Category Archives: Departure Lounge

The Departure Lounge: Managing Money Abroad

Welcome to my ongoing series, The Departure Lounge! Here I’m delving into the preparations for long-term travel, from what gear I’m packing, to how I’m going to stay healthy, to downsizing.

Foreign transaction fees. ATM withdrawal charges. Credit card commissions. They all add up to chunks of your travel budget mysteriously disappearing from your bank account. Two years ago, an innocent call to my bank to alert them to my travel plans led to the discovery that my bank charged a SIX DOLLAR foreign ATM withdrawal fee, plus whatever fees the ATM charged, plus a 3% foreign transaction fee. I was horrified as I pictured fruity Thai cocktails literally disappearing from my hands on the beach. I vowed to get my act together and find a better way to access and manage my money abroad. Here’s how I do it now:

Cayman Currency

Credit Cards
Credit cards are not widely accepted on the backpacker trail, but they still come in handy for flights, car rentals and other large purchases, especially if you are building frequent flyer miles or other rewards. However, many people are shocked to learn that most credit cards charge a two or three percent fee for foreign transactions, plus an extra percent tacked on from Visa or Mastercard. It might not seem like a lot, but if you have $15,000 saved up for your trip around the world, you can say goodbye to $450 of that! That’s quite a few Thai massages on Koh San Road.

There is one exception to the rule: Capital One. They charge no fees of their own, and they even refund Visa or Mastercard’s 1% charge. I opened a card two years ago with the purpose of building my credit and though I rarely use it, it works as advertised. I recently upgraded to Capital One’s Venture One card, which named the Top Pick for Travel Rewards Cards and Money Magazine named “Best Rewards Card if you aim to rack up airline miles.” I received a 10,000 mile sign up bonus plus two miles for every dollar I spend, which can be redeemed on any airline, any time. Hopefully this will lessen the physical pain I feel every time I buy a flight and see my bank balance drop!

Cayman Currency

Debit Cards
With traveler’s checks becoming obsolete and credit cards rarely accepted for budget travelers, debit cards are best way for traveler’s to gain access to their money abroad. After my incident with my first bank, I quickly changed to TD Bank, which refunded ATM fees worldwide. I was a loyal customer and their biggest fan for two years until they changed their policies this February. I was devastated as I love their banking, but its a good reminder to check in and make sure your bank’s policies haven’t changed before a major holiday.

For my primary checking account I now use Schwab, famed among travelers for its worldwide ATM fee refunds and no foreign transaction fees! You do have to open a brokerage account at the same time but its minimal hassle and you don’t have to use this. I may have a new banking love affair!


Once you’ve got your bills out of the money machine, there’s still work to do. Personally I am a passionate budgeter; I get an odd thrill out of tracking my every transaction. Cash slips so quickly through your fingers, I think I just like to look back and remember what I spent it on once its gone. I hadn’t yet caught the bug on my first trip to Asia and now I wish I had as it would be helpful for planning purposes to look back on.

Traveling with another person can complicate things. It can be nit-picky and exhausting to split every bill and purchase down the middle, but its also easy to feel that one person is chipping in more than the other if you don’t. During our two week trip to Honduras this summer Mark and I used a simple system. We brought along a large envelope and each put in the same amount of cash. Every time it ran low we hit the ATM and each put in the same amount again. All joint meals, activities and purchases were paid for from the envelope and recorded on the front for my records. Any solo purchases (such as souvenirs or separate activities) were to be paid for out of our own pockets, but I we didn’t end up doing anything significant on our own. I highly recommend this system to any couples or friends wondering how to manage their cash on a joint trip!

In conclusion
All of this can be exhausting just to read, and I’m sure some readers are wondering if it all is even worth the hassle. I put in hours of research before opening each of my accounts, and I would do it again twice over if it would keep my money flowing freely from my bank account into the hands of the person handing me a banana pancake on the street rather that into the coffers of a credit card company. You worked hard for that money, keep it for yourself! So go forth and research. Find the right system for you managing your money abroad. Enroll in online banking, check it often. Call your banks and alert them to travel. Don’t buy one of those money belts. And never change currency at the airport.

Do you have any tips for managing money traveling that I missed?


