Because I have been a full-time travel journalist for nearly 20 years, and have covered aviation, hotels, and many related topics, I get a lot of questions from people traveling and requests for advice from those planning trips. Today I’ve consolidated some of my most useful general travel advice, and I’ve also rounded up top tips from the some of the most expert travel professionals I know. These cover a wide range of subjects but should make your travel experience better and easier in the future.
1. Use ATMs For Cash Overseas: I am probably asked more about currency exchange than any other single topic by would-be international travelers, and it amazes me how many frequent travelers I know make the biggest mistake, exchanging money at the hotel front desk (usually a terrible rate) or at airport exchange counters (questionable rate and often fees). Instead, withdraw money from foreign ATM machines using your bank ATM card. You usually get a better exchange rate and no exchange fee. Most out of network ATMs do charge a fee per transaction, but many US banks offer premium accounts that waive such fees – that’s what I have, and I travel so much it saves me hundreds a year just in ATM transaction fees. Another benefit is that I can take out money in safer, smaller increments, reducing my exposure to theft or loss to what I have in my pocket for the next day or two, versus bringing a big wad of US cash to exchange. I always do carry some US currency on trips as a backup in case I go someplace where my ATM card doesn’t work – but this has never, ever happened to me in dozens of countries on every inhabited continent. Almost without exception, there will be an ATM from a major local bank in the airport when you arrive. If you do find yourself needing to actually exchange currency, go to a bank.
2. But Skip Cash Overseas and Use Credit Cards As Much As Possible: This comes from aviation and business travel guru Chris McGinnis, founder of Travel Skills Group and an ultra-frequent road warrior. McGinnis puts out two free online travel newsletters that are absolute musts for travelers frequently utilizing Atlanta’s airport or flying Delta, Airtran or premium cabins on foreign carriers (The Ticket), or those using San Francisco and/or United (Bay Area Traveler). “While overseas ATMs are convenient, many banks charge exorbitant transaction fees, so when overseas, I now make purchases with credit cards (vs. cash) as much as possible. For example, my Chase Sapphire Preferred card does not charge ‘foreign transaction fees’ of 2-3% per transaction like many other cards do. Plus, when using a credit card, you get the very competitive ‘wholesale rate’ on the exchange.” You also get a degree of protection on purchases, especially anything you have shipped home, if it arrives damaged or not at all. McGinnis raises a great point many travelers are unaware of, that most credit cards automatically impose an extra – and steep – fee just for transactions abroad. As he chooses his Chase Sapphire Preferred, I always use my Chase United Airlines-branded Presidential Plus card when overseas for the same reason – no fees.
3. Use Hotel Concierges to Make Advance Dining Reservations: I got this one years ago from fellow travel journalist, author, and award-winning broadcaster Michael Patrick Shiels, who has been everywhere from Cuba to Morocco, the UAE to Thailand, and every country in Western Europe. I’ve used Shiels’ advice several times, in France, Spain and elsewhere, and it has worked like clockwork even for hard to get reservations. This is especially useful if you area a foodie who researches where you want to eat in advance, or if you are celebrating an anniversary at a top restaurant. Even though many foreign restaurants now have websites that take bookings, lots of great ones still don’t, and if you call they often don’t speak English. Instead, just email the concierge at the hotel you are staying before you leave home, tell them when you want to eat and where and let them take care of it. Even if you can do it yourself, the concierge at a top hotel like the Four Seasons or Peninsula has more clout and is likely to get a better table and the time you want. One more thing – don’t forget to tip the concierge when you arrive. (You can see more of Shiels’ travel and golf writing here)
4. Get a Local or International SIM Card Use Skype or Similar: Another question I get a lot is about phone calls when overseas. I wrote about this here at Forbes.com at length last year. If you have an unlocked phone, great, if not buy a cheap extra cell phone, then either get a SIM card from the country you are visiting upon arrival, usually the cheapest solution and rates for a single visit. If you travel a lot to different places, you can get a discounted multi-national one like I have from Telestial.com that works in over 100 countries at rates much lower than US carriers offer travelers, with all the bells and whistles like voicemail and data. And for calling home, now that just about every hotel and lots of other places offers WiFi, there is no reason to ever pay more than the ridiculously low rates for Skype and other internet based calling, whether it is through your smart phone, tablet or laptop. I recently used Skype on my iPad to do a video conference call for the first time from Ireland, and it could not have been easier (or cheaper).
5. Use a Travel Agent for Plane Tickets (and More): Multiplying travel search engines and airline comparison sites have given the average traveler the illusion that they can beat the market. They cannot. There is no fare or routing you will find that a good travel agent cannot also get, but the opposite is far from true. Good travel agents routinely perform airfare “miracles,” and can even redeem your award miles when you can’t. And now that many airlines won’t let non-frequent customers book aisle or window seats in advance, or charge extra for them, this is another “upgrade” travel agents can offer. I just did this when flying a carrier I don’t usually use domestically and have no status on, so I had my agent assign me aisle seats on every leg. I’ve written at length here at Forbes.com about the myriad reasons why luxury travelers need to use a travel agent, from hotel room upgrades to “impossible” reservations to unique access to otherwise off limit activities. But travelers of any budget can benefit from using a quality travel agent for plane tickets – especially when something goes wrong, which it often does. If your flight is cancelled, I absolutely assure you that you will do better calling your travel agent for help than waiting on hold at the airline’s 800 number – along with everyone else.
Tune in tomorrow for Part 2, the next 5 Tips.
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