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Terrace of our rental house in Soriano nel Cimino

While it’s easy to wander around developing countries without booking anything beforehand, in Europe we had to plan ahead to keep accommodation costs low. Of course, we wouldn’t have had to plan so much if we had stayed in hostel dorm rooms, but we’re now a fussy old married couple who want private rooms and private bathrooms without the hotel prices. Renting apartments and cottages was perfect for us.

 

Why Renting Apartments Is Awesome

You feel like you live there

An apartment provides a better sense of what it’s like to live in a particular city than indistinguishable hotel chains. We slept on tatami mats in our Japanese house in Kyoto. We walked our Australian hosts’ dog to the nearby beach so he could gleefully bite ocean waves. We met neighbors like the elderly Italian women (and Paulina the dog) who gossiped in the courtyard of our rental in a small medieval hill town. We often stayed in residential neighborhoods and walked to our favorite bakery daily to buy fresh baguettes and chat with friendly workers who weren’t sick of tourists.

 

Apartments come with other stuff

Our Vienna apartment rental

We loved the extra perks that came with renting a place: the kitchen with a fridge, the little espresso makers everywhere in Italy, the washers when we didn’t feel like washing our clothes in the sink, the extra rooms and balconies where I went to read when Scott hadn’t woken up yet. The owner of our rental in Istanbul lent us a transportation card and cell phone to use during our stay. The apartment we rented in Prague even had a piano with sheet music in the living room. Owners often provided welcome gifts like a bottle of wine, regional specialties, or a half dozen fresh eggs from the chickens they were raising. We could chat with our Italian host’s girlfriend about the differences between northern and southern Italy or ask for recommendations on her favorite local restaurants without worrying about any ulterior motives.

 

You can get great value

You can pay quite a bit for luxury apartments, especially those maintained by property management companies, but there are some great deals as well. In my last post I already talked about some of our favorites, many of them significantly cheaper than a hotel room (let alone a hotel suite) or a private room in a hostel. Having your own kitchen and fridge can keep food costs way down, and a washing machine is handy for free laundry. Rentals also tend to have better discounts for longer stays.

 

Why Renting Apartments Can Be Not So Awesome

It’s not as easy as staying at a hotel

It can be a lot more work to find a good apartment and discuss the details with the owner (especially if there’s a language barrier) than to book a hotel. You may need to send a deposit and arrange a specific time to pick up and drop off keys. If something goes wrong, it may be difficult to get ahold of the owner or property manager. If you like fresh towels and sheets daily, most properties do not have daily housecleaning. You might have to take out your own trash.

 

Rentals vary

We enjoyed most of the places we rented, but we noticed a lot of variability. Some places (ahem, Soriano nel Cimino) outshined 5 star hotels, but we also stayed in a couple student apartments elsewhere that were not very clean. When judging a property, websites usually provide more reviews for hotels than for apartments or houses. Rental sites like Airbnb have a review system, but because owners also review guests, there’s an incentive to keep reviews positive.

 

How to Find a Great Apartment Rental

We found the following websites most helpful:

Sabbatical Homes

Homeaway

Airbnb

 

The first two websites are the hardest to navigate, but they’re also where we found some of our best deals. Sabbatical Homes is especially useful for longer stays of at least a month. Neither site charges a fee for contacting owners, but Homeaway requires an email address that will automatically start receiving promotional emails.

Airbnb has the largest number of listings, mostly local residents renting out everything from a couch in their living room to an entire apartment to a luxury treehouse. Airbnb takes a 6-12% service charge for each transaction, but I have to admit they provide a decent service and allow you to pay with a credit card, withholding funds until the day after you arrive to make sure you’re satisfied with your stay. They also frequently run promotions for $25 off a stay (search for Airbnb promotional discount codes before you book).

 

So how to wade through the thousands of listings you might find?

 

1. Think about the features you want

Do you want a whole place to yourself or do you like socializing with others in a shared apartment? Do you need elevator access if an apartment is on the 4th floor? If you’re visiting during the summer, can you handle not having air conditioning? How important is location?

