Traveling the world is a dream for most, and even after 55+ countries I still dream of traveling to more, adventurous places, further and further off the beaten path. However, one travel adventure I never look forward to is having unexpected financial issues – lost or stolen credit cards, being locked of accounts, and being unable to access my cash. If you leave home to travel for months with a single credit and debit card, you are almost asking for trouble.
On the other hand, if you prepare in advance and setup a few essential financial tools for travel – like a virtual mailbox, documents backed up virtual, a Wise account, Revolut account, and a globally capable SIM for 2FA – you’ll have a redundant system that provides you a backup if anything goes wrong.
In this article, I’ll list the financial tools every good traveler sets up and takes with them on the road – to be ready for ATMs refusing your card, lost cards, and false alarms of fraudulent activity locking you out of your bank account. Then, I’ll explain why each of these tools should be in every traveler’s personal finance arsenal and useful information for each.
How should you use this info? If you plan on traveling or nomading, just sign up for all of them immediately, even if you wait until later. Most of these tools are free or very low cost, making it possible for most anyone. Trust me, when the time comes that you need ANY of these, you’ll be glad you have
ESSENTIAL PERSONAL FINANCE TOOLS FOR TRAVELERS AND NOMADS
- Wise (formerly Transferwise)
- One premium, travel-friendly credit card (i.e., Chase Sapphire, Citi AAdvantage)
- One simple credit card with no annual fee (i.e., Chase Freedom)
- Two no-fee checking accounts with two debit cards
- Virtual mailbox
- 2fa capable SIM (Google Fi)
- Digital Backups of Essential Documents (Passport, DL, Intl. DL, Travel Insurance Card, credit cards)
- Cash (USD or Euros) for 3 days minimum
- Passport and ID Copies (paper and digital)
- Google Drive (backup for personal documents and scans)
- Travel Insurance (varies by traveler)
OTHER PERSONAL FINANCE ACTIONS TO DO BEFORE TRAVEL
- Call your bank to notify of extended travel before traveling.
- Setup addresses, phone numbers ( with Google-Fi SIM card) before traveling
- Carry printed pictures of all of your travel documents and the front and back of all credit cards
- Understand your credit card benefits and rights as a traveler
- Understand your essential rights as an airline passenger
WHY HAVING THIS PREP MATTERS: PREVENTION AND REDUNDANCY IS THE BEST SOLUTION
Traveling the world is a dream experience that many people look forward to. That experience will include some of the most fulfilling and exciting experiences you’ll ever have. Still, traveling will also include some of the normal annoying daily life experiences. Most people can agree that money issues – and accessing our own money are some of the most annoying and frustrating situations.
To make things worse, having money problems – like being locked out of an account and unable to withdraw cash, or losing a credit card – can be ten times more frustrating when you’re outside of your home country, unable to have anything sent to you, and unable to walk into your bank branch office and verify your identity.
To solve these problems as simply as possible, be sure to arrange everything on the list above before you travel. I’ll go into detail as to why each item is so important later.
Most situations on the road will work out naturally, but money issues generally don’t due to bank security measures. Having these redundant mechanisms set up in the suggested way means that during “delays,” you’ll always have access to a backup source for cash. Additionally, I’ve found the financial tools on the list are the most travel-friendly – compatible with ATMs worldwide, less likely to lock you out of your accounts due to a false alarm, and easy to get replacement cards anywhere in the world.
ESSENTIAL PERSONAL FINANCE TOOLS FOR TRAVELERS AND NOMADS
A combo of 6 accounts (and associated cards) I recommend will ensure you have access and can pay anywhere in the world, can have a replacement card shipped to you quickly and painlessly, and can transfer money quickly to/from friends if either of you loses your physical card.
Connectivity is important not just for checking social media and doing the occasional “hey, how are you” but also for receiving and communicating essential financial info – from alerts to authentication messages (2FA).
A good international SIM will allow you to receive texts to verify your identity when accessing bank accounts or chatting with representatives.
A reliable email address will allow identity authentication and make a great repository for important digital copies of passports, credit cards, drivers’ licenses, etc. Though you may keep these on your phone, having them backed up in email means it’s still available and easily searchable if you ever lose your phone (which has happened to me twice in four years). Gmail is the best thanks to service and included cloud drive space and nearly essential.