Downsize Yourself! Ebay Tips

On Wednesday, I shared an overview of how I made $1,800 selling stuff I no longer wanted or needed. Friday, I went into detail about what I learned from my garage sale. Today, I’m sharing my top tips for Ebay, where I made $945 over the past year. Ebay can be a lot of work, from taking photos to creating listings to shipping your items. Yet there’s not other marketplace like it and you’re guaranteed to reach more customers than in any other venue. Let’s get selling!

Ebay Tips

1. Take Good Photos
Taking great photographs is the number one thing you can do to increase your sales in any online market place. Use a solid black or white backdrop if possible, and try to shoot in natural light. Show items from all relevant angles, and if you are selling a used item with some sort of defect or imperfection, make sure to include a photo of that as well. Ebay includes one photo free, and the rest are 15 cents each.

Ebay Tips

2. Write Good Descriptions
After photographs, descriptions are the most important factor in getting your item sold. Add as many details as possible especially including the condition. I find that if I don’t include measurements of clothing and other items, people write in and ask for them anyway, so I advise including them from the start.

I also try to add a little personality to my listings to instill a little confidence for first time buyers. It can be intimidating to buy used items online, a little warmth goes a long way!

Ebay Tips

3. Resist Add-Ons
Ebay offers tons of options to make your listing stand out, from subtitles to listing “designers.” I say skip them all. At over $1.50 for a subtitle alone, you could easily increase your fees to the point that you barely make a profit! Be confident that those who are looking for your item will find it, bold title or not, and focus on great photographs and descriptions instead.The only exception to this is buy it now, which can be attractive to buyers who want to, you know, buy it now! However, it means more trips to the post office compared to a group of auctions ending on the same day so be sure it is worth the hassle.

Ebay Tips

4. Start Your Auction Right
Seven day auctions are the best as they give you the longest viewable time without charging an extra fee. It also means that the time you list your item will be the time your item ends. I have had mixed results but the expert opinion is that weekend auction endings are the best. One thing I can solidly agree with is the best time to end your auctions is in the evening when people are home from work.

Ebay Tips

5. Rank High in Searches
To increase your ranking in ebay search results, make your handling time one business day. I usually aim to ship out items within a day or two of cleared payment, but occasionally have run beyond that and I still get frequent feedback on my fast shipping! So don’t be afraid that the ebay police will come after you if you mark one business day and really end up taking two. Its worth the search results returns.The other search engine tip I give it to keep your shipping costs reasonable. In the past sellers listed very high shipping fees in order to sneak by ebay’s percentage based final value fees, but they now charge a percentage of shipping fees as well so it benefits you to be realistic about your shipping costs.

Ebay Tips

I learned what worked best for me and Ebay through many fruitless Google searches and a lot of trial and error. If you are getting serious about selling your excess belongings, I recommend you invest in Man Vs. Debt’s 171 page ebook guide to selling on Ebay. If I had found it earlier in my journey I’m sure I would have made an even greater profit!

So, have I inspired anyone to start selling? Happy downsizing!

Downsize Yourself! Garage Sale Tips

As I mentioned in Wednesday’s post, downsizing has been an important goal for me this year as I prepare to travel around the world. I wanted to make packing easier, to make storing what stayed behind easier, to have less physical things to clutter my space and mind, and to have some extra cash for my traveling. While I outlined all my major methods for downsizing in that post, here I want to focus on one of the big ones you can do yourself: a garage sale. I decided to hold one about six months ago and last weekend Mark, my parents and I banded together to have the ultimate yard sale. While I walked away with $425, the total for all four of us involved in the sale was $1,120! We did a lot of things right and a few things wrong, and here’s what we learned:

Garage Sale Tips

1. Advertise!
Especially if you live in a less than prime location like myself, advertising is key. We spent $30 to advertise in the local paper in print and online, and I think it was a worth investment. I also listed the sale for free on Craigslist and got quite a few emails asking for details on the major items I was selling. I also listed for free on the site Yardies but I can’t say how much traffic we got from that. We also made five large clear signs and taped balloons to them to catch drive by traffic on the nearby major road.

2. Have Big Draw Items
We listed big ticket items like a guitar and sea kayak separately on Craigslist and told interested buyers to stop by the day of the sales. This was more convenient that trying to meet up with individual buyers at specific time and also brought people to the sale who might end up buying smaller items as well.