Besides the basics, we tended to look for free wifi, a washing machine, and an entire property close to public transportation. You can narrow your search through first filtering by desired features.

 

2. Look at the listing carefully

Sometimes the best deals are new listings that might not have a lot of pictures or reviews, but you can always email the owner for more information and pictures and see how reliable they are in responding.

* double check the location (will it be a hassle to get there?)

* confirm whether they can accommodate your arrival and departure times

* make sure you see a picture of the bathroom and bedroom (avoid sofa beds)

* reviews can be helpful, but remember that the ones on Airbnb may be biased positively since guests are also reviewed by the owners

* read the fine print: note the possible service charges, deposits, or cleaning fees, and find out what the cancellation policy is

 

3. Confirm the type of payment

Understandably many owners would like a deposit to hold your reservation (although a few people like the owner of our month-long Japanese rental trusted us without one). Airbnb’s credit card system felt like the safest method, followed by Paypal and then bank transfer. A bank transfer has the least recourse if something goes wrong, so make sure that you get plenty of information and have a good sense that a person is trustworthy before sending any money, especially if it’s a significant sum (most places shouldn’t require the entire amount ahead of time). We did send several bank transfers without any problems, and some people who initially asked for bank transfers agreed to use Paypal instead.

 

If all that seems really complicated but you’re still interested in renting an apartment, I would start with Airbnb since it’s pretty easy to use and only a credit card is needed for payment. Or you could just hire Scott to find a rental for you since he was amazing at finding us great places, and he should probably be the one writing this post in the first place.

 

If you’re new to Airbnb, you can sign up through this link for both of us to get $25 off our next stay.

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Our rental house in Soriano nel Cimino circled in white

You’ve probably realized by now how much we loved renting apartments in Europe. I’m going to write a post soon on why and how to find a good one, but this post of our favorites is mostly for us so that we can remember the great times we had in these apartments.

If you click on the city names, you’ll be taken to the current listings with more pictures and information in case you’re interested in staying there too. The prices I list are what we paid at the time, including any service charges and cleaning fees. The prices for some of them, especially the ridiculously cheap ones, have since gone up as they become more established and build up positive reviews, but there are always great deals to be had almost anywhere with some digging and luck. And most offer significant discounts for longer stays, whether a week or a month. These rentals are in no particular order since I found it too hard to rank them.

 

Flinders Chase National Park, Kangaroo Island ($62 USD a night, sleeps 4)

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I’ll start with the Postman’s Cottage, which is where the postman used to stay when he came to the western side of Kangaroo Island to deliver mail. Now it’s part of Flinders Chase National Park and rented out to visitors. I already gushed about the fun old-fashioned wood stove and other appliances here.

Favorite part: the koala we found sleeping in a neighboring tree

 

Budapest, Hungary ($47 a night for 6 nights, sleeps up to 4)

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I had to drag myself outside to go sightseeing because I loved this apartment so much. It was beautifully decorated and the friendly, helpful owner obviously put a lot of thought into making the experience as comfortable as possible for us. She also gave us a free bottle of Hungarian wine. The location right next to St. Stephen’s Cathedral was amazing.

Favorite part: high ceilings and huge old-fashioned European windows provided tons of light

 

Vienna, Austria (well, we booked that studio but the landlord gave us this bigger one for the same price of $63 a night for 2 nights)

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This apartment was spotlessly clean and full of gadgets, like the fancy TV and stereo system and the espresso machine (unfortunately without any espresso included).

Favorite part: The best gadget of all was the shower. Scott and I still talk about that shower. It had a built-in radio that you could tune while taking your shower and all sorts of features with different sprays and even a steam sauna function. Did I mention we loved that shower?

