Road Trip Survival Guide – Finances & Travel Documents

 

This entry is a part of a series. Check out the rest of the Road Trip Survival Guide for more valuable information.

The Tedious Side of Travel Planning

You’ve selected your destination. You’ve plotted an epic route. You have a car full of tasty munchies and some sick beats to jam to. You and your friends are all packed for a wild weekend on the road. What are you forgetting?

Unfortunately, not all travel planning is fun and glorious. Here we will discuss some of the more tedious documents and financial issues you may need to think about – especially if you’re going to be gone for more than just a few days. But before we continue, please review the scopes and perspectives that I’ll be addressing each of the questions presented in the Road Trip Survival Guide.

Banking

Early in my nomadic days, I encountered a number of issues with banking and travel. Fraud detection efforts would often render my debit card frozen if I forgot to notify my bank that I would be travelling out-of-state. Sometimes, my card would be frozen even if I did notified them. This resulted in major problems two years ago in St. Louis when my card was frozen over the weekend and I couldn’t get through to anyone at my bank to reactivate my card.

With any bank account or credit card, you want to keep an eye on monthly and annual fees, minimum balance requirements, restrictions on the number of transactions you’re permitted to make each month, ATM fees, and more. If you travel internationally, you will want to look for cards that do not include foreign transaction fees. And while you’re travelling, you might not be near a branch office, so online access to your accounts is critical.

Experience has taught me one major lesson: never put all of your eggs in one basket. You never know when something will go wrong. Even if the problem results from a correctable error, you don’t want to be stranded while you await resolution.

Before I embarked on my North American Road Trip, I overhauled my banking practices.

I set up a checking account with Charles Schwab. Their high-yield investor accounts are devoid of most charges. No minimum balance, no transaction limits, free online bill pay, no monthly fees, no ATM fees, and no foreign transaction fees. In addition to a debit card, you get mobile banking with the ability to make mobile deposits. The catch? You have to set up a linked brokerage account. But you don’t actually have to put any money into it. Charles Schwab hopes that you’ll eventually choose to use its investment services. But if you don’t want to, you get a travel-friendly fee-free account with decent interest.

I also accepted a credit card with CapitalOne. My Charles Schwab account automatically pays off my full balance each month. That way, I never carry a balance and never pay interest. But I use my credit card for all transactions, and do so for two reasons. First – it’s easier to dispute erroneous charges on a credit card than a bank account. Second, I get 1% cash back on all transactions. If something happens to my credit card, I’ve still got the Charles Schwab debit card as backup. The Quicksilver card has no transaction limits, monthly or annual fees, foreign transaction fees, or ATM fees.

CapitalOne’s fraud detection system is considerably more sophisticated than any of the banks I’ve encountered. I am not required to notify them if I travel out-of-state or overseas. I can use my card anywhere without worry. If I want to use my Charles Schwab debit card out-of-state, I do have to notify Charles Schwab. But I can do that online through their website or app.

Emergency Cash

Emergency CashDespite having my financial resources spread out in this manner, I still distrust banks. They all deal in credits and debits – virtual currency. I don’t mean Bitcoin. I’m talking about the fact that for all of the wealth that exists on this planet, very little of it is actually manifests in cold hard cash. Most wealth is represented digitally. And should these digital systems fail in any way, physical currency is the only fallback.

On a trip of any significant distance or duration, I will bring a supply of emergency cash. Usually just enough money to pay for a train or bus ticket back home (plus meals) from the furthest point away on my route.

To prevent losing it all in theft or some other accident, I divide that cash into 2 or 3 piles and ferret that cash in various locations throughout my vehicle and cargo. Empty cigarette packs, playing card boxes, film canisters, and pill bottles make excellent hiding spots for cash.

Passports

passport

If you’ll be doing any international travel, you will need to obtain or renew your passport. If you’re an American applying for a passport for the first time, you’ll need to complete a DS-11 form. To renew a passport, use a DS-82.

Processing times vary, but if you want to avoid expedite fees, I advise submitting your application, photos, and documentation at least 3 months in advance. Passport fees are currently about $110 – more if you want a passport card.