For long-term travelers, a virtual address is one of THE most valuable yet overlooked items to set up. A virtual address is essentially an address registered to you, and the associated service (and team) receive mail for you, then scan and upload for you to see. Like the one I use and recommend, a good service will also forward packages to you – anywhere in the world. So, if a new credit card, a check, or tax returns come, they’ll forward it to you via the service of your choice. The last and biggest benefit is you can potentially use this as your residence address, billing address, etc.
PHYSICAL BACKUPS: PRINTED DOCUMENT COPIES
I recommend keeping a printed copy of passport, driver’s license, and credit cards on you at all times, to prove your identity whenever necessary and cover emergencies. These should be in addition to digital copies (backed up to your phone and the cloud). You rarely need your original identification docs – this allows you to keep your original passport and DL in a safe place, and if you do you lose the original, a copy usually gets the job done and is better than nothing.
Note that a printed copy of a passport will never work for crossing borders. Also note that anything other than an original DL will not work when dealing with police and avoiding “penalties” when driving through SEA. The international driver’s license is the only original document I recommend always carrying when driving, to avoid having to pay bribes, especially in Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia – as police I’ve been stopped by have never accepted copies, but let me pass if I presented an original international driver’s license.
CASH (USD, EUROS)
Cash. Cash is king. NEVER travel without cash enough to survive comfortably for at least three days. I prefer to tote enough for two weeks to a month. I’ve had more than one occasion (before I learned the hard lessons and created this plan) when I lost my valuables bag and had zero credit cards, zero debit cards, and zero access to the money in my accounts- once in Vietnam, the second time in Indonesia. Having a month’s worth of cash meant I was still self-reliant for a few weeks while DHL saved my (financial) life.
Now that you have the overview of what your “personal financial travel kit” should include let me share specific recommendations of exactly what to take and why…
CREDIT CARDS, DEBIT 5, AND ACCOUNTS
- Wise (formerly Transferwise) + debit card
- Revolut + debit card
- One premium, travel-friendly credit card (i.e., Chase Sapphire, Citi Aadvantage)
- One simple credit card with no annual fee (i.e., Chase Freedom)
- Two no fees checking accounts with one debit card for each
Wise, formerly known as Transferwise, has become my defacto choice for transferring money from my US accounts to foreign bank accounts, foreign rideshare apps, and even some foreigners for transactions less than $2,000 USD (if more than $2,000 USD, I recommend using wire transfers.
If you live outside of the US and in a single country long enough, you will need to top up rideshare apps, local payment options (like Go-Jek), and even deposit money quickly into an account you may have with a local bank. Transferwise is a peer-to-peer financial option that’s easy to use (much more so than wire transfers), very safe, and very reliable in my experience for amounts less than $2,000. The exchange rates have been very reasonable and are usually 3% to 4% than at money changers, and you can transfer between your back and Wise “borderless acct” with a debit card quickly and easily.
Be sure to order a Transferwise Borderless account debit card, or just a Wise debit card before you travel because Transferwise only delivers cards to the US, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and Singapore.
Setting up a Transferwise account and getting your debit card is completely free, so you have nothing to lose.
A Revolut account and debit card is another financial option I recommend all travelers keep as a backup and recommend to friends. Here’s why:
Transferwise is great for transferring from your account to a foreign account while Revolut is great for transferring from your account to a friend’s account. You or a friend will lose their debit cards or credit cards at some point. When they (or you) do, it easy to transfer money from a bank account (that has already been linked) into Revolut, transfer from their Revolut account to yours, and then withdraw via your Revolut debit card or transfer to your preferred bank account – all within minutes.
Additionally, Revolut is tied as the best card option for having cards mailed to you itnerantionally and while traveling – and actually receiving them – while abroad. Two American friends so far had their Revolut cards shipped to them on Bali, and both were received within a week.
Other great benefits of Revolut
- You can order multiple debit cards for a single account, and then you can use those debit cards like credit cards
- You can hold the money in your account in multiple currencies (including crypto)
- You can flip your cards on and off within the app.
If you only set up one account and take one additional card on top of your normal bank as a backup, make it Revolut.