 

Bruges, Belgium ($29 a night for 4 nights, sleeps 2)

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The price we got on this cottage was pretty ridiculous for the area. Technically it was a little outside Bruges and required a car to get to, but even with having to rent a car it was cheaper than it would have been to stay inside Bruges without a car. It felt like our own little cottage out in the countryside with a pretty patio and garden, chickens out back who we fed all our leftover pasta to, friendly neighbors down the road, and big corn fields all around us. The owners even gave us Belgian chocolate, two beers, and a bag of cuberdons (a cone-shaped Belgian candy).

Favorite part: the idyllic setting

 

Paris, France ($53 a night for a week-long stay, sleeps 2)

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This was the first apartment rental of our trip so it holds a special place for us. It was a tiny studio but used its space very efficiently so it felt cozy instead of crowded. It felt like our own Parisian pied-à-terre.

Favorite part: its location in the heart of Latin Quarter on a street surrounded by open-air markets, bakeries, crepe stands, and restaurants

 

Autrans, France near the French Alps ($39 a night for 3 nights, sleeps 4)

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Autrans is a picturesque little village that comes alive during the ski season. We were way too early for snow, but we enjoyed the wooden paneling and rustic ski chalet feel of our cottage (on the far corner with the white car in the picture above). The people there were incredibly friendly, and the owner introduced us to all of his family and eagerly showed us around. He was so excited to give us six fresh eggs from his own chickens that he dropped the egg carton and broke all of them while trying to put them in the fridge. He gave us more, but what a waste of delicious eggs! You can read more about our stay in Autrans and Burgundy here.

Favorite part: proximity to the hikes in Vercors Regional Natural Park

 

St. Boil, France in Burgundy ($63 a night for 4 nights, sleeps 3)

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We rented a cottage in the Burgundy wine region that had been fully renovated but also incorporated details like stonework from the area that was thousands of years old. The owners were a chatty Belgian couple who gave us a couple of Belgian beers when we asked them for recommendations on where to go in Belgium later. They even made a polished YouTube video of their cottage that I’ve included below.

Favorite part: the amazing view of the vineyards for miles around

 

Florence, Italy ($36 a night for a bedroom and breakfast in a shared apartment with the owner)

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We mostly rented private apartments for ourselves, but I wish we had done more shared apartments after meeting our Italian host Daniele. He was incredibly nice and friendly, providing us a giant breakfast every morning (including vegetarian “cold cuts” for us) and making a fantastic dinner one night while we chatted with him and his girlfriend. He normally had free bikes to rent as well, but they had been stolen right before we arrived, so he even gave us a good bottle of wine and a box of Italian cookies as an apology.

Favorite part: getting to know Daniele

 

Soriano nel Cimino, Italy ($100 a night 2 bed/bath for 1 week, sleeps up to 6)

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This was definitely the fanciest place we stayed in as we had planned to share it with Scott’s mother and stepfather, but unfortunately their plans fell through and we ended up there by ourselves. It was beautifully designed by an architect with giant windows and a rooftop terrace. I’ve already talked about it quite a bit here.

Favorite part: the views of the medieval hill town

 

Naples, Italy ($52 a night for one week, sleeps 2)

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Our large apartment on the top floor had a terrace with olives, grapes, sage, and tumbling purple flowers and provided a great view of one of our favorite cities. The terrace was even connected to a cave (although they told us not to go inside because it was dangerous). Our neighbor was a dog we nicknamed “The Scruff” and down the street we could buy the best pizza we’ve ever had for $5. You can read more about our love of Naples here.

Favorite part: everything except the mosquitoes

 

So those were our ten favorite vacation rentals. We enjoyed a lot of others as well, but they didn’t quite make the top ten. Next up: a post on why we chose to rent places so often and how to find a good one.

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Soriano nel Cimino

I like Paris quite a bit, but what truly amazed me in France was the countryside in Vercors and Burgundy as we drove through an endless string of one ridiculously picturesque village after another. It’s easy to get caught up in visiting just the big-name cities we all recognize when planning a trip to Europe, but not visiting any of the smaller towns is like judging the U.S. only based on New York City and skipping the national parks.

