And I’m not talking about the usual stuff (guns, SHTF supplies etc.):  it concerns overseas travel.

I’ve been following The Zman’s adventures in Scandinavia, Russia, and parts between with some interest.  (Go ahead and read them first, if you want, starting with the Out Of Lagos post — I had no idea he’d been living there for years — and his point about London’s Heathrow Airport is absolutely spot-on.)  I’ve never been to any of the countries he’s talked about so far (Finland, Estonia, Russia), so I was of course interested in his observations.  

Then something which happened to him in Tallinn caught my attention:

In Estonia, I realized I had no cell service at all.  I was not worried until I tried to buy something and all three credit cards were declined.  To make matters worse, I had no cash of any type with me, as I planned to just charge everything.  That meant I had no money and no way to call the credit card company to get the issue resolved.

I don’t care how much you think the rest of the world has modernized:  it often hasn’t, and sometimes that realization hits you hard, with a potentially-serious outcome.  In those situations, you need cash.  Hence my admonition:

Never travel overseas without cash.

How much cash you take is up to you — I usually take about US$100 (or £100, or 100€) per day I’m going to be out of the country, mostly in small bills (5s, 10s or 20s).  Don’t piss about with some piffling sum like $10, either:  it won’t get you diddly Over There except maybe a couple bottles of water and some chewing gum.  Back in 2017 when I went over to Britishland on my extended sabbatical, I didn’t take that much because a.) I didn’t have that much available and b.) the UK is pretty much a cashless society anyway, so I only carried a few hundred or so, in total, some of which went towards buying a burner phone to escape the ruinous roaming fees.  But when I go on my next trip to a place where nobody speaks English, French or German, I’ll be cashing up beforehand, you betcha.

Now a lot of seasoned travelers are going to throw up their hands in horror because “you’re a target” / “you’ll lose it all” / “blah blah blah”.  Of course  you have to be smart about this:  I have two wallets, a well-hidden one with my real cards, ID and maybe a quarter of my cash in it, and another in an outside pocket with fake ID (got it in some junk mail, a reasonably-accurate facsimile of a California driver’s license with another guy’s photo), a couple of “sample” credit cards (also courtesy of junk mail) and maybe $50 (small bills, to make it look thicker with cash than it actually is).  If I do get mugged, the fake one will be handed over quickly.  Most of my bring-along cash is hidden elsewhere on my person, to be found pretty much only if I’m dead and the money has become irrelevant.  (I also carry a fake phone:  an old, decommissioned cell phone with a stone-dead battery, which I use only as an alarm clock, plugged into the wall socket at night.  Good luck stealing that  one and expecting to get anything out of it.)  And of course you have to be cautious —  to top up your on-hand cash, you only resort to the “roll” at night in your hotel room or in the train toilet, for example.

Here’s the thing.  I have been poor a couple of times in my life — I mean, no cash, no job, sleep-in-the-car-soon-to-be-repossessed, only a small suitcase of clothing / possessions kind-of poor, and the only thing I fear about being this poor again is to be in this situation in a foreign country where I don’t have any friends I can call on somehow.  For those who’ve never traveled in a country where the language is completely unintelligible (in my case, that would be Finland,Russia and Estonia, to name but three), nothing beats the feeling of helplessness at not being able to hail a cab / catch a bus to the U.S. Embassy, buy some street food, buy a burner phone, or check into a cheap hotel.  Take my word for it:  being broke and on the streets in a strange land fucking sucks, Bubba.

Oh, and by the way:  this is especially important if (unlike Zman) you’re not traveling alone.  By yourself, you can get okay with pretty much nothing for a short-enough period of time.  With a wife, girlfriend or (eek) kids?  The dangers of short-term poverty become exponential.

People always talk about safety when you travel:  avoiding skeevy areas, staying with crowds, having complete situational awareness and so on.  But you only have a modicum of control over those things, especially in an unknown country.  How much cash you can carry, however, is completely under your control.  So control it, and minimize your vulnerability in a place where nobody  knows your name (or speaks your language).


  1. 100% in agreement. In Korea one my ROK Army counterparts took to his house in a suburb of Seoul. Upper middle class residences, stores and schools, perfectly safe but I stuck out as most Americans never visited the area. (no tourist attractions, shopping or bars). When my ROK friend had to break off for some family business and pointed me to a cab stand, I felt a little nervous as my Korean is atrocious. Good news the cabbie understood my pronunciation of Yongsan well enough to get to the right part of town. Bad news, he though I meant Yongsan train station, not the US Army garrison (at least I give him the benefit of the doubt, never know with cabbies and tourists anywhere). Was a little nerve wracking for a few minutes.

    Massad Ayoob once wrote about his variant of a throw down wallet. Carry a bunch of ones in a money clip that looks like quite a wad. If accosted by multiple punks on the street and you need to break away, toss the money clip one direction and walk quickly the other way stating something like “have a beer on me”. If they take it and leave you alone, great. If not, makes it easier to explain to a jury that you did everything you could before resorting to ballistic attitude adjustment.

    Probably not suitable in every instance, but another possible tool in the box. that discussion is why I carry my CHL ID in a separate wallet. If caught in the middle of an armed robbery I have the option of giving up my regular wallet without tipping them off I might (or worse am not) carrying. Gives me the option to initiate action if/when it becomes necessary at a time when it is tactically more favorable to me.

    1. “…I carry my CHL ID in a separate wallet.”

      I don’t, but I’m going to in the future. An excellent action, for all the reasons you state and a couple more besides.

      Thank you.

      1. You are welcome. Glad to be of help after all of the years of good ideas you’ve given to me.

    2. Good idea about the CHL in a different wallet and when I used to travel to NYC and Chicago staying in downtown hotels I would carry a throw down wallet as described by Kim. It is great to learn new stuff on this site.

    1. Ah. Thankee for the info. As I’m not a longtime reader of his, I wasn’t aware of the in-jargon.

    2. I think Lagos might be safer…and better governed. Baltimore is one of the prime exhibits of Why One-Fool/One-Vote Democracy Is Bad.

  2. Concur about having cash. I’ve traveled over a fair bit of Europe, and while credit cards can be problematic (hell, I’ve had problems with my USG travel card in CONUS), cash always works.

    1. Cash doesn’t always work in London. I was taken (reluctantly) into a couple of vegetarian restaurants, they wouldn’t take cash, only credit cards. I’ve also seen that millennials (my son and some younger employees) never carry cash and would pay by cc for a newspaper or a round of drinks….

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