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How many of y’all have some big travel plans coming up? This year involves so much travel for me, I’m going to earn American Airlines Platinum status outright for 2019. That’s a lot of travel (50,000 miles at least!) My biggest trip is coming up in September, when I’m traveling to South Africa for my friends’ wedding (don’t you love when one of your friends starts dating someone awesome and they become your friend too?). So I’ve started thinking about what I’m going to pack…and in what suitcase I’m going to pack it (eyeing the Away bags, which are FAB-U-LOUS and there is a limited edition color I am loving). While clothes and toiletries are important, I want to cover a few things you may not immediately consider packing.
Last year I traveled to Paris and Norway by myself after a friend was unable to go with me last minute. This was one of my bolder life decisions, and I didn’t regret it for a minute. This was the first time I’d traveled internationally since my bar trip in 2014, and the first solo trip I’d ever taken. Suffice it to say I learned a thing or two about what you need when you’re traveling internationally, either because I did it and I WAS GLAD I DID or I didn’t do it and I WISH I HAD.
Here they are!
1. Fast Data Upgrade with your cell provider & International, Country-Specific | Cost: ~$25-100
I have Sprint, but I’ve done some research for you on the other major carriers. If you don’t have a major carrier, I didn’t look into that in much detail, so you’ll have to do a little bit of research. I haven’t left Sprint (which, btw, is DEFINITELY more than 1% worse than all the other major carriers), but this is mostly becuase I pay my parents $60/month and I’m too lazy to deal with opening my own line. In my defense, I was on a contract until earlier this year – yep, we still have the contract option grandfathered where you get a free phone if you sign a 2 year contract. No rental fees or up-front purchases required. Crazy!
Each of the 4 major carriers offers some form of international travel plan supplement.
Sprint's is surprisingly the best overall. Sprint offers FREE international phone service and “fast data” aka 3s/4s data speed in Mexico, which I learned earlier this year on my Mexico trip. That’s really nice because you don’t have to set anything up. However, if you’re traveling elsewhere, you can contact them through the website directly with where you’re going and for how long. Sprint will activate international phone service at the time of your trip, which will include at no additional charge:
- Free texting
- Calls at a pretty low rate (varies by country)
- Slow data
You can upgrade to fast data for $5/day or $25/week to Europe and $10/day, $50/week to South Africa (price varies by destination), and you can re-up this service as it runs out. So if you’re doing a 10-day trip to Europe, you will only need one week and then 3 extra days ($40) vs 2 weeks ($50). You can also skip the fast data upgrade on travel days, as you'll either be on planes or in airports with WiFi access.
This. Was. Lifesaving. You guys, fast data helps so much, especially if you’re alone. I studied abroad in Paris and know the city pretty well, but there’s nothing like having reliable, step-by-step directions when you’ve gone out alone exploring in the evening.
Don’t skimp on this, especially if you are a woman traveling alone. It was the best $40-50 I spent when I went to Europe and I’ll be doing it again when I head to South Africa/on literally every other international trip I take unless or until I just have an international phone plan.
It’s super easy to sign up and they just add it to your bill. Each carrier varies a little bit, but they all have easy-to-follow processes on their sites.
Here are the major carrier pricing tools:
All that data usage drains dat battery tho, which brings me to my first non-purchase I totally regret...
2. Portable Phone Charger | Cost: $39.99 or less
Guysssss get a portable phone charger. This thing has made my life and those of the people around me (who inevitably rely on my non-minimalism to make up for their underpacking….#noshade…ok actually, yes, shade) so much easier. It's not only great for travel, but also football games, long flights that may not have seat chargers, nights out, and the list goes on.
There are a lot of different brands and sizes, from lipstick-sized chargers that give you 5 hours of charge and cost very little to the one I bought that is about the size of a wide deck of playing cards, if such things existed, that will hold up to 5 full charges.
While the smaller ones are obviously more compact and less expensive, I knew that having a longer charge option was more important to me than the size of the charger. I don’t travel with a tiny bag and even if I did, the portable charger would have been a priority.
After doing a good bit of research, I went with the Anker PowerCore 13000 in white, but there are a TON of options. This one cost $39.99, and the black option is $35.99. It charges in a normal iPhone charging portal or will charge into a laptop. It will also charge iPads and Samsung Galaxies. The picture below shows what it comes with:
Holds up to 5 charges for an iPhone
Requires a separate lightning cable to connect to your iPhone or Samsung Galaxy
Here are a couple of other good options (all available with AmazonPrime free 2-day shipping!
$29.99 | POWERADD Pilot 4GS 20000
This is a more compact style that has a larger capacity to the Anker charger above. It's slightly smaller and thinner than the iPhone. There's also a 12000 version for $24.99 that holds 4 charges and costs $24.99 (and also offers more colors)
Holds 8 charges for an iPhone; 5 for a Galaxy; 2 for an iPad
Comes in 3 colors, including a fun "rose gold" that is really just a metallic pink
This is the liptstick-sized charger from the same brand as my larger charger. There is also a newer version that holds a longer charge, but doesn't have the gold or rose gold options.