Tolls

Most toll roads in the United States are located east of the Mississippi River, and I’ll discuss those shortly.

Out west, tolls are concentrated mostly in major cities. I encountered tolls in Denver, Vancouver, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Oklahoma. There are also tolls in San Diego, San Jose, the Twin Cities, Texas, Kansas, and Salt Lake City.

Virtually all of these tolls are electronic. (Kansas, Oklahoma, and Utah, as well as certain California toll roads accept cash.) If your vehicle doesn’t have a toll transponder, a camera will photograph your license plate. You have a limited amount of time (usually a few days to a couple weeks) to go online and pay your tolls. Unfortunately, almost every state’s toll system is separate, so you’ll have to find each toll site separately. (Texas and Oklahoma both utilize TollTag. Kansas and Oklahoma both utilize Pikepass and KTag.)

East of the Mississippi River, tolls roads are practically everywhere. But they’re much easier to manage. Virtually all of them accept EZPass, and any toll accepting EZPass also accepts IPass. Exceptions to this include Alabama and South Carolina (both accept cash) and Florida and Georgia (both accept SunPass). For more detailed information for each state, click here.

Mail Delivery

If you will only be gone for a few days, it may make sense to ask the USPS to hold your mail. This service is free and they’ll deliver your held mail like normal when you return.

There are also mail forwarding services where you can have your mail routed, scanned, and e-mailed to you.

As a nomad, I prefer to reduce the amount of mail I get entirely. I’ve switched to paperless billing for my utility services, cell phone, and insurance. Setting aside junk mail and Netflix, I receive very little mail.

documentsReceiving physical mail while on the road is difficult and inconvenient. But it’s not impossible. Say, for example, your wallet gets stolen and you have to wait for your bank to send you new debit or credit cards. They can be sent “general delivery”, which means the post office will hold the mail until you pick it up. This service is also free. The sender has to address the letter or parcel to your name, c/o General Delivery, followed by the post office address.

Before arranging for general delivery, call or visit the post office you want to use and ask permission. Not every post office will hold general delivery mail. I also recommend doing this only for emergency deliveries of single pieces of mail. If you try to coordinate recurring mail this way, you’d have to follow your itinerary pretty strictly and be willing to wait in case of delivery delays.

Emergency Information

It’s not a bad idea – especially if you’re travelling alone – to keep a “In Case I Get Hit By a Bus” file. Although many cell phones will allow you to store I.C.E. (in case of emergency) information, first responders might not be able to access it if your phone is locked (depending on its features). So I recommend doing this on old fashioned paper. Keep this sheet in a place where first responders can easily find it, such as your wallet, console, glove compartment, or backpack.

Include the names, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses of anyone you would want contacted in case you are incapacitated. Include important information about your health, such as blood type, known allergies, list of medications you’re taking, and any medical conditions that afflict you.

If you’re leaving small children or pets behind, you might want to include information or instructions that pertain to their care. If your employer needs information to carry on your projects or to access certain data, you can include that as well. You can also leave behind notes for loved ones or instructions on where to locate your will or other testamentary documents, if they’re hidden or secured. Just keep in mind that an ICE sheet is not a substitute for a will. Think of it more like a short-term manual.

Backups

In case your wallet or cell phone are lost or stolen, I recommend creating a backup of certain critical documents and information that you can access anywhere through web-based e-mail or a cloud service like Google Drive or Dropbox. Decide for yourself which information you want to back up, but consider…

  • a copy of your passport and driver’s license,
  • copy of your debit or credit cards,
  • listing of the most important phone numbers in your cell phone’s address book, and
  • copies of hotel reservations, flight reservations, admission tickets, etc.
Other Ideas?

Have I missed anything? What do you do to prepare for a long trip? How do you manage money on the road? How do you deal with mail? Do you have questions? Do none of these solutions work for you because of specific circumstances that I haven’t considered? Whatever you’re thinking – I would love your feedback! Help me make this Road Trip Survival Guide the best it can be.

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