International travel is an adventure, a mind shift.
It allows us to disconnect, to think differently.
I love to experience new cultures, try new foods, explore new cities, visit the natural wonders of the world, and learn.
When I have downtime, rather than watching mindless television, I find myself creating travel boards on Pinterest. I have a long list of places I would like to visit someday, so I spend a lot of time reading articles and pinning photos for travel inspiration. Personally, I love the ones that include beautiful photos of crystal-clear blue water to jump in, scenic mountain hikes, and amazing new local foods to try.
Many travel articles I read are helpful and informative in planning what to do, what to see, where to eat, and how to avoid pick-pockets, but after my last few trips to Europe, I decided it could be helpful to compile a list to share on how to avoid a total freak-out when traveling internationally.
You know the kind of freak-out I’m talking about. The kind where you are a little too hot, tired, hungry, hurt, annoyed, and/or lost. The kind where if the person you are traveling with says one more word, you might end up saying something unkind that you’ll later regret. The kind where either you or your travel partner are about ready to have a full-blown, two-year-old tantrum. The kind where you ask yourself if all this was really worth it or if you should have just stayed home. The kind where you find yourself saying, “Never again.”
A good travel freak-out will take all the fun out of your trip, and in my opinion can be avoided with a little preparation and a few tips from those of us who have experienced one or two of these meltdowns.
>> Have local currency and some U.S. dollars in addition to your credit and debit cards. Not all taxis and cafes accept credit cards (or there may be a minimum) and you don’t ever want to be without coffee or a ride. On my recent trip to the island of Paros in Greece, none of the four different ATMs I tried worked. Thankfully, the tourist office was able to exchange some USD for me, though they would only do it in increments of $100.
>> Many hotels charge an occupancy tax that also needs to be paid for in cash. You cannot prepay this at time of booking.
>> European credit cards require a pin, so have a debit card with you too. I was not successful in buying an Italian train ticket with a U.S. credit card. It wasn’t until I missed the train and afterward successfully tried my debit card that I figured this one out.
>> Call your credit card company before your trip so they know what countries you will be visiting and on what dates. I always seem to forget this one, and sometimes it works, but sometimes it doesn’t. It is no fun when it doesn’t and you’re forced to make an expensive international call.
>> When you see an ATM, get money! Don’t assume that it will be easy to find another working ATM when you need one. I visited three Italian ATMs and wasted a lot of time before I found a working one with money in it.
>> Shield the keypad with your hands when you are at the ATM machine to avoid having your PIN stolen. I had someone go on a shopping spree with my debit card and pin number in Florence.
>> Drink water and use the restroom whenever the opportunity presents itself, even if you don’t feel like you need to at that moment. Dehydration is real. Keep Kleenex or toilet paper and some change for using a public restroom. In Europe, some public restrooms charge a euro.
>> Four-hour bus rides are way more tolerable with snacks and beer/wine. I keep a stainless portable water bottle and my portable hydroflask wine glasses with me because there is usually nothing to buy once you get on the bus. Both are good for impromptu picnics, too! Be careful though because the bus doesn’t pull over every time someone needs to use the restroom.
>> I’m a fan of Advil PM or Tylenol PM for the first night when you have no idea when your body should be sleeping or eating. Jet lag can ruin any good day.
>> Ask for an inside room at a hotel in a big city. The street noise, trash trucks, and vagrant musicians all make for long, sleepless nights. I’ll never forget the loud sleepless night I spent in Madrid with musicians singing and playing instruments until 4 a.m. in the alley next to my room.
>> Take earplugs so you can sleep anywhere—planes, trains, buses, and hotels.
>> If you plan to do any kind of shopping, keep your passport with you so you can get the value-added tax (VAT) refunded to you right away. I was not successful in mailing the tax credit in after the fact, and didn’t get a single dollar back after I bought a garnet ring in Prague.
>> Leave yourself enough time at the airport for the VAT refund. It is amazing how long the line can take. I almost missed a flight in Pisa, Italy, after waiting in line to get my refund. I think it is part of their strategy to make you wait so long that you actually give up on getting the refund and let them keep your money.
>> When you’re at a tourist shop and you really like something, buy it. Don’t wait, because you may never see it again. I’ve regretted not buying that beautiful amber ring in the antique store in Vienna for the last three years.
>> Do your research and read the reviews. There is always someone who is complaining about not having all the comforts of home, and they, of course, should just stay home, but reviews are great for helping us set expectations. It is sometimes all about the little things—a bottle of wine, a bottle of water, and some small amenities can go a long way when you arrive after a long-haul flight and everything is closed.
>> Airbnb and I have a love/hate relationship. I love having a concierge; they can be just downright helpful. So, read the Airbnb review and find out if there will be someone at check-in to help orient you and provide you with recommendations. You don’t want to check in at midnight in Italy in the pitch black with a difficult-to-find location halfway up a cliff. Usually hotels are well-marked and a lot easier to find.
>> Laundry is a nice perk of some Airbnbs, but do pack a laundry pod. Many of the Airbnbs have laundry facilities, but not all provide soap. And leave enough time for your clothes to dry so you aren’t packing up a wet suitcase full of clothes. Greece was so humid that even after two days, my clothes were still wet!
>> If you plan to stay at an agriturismo, prearrange the transportation to get you to your destination. They are usually fabulous when you get there, but often located in remote locations that can be difficult to find. I arrived in a little village in Lentini, Italy, where my great-grandmother was from, only to find there were no buses or cabs, very few women, and no one spoke English. It was a little stressful to walk into a bar full of men and try to negotiate, in broken Italian, for someone to help me and my mom. A sweet, old man with a flip phone did make a call for us, and for 10 Euro drove me and my mom to our destination. A good agriturismo takes “farm to table” to a whole new level and the food and wine are usually inexpensive and fantastic.
>> Get up early and be the first one in line at super touristy locations to try and get ahead of the masses. Take the afternoon to drink wine, sit at a café or a beach, and watch the rest of the crowds fight it out during amateur hour. Find out when the cruise ships arrive and depart. I was able to walk the walls of Dubrovnik, Croatia, before the cruise ship arrived, which was great because I didn’t have to fight the