Holds 1.2 iPhone 8 charges, 0.8 iPhone 10 & Galaxy charges
Comes in 5 colors!
I didn’t purchase a portable charger before my trip to Paris last year, and OH BOY THE REGRET. I have an older phone, and it would die basically every 5-6 hours. Fortunately I’d usually go back to my AirBnB for a nap, so I could charge, but I definitely spent a good hour in the gift shop of l’Orangerie plugging my phone into a charger under a random counter. Poor planning, peeps. There’s an easy solution. Get it.
3. Short charging cord for your portable phone charger | Cost: $5.99-8.99
These miracle-working chargers do not come with a lightning cable, which is kind of annoying, because that’s how you like, charge your phone with it. But whatever. I purchased a 4-inch lightning cable so I could compactly charge the phone and hold the charger with it while avoiding having a cord flying all over the place. After a year of the 4-inch cable, I’m going to recommend a 6-inch cable. It’s much easier to work with.
Here is the 4-inch cable I bought for $5.99:
But here's a good 6-inch option for $8.99 (and it matches the colors of the POWERADD above!)
You can get lightning cables for only a few dollars. I am also assuming you have adapters/converters if you’re going somewhere that needs them. Most of Europe now has automatic conversion capabilities and sometimes even versatile plugs but I always travel with both just in case.
4. International Health Insurance | Cost: $10-25/pp for a 10-day trip
Traditional insurance plans don’t promise coverage overseas unless it’s an “emergency,” and even then, almost everything will probably be out of network. Furthermore, a lot of people in foreign countries won’t know what to do with your insurance plan that isn’t configured for international use. After reading up on this before my Paris trip, I decided to spring for international travel insurance (SafeTrip's site linked below has several useful blog posts about why international coverage is important).
Most major insurance companies offer a form of international insurance. I used United HealthCare’s “UHC SafeTrip” – it calculates a premium based on the total length of your trip, number of passengers, the coverage you select, and your destination. They even offer “frequent traveler” coverage for people who travel internationally more than 90 days per year. You can purchase this insurance from a company that is not related to your regular insurance provider (i.e. I purchased SafeTrip but I have BlueCross BlueShield insurance).
Here are links to a couple of well-known providers (I've only used SafeTrip personally):
When I did research on companies, it was hard to find many besides SafeTrip and GeoBlue with good reviews- if yall have had good experiences with other companies, send their names my way so I can add them to the list! I tend to trust major providers I've personally used for primary insurance, which are only these two carriers, but I'm sure there are other good options.
SafeTrip vs. GeoBlue
My SafeTrip coverage for my past two trips ($500,000 coverage, $100 deductible, and $1,000,000 lifeflight evacuation) cost me $21.77 for 12 days in Paris and Norway and $12.70 for 5 days in Mexico. GeoBlue doesn't differentiate the charge based on destination that I can see when I tested the site, but it does ask for your ZIP Code and bases coverage off of your residence. So that's a major difference between the two. My quote for 11 days out of the country was $20.79 with GeoBlue. NOTE: GeoBlue is not available in New York or Maryland.
While both companies seem pretty good, they're definitely different, and I preferred SafeTrip when I did my own research. If you do choose GeoBlue, note that there are options with and without pre-existing conditions coverage.
The biggest advantages to specific international trip coverage is that (1) it will be easier for medical providers in a foreign country to process because the company has numbers to call in each location you may travel, and they offer translation and insurance/medical cost processing services, and (2) medical evacuation coverage and such back to the US (up to $1mil) – which in the event of a major catastrophe will totally be worth the $30 you spend on the policy. Bonus: SafeTrip even provides lost baggage coverage!
Here are screen shots of what coverage would be with SafeTrip for my 11-day trip to South Africa, including cost. I will chose medical coverage of $500,000, $250 deductible, and $1,000,000 medical evacuation/lifeflight coverage for $23.65:
Here is the list of features every plan includes, regardless of your overall coverage limits, deductible, or other selections:
I’ve never needed my international medical insurance, but that $35 over two trips gave me significant peace of mind. A friend once suffered a head laceration while we were surfing in Nicaragua. While the clinic gave her pretty good care, it was a scary ordeal that I wouldn’t have wanted to endure over something way more serious, particularly if you’re traveling somewhere known to demand bribes from travelers and such.
Keep a copy of this card with you in your wallet and keep a printed copy of the policy in your luggage.
