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JOAN'S TRAVEL TIPS

My son Gordo, who has had some eye-opening experiences during some of his trips abroad, had a great idea—to post informational tips I've learned over the years during my travels.

Some I've learned through bad experiences; some are from good experiences; some are just commonsensical. I can't claim that these will be unique tips – most travelers will come up with the same advice.

Anyway, here goes!

Insurance 

Buy Travelers Insurance before you leave, especially if you have an ailing family member, if you yourself are over 50, or if you have a medical condition.

Money
  • Don't exchange too much money in the US before going–unless you get a deal, fees are too expensive. Take $100 worth of the local currency with you, max.

 
 
  • Use your ATM card to get cash in Europe, not Travellers checks. ATMS are ubiquitous in Europe. However, notify your bank that you'll be using your ATM in each of the countries you will be visiting and when you will be there so they don't shut down your card.

  • DON'T FLASH CASH.

  • Most banks also charge a fee for ATM withdrawals. These fees can really add up.

  • When you use an ATM, have someone with you to monitor outside activity. Watch out for suspicious looking people before you begin. If you don't feel comfortable, go elsewhere. Don't leave the ATM until your money and card are safely tucked away.

  • Make sure to get your card!

  • Also, take a credit card; notify the card company of which countries you will be visiting and when you will be there so they don't shut down your card. It might be wise to have two credit cards, in case one gets compromised, which occasionally happens. Carry the two cards and your ATM card in different places.

  • Check with your credit card company about fees on purchases abroad.  Some of them tack on a surprising 3%. I am not paid to say this, but Capital 1 has no fees...yet.

  • Make copies of your credit cards, front and back, ATM card, passport, driver's license. Take one set with you in carry-on and leave one set with a trusted person at home.

  • If you carry a purse, use one that is difficult for pick-pockets to access. Lots of closed zippers, lots of pockets, lots of secret places are good. Remember: DIVIDE UP YOUR MONEY AND CREDIT CARDS so you don't lose everything in case of pick-pocketing or misplacement of goods.

  • Remember that the Euro has been worth more than the US Dollar for many years now. That translates to a higher dollar outlay, unfortunately.

  • Some very good advice from AARP:

    • In addition to your real wallet, carry a fake with a few dollars and some old hotel key cards that look like credit cards. Hand the fake wallet over to the accoster; keep the real one.

    • Use ATMs in bank lobbies. They have cameras.

    • Don't access financial info from hotel computers.

    • Beware of "front desk" fraudsters, "clerks" who call you in the middle of the night asking for credit card info. Call or go to the front desk.

 

Packing: Travel Light

  • A lighter bag will help you save on those pesky airline baggage fees. In today's do-it-yourself atmosphere (except in the swankiest places), it will also save your back. Many hotels no longer have bellhops to help you lug in your stuff. My advice—pack your bag (singular, not plural) and then take a third of what you have packed back out. You are also allowed about 45 pounds for a checked bag on an international flight. Can you carry it comfortably?

  • Check your airline's baggage weight limit. If you are bringing art supplies, remember that all of those extra supplies add up, and could lead to a hefty fee if overweight. If possible, weigh your packed bag before you leave for the airport, so that there are no unpleasant surprises! 

  • To help pack light, take clothes with a similar palette so you can mix and match; two pairs of shoes, and scarves for accent.

  • Most importantly, WEAR COMFORTABLE SHOES. Cobblestones can be hard on your feet, especially in 4" high heels or something analogous. (I did read the other day that the way Italian women negotiate the cobblestones in their heels is to put their body weight on their toes. If you're adept at carrying yourself in that manner, go for the heels, if that's your style.)

  • This is a common-sense tip I'll pass on from something I read in Travel & Leisure: DON'T PUT CASH OR ANYTHING NEAR AND DEAR TO YOUR HEART IN YOUR CHECKED LUGGAGE. I guess there's a lot of pilfering going on at the airports. You can use a TSA-approved lock or have your bags shrink-wrapped (more common in European airports). Carry anything you really value in your carry-on. Also, it follows that taking expensive jewelry etc might not be worth the risk (consider hotels, pick-pockets, etc....).

