Whether you’re traveling overseas long term, or just headed out for a short holiday, here are the 10 things I always make sure I’ve got stashed in my wallet so I’m prepped and ready for an international adventure.
This is, in fact, a checklist I use for any trip abroad (though I didn’t need to worry about No. 7 for my getaway to Cabo San Lucas, where I wrote this blog post).
1. A variety of credit cards.
While Visa and Mastercard are most universally accepted, and American Express signs are increasingly common in store windows across the globe, you will inevitably wind up in a place that doesn’t accept the type of credit card you have with you.
If you pack a variety of credit cards in your wallet, you’re prepared for just about anything on your trip. For example, if your primary card is an American Express or Discover, be sure you have a Visa or Mastercard – or cash) – as a backup.
My travel wallet always has one Visa, a Mastercard and my American Express. I make sure the cards I’m carrying abroad don’t charge foreign transaction fees, and I always carry the co-branded credit cards for the hotel programs (See: 5 tips for choosing the right hotel credit cards) and airlines I’m using on my trip.
2. Have chip cards, will travel.
While chip card technology is still relatively new in the U.S., dipping your card instead of swiping has been the norm internationally for quite a while – especially in Asia and Europe.
You should have chip cards by now, but if for some reason you don’t (maybe they’ll be sent before your card’s next expiration date), getting one is as simple as calling your card issuing bank and requesting a chip card.
You can also ask your bank if it offers chip-and-PIN cards. While adding a signature at a payment terminal is common in the U.S., keying in your PIN is the standard practice abroad.
If you can’t get a chip-and-PIN card, don’t worry. You’ll still be able to dip your chip card, and then sign your receipt as you do in the states.
A side note: If you’re traveling to a more remote location that accepts credit cards, you may want to make sure that you have a credit card that has raised (embossed) numbers on the front. There are actually still some places that will make an old-school imprint of your card as a guarantee.
3. The credit card you used to book your tickets.
If you’ve ever read all the fine print on the terms and conditions of your airfare, you may have noticed that an airline reserves the right to deny boarding to any passenger who cannot present the credit card that was used to purchase their online ticket.
While this isn’t common practice in North America, I’ve been asked to present my card as proof of purchase in Asia on multiple occasions. Luckily, I was carrying the card I used to buy my airline tickets.
Showing the credit card with which you bought your airline, train or bus ticket is primarily aimed at reducing fraud, and you’re most likely to have to show your card if the names on your ticket and credit card don’t match.
4. Debit card, but know your bank fees.
In most places around the world, you’ll be able to access local currency by using your ATM at a national or international bank (or at the ATM on arrival in the airport).
Exchanging most of your currency via ATM is as simple as getting cash back home, and this prevents you from traveling around with thousands of dollars of cash in a pouch around your neck like we did as backpackers in the ’90s!
Tip: Before you head to the airport, cross the border or get on a cruise ship, check your bank’s fees to use international ATMs and your daily international withdrawal limit.
Although you will most likely be charged a transaction fee by the local bank and your own bank, the cost is similar to what you would pay in a bureau de change transaction fee.
Note that there are banks that charge minimal or no fees as an account benefit. If you’re traveling longer-term, you’ll want to research these banks and possibly open an account so you’ll save every time you need local currency from that bank’s ATMs.
5. A stash of emergency cash.
Even if you’re planning to buy everything in country with your credit card and get spending cash out of the ATM upon arrival, it’s always important to have cash on hand in case of emergency.
How much emergency loot you tuck away will depend on your level of cash-carrying comfort and need. Since I mainly rely on credit cards for purchases and ATMs for local currency, I normally carry $200-$400 in my wallet, depending on the length of the trip.
I may pack a little more if I’m traveling where ATMs lack reliability. But $200-$400 is more than enough to get me through a few days on a budget in a pinch.
I personally carry USD and sometimes GBP (British pounds) or euros if I happen to have them.
If you’re a meticulous pre-planner like some of my friends, you can order some local currency for the destination where you will be traveling in advance from your bank branch. Foreign currency obtained from your neighborhood bank branch usually isn’t obtained at a good exchange rate, but if it helps you not worry about how you’ll pay for things on arrival, it may be worth it.
6. Passport (and ID) handy … and make sure it’s your passport.
Your passport is an obvious addition to your wallet for international travel, but before you tuck it into your bag, you’ll want to do three important things.
First, make sure that passport is yours! You wouldn’t believe how many people I know who’ve shown up to the airport with their spouse’s passport because they threw it in their bag without looking!
Second, check your passport’s expiration date. Make sure your passport is valid, has the visas you need to travel to your destination, and that it has at least six months until its expiration date.
Why? An airline can deny you boarding if you don’t meet a country’s immigration and visa requirements. Worse? You could get all the way to the country you’re visiting and be denied entry.
Finally, before you put the passport in your wallet, make a couple of copies of your passport. Leave one at home, and put the other in another part of your travel bag. Saving a digital image of your passport and emailing it to yourself is also a good option. If you ever lose your passport, you’ll be glad you didn’t skip this step.
I also always carry my driver’s license as a second form of identification. This comes in handy when I don’t want to show (or leave) my passport, and, of course, for renting a car.
Unless you’re traveling in a single location longer term, your national driver’s license will be enough for car rentals. If you do need an international driver’s license, you can acquire one through AAA.
7. Your Yellow Card (no, it’s not the yellow card you know from soccer).
If you’re traveling to Africa or departing Africa to another destination, you’re required to carry proof you have a current yellow fever vaccination.
This proof is in the form of a “Yellow Card” you get from your doctor and must be renewed every 10 years. If you arrive without a Yellow Card, you may be denied entry unless you get another yellow fever vaccination in the airport. Nobody wants to do that, so check that it’s in your travel wallet.
8. Extra passport photos.
Some countries that issue visas on arrival will require you to attach a passport photo as part of your application. To always be prepared (remember the Boy Scout motto), keep a set of extra passport photos in your wallet.
Tip: If you’re a member of AAA, you can get extra passport photos for cheap before you go!
9. Airline and hotel loyalty cards.
If you have status with a hotel or airline loyalty program, pack your membership card in your wallet. You can also store these in their respective apps on your phone, but having the actual card can come in handy when you can’t access Wi-Fi to present the digital version.
Having my physical American Airlines Platinum card has come in handy to access priority boarding and airport lounges abroad when my priority access wasn’t noted on my ticket.
10. Airport lounge passes.
If your credit card benefits include a number of airline club or lounge passes each year, stash these passes in your travel wallet. You never know when one will come in handy during a flight delay or long layover. (See: Hidden card benefit: Save money and sanity in airport lounges.)
If you carry a card that gives you access to the Priority Pass lounge network, you’ll also want to make sure you’re carrying your Priority Pass card. While you can use a digital card through the Priority Pass app to access most lounges, some of the lounges in more remote destinations require you to present your physical card.
As a bonus, if you’re the overly prepared travel type, a couple of other things you can toss in your wallet are Band-Aids, a couple of business cards, and SIM cards for countries you travel to often if you opt to use local phone service rather than an international carrier.
With all these items in your wallet, you should be prepared for every arrival and any transaction you need to make abroad.
See related: Video: 5 credit card questions to ask before traveling overseas, How your credit card’s travel insurance can save you bucks, headaches