5. Debit Card & Credit Card that don’t charge international fees/ATM withdrawal fees | Cost: $0; Savings: $5-25 on average
Credit Cards that Don't Charge International Fees
Guys if you don’t have a credit card that doesn’t charge international fees, what are you even doing with your life? There are so many. Get one ASAP. Some good ones include: Chase Sapphire Reserve, Chase Sapphire Preferred, CitiAAdvantage card line, American Express Platinum, American Express Delta Skymiles card line, and really almost any travel card. You really shouldn't use a debit card as a credit card when traveling internationally - the protections aren't the same. It's easy to verify with your credit card company whether it charges international fees.
Debit Cards that Don't Charge International ATM Use and/or Withdrawal Percentage Fees
A lot of debit cards will charge you a fee when you pull money from an ATM, but that’s also going to typically give you the best exchange rate. Check with your bank to see what they charge and if you have enough time for your trip, try to open an account with international ATM access, etc. It will save you at least a few dollars.
NOTE: Discover Bank cards don't work outside the US as far as I know. I learned this the hard way when I took my Discover debit card to Nicaragua a few years ago and it didn't work. Fortunately I had friends with me because I had literally no other way to access hard currency at the time.
Discover credit cards DO work outside the US where Discover/DinersCard logos are displayed, but the Bank is a separate organization and is only in the US at this time. I dug around to confirm this was still the case and I don't see anything to the contrary. All literature says "use at over 60,000 ATMs nationwide" with no reference to international use. Someone correct me if I'm wrong!
Citi has TONS of international ATMs. They don't charge CitiBank customers any fees on either the withdrawal amount or the actual ATM usage if you use one of their own ATMs. Poke around online for locations in the country where you'll be traveling. If you have CitiGold or Citi Priority checking, you get reimbursements for non-Citi ATM usage.
Chase on the other hand has no foreign ATMs and doesn’t offer reciprocal international banking privileges with its banks. Chase charges ATM fees PLUS a 3% fee for foreign ATM transactions. Pretty sucky for an otherwise great bank.
You can also pull cash from a credit card if you get a PIN number before you go (make sure it’s an no foreign transaction fees card!). This may incur similar fees, though. Just call your credit card company to make this request, and do so more than one week before your trip, as the PIN will typically arrive via US mail.
The Points Guy (AS ALWAYS) goes into a lot of detail on this, including recommending banks that charge fewer transaction fees: Avoiding ATM Withdrawal Fees When Traveling
I honestly don’t remember if my bank charged me extra for my ATM usage. I probably pulled €200-300 of cash in two ATM transactions, so it wasn’t super noticeable. But it’s always best to investigate so you aren’t hit with any surprise charges when you check your bank statement. Most people, like me, won't use a ton of cash, but if you can save a few dollars with no up-front outlay, why not?
6. Color copies of your passport | Cost: $0
This is basically free if you own a printer or work in an office with one. Always, always take a physical, color copy of your passport with you. If your passport gets lost or stolen, it is much easier for the US Embassy to process a new one if you have a copy. I usually print 2, and should really keep one in my purse/day bag but I don’t always.
I also recommend e-mailing yourself a copy as well but if you’re super concerned about security and don’t use a VPN on your computer, you can skip that or delete it later. Technology people, what are the major risks here?
Anyway, this is an easy thing you can do that will save you a LOT of heartache if your passport gets stolen (and that does happen more frequently than it might seem).
7. Prescription Nausea Medicine if you can get it AND OTC Nausea Meds | Cost: $0-20
Y’all. Mexico City was amazing, but I * definitely * had an angry stomach toward the end of the weekend. This was probably a combination of us eating a lot of strange things I wouldn’t usually eat at home (not even normal Mexican fare…wahhh), brushing my teeth with the tap water, and the altitude.
Anyway, I got a prescription for Zofran before I left (Phenergan would work too), and let me tell you, that was the best $5 I ever spent. My nausea is unpredictable, and I like having something like this in my arsenal. It’s a pretty basic medicine with low side effect risks and no dependency risks that I’m aware of, so doctors will typically prescribe it on request with no problem. If you or any of your travel companions are even remotely prone to a stomach ache, TRUST ME on this one.
If you don’t have access to a doctor who will write a prescription for you (or frankly, even if you do get a prescription) OTC alternatives like natural Dramamine, which is a different medicine than regular Dramamine and more suited to actual nausea, famotidine, which is Pepcid, and/or good ole Pepto Bismol will work as well. Pepto actually covers a multitude of symptoms and I'd bring it no matter what.
That's it! A lot of these things can be reused, so they won't be an expense each time you travel or aren't really an expense at all. Even so, the total cost for all of these things is less than $100! So to recap, put these things on your packing/travel planning list:
- International travel plan with your carrier, including fast data
- Portable charger
- Small cable for portable charger
- International Health Insurance
- Debit and credit card that doesn't charge international fees
- Color copies of your passport
- Prescription nausea medicine
What am I forgetting? Tell me what you guys MUST travel with!