Travel Tips for Rookies: A Blog Series

I'm excited to introduce a new blog series here on Journey Mercies - Travel Tips for Rookies!

Just in case you haven't heard, we're having a baby soon. And for the first time since we moved to Cambodia almost three years ago, my parents are coming to visit us. It's their first trip overseas, besides Mexico and the Virgin Islands. I'm trying to prepare them for the fact that

Asia is very, very different from any of those places.

I've been emailing them tips and ideas about preparing for a trans-Pacific trip and thought it would be great to share those with you. Maybe you have a big trip planned for this summer; or maybe you'll just bookmark this for future reference when your travel dreams come true. Either way, I hope it's useful and helps calm any nerves about traveling. Because, let's face it, traveling to different parts of the world is amazing.

And once you start, it's hard to stop!

Some of the topics I'll cover in the coming weeks are money, how to use your phone overseas, how to buy the best airline ticket and pick the best seat, how to survive that 15-hour flight across the Pacific, how to pack your bags, and more.

Do you have anything you'd like me to cover in the series? Let me know in the comments!

If you don't want to wait, you can also check out the other posts I've written about our travels in Asia, Europe, and elsewhere.

A quick disclaimer: I recommend different companies and products based on my personal experiences with them. But other than the Amazon links, I don't receive any compensation for that. There may be better ones out there; these are just the ones we've had good experiences with. 

Also, most of my recent travels have been in Asia. Different countries call for different preparation, so take that into consideration when reading through these tips. Throughout the series, I'll provide specific tips for traveling in Cambodia and Thailand, since those are the two countries I spend most of my time in.

So on to our travel tips!

Anytime you're traveling to a new country, you need to prepare a few things before you get there. Obviously, money is a very important one - how to get it, how to exchange it, and how to make sure you're not getting ripped off in the process.

Dollars or no dollars?

If you're American, don't assume your destination doesn't accept American dollars. There are many countries whose economies function on American cash. In Cambodia, American dollars are accepted everywhere. Anyone who tells you you need to exchange into Cambodian riel is trying to rip you off. However, American coins are not accepted; you will receive Cambodian riel in exchange. The running street exchange rate (as of February 2014) is 4,000 riel = $1 USD.

But of course, always check with an online currency exchange website, as rates can change frequently. One we like to use is XE Currency Converter (they also have a handy smartphone app).

Note: how Cambodians talk about money can be incredibly confusing; check out this post to see why.

Debit Cards

Debit cards can be the cheapest way to withdraw money from an ATM overseas, especially if your bank doesn't charge you a fee and reimburses foreign ATM fees (like ours does). Check with your bank if they allow you to use the card overseas and how much they charge. Sometimes they will charge you more when using it for an actual purchase at a store or restaurant. Our card does, so we never use it to actually buy something, just to get money from an ATM.


In many places (especially Asia), ATMs are plentiful and easy to access. However, different bank companies overseas offer different exchange rates. For example, when I withdraw money in Thailand, I have to choose the amount I want in Thai baht from the ATM, not in dollars. The Thai bank will then exchange the currency and tell my US bank how many dollars they gave me. I use this website to check out which bank will give me the most baht for my dollar.

In Cambodia, Canadia Bank does not charge any ATM fees (as of February 2014), so we always withdraw money at their ATMs, which are available throughout the country. Note that in Cambodia, ATMs will give you US dollars, not Cambodian riel.

Credit Cards

There are a LOT of credit cards out there for international travel these days. Most charge ridiculous fees for cash withdrawals from an ATM (i.e. 25%), but charge nothing for purchases. We've used World MasterCard for several years now. They don't charge an annual fee, and they also have a cash back rewards program. We've found that Visas and Mastercards are accepted pretty much everywhere. 

  • On purchasing with a credit card: Most of the time, the credit card company's exchange rate is better than what the store offers you. For example, in Thailand, when I use my card, the store asks if I want to charge in dollars or Thai baht. I always charge in Thai baht, because the store gives me a bad exchange rate. So do a bit of homework first.
  • Tell them you're traveling: You need to tell your credit or debit card company that you're going overseas before you leave the country. If you don't, they may shut down your account when you try to use it in a foreign country. You don't want to be stuck without a way of getting more cash!


Carrying loads of cash around with you is dangerous even in America. And theft is much more common overseas (we've been robbed ourselves). We will often take enough cash with us for our first few big expenses, then take out what we need as we go along. Depending on the country, it can be really expensive to exchange dollars at banks because of the exorbitant transaction fees they charge. It's often cheaper to just withdraw from an ATM and pay that fee.

Always count your cash when you get it exchanged at the counter, and ask for a receipt.

 We've only had one instance where this was a problem. The clerk miscounted the dollars we'd given him and gave us $20 worth of baht instead of $40 - which was a pretty big error. You need to get a receipt that shows the exchange rate and count your money in front of the clerk before you leave the counter.

Traveller's checks

These seem to be going the way of the dinosaur. We've never used them and never suffered for it. They will not be accepted at many locations.

Those are just a few tips on preparing for your trip overseas.

 Do you have any ideas to share? I'm always up for learning something new.

And let me know if you have any travel questions you'd like answered in this series in the comments below!

Click here to view all Travel Tips for Rookies blog posts.