Garage Sale Tips

3. Start Early
Though we started making “sell piles” months before, we didn’t give ourselves enough time to do final sweeps of the house and found ourselves running around during the sale throwing things out onto the tables. Had we been more prepared I’m confident we could have sold much more junk! Give yourself a solid week of evenings to sort out what you want to sell and then price and organize it.

4. Have a Friday-Saturday Sale
This is one of my tips that we didn’t follow ourselves. I had read that Friday-Saturday was better than Saturday-Sunday, but I couldn’t imagine a weekday would be better than a weekend. Yet during the sale we heard over and over again that the most hardcore garage salers are out on Fridays- either retirees or workers who get their paychecks that day. And our Sunday was much less profitable than Saturday.

5. Play music
How many stores have you been into that are dead silent? Its odd enough walking onto a strangers lawn and sorting through their things, doing it while listening to crickets chirp is worse. I made a general public friendly playlist and hooked up some speakers, but Mark took it one step further and made a “$1 Per Song” sign in front of the guitar he was selling. He has three takers and even more laughs before selling the guitar itself.

Garage Sale Tips

6. Be friendly
Maybe it’s the three years I spent working in upscale retail, but I cringe when I enter a store and the salesperson barely looks up. Don’t let anyone enter your garage sale without a greeting! You might be bored and tired, but by sitting in a lawn chair and giving your customers a death stare you are only making them feel like they somehow walked past the garage sale and are now accidentally robbing the neighbors.

While we didn’t use it, I read a great tip: to hand out coffee or water. It’s much harder to walk away from a sale empty handed when someone has generously handed you free beverages!

Garage Sale Tips

7. Have a post sale plan
The sad truth about garage sales is no matter how successful you are, you will never sell everything. Some people holding garage sales make a strict “nothing back in the house” rule. We weren’t those people. Starting with clothes and shoes, I made one pile to go to the charity my mother works at and the other to try selling at Plato’s Closet, a local resale shop. It was definitely worth the trip because I got another $58 for what they took!

Knowing that my sister will be graduating in two years and may want to hold her own sale, we took two plastic bins and filled them with all the little things on tables and put those in the garage for next time. Everything else went to charity.

8. Have fun!
Whether it was having selling contests, making the dog into our garage sale mascot or putting an $18 price tag on a wooden frog and watching people puzzle over it, we made sure the weekend was full of laughs.

Garage Sale Tips

For more garage sale tips checks out the Yard Sale Queen. Have you held any great garage sales or had any crazy yard sale finds? Share in the comments below! Coming up next: Downsizing with ebay!

The Departure Lounge: Downsizing

Welcome to my newest ongoing series, The Departure Lounge! Here I’m going to delve into the preparations for long-term travel. Previously, I wrote about what gear I’m packing, and how I’m going to stay healthy.

“How much does your life weigh? Imagine for a second that you’re carrying a backpack. I want you to pack it with all the stuff that you have in your life. You start with the little things. The shelves, the drawers, the knickknacks, then you start adding larger stuff. Clothes, tabletop appliances, lamps, your TV. The backpack should be getting pretty heavy now. You go bigger. Your couch, your car, your home. I want you to stuff it all into that backpack.”

This speech from 2009’s hit movie Up In The Air stuck with me long after the film credits stopped rolling. About this time last year, I was packing up my apartment in order to sublet for the summer while I moved to Grand Cayman, and I was hit with the most overwhelming feeling of dread. I was being crushed, mentally and physically, by my own belongings. I vowed things had to change.

I have a hundreds, if not thousands (!) of things, a material possession collection I have built up over my mini lifetime. Throughout high school and my first two years of college I was a rampant spender, rarely denying myself anything I wanted and could afford. It was my first trip to Asia that slowed my consumerism, but I was still left with six years of buildup to deal with. With a move around the world looming after graduation, I knew I only had one choice: downsize.

And thus began the first year of my life in which more objects left my possession than came into it. Along the way I’ve thrown out mountains of garbage, sold thousands of dollars worth of merchandise and given away as much as possible. The results of selling your belongings feel amazing: I get my mental and physical space back, someone in the world gets something they wanted or needed at a good price, less goes into landfills, and some money goes into my travel fund.

