Clive and I have personal business in four countries, and currencies, whether we’re travelling or not.
As indicated by the name of this blog, Sydney and Paris are primary locations. Our home is in Sydney and we spend as much time as possible at my apartment in Paris. We also have various accounts in our countries of origin, England (Clive) and the U.S. (me). No matter where we go, it’s critical to stay up to date with personal business.
These tips have evolved over time, and I hope they’ll be useful to anyone who, like me, worries about these matters and wants to be sure they’re handled on a timely basis, even when travelling.
With a combination of planning ahead and making good use of technology, it’s easy to make this aspect of travel worry-free.
Best of all, effectively managing personal business is mentally liberating, and instead of worrying about bills and notices piling up at home, you’re free to focus on your travels.
The Internet Is Critical
This may seem obvious in today’s world, but until we left the corporate rat race and were able to travel for longer periods of time, we hadn’t fully set ourselves up to take maximum advantage of the Internet when we travel.
We’re not the kind of travellers who go, say, trekking in remote parts of the world for months on end. There may be situations where being offline for an extended period means some things need to be done manually.
For most of us, using the Internet is part of daily life, and it’s easy to extend this to using it effectively when travelling. The operative word is effectively.
Many of us like getting away from day-to-day activities, including sitting at the computer and using the Internet, when we travel. I’m not suggesting duplicating daily life at the computer, but instead organising personal business such that the Internet is a tool that helps save time and money.
To use the Internet most effectively while travelling, there are a few activities to do before leaving home.
Three One-Time Investments that Pay Back Forever
The initial time (it doesn’t require much) spent on these activities pays dividends over and over again.
Once you have the baseline in place, it’s simply a matter of making quick updates if and when needed.
1. Organise a hardcopy file of Family Travel Papers
In my single days, I knew it was important to take a copy of the first page of my passport, and keep it somewhere separate during a trip.
Over the years, I added my marriage certificate and our son’s birth certificate and immunization record. For several years after my husband’s death, I travelled with copies of his death certificate. I never had an unexpected need for any of these papers, but had read in multiple places it was a good idea to take them along.
Our ultimate goal is to travel with no paper, by gradually scanning the items in this file to our laptops and backup memory sticks.
Contents of the file depend on individual circumstances. Last year I added a hardcopy travel file for my mother’s important papers, which I need to have with me when we’re away. I’m working on getting that thinned out as much as possible.
Our family travel papers file currently contains:
copies of passports and drivers’ licenses
a few extra passport photos
copy of my Australia citizenship certificate
copy of contact lens & glasses prescriptions
hardcopy of e-mail contacts list
hardcopy of bill monitor (see #3 below)
When we’re not travelling, this file lives in a desk file drawer and is updated only when one of its contents changes.
The Family Travel Papers file is an item on our packing checklist, and goes into my carry-on. All you have to do when packing is take it out of the drawer and put it in the bag.
2. Set up online bill-paying and other transactions
More and more companies, governments, and financial institutions are encouraging customers to register and conduct transactions on-line. Travel and being away from home is a great motivator to do this as much as possible.
Think about all your personal business, not just paying bills. For many of us, paying bills online is a routine activity (though, as I learned last year handling my mother’s affairs, this is much more common, and much easier to do, in Australia than in the U.S.). Register online so you can view accounts and usage prior to paying; e.g., for telephone and utility bills.
Beyond paying bills, set yourself up so you can pay tax, monitor financial accounts, renew car registration, and do everything possible online. Basically, every time you hold a hardcopy bill or notice in hand, review it and if you’re not already able to monitor and/or pay online (and the ability to do so is available), contact the organisation and register for online transactions. There are exceptions, of course. My mother’s assisted living facility insists on being paid by check.
Last year, Clive realised one of the quarterly tax payments for his company would be due while we were away. It took multiple phone calls working his way up the bureaucratic management chain, but he was successful and able to lodge and pay the return online from overseas.
We still have some hardcopy bills sent to our home, where there isn’t an option to have them e-mailed. In most cases, we’re able to check the balance online and pay online.
Doing business online saves money and time, especially when travelling. There are no more long-distance phone calls to the person collecting the mail and no more time spent writing checks and buying foreign stamps to snail mail bills.
It’s still possible to do everything manually. You can estimate ahead and send checks early, but in our experience the transition to doing everything online is relatively painless. The benefits far outweigh the occasional hassle of registering and becoming familiar with each organisation’s system.
Whether bills and notices are handled electronically or manually, the key is knowing what’s due and when. The third and final step is to develop what Clive named the Bill Monitor.
3. Set up a Bill Monitor & Key Expiration/Renewal Dates
As with checklists for travel planning, packing, and departure, this is a simple list, or spreadsheet in our case. It has only three columns: date, item, and notes. The notes are things like ‘paid by direct debit’ or ‘statement ~15th’.
As you pay bills and get renewal notices, add to the list and before you know it, you’ll have an annual view. Many bills are monthly or quarterly, and the first time through we were pleasantly surprised to find the total list on paper was shorter than the one we imagined (and worried about) in our heads.
