Being in a strange place can be invigorating and eye-opening. Regardless of what type of trip you’re on, there are several steps you can take to ease an overseas journey. Here are some of my favorite international travel tips:
Preparation. It is easiest to make a check list of all the necessities that you would want. Famous brands of shampoo/conditioner (CLEAR, PANTEN, and others) are available. Avoid packing unnecessary and expensive travel items. Toothpaste, mouth wash, shampoo, soaps, disposable razors and much more are generally available cheaper than what you can buy them in your home country. They are easy to locate and purchase. Don’t make the mistake of packing too much and having to carry it around. Do bring ear plugs and/or a sleeping mask. Only bring 1-2 interchangeable nicer outfits as most of your time you will be walking and enjoying the sites. You should pack comfortable shoes and comfortable clothing to enjoy the sites with. Egypt relies heavily on tourism, but dressing in more modest clothing (t-shirts/pants vs short shorts and tank tops) will create a better environment with the locals here. There is a large Christian population who wear these types of clothing. It is not required, but is helpful if you respect the local customs. Be aware that some places will require you to take off your shoes and/or cover your hair (if you’re a woman) out of respect for the religious place you are entering. Personally I pack a smaller bag with what I will need, and then put it inside a larger bag. This allows me space to bring home those souvenirs and other memento’s I wish to purchase.
Hotel business cards. The first thing I do when arriving at a hotel overseas is take a business card from the front desk. That way, if I ever get lost, I have the name and address of the hotel in the local language. Large populations around the world speak English, but having something in a local language that I can show locals and taxi drivers is an extra bit of insurance. Many of the Taxi drivers here have limited English. It is easy to get turned around in the confusing streets throughout Egypt. Make sure to have a phone number and/or address of your hotel to assist in getting back.
The six-month passport rule. The expiration date on your passport is actually a bit deceiving. The U.S. lets you use your passport up to the date inside the cover. However, several countries will deny travelers entry if the passport expires in less than six months. Why? If for some unexpected reason you get stuck overseas longer than planned, that country wants to ensure that you have a valid passport to eventually travel back to the United States. To avoid any problems, I always renew my passport during a downtime in travel, about nine months prior to the expiration date.
Also make a copy of your passport to leave at home with a family member or friend in case of lost passport. Having your passport number will be helpful when you visit the embassy to solve the issue. Check with the Embassy if you are able to purchase an entry visa into Egypt at the airport, or if you’re required to apply through the embassy in advance. This can save you a lot of time, trouble, and/or money.
Getting cash. The way to get cash is usually an ATM, but many U.S. banks charge steep fees for using an ATM that is out of network. You can take out a large amount of cash at the airport ATM so you pay that fee only once, but it’s never advisable to carry large sums of cash. Plus, you risk having too much local currency left over at the end of your trip. Charles Schwab and Fidelity both offer checking accounts that have no minimum balance requirements and reimburse you for all ATM fees, including those from overseas. Research the currency exchange rates. Banks usually use a flat rate in Egypt to exchange currency and sometimes you can find a better deal at a currency exchange market on the street. Be aware of what they are giving you. Most places have an electronic display showing the currency rate to be exchanged.
Credit cards. The best exchange rates are often found using your credit card. However, many credit cards will tack on a foreign transaction fee, sometimes as high as 3 percent. It’s a pointless fee that no traveler should ever pay. The Chase Sapphire Preferred card and Platinum American Express are two of the cards that don’t levy this fee. Also, never have a hotel or restaurant convert a charge into dollars first. It’s a bad deal. Be aware that there are not a lot of places in Egypt that accept credit cards at this time. Most international hotels and international food chains do.
Fraud alerts. Notify your credit card company’s fraud department of what countries you will be visiting and on what dates. This way, they won’t think your card is stolen and shut it off just when you need it the most. Be mindful of any countries you might be changing planes in; you might need to make a charge during your layover, especially if there’s a delay.
Credit card chips. U.S. credit cards rely on magnetic strips on the back that are swiped at vendors. In Europe, cards have a chip embedded in them which—when paired with a PIN—are used for purchases. At this time Egypt still uses the magnetic strips on cards with your PIN at ATM’s. Finding places to use credit cards in Egypt can be difficult. It is necessary to carry cash here.
Medicine. I always carry an eye mask and earplugs in my medicine bag because you never know what your hotel room is going to be like. But I also carry Advil, NyQuil, Imodium A-D, Tums, and a handful of other key medications. Also make sure you bring enough of your prescriptions in the original bottle they came in so there is no issue of “illegal drug smuggling”. Most prescriptions are purchasable in Egypt without seeing a doctor and are fairly cheap compared to the Western countries. Most pharmacists speak at least some English, and there is not a shortage of pharmacies in Egypt.
Travel alerts. It’s a good idea to check the State Department’s travel warnings and alerts. It’s also smart to print out the address and contact information of the local embassy.
Foreign airline sites. If you are on a tight budget—and don’t have to book through your company’s travel department—look at overseas airlines’ sites in their home countries. I recently booked a ticket from southern Italy to northern Italy on Alitalia. The airline’s U.S. site wanted twice the price of the Italian site. I’m not fluent in Italian, but Google Chrome translated every page for me. I paid in euros, using a credit card with no foreign transaction fees.
Data roaming. Set up your cell phone to avoid international data roaming. Many business travelers have an international calling and data plan. But infrequent travelers don’t. The biggest costs can come from transmitting data overseas. I was in a remote part of southern San Diego last summer, and my cell phone provider sent me a text alert welcoming me to Mexico. Apparently, I had jumped onto a cell tower in Tijuana. I immediately shut off my data roaming, turning it back on only once I was out of that area.
Google Maps. I have a great sense of direction and rarely need a map. I know others aren’t as lucky, though, and have come to rely on their cell phones to get around. If you don’t add a data plan to your phone while abroad, you can still jury-rig a crude version. Using the Wi-Fi in your hotel, plot out a few routes you plan to walk that day. Then take a screenshot of those maps. You can later find the photo, zoom in, and follow the path. It’s not ideal, but it’s a work-around. Make note of large businesses (not banks as there are many many branches) near the place you are leaving from. If you get lost it will be easier to say the names of those businesses than try to say a hotel name (unless it is a huge international hotel) or street name.
Transportation. Most foreigners rely heavily on taxis in Egypt. Make sure your cab driver is using the meter. If they say it is broken tell them you will find another taxi. A lot hotels and tour companies provide reliable transportation (usually with air-conditioning). The METRO is a cheap way to get around as well. We offer transportation service by air-conditioned van anywhere in Egypt.
Unwanted local currency. I figure out on my last night how much cash I will need and then set aside the leftover money. At checkout the next morning, I take that cash and ask the hotel to apply it to my bill and then pay the remaining balance with my no-foreign-transaction-fee credit card.