Cross-Border Checklist

Trip update: Since returning to Charlottesville, I have been working (editing and translating), preparing for Christmas, and moving material around in the house. I have promised my son, Daniel that I would clear out the entertainment/TV room and the porch before I leave.

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Vancouver, British Columbia

After returning from Chicago, I flew to Vancouver, BC, to visit Cheryl, and to check out one of the eight touring bicycles that I was considering to replace the Bianchi. Vancouver is a wonderful city; I was surprised to find out how livable it is. 2014-11-17 13.13.37The geography around the city assures that it will always have wonderful vistas of mountains and temperate rain forests. I am particularly fond of working ports, and Vancouver is one of the hardest working ports on the planet.2014-11-18 14.02.15 I came back with a brand-new bicycle, a 2014 Brodie Elan Vitale touring bicycle with all the features that I need for my life on the road. My special thanks to Cheryl for the hospitality, and for discovering the Brodie, and to Alistair for lending me his awesome aluminum Cannondale.

Keller, Texas

Keller, Texas

On the way back, I stopped in Keller, Texas, and spent three days (including an early Thanksgiving) with my cousins Jim Tom, Janet, Christopher, and Nicholas. I was able to borrow cousin Emily’s incredibly light road bike to scorch around the suburbs of Fort Worth.

Back in Charlottesville, I have been trying to ride at least 30 km per day. Not enough to stay in shape, but better than nothing. The countryside is about as challenging as the smoother parts of Nova Scotia, so I am very comfortable out in the country here.

2014-11-29 12.09.19

This week, I would like to summarize some lessons learned from crossing the border four times.

Passport. This is a no-brainer. It does not matter that you may not need a passport to go between the US and Canada (or other contiguous countries that have bilateral arrangements), it makes good sense to have a passport if you are traveling extensively away from home. It is an identification document that is even better than a birth certificate or a driver’s license. It usually does not expire quickly, it provides a photo ID, and is recognized almost everywhere. The only place that I have ever had a problem was in the rural United States, where a young, untrained cashier had never seen one, and did not know how to ask for anything but a “driver’s license.”

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Black Cat Road, Keswick VA

ID Cards. It does not hurt to carry a second form of identification. In my case, I carry my military ID card. But a driver’s license is also useful, if for no other reason than it shows an address. Every once in a while, someone needs to know that you have a home of record. Of course, anything that proves you rate a discount is worth carrying (AAA, AARP or Medicare card, Student ID, Hostel International card, etc.)

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Deep Cove, BC

Communications. It is a pet peeve of mine that the country that gave us the Internet, the cell phone, and the credit card remains far behind the rest of the world as these technologies have advanced. I learned the hard way that my cell phone provider’s personnel not only did not know what an international plan was, but they had not even been trained in the difference between CDMA, GSM, and the other communication standards used throughout the world. I learned that if an American cell phone technician tells you that your telephone is “dual-capable,” you should check the settings on the telephone. I found out that my “dual-capable” Samsung Galaxy 4S from US Cellular was not at all dual-capable; it simply had two kinds of CDMA, which meant that it was useless outside North America. Fortunately, Canadian cell phone towers broadcast both standards (CDMA and GSM), so I could still get a signal when we were within range of a tower. However, the telephone itself could not handle a SIM card from outside the United States, because he could only handle CDMA. Thus, I could not get a Canadian phone plan or SIM card while there.

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The rain forest at Lighthouse Park, BC

The lesson from all this is to make sure that you have an unlocked, unblocked GSM-capable smart phone that you own outright. This way, you can either obtain an international plan from your cell phone provider before you leave home, or you can buy new SIM cards as you travel. You get a new telephone number in the host country when you obtain a new SIM card, but if you do not receive a lot of incoming calls, this should not be a great inconvenience. Prices and offerings vary widely, but you can’t take advantage of any of them unless your telephone is able to handle the international standard.

Personally, now that I am back, I have purchased a Nexus 5 to replace the Samsung, and I will be changing providers to either AT&T or T-Mobile (Deutsche Telekom) in the next few weeks. This will not be cheap: I need to break a contract, port my old telephone number (because I’ve had it for 25 years and it is well-established around the planet), and pay the necessary upfront fees to establish the new service. All in the course of business for me, and certainly cheaper than renting office space or outfitting a home office.