We kept referring to the list at home, too, and gradually added other key dates: tax payment due dates (especially important for those of us with tax obligations in multiple countries); renewal dates for passports, drivers’ licenses, car registration, and credit cards; and other key dates, such as when term deposits come due. The first thing I did last year when taking over my mother’s affairs was to do a similar bill monitor for her.
I highly recommend this exercise. It’s so simple, takes very little time, and the output is useful at home and away. Setting it up also highlighted to us where we weren’t yet paying bills online, so we could register to do so before departure.
We have the bill monitor in softcopy on our laptops, but also carry a hardcopy in the family travel papers file. I suspect we’ll never travel completely paper-free.
My post about travel technology describes in more detail what we take with us, or what Clive refers to as an explosion in a spaghetti factory.
Because Internet access is so important, we’ve started to make accommodation decisions based on whether we can get decent reception for our portable Internet devices. If the hotel has free WiFi this is a bonus, but we don’t use it for secure transactions. In any case, I don’t like going more than a week or so without being able to connect, not only to manage personal business but also to communicate with family and friends (and catch up on my favourite blogs!).
In addition to tracking and paying bills using a bill monitor, we have a few other suggestions for making personal business as easy and cheap as possible:
Top-up cell phones: We bought a Verizon one for the U.S. It only works in the U.S., but costs much less per call than our Australia cell phones, especially for U.S. family and friends when they ring us.
Phone cards: This age-old travel recommendation still works today. In England, especially, we tend to buy phone cards and use them at self-catering accommodations and B&B’s. In the U.S. we have an AT&T phone card that can be topped up with a credit card. We use the phone cards when dialling overseas from friends’ houses or hotel rooms.
Loyalty and petrol cards: Why not get discounts and rewards, if you’re a regular customer? We’ve accumulated a number of these, which include Stop and Shop, Barnes and Noble, and Borders in the U.S.; Nectar card (petrol and Sainsburys, a major supermarket) and Waterstone’s bookshop in England; and WH Smith bookshop in Paris (thanks for your help with that one, Kim!).
A printer of one’s own: We bought a printer/scanner for less than $100. U.S. last year, and use it extensively when we’re visiting my mother and family in New Jersey (see hotel desk photo at top of post). We store it at my mother’s place when we’re away, but decided it would be well worth the cost even if we discarded it when we left. What do we use it for? Printing photos for our parents who don’t use e-mail, copying important documents before mailing, and printing boarding passes before our flights.
Pesky Hardcopy Mail
I don’t think the world will ever get away from some hardcopy mail. As part of our travel planning checklist, we make arrangements with a group of neighbours who collect each other’s mail when anyone goes away.
On our last trip to Europe, Clive checked our Sydney electricity bill online, was shocked at the amount (especially since we’d been away for most of the billing period), and e-mailed our neighbour asking him to open the hardcopy bill. Our friend replied rates had increased and their bill also went up significantly, so we went ahead and paid. Time, worry, and communication costs were minimised, thanks to the Internet, e-mail, online billing (and wonderful neighbours – thanks, Lesley and Ian!).
For my U.S. mail, my mother, bless her, forwarded it to me periodically for years. I’ve gradually moved most of it online, but my mother and I still receive some hardcopy mail. Last year, friends in the U.S. RV (Recreational Vehicle) community told me about Americas Mailbox, a South Dakota-based, Internet-friendly domestic and international mail forwarding service designed for people who travel and want mail sent to multiple, changing locations.
For the cost of postage plus a reasonable annual fee, Americas Mailbox forwards my U.S. mail anywhere in the world. (The U.S. Post Office doesn’t forward mail overseas.) I’m really happy with this organisation (and have no vested interest in it, nor do I know anyone who owns or works there). I simply go online, enter where and when I want mail forwarded, and it’s sent to Sydney, Paris, England, New Jersey, or wherever I specify. I’m also happy I’m now handling my own mail forwarding needs, instead of relying on my mother or other family members.
Remember time spent planning will pay repeated dividends during your travels.
Before you go: set up a file of Family Travel Papers, register for online billing, and develop a bill monitor list or spreadsheet.
While away: look for accommodation that has free WiFi or at least reception for a portable Internet device, use local top-up cell phones and phone cards, sign up for loyalty and petrol cards, consider services like Americas Mailbox for keeping up with U.S. mail, and remember printers are cheap and it might be worth buying one at your destination.
None of this is difficult, and these steps save time, money, and worry. The result is peace of mind, knowing you won’t miss important personal business while you’re away. No matter where in the world you may be, you can relax and enjoy your trip until it’s time to come home.
Coming home will be the subject of my final post in this series.
A Passion for Travel, Part 1: Introducing the Series
A Passion for Travel, Part 2: The Master Trip Calendar
A Passion for Travel, Part 3: Travel Planning Checklist
A Passion for Travel, Part 4: Packing without Panic
A Passion for Travel, Part 5: Travel Technology
A Passion for Travel, Part 6: Departure Checklist
A Passion for Travel, Part 7: Airport Survival Strategies
A Passion for Travel, Part 8: Top Ten In-Flight Insights
A Passion for Travel, Part 8a: Eleventh In-Flight Insight
A Passion for Travel, Part 9: Jet Lag Jambalaya
Filed under: A Passion for Travel |