Keep in mind that Revolut is not a perfect option. If you dig through the Revolut sub on Reddit, you’ll find a few horror stories (usually around claiming the travel insurance) but the best way to avoid issues is don’t transfer much more into Revolut than you plan to use, keeping most of your cash in your most trusted account. I’ve used Revolut for a few years, love the features, and have had a great experience.
Revolut is also free to set up, and your debit card is free, so I recommend signing up and ordering your card today.
ONE PREMIUM, TRAVEL-FRIENDLY CREDIT CARD (CHASE SAPPHIRE, CITI AADVANTAGE, AMEX)
My top recommendations are: Chase Sapphire, Citi Aadvantage, and American Express Gold/Platinum
Getting a premium credit card comes with a number of perks that make travel and money issues while traveling much easier.
The three biggest benefits are:
- Sign-on bonus plus travel points for dollars spent
- Extremely good customer service and card replacement while traveling
- Travel protection when flying
Plus a ton of other perks.
For most “travel credit cards,” there will be a signing bonus of between 60k and 100k flyer miles on United Airlines, American Airlines, or Delta, which gets you about 1.5 round trips from the US to Southeast Asia. This alone is enough of a reason to signup.
SOLID CUSTOMER SERVICES
Second, customer service for these premium cards is amazing – and is a lifesaver if you lose your card or have any issues abroad. While I was in Vietnam, there was a fraudulent charge on my card I was alerted about by Chase, so they 1) immediately refunded the charge and 2) overnighter a replacement credit card from the US to my hostel in Vietnam, and all of that took less than 15 minutes. I wasn’t there to receive the card, but it arrived two days later, I received an email confirmation, and life went on as normal.
TRAVEL EMERGENCY BENEFITS
Last, if you read the fine print on any of these cards, you see all 3 have great traveler protection. For example, on the way from Nepal, through India, and onto Ecuador, my airline managed to lose my bags. Lucky for me, I paid with my Chase Sapphire card, so they had me covered. The emergency benefit authorized me to spend a few hundred dollars over the next few days to buy new clothes, and a new backpack, and any essentials I needed – all completely reimbursed by the coverage that came with my premium travel card.
All three of the cards above have a $95 annual fee which is worth it.
ONE SIMPLE CREDIT CARD WITH NO ANNUAL FEE (I.E., CHASE FREEDOM UNLIMITED CREDIT CARD)
Whereas the premium card (listed above) will be your luxurious card for everyday use, this card will be your no-frills backup card. If you lose your main card, you have a fallback. This card will take up nearly no space in the bottom of your bags but will save your sanity if you lose your wallet
Ensure this card is a NO ANNUAL FEE CREDIT CARD to make it worth the cost of keeping a backup.
TWO NO-FEES CHECKING ACCOUNTS WITH ONE DEBIT CARD FOR EACH
Ensuring access to cash is one of the most mind-soothing preventative measures you can take during travel. By keeping two separate checking accounts at two separate, you’ll most certainly always have access to cash.
But do these accounts need to be at two separate banks?
Yes, absolutely. For two possible situations
- Your primary bank account gets hacked / card gets cloned
- Your primary bank doesn’t operate well with banks in the country you’re traveling
In both of these scenarios, if you have two cards or two accounts at the same bank, they’re both immediately useless. And both situations are very much possible.
I’ve had one bank account hacked after I accessed it on unsecured cafe wifi and had to close the account. So that situation is a possibility.
For an example of the second scenario, Indonesia is reputed in the financial sector for money laundering and financial crimes. One of my banks outright refuses to send replacement credit cards or debit cards here when mine expired, simply because they were so worried about financial fraud. To their defense, though, I’ve lost three credit cards in Indonesia’s mail system, so they may be onto something.
Along the same lines, I’ve heard of two people’s cards here in Bali being “swiped” (cloned) and immediately maxed out on withdrawals for the day before the bank automatically canceled the card.
To cover all of your bases, set up two checking accounts at two separate banks and get a single debit card for each. Then, set up both accounts for easy transfers between, and you’re covered.
For your checking accounts, I recommend one primary option:
Charles Schwab Investor Checking: No fees, no fee atm withdrawals, and a $1000 withdrawal limit per day
Additionally, check out the following no-fee checking account options:
Get at least two of these today unless you have something better. All are free to set up, so I recommend setting them up today.
