HINTS and TIPS FOR AMERICANS WHO WANT TO
THEIR EUROPEAN DREAM VACATION NOW!
By Linda Byard
Americans who travel abroad are finding the landscape a little different these days. The decline of the dollar, changes in airline regulations, and travel related security issues have all created anxieties even amongst the most experienced travelers.
Those who are willing to plan carefully and to be flexible can still enjoy wonderful holidays. Here are 35 tips to help you get started:
1. INFORMATION: Browse web-sites devoted to travel for all kinds of information. Register for newsletters. Read bulletin boards. Post your own questions. Discover both the challenges and unexpected delights from experienced travelers.
2. AIRFARES: Learn how to find the best airfares. Consider the use of alternate airports but remember to consider the expenses of using one – for example, an extra night away, gas, and parking. Brush up on European based economy airlines whose names you may never even have heard of in the US.
3. TIMING: If you can, be flexible about when to go. What do you want to see and do? Is summer too hot? Will your special attraction be open or be on reduced hours? Is the whole country on vacation? If you are committed to urban inside pleasures only, consider a winter holiday. Temperatures may be down but so will be the prices. Or perhaps the “shoulder” season is ideal for you. Also, find out when lines are shortest for popular attractions. In a few instances you will need to make a reservation before you even leave the US.
4. MORE TIMING: If you need to be in a particular place for a special occasion, leave yourself an extra day to get there. Flights have become too undependable to cut the timing tightly. Don't give up going to a wedding or other major event because it is more costly in a particular season. The “price” of not attending may be even higher.
5. ALTERNATE TRANSPORTATION: Investigate fares on trains and buses. Yes, buses. Buses in Europe, particularly for long distance travel, are often more luxurious than those in the US. They are frequently the very most inexpensive way to travel between two places plus you can’t beat the view. Taking a bus from the airport to the adjacent city almost always costs far less than other alternatives.
6. PASSES: Look into passes of all kinds but don’t be surprised if some of the train passes hawked from the US are more expensive than the cost of the tickets that you actually want. Check the internet for which European cities offer “city cards.” Offering transportation and admission to museums and other attractions, city cards are a great value and can be purchased upon arrival.
7. CAR RENTAL: International car rentals can be tricky. Don’t think that just because you are renting from a company with an American name that everything will be the same in another country. Make sure the car you reserve is big enough for your passengers and luggage, plus remember that standard transmissions accompany the lowest car rental rates abroad. This is not an ideal time to be learning how to use one. Think twice about renting a car if you are staying in a large city. Make sure you have a place to park it.
8. SECURITY: The “bad guys” are really out there, and they are clever, or at least well-practiced. They hang around mostly in congested areas where tourists are easily distracted. Protect yourself by carrying around little of value and conceal what you do have. Check out the clever clothing items available with hidden pockets designed for travel and hiking.
9. EXPECTATIONS: All will not be wonderful every single moment of the day. Keep your expectations realistic, and you won’t be disappointed.
10. BE PLEASANT: When things go wrong, and they sometimes do, control your anger. Focus on being pleasant to the people who are trying to do their jobs so that ultimately you will get the best available solution to your problem.
11. DON’T WIRE MONEY: There are vacation rentals of all kinds out there and a few of the most attractive ones are bogus. Don’t take a chance on wiring cash to a stranger. The bad guys are good at their jobs.
12. TRAVEL LIGHT: There are some truly compelling reasons to take a minimum amount of stuff. Here are three: 1) The more you take, the more you can lose. 2) The less you have with you, the easier it is to move it around. 3) You may encounter different and smaller maximums in Europe than you find in the US. You will pay dearly for extra poundage. Flying over on an America carrier does not mean that you won’t be expected to meet tighter European requirements on a later flight.
13. TRAVEL LIGHT PART 2: Clothing: Check out some of the new and amazing materials available for travel clothing. Available from travel catalogues, these clothes take up little room, are comfortable, light weight, and can be used for casual or dressy wear. Some clothing designed for athletics will also be ideal for travel and are easily located in sporting goods stores. You can launder micro-fiber based clothing items in the sink and they will dry in an astonishingly short time. For that extra layer of warmth, micro-fleece is a cozy answer. If you can travel without checking any luggage, the airline can't lose your suitcase, plus you won't have to wait for it on the carousel. It may not come anyway.
14. SLEEP: You will enjoy your trip more and be able to cope with frustrations with less difficulty if you aren't sleep deprived. If you are flying overnight from the US into Europe, you probably won't get much sleep on the plane. But once you arrive, if you can make yourself stay awake until evening, you will then sleep very soundly and be ready for most anything the following morning. If possible, plan to walk around outside during your arrival day. Your body will adjust more easily to new daylight hours, and you will be less tempted to sleep.
15. TRAVEL GUIDES: Remember that these books are “guides.” Travel guides do not always have the most up to date information. By the time they are published, the information may already be more than a year old. Check out what is most important to you on the Internet before you go.
16. PLAN B: Things don’t always work out. Have some other choices available if the museum guards are all on strike, or the restaurant recommended by your favorite travel guru has closed.
17. CONFIRM YOUR RESERVATIONS: How would you feel if your flight was changed to an earlier hour and you didn’t get to the gate in time?
