Non-Obvious International Travel Tips for Beginners

I’ve wrapped up what I hope is my final flight of 2019, because oh man, am I tired. 

As I was checking in for our flight home I realized that there are quirks to my travel routine that might be useful tips for readers. If you’re going on your first international trip, or have never rented a car before, you might not know the tips and tricks for making sure your travels go smoothly.

So here are my favorite non-intuitive ways to manage your flight experience (even in economy), get you to your destination more quickly, and avoid silly fees. Most of these I’ve learned the hard way. Like facing $75 in car rental fees that could have easily been avoided if I had just taken a few minutes to plan ahead.

1. Look for better seats ahead of time

The first thing I do after booking a flight is try to choose my seat. Sometimes immigration lines can mean waiting for over an hour, so positioning myself toward the front of the plane means I can potentially get to my destination faster. Plus, no one likes the middle seat 🙂 The longer you wait to choose you seat, the fewer the options.

If I can manage my seat, that leads me to my next item…

2. Note the airplane’s amenities

I also look at which airplane I’m going to be flying on.

Not the airline, but the actual aircraft model.

I’ve flown Jet Blue before and had a great experience. Then the next Jet Blue flight I was on an older plane with outdated grey seats and no power sources. 

Not all airplanes are built with the same amenities and seat layouts.

On my last flight on TAP Portugal I was excited to see it was going to be on the A330-Neo or 339. TAP Portugal started flying them a little less than a year ago, so I could expect updated seats, decent in-flight entertainment, and solid connectivity. It was a great flight 🙂

I look up seat and flight amenities on Seat Guru.

Two things I always look for is what the leg room is like (the standard is 31 inches) and if there are power sources. If there’s no power source I’ll make sure to not drain my phone’s battery pre-flight. If there’s no TV screen, I might bring a book or download a movie to my phone ahead of time.

Confirming the aircraft is especially important when flying premium class. Planes are getting decommissioned and upgraded all the time. If you’re expecting a lie-flat experience in business class, but your flight is using an older plane, you might be disappointed if your seat is not the newer one you’ve seen advertised. I’m not an airplane geek, but checking the flight amenities really helps to manage my expectations. And managing my expectations is often the antidote to having a bad time.

You can find the aircraft number on your reservation, which I plug into Seat Guru so I can not only look at the seat map, but I can read flight and seat reviews.

3. Understand what’s included in your fare type

In 2019, with airlines constantly cutting corners, this is huge.

I’m the carry-on only type, because I don’t like people manhandling my stuff. But there’s no longer a guarantee that I can even bring my suitcase onto the plane!

Some fare types come with benefits that we all used to take for granted–being able to pick a seat and bring luggage onto the plane. Your fare type can determine whether or not you have to pay $120 to check a bag. $120 was the amount I was facing if someone stopped me from bringing my luggage onto the TAP Portugal flight. Add that up across a family of four and you’re possibly out $880. 

It’s hard to believe, but there are multiple fare classes even within the same cabin. Example:

My husband and I were on the same exact economy flight from Portugal to New York. But as I was going to select our seats I noticed very important differences.

I was able to put my husband in an extra legroom seat for free. He also got a free checked bag. I had to pay $52 to sit to next to him, and I’d have to pay the $120 to check my bag if I couldn’t carry it on.

The difference?

My ticket was classified as a Discount ticket and his was Basic.

The classifications were determined by how I booked each ticket. His I booked with United miles. I booked mine through Chase Ultimate Rewards points. At the bottom of the flight screen you can see what’s included in your fare via the Chase portal.

Usually booking with miles is going to get you a non-discount economy ticket, which is great.

But if you’re booking a ticket with transferable points, like Chase Ultimate Rewards, Amex Travel, or Citi ThankYou Rewards, be extra detail-oriented when booking your ticket. Especially if you absolutely need to check your bags.

In the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal note that you can upgrade your fare before checking out. If I needed to check a bag and choose a seat, paying the extra $95 up front could be well worth it.

A very real scenario would be if you were flying domestic on United in basic economy. Although there are loopholes, in general you wouldn’t even be able to carry on a bag without paying a fee. But if you do want to pay the cheapest fare for a United domestic flight, you can get the free carry-on allowance if you hold an eligible United credit card.

Here’s a nice guide that breaks down what you get on common airlines when booking a basic economy fare.

4. Pare down the wallet

A couple days before the trip I plan out which cards I’m going to carry in my wallet. I also remove cards I won’t need, like my subway pass and work badges.

The credit cards I bring aren’t random. I choose options that don’t charge foreign transaction fees, which is usually 3% of the purchase price. On nature trips, I don’t spend much, so an extra fee isn’t a big deal, but if I’m making luxury purchases on vacation, then the 3% starts to add up.

Here’s what I usually bring:

  • Chase Sapphire Reserve – for the car rental primary insurance perk
  • An American Express card – no hard logic here, but Amex has great customer service, and I have a feeling that if anything bad happened to me they’d be quickest to help me out
  • My debit card – to get foreign money

5. Understand airline perk outliers

Many flights are uneventful, but after a while, you start to notice pros and cons that are out of the ordinary.