COMMUNICATION LINES TO SETUP BEFORE LEAVING
Communication lines, via regular postal mail, phone (international SIM), and email address linked with your home country are pivotal because they help you verify your identity, receive important documents, and receive/forward replacement cards from your home country, but they can only be set up while you’re at home.
Once these are set up, you’ll have three (all essential) mechanisms to get access to any information, mail, or paperwork you need while abroad.
- Virtual address and mailbox (I recommend PhysicalAddress.com)
- 2fa capable SIM (I recommend Google Fi)
- Gmail with information backups in Google Drive
VIRTUAL ADDRESS AND MAILBOX SERVICE
A virtual address is simply an address at a mail receiving facility registered to you. When any mail is received in your name, you’ll be notified via email and in your account on your website. At your request, they will scan incoming mail and upload copies of the scans to your account.
Additionally, a good virtual address service will provide a service to remail your letters or packages to anywhere in the world.
If you are traveling for more than a few months, YOU NEED A VIRTUAL ADDRESS
The main reasons I highly recommend setting up a virtual address are:
- Receive documents in a timely manner (first virtually, then forwarded physical documents)
- Have a central place to mail items before having them shipped as one package
- Have a simple reshaping service
- A continuing address as your “residence.”
At the cost of ~$12 a month, it is well worth how much it simplifies my life.
Whenever I need replacement credit cards, driver’s license renewal, or even Amazon purchases received and forwarded, I ship them to my virtual address and have them reshipped.
My current tax residence remains the same thanks to my virtual address being my “residence address,” making renewing a driver’s license and verifying my address very easy.
Paper checks, tax forms, paper forms sent for identity verification are all not an issue, no matter where I’m at in the world.
For a virtual address, I highly recommend using PhysicalAddress.com
Their service is reliable and inexpensive and has been one of the smartest moves I’ve made as a long-term traveler.
I’ve heard great things as well about Earth Class Mail, Anytime Mailbox, Traveling Mailbox, and US Global Mail.
INTERNATIONALLY CAPABLE SIM FROM HOME COUNTRY (GOOGLE FI)
Being able to receive text messages and calls while abroad is not only a good way to stay in touch with family, it’s also a good way to verify your identity with your bank via 2FA (2-factor authentication).
Have you experienced when calling your bank a representative may ask for a code sent to you via text message? That is an example of 2FA – and plan on it happening A LOT more when you travel long term – from your bank, PayPal, Airbnb, and nearly everything else you log into – as your international travel will often be flagged as suspicious.
If you don’t have access to text messages, plan on being locked out indefinitely until you return to the states – that’s what happened to me on PayPal and Airbnb during one trip backpacking South America.
Now, I always keep an activated US number with text and voice-enabled.
Be sure to activate your sim well before leaving your home country and setup that number as your primary number in all bank and financial accounts, and delete all of the old phone numbers you won’t have access to.
I highly recommend ordering and activating Google Fi.
GoogleFi’s base plan is only $20 a month for unlimited text and $10 per gigabyte of data. However, just activate Google Fi and use the Hangouts app for text messages (as you can send and receive text messages for your Google Fit number in Hangouts) while using the data plan from a cheaper, local sim. Note that your Google-Fi SIM must be installed in your phone, activated, and used once while you are still in the US – you won’t be able to activate a new or replacement SIM while traveling.
This plan will ensure you’re always able to receive verification texts anywhere in the world.
GMAIL WITH INFORMATION BACKUPS
If you don’t already have one, set up a Gmail address and use this email address as a repository for all of your important documents and travel records.
Take pictures of passports, drivers’ licenses, credit cards (front and back), insurance cards, and everything else, and then email them to yourself as well as upload to Google Drive.
The logic behind this is your email address then becomes a quickly accessible cloud drive with everything that is important to you.
Even if you have all of this information, pictures, and screenshots on your phone, if you lose your phone and it hasn’t been backed up, you lose it all (happened twice thanks to a glitch in backup over wifi).
However, if all of this information is backed up to email by emailing it to yourself, you just need to log in on a phone or laptop to get access to passport copies, credit card copies, itineraries, and more.
