Globe Trotting

Tips for traveling abroad

By Katie McElveen

If “someday” is what crosses your mind when friends’ photos of their trips to exotic isles in the South Pacific, storybook European villages or ancient sites like Machu Picchu appear on Facebook, you’re not alone. Less than 40 percent of Americans hold passports. 

Now is a great time to consider a trip outside of the United States. The dollar is strong against many foreign currencies, meaning you’ll get better value than travelers just a few years ago. A wide range of travel apps and websites minimize bad surprises and let you translate foreign phrases and download maps on the fly, too. 

Then there are the experiences. For some, it’s all about seeing the Eiffel Tower, exploring the Roman ruins or diving the Great Barrier Reef. But the world is filled with personal delights as well. Fly to England and you can step into Christ Church at Oxford University, which stood in for parts of Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry in the Harry Potter movies. In Norway, your children can run through the streets of the village that was the inspiration for Arendelle, the town from the Disney movie Frozen. Visit a beach in the Caribbean or Tahiti, and you’ll find that water can really be that impossibly vivid shade of blue. 

 

First Steps

Wondering where to go first? Frank Brown, who has travelled the world with Sarah, his wife, and two children for more than 40 years, says that the real key to a successful trip — one that will make you want to continue to explore the world — is to know yourself before you commit to a destination. “Thinking realistically about how you like to spend your time, necessary creature comforts and what you’re really looking for in a vacation will go a long way toward planning a successful trip,” he notes. “Travel is not one size fits all.”

In other words, what intrigues you — and what drives you crazy? Do you enjoy visiting museums? If so, you might want to stick with larger cities where choices abound and English-language information is available. Want everything to go like clockwork? Germany, Switzerland and the Scandinavian countries are well-scrubbed, organized and always on time. When you visit the beach, are you happiest under an umbrella with a book, or do you prefer an island filled with activities? In the Caribbean, Anguilla, Nevis and the Bahamas are known for gorgeous beaches and a laid-back vibe, while Cabo San Lucas in Mexico, Belize and Aruba tempt adventure seekers with activities like ATV-riding, cave tubing, kite boarding and swimming with sharks. Are you a courageous eater, or do you feel better knowing there’s a McDonald’s or Subway nearby if you need it? You might want to stick with locales popular with Americans. Night owl? Dinner in Spain usually begins around 9:30 p.m. 

Take your schedule into account as well. Summers can be unbearably hot in cities like Venice, but glorious in Amsterdam. Christmas markets in Germany are alive with old-world tradition. A summer trip to South America can mean skiing. 

Left: Louise and Lee Andrews enjoying festive cocktails at the Grace Bay Club in Turks and Caicos. Right: Sarah Brown with a Tower of London guide who took the Browns through the nightly closing routine and included lots of stories regarding the tower.

The Plan

The decision of whether to plan your own trip or work with a professional is a personal one. Research on your own generally means hours on the Internet reading hotel reviews, comparing airline schedules, diving into travel forum discussions and mapping itineraries. It can also be intensely rewarding — as you research, you’ll stumble upon historic details, hidden neighborhoods, locals-only restaurants and unique, often inexpensive, lodging options. If, on the other hand, you find yourself paralyzed by the overwhelming tsunami of information available on the Internet, it might be best to consider working with a professional.

If you fall into the first camp, keep yourself organized from the start by taking note of what you’ve found, where you found it and how old the information is. Check and re-check, save copies of emails and follow up with individuals as the trip draws closer. 

If you choose to work with a travel agent, help him or her plan the right trip for you and your family by taking a few minutes to write down preferences, potential deal breakers and anything else that will offer a precise sense of the type of trip you want to take. “You want to be as clear as possible about your specific interests and requirements,” says Frank. “Even professionals can be influenced by the things other clients have done.” Be honest about your budget, too. It’s hard to enjoy a trip when you’re worried about every dime. 

Since many travel agents are affiliated with national networks, they can also offer hotel room upgrades, private sightseeing access and other benefits not available to travelers planning their own trips. You can get assistance with air and rail transportation and someone to call if things go sideways.

Top: Sarah and Frank Brown in an “Ice Bar” in Queenstown, New Zealand where the bar, tables and chairs are carved out of ice. They keep the temperature below freezing at all times. Bottom: Lee and Diana Ayers on the balcony at Chateau de Chenonceau in the Loire Valley, a known retreat for Catherine de Medici and Mary Queen of Scots.

Where To Stay

Finding the right hotel can make or break a trip, so don’t skimp on taking the time to find one that has the right location and the amenities you need. 

