Managing a cell phone abroad

Depending on how much you are paying a month, it might make sense to ditch your cell phone plan back in the US and use pre-paid SIM cards while aborad.  Still want to hang on to your old phone number? It’s easier and quicker than you think and can save you some cash on a long trip.

Option 1: Keeping your existing US based cell phone plan

1. Upgrade to an international plan – Most of the carriers will offer an international phone plan that will allow you to receive calls, text messages and surf the web with your current cell phone setup. The drawback, however, is it can be fairly expensive – something like $10 a day – while traveling. This is most suited for shorter trips abroad.

2. Put your account on hold – If you are leaving the country for an extended period of time, many of the cell phone carriers will allow you to put your account for a small fee. For example, AT&T charges $10/month for this service. You will still be paying some a little money monthly, but this will save you from paying the entire bill while you are away. (For me this would approximately $55 a month that I would have to pay for services I don’t use). And once you are abroad, you can use local SIM cards for calling and data services, so long as your cell phone is GSM and unlocked. This option is best suited for people that would be abroad for just a month or two who wish to keep their current cell phone plan.

Option 2: Ditch your phone plan, while keep your existing phone number (optional)
If you are planning to travel for an extended period of time, you can still keep your existing phone number by moving it to Google Voice. (This is available only to mobile phone numbers in the United States). Google Voice allows  you  to make and receive calls via your old number via the Google Voice application on your phone or via a web browser. You will still receive SMS and voicemails through Google Voice as well, and can even have your voicemails automatically transcribed to e-mails. Once you are back to the US, you can have Google Voice forward phone calls to your new US based phone number and users will not know the difference.

For myself personally, I moved my number to Google Voice and plan to have been using local SIM cards as I am traveling. Here are the steps I took to accomplish this:

1. Get your phone unlocked – Check that your cell phone is unlocked, you can try it yourself by inserting a SIM card from another cell phone provider. If in doubt, give you carrier a call and check their policy for unlocking your cell phone. As for AT&T there is a simple unlock website to submit your request. AT&T Unlock

2. Move your number to Google Voice (US numbers only)- If you do not have an account already, sign up for Google Voice. Once that is setup, follow the directions on below for porting your phone number. The entire process was painless and took about 2 days to complete.  Afterward your account will automatically be closed with the carrier, I was instantly locked out of my AT&T online account the next day. Howtogeek – Port your number to Google Voice.

3. Finding the best deals on local SIM cards – There are many websites dedicated to pre paid SIM cards while abroad, but I have found this one to be particularly helpful. Prepaid SIM card Wiki

Some notes from my experience:

  • What’s App – If you already have this phone number via What’s App, there will be no changes to how you use What’s App.
  • iMessage (Apple) – iMessage will cease to work via your existing phone number. However, you can still use iMessage with all of your friends, just ensure that you have an e-mail address associated with iMessage and have your friends add that to their contact list.

Accessing money while abroad

The two most useful cards I have in my wallet at all times, the Chase Sapphire Reserve & Charles Schwab checking card

As resident of the United States, accessing cash while abroad in Europe does not need to be tricky.  Instead of bringing a lot of cash and finding a place to exchange it, I have taken the approach of only using one credit card and one debit card for my travels. These are the two of my most useful cards while traveling abroad, whether for two days or six months:

My travel Credit Card
Chase Sapphire Reserve
Why: $0 in foreign transaction fees, travelers insurance, lost/delayed baggage insurance, included car rental insurance, lounge access, global entry & pre TSA reimbursement. You will get 50,000 points for signing up which is almost a round trip flight to Europe from the US! (At the time when I signed up, I received 80,000 points)

This card has a lot of travel benefits that are included as a card holder:

  • 3 points for each dollar spent on travel & dining (restaurants, bar, airline tickets, train, etc.)
  • Access to a number of Airport lounges (Priority Pass)
  • No international fees
  • Delayed trip insurance – Provides reimbursement for expenses such as meals and lodging if your common carrier (airline, bus, cruise ship, train) travel is delayed more than 12 hours or requires an overnight stay
  • Delayed baggage insurance – If your bag is delayed while traveling (train, airplane, etc) you are reimbursed $100/day to buy clothing
  • Car rental insurance – Included anytime you rent a car with this credit card
  • Global entry & TSA Pre reimbursement ($100 value) – This means you can skip the lines at the airport
  • $300 in travel credits a year – There is a $450 annual membership fee, but if you have at least $300 in travel expenses, this will be reimbursed during your billing statement each year.

This card is particularly useful in turning your everyday spending into some serious points to be used with travel. Often times I would go to dinner with friends and they would like me pay the bill on my credit card so i could get the points. (They paid me back, of course).

Stories from the road:
○ My baggage was lost for 3 days while traveling from France to Norway, which allowed for me to spend $100/day maximum on clothing through the lost baggage insurance. Hence my new trench coat in the video below. They also they will reimburse for a 1 cell phone charger, which I learned about while on the phone with a Chase representative.

Approx. $127 USD that was reimbursed to my credit card for the baggage delay.

It was the first new piece of clothing I had purchased in over 6 months, and best of all, it was free!

○ While in Romania, I lost my credit card and was sent a replacement one in about 3 days or so. Chase is really responsive if you let them know it needs to be expedited.
○ It’s easy to drop into a lounge at the 100’s of lounges included in the Priority Pass (lounge access) You can check out a list on their website.

If you would like to apply for the Chase Sapphire Reserve, I would ask that you please do so with my referral link. Apply for the Chase Sapphire Reserve

My Travel Bank Account
Charles Schwab Checking account
Why: While traveling it’s much more convenient to pull money out of an ATM, with an added bonus of a good exchange rate from the local Banks. The best part of the card is that it will reimburse you for any ATM fees incurred. For instance, if the ATM charges a fee of $3EUR to withdraw cash, Charles Schwab will reimburse you at the end of the month.

Charles Schwab automatically credited my account $6 USD for all of my ATM fees during the month of March 2018

Tip: When choosing an ATM, rates will vary but by a small percentage. Try and go to the bigger chain banks and not a tiny 3rd party ATM)

Stories from the road:
○ Able to use this in every country so far without issues. And the ATM fee reimbursement has been great, I see a credit at the end of each month (Although I haven’t run into too many ATM’s that charge a fee)

Other tips for Credit & bank cards:
– I keep a backup credit card and debit card just in case your primary one gets lost. Depending on the country, you could get the card in as little as 2 days or 2 weeks!
– Before leaving the country, be sure to give your Bank and call and let them know your dates of travel for their fraud alert.
– Check with each of your Banks about withdrawal fees, for instance, Chase charges a fee of $5 each time you use your card abroad. So if you’re in a bind, make sure you take out a larger sum of money instead of going multiple times for smaller amounts.

Budgeting & expense tracking:

Tripcoin – iOS only (for now)
For those of you who are obsessed with metrics and being able to analyze your spending, I have been using the app TripCoin religiously for the past 7 months. The concept is simple, you enter in your daily expenses and it will provide you cool graphs of how much you have spent daily against your budget and how much you’ve spent by country.

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Travel hacks for Americans traveling Europe

Traveling Europe for an extended period of time was a huge dream of mine and happy to have to chance to finally do it. After nearly 7 months of traveling through Europe, here’s a collection of tips I’ve collected, mostly by making mistakes and learning from other travelers. Since I am from the United States, a lot of my tips will be very specific for citizens of the USA:

If you enjoy this, please consider using my link for my favorite travel credit card, the Chase Sapphire Reserve.

Thanks and regards from Copenhagen, Denmark!

– Michael