31 July 2013

Trips Abroad ...

Those planning trips abroad are reminded to check their documentation carefully before they travel, particularly in the case of those requiring an ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorisation - required when travelling to the US under the Visa Waiver Programme) or an EHIC (European Health Insurance Card (required when travelling to another country in Europe).  

The ESTA can be sourced from the genuine webwsite: https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov/esta/ and costs £9 ($14).

The EHIC is free: http://www.nhs.uk/NHSEngland/Healthcareabroad/EHIC/Pages/about-the-ehic.aspx, or call 0300 330 1350.

Here are some travel tips from Martin Lewis, broadcaster and founder of MoneySavingExpert.com.

Items to put in your 'overseas wallet' - what it's essential to take abroad:

Firstly, a valid, free, EHIC card (see other article, above).  This card entitles you to treatment by state hospitals and GPs in the EU and Switzerland. Many wrongly assume this means free treatment.  In fact it means you pay what the natives pay.  So if it's free for them, it's free for you; if they pay, you pay. And it's not just useful for serious problem.

There are a few things to watch for though.  
  • Millions of these cards are invalid as they're out of date.  Check the expiry date at the bottom right of your card now.  Many people are travelling with worthless old cards (3.5 million will expire this year alone), and these need to be renewed.
  • Carry it with you.  For it to be valid, you need to present the card.  Don't leave it in the hotel, keep it in your overseas purse or wallet.
  • Children need their own card.  Don't asume your child is covered on yours.
  • The card is always free; never pay.  Never use Google to get or renew a card.  You may end up on a shyster site trying to look official.  These act as agents, pretending they can fast-track, charging £20 to do so, but it's all nonsense.
  • Some Spanish hospitals are not playing ball.  The EU is investigating reports of some unfair rejections of cards.
While EHICs are useful, they're not a substitute for travel insurance, as you may still need to pay for treatment, or to use a private hospital.  Plus it doesn't cover cancellation, repatriation to the UK, baggage or property issues.

Secondly, your driving licence and international permit.  This is used for getting a hire car and is also useful as an ID, which if often demanded when paying by card.  By the way, do check the following (£1,000 fine for non-compliance!):
David Beckham's driving licence!
  • that your licence is not out of date, photo licences are only valid for ten years (£20 to renew at gov.uk).  If you have an old paper licence this is not an issue, although these are not always accepted outside the UK.
  • that it has your correct address, it's free to change.
  • that it has your correct name, again it's free to change.
For driving outside the EU it's either recommended or compulsory in 140 countries to have an International Driving Permit, as well as your UK licence.  This link (http://www.theaa.com/motoring_advice/overseas/idp-requirements-by-country.html) shows the AA's country-by-country guide to what's needed.  The cheapest way to get one is at the Post Office, for £5.50.

Again, beware Google.  Shyster sites will charge you unnecessary extra fees for renewing driving licences.  Plus, ignore 'International Driving Licence' adverts, as these aren't official.  You need your UK licence plus an 'International Driving Permit'.

Thirdly, a few euros and dollars:  When you return from a holiday there's not much point in changing back a small amount of currency. Better to leave it sitting in your overseas wallet until next time.  If you do feel the need to have some cash with you, the worst sin is to leave it until the airport.  Bureaux there know you're a captive customer and give hideous rates.  If you've already left it too late, you'll get far better value if you at least pre-order online or by phone, then pick up your cash at the airport.

Better still, if you've a few days before you go, try travelmoneymax.com.  It compares the best rates from many online bureaux for collection and delivery.  NB The very best rate available at the airport is currently 575 euros.

The fourth important item is plastic that gives unbeatable exchange rates everywhere: a specialist overseas credit card.  It's not to do with borrowing, it's simply an easy vehicle to get the best exchange rates in every country.

Spending abroad on most plastic cards should be avoided.  Whilst banks and building societies themselves get the nigh-on perfect Visa/Mastercard wholesale rate, they then add a 3% load to what they charge us.  Worse still, all your statement shows is the exchange rate incorporating the load - thus hiding their stealth charge. 

Yet there's a number of specialist load-free credit cards, where you get these bureau-beating rates in every country.  As they're credit cards, do ensure you repay in full every month, to avoid being charged high interest rates, otherwise you negate the gain of cheap spending abroad.

Top card just for using abroad is the halifax.co.uk Clarity card, as it doesn't have an ATM fee for withdrawing cash.  It's not so good for UK use.

Top for UK and abroad capitalone.co.uk Aspire World card, it has a £3 ATM cash withdrawl charge. Yet its real boon is as a dual-use overseas/home card, it pays UK cashback of up to 1.25% on spending.

Other load-free cards, the big ones are Saga, the Post Office, Nationwide, Selection (only for existing customers) and Santander Zero (no longer available to new customers).  If you're got one of these, then although ATM fees are a bit higher than Clarity, it's not worth switching.

Two bank accounts offer load-free debit cards too - Metro and Norwich and Peterborough.  Yet to change your entire bank purely for this function, when you can just stick a credit card in your overseas wallet, seems like too much.

Of course, in order to get a credit card, you need to pass the credit score, and making an application to find out leaves a mark on your credit file, whether you're accepted or not.  Help is at hand , though, in the shape of the Eligibility Checker, which shows your odds of acceptance for each card, using 'soft searches' that don't mark your file: moneysavingexpert.com/TravelCardEligibility.

Finally, where possible, if you've a choice, spend on these specialist cards, rather than withdraw cash, not just to avoid ATM fees, but because you usually pay interest on cash withdrawals even if you clear the card in full.  However, if you do that, the charge is still relatively trivial, at £1 per £100, and this still beats most bureaux de change.

Alternative weapon: the top prepay card overseas.  If you can't get the top credit card, or don't trust yourself with one, prepay cards are effectively an electronic travellers' cheque.  Load them up with cash in advance and use them while you're away.  If you lose it, no problem; pay a replacement fee and the cash is re-credited.

While some offer rates almost as good as the best credit card, what counts is the rate on the day you load the cash up, rather than the day you spend.  Hold the card a long time, then, and if the exchange rate moves against, you, you lost out (although of course you could gain if it goes the other way).

FairFX euro and collar cards offer the top rates, but there's a £10 set-up fee unless you apply via moneysavingsupermarket.com comparison site, where it's wiped if you load at least 60 Euros or £75.  Full alternatives at moneysavingexpert.com/prepaidcards.

And finally: A photocopy of my passport: in case my passport goes missing - the key details can be very useful.

And the one thing you won't find in my wallet ...

There's a hidden danger lurking in purses and wallets.  If you carry a debit card from Halifax, Intelligent Finance, Lloyds TSB, NatWest or RBS, beware - these are the overseas debit cards from hell.

Like most plastic they add a load, and like most debit and credit cards they charge an ATM fee. However, these cards also add up to £1.50 on top of that each time you spend (NatWest/RBS have lowered this charge for larger amounts, but it's still purgatory).
In other words, buy something in a shop of £5.00 worth of euros, and with the load and this spending find, it can cost you £6.65. 

Carry on like that and it soon adds up to a horrific sum!

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