Websites like Trip Advisor® are a wonderful resource, but don’t stop there. Condé Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure and other travel magazines can be easily searched for hotels, restaurants and activities in certain cities; once you have names, it’s easy to plug them into the search engine and see what else comes up. As you wade through the blogs, newspaper articles, forums and other sites, bear in mind that if a lot of people on different sites have had a similar experience at a certain establishment, it’s probably legitimate. Outliers — both positive and negative — tend to be just that. Check out traveler photos, too. Beyond letting you see what rooms and public spaces really look like, they’ll give you a glimpse into what kind of people you’ll be bumping into at breakfast.

If you visit the hotel’s website (or a blog), read between the lines. Cozy can mean small. A hotel located in a bustling neighborhood could be noisy; a quiet residential street might mean an expensive taxi ride for every meal. Country estates, châteaux and inns set within vineyards and olive groves are lovely, but may be isolated. At ocean resorts, a cliff-side location will offer gorgeous views but may require a steep hike to get to the beach. Small inns and B&B’s are usually charming and historic, but most have a convivial atmosphere that might be too much for travelers who prefer not to share their morning coffee or pre-dinner glass of wine with fellow guests. If something isn’t mentioned on the website — air conditioning, hair dryers, an elevator, room service — email the hotel to ask. For even more information, delve into the press or media section of a hotel’s website. There, you might find news releases detailing recent upgrades, upcoming discounts and links to articles about the hotel, which can be mined for additional restaurants and activities to consider. 

Sarah Brown and a Masaai woman standing on a thatched roof of a house in the Masaai village of Tanzania. The woman was showing Sarah how to thatch a roof.

The Itinerary

After you’ve chosen your must-sees, it’s wise to get back on the Internet and double check that they’ll be open and running normally on the day you plan to visit. Churches, for instance, sometimes close to outsiders during worship services and museums are particularly crowded on monthly free admission days. If the site you want to visit is particularly popular, like the Louvre or the Vatican, consider booking a tour with a private guide. 

Diana and Lee Ayers often travel to Europe, many times with their three sons, and always hire a guide. “Tour guides know their business and deliver their information with passion and personality, which really brings the sites alive,” she says. “It’s a great time-saver, too. Private tour guides don’t wait in lines and they know how to maneuver through sites so that you avoid the crowds.” 

Diana also asks her guides for suggestions for off-the-beaten-track restaurants. “We’ve found some of our favorite places through our guides,” she notes. Hiring a private guide can also help you make sense of a place, particularly when you first arrive, by pointing out landmarks, offering suggestions for the rest of your vacation and giving historical perspective. How do you find a guide? Personal recommendations are best, so ask around, check city websites and inquire with the concierge of the hotel. 

To keep your vacation from turning into a forced march, balance planned activities with scheduled downtime, especially if you’re traveling with children. “Unscheduled time gives us all time to relax, walk around and take in the local routine away from the tourist sites,” says Diana. Frank agrees, noting that he and Sarah spent time with the children in parks and zoos meeting locals and seeing the city through their eyes. 

 

Getting Ready

Even before you’ve set your dates and confirmed your destination, once you’ve decided you’ll be traveling abroad, take the time to register for Global Entry, which will speed you through immigration when you return to the United States. For those with connecting flights, it can mean the difference between making your plane and missing it as you wait in line at immigration and customs. Be sure to check your passport, too, to make sure it won’t expire while you’re on your trip. Note that some countries have specific passport regulations, such as prohibiting entry if your passport will expire in three months or less; visit the State Department’s website for details.

Before you leave, make color copies of your passports. Keep one set at home and take a second set with you.

Avoid carrying large amounts of cash by using local ATMs. They are available all over the world and fees to use them end up being less than you would spend purchasing currency. 

 

Packing Strategies

Ask any seasoned traveler how to prepare for an international trip, and they’ll tell you not just to pack lightly but to pack smart, whether you plan to check your luggage or not. Louise and Lee Andrews, who travel regularly to Europe and the Caribbean, pack half of their clothing in each other’s suitcase when checking luggage and stuff an extra outfit into their carry-on bags. “That way, if one suitcase gets lost, you’ve at least got a few outfits to wear until they find it,” says Louise. It’s also smart to avoid wearing too much bling. Even if it’s fake, it could mark you as a potential victim for mugging. If you plan to visit religious sites, don’t forget to check dress codes. The Vatican, for example, doesn’t allow shorts. 

It’s also important to note that European airlines have different regulations for carry-on bags than American carriers. If you’re switching planes in Europe, that wheeled suitcase that you brought on board the flight from Columbia might not make it into the cabin for the second leg. Ditto on your return: agents at European airports are very strict about on-board baggage, so don’t be surprised if you’re required to check a bag on the way home that you carried on for the flight over. To be safe, stuff a small tote into your suitcase so you’ll have something to hold your medicine, keys, reading material and glasses on the plane in case you’re asked to check your bag.

Most of all, enjoy your trip. Laugh at mistakes. Take a chance on a new food, even if your waiter can’t quite describe what it is. Buy the painting — or the vase or the wood carving — when you see it. You’re making memories.

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