We found that we had to figure out several major things as we prepared to give up our home and all of our possessions. If we are homeless…where do we have new passports sent? What about phones that work anywhere? How about something to track us if we are hiking and get lost or turned around? How are we going to get to places if we have several bags to carry? Since other countries have television programming in their local language, how do we watch TV or catch up on movies? And how long can we stay in these countries, anyway? What will we do about prescriptions if we are away from the US for a year? And if I get sick….?
Here are some things we have worked out/figured out over the past year or so. We hope it helps if you are planning extensive travel.
International Phone Plans – Google Fi or T-Mobile
Google Project Fi and T-Mobile both provide service internationally for a reasonable cost. For a couple of years we traveled with both. We found both of them to generally provide service in the countries where they say they do. Both of them worked well.
Google Project Fi currently (as of early-2018) advertises service in 170+ countries.
How do I get mail? What is my address?
We found that there are several services to deal with our mail on a long-term basis. We chose Traveling Mailbox, which allows you to choose an address in quite a few cities. When a piece of mail arrives, they scan the envelope and send it to you in an email. You can have them open it, see what it is, and have them forward it to you or shred it, if you wish. If a physical item arrives that you must have, such as a new passport, you can instruct them to mail it to you anywhere in the world. It will cost you the going rate, but you don’t have to bother friends or family with receiving your mail and forwarding it. The cost is $25 per month for 100 incoming envelope scans per month, which includes 80 page scans.
Since you are paying for each envelope scan, you want to limit the number of items that are delivered. We worked hard to remove ourselves from all junk mail and advertising so that we aren’t charged for them. If you go over your monthly limit, you are charged per piece. We have been using Traveling Mailbox for about 6 months and so far, we have been very happy with the service.
Use credit cards that don’t charge Foreign Transaction Fees and always charge your expenses in local currency
Many credit cards will charge a foreign transaction fee for charges outside the United States (or online even if you are in the US). That fee is often around 3% and is charged even if the purchase is charged in dollars. If you are asked if you want the charges in local currency or dollars, always have it charged in local currency, or the credit card company may charge a conversion fee on top of the foreign transaction fee.
American Express, Chase, Capital One and others offer cards with no foreign transaction fee. Be sure to check the terms and conditions of each card before you use it for foreign purchases.
October 25, 2019 Update
We are near the end of trip westward around the world, beginning in Southern California, passing through the Pacific, then through Asia and Europe. We would like to share our observations from that year.
We like our Hilton American Express Card a great deal. It gives us many points we can use at our favorite hotel chain. It has wide acceptance in North America, the Pacific islands, Australia, and New Zealand. It is also accepted at many places in Asia. Europe is a different story. In Eastern European countries such as Bulgaria and Serbia, it has almost no acceptance. It gets a bit better as you move west. We found slightly better acceptance in Poland and Hungary, and a little better than that in Spain. But even in those countries the refusal rate was over 50%.
Often people operating the register would say that they would take it and would then find that their system would not accept it. So to simplify and speed up checkout we mostly began using MasterCard or Visa unless it was a large charge for which we really wanted to use AMEX, or if the vendor displayed the AMEX symbol.
In any case, do not travel internationally with just an AMEX Card unless you want to pay for many things with cash. MasterCards and Visas are mostly interchangeable (with just a few exceptions) and are accepted far more widely than AMEX. So always keep one of those handy.
Another thing to keep in mind if you have an American-based credit card is that it sometimes will not work at an automated purchasing station since technically, a signature is required. At times we have tried to get gas at non-attended gas stations and were unable to use our card at all. Other times when we attempted to use our card at fast food or movie ticket kiosks, we were forced to go to an attended station to pay.
We have also found new wrinkles in the local vs. US currency issue with regard to both credit cards and ATMs. First we will tackle credit cards.
Years ago, we only found credit card machines that would ask you clearly if you want to charge in US dollars or local currency (e.g. Euros), and you would choose which you wanted. Recently we have found machines that default to US dollars. It asks if you want to charge in X amount in dollars, Yes or No. So it looks as if you say No, your charge will not go through. Since you want to pay the bill, your natural reaction is to just hit yes.