Making a lifestyle change from consumerism to minimalism is no easy ride, and I’m far from there, even a year later. I stay inspired by bloggers like Man Vs. Debt and Exile Lifestyle who can fit everything they own into one single blog post. I’m not there yet: there are boxes and boxes of things going into storage at my parent’s place that I wasn’t yet ready to part with. But I can only imagine the nightmare I’d be having right now if I hadn’t spent the last year the way I did, cleaning out my life closet by closet, drawer by drawer. Hundreds of items and nearly two thousand dollars later, this is how I did it:

Craigslist is the go-to site for selling items locally that are too big to ship. Through Craigslist I sold a set of glass tables, a small bookshelf, an ironing system, and a bicycle. It’s free to list, so the only hassle is uploading photos, screening the crazy people, and finding a time to meet up with potential buyers. Since many of the items I sold were brought from Albany or left behind by previous roommates, I was able to make a profit over what I paid for the items in the first place, making this my most lucrative category. My best craigslist success story to date? I made $175 selling a broken laptop (though I’m not including that in my total here as the money went to my parents). I posted it without naming a price and a bidding war erupted leaving me with an envelope full of $20s in exchange for a hunk of metal. Craigslist Profit: $380

my beloved bike, bought for $10, sold for $140

Ebay and Amazon are the two major online retailers for selling your stuff. The advantage is you are reaching literally anyone on the globe with access to a computer. The downsides are high fees and the high investment of time and effort. But since I spent the last year as a student and my time = zero dollars, I found the investment to be worth it. In the end I spent the vast majority of my downsizing time focused on ebay, and it is where I unloaded the most stuff. In total over the past year I sold 73 items on ebay!

The advantage of Amazon is you only pay when and if your item sells, so you can list risk free. However, you can only list items that are already on Amazon new. This does mean that you don’t need to bother with photos, which is a major time saver. I found Amazon to be very easy to use but with the exception of text books items took a while to sell and I only sold 6 items total on Amazon over the year! Total Ebay/Amazon profit: $945 (and counting!)

Downsizing with Ebay

One of my "sell stashes"

Last weekend, after moving all my stuff from New York City up to my parents house in Albany, we held a garage sale. It was a massive amount of work, but it felt so good to get rid of all the little things that weren’t worth listing on ebay and all the big things that have been cluttering up the house for years. It was definitely a four person effort and everyone walked away with money in their pocket. The most painful part is remembering how much you paid for an item and watching someone bargain you down to a quarter for it.

After the sale we split the remaining clothing into two bags: one for charity and one for a last ditch effort to sell at a local clothing resale shop. They took $50 worth, and while I was there I got a fantastic dress for an upcoming wedding for twelve dollars! To do the same, search for a Plato’s Closet or other clothing reseller near you. Profit: $425 at garage sale + $50 at consignment shop

garage sale

I’m planning to write more detailed tips posts for what I learned from ebay-ing and garage sale-ing, but if you are eager to get started yourself I recommend investing in Man Vs. Debt’s Sell Your Crap ebook. He gives detailed instructions for how to sell on Ebay, Amazon, and Craigslist. I found his site when I was almost done with my selling journey, but I certainly would have invested had I found it earlier.

I believe downsizing is good for anyone, but for the soon-to-be long term traveler, it is one of the most important preparations you can make. I’m lucky not to have to pay for storage, but even if free, it is mentally taxing to be worrying about your mountains of possessions at home while traveling. Other benefits include making packing, the traveler’s constant burden, so much easier. Best of all? With the money earned selling things I no longer want or need, I can spend a month living on the beach in Thailand. Now that is something I both want and need.


The Departure Lounge: Health

Welcome to my newest ongoing series, The Departure Lounge! Here I’m going to delve into the preparations for long-term travel. Previously, I wrote about what gear I’m packing.

Your good health is one of the most important things you can bring traveling. Every traveler has a disaster story of getting sick on the road, and it can often color your view of the entire trip.  I personally came home from my first trip to Asia practically dripping with disease, including an eye infection that would rage for nearly six months and even more ewwww inducing, a fingernail fungus. The experience taught me that A) I need to take better care of myself this time around and B) I love travel enough that not even my fingernails falling off can stop me.

travel buddy Justine keeping healthy

I traveled to South East Asia just two years ago, so I was pretty sure that I didn’t need any new vaccines but I made an appointment with my general practitioner over Christmas to double-check I didn’t need any boosters. I didn’t, so I used the appointment time to talk to my doctor about how I could stay healthier abroad than I have in the past, and she also gave me a list for a basic first aid kit.