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Woodbound Road, Albemarle County, VA

Prescriptions and medical supplements. Thanks to my primary care doctor, my cardiologist, and my oncologist, I carry a fair number of pills with me. Only three of them are prescriptions. While I was in Canada, I did run out of some of these pills. However, I was close enough to our return to the US that skipping a few doses was not a concern. I obtain all my prescriptions and supplements by mail order, so I need to plan for the additional postage cost to receive them when I need them overseas. Not having a permanent address, I will have to rely on the addresses of friends and relatives, and at some point even the General Delivery service of foreign postal systems. It helps to know what the rules are in your destination countries. Some postal systems will hold General Delivery mail for a month; however, in Canada it is only two weeks. On a bicycle, that turned out not to be enough time to get to the post office. In Europe, however, I should never find myself more than two weeks from the next place to get my mail. Then the challenge will be ensuring that the mail-order service has the new address at the right time to make the shipment. Online management of such things is a blessing.

Electrical adapters and transformers. Bicycle camping in North America did not raise this challenge for us. However, if you’re traveling to or from this continent, you need to learn about the types of plugs and receptacles and voltages used in foreign countries. Almost every device you could possibly need can be obtained in a dual-voltage format (120/240 V AC), but you must look on the device itself to make sure that the input goes as high as 240 V AC. Don’t assume a sales clerk in the store knows what you’re talking about. If you have all dual-voltage appliances, then all you need are the adapters to get from one type of receptacle to the plug on your device. These are smaller and much lighter than the various types of transformers.

If there’s something that you absolutely must have, which only handles a single voltage, then you will need a transformer, which you can buy a travel store. Even the ones that can handle 1500 W are very small.

Money. I had no trouble using the ATMs and various credit card machines in Canada. That country has switched to the EVM card, which stands for EuroVisaMastercard, also known as chip-and-PIN. The handheld machines that I encountered recognized the chip in my Marriott Rewards Premium Visa, even though it was chip-and-sign. The gadgets spit out a receipt for me to sign. The ATMs recognized that I did not have an EVM chip in my card, and asked me if I wanted to use the magnetic stripe.

It will be a different story when I travel to Europe next year. There, the EVM card is the standard, and there are countless unmanned kiosks and ATMs that are not prepared to handle a magnetic stripe, and where the chip-and-sign card does not work. The situation is not totally hopeless, because places where there are personnel on location can handle both magnetic stripes and chip-and-sign cards. However as a bicyclist, I may find myself trying to get a train ticket in an unmanned train station in Italy, making a telephone call, or using ATMs to get cash. I will need a full featured EVM card for that. I have obtained a Barclaybank World Rewards MasterCard, which is apparently the only chip-and-PIN credit card available in the United States at this time. That will do for charging things, including the tickets and the telephone calls.

Obtaining cash from an ATM is a different challenge. I do not want to use a credit card for that, because of the additional fees on both the foreign exchange rate and the ATM transaction itself. I am working on different solutions to the problem of getting money out of my American checking accounts while in Europe.

Foreign transaction fees were an annoyance. While in the United States, my personal Visa card and company Visa card performed identically. In Canada, the company Visa card incurred a three-dollar foreign transaction fee every time it was swiped. Once I realized this, I immediately stopped using the company credit card, even for business purchases. Different credit card offerings may or may not include annual fees, foreign transaction fees, and ATM fee refunds, in addition to widely varying exchange rates. At the very minimum, you should look for credit cards that do not impose foreign transaction fees, and do not require an annual fee for the card.

Insurance. I was lucky. For the 10 weeks in Canada, I did not get sick, I was not injured, and nothing happened requiring a report to the police. So I have not “tested the system.”

I did discover that what I thought was national healthcare in Canada is not so. Each province has its own healthcare system. The services delivered and the costs vary widely from one province to the next.

You should know what medical care is available to foreigners and travelers. It will differ depending on whether you are a citizen of a nearby country, a tourist, or an expatriate resident. I have overseas health insurance, but I may still have to rely on the National Health Service in some places depending on what happens to me. Also, my health care coverage is on a reimbursement basis. That means that I must have the cash resources to pay upfront, and file a claim to get the money back.


Next week another sea story. Meanwhile, I wish the blessings of Christmas on all of you. The spirit of the season (generosity, hospitality, and goodwill) is universal: may it fall upon us all.

Smooth roads and tailwinds,


1 thought on “Cross-Border Checklist

  1. Wonderful information for travelers. Jon will be in Italy visiting family this summer for three weeks. I told him to be sure and read your blog today. FYI: Many cell providers will pay your early termination fees. I believe T-Mobile does.


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