18. COPY PASSPORT: Make a copy of your passport and any other documents which would be difficult to replace while traveling. It still might be difficult but it will be a lot easier.
19. CREDIT CARD FEES can be sizable for international purchases. Typically, there may be a fee for each transaction plus up to three percent on top of the purchase price. Investigate obtaining a card which sports a winning combination of low fees and rewards or cash back. Ask a lot of questions to make sure you understand what fees might be layered on by other financial institutions, even if your local bank insists they don’t level any charges. When using your credit card abroad, never allow a store to charge you in dollars. They will say that this is a favor to you. It isn’t. The store will determine the exchange rate and it won’t be pretty, plus there might still be international fees tacked on.
20. PIN NUMBERS: Increasingly credit cards in Europe are tied to pin numbers. Some stores will not be interested in your signature, only those pin numbers. Ask your financial institution about getting a pin number especially if you plan on doing a lot of shopping.
21. CASH: Most travel advisors will tell you to use your charge card as much as possible. The sticking point might be that you are not able to charge in some of the places that you thought you would. Not every establishment including some well-known museums and established restaurants take charge cards. ATM machines are found just about everywhere and they are generally the best source of cash. You need to stay in your own “network” of financial providers to get the lowest fees and most Americans have no trouble with their ATM cards abroad. But some do, and you might want a back up plan. One possibility is to bring a second ATM card from an alternate financial institution. You might also bring some dollars with you. You can always exchange these for local currency. In general banks offer better exchange rates than those little booths that just exchange money. Finally you might exchange some dollars at your own bank before you leave. It might cost a little more but it’s better than going without gelato. If carrying an extra ATM card or cash makes you a little nervous, hide them in your shoes under the insoles.
22. FOOD: The cost of food is going to take a bite, so to speak. Avoid tourist areas when choosing restaurants. Not only will the cost go down, but your dining experience might be a bit more authentic. You can also save some money by eating dinner at lunch time. Buying food in outdoor markets, bakeries, or other specialty food stores followed by a picnic in a square or on a park bench can be very pleasurable.
23. UNEXPECTED COSTS: There are costs that might be unfamiliar to you. These are not meant to offend you personally. It's just the way it is done in other cultures, so if you get charged for going to the bathroom or for a table "set-up" just pay and don’t bother getting upset. You can’t change this.
24. POINTS: If you have "points" from any kind of travel program, cash them in if it will help you on your trip. Hotel points might allow you to stay at a facility on the premises of an airport. You probably won’t want to pay for this luxury, but if you can pay with points, you might really enjoy not having to rush to the airport to catch an early morning flight.
25. CHOOSE DESTINATIONS: There is much written about large European cities for they are full of treasures for tourists. But also consider some time in smaller cities and the countryside when choosing where to go. They are generally less expensive and offer significant attractions of their own.
26. GROUP trAVEL: Consider the economies of group travel for at least part of your trip. You may not want to be in a very large group whose leaders run around waving red flags so that you can find them. But you might enjoy taking a day trip to a particular point of interest with a knowledgeable guide and a small group. Or you might enjoy taking a cooking or painting class as part of your adventure. Do the research and find out what is available in the country you will visit.
27. DELAYS: Don't be frustrated by delays; instead have a supply of reading material, crosswords, knitting, or whatever you need to amuse yourself. People watching can also be quite entertaining.
28. BE PREPARED: Print your itinerary, travel reservations, and important maps from the Internet before you leave. Learning a few key phrases of a foreign language is rewarding but you should also buy a small dictionary so that you can at least point to some words to make yourself understood.
29. SAVE IN ADVANCE: Save money for the trip before you go. You will feel more carefree if you don’t have to worry about how to pay the big credit bill you might rack up.
30. CULTURE: Understand when, where, and how much to tip in every country where you expect to travel. Learn if there are gestures, clothing, and other behaviors to avoid.
31. CAMERA: Don't let your camera dominate your trip. What are you going to do with 47 pictures of the Tower of Pisa? Remember there are postcards!
32. AIRPORT FOOD: Most airports have seriously not healthy and expensive food. If you don't want to eat it, bring your own. You might also want some food of your own on the airplane too. Some nuts and dried fruit can go a long way in case of travel delays. Likely, you will not impress your travel companions by whining.
33. WHERE TO STAY: American chains will not necessarily give you the experience you want in Europe but this is probably not the time for boutique hotels either. Investigate small family owned inns or bed and breakfasts or an apartment. Stay a walk or bus ride away from the city center, and you may save a whole lot of money. Investigate agro-tourism and stay in the country-side for a different and interesting experience. Teaming up with a few others can bring the cost of a vacation rental, city or country to a very acceptable level.
34. COMMUNICATIONS: This is your holiday. You don’t have to be in constant touch with those back home. It can be costly to set your cell phone up for international calls. Going to Internet cafes takes away from time which might better be spent on your trip. Generally all you really need to do is to leave phone numbers of your lodgings for emergencies with a family member or close friend.
35. INDULGE YOURSELF: Don't always be thrifty. On occasion it is good to splurge on the real thing especially if it is something you have always dreamed of doing or eating or buying. Make your wishes come true!
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