn’t as good of a deal as the Irish SIM card, the fact that it works in every country that we’re traveling to makes it a more convenient and better deal than buying 5 different SIM cards.  There are various companies offering Global SIMs at varying rates.  Check out options like Mobal, OneSIM, etc., and find what works best for you.  These SIMs work in the same way at the local SIMs.  Simply swap them out for your U.S. SIM card, restart your phone, and you’re good to go.  Do be aware that when you change SIM cards, you also change your phone number, leaving your U.S. number suspended while you travel.
  • Carrier SIM Cards – As the U.S. mobile phone market competition heats up, using your existing U.S. plan is becoming more and more of an option each day.  Companies like T-Mobile are already offering unlimited international data in many countries.  Sprint has free use in many Caribbean countries, and Verizon in Canada and Mexico.  Additionally, Verizon is offering daily international passes for $10 per day.  This allows you to use your existing U.S. package for only $10 per day, with no additional roaming fees.  For short trips, this can be an affordable an convenient option.  My warning with these plans is to just be sure of the details and fine print.  We tested T-Mobile’s unlimited international data last year, and while it was unlimited, the speeds were restricted to 2G, which in many locations was unusable.

I often see social media posts and online advice to simply put your phone in airplane mode when you leave the states.  While that is an option, there are definitely some better options out there to stay connected while you wander.  Choose carefully, as there’s not a one size fits all option.  Just be prepared, and you can have the peace of mind of staying plugged in abroad.

Pro Tips: How to Get Cash in Europe

Pro Tips: How to Get Cash in Europe

Novice travelers to Europe often have a bit of trepidation when it comes to obtaining local currency abroad.  While there are several solutions to this dilemma, I thought I’d take a moment to discuss what we’ve found to be a best practice in getting Euros, Franks, Pounds, etc. across the pond.

There are few methods that are often suggested when it comes to obtaining foreign currency.  Some of the most common methods are:

  1. Buying currency from your local bank prior to travel.
  2. Using a currency exchange in your destination country.
  3. Buying foreign currency from an online exchange.
  4. Using your ATM/Debit card abroad.

Before discussing what we view to be the BEST option, I’d like to discuss the reasons that the others are less desirable.

Buying currency from your local bank prior to travel:  While this method may give you peace of mind and prove convenient, we see a couple of issues here.  First, exchange rates generally aren’t that favorable when using your local financial institution to change money.  In many cases, local banks don’t keep foreign currency on hand, so they are actually buying the currency from a larger institution.  This means that you are not only paying the exchange rate and spread being offered by the larger institution, you’re paying an additional fee to your local bank. 

Using a currency exchange in your destination country:  This is another convenience option that may prove costly.  I mean, what could be easier than arriving at the airport in your destination country, walking to the exchange desk, and getting some local cash?  Truth be told, our PREFERRED METHOD is just as easy, and far less costly.  Currency exchange desks are notorious for charging exorbitant fees in excess of the exchange rate.  This just means that you’re paying more for your own money than it’s worth.

Buying foreign currency from an online exchange:   Similar to purchasing at your local bank, this is an option that provides peace of mind and convenience.  It’s nice having that currency before you head abroad, but this method will almost always cost you in terms of convenience fees in excess of the exchange rate.

Before I discuss our preferred method for obtaining foreign currency, I wanted to discuss a little bit of the terminology surrounding currency exchange and the spread charged by exchange companies to make money off of you.  At the time of this blog entry, the published exchange rate from USD to Euros was 1 USD to 0.929347 EUR per www.xe.com.  As such, $100 is worth 92.93 Euros.  If you were to order 93 Euros on Travelex.com, it would cost you $110.71, plus a $9.99 delivery fee.  So, you paid $120.70 for $100 worth of Euros.