As an extra bonus, set up the Google Photos app to automatically backup your images for free. Then, snap pictures of documents, tickets, maps, receipts, maps, and everything else to keep records of everything you want to have long term.
Here’s what I always backup via email
- Passport card
- Drivers license
- Credit cards and debit cards (front and back)
- Essential Medical info listed (allergies, blood type, emergency contact, insurance info, special instructions)
- Emergency phone numbers
- Travel insurance information
I highly recommend starting a Gmail account as they’re very secure and come with ample storage to backup all of your
A NOTE ON TRAVEL INSURANCE
If you are traveling hard, in a risky way, I recommend at least considering travel insurance – especially if you have no other insurance.
Read all of my notes on why, or why not, to get travel insurance in this post
AN ARGUMENT AGAINST TRAVEL INSURANCE
Though I see travel insurance as worth the cost – ~$40 per month to avoid paying thousands of dollars in a worst case scenario – some people are healthy enough and travel in a low risk manner making it cheaper to plan on simply getting treated at local clinics. In cheaper countries that have a lower cost of living than in Europe and North America (such as most of Southeast Asia and Latin America), decent quality care is available for relatively cheap.
A simple checkup, having a tooth fixed, or patching up a cut or fractured limb are insanely cheaper than in North America, and might even be cheaper than paying for travel insurance.
My friends at 43 Blue Doors travel extremely frugally in an awesome way (they traveled for only $3000 in their first year with 2 people) and found out firsthand that paying for medical treatments at local clinics is far cheaper and just as good as travel insurance. If you think about it, in most scenarios for travel insurance, you’re paying western prices for local quality treatment – so for routine medical issues, keeping travel insurance doesn’t stand of to a cost to benefit analysis. However, if you hit a “worst case scenario” situation, thanks to adventuring a little harder than recommended, that’s when having the (nearly) limitless resource of travel insurance comes in handy.
However, the quality of care in worst case scenarios won’t be nearly as good if you have a serious accident, which may require a “life flight” out cost over $100,000 for total care.
AN ARGUMENT FOR TRAVEL INSURANCE
For instance, I know if two people, one who had a freediving accident on Bali and another who had an accident cliff jumping in Laos, who’s conditions became too critical to treat where they were at and needed a “life flight” out of the country.
The second fella had travel insurance which covered a life flight out of Laos, saving $30,000 of his own cash, and his life (though he doesn’t have one of his leg’s now). The second individual (the freediver) was allowed to die in a hospital in Bali because he didn’t have travel insurance and, while in a coma, no one could show proof that he would be able to pay the medical bills.
These two examples are why I always carry travel insurance if I’m motorbiking, surfing, freediving, or regularly engaging in any other activity that has a high accident rate and could result in heavy trauma, high medical bills, or a need for a life flight (to Singapore or Europe) for better care.
More recently, travel insurance gave me an out – paying for an evacuation flight – at the start of the pandemic and now covers me for corona virus, in the off case I need to hospitalized and hit a “worst case scenario” level thanks to coronavirus.
I currently carry Safetywing as the cost is low (~$40 per month) enough to justify paying for. If I’m traveling a little harder (like to trekking through the Himalayas, on a heavy surf trip, or doing lots of freediving) I’ll opt for World Nomads coverage briefly. (You can read about everything I’ve learned about travel insurance options here)
OTHER PERSONAL FINANCE ACTIONS TO DO AND TIPS TO KNOW BEFORE TRAVEL
The tips for being a savvy traveler that’s ready for a financial mishap are endless, but these six tips have saved me the most headache and are the tips I recommend most:
- Always carry enough cash for at least three days
- Call your bank to notify of extended travel before traveling.
- Setup addresses, SIM cards, and phone numbers before traveling
- Carry pictures of all of your travel documents and the front and back of all credit cards, paper copy, and digital
- Understand your credit card benefits as a traveler
- Understand your essential rights as an airline passenger
ALWAYS CARRY ENOUGH CASH FOR AT LEAST THREE DAYS
There are always potentially unforeseen circumstances in which credit cards aren’t accepted, the one atm on the island is broken, or a replacement card won’t arrive for a while.
The best way to prep for these situations is to carry cash. Cash will always be accepted and usable.
USD and Euros work everywhere. Keep three days cash minimum. 2 to 3 weeks is ideal.