Recently, although we were aware of this wrinkle in the scam, we was caught by it. We went to a restaurant one night and the waiter came to that screen and said, “in Euros?” We automatically hit yes without reading the screen. We immediately suspected what had happened when the 40.00 Euro charge came out to $46.42. The next night at the same restaurant we also had a tab of 40.00 Euros. This time we read the screen and hit No. The next screen indicated we had been charged $44.55. The nights were a Saturday and Sunday and the Euro/USD exchange rate had not changed. Normally the difference between those two types of charges are several dollars, not less than $2. So as our favorite consumer reporter, Clark Howard, would say, we were ripped off at a discount.
Speaking of being ripped off, another scam we have found is at ATM machines. Some of them will say something like, “This ATM offers conversion to your home currency.” If you are interested in reading more about this scam, see Google Dynamic Currency Conversion (DCC). In short, don’t do it. We have tracked what the cost would have been had we taken their “offer” and what we actually paid and in each case we would have paid more than $5 extra. For nothing. With all of these examples, making a mistake or being “caught” once, for a few dollars, isn’t a big deal when you travel. Since we travel 365 days per year, repeat instances of this can add up rather quickly.
Hotel Rewards Programs
Most major hotel chains offer rewards programs. You can do an online search and find many opinions about what the best one is, which gives you “the most bang for your buck,” and which gives you the most points per dollar. We belong to Hilton, Marriott, Starwood, Hyatt, IHG, and Club Carlson. In the past, we also used Hotels.com, which in effect gives you 10 percent off all rooms, as you get a free night for every 10 you stay. However, if you are booking any of the major chains, you must do so on their website in order to get points.
We prefer the Hilton Honors program over all others. We have attained a Diamond status with Hilton for the past three years. Hilton is very generous with its points, often giving Honors members bonus points for stays. The Hilton credit card gives extra points for different categories, depending on the card. And, of course, the more you stay at one brand, the more points that build up. We have received, and redeemed, millions of points by now, saving us many thousands of dollars per year. This year, we estimate our rewards are saving us between $10,000-20,000.
Last summer, we were in Ireland and the UK for 104 nights. We stayed at Hilton hotels whenever we could. Our overall record is startling: out of 104 nights, 60 were FREE on points. Another 20 were booked with points + cash (when you have some points to use, but not enough for a whole night), and the cash total for those nights was $39 per stay, per night. We only paid full price outright for 24 nights. Hilton’s most ubiquitous properties include Hilton, Doubletree, Embassy Suites, and Hampton Inn. As Diamond members, we receive free breakfast every morning, regardless of whether or not breakfast is usually included. We are entitled to a free upgrade if any are available; in the UK, we were upgraded to suites about half the time! Most of the time, checking in, we are given a gift as a thank you for being a Diamond member – snacks, water, soft drinks, cookies. And we have access to the Executive Lounge, if the hotel has one (usually only Hiltons and Doubletrees). In the Executive Lounge, soft drinks, coffee, tea, water, and snacks are available all day. In most, there is an evening reception that includes beer, wine, and hot hors d’oeuvres at a minimum. In one Executive Lounge last year, there was always a soup, entree, salad, cheese and crackers, fruit, and dessert. It is an exceptional value for being loyal to Hilton. In addition, we always know we will have a clean and beautiful room, a fitness center, pool, etc.
One of the best things we have discovered as we book on Hilton, and what we do with any hotel brand, is to NEVER book a room that is nonrefundable, even though the price will be anywhere from $5 to $25 cheaper per night if you do so. The reason? As the time of your reservation gets closer, and rooms haven’t sold as robustly as the hotel would like, hotels start to lower their prices, lower even than that $5-25. So, 3 months out, a room can be changeable and refundable at, say, $150. A non-changeable, non-refundable room might be priced at $132. Who wouldn’t want an extra $18? But you are stuck with $132 no matter what. They will NOT let you change or cancel that reservation! Fast forward to 1 month prior to your stay. Rooms haven’t been moving well in this hotel. Now, a refundable room is $120. But you paid more. If you had booked at $150, you can simply make the new reservation at the lower rate and cancel the one for $150. Easy and perfectly legitimate. Just be sure to watch your dates! For some rooms, depending on the location and the brand, you cannot cancel if it is 2-7 days before your stay. So be aware of that. Yes, this takes a little managing, a little time to see what the rate is today (and sometimes it is higher), but judiciously checking and rebooking saves us around $350-500 per month. We don’t rebook if it will only save $5-10, but anything more than that is….dinner!