If it is your first time traveling to a new region of the world, I recommend looking into any needed vaccines far ahead of time as many of them take several doses spread over a period of time to be effective. You can research your destinations ahead of time on the Center for Disease Control’s website.Additionally, travel vaccines are usually not covered by health insurance and can be quite costly. Make sure to build them into your travel budget. I have even heard of travelers getting their vaccines in the first cheap country they land in (Thailand, for example) before moving on to areas where the protection is needed.

First Aid
As I mentioned above, I had a nice long chat with my doctor about staying healthy on the road, something I wish I had done the first time I left for Asia. One of my biggest concerns was my immune system. I’m the first to admit I don’t eat a very balanced diet (unless goldfish crackers somehow come to represent the full food pyramid) and here in the states I take nasty looking liquid vitamins to try to compensate. But they are expensive, heavy, and must be refrigerated- no good for travel. So in addition to eating more greens, my doctor recommended taking along Zinc and Echinacea pills and popping one when I was feeling a bit ragged.

For stomach ails, she recommended stashing a pepto bismol, an immodium, and for sea sickness, a dramamine. For wounds, I’ll be bringing along band aids, bacitracin (for scrapes) and cortisone (for bites and itches). Those two are especially important for me, as I’ll be in the water often, making it hard for cuts to heal. And clear as the water in Thailand may look, the tiniest scrapes have a tendency to get infected if not cared for. Lastly, I’ll pack a general antibiotic and an antihistamine for allergies.

Of course, all these things can be found in most parts of the world. But luckily I have most of them lying around already. And lets be real, when you are having an allergy attack you do not want to be trekking around London trying to figure out what the local version of Claritin is.

Those of you with 20/2o vision, leave this blog right now. I think my jealousy may get in the way of our friendship. Okay, fine, you can stay. Someday, I will have Lasik. And then we can be besties.

I’ve made my final eye exam for a week before departure, where I plan to have my glasses prescription updated and more importantly, try to wrestle a year’s worth of contacts out of my insurance company. The standard is three or six months, and while I’m sure I could find a more than competent optician in Bangkok, I just want to put off dealing with that as long as possible.

Also, I plan to keep a copy of my prescription backed up in my email so should I ever lose my toiletries bag I won’t have to be making long distance calls to upstate New York to try to replace my contacts.

A lifetime of succumbing to my sweet tooth means trips to the dentist usually leave me in tears. Over Christmas I got some major fillings done and since then I have been brushing and flossing dutifully. I have my six month checkup the week before I leave, and I have my fingers crossed for no more cavities.

I may be being overly cautious, but I have had an emergency root canal before and I can confidently say its not something I want to have done abroad (or anywhere, really). However, I will absolutely be getting a six month cleaning in Bangkok over Christmas. Its less than $15USD out of pocket!

Many traveler hotspots around the globe provide everything you could need in terms of staying healthy. However, I think those are the last things you want to be dealing with while traveling so I have chosen to be a bit more aggressive with my preventative care. Most important of all is making sure you have insurance that will cover you in case of something more serious than a cough. I am lucky not to need to purchase a special traveler’s insurance to be covered abroad, but check with your health insurance to find out if you are covered. And of course, divers should consider purchasing DAN insurance to cover any water related emergencies. Nothing will put a damper on your travel budget like a $10,000 ride in the hyperbaric chamber!

Facebook, You Are So Predictable

During the whole Eat, Pray, Love hysteria going on this year (I really need to read the book and see what all the drama is about!) I stumbled across this poll on my Facebook news feed.

facebook poll

Come on, Facebook users. Out of 181,064 of you, only 16,295.76 would choose India? (Why yes, I do own a calculator). Personally, I’ve been having a little love affair with the idea of India lately so maybe I’m seeing things with rose-colored glasses. I suppose there is the pollution, the overcrowding and the famous Delhi Belly. But BALI?! Only 23,538.32 of you want to go to Bali?! What of the unbeatable beaches, the fantastic coral reefs, the world-class surfing, the mystical culture, the wild nightlife?