CALL YOUR BANK TO NOTIFY OF EXTENDED TRAVEL BEFORE TRAVELING
Many banks try to prevent fraudulent activity by flagging “interesting” locations and shutting off your card until you call them. If your card was last used in Texas and you show up a month later in Hanoi after only using cash in Cambodia and Laos, your card will likely get shut off until you call to verify.
Avoid this by letting your bank know you’re wandering ahead of time, so they’ll expect this activity instead of flagging it.
SETUP ADDRESSES, SIM CARDS, AND PHONE NUMBERS BEFORE TRAVELING
If you’re on the road and need an address or home phone number, its too late. A friend or parent at home likely won’t be able to set these up for you either.
For instance, Google Fi requires you to put the sim in your phone and activate it while you’re in the US. Setting up a virtual address will require signing some forms, getting them notarized, and mailing them to your prospective virtual mail service. Gmail addresses vary according to the country (and IP address) they’re set up in unless you’re using a good VPN.
Instead, you’ll have to do it while in your home country, so plan accordingly and set them up soon.
CARRY PICTURES OF ALL OF YOUR TRAVEL DOCUMENTS AND THE FRONT AND BACK OF ALL CREDIT CARDS, PAPER COPY, AND DIGITAL
If you lose your credit cards and know they’re not stolen, but you have paper copies as backups (front and back), you’ll still be able to book flights online.
If you lose your passport, filing the claims with the police and embassy will be much easier if you can show them a copy.
Additionally, if you carry a copy of your passport, you can often leave the passport safely in the bottom of your bag and show the printed or digital copy.
Keeping copies will make life easier.
UNDERSTAND YOUR CREDIT CARD BENEFITS AS A TRAVELER (READ THE FINE PRINT AND TERMS AND CONDITIONS)
Premium credit cards carry tons of traveler benefits – insurance on purchases, purchase price protection, traveler insurance for theft and danger, and insurance coverage if your flight is delayed, canceled, or bags are lost.
This is all standard with your credit card—no need to pay extra. You just need to understand how and when to claim – because the credit card company definitely won’t remind you.
Take 10 minutes to breeze through the terms and conditions of your credit card and you’ll thank yourself the next time your flight is delayed/cancelled or your airline destroys your luggage.
UNDERSTAND YOUR ESSENTIAL RIGHTS AS AN AIRLINE PASSENGER
During the pandemic, airlines have reinforced the idea that “we’re all in it together” however, please keep in mind that most airlines will soon return to their mindset of “if you’re not First Class, you’re last.”
Prep yourself by knowing your rights as a traveler.
If an airline loses your bags, the airline is required by law to pay for everything you need until your bags are returned – that is according to FAA regulation.
If a flight is delayed or canceled for certain reasons, you are authorized compensation by law, according to FAA regulation.
If the airline screws up and you do not get that flight, the airline owes you a REFUND, not a credit A REFUND.
Understanding these rights now will prevent you from paying out of pocket for their negligence later.
If you ever have problems with a US flagged airline (American Airlines, United, etc.), Google FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) regulations on passenger rights and compensation guidelines before walking away from the situation – many customer service representatives won’t fill you in on your rights, so you’ll have to go into the situation with knowledge of what the airline is required to provide once you ask.
Take all of these steps and prep and, though you won’t avoid every potential hiccup traveling, you’ll be well poised to respond to most money, credit card, and airline-related problems that pop up.
I highly recommend examining your packing list before traveling. Though it may not seem like it, you can save tons of money and headache by traveling with only a carry-on backpack. With the right gear and the right packing list, you’ll be traveling light and won’t need to purchase anything for years of travel. Literally.
I’ve been on the road with only a carry-on backpack for four years, and I rarely buy anything new, thanks to my carry on only packing list. If you don’t trust my level of minimalism, give Rick Steve’s Ultimate packing list a look.
Lastly, if you are traveling adventurously – trekking, motorbiking, eat wild street food – be sure to cover yourself strategically with good travel insurance. I recommend reading my Complete Guide to Travel Insurance to understand your best options for travel medical and accident insurance, laptop insurance, and all of the benefits you already get from your credit cards.
Good luck and hopefully I’ll see you on the road!