If you do plan to utilize currency exchange desks abroad, we suggest installing phone apps like Coinverter Currency Converter, so you can see what you should be paying at the going rate vs. what the exchange desk will charge you.  This app can be loaded and updated, then used offline.  This is helpful if your phone is in airplane mode abroad.  Just make sure to refresh the app before turning your phone data off so you have the most recent exchange rates possible.

Now, let’s discuss our preferred option……

Using your ATM/Debit card abroad:  In almost all instances, we’ve found the cheapest and most convenient way to get cash abroad (specifically in Europe) is by using ATMs and the debit/atm card associated with your American bank account.  Why is this the best, you ask?  Well, EVERY ATM that we’ve encountered in Europe has not charged a fee for cash withdrawal.  Additionally, every ATM that we’ve used in Europe also dispenses cash with no spread on the exchange rate.  So, provided that your bank charges no or low foreign ATM fees, this can be a really cheap way to get cash when you travel.  For this to be your best bet, you need to be sure that you’ve got your bases covered.  Here is our list of tips for using your ATM to get cash:

  1. Know what your bank charges for using foreign ATMs. (Ours is $1 per transaction)
  2. Know if your bank charges additional fees for international charges. (Ours doesn’t)
  3. When using a foreign ATM, make sure that you know whether or not it charges a fee. (We’ve not seen any that charge fees in Europe)
  4. When the ATM gives you the option to withdrawal cash in the local currency or in your native currency, ALWAYS choose the local currency.  This simply means that the foreign ATM will not perform an electronic currency conversion for this withdrawal.  If you let the foreign ATM perform the currency exchange, you’ll get charged a fee.
  5. Know the exchange rate.  Know what this withdrawal should cost you in USD.
  6. Always check for card skimmers placed with scammers trying to steal your card information.
  7. Always let your bank know that you’ll be traveling abroad to avoid having your card locked for a foreign transaction.
  8. Make sure to know your daily ATM withdrawal limits.

In our experience, we’ve always gotten the exact going exchange rate when using our ATM card to obtain cash in Europe.  This, or course, is provided that we always chose for the machine to issue cash at the local currency rate.  We simply pay $1 per transaction, as that is the only fee charged by our bank for international ATM usage.

It’s always best to explore all options when exchanging cash abroad, but we think that if you are informed from the start and follow our tips above, you can save yourself time and money.

Let us know your experience with currency conversion below.  We’d love to hear if you agree, disagree, or something in between!

Pro Tips: Best Credit Cards for Maximizing Miles

Pro Tips: Best Credit Cards for Maximizing Miles

A friend directed a question my way today.  His question was, “Which credit card for earning miles would you suggest?”  Some of you may know that Stephanie and I manage to keep feeding our travel addiction by flying almost exclusively on awards flights.  If not for flying free, we plainly couldn’t afford to travel as much as we do.  I thought I’d post my response to my friend as a blog entry to help give you all an idea for how we manage to hoard the miles that we do.  This entry isn’t an all encompassing explanation, but it does give an overview of why points are worth more in one place than another and why more points isn’t always better.  Here’s my response:

Your question of “best credit card for earning miles” couldn’t have a more convoluted answer.  Let me know if this makes any sense at all. I tried to make it as clear as I could.

I use these sites to keep up with the latest offers:

www.frugaltravelguy.com

www.thepointsguy.com

www.millionmilesecrets.com

The three cards that I’d consider right now would be:

  1. Chase Sapphire Preferred
  2. Chase Sapphire Reserve
  3. Chase Freedom Unlimited

Chase Sapphire Preferred – I carried this as my main points earning card for 5 or so years.  It’s $95 a year, and I think the first year is free.  There’s currently a 50,000 point signup bonus if you spend $4000 in 3 months.  Perks of this card:

  • 1 point per dollar spent on all transactions
  • 2 points per dollar spent on travel and restaurants
  • Points transfer 1:1 to United, British, Southwest, and a few other airlines.
  • Includes some free travel insurance and car rental collision insurance.
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • 25% bonus on travel booked through Chase travel site. (100,000 points is worth $1000 cash, but is worth $1250 in travel through Chase)

