21 October 2013

Learning the Travel IQ

So I now have been to 33 different countries. That figure is definitely greater than the average number of countries anyone here on earth has visited. Statistics (at least the ones I gathered from the Internet) suggest that most people actually do not leave their country of origin. And I find that to be believable. It all depends on where you happen to be from. If you're from continental Europe, chances are you have visited quite a few countries already; each individual country is small, and there is a high standard of living which allows you to travel and spend your money elsewhere. On the other hand, most Americans do not even have a passport. And yes, there are small countries in Africa, yet the standard of living there does not allow people to travel internationally. Anyway, this post is not about travel statistics. This is about travel IQ. Because I recently wondered how one gains that.

First of all, however, I do not claim that I know everything there is to know about traveling. I haven't been to Africa, for example, so I do not have a clue about the important things one has to keep note of in order to travel there. Anyway, the reason I started thinking about travel IQ is because I recently bumped into an acquaintance while traveling. I was in a foreign country, a country somewhere here in Europe, but not Germany. In other words, I was on the road, and so was this person.

Now, this person lives in another country, a country different from both where we were, where this person is originally from, and where I am currently living. And it turns out that this person is in a little bit of a pinch. This person was having difficulty getting money, which was currently stored at a bank account that is in the country where she was living. This country happens to be several time zones away. This person only has a credit card; the bank debit card apparently was swallowed by an ATM in some other country's bank, and since this person was also just traveling in that country, this person was told that the bank cannot return the card, as this person has no account with the bank, and therefore the bank cannot verify this person's identity.

Now the problem is that the only thing this person has right now is a credit card, and the credit card has no PIN. And this person needs cash.

I have no idea how this person solved the problem. But I find it interesting that somehow, there are still people who do not know what to do in order to avoid circumstances like these. If I were in this person's shoes, I would do several things differently. First, when the bank swallows my card, I would argue that the bank can indeed verify my identity by checking my passport against the card, as well as the security cameras, so that my presence can indeed be verified as the one who used the card in that machine. If they still do not believe that, I will also tell them to verify my identity by matching the PIN of the card. I would know the PIN, and they can easily test it by taking the card to another ATM machine (assuming they managed the offending ATM to spit it out) and let me access the card in their presence.

Second, if I only have a debit card and a credit card, I would ask for a PIN for my credit card so that I can use it as a debit card. Indeed, this is how I have been using my credit card most of the time, as there are less fees for me to use my credit card overseas than my debit card.

Third, if I know that my only method of obtaining money has been compromised, then I would panic. I would phone all of my friends and beg that they send me cash through Western Union or something, as I am on the road. Of course, if I were really in this person's shoes, I would make sure that I have a back-up plan when it comes to obtaining money while traveling. Right now, I have two cards: a credit card and a debit card. Both cards are on different networks. This has been useful because in the past, I have encountered remote areas where one network was available but the other was not.

And finally, if I knew that I would have difficulty obtaining money while on the road, then I would play it really safe and bring cash with me.

In short, I find it hard to understand why some people do not know how to plan ahead. And of course, this brings me back to the idea of travel IQ. How did I learn all of this information? And this is just about money matters while traveling. There are plenty of other things to learn when it comes to traveling.

Whenever I travel, I typically read about the destination beforehand; so I have an idea whether it is a cash economy or not, whether I can use my cards or not, and so forth. Is that unusual? Do other people just dive in and go without knowing how the country they are visiting functions?

This reminds me of my very first time going to a foreign country. For me, this was Taiwan, in 2005. I went to Taipei for a week-long visit, as I had attended a conference. This was not for vacation. I had some pocket money, bringing some USD in cash, and changed them at the airport into TWD. I didn't deal with cards back then, as I didn't have a credit card yet.

My first vacation on my own was Ecuador, in 2007. I remember using my debit card in Quito to withdraw cash. I didn't have any other card. I of course protected it as much as I could, I even had a money belt, as I read that Quito can be a dangerous place to be. That being said, I didn't feel in danger when I was there. Looking back, if my experience there was bad, I probably would be scared to travel and not have itchy feet as I have right now. And yes, I still kept some cash as a backup with me, as I only had one card with me.

Somewhere along the line, I learned about travel insurance. I wonder if this person has one. But yes, I take travel insurance every time I travel. Right now, I take one if I am heading outside Europe, mostly for medical reasons, as if I am within the EU, then I have access to medical care due to my medical insurance being valid throughout the whole European Union. Also, distance also matters. When I went to Armenia and Georgia, I took out a comprehensive plan, which would have helped me if I encountered a crime, luggage delay, or any medical emergency.

Anyway, as they say, sometimes, people need to learn the hard way. I wonder if this person has learned by now. I just hope that I would learn everything I need to know beforehand, and not when I am in a pinch.


  1. I can't imagine NOT traveling. I know some folks don't get a chance but traveling also includes going to another town, exploring your country, etc. You learn so much about life, people and the world in general! You also become more tolerant I think, as you realize that there is no single "recipe" to do things and that everyone is different.

    1. Zhu,

      Exactly. I think that is the greatest take-home message I see whenever I travel, how varied people are, the diversity, the whole human spectrum, which is something that travel definitely makes an imprint on you. By getting out of one's bubble and comfort zone, one sees how humans are be so different, and so one's way of doing things isn't always the only way. It makes you more open-minded, so to speak.

  2. The more we travel, the more we learn from our experiences - including the mishaps we encounter along the way. Indeed your acquaintance has learned things the hard way. Preparing for a trip these days has been made easier thanks of course to the speed with which we can gather information online. In other words, it all boils down to proper research prior to departure. I'm so anal about these things myself i.e. checking Google maps for street orientation, weather reports, so on. These has now been so wired to me I find the research part exciting!

    1. TNP,

      Oh so true! It is definitely true that planning is half the fun; I love checking things out beforehand, though I also make enough leeway for spontaneous changes, making for a very enjoyable vacation.