Key Things to Do for Families Traveling Overseas

Two weeks into our family trip overseas from San Francisco to Penang, despite out best to prepare for the trip, we’ve hit upon a couple of snags that I wish we had gotten some prior advice on. Some of the things I list below are things we actually did do but only through research before hand. I wish it were presented in a more consolidated form; other things we hadn’t done and now, with the benefit of hindsight, wish we had.d

Make sure to get a foreign transaction free credit card

This wasn’t common advice. It came from a chance happening upon an article or two from The Points Guy. We pretty much ignored any points we could earn when making the decision, perhaps not the smartest, but most of the good ones had an annual feel and we didn’t want to have to close down a card, and I haven’t gotten to a situation where I knew I would continue to benefit moving forward.

He had another list here.

The card I ended up picking was Capital One QuickSilver. NerdWallet’s article was pretty good. I didn’t actually read that before applying for it, but it’s a good reflection of how I made the decision (simple, no annual fees, cash-back, no foreign transaction fees).

Make sure your ATM fees are reimbursed

We don’t use the credit card all that often (one beautiful thing we do use in Penang has been Tesco’s online shopping because of the delivery for only MYR$10. Right now, that’s about US$3 to have them deliver right to our door, including heavy stuff like big jugs of water and diapers (key with the two-year old and 9-month old).

We probably go to the ATM at least twice a week so we have cash around without having alot of extra loose cash. Our bank, First Republic Bank has been phenomenal in this regard.

Tell your bank, credit card, and PayPal you are traveling

Once you have your ATM and credit-card set, make sure they know the dates and locations of your travel. This helps to ensure they work smoothly without any fraud alerts. One thing we did not do which caused a hiccup was PayPal. We just didn’t expect to use it. However, you just never know and it’s good to have options.

In our case, I had a food tour with Robyn Eckhardt and she was best paid via PayPal. But because we didn’t set up our travel plans before hand, I was locked out from using it when I logged in from a Malaysian IP address. Even when I went back in with a reverse proxy, it was too late. I ended up solving it because I had a business PayPal account which I was still able to use, but it’s good to be flexible.

Guess why? Because I didn’t set up the bank transfer (see below), I’m needing to pay for our short-term condo using PayPal! Yeah PayPal, but don’t bet on it.

Prepare your bank with international wire transfer authorization

There may come the scenario you do need to have money wired. In our case, it was the only way to pay for our condo fees. I hadn’t actually thought through what that payment scenario would look like, but in hindsight it’s pretty obvious we needed to prepare for a wire, which most can accept. The alternative is to prepare authorization for a Western Union, but so far, it seems that the wire should be sufficient. If the person you’re dealing with has a bank account, that should work.

However, it does take some paperwork that needs signature and time to set up. We didn’t do that and it’s not that easy to find a printer on demand when traveling. So….we’re now waiting on PayPal (see above) but you don’t want to depend on that.

Why couldn’t we use our ATM? Well, like in the US, there are withdrawal limits. In our case, it was MYR$500 per bank. We needed to pay an advance of MYR$10,000 so that just wouldn’t fly.

Research how you’ll have internet access

Even though Malaysia has a relatively modern internet infrastructure, you can’t count on it being available in your condo. If you’re planning on being in a specific unit for over a year, then it might be worth while to actually pay for the installation of a modem. I’m not sure if it’s all that fast, though, since my experience in San Francisco is that it could take at least a week for the set up, perhaps longer if the building hasn’t been properly wired.

Maybe it would’ve been easier to do that, I don’t have the actual experience (but would like to know) and it was hard to tell.

The way I solved it was to just by a MIFI (after doing quite a bit of research on which provider had 4G coverage in Penang – so far, only YES. Not only did it seem to have the only 4G in Penang, it had the only option to subscribe without contract. That’s key for our 2-month stay.

It wasn’t the cheapest, but wasn’t horrible.

I purchased the required MIFI Huddle for about MYR$400 (US$133) – hopefully I can resell it to someone else, somehow. The plans aren’t awesome: I started with the 2GB per month (not a ton but good for regulard surfing and email) at MYR$48, which is US$16. We’ll see how it goes in terms of usage. But getting speed and no-contract was critical.

For bigger downloads like videos for the kids, we used the condo’s community wifi which worked out great.

Unlock your phones

I am so glad that I unlocked my iPhone. I am on AT&T and so was able to do so. My wife didn’t think she would even need the phone, but I am so glad I got a local Malaysian number. Once it was unlocked, I went into a store and asked for a Digi. Again, the hard part as with YES, was figuring what plan. Most of the ones advertised seemed like they were for converting to a longer-term post-paid plan which typically requires a contract.

I just went into a mini-mart and asked for a MYR$20 SIM card and paid for pre-paid coupons. Maybe if I were heard for longer than two-months, I would just get a contract, but the coupons are easy to get and to reload right off of the phone.

I did see a way to buy prepaid online but not sure how easy that is since they would need to ship a SIM card. It would make it easier by reloading online, which you can’t do (as far as I can tell) using a store-bought SIM card.

Load the MyTeksi App

Why would I need to use my phone in Penang so much? The top two phone calls were with real-estate agents and with taxis. Without a phone, you’re kind of SOL. With the two kids, being able to call a cab made such a difference. But what made it even easier was having internet access and phone access combined with the My Teksi. This allowed us to punch in our current location, our destination, and then provide what the approximate fare would be (important so that you don’t get overcharged, which happened several times before we used the app).

A life saver for us. We had the phone numbers of drivers we liked, but even that was more of a hassle at times than just using the app.

Some other valuable apps

  • Opera set to “mini” – load pages faster on your phone
  • Google maps – even helped us with bus lines
  • WhatApp – all the real-estate agents used it for communicating

There are probably some other things we would do to prep in retrospect, will add to this or in a subsequent post.