Travel Checklist: 7 Money To-Dos to Tackle Before Your Trip

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By Emma Miller

The lead-up to a much-awaited vacation can be thrilling -- from researching the best day trips to ogling a resort's online gallery of amenities. Three outdoor pools!

But to successfully leave real life behind and guarantee a carefree vacation, you need to do more than just book your hotel and check things off your packing list.

Before you hit the highway or take to the tarmac, it pays to get your money matters in order, too.

So we enlisted the help of travel pro Lee Abbamonte -- who traded a career in corporate finance and wealth management for full-time globe-trotting -- to help us craft a checklist of money to-dos that will ensure your next trip goes off without a hitch.

To-Do No. 1: Contact Your Credit Card Company

A declined credit card can deflate vacation euphoria in an instant, whether you're shopping for souvenirs in Switzerland or dining out in San Francisco.

By alerting your credit card company about your travels in advance -- even if you're just staying within the U.S. -- you can avoid wasting precious time explaining away a fraud alert. (Yes, it really was you buying all those beer steins.)

Plan to swipe your debit card overseas? Keep in mind that fees can range from 1 to 3 percent for each transaction, so contact your bank ahead of time to find out about its international rates.

Abbamonte points out that credit cards can often provide more perks when you're adventuring abroad. "Not only can you find no-foreign-transaction-fee cards," he says, "but you can earn miles and points with your purchases."

To-Do No. 2: Research Transit Options From the Airport

Weary, just-arrived tourists can be prime targets for private car and transfer companies looking to cash in. But there are plenty of alternatives that can save you the hassle of brushing off such questionable offers -- while saving you money.

"Do a little research on trains, buses, shared-ride vans and taxis," suggests Abbamonte. "Generally, taxis are the most expensive method of transportation, but that said, they also take you directly to your hotel."

His preferred way to go? Uber -- now operating in 57 countries -- or its offshoot UberPool, which enables people who request a similar route to split the ride and the cost in Paris, San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles and Austin.

To-Do No. 3: Know Your ATM Options Before Heading Overseas

"It's always cheapest to withdraw cash at an ATM when you get to your destination," Abbamonte says. "Consider changing a little bit of money at the airport on arrival, and then take advantage of the better exchange rates once you get into town."

To avoid pesky ATM fees, scope out the ATM Global Alliance, a network of banks that allow customers to use their ATMs without having to pay international access fees. One caveat: you may still be charged a transaction fee, say, 3 percent of the converted dollar amount. Abbamonte suggests checking your bank's website to find out which overseas banks they partner with and to clarify their fees.

"The general rule outside the U.S. is that tipping is not expected. In most countries, for a taxi ride or a meal, I usually just leave the small amount of extra change."

To-Do No. 4: Get the 411 on Foreign Tipping

Not everyone is as tip-happy as Americans.

"The general rule [outside the U.S.] is that tipping is not expected, but it's appreciated if a small one is given," advises Abbamonte, who, at just 36, has already visited more than 190 countries.

But he cites the U.K. and Canada as exceptions, where service providers may expect a 10 percent gratuity. "In most other countries, for a taxi ride or a meal, I usually just leave the small amount of extra change as a tip, which is customary," he says.

Resources like the GlobeTipping app offer destination-specific tips that can take the guesswork out of this sometimes-stressful topic.

And once you're in town, Abbamonte says, you can always just ask a local about tipping expectations, whether it's your hotel's concierge or someone sitting the next bar stool over. You'll look like a respectful, responsible traveler -- and you might make a friend in the process.

To-Do No. 5: Come Up With a Plan for Data Usage

You've read the horror stories: An unsuspecting traveler returns home to a five-figure cellphone bill -- the result of overseas (and excessive) usage fees.

Fortunately, it's an easily preventable scenario.

Abbamonte points the finger at confusing cellphone plans that users can't easily interpret.

"Mobile companies sell their customers X amount of megabytes, but who actually knows what a megabyte equates to?" he says. "For example, uploading one picture to Facebook might use up four megabytes. If you only paid for 10 megabytes and you upload three pictures, you've gone over."

For Abbamonte, the solution has been T-Mobile, which provides the straightforward option to sign up for unlimited international data usage. "That, along with their cheap phone call rates, has been a godsend for me, and would be for anyone who travels outside the country more than one or two times a year," he says.

If you're not a T-Mobile subscriber, call your provider to see if you can negotiate a limited-time data plan to use internationally. AT&T and Verizon Wireless, for example, offer tiered travel packages tailored to customers' different usage needs.

Or simply seek out a free Wi-Fi connection and call or message those back home via free web-based services like Whatsapp, Skype and Viber.

To-Do No. 6: Look Into Claiming VAT Refunds Overseas

A Value Added Tax, or VAT, can increase the cost of an international purchase by 15 to nearly 30 percent. The good news is that many countries allow nonresidents to claim refunds for goods bought while visiting. (Business travelers can even collect refunds on hotel-related VAT.)

Yet each year, travelers leave behind millions of dollars in unclaimed VAT money.

"The amount you get back depends on the amount you spent on goods, and if you bought from a participating retailer," Abbamonte says. "Street vendors, for example, won't give you the necessary receipts and forms."

Trips that are especially expensive, far-flung or active are good candidates for considering the purchase of a comprehensive travel insurance plan.

To claim your VAT refund, you'll be required to present your passport while shopping, obtain required forms and receipts from the vendors you visited, and submit it all to a designated agent at your departure point, such as an airport or cruise port.

VAT rates, minimum qualifying amounts, and refund requirements vary by country. But major airports' websites and government websites typically spell out everything from submission deadlines to purchases that don't qualify.

To-Do No. 7: Consider Purchasing Travel Insurance

When things go wrong on vacation -- and they often can -- the right insurance can help get you out in a pinch.

"The main reason to get travel insurance if you're leaving the country is that no medical insurance will cover you abroad," Abbamonte says. "The other reason is to protect yourself in case of a trip cancellation or interruption."

Trips that are especially expensive, far-flung or active are good candidates for considering the purchase of a comprehensive travel insurance plan, says Abbamonte, adding that they can cost as little as $80.

"And if you travel outside the country more than once or twice a year, consider getting an annual policy," he says. "Typical annual plans can range from $400 to $650 or so."

Wherever you're headed, you can compare plans at sites like InsureMyTrip and SquareMouth. Abbamonte, who travels with a comprehensive Allianz plan himself, says the relatively small expense "is well worth it for the peace of mind."
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