Inexpensive Cruises for Transportation rather than Airlines
Cruises can be very expensive or very cost-effective. We have been on cruises just to cruise and see new places, but we have also used cruises as transportation. If you want to go to Europe and you have the time, Repositioning Cruises to the Mediterranean can be as cheap as $40 per night per person. We even saw one for $17 per night, from Costa Rica to Barcelona! Considering that modest hotels normally cost anywhere from $100-200, this is quite a savings. For $80 a night per couple, you are getting a cabin, transportation, food all day long, and entertainment throughout the day (movies, classes, lectures, trivia, gambling, games, and shows). Quite a deal. Some higher-end cruises are all-inclusive, meaning that alcohol (or at least beer and wine) is free. But of that isn’t so important to you, average-cost cruise lines provide coffee, tea, lemonade, iced tea, and water for free. You can live quite well on a cruise ship if you don’t require lots of amenities.
We look at a website called vacationstogo.com for what cruises are available, often at least 2 years into the future. We don’t book there; we use a local travel agent who receives a commission from the cruise line but charges us nothing. To join, you just need to sign up at vacationstogo with an email address.
We travel with just a backpack filled with a few essentials. The shoes on our feet are the only shoes we take. (Shoes take up more room than almost anything else you pack.) You can always supplement your clothing or toiletries when you arrive at your destination. We always remember arriving by train in Budapest, where we had to change trains. We arrived in Track 6, and our next train was on Track 1 and leaving in 3 minutes. There are no elevators or escalators, of course. We put on our backpacks, raced down the stairs, through the corridor, and up the stairs to Track 1. We made it with 10 seconds to spare. Others on our train who had huge suitcases with wheels never made it. We pulled out as they were clunking their suitcases down the first set of stairs. It reinforced for us how advantageous it was to carry our luggage on our backs.
We only take two pairs of pants, 3-4 shirts, and a few pair of underwear/socks/bras. We wash out our socks and underwear in the hotel sink every night and hang them to dry. If your clothing is plain and simple, nobody notices if you wear the same items three times in a week. And even if they did….nobody cares. Please yourself. We also take no “dressy” clothing or shoes, no heels, ties, suit coats, or pantyhose. We always pack to be comfortable. This does mean that we won’t eat in the “finest” restaurants, nor will we be admitted into the top casinos in Monte Carlo. But with the help of other travelers on Yelp and TripAdvisor, we also rarely have a bad meal. We eat in casual restaurants that don’t have dress codes. We can always find salads and interesting local dishes.
Since it is hard to always find the supplements we take in foreign countries, we take them with us. Usually, supplements and our prescriptions are the single heaviest and biggest item we carry. We remember one travel expert saying, “Nobody has ever returned from a trip saying, ‘I should have packed MORE!'”
Many years ago, we both started traveling with just a small over-the-neck pack, or wallet, that we placed under our shirts and then tucked into our pants. It is very effective for keeping your valuables safe and out of sight, foiling pickpockets. Pickpockets are always looking for travelers who look a little clueless and carry a purse, or have a bulging wallet in unzippered pockets. So…guess what? With all of our downsizing, and subsequent freedom, we both realized that an under-the-shirt pack is just too much. We have “graduated” to buying zippered travel pants and carrying our valuables in our pockets. It does feel weird, for Jan, to have no sort of purse, just to walk free. But her pockets hold folding glasses, lipstick, ID, and a credit card….all that is needed to get by when just walking around. For Mike, getting rid of the bulging pack under shirts is a relief. The less we have, the less we want. Freedom comes with simplicity.
We were at a concert the other night, and the woman in front of me needed to refresh her lipstick. Rather than pulling out a compact or mirror, she pulled up her phone’s camera, put it on the Selfie setting, and looked at her face to apply lipstick. Genius! Another item out of Jan’s pocket!
