It happened 10 years ago on my first trip to Copenhagen. I’d ordered the local currency at an American Express office in New York and was so proud that I’d arrived prepared, money in hand. Only it wasn’t Danish krone the agent had given me — instead I had a wallet full of utterly useless Czech koruna. Since then I’ve gained more experience as a traveler but I’ve still made plenty of mistakes along the way — and learned from them. Here are some of my top tips for your trip abroad.
1. Bring $100 to $200 in the currency of the country (or countries) where you’re going before you leave the U.S. Having money on hand for a morning coffee at the airport and a taxi to the city center makes your arrival much less stressful. American credit cards don’t always work because often a PIN is required; some places take only local bankcards or cash. (Trust me: You don’t want to be wandering around an airport searching for an ATM after spending 10 hours in economy class.) It’s free to order foreign money at most banks if you’re a customer, but do it at least a week ahead of time (though larger metropolitan banks often have common currencies like the euro or British pound on hand), and be sure to request a mix of smaller bills. Also avoid currency exchanges, which impose ridiculous fees.
2. Having a working cell phone when overseas is paramount — not so much for phone calls and texts, but for the data you’ll use when you’re out and about and don’t have Wi-Fi access. Sign up for an international plan with your carrier, which will run about $40 for 30 days. Sounds expensive — especially if you’re only traveling for a week — but roaming charges can be astronomical (around $2 per megabyte — that’s the equivalent of opening 10 web pages or three social media posts with pics). To conserve usage, turn off cellular data until you need it and close any apps you aren’t using.
3. My iPhone screens are cluttered with travel apps that I eagerly downloaded — but have never opened. I always go back to the tried and true, namely Google Maps — especially the newer feature where you can download an area map and navigate while offline. Lately though, I’ve become a fan of Citymapper, which is especially helpful when using public transportation. In Paris, it advised me not only which metro line to take, but also where to get on the train — front, middle or back — which sped up my trip (and made me feel like a local). Also invaluable for deciphering menus and signs is Google Translate — not perfect, but good enough to figure out that I definitely didn’t want to eat Hollandse nieuwe haring.
4. Another reason to have a data plan: To access a ride-hailing app wherever you are. I’ve found using a ride-sharing service like Lyft is generally easier and cheaper than hailing a taxi on the street. Plug in the address and there can be no miscommunication about where the driver should take you — or how much it will cost. Do your homework and don’t just rely on Uber; in the areas where you’re traveling, there may specific ride-sharing companies you’re unfamiliar with (e.g., Cabify in Spain and South America; Gett in the UK; Hailo in Ireland). For cities where Uber is outlawed (Barcelona, for example) the MyTaxi app lets you order a local cab and pay by credit card or PayPal (it does not, however, calculate cost).
5. Take a photo on your phone (then save it in the Cloud) of all essential travel documents: passport, health insurance card, driver’s license and customer service numbers for your credit cards. If any of the above gets lost or stolen, it will be easy for you to access the information. Of course, make sure your phone is protected by a passcode. For the same reason, I also Xerox a copy of my passport and put it in my purse; I store my actual passport, along with one emergency credit card, in the hotel room’s safe. (Note, however, that if you’re planning to shop in a Tax-Free store while you are out exploring, you must have your passport.)