Six International Travel Hacks for Professionals

Damon Gonzalez Budgeting, Lifestyle

damon-at-stonehengeI love experiencing new things.  If I see something on a menu that I have never heard of, you can bet that I am ordering that dish.  When it comes to new experiences, there is nothing like landing in a foreign country and taking in an entirely new culture.  The combination of cell phones and cloud computing have made it where many people can work virtually from abroad.  Here are some of the hacks that have worked for me.

The Right Cell Phone Provider

Let’s face it, life without your cell phone would be hard to imagine.  This survey found that one third of Americans would rather give up sex than their mobile phones!  With hotel apps like Hotel Tonight and transportation apps like Uber, traveling with your mobile phone has gone from a nice to have to a need to have.

It can make sense to buy a foreign SIM card for extended travel if you have an unlocked phone, but I have never wanted to deal with that complexity.  I also dislike paying $30 to $60 for an international cell phone plan with barely any data and expensive international calls.  Fortunately Americans who want to travel abroad have two good choices: T-Mobile and Google’s Project Fi.  T-Mobile offers unlimited international data and texting for its Simple Choice and ONE unlimited plans in 140+ countries.  Their plan is a great deal for someone who uses a lot of data and doesn’t want to worry about overages.

I have the Nexus 5X phone that I bought through Google’s Project Fi for only $200.  I like this plan because it is $20 per month for all you can call and text in the U.S. and $10 per month per Gigabyte of data that you use.  When I am home, I am almost always using WIFI, and use about one GB of data per month.  I love not having to worry about data usage while traveling in another country.  I also recommend downloading the Google Translate App.  It gets better and better and you can download your preferred language over WIFI and save it to your phone.  Lastly, make sure to pack a portable phone charger like this one because having access to ride services and Google Maps is essential when traveling.

Computingasus

Typing long emails and reading long attachments on a small phone screen is a whip.  It is also stressful and sometimes heavy to carry around
your expensive laptop.  A lot of people can do most of their work using a light Chromebook.  I like to travel with my ASUS C200MA Chromebook.  I bought it on sale for only $165, and it has virtually nothing stored on the hard drive.  It frees up a lot of emotional energy to not worry much about your laptop being stolen while traveling.  Chromebooks aren’t the fastest computers, but they get the job done and are super light and have a really long battery life.  Since you can buy one for cheaper than a cell phone, it is worth testing out for your next international trip.

VPN

Even if a professional is on vacation, they are going to need to do some work that often involves sensitive data.  It is extremely easy to grab internet traffic over a public WIFI and you should assume that every free WIFI at the coffee shop or hotel has a hacker waiting to prey on you.  For just $50 per year or a less than $10 for one month you can get access to a virtual private network provider like Hotspot Shield or TunnelBear.  VPNs encrypt your data over a secured tunnel through their servers making it much more difficult for a hacker to see what you are doing over the internet.  Most VPNs have an app that will also encrypt data over your phone.  If you don’t have a VPN and need privacy, you are better off using your cell phone’s data than a public WIFI.  Although many VPNs offer a free version, I suggest paying for the service because the free versions often throttle your connection.

Credit Card Points

I have seen several articles in the past few years that make it seem as if you can travel all over the world for free if you just get the right credit card(s).  I like free and I like travel, so I decided to do some research.  I am by no means an expert, but it appears that many of the promises are inflated.  After spending more time than I care to admit on this topic, it appears that the best strategy for earning points is to have one main credit card that you keep and signing up for as many credit cards as you can with big sign up bonuses and ruthlessly cancelling them each year after you have fulfilled their spending requirements and taken their bonus.

You can often get enough points for a free roundtrip ticket in the US just by spending $3,000 to $5,000 in the first three months on a credit card.  These sign up bonuses are valuable, but the ongoing points you get from normal spending usually amount to 1% to 2% cash back minus your card’s annual fee (if it has one).  Let’s take the heavily advertised Capital Venture card as an example.  It has an attractive sign up bonus of 40,000 bonus miles and earns you two points per transaction.  If you spend $10,000 in the second year on the card, that equates to earning $141 ($200 minus the $59 annual card fee).  While certainly better than nothing, it is hard to see how normal spending will get you free trips all over the world.

Professionals looking to explore the world should be aware that most airlines charge a lot more for two one way tickets than for a roundtrip.  They do this because they assume that people buying one way tickets are business travelers and the business will pay whatever it costs.  I have seen one-way tickets cost 15% to over 100% more than a round trip tickets.   Miles with your preferred airline can be a lot more valuable than use-anywhere points when you want to fly home from another country after your international trip.  For this reason, I continue to use the Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select Card to get as many American Airline miles as possible.  It offers a fair amount of miles for the money I spend and has a couple of nice perks that benefit me since I usually fly out of its main hub in Dallas/Fort Worth.

My current position on sign up bonuses is that they aren’t worth the time it takes to research and keep track of them.  Most of these cards offer you $400 or less for a sign up bonus and if you value your time at $100 per hour or more, you are losing money.

Global Entry

Returning home from an international trip can be a breeze or a nightmare.  I once flew back into the DFW airport and the check-in machine was on the fritz and was giving about one third of us an X which meant we needed to go through a second line to speak to a Customs officer.  Unfortunately, there was literally only one person working that shift and I stood in a brutal hour-and-a-half line trying to read my Kindle next to some really loud travelers.

To avoid an experience like this, I recommend signing up for a program called Global Entry.  You pay a non-refundable fee of $100 online and then in 2-3 months you will have an in-person 20 minute interview at the airport.  If they determine you to be a low risk, you will get to reenter the United States in a special line, and you are automatically enrolled in the T.S.A. PreCheck Program.  This program is for domestic travel and in over 100 U.S. airports.  It allows you to go through a faster line and the dignity of keeping your shoes on and not having to remove your laptop.  The T.S.A. PreCheck Program is $85 every five years by itself, so I think you are way better off paying the extra $15 and being part of both programs.

Some credit cards pay your Global Entry $100 fee every five years.  Make sure the people you are traveling with are also part of these programs or it will not save you any time because you will have to wait on them.  The time you save and the special treatment make this worth your money even if you only do a few trips every year.

CamelBak

camelbakMy last hack took me years to learn.  When exploring a strange and new city you are often walking a lot more than you normally do and there aren’t always water fountains or convenience stores where you need them.  In some countries (like Italy) restaurants refuse to let you order the free tap water.  I have found that packing a CamelBak Hydration Pack on international trips really comes in handy.  It is nice to have the small pockets to carry things and I love having my hands free of carrying water bottles.

I hope these hacks come in handy for you.  As the internet makes the world smaller, more and more people will be able to work remotely and enjoy the tremendous benefits of international travel.

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