Garmin GPS Locator
We purchased a Garmin inReach Explorer+, which is a handheld GPS locator with topo maps and two-way communication. The internal GPS receiver provides location and tracking data within 15 feet. The unit is small and looks like an old cell phone. But it is rugged and water-resistant, with a rechargeable lithium battery that will last up to 100 hours in tracking mode.
It cost about $400, but after watching many survival shows, and movies like 127 Hours (where James Franco cuts off his arm to free himself after a fall while hiking alone), we wanted the security of being able to be rescued should we ever need it. We purchased a contract with this device for $25 per month so that we can use its SOS button in case of an emergency. When deployed, local authorities with rescue responsibility for a particular country or area will determine where you are and will send emergency vehicles and personnel to extract you. We hope we will never need to use it, but it does give us some peace of mind.
The policies on visas for various countries are readily available online with a simple search. Most countries will allow Americans to visit for 3 months before you must leave for 3 months to “reset” the clock and return. The exceptions are Canada, UK, and some South American countries, where you can stay for 6 months before needing to leave. In Chile, you need leave for just one day (to a neighboring country) to reset the clock, and you can stay another 3 months. In Peru, there is an open door policy; you can stay for 183 days without a visa.
In Europe, be careful. Countries that have signed the Schengen Agreement as to travel reciprocity between them (which means that you can cross borders without showing a passport) makes it pleasant to travel freely. But, it also means that these 26 countries are considered as a single entity, and you can only stay for 3 months in all of them combined.
Health Insurance and Prescriptions
In general, your health insurance will likely reimburse you if you have a medical incident in another country, but cannot be used for routine checkups or blood tests. You may have to pay for them out of pocket, but the good news is that medical appointments cost less in other countries than in the US.
If your doctor wants you to have blood tests while you are in the US, an excellent and inexpensive site is Walkinlab.com. Once you order and pay for a test, the site sends you a doctor’s order to take to a blood lab. Usually, you receive the results the next day. You can then hit a link to send it to your physician.
For prescriptions, pharmacies can only give you the quantity prescribed, even if you are paying out of pocket. For example, if the prescription is written for a 3-month supply with three refills, a pharmacy can only give you 3 months at a time. And generally, a healthcare plan will not pay for more than 3 months at a time. So, the solution is fairly inexpensive if your medications are generic and you pay out of pocket. If your doctor is on board with your travels, s/he can write you a prescription for 365 pills. Take it to Costco or a similar big-box store with a pharmacy. Our prescriptions – for one year – ranged from $32 to $101. The $32 prescription was one that my healthcare plan charged me a $15 copay for, 4 times per year. In other words, on that one prescription, my plan MADE $28 on me, and probably more, as they don’t pay the same prices that ordinary people do.
For dental work, our dentists were as supportive as our primary physicians. They supplied us with digital copies of our x-rays so that we don’t have to have another set taken in an emergency. We can get routine cleanings done wherever we are in the world, and have our x-rays if required.
Learn to Live Online
One of the things that you need to learn is how to live paperless. We completed our income taxes for the first time while traveling without using a single piece of paper.
Last year (2018) we sold our house, made dozens of stock and other investment trades and rolled over some accounts to different brokerage firms. As we generated paperwork, mostly with regard to the home sale, we photographed the pages, which were uploaded to multiple sites for backup, then we destroyed the originals. We made notes about them on Google Docs and recorded the numbers on spreadsheets kept on Google Sheets. All of which are also saved online, of course.
As we started receiving tax statements at the beginning of this year we recorded the numbers on our spreadsheets and made notes on where we could find them. None of them arrived as paper to us. Some were sent to our Traveling Mailbox, where we had them shred the originals and just left the scanned copies online. Some were available online at the account that generated them. We were missing one 1099, as the brokerage company was taken over by another. We had rolled over that account to yet a third brokerage, so somehow we were never sent the statement by the second firm. We called them and they were gracious enough to give us temporary access to our closed account and download the 1099.
We did our taxes online using TurboTax, which was able to download much of our information from our accounts directly into our online 1040. Between that, the forms we accessed online ourselves from some accounts, images of forms on Traveling Mailbox, and photos we had previously taken and uploaded, we were able to complete our federal and state taxes without using a single piece of paper that we would have had to carry with us.
