How We Did It (or: The World Is a Smaller Place Now)

Four weeks now into our travels, it feels like a good time for a behind-the-scenes blog post about the systems we’ve set up to be able to travel easily and stay in touch. Call it: “How We Did It.”

Backstory: my parents went on an eleven-month, round-the-world honeymoon in 1983-84, and my family lived abroad in Costa Rica for a spell in 1999-2000. So both secondhand and firsthand, I’ve been familiar with how difficult it can be to travel.

Let’s go category by category and look at our modern solutions to age-old travel challenges.

Figuring Out What to Do/Where to Stay/Where to Eat

The Problem

Classically, one would spend days spent poring over outdated travel guides to try to identify decent places to stay, eat, and play. Or you’d get a few cryptic tips from friends and try to track them down in the field.

Our Solution

Sara has generally been taking the lead on macro-level planning, and there is a wealth of resources available online these days to help: blogs, Wikipedia, TripAdvisor; Airbnb and… Plus, Google Maps lets you create and share custom maps with things to do (here’s my guide to San Francisco, for example). Some of our friends have provided resources like this as well as very thoughtful emails/texts to help guide/connect us with people on the ground – we thank you, and keep ’em coming!

Staying in Touch With Friends and Family

The Problem

In the 1980s, my parents worked out this then-ingenious system of staying in contact with friends and family: a set of 10 or so mail drops at American Express locations in different cities, spaced about a month apart – if your letter arrived before my parents did, they’d hear from you, otherwise they wouldn’t. Note also that this required my parents to plan the entire trip in advance, at least in broad strokes.

Later, circa 1999, I remember international phone calling rates that were eye-watering (more than $100 an hour to call from Costa Rica to the US, I think!), and super-shitty state-run dial-up internet service. Obviously, even this bad internet service + email was a huge step up from the 1980s option!

Our Solution

We are both using Google Fi, a phone plan directly from Google that works with both iPhones and Android phones. In more than 170 countries, we get 4G LTE phone service for $10/GB of data – same price and speed as in the US. And we can make phone calls via Viber or Google Hangouts, so calls to or from the US are basically free. It’s almost too easy.

If you’re interested in Google Fi, you can sign up using our referral link and you and we will both get a $20 credit. (To be very clear, Sara and I are not interested in monetizing this website – this is our personal travel blog that we’re creating for the benefit of our friends and family, not some cash cow. So we’re not including ads (ugh!) and we’re not generally going to use affiliate links either. However, the Google Fi referral link benefits everybody involved, unlike most affiliate links, so I’ll make an exception for that one.)

Also, the international internet is much better now. Everywhere we’ve stayed has had at least decent WiFi. We’ve been able to have video chats (!) with friends and family, a far cry from the 1990s. Give us a call sometime!

Getting and Spending Local Currency

The Problem

Usurious currency exchange kiosks; carrying a big pile of dollars around for later exchange; and travelers’ checks, travelers’ checks, travelers’ checks.

Our Solution

I’m particularly proud of our banking setup, which enables us to (1) rapidly access fee-free cash anywhere in the world, (2) earn big rewards on our travel-related spending, and (3) receive a healthy return on our liquid checking account. Here’s what we have settled on:

  1. Charles Schwab Bank debit card. I’ve used Schwab checking for many years and I can’t recommend it highly enough, for the following simple reason: Schwab charges no ATM fees anywhere in the world, and reimburses other banks’ fees, anywhere in the world. So when I was living in Berlin and getting dinged by €5 German bank withdrawal fees, all that money would reappear in my account at the end of each month.
  2. Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card. We picked this card because it has no international transaction fees, because it has a big sign-up bonus (roughly equivalent to $1000 worth of airfare or hotel stays), and because it gives double points on hotel, restaurant, and airfare purchases.
  3. Provident Credit Union checking account. This is a credit union (yay!) that’s local to the Bay Area (yay!) that offers a 2% return on your checking account (!!) if you meet some easy criteria. (The hardest thing is remembering to spend at least $300 per month with our Provident card – but that basically means we put any non-hotel/restaurant/airfare expenses on our Provident credit card, which gets 1.5% cash back on everything, also with no foreign transaction fees. Not bad in its own right.)

(We do also have a stockpile of dollars in cash, in case an ATM can’t be found, but we haven’t had to use it at all as of yet.)

Using and Charging Appliances/Electronics

The Problem

The big problem with traveling internationally with electrical appliances has always been not that the plug might not fit the local socket, but that plugging in the device might fry the device or blow a fuse in the building, due to incompatibility with the local power supply. The issue is that both voltage and frequency vary across regions. As usual, the US is in the minority, using 120 volts and 60 Hz; most regions use 230 V and 50 Hz; some countries have even lower (ahem, Japan) or higher voltage or frequency. We’re going to be visiting all of these regions!

Our Solution

Sometime in the past twenty years, and without my noticing per se, most consumer electronics shifted to universal power adapters. I’m typing this on my Dell XPS 13 laptop, whose power adapter notes (in teeny tiny letters) that it is compatible with voltages from 100 V to 240 V and frequencies from 50 Hz to 60 Hz – in other words, it will work fine anywhere in the world. And it turns out that all our other devices also have universal adapters – even my electric razor and Sara’s travel hair dryer (which is both a classic culprit of voltage-mismatch damage, and also high on the list of things we’re not sure it was worth bringing). It’s almost too easy.

(Sara reminds me to clarify that plug standards also vary from country to country. This is true, so we bought a cheap Chinese multi-region plug adapter, like this one, that has little bits that slide out to mate with different plug types, and also has some USB ports so we can charge phones and our power bank.) (Oh, and we bought a power bank so we can recharge our phones for a few days if we’re in between wall plugs.)


Okay, that last one wasn’t so much “our solution” as it was “the problem has quietly solved itself,” but I hope some of these other tips may be helpful to others. Or at the very least, it’s fun to note just how easy traveling has become, at least from a technological standpoint.

Sometime we’ll write a separate post about the physical side – what we’ve brought and how we’re carrying it. We’re pretty dialed in there too… mostly.

Please feel free to share any travel tech tips that have helped you, in the comments!

3 Replies to “How We Did It (or: The World Is a Smaller Place Now)”

  1. Thanks for these great tips – you’re so right that travel is a different endeavor now than it was back in the day. But please, please, please let us know when you’ve developed a solution to the 9-hr crowded bus ride on winding mountain roads!

  2. Very helpful. But I admit to kind of liking the 70s and 80s with the excitement of mail stops after hearing nothing for up to two months. Also, each letter we wrote was by hand; no copy machines. We did have plenty of time to transcribe pages of travel notes over and over again. Weird to think of.
    I certainly have appreciated the ease of keeping in touch with my loved ones when they/we are far, far away. Progress: it’s something!
    Thanks for the great tips! Might try some of those SF recommendations.
    We’re off to Patagonia next Thursday.

  3. I am very impressed! I think Doug and I will find many of your tips very helpful. I remember our AmEx stops when we were traveling the world in 1989 and how we looked forward to finding letters. That was it for 7 months! Not much adventure travel for me recently — I’m off to a spa/ranch for a week in Mexico with my sister.
    Keep up the good news.

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