So you’re planning to go to Italy, and you’ve seen the movie Under the Tuscan Sun so you want to visit some cute towns in Tuscany…well, with all the authority that I can muster after spending just a week in Tuscany, may I suggest going somewhere you’ve never heard of instead? Of course there’s nothing wrong with visiting Tuscan cities like Florence to see amazing art and walk through pretty streets, but once you’re ready to go out into the countryside and relax in a peaceful medieval town away from the crowds, don’t choose the same ones that everyone goes to. Sure they’re pretty, but they’re also packed with tourists, with matching English tourist menus with inflated tourist prices. Instead, go somewhere in Tuscany that’s less famous, or visit its less-visited neighboring region Umbria, or even better, Lazio, a little further to the south. The secret is that there are a huge number of pretty medieval towns in Italy, and most of them are far less touristy than the handful that most visitors go to.

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View from our terrace

We didn’t really understand this secret before going to Italy, but we got really lucky that Scott had found an amazing place to rent in Soriano nel Cimino, a medieval town that we (and probably you) had never heard of before in the Lazio region north of Rome.

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The house we rented for a week is underneath the castle and circled in white in the picture above. It was beautifully designed by an architect and filled with sunlight, a huge place with three floors (two bedrooms, two bathrooms, an open kitchen with a dining area and living room, a separate sitting room, and upstairs study) plus a spacious terrace. The dining table alone looked like ten people could easily sit around it. We had hoped to share the house with Scott’s mother and stepfather, but unfortunately they had to cancel their trip at the last minute. We were really disappointed to miss seeing them and sharing this experience with them. It felt outrageously decadent to be in a place like that for just the two of us, kind of like when I eat too much dessert and I’m thinking to myself this-is-amazing-but-is-this-really-good-for-me? Scott and I each took a different bedroom and bathroom (since we normally spend every minute of the day together), and I complained whenever Scott snuck into my bathroom and left the toilet seat up.

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Sitting room with a view (my bedroom also had a similar giant window and view)

The crazy part was that it was only 560 euros for the week, which, especially split among the six people the place can fit, is a great deal. We thought this place was better than staying at the Bali Hyatt or Sheraton Imperial Kuala Lumpur (hotels that normally cost way more but that we stayed in for free on this trip thanks to hotel points that Scott earned as a consultant years ago). In fact, it might even be the best place we’ve stayed in during our entire trip this year, with the possible exception of Postman’s Cottage in Kangaroo Island, Australia, since it is hard to beat having a koala for a neighbor.

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Here’s a snapshot of the view from our terrace, and the video below shows you the panoramic view:

And it wasn’t just the house that we loved; the town itself had all sorts of nooks and crannies to explore.

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I think normally Soriano nel Cimino is pretty quiet, but we happened to stay there during their chestnut festival, the biggest festival of the year. The two-week extravaganza sure seemed to involve a lot more than just chestnuts, including medieval flags lining the streets, performances by people dressed in medieval costumes, big temporary tavernas selling hearty meals, and of course, vendors selling freshly roasted chestnuts. The town had a friendly rivalry among its four districts, which competed in events like jousting and archery.

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Big crowds, made up mostly of Italians from nearby parts of Italy, came into town to watch the performances.

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The San Giorgio district put on a performance where San Giorgio (St. George) slayed a dragon whose eyes lit up and spewed smoke out of its mouth. I didn’t really know what was going on but it was still pretty impressive.

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The festival was fun, but my favorite part was just walking around town during the day when not much was going on – seeing old guys hanging out on the stoop, chatting with our neighbor (that is, only understanding half of what she said since only spoke Italian) while her little dog Paulina jumped up to be petted, and shopping at the open-air market.

