Save on calls and cash abroad

  @Money January 25, 2013: 10:50 AM ET
save cash abroad trb

Before your trip, let your bank know about your overseas travel and reduce the risk of having your credit-card account frozen.

(Money Magazine)

After all the work you did to track down a great deal on flights and hotels for your international vacation, the last thing you want is to blow a couple hundred bucks doing the wrong thing with your phone or the cards in your wallet.

Here's how to get it right.

Paying for stuff

Call your bank. Before you take off, let your bank know about your trip, says Greg McBride of

Rising fraud losses have made banks more vigilant about unusual charges, he says. Unless you say something, you could end up with a disabled ATM or credit card soon after you get cash and charge your first dinner.

Hit the ATM when you must. While you should use cash sparingly, you can't avoid it altogether, so withdraw what you need from an ATM.

Related: 5 ways to get best travel deals

Yes, you'll pay a fee of a few dollars or 2% to 3% of the transaction, says Sarah Schlichter of Still, your bank will use the interbank rate (a wholesale rate of exchange), so you'll also get more for your dollars than you would at a money-changing kiosk.

Favor a no-fee credit card. Pay with plastic as often as you can -- but first get a card that doesn't charge a foreign transaction fee (usually about 3% of purchases).

Capital One has long had transaction-fee-free cards, and now more issuers, including Citibank and Chase, are wiping out fees on certain premium cards. For a complete list, visit

Staying in touch

Connect using Wi-Fi. Overseas, you can run up a hefty smartphone bill before you make a single call. Blame international data rates of $20 to $25 per megabyte, says Ed Perkins of

Cuba's Christmas travel nightmare

"You can go through several megabytes by getting a few texts, voicemail alerts, and app updates," he says.

Put your phone in airplane mode (turning off data and calls ) and connect to e-mail and the web through local Wi-Fi networks.

Related: Creating a budget that includes travel

With a U.S.-based voice-over-IP phone number from Skype or Tango, you can also make calls via Wi-Fi for pennies a minute.

Or sign up for an international calling plan. Figuring on making lots of calls? Keep your phone on (but data off) and spring for a package instead. The plans aren't cheap, but you'll save over regular rates. AT&T, which usually charges $1.50 a minute for calls in Europe, offers 80 European minutes for $60 ($1 a minute if you go over).

Related: 7 best travel apps

Or swap your SIM card. If you've bought your smartphone in the past few years, there's a good chance it uses an electronic SIM card to store your user ID, which may give you another option. You can outfit an "unlocked" phone, or one that can use a card from any company, with a local SIM, giving you a local number and rates.

To find out if your handset is locked, call your carrier, which may be willing to unlock it if you say you're traveling. Then buy an international SIM card at a site like A $19 card, for example, includes free incoming calls in more than 75 countries and 49ยข-a-minute calls back to the U.S.

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