We owed some money to both the U.S. Government and the State of California. We paid the federal taxes with a credit card (for which they charged a small fee, of course). Fortunately, though, they take AMEX, for which we get hotel points. California isn’t that advanced, so we had to have our checking account debited for that amount, all of which was also done paperless and online. And, we completed last year’s taxes and filed them from Malaysia!…that is how flexible working online is from anywhere in the world.
Every once in a while we need to generate hard copies of forms for some purpose or another, which we have to scan, fax, or mail, but those occasions are few and far between. When we do we usually destroy the originals and travel as paperless as possible. It takes a little work, but it can be done and it is worth it to keep traveling as light as possible.
Outside of taxes and forms, we also do all of our banking online, on iPads. We make all of our hotel and airline reservations on iPads and watch movies and television online only. The vast majority of our communication with others is done either on email or through texting…rarely through phone calls. Most of our world news comes to us online, as we rarely use or look at the televisions in our hotels or ship cabins (they are great for leaving on all day, getting warm, and used as a “dryer” for socks!). We have newspaper apps and magazine apps installed; we download and read online books. Anything to reduce the load we carry in our small backpacks as we travel the world.
Use Ride-Sharing Services
Many taxi drivers are honest, forthright, and hard-working individuals, and some day we will come across one of them.
We are just kidding, but trying to make a point. We have had many problems with taxi drivers in many countries, but we haven’t yet had a problem with ride-sharing services. We have had trouble getting taxi drivers to use the meter (refer to our Day 560 blog entry), overcharging, refusing to return change, or begging for tips.
Different ride-sharing services are available in different countries. Some countries (or local jurisdictions) don’t allow the services at all or put constraints on them. In the United States and Europe we have used Uber extensively, and in many Asian countries we have used Grab, which is based in Singapore.
Both services allow you to register a credit card and both have their own app. By using their app you can call a car to your location and put in the destination. They tell you upfront how much it is going to cost you and provide you with a description of the car and driver who will be picking you up, including the license plate number.
A few minutes later the car will pull up and you jump in. Often the drivers speak little or no English (or whatever other language you might speak), but that has never been an impediment to us. You know who they are, they know who you are, and they know where you want to go. When you arrive you just get out and walk away, with money not even being discussed. Usually right after that a message will pop up on the app asking if you want to rate the driver and leave a comment or compliment (and in some countries if you want to leave a tip). You don’t have to do either if you don’t want. You will never hear from that driver again, except in the unlikely circumstance that you end up with the same driver on two different rides. So don’t worry about leaving a tip unless you really want to.
We have never given a driver less than a 5 out of 5 rating and even in non-tipping societies we usually tip a little if given the opportunity. We do so because, although the cost of a ride-sharing service is usually lower than a taxi, that is not our primary reason for using them. The more important reasons are that there is a lower chance of any potential hassle than a taxi and an infinitely smaller chance of being taken advantage of. So by tipping, we want to support and encourage the service to continue.
As mentioned, because of the undue influence of taxi unions on politicians, some ride- sharing services can’t pick you up at certain places. In Cambodia we had to walk out of the airport to meet out Grab tuk tuk (essentially a motorcycle with a car body and enclosed back seat). Refer to blog entry Day 522.
In Bali we had to walk up to the third floor of the parking structure at the airport to meet our Grab taxi as he wasn’t technically supposed to make pickups at the airport. By the way, while we were trying to make the connection with that driver we had several taxi drivers aggressively harassing us to use them and saying that they would match Grab’s price. Yet another thing we hate about taxis. We later read online that people who changed from Grab to a taxi, supposedly for the same price, were told halfway to their destination that the quoted price was for one person only; everyone else in the cab had to pay the same amount!
Even if you are at a place where ride-sharing pickups are allowed, one major tip we can suggest is to find a specific business where you can locate yourself. If you are at large bus station, for instance, you may have a hard time finding each other, as there are often multiple entrances and exits. And when “where you are” is in Japanese or Thai script, you really can’t do much. It is probably best to walk across the street and give your location as a named restaurant, clothing store, hotel, etc., and wait there. Once you make the connection you are on your way to your destination.