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These are some beautiful zucchini blossoms I picked up at a market for less than a euro. Before visiting Italy, I had no idea that zucchinis even had blossoms on their ends. I think the most common way of eating them is to stuff and then deep-fry them, but my Italian neighbor advised me to just toss them in a pan with some vegetables. I ended up sticking them in a pasta dish with other veggies and they were pretty good – they tasted like flowers with a subtle zucchini flavor. Ok, that’s probably not a very helpful description.

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In Italy, not only do their supermarkets generally have a good selection of fresh pasta, but there are also cute little pasta shops where all they sell is the pasta they made by hand fresh that day. The picture above is of bici, big noodles thicker than spaghetti, and below are spinach and ricotta ravioli.

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There also happened to be a Sicilian pastry shop in town. We were surprised not to see any cannoli in the display case, but when we asked the worker behind the counter about them, he filled a couple of cannoli shells with ricotta filling and handed them over. We went back the next day and the same worker immediately greeted us with a smile and asked, “Cannoli?”

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You’re probably thinking that we just got lucky in finding a pretty medieval town without really knowing anything about it (which we were), but we drove to some of the nearby towns, too, and took some pictures there.

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Vitorchiano

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Vitorchiano with castle

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Moai statue near Vitorchiano

We were curious about this statue just standing by the side of the road during one of our drives and snapped a few photos. Later we found out that in 1987, eleven people indigenous to Easter Island went to Italy and carved a 30-ton volcanic stone with hand axes and stones to create this Moai statue.

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View from the top of the castle in Montefiascone overlooking Lake Bolsena

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Eroding town of Civita di Bagnoregio, accessible only by footbridge

I didn’t include pictures of some of the other pretty places we visited like Bagnaia and Viterbo, and many of the towns we loved were unplanned stops along a drive. Plus we didn’t have a chance to make it to a ton of other small, pretty towns we wanted to see within half an hour’s drive, but you get the idea. Italy is packed with beauty and history, and it’s hard to go too wrong when finding a place to stay.

Pick a region in Italy that appeals to you for whatever reason – rolling vineyards, Etruscan ruins, medieval walls, an ocean view – and don’t be afraid to wander off the beaten track a little bit, enjoy a gelato in the piazza, and watch the world (and probably a lot of cute Italian dogs) go by.

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Over 8 months into our trip, I thought I’d share three things I’ve found really useful during our travels:

 

1. Amazon Kindle Keyboard 3G

The Kindle has some features that obviously make it great for travel – it’s small, light, portable, easy on the eyes, has a fantastic battery life (I’ve gone weeks on a single charge), and you can stick a bunch of books on it.  But it has other not-so-obvious features that make it extra-awesome for a cheap frugal person like me.

Free books

Library systems across the country will lend you Kindle books for free.  I use my mom’s library card number for Los Angeles and Scott’s for Chicago to have access to a huge collection of thousands of books.  This is especially helpful for travel guides (which you only need while you’re in the country, anyway) and language audiobooks that you can also transfer to your MP3 player.  But I’ve also read a lot of great non-travel books for free this way, including some recent releases: 1Q84 by Murakami, The Better Angels of Our Nature by Pinker, The Power of Habit by Duhigg, and The Art of Racing in the Rain by Stein.  Some of the more popular books have long waiting lists, but I’m happy to wait – when it’s ready, I get an email and instead of having to go down to the library to pick it up (a bit hard from thousands of miles away), two minutes later I have a new book to read on my Kindle.

In addition to library books, most books published before 1920 are free and available on websites like Project Gutenberg.  One of the first things I did when I got my Kindle was reread a bunch of Jane Austen novels.  Plus Amazon has some great daily and monthly deals on Kindle books, a Kindle lending library for Prime users, and a limited way to lend some of the books you’ve bought with your friends, but I find that just the library books alone keep me plenty busy.

