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The 14 best international travel hacks for Americans

These are the best international travel short-cuts that will help you prepare for your next overseas trip

Written by
Lola Méndez
Clara Hogan

Whether traveling abroad to hit up a stunning beach, dine at one of the world's best restaurants or check off your European bucket list, the voyage itself is always an adventure. A trip overseas also requires extra forethought and preparation: gathering the correct document, getting familiar with your destination and finding ways to make the travel time a little more enjoyable.

If done right, however, an international trip doesn't have to be stressful—especially if you follow these best international travel hacks. From scoring wallet-friendly flights to taking advantage of credit card perks (lounge life is calling), these tried-and-true strategies will make you a savvy international traveler. 

International travel hacks for Americans

Get global entry and TSA pre-check
Photograph: Courtesy U.S. Customs and Border Protection

1. Get global entry and TSA pre-check

If you've ever gone through customs, you know how brutally long that wait can be. One of the most effective ways to make international travel smoother is to get Global Entry status. This program, run through the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, will get you expedited customs processing at U.S. airports. You'll have to attend an in-person interview after passing a background check, but it's worth it. Once you gain Global Entry, you automatically receive TSA PreCheck to bypass lines and get quicker security checks. Global Entry saves time and hassle for frequent travelers domestically as well. 

Travel-friendly debit card
Photograph: Shutterstock

2. Travel-friendly debit card

There’s no need to pay for expensive international transaction fees, obscure market rates, and astronomical ATM cash withdrawal fees when broad. Traveler-friendly cards include Revolut, Wise and Chime. Features of these cards typically include no foreign transaction fees and fee-free or low-fee ATM withdrawals. Make sure to check the card you sign up for covers unauthorized activity so you don’t have to worry if your debit card is stolen while you're overseas.

Get a local SIM card
Photograph: Shutterstock

3. Get a local SIM card

If your mobile phone plan charges for international roaming, get your phone unlocked to purchase a local SIM card. Buying local data is usually more affordable. Often, the best price for the sim card and the data package isn’t at the airport. However, the airport is the most convenient place to get a local SIM card, so you can activate the service and use it to find your way to your accommodation. About a week's worth of data with an AT&T sim card in Mexico costs $10, including free social media and WhatsApp. 

Mobile Passport Control
Photograph: Shutterstock

4. Mobile Passport Control

Download this free app before going through U.S. customs and fill it out on the plane before you enter the border patrol area as cellphone usage is prohibited. Many airports in the U.S. have a separate line for Mobile Passport Control—that’s right, you can skip lengthy wait times at customs without buying Global Entry. Lately, in my experience transiting through the U.S. and going through customs, I’ve noticed that some airports no longer offer separate lines for Mobile Passport Control, such as Newark Liberty International Airport.

Tax rebates for foreigners
Photograph: Courtesy Shutterstock

5. Tax rebates for foreigners

Many countries offer foreigners a rebate on value-added taxes, known as IVA when a foreign credit card is used for in-country purchases. For instance, in Uruguay, foreign credit cards used at a restaurant or a bar are rebated automatically when the card is charged or later on your credit card statement. Foreigners also don’t pay taxes on hotels. If you shop for clothing and crafts and spend over 500 Uruguayan Pesos, ask for a Global Blue tax refund. File the receipt at the Global Blue kiosk at the airport to receive the VAT back on your credit card.

Download an offline version of Google maps for your destination
Foto: Shutterstock

6. Download an offline version of Google maps for your destination

Landing in a foreign country often means you don't have cell service, which means no or wonky service. To ensure you know where you're going when you arrive, download a map of your destination and route to your lodging for offline use. You'll be thankful you did.

Get more airline mileage rewards
Photograph: Shutterstock

7. Get more airline mileage rewards

Sync different apps that partner with airlines to reap more rewards. For instance, Delta SkyMiles has a partnership program with Airbnb so you can earn Delta SkyMiles for every dollar spent on Airbnb reservations. You can also earn Delta SkyMiles on Lyft rides in the U.S. If there’s an inconvenience on your flight, such as a power charger not working or the requested meal not being available, file a customer service complaint and the airline may compensate you for your troubles with reward miles.

Get better prices on flights
Photograph: Shutterstock

8. Get better prices on flights

If you’re planning an international trip with no direct flights from your home base to your destination overseas, buy only the longest leg of the journey with a major international airline. Then, book your connecting flight to your final destination with a local airline from within the region or country. You’ll likely shave a couple hundred dollars off the flight's cost. This works best when flying carry-on only, as you may have to exit the airport and go back through security at the airport during your layover.

Stay loyal to an airline alliance
Photograph: Courtesy Shutterstock

9. Stay loyal to an airline alliance

Rack up miles and points with one airline alliance to gain status. Some airlines within the same alliance share benefits for frequent flyers. For instance, with the lowest Delta SkyMiles status, Silver Medallion, you also have access to upgrades on partner airlines in the SkyTeam alliance such as AeroMexico and KLM and can enjoy lounge access when available. Loyalty to one airline alliance pays off when it comes to extra fees—United’s lowest MileagePlus status level, Premier Silver, includes a complimentary checked suitcase of 70lbs.

Use credit card perks
Photograph: Shutterstock/M101Studio

10. Use credit card perks

In addition to taking advantage of airline loyalty programs, consider getting a credit card with perks that make international travel cheaper and more convenient. Cards like the Chase Sapphire Reserve, American Express Platinum and Capital One Venture will not only get you points to spend on travel faster, but come with perks like lounge access, early and late check-out at hotels and upgrades. 

Google Translate’s camera feature
Photograph: Shutterstock/Pan Xunbin

11. Google Translate’s camera feature

If you're traveling to a destination with a foreign language, it's wise to download Google Translate. The tool helps generate sentences in that country's language so you can interact with locals. The camera feature can be even more handy, allowing you to hold up your camera to a sign, menu, or any other text and have it immediately translate the words into English. 

Free stopovers and layover tours
Photograph: Shutterstock

12. Free stopovers and layover tours

If your travel dates are flexible, take advantage of the airline’s free stopovers to maximize your holiday and see another destination en route to your vacation spot. The stopovers offered are at least 24 hours for international destinations. You’ll have plenty of time to quickly check out the destination. Some airports also offer free layover tours, including Singapore Changi Airport, Seoul Incheon Airport, Taipei Taoyuan Airport, and Istanbul International Airport. Some airports, like Abu Dhabi International Airport and Doha’s Hamad International Airport, offer free tours.

Book a reliable airport transfer
Photograph: Shutterstock

13. Book a reliable airport transfer

Uber and other ride-sharing apps are often not allowed to do airport pickups or have hefty surge prices worldwide. If you don’t have an international mobile plan or already possess a local sim card with data, you may not be able to find your ride-share driver once you exit the airport Wi-Fi. Instead, save yourself the hassle and book a reliable ride at a locked-in all-inclusive fee with the global chauffeur service Blacklane. The prices are reasonable and all of Blacklane’s rides are offset and some utilize electric vehicles.

Go plastic free
Photo: Jacek Dylag/Unsplash

14. Go plastic free

Save space in your suitcase by traveling plastic-free. Packing shampoo and conditioner bars take up less space in your suitcase and can be taken in carry-on luggage as the bars don’t count as a liquid. Vaycay Beauty makes bars that cater to different hair types. Get a water bottle with a filter, such as the Hydros 20 oz water bottle with a reusable coconut filtration system so you can refill your water bottle anywhere, even if you don’t have access to potable water. You’ll save money as buying several single-use plastic water bottles daily is expensive.

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