How to Travel Abroad for Less and Stay Safe

Some tips for saying on the right side of the law in the Middle East.

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The sun rises over the city skyline with the Burj Khalifa, world's tallest building at the backdrop, seen from a balcony on the 42nd floor of a hotel on a foggy day in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Saturday, Dec. 31, 2016.
The sun rises over the city skyline with the Burj Khalifa, world's tallest building at the backdrop, seen from a balcony on the 42nd floor of a hotel on a foggy day in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, SatCredit: AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili

Foreign travel is expensive and can be intimidating for some, but there are strategies for saving money and staying safe.

International travel by Americans rose about 8 percent last year and is likely to rise again this year, helped by relatively low airfares and the strong dollar.

Deals abound

In recent days, discount sites such as have highlighted round trips including San Francisco-Copenhagen, Los Angeles-Stockholm and New York-Barcelona for under $400 and New York-Tel Aviv, Chicago-Bangkok and Los Angeles-Manilla for under $650 for travelers who can avoid the peak summer season. Mexico is a cheaper destination than some trips within the U.S.

Travel experts have advice about what to do once you reach your destination, including how to act. Behavior that is acceptable in the U.S. may be frowned upon - or even illegal - in many other countries.

"What it boils down to is, be respectful and be educated," says Kyle Olson, who just wrote a guide on do's and don'ts in 11 countries for a Chicago law firm. His long list of don'ts includes carrying recreational drugs, dressing scantily, drinking - an official taboo in Muslim countries - and, in many countries, taking photographs of military or government buildings.


Get travel insurance, and check before you go to see what your health insurance will cover if you get sick in a foreign country. Medicare does not cover health expenses overseas, but some Medigap policies and short-term travel medical insurance do. Consider evacuation insurance - an air ambulance can cost thousands of dollars.

Cash or credit?

Cash is convenient for small purchases, but many frequent travelers stick to plastic overseas. If a clerk swipes your card and asks if you would like to pay in dollars, decline. The store probably charges a less-favorable exchange rate than your card issuer.

Matt Kepnes, author of "How to Travel the World on $50 a Day," says any commercial bank should offer a decent exchange rate. He stays away from the exchange bureau Travelex and warns that airport ATMs and ATMs in stores like 7-Elevens give a less-favorable rate and charge higher fees.

Staying connected

Bringing your own phone is often your best option.

Pauline Frommer, editorial director of the Frommer's travel-information company, and John DiScala, a travel writer who goes by JohnnyJet on Twitter, both favor T-Mobile, which has a plan that allows free roaming and unlimited data in more than 100 countries. DiScala says he can upload pictures and posts to Facebook and get his emails at no extra charge.

Of course, always keep the phone charged in case of an emergency.

Staying safe

Tourists are frequently targets for pickpockets and scammers of all kinds. You can lower your risk by looking less like a tourist.

"I always try to dress local," DiScala says. Americans should ditch the shorts, white sneakers and baseball caps and buy clothes that help them blend in. And remember comfortable shoes.

Evelyn Hannon, who edits the website, suggests a quick purchase at a local grocer. The bag will help you look like you belong.

Travel experts are divided over whether President Donald Trump's proposed travel bans and anti-immigrant rhetoric will put Americans in more danger overseas.

The Global Business Travel Association said it surveyed 176 U.S. corporate travel managers this month, and 41 percent were worried about increased threats against U.S. travelers abroad.

Henry Harteveldt, a travel analyst in San Francisco, says most foreigners don't hold individual American travelers responsible for U.S. government policies. But Americans should be aware of local sensitivities when traveling abroad - and don't start a conversation about U.S. politics, he says.

Stay on the right side of the law

Customs vary greatly by country - that's part of the appeal of travel, after all - and so do laws. That sometimes lands travelers in trouble.

Alcohol is banned in part of the United Arab Emirates, although tourists in Dubai can drink at hotel bars and clubs without consequences. Signs at shopping malls encourage dressing modestly and avoiding public displays of affection, but holding hands or giving a peck on the cheek are usually accepted. Tourists who wind up getting arrested for indecency typically ignored repeated warnings.

Taking someone's picture and putting it online without permission is a crime in the U.A.E., and people have been arrested for taking pictures of military installations or planes taking off and landing.

Gay or lesbian sex is punishable by death in Saudi Arabia and Iran and is frowned on in other countries. Carrying drugs can and often does carry the death penalty, especially for smugglers.

U.S. embassies may be helpful if you get in trouble. The State Department can't get Americans out of jail but will contact family members and provide names of local lawyers who speak English.