Chase Sapphire Reserve – I currently carry this card.  I opened it because it had a 100,000 mile signup bonus.  It currently is $450 per year and has a 50,000 point signup bonus if you spend $4000 in 3 months.  Perks of this card:

  • If you spend $300 per year on travel, you get a $300 statement credit. This lowers the annual fee to $150
  • Includes free priority pass airport lounge membership.
  • Includes free travel insurance and car collision insurance.
  • Includes $100 credit for TSA Pre-check or Global Entry fee
  • 1 point per dollar spent on all transactions
  • 3 points per dollar spent on travel and restaurants
  • 50% bonus on travel booked through Chase travel site. (100,000 points is worth $1000 cash, but is worth $1500 in travel through Chase)
  • Points transfer 1:1 to United, British, Southwest, and a few other airlines.

Chase Freedom Unlimited – I currently carry this card.  I actually downgraded my Chase Sapphire Preferred to this card to avoid the annual fee and maximize my points.  This card has no annual fee.  It probably has a small signup bonus as well.  Perks of this card:

  • No annual fee
  • 1.5 points per dollar spent on all transactions

Con of this card:

  • You cannot transfer these points to airlines; however, you can transfer them to another Chase card and then to airlines.  (i.e. Freedom to Reserve. Reserve to airline)

Right now, I carry two cards:

  1. Chase Sapphire Reserve
  2. Chase Freedom Unlimited

The reasoning for carrying two cards is simple.  There is only a fee on one of them.  I keep the Sapphire Reserve open because I need it to transfer points to airlines (points are worth more with the airlines).  Also, it gets 3 points per dollar on dining and travel.  I keep the Freedom Unlimited open and use it for all purchases that aren’t restaurants or travel because it gets 1.5 points on all purchases.

The two cards that I’d suggest RIGHT NOW are:

  1. Chase Sapphire Preferred
  2. Chase Freedom Unlimited

I think the Sapphire Reserve is probably the best card going right now, but it’s an investment.  $450, then you have to spend $300 on travel to offset that fee.  Easily doable, but you have to front the $450.  But the perks are huge.  The reason I suggest the Sapphire Preferred over the Sapphire Reserve right now is because the signup bonus on the reserve was cut in half.  So, you can get the same signup bonus with either card right now and only front $95 with the Preferred Card.  If you need another signup bonus for a boost in 6 months, sign up for the Reserve too and cancel or downgrade the Preferred.

You may see people suggesting cards like Capital One because they have 3 points per dollar spent.  Here’s why that’s a bad idea in my opinion.  Capital One only lets you use miles within Capital One.  You can’t transfer them to airlines.  Here’s why transferring points to airlines is really important.

Let’s say you have 120,000 points in Chase or Capital One.

Inside of Chase or Capital One, 120,000 points is worth $1200.  If you have Chase Preferred, it’s worth $1500 on travel.  If you have Chase Reserve, it’s worth $1800 on travel.

But, if you have one of the chase sapphire cards, you can transfer those points to United Airlines.  United Airlines currently charges 120,000 points for 2 roundtrip tickets from anywhere in the US to anywhere in Europe.  So, you could book a flight with United that costs $3000, and it costs you 120,000 points.  So, now, with United, those points are worth $3000.  In Capital One, they’re only worth $1200, and inside of Chase, they’re worth $1800 at most.  This is why 3:1 points from Capital One isn’t as good of a deal as it seems, because Capital One traps those points inside their own travel service.  The other issue is that inside of Chase and Capital One Travel Portals, airfare is generally more expensive than booking straight through the airline. So, you may see a flight for $800 on United.com, but inside of Chase or Capital One it’s $1100.

Long story short, I carry 2 cards to maximize my miles.  If we want to travel, and we’re short, we find another card with a signup bonus that will transfer to the airline we need it to.  For us though, Chase has been where we’ve focused most of our efforts.

Hope that helps.