Here’s How I Prepared for International Travel — and What I Wish I’d Known

People watching the sunset at the Bunkers del Carmel in Barcelona, Spain
People watching the sunset at the Bunkers del Carmel in Barcelona, Spain. Photo courtesy of Jamie Cattanach

Entre vostre PIN, si us plau.

Those six little Catalan words cost me more than $50.

I’d just arrived in Barcelona after a two-legged, sleepless redeye, but I was prepared — or so I thought. Despite my exhaustion, I wasn’t about to dish out a fistful of crisp euros on a cab ride when I could just take the airport bus for just €5.90. After 12 hours of travel time, what was 40 extra minutes?

But although I’d long since had the chip card international travel necessitates, I’d overlooked a crucial step: setting up the personal identification number, or PIN, required at teller-less credit-card transaction points in Europe.

At my early arrival time, there was no way to purchase bus tickets aside from the automated kiosk — and that pesky PIN prompt kept flashing on the screen, no matter which card I used. It was 5 a.m. EST on a Sunday, so calling customer service was out.

Unless I was ready to take a very long walk with all my luggage in tow, I was going to have to capitulate to the pricy taxi line.

Which I did. To the tune of €50 — almost $60 in U.S. dollars.

When you think about preparing your finances for a big trip, you might assume it’s all about saving up a big enough budget.

And to be sure, you want some extra padding if you’re going to be globe-trotting — both for once-in-a-lifetime splurges and unexpected travel surprises. (Trust me, they happen. A lot.)

But aside from patiently stashing away cash, there’s some other money-related homework you need to do if you want to smoothly transition your wallet to a new part of the world.

Here’s everything I did to prepare my finances for my big European excursion — and what I wish I’d figured out before my flight.

1. Get a Chip-Enabled Credit Card with No Foreign Transaction Fees

Even if you usually rely on cash, it’s important to have multiple ways to pay when you’re far from home. But when it comes to overseas travel, you don’t just need plastic: You need the right kind of plastic.

You might already be familiar with the EMV credit-card system, otherwise known as “chip” cards. The U.S. was a little late to this particular party, but they’ve been more or less the global standard for years, so if you’re headed to a far-off, foreign destination, you need one.

But that’s not all. You don’t want to pay an extra percentage every time you swipe — or, excuse me, insert — your card, so you need to look for a credit card that doesn’t have a foreign-transaction fee.

And while you’re card-shopping, it’s a good idea to bear in mind which vendors have the widest acceptance in your destination country (most likely Visa and Mastercard). I use my Discover card almost exclusively at home, but it’s a little trickier to do so in Europe.

Penny Hoarder bonus points if you use a travel-rewards credit card to earn frequent flyer miles or other valuable perks so you can afford even more adventures. Fun fact: My flight from Florida to Spain cost me a total of $6 — no, that’s not a typo — simply because of miles I earned on my credit card.

2. Set Up (and memorize) the PIN

Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.

3. Let Your Bank(s) Know Where You’re Going.

It’s actually a pretty awesome thing that your bank and credit-card providers keep tabs on your transactions’ whereabouts. It helps protect you from identity theft.

But if they see a charge in Germany when you’re supposed to be in Oregon, you’ll likely find your transaction disapproved… and face a lengthy phone-tree journey to get your card unlocked again. (Which is double-ick if you’re on a plan that charges crazytown prices for international calls! Check out low-cost, traveler-friendly cellphone and data providers like Google Fi if you’re going to be doing this jetset thing a lot.)

Fortunately, it’s really easy to set travel advisories ahead of your trip — most banks allow you to do it online, no tinny hold music required. Just be sure to repeat the process for every card and account you plan on using!

4. Take Out Some Foreign Currency Ahead of Time

Not every frequent traveler agrees with me on this, because depending on the specifics at your bank, it can be cheaper to use an ATM at your destination.

But I was certainly glad I had that €50 note to hand my taxi driver after my PIN snafu, even though it pained me to part with it. You never know what’s going to happen, and cash is, well, cash.

Here’s an important rule: Don’t utilize foreign-currency exchange kiosks in places like airports or malls. Ever. They’re convenient, to be sure, but not worth the convenience tax you’ll pay in the form of fees and a poor exchange rate.

Your best bet is to go straight to your bank and put in a foreign-currency order. They’ll likely charge a small handling fee (at my bank, it was about $7 for €400), but it’s a better deal than you’ll get in more visible, tourist-oriented places — and it’s worth it to have some cash on hand.

If you’re taking a relatively short trip, this is also a good way to budget. Take out a certain amount in cash foreign currency and promise yourself that that’s all your restaurant or “fun” money for the trip, only using your credit card for necessities and emergencies.

5. Learn Which International Banks and Partners

If you do need to take out more cash once you arrive, you’ll want to find out which international banks your home branch partners with and use them and their ATMs exclusively. Otherwise, you’ll be assessed an extra fee for the transaction — in my bank’s case, $5. (Not a huge amount, but I’d still rather spend it on a copa de cava.)

It’s not too hard to get the information; many banks publish them online, or you could ask a branch representative.

One thing I *didn’t* realize before I left, however: Even when you use the “right” bank, you may be charged an additional percentage of the amount you take out in foreign currency.

This led to some frustrated scowling when I checked my bank statement after my first trip to the ATM. Had I known taking out cash at my destination would come with a 3% upcharge, I would have taken out even more ahead of time.

6. Choose the Currency of the Country

When you use your credit card in a foreign country, you may be asked if you’d like to pay in U.S. dollars or euros (or yen, or whatever).

This might seem like a convenience. Now you understand exactly how much you’re spending!

But it’s actually a service called dynamic currency conversion, and it comes at a cost. You don’t know it, but there’s an upcharge built into that dollar amount.

Long story short: Follow the old adage and do as the Romans do — and pay in their currency whenever you have the option.

7. Learn the Country’s Financial Customs

You don’t want to be scrambling with your smartphone at the end of a meal to figure out how much of a tip is appropriate — or if you even need to leave one at all. Same goes for taxi rides, hotel porters, housekeepers and spa services.

You should also look up whether there are scenarios in which you’ll need cash. For example, I got on a last-minute train home from a remote village in Spanish wine country and was mildly surprised when the conductor told me I couldn’t pay con mi tarjeta.

Good thing I had some extra euros stashed in my wallet… although I have to admit, Priorat wouldn’t have been the worst place to get stranded.

Buen viaje!

Jamie Cattanach (@jamiecattanach) has written for VinePair, SELF, Ms. Magazine, Roads & Kingdoms, The Write Life, Barclaycard’s Travel Blog, Santander Bank’s Prosper and Thrive and other outlets. Her writing focuses on food, wine, travel and frugality.

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