Making a List, Checking It Twice

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No, we are not talking about getting a leg up on next Christmas. We are preparing to hit the road, again.

Yes, Partout is back. We take off New Year’s Day on the first of 16 flights that will criss-cross urban and other jungles of South America for more than two months before whisking us to Mexico City, depositing us at a wedding in Baja California, carrying us to the US border at Tijuana afterward and, finally, winging us back to DC. Among other things, a journey like this involves a lot of list-making and box-checking.

Doris is relieved to finally, belatedly, be checking off her list this long-promised reply to the practical questions you sent in 2018 about how we manage to live so long on the road, both logistically and personally (i.e., without killing one another).

We leave the personal challenges for another blog because, right now, we are deep in the logistical ones. In case your new year also involves packed bags and long itineraries, here are a few essentials and insights we picked up along the way in 2018.


BANKING

We start with banking because no money = no travel.

Online banking is now so complete and slick that we have been able (so far) to manage all our finances from abroad without a hiccup. That includes completing income and property tax payments, paying off credit cards and speeding tickets (speeder to remain unidentified), making year-end charitable contributions and shifting money between accounts to make sure cash is available for our ATM withdrawals.

The one iron-clad rule we have embraced for our online banking is that we absolutely never ever EVER go online to any financial account on a public network, including those in hotels, where wifi is typically either not protected or is on a shared network with other guests. Avoiding insecurity is pretty easy for us because we mostly stay in homes or AirBnBs with secure wifi, but there are times when we need to bank or buy something, and we are on the go. What then?

TOP TIP: If we must bank or buy from a hotel, we ask if they have one “good old-fashioned computer with a wired-in internet connection.” We asked that question in an uber-hip Amsterdam hotel in the fall, and the answer was, “That’s not old-fashioned at all!” before leading us to a whole bank of terminals. (Maybe it takes a hipster to know how uncool it is to be hacked?) Granted, nothing is totally hack-proof today, but wired connections remain far safer than wireless ones. When we use one, we make sure to close all browsers and destroy any other bread crumbs when we exit. When we can’t find one, and the only alternative is an insecure connection, we don’t bank or buy.

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It’s a little unnerving heading to a country where our pockets will be stuffed with denominations in the thousands (that 50,000 bill is worth about $15). At least they put women on their currency, albeit just for small change (61 US cents)


PHONES

We admit it: We are unalterably tethered.

On our travels, we use our mobile phones to navigate in unfamiliar locations; stay in touch with each other when we split up; reach drivers, guides and other key people and keep in touch with family and friends far away. Our mobile phones are also a mobile Fort Knox. Because we usually are not in a position to print things like hotel confirmations, they are the carry-alls for our reservations, confirmations, contacts, even copies of our passports and driver’s licenses.

Just as critically, as more banks and other institutions go to two-factor identification that involves a texted code, our phones are indispensable for banking and other online activities. We could buy and install SIM cards in every country, but they come with new phone numbers, and that means texts won’t reach us.

T-Mobile offers unlimited data and texting in nearly every country we visit so we both have gone all T-Mobile, all the time. The virtually endless data has the added attraction of allowing us to use our phones as hot spots for our other devices when no wifi is available.

To keep all those toys energized for these communications, we now carry not one, not two but three backup chargers. Indispensable. We also carry a retired iPhone 4 in case we lose or damage one of our primary phones. If we absolutely have to use a SIM card in order to stay live, we insert in the old phone, which is good enough for travel basics and way easier than abandoning our home phone numbers while the SIM is in.

TOP TIP: On out 2018 trip, T-Mobile’s unlimited data was 2G glacial (grooooan). Though adequate for necessities like pulling up a boarding pass in an airport, 2G was too feeble for “luxuries” such as navigating in foreign cities or Yelping. Our solution was to upgrade to T-Mobile’s One Plus. For an extra $10/phone/month, we now get at least 3G service in 144 countries, plus access to wifi on airlines that connect to the Internet via Gotoflight and a few other shiny bennies. We suspect there will still be countries where we need to buy a SIM card to get adequate data on our phones, but the T-Mobile package has come through so far.

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Using T-Mobile as our carrier has proven way easier than going through SIM card installations like this one in Tanzania, which T-Mobile did not serve last year (but does now).


ACCOUNT MANAGEMENT

At the outset of the 2018 adventure (in 2017), we began tracking all our bank and credit card transactions and our spending trends with Mint.com, a free product from Intuit. That’s why we can tell you (should your life be so dull you want to know) exactly what it cost to eat and drink for five months abroad. By city. Or day/week/month. Or all of the above. All without ever opening an Excel spreadsheet. Doris spent maybe an hour a week updating Mint; the rest was performed by Intuit.

A bonus advantage of Mint on the road is that we could see in one view exactly what was going on in all our related bank and credit card accounts, without ever opening any virtual doors into the bank and credit card accounts themselves. Mint also emails alerts about things like bank fees and other unusual activity. In these days of hacking and identify theft, that felt like a priceless early-warning system. All free.