  • Before you leave, make copies of your passport, credit cards, health insurance, and driver's license. Take one set of copies with you, and leave one set with someone at home. In case of loss, those copies can make a huge difference in quickly canceling cards, getting health information, and working with American embassies to replace passports.

  • Remember to bring power converters to use with your electronics. Do your research and find out what kind of outlets they use in each of the countries you will be traveling to, and pick out a converter style that works for you. Many have multiple outlets or even USB slots that can be useful for charging phones. We recommend that you pack at least two converters: if you plug something with a too-high voltage into one and break it, you have a back-up to use. Many souvenir shops sell converters as well.

 

Medical

  • Make a list of all medications (and dosages) you take, and your doctors' names and their contact info. List any chronic conditions you might have. Keep this list with you at all times.

  • Take your medications in the containers they come in – with the Rx info. This can be a pain, but you'll get through customs faster, with fewer questions asked. Also NEVER pack meds in your checked luggage; always have them in your purse or carry-on.

  • Keep the name and phone number of an at-home contact person on your person at all times.

  • If you're with a group but can't physically do a planned activity, graciously offer to stay in town, read at the hotel, or go to a café.

  • Judge your physical abilities as objectively as possible: sight matters for cobblestone streets; stamina and a fit body for hill towns; good hearing for busy cities. Best of all, good taste buds matter for the delicious food you'll partake in during your journey.

 

In-Country

  • Learn a few words of the country's language. Of course, the most important words are "Hello", "Thank You", and "You're Welcome."

  • Be polite and respectful.

  • Smile. (Such an ice-breaker!)

  • Expect that things will be somewhat different. Room size, bathrooms, food, language, the way people congregate, and the time of day when things happen will be different from that at home. That's OK. Again, that's the point of travel.

  • Most hotels and even bigger B&B's in Europe have hairdryers in the rooms, which is one less thing to pack.

  • Europe uses 220 voltage and plugs vary from country to country. There's no euro-plug as of yet. You can buy adapters at a place like Radio Shack or through travel-supply catalogs.

  • Most hotels and B&B's in Italy and other European countries have WiFi–some have a stronger signal than others. However, in Italy the internet and telephones go out frequently, depending upon location, from bad weather or for no reason at all. It's an accepted fact of life.

  • If you're in Rome or Florence, and as the Knowing Rome blog suggests, get your TAXI from a taxi stand. Before you get in the licensed taxi, ask for the price to your destination. Ask about additional passengers and luggage. Your hotel concierge will also help. Be very careful at airport transportation booths. I once asked prices for a ride to a nearby hotel: the real price was 10 euro; I got quotes from 50 – 100 euro. 

  • This last time I was in Italy, I was told that it is almost rude to ask an Italian what he or she does for work; you should instead involve the person in a discussion of ideas to get an idea of his or her identity. It's a very different tack from what we Americans are used to. I appreciated the input.

  • Be adventurous: try some new food and wine. My cousin Inge once told me that she would be rich if she had a new thought every day. That's a tall order, but when you travel, try to learn something new each day. That's the point of travel!

  • Once you reach your hotel, lock your passport in the hotel safe. It is much safer there than in your bag. However, make a note to retrieve it from the safe before leaving for your next destination!

 

Other Friendly Advice

  • When you travel with a friend, be considerate and disclose any physical problems you have that might impede the pace of the trip. Make this disclosure during the trip planning; don't wait until you arrive and/or don't think you can hide your problem.

  • Be aware of cultural differences:

    • Europeans have a different sense of privacy and space than Americans do. They usually don't strike up conversations with strangers.

    • On a similar note, Europeans don't open their homes to acquaintances and definitely not to strangers as some Americans might. Only good friends are invited home.

  • Try speaking the local language!

For details or questions, please click here to contact Joan Hill.