Ask Trip Coach: Supersize Vacations
A week's vacation is all very well, but who doesn't dream of getting—and staying—away for a long stretch? Before you pack your bags, there are quite a few arrangements to make.
What should we do about our house while we're gone?
That's the comparatively easy part. If you'll be traveling for less than a month, just ask a friend to water the plants. For longer absences, leasing is the way to go. Most real-estate agents won't do short-term rentals, so you'll have to be your own agent: Post an ad on Craigslist and, better yet, spread the word via Facebook, group e-mails, and word of mouth, all of which increase your chances of finding a trustworthy tenant. Whomever you select, get references from an employer or a landlord—someone who can speak to that person's reliability. Put everything in writing (download templates at findlegalforms.com, from $10) and ask for a security deposit of at least one month's rent. Also, switch your home-owner's insurance to a rental policy, which will cost about 20 percent less and cover damage to the building as well as your own liability. Your possessions probably won't be protected, so stash valuables in storage. Also crucial: Either pay your bills in advance or sign up for online banking, and don't forget to put your mail and newspapers on hold.
How about health care? Can I just get by with travel insurance?
Before you delve into the eye-crossing world of insurance, here's what you need to know: Medical coverage in a typical travel insurance policy is very limited. It provides only secondary benefits, meaning expenses not taken care of by your primary health plan. And that's only when "life or limb"—literally—are at imminent risk. So, for instance, you'll be reimbursed for getting a broken leg set or going in for chest pains that might indicate a heart attack, but not for a routine checkup or a doctor's visit for the flu. The most significant thing travel insurance does cover is the cost of emergency evacuation—worthwhile if you're heading somewhere remote and potentially dangerous. At insuremytrip.com, you can compare price quotes and policies from more than a dozen insurers. Also check out worldnomads.com, an Australia-based company that specializes in basic, reasonably priced travel policies for adventurers (covering skiing and snowboarding, which few other insurers do).
Once overseas, is it better to pay with credit cards or local currency?
The short answer is both, depending on the place and purchase. Visa and MasterCard add up to 1 percent in fees to all foreign transactions, and since most banks tack on another 1 percent or 2 percent, travelers often pay a 3 percent surcharge anytime they use plastic. The exception is Capital One, whose No Hassle cards are free of overseas fees and even cover the assessment Visa and MasterCard usually charge. If you're abroad for a while, those surcharges can add up. Of course, you still need pocket money. Get it from ATMs, not exchange counters, but be aware that your bank may charge 1 percent to 3 percent and/or a flat dollar amount, and the ATM may have its own fee. Find out about your bank's conversion surcharge and whether it has affiliate ATMs in your destination. Bank of America, for example, belongs to the Global ATM Alliance, a network of major international banks that allow customers to use participating companies' machines fee-free. The more than 12,000 ATMs are spread throughout North America, Europe, Australia, and China. Find partner ATM locations at bankofamerica.com.
How complicated is it to have our kids miss school for a while?
"Ironically, it's easier to take your children out of school for a year than it is for two (or four or six) weeks," says John Higham, who recently chronicled a yearlong trip with his wife and two kids in his book 360 Degrees Longitude: One Family's Journey Around the World. If you'll be staying put for several months, the kids can attend a local school; scope out the options via International Schools Services (iss.edu), a nonprofit that has a directory of more than 500 accredited American and international schools overseas, and at the State Department's Office of Overseas Schools site (state.gov/m/a/os/). Application processes may be complicated, requiring transcripts, referrals, and interviews, and schools can fill up, so it's best to start planning at least six months in advance. If you'd rather be on-the-go, consider homeschooling. Just about every state has its own homeschool association, which can help you navigate everything from curricula to appropriate textbooks to state standards. Be prepared to work closely with principals and teachers to help kids keep up with coursework. Higham's key advice is to approach your school with a plan: "Don't make the mistake of asking, 'Will this be OK?' Tell them, 'My child is going to be gone for the month of April. How can we get him prepared to return in May?' Some schools may balk, but remember, this is your decision."
Top Three Resources
Book: The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World, by Edward Hasbrouck
Advice about everything from when to buy plane tickets to which countries are ideal for train journeys (travelmatters.com, $22).
Firsthand accounts from countless destinations (where else can you read about spending the summer solstice in Scotland's Orkney Islands?).
Message board: Expatexchange.com
The go-to forum for anyone on a long-term trip or working abroad. Key features include individual networks for 120 countries and a resource guide with info on everything from renting a car to finding counseling and jobs.