We have now set other globetrotting friends on the Mint trail, and they are having the same experience. Highly recommended.

TOP TIP: Some accounts, especially government accounts like Social Security and Medicare, cannot be accessed from abroad. We downloaded a free virtual private network (VPN) so we can conceal our location when we need to do things like read a Medicare notice. We use TunnelBear, which has the bonus of being very cute as well as efficient. There are others. The free allotment is not adequate to do something like play music from Pandora or stream a movie, but it is plenty for account management as long as we remember to turn it off when we are done.

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Besides the practical aspects of Mint tracking, it is an obsessive’s dream.


PHOTOS

Oh, boy. This is a tale until itself.

In 2018, Louis took most of his photos mostly using his Leica D-Lux (Typ 109), supplemented by his iPhone 7. Doris took photos exclusively with her iPhone 6S, which was good enough to occasionally produce a shot that made the cut into the blog.

The iPhone photos were automatically uploaded to the Apple cloud, of course, and thus saved. Whenever time and internet permitted, Louis transferred the Leica photos into his MacBook (yes, we carried his computer everywhere), where they were also saved to the cloud. Bye-bye worries about losing those priceless visuals but at the price of a certain degree of hassle. We both put collages together using the free Moldov app on our phones or tablets.

We take off in 2019 with a new approach to photos. Frustrated by his limited zoom capabilities, Louis last summer purchased a Sony RX10 ii. Without adding a great deal of bulk or weight, the Sony preserves the wide-angle perspective he liked about the Leica but adds an additional 130 mm of zoom to the Leica’s 70 mm. The Sony can also send photos directly to his phone, tablet or laptop, eliminating the camera-to-laptop step.

Stay tuned to Partout for the results.

TOP TIP: We use screen captures to save anything we could conceivably need along the way as photographs rather than as URLs or emails. That confirmation email from AirBnB? Click. It goes into pictures. Because pictures are available even when internet is unavailable, this assures we have access to all our essentials on all our synched devices even if our phones happen to go missing or dead.

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The intrepid photographer in position for a great Partout shot in Granada, Spain.


CREDIT CARDS

Have you ever noticed that, in those travel or money stories about the best credit card for travel, Chase Sapphire Reserve always comes at or near #1? That’s because it really is the tops.

We won’t bore you with the details, just say we would not leave home without ours (technically, his and hers). We have trip cancellation/interruption coverage built into every ticket we buy with the card, substantial evacuation/repatriation benefits, access to private Priority Pass airport lounges (a $500 benefit all by itself), 24/7 concierge service and a bunch more, including retail perks. We can use the points we accrue for travel or transfer them to Chase’s travel partners.

The Sapphire looks expensive ($450/year), but Chase rebates the first $300 in travel expenses every year, making it a $150 card, net. Even at that price, we make money on it with the very first trip every year because we typically do not have to buy travel insurance. And all those benefits are after the windfall of sign-up points that we converted to free international travel.

However we accrue points, when we use them for award tickets, we nearly always fly United these days. Besides having a robust network of routes, United’s one-way economy award tickets require only 30,000 miles, with many (e.g., within South America or Asia) going for 15,000 miles or less. Flying a US carrier also allows us to use our TSA Pre-Check to skip long security lines; foreign carriers are not part of the TSA system.

TOP TIP: We both maintain free credit card accounts exclusively for automated payments — Uber, Lyft, Parkmobile, Apple store, amazon Prime renewals and a bazillion more. Unlike our Sapphire cards, we never leave home with them. This guarantees that, should our primary cards be compromised on the road, we will not have to go through the hoops of changing every auto payment we have set up.

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The Priority Pass benefit of our Sapphire cards swept us past the sweating hordes at immigration when we landed in Zanzibar and showered us with treats. Love those perks!


TRAVEL INSURANCE

We have personally seen too many medical emergencies requiring hospitalization or evacuation during travel to leave the country without travel insurance. We know folks who do, and all we can say is … stay well.

For domestic trips and international trips under 60 days, we rely almost entirely on the benefits of our Sapphire cards and the smallish medical benefits of our Medicare and supplementary insurance ($2,500 each). These and Sapphire’s benefits become null on trips of more than 60 days. For those travels, we buy supplementary medical insurance from insurers like Allianz, Berkshire Hathaway and others. The price range for comparable benefits can be astonishing: from $200 to $10,000 for similar packages. To date, we have yet to pay over $200 for both of us for the duration of any trip, regardless how long, but it takes shopping to get the best fit and deal.

TOP TIP: Sort through travel insurance options on an insurance search engine like insuremytrip.com or squaremouth.com to find one that fits.
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Coming Soon: On the Road Again

In the Meantime: HAPPY NEW YEAR with a reprise from the Champs Elysees, where the old one began just about exactly 365 days ago.

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