I now have proof, I’m in the Facebook minority when it comes to travel preferences. But you know what? That’s just fine with me. I’m sure Italy is lovely, it just doesn’t call to me like the energetic coastline of Goa or the wild forests of Ubud. I know there’s the great wine and pizza and some lady with a great villa under the (Tuscan) sun, but I just don’t feel the draw that makes Italy the fifth most popular tourist destination in the world. I guess that makes more space on the beach in Goa for me.

The Departure Lounge: Gear

Welcome to my newest ongoing series, The Departure Lounge! Here I’m going to delve into the preparations for long term travel. Some posts will be long, some will be short, and all will be my personal experience working through the tough questions everyone faces when they leave home.

One of my biggest projects leading up the The Great Escape has been trying to get my gear in order. I’ve done quite a bit of traveling over the past few years which has helped significantly as I try to decide what to take, what to leave at home, and what to upgrade.

When I left for Asia the first time, I was paralyzed with fear over whether or not to bring my expensive camera and my blackberry. In the end, I asked myself what is the point in having a camera if not to take photos of my adventures? So I brought it along and never looked back. Now, the gear bag is going to be a bit heavier as my passion for photography has only gotten stronger and the bag that goes along with it gets heavier!


I recently made one big decision, which was to upgrade my camera body and lens. I know that I want to be able to shoot better videos, as I have a lot of fun putting them together for the blog and want to feature them more prominently coming up. So I was paralyzed between getting a flip camera and upgrading to a dSLR that shoots video. The Flip is great for its small size, and that it also has a decently affordable underwater housing. But in the end I went for the upgrade, as I can now not only shoot video but also have a better still camera. In addition to my new body I also got a fantastic new lens for Christmas… I can’t wait to put this new monster camera into action! I’m in love. I’m also toying with the idea of getting a zoom lens, but that will be a last minute decision based on my financial situation.


Looking a bit more impressive now, don't you think?

Then there is the underwater camera. Much as I would love to have a couple grand to drop on a housing for the dSLR, that’s not happening anytime soon. But especially after attending Beneath the Sea I’m dreaming of the new s95, of strobes and fancy video cameras. It is so easy to get swept away in wanting the newest and the best but I think in this case I might have to tell myself to be patient and wait for Christmas next year!


Still kickin'

Last but not least is the affectionately known “Party Cam.” We’ll see how long that bad boy lasts after a few nights out in Scotland, but with all the abuse I’ve given it I won’t be heartbroken when it bites the dust.

Between blogging and my desire to make a good deal of my income freelancing,  a good travel computer is a must. I didn’t bring a computer on my big Asia trip, but I have brought it along on most subsequent travels in order to keep up with photo editing and blogging on the road. My 4-year-old Mac Book Pro was giving out, so I took the plunge and went for the new 13″ model. I was worried that the small size would make photo editing and design work difficult, but so far the smaller size and lighter weight far outweighs any of the negatives. I haven’t had a chance to take her on the road yet, but so far I am over the moon with this computer, enough to say that this might just be the perfect computer for travelers. I’m also thinking ahead about being able to back up my work, so I’m looking for a small but rugged hard drive to throw in the bag as well.


So in love

Once you have decided on what gear you are taking, the next decision is how to carry it. I’ve recently concluded its time to retire the top loading backpack that served me well throughout my summer in Asia. I realized that its too much of a hassle to have to lift everything from the small top opening to get at one item on the bottom- its going to be a front opener for me next.

I’m also going to invest in a nice front pack that can comfortably handle the “valuables”- aka camera and computer. I’ve never had a good system before and it has nearly cost me dearly as I scramble and frantically tear through airport security. This time I vow to get organized! I haven’t even had a chance to start looking but its next on my list… time is ticking away!


Never again

In Conclusion
In the end, these are big purchases that will have a major effect on my travels. I’m glad that I built them into my travel budget long ago, despite the fact that everyone will be purchased still on US soil. There have been a million big and little decisions to make and so I’m glad I gave myself not only money but time to make them.  One thing I haven’t even started to tackle? The dreaded decision about phones and international phone plans.

Still to do:
– Buy a new backpack and frontpack
– Buy a rugged hardrive
– Buy a long lens (?)
– Win lottery, upgrade underwater camera equipment
– Win lottery, hire sherpa to carry belongings