12 Tips for Shopping Abroad

lyon-france-uniworld-ss-catherine-france-aug-2015-022I know a lot of people who love to shop when they travel and some who travel to shop. I’m not much of a shopper myself but my wife makes up for me. However, there are places like Bangkok where I shop more than she does and she gets a kick out of it. I just love how you can get custom suits and shirts for a fraction of the price you’d pay here at home. I also love Bangkok’s clean megamalls, which not only have familiar stores for when you’re homesick, but a wide variety of food outlets, too. Over my many years of traveling, I’ve learned how to save money, not get suckered and not get embarrassed. These 12 tips for shopping abroad will help you the next time you travel:

1. Bring Multiple Credit Cards With No Foreign Transaction Fees
Before you leave for a trip, make sure you have at least two credit cards from different companies that have no foreign transaction fees…unless you want to pay 3% more. I recommend two cards for a number of reasons like you lose one or it gets stolen, one of your banks puts a hold on it or the place of business you’re patronizing doesn’t accept your type of card. For example, there are plenty of places that don’t accept American Express but there are also places that don’t accept Visa or MasterCard. It’s good to have options.

Obviously, I recommend a card that’s going to give you the most miles or points so you can use them down the line. Here’s a list of credit cards that have no foreign transaction fees.

2. Chip and Pin Capability
Make sure your credit card has chip and pin capability. That’s because most international automated ticket machines require credit/debit cards to have a chip (also referred as EMV—Europay, MasterCard and Visa). It’s a technical standard designed to ensure that microchip-embedded payment cards all work with the terminals of merchants who accept them. They do this to reduce fraud so if someone finds or steals your card they can’t use it unless they know your secret four-digit pin. With all of the credit card fraud in the world, I was shocked how slow the US was in adopting this procedure but we are slowly getting there.

One of the first, if not the first, to go the chip and pin route was Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard® so I always carry that card in my pocket. If you travel to Europe or Canada, there will be many times when having a credit card that requires a signature will slow you down. For example, I once couldn’t buy a train ticket in Denmark (and Germany, France, Italy…) using the ticket machine because my credit card didn’t have a chip so I had to stand in a long line to have the teller swipe my card—and I almost missed the train as a result.

3. Call Your Credit Card Company
Before you leave for your trip, make sure you call your credit card company and/or bank and let them know you are going out of the country. They will want to know the places you are going and the dates you’ll be away. Because of increased credit card hacking, they may put a block on your card(s) immediately if you don’t notify them and that will put a real damper on your trip.

4. Avoid ATM Fees
If you don’t want to get hit with unexpected fees, contact your bank to see what ATM fees they charge. “When you use a foreign ATM, you could be charged a variety of fees, including non-bank ATM usage fees, ATM operator access fees, and international transaction fees for conversion to U.S. dollars.” That quote is directly from Bank of America, which goes on to tell its customers, “one way to limit such fees is to use your Bank of America ATM or debit card at one of our international partner ATMs. This enables you to avoid the non-Bank of America ATM $5 usage fee for each withdrawal, transfer or balance, as well as the ATM operator access fee.” Here’s a list of Bank of America’s partners. To find your bank, just search their name and international ATM partners.

5. Don’t Use Your Debit Card While Traveling
I rarely use my debit card while traveling and that’s because my debit card isn’t protected as much as my credit card is. If your credit card is lost or stolen, you aren’t responsible for more than $50 but if you notify them quickly, you won’t have to shell out any money. You can also dispute a credit card charge within 60 days and/or if the seller goes out of business, you can be reimbursed for the purchase you never received.

6. Always Pay in Local Currency
One of the biggest scams I find major stores committing overseas is asking customers if they would like to pay in US dollars or in euros or pounds (or whatever the local currency is where you’re traveling). Paying in U.S. dollars would seem to be the more convenient option, but in reality, it’s not. In fact, it’s a total rip-off, since the stores that do this charge a higher exchange fee than your bank back home does. So, remember to always pay in the local currency of the country you’re in!

7. In Some Places, Cash is King
In some places, like Italy, you can’t use your credit or debit card. Credit cards still aren’t widely accepted in Italy. Also good to know is that you can’t pay for anything under €10 with a credit or debit card in establishments that do accept them. Always have cash with you and have a variety of notes. If you present a €20 note for your €1 cappuccino, you’ll be frowned upon.

8. Double Check Prices
There’s something about travel that makes shopping almost romantic…the sights, the atmosphere, the smells. However, in your daze, you don’t want to overpay for anything and thanks to the smartphones, the internet and Wi-Fi, you can quickly check the price online of whatever you are buying to make sure you aren’t getting taken advantage of.

9. Use a Currency Converter
Traveling where the currency is different can be a challenge – especially in those countries where the U.S. dollar isn’t as strong, like the UK. When you go to a shop in London and you see the prices labeled, you may think you’re getting a bargain. And then you get your credit card statement and realize you owe a lot more than you thought. No matter where I am, I always use the XE.com app or website to find out what the current currency exchange rates are.

10. Keep Your Receipts
If you do any serious shopping then be sure to bring your passport along while you shop. Tell the retailer you need the necessary documents to claim a refund and then keep all your receipts and have them handy when you are about to leave the country (airport, border or port). You can save 15 to 25 percent depending on the country with the Value-Added Tax (VAT). To learn more, check out RickSteves.com.

11. Don’t Touch Without Permission
There are some places where shopkeepers don’t want you touching the goods without permission. It could be a boutique shop in Morocco or an outdoor market in Italy. As my friend Jennifer Dombrowski warned in her post 12 Things You Never Knew About Italy: “When visiting markets, keep your hands to yourself! Always ask permission to see something and the vendor will wait on you attentively, getting you the correct sizes or selecting your produce for you while wearing plastic gloves. And if you visit a grocery store, you’ll also notice plastic gloves in the produce section. Be sure to wear them when handling produce.”

12. Pack an Extra Bag
If you think you might do a fair bit of shopping on your travels, then pack a thin, lightweight duffel bag in your carry-on or checked suitcase. That way, if you have too much stuff, you can check an extra bag on the way back. If you purchase expensive items, then put your dirty clothes in the checked bag and carry the more valuable items on the plane.

I hope these tips will help you save money, time and aggravation when you travel. If I missed anything, please leave a comment below!

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Johnny Jet

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About the Author

Johnny Jet
I used to be afraid to fly and at times even leave the house! I conquered my fear (long story) and now I travel to 20+ countries a year sharing my firsthand knowledge, tips and deals with friends, family and readers. Please sign up to our free newsletters and tell your friends!

1 Comment on "12 Tips for Shopping Abroad"

  1. Great list for shoppers. Now do a piece about where haggling is expected (and not) and how to do it.

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