Free Internet

Since we’re traveling without a phone, the “experimental” web browser on the Kindle has been invaluable.  The 3G version of the Kindle works in over 100 countries.  While it can be pretty slow, it’s hard to complain about free internet browsing in countries where Wi-fi is inaccessible or expensive.  I’ve used it to check email in Tanzania and look up directions in a New Zealand campervan.  I’m shocked that Amazon doesn’t charge some sort of monthly or annual subscription fee for this service.  [I looked online after I wrote this and found that Kindles are now limited to 50 MB per month outside of the U.S.  Also, be aware that the Kindle Touch 3G (as opposed to the Kindle Keyboard 3G) only lets you use the web browser for other websites over Wifi.]

Free Instapaper

I love Instapaper, which is a free program that lets you save webpages to your Kindle to read later.  You can click on a bunch of long articles and have it sent in one bundle to your Kindle.  It’s a lot easier on your eyes, and you can read them when you want outside, on the train, in bed, etc.  Plus I like how it converts those bulky 12-page NY Times Sunday Magazine articles into something much easier to read on the Kindle.

Free Other Stuff

The Kindle isn’t just for books – you can use it as a storage device for PDFs, Word documents, JPGs, and MP3s.  You can put a copy of your health insurance card on it, or use it to show your flight itinerary to the gruff guy at the Indian airport who won’t let you through the front doors to check in because your printout only has Scott’s name on it.  You can put that free audiobook you got from the library on it if your tiny MP3 player is already stuffed to the brim.  And you can put fun games like Scrabble on it and force Scott to play with you.

 

I love my Kindle and may be a bit obsessed with it (hey, I’ve never had a smartphone to be obsessed over), but even Scott admits that it’s been awesome to have while traveling (on the rare occasion he actually gets to use it).  I have to thank my friend Liz, who gave one to me for my birthday a couple years ago.

 

2. Google Voice

Google Voice has been wonderful for keeping in touch with family.  All calls to the U.S. are free, so I’ve been able to call my parents’ phone (calls to their computer lasted a few weeks until their “green button” mysteriously disappeared) for free from my computer in Vietnam, India, Korea, Australia, etc.  Calls to other countries are pretty reasonable, too – I called my aunt in Korea and booked a brewery tour in Japan for 2 cents a minute.  We’ve been able to do free video chats with the more technologically savvy relatives on Scott’s side.  And now Google Plus Hangouts allows for video chats with higher video and audio quality for up to 10 people at once. 

Google Voice has a ton of cool features I won’t go into here, but it’s also great for when you don’t actually have a phone.  We both have Google phone numbers (Scott ported his number from his old cell phone) that redirect into our email addresses.  Scott can reply to texts he gets in emails that his friends will get on their phones.  Our banks can call us and either reach us by computer “phone” if we’re signed into email or leave a voice message that will be hilariously transcripted into an email (and fortunately the option to play the message within the email).  Back home, I used a prepaid cell phone plan for about $100 a year combined with Google Voice to save a ton of money over a contract phone.

 

3. My Credit and Debit Cards

I’ve been really happy with my Capital One credit card, which has no foreign transaction fees (unlike many other companies that charge 3% abroad even if the charge is in dollars) and gives me 2% cash back with a really easy redemption system without a minimum amount required.  Oh, and they also happened to give the two of us $2200 just for signing up, which was insane (until we got the bonus and spent it we were nervous that they would come to their senses).  Our Capital One debit card has no ATM fees and in fact they refund up to $25 a month in fees that the other ATM machines might charge abroad.  Helpful when ATMs in Thailand charge $5 for each withdrawal.  I think there are plenty of great credit cards out there, with entire blogs devoted to which ones currently have the best bonuses, so I’m not going to particularly espouse ours (that great signup bonus expired quickly last year).  But if you do a lot of traveling, I do think it’s worth looking into what kind of foreign transaction fees and foreign ATM fees your cards currently charge you.  And if you’re looking to fund a special trip, you can easily get free airline miles and hotel points from signing up for credit cards.  There are a lot of people out there who report racking up even over a million miles to fund lavish free trips with apparently not much effect on their credit rating.  We haven’t gone that far, but we do plan on signing up for some new credit cards when we get back to the States.

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