Nov 24 2008

Financial lessons learned from a business trip abroad

Last week, Shane returned from a week and a half-long business trip to Amsterdam. It was his first time to Europe and neither of us were sure about what he could expect. Fortunately, he traveled with his boss, who had visited the city a few times before.

I hope he doesn’t have to leave the country without me again for a long time (if ever! Bring me, bring me!) but if he does, there are a few things we’d do differently next time. Here’s some financial things we learned:

– Even if your company gives you an international calling card to use to phone home, it isn’t saving you much if you’re calling someone’s cell phone. Oy. Shane called me from the hotel landline, but we don’t have our own landline — just some cell phones. The calling card came through as an international call on my end. I’ll have the privilege of paying $1.29/minute. Let’s just say that’s going to add up real fast.

After our first call, I realized the call didn’t come from a toll-free or American phone number so I called AT&T to find out the sitch. They told me the rate, and said if I wanted to buy an international roaming plan, I could pay $0.99/minute plus a $4/month fee. The $4 fee had to be in place for a minimum of three months, or $12 worth. I opted just to leave my plan alone.

We limited our phone calls to just a few minutes per day, but we could have tried something else.

I could have gotten my own international calling card (say, from a site such as Pingo) and called him at the hotel instead of having him call me. Or I could have used Skype. Or anything else that would have been cheaper than $1.29/minute.

I feel dumb for not even thinking of other options until he had just one more day away. Lesson learned: Don’t just accept expensive international phone rates! Shop around.

– Next time Shane goes to Europe, he’ll be sure to spend as many of his Euro coins as possible. He came home with about 20 Euro in coins, since the smallest paper bill is worth 5 Euro or something like that. I don’t know if this is true for all currency exchange places, but for the one he went to, they wouldn’t exchange coins. What? Coins are money! So for now, we’re stuck with it. Does anyone know if some places will exchange coins?

Know your bank’s international fees. Even though Shane could charge his meals and expenses on his corporate credit card, many places throughout the city didn’t take plastic, including his taxi and some restaurants. So, he had to use his cash that he brought for souvenirs and the like. That cash started to run low, so he used his debit card on the non-reimbursable expenses (such as museum admission). Well, I check our bank account online every day or so, and I was a bit perplexed to see a bunch of charges of $0.06 and $0.10 and whatever. Turns out, our bank charges a 2% fee for international use. This didn’t add up to much, but it was good to know!

Next time, it would probably be a good idea for him to take more cash so he could have for those cash-only situations.

I was surprised that he was able to use his card overseas. I thought maybe the bank’s fraud alert system would wonder what was going on and put a freeze on the card until they could confirm he was the one using it. Maybe you have to spend a certain amount of money before that happens.

– During the time he was away, I ate out quite a bit. It’s really hard for me to be motivated to cook just for myself. So I found myself at Subway a lot. I did eat some meals at home, though, and overall I think what I spent on food would have been what I typically spend on food each week. It’s just normally, I spend the bulk of the food budget at the grocery and just a small portion at restaurants. That week, it was reversed.

Even though his travel expenses were covered, this wasn’t a free trip for him. We’ll be out the $100 or so that will appear on my next phone bill. He also spent some money on museums and souvenirs (chocolate and refrigerator magnets) and photo processing charges. In all, I think it will cost less than $200 for his trip to Europe, which fortunately we can absorb that in our budget.

13 Responses to “Financial lessons learned from a business trip abroad”

  1. A tip for avoiding eat out while the other is gone: DH and I each get “travel money” when the other person is gone. For years, it’s been $5/day (plus an extra $5 [not per day] since we had our daughter). You can spend it on anything you want. Once, I bought an exercise video, another time a book. But usually it’s eating out! But at $5/day, you can’t eat out all the time. (And we don’t do this when I’m just gone overnight on business trips. Usually only for longer trips.) Similarly, when on vacation, we each get $5/day and $10/travel day (on plane or driving all day). That has to cover all personal expenditures like eating out (since we bring our own food for trips, it’s your choice if you want to eat fast food on the drive instead), souvenirs, treats for people we’re visiting, etc.

  2. In reference to long-distance calls, you could try using Skype if your husband has a laptop with him. It’s completely free for computer to computer chats, and they even have video chat! I think Gchat also just starting having video chats too. So if he has a computer with him, it’s a fantastic and free option!

  3. In reference to international calls, you should try using Skype if your husband has a laptop with him. The calls are free computer to computer and they even have free video chat! My friend used this when she was in Spain to call me. It’s a fantastic way to stay in touch with someone without any fees.

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  4. You make some very sensible points here. Travelling abroad can prove very costly if you’re not careful. I found out myself when I sent a few photos using my iphone and ended up with a £50 bill!

    Always check with your bank to see what conversion rate they will charge on your credit or debit card purchases – and if possible try not to withdraw cash as that can be costly. Here in the UK we have a great site called that tells you the best ways to spend abroad.

    Exchanging coins is difficult – if you think about it your bank doesn’t have much call for customers asking for foreign coins so it doesn’t like to take them off you. If you are not likely to travel to that country again then try and spend the coins where you can – otherwise give them to charity at the airport or pass them along to friends or colleagues who are off to the same destination.

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  5. Wow, I can’t believe how expensive it is to RECEIVE the call! That is nuts.

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  6. Wow, I’ll pay $200 for a trip to Amsterdam!

    As for taking more cash to avoid small service charges, I would prefer to think of it as theft insurance. A tourist walking around with a big wad of cash (particularly in a foreign currency when you’re not totally comfortable with the exchange) is just a crime waiting to happen.

    Even though my limited experience with Skype (one of our top brass calls us using it) leads me to think of 2 kids on a tin can phone I would still look into using it on a subsequent trip if I were you. And, if I were going overseas, I’d look into how much it would cost me to use my BlackBerry (either as is or in some upgraded form).

  7. Those hidden fees will get you every time. I, too, never would have thought that receiving an international call would end up in my being charged international rates. Good to know for the future!

  8. Your husband may be able to submit your cell phone bill for reimbursement on his expense report. He should check with HR-these were expenses incurred because he was traveling for the company.

  9. If I recall correctly, years ago the Minneapolis/St. Paul int’l airport would exchange coins. I don’t know if airports still do, but it’d be worth a call to find out. I haven’t gotten the chance to travel outside the country since the late ’90s, so I just don’t know for sure. :)

  10. Regarding bank fees: I have done this with 2 different banks now. Before I left, I went in and talked to them and told them I was going to be out of the country for _____ amount of time. The first time I was just telling them so that they wouldn’t suspect theft or freeze my account, and they told me to come back in when I got home and they would refund the ATM fees that I was charged. Of course, this only worked on the fees that my own bank charged me. When I was overseas I realized there was one brand of ATMs that wouldn’t charge me to withdraw money.

    When we signed up with our current bank, we found out that since they are a small hometown bank, they refund ATM fees whenever we are out of state, not just out of the country. It’s pretty nice!

  11. “What? Coins are money! So for now, we’re stuck with it. Does anyone know if some places will exchange coins?”

    I don’t think anyone does, and so I too have a little stack of Euro coins. If we pool all the Euro coins that come back to the States together, I bet we’d have the cost of a nice little meal! :)

  12. I got a capital one credit card specifically for my trips to Europe.. no fees for foreign usage! As for the coins, I always use those to feed myself pre-flight! :=)

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Hey! I'm Kacie, wife to Shane and mother to Jonathan (7), Vivienne (5) and Amelia (2) . I write about my family's finance: how we save money, improve our spending, and plan for the future.

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