By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com
updated 6/28/2006 11:39:16 AM ET 2006-06-28T15:39:16

It takes a lot of work to prepare for a vacation abroad. There are so many little things to do: You need to stop the mail, cancel the paper and arrange for your bills to be paid. Here are some other things you should add to your pre-trip checklist:

Basics
Photocopy the first few pages of your passport and make a list of all the credit and debit cards in your wallet along with the toll-free customer service numbers. Keep this information in a separate place, such as the in-room safe at your hotel. This will make your life a lot easier if your passport or wallet is lost or stolen.

Let your bank and credit card companies know you’re headed to another country. Otherwise, their security programs could flag your transactions as potentially fraudulent and shut down your cards. What a nightmare!

Cell phones
Contact your wireless company to see if your cell phone will work where you are headed. If so, you’ll need to activate international roaming or international long distance. You should also find out what a call will cost from your destination.

Rudy Maxa ,who hosts National Public Radio’s “Savvy Traveler” feature offers some other money-saving alternatives. You can buy or rent an international phone before you go. If your phone has a removable smart chip card known as a SIM, you can buy a replacement. A California company called cellularabroad.com will sell you a card that works in 100 countries, including all of Europe, for $79. It comes pre-loaded with 30-minutes of calling time, and all of your incoming calls are free.

If you’re taking your own phone, make sure that it’s pre-programmed with important emergency numbers back home and that you have a charger that will work where you’re headed.

Prepare for the worst
No one plans to get sick or hurt on vacation, but it happens. So find out if your health insurance covers you in a foreign country. Medicare does not provide medical coverage outside the United States.

You can buy a supplemental medical policy or get travel insurance that includes emergency medical coverage.  Travel insurance isn’t cheap — usually 5 to 10 percent of the total cost of the trip — but it provides more than medical coverage. It also protects you if your trip is delayed or cut short, or if you need to cancel for one of the covered perils, such as illness or natural disaster at your destination.

Depending on your destination and your physical condition, you might also want to consider medical evacuation insurance.

Money, money, money
A smart traveler heads off with several ways to pay, including some cash. You might want to take a little foreign currency to get started. But you don’t need to convert hundreds of dollars before leaving home.

“These days more and more folks can get their cash right at the ATM machines in that country,” says travel expert Maxa. In most countries, he says, you’re going to find them right at the airport. Doing it in the country you’re visiting is generally cheaper than converting currency back home.

Remember to use your ATM card, not your credit card, to get money from a cash machine. Use your credit card and it’s considered a cash advance and you’ll pay a sky-high interest rate starting from Day One. Before you leave home, find out what you’ll pay to use an ATM in your destination country.

Credit cards vs. debit cards
Credit cards are the smart way to pay for things in another country. “They’ll generally give you a favorable rate” says Greg McBride, senior financial analyst for bankrate.com.
Expect to pay a 1 percent conversion fee when you use your Visa or MasterCard overseas. Many banks also tack on a 2 percent surcharge.

Credit cards are also a safer way to pay than debit cards because they offer fraud protection required by federal regulations.

“I would never use a debit card to pay for things overseas,” cautions Ed Mierzwinski, consumer advocate for U.S. PIRG. That’s because consumers who use debit cards have “fewer rights if there’s a dispute or fraud than those who use credit cards,” he says.

Something else to consider: When you check in to a hotel they put a “block” on the credit card or debit card you give them. It could be $100 or more a night. That’s no real problem for most people who present a credit card. But if they put that block on your debit card — which puts a hold on the money in your checking account — “it could cause you to bounce checks,” Mierzwinski warns. If you really want to pay the final bill with a debit card, check in with a credit card and use your debit card when you check out.

Hotels overbook, too
You can have a confirmed reservation, guaranteed to your credit card, and still get turned away from the hotel. It’s happened to me. That’s because hotels, just like airlines, overbook. To reduce your chances of getting “bumped” from your hotel, show up early if you can. Rather than touring the town or going to lunch until the 4 p.m. check-in time, go to the hotel right away, check in and check your luggage. Then head off on your first adventure.

When you get home
You should always check your bank and credit card statements as soon as they come each month, but this is especially important when you’ve been traveling. Look for any mistakes or fraudulent charges. I once found I was double charged for a rental car. Mistakes do happen. So does credit card fraud. In either case, you want to deal with the situation right away.

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