Here are a few that stand out to me:

  • JetBlue charges $5 for a blanket and $5 for a pair of headphones, which is crazy town to me. If you get cold easily, make sure to layer up. And outside of snacks like cookies and pretzels, you’ll have to pay for meal boxes.
  • …but JetBlue also has free wifi. When it works, it’s glorious. If you need to do work on your flight, but don’t want to spring for premium class, JetBlue is an option.
  • Air Nippon Airlines (ANA) has noteworthy legroom in economy. As I mentioned before, standard leg room is 31 inches in economy. But ANA economy offers 34 inches of pitch. If you’re flying economy to Japan, I’d do what I could to fly ANA.

A decent rule of thumb is to always choose the non-US airline when possible. They tend to be more generous with perks. If I ever fly to Vancouver, you bet I’m gonna be gunning to get onto a Cathay Pacific flight. I’ve got a sweet tooth, and they give out Haagen-Daz bars in economy. It’s the little things…

6. Scope out where the lounges are

Before the flight, I’ll always look up if there’s a Priority Pass lounge in the terminal I’m going to. If so, score! The lounges are not only a nice way to get away from the crowds, but it also means I don’t have to buy drinks or food in the airport. If you have the Chase Sapphire Reserve card, then you’re entitled to a membership, which you have to manually activate through the Chase website.

Not all the lounges are luxury experiences, but Le Saigonnais at Ho Chi Minh City airport has got to be my favorite so far. The lounge was thoughtfully designed with local flair, and we got to make our own pho and Vietnamese coffee.

7. Check if meals will be served on the flight

This helps me figure out how much food I need to eat or buy before the flight. If I know there will be several meals served in flight, that’s less food I need to pay for out of pocket at the airport.

Each airline has a different meal schedule. For example, when I fly from NYC to LA, which takes about six hours, I’m rarely served food.

But on a flight to London, which is the same duration, I’ll be served plenty of food and drinks. Don’t assume that since you’re on a lengthy flight that you’ll be served meals.

8. Find an ATM in the airport

Once we land at our destination city, I’ll look for an ATM to take out local cash. Especially as many taxis don’t take credit cards. I never get money from those currency exchange counters, since I find their rates less favorable.

One other note about ATMs is bank fees for using another bank’s ATM. I have the Charles Schwab High-Yield Investor checking account, so I get reimbursed for all ATM fees.

And when using my credit card in a shop and asked which currency I want to pay in, I always choose the local currency.

9. Sign up for car rewards programs

Once I find a car rental price you like, I sign up for the company’s reward program before I book. It costs no money, takes only a few minutes, and I get real benefits that save time and hassle. Many times I get to bypass the check-in line at the counter. All I have to do is look for my name on a board and pick a car. Here are a few membership programs that have tangible benefits:

Also note that a hidden benefit of the Chase Sapphire Reserve card is executive membership for National, and discount codes for both National and Avis.

  • National: Save up to 25% with code 5030849
  • Avis: Save up to 30% with code S107100 

You’ll need to sign up for the National program through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal, under ‘Card Benefits’.

10. Look up car rental policies for the destination

One thing I need to be mindful of when I rent a car is the additional driver policy. I book our car rentals and my husband drives. Since he’s my spouse there’s usually no charge in the US.

Not the case for Avis in Portugal.

We had to pay an extra $75 since the reservation was in my name but my husband was driving.

I could have easily avoided this if I had looked up the policy ahead of time, then either drove myself or made the reservation in his name.

11. Decide on what to do about car rental insurance ahead of time

This is very important! If you don’t drive, or haven’t rented cars often, you probably aren’t that familiar with how rental car insurance works. So when the rental agent is tossing out confusing jargon you don’t understand and every scare tactic in the book, it’s easy to take the bait.

For example, at our most recent experience at Avis in Portugal, the agent would not stop reiterating how we would be liable to pay $30,000, the value of the entire car, if something happened. But I assessed the risk and decided the primary insurance included with my Chase Sapphire Reserve card was a risk I was willing to take.

A high-pressure situation is not the time to waffle. Make sure you have a plan in case you get the hard sales pitch at the counter. Note that you don’t have to reject the insurance every time. I personally assess where I am and what I’m doing. And it’s worth brushing up on the policies you do have. Some countries aren’t included in credit card policies so double-check what yours covers. Here are a few countries off the top of my head that I find are often not eligible:

  • Ireland
  • Italy
  • Australia

12. Bring something warm and cozy on the plane, always

Doesn’t matter if I’m going to a tropical place–I always regret not bringing a sweatshirt. Because it’s always too cold, and as I mentioned, not every airline is going to give you a blanket.

What are your best tips for saving time or money when traveling abroad? Or just making sure you have an enjoyable flight?

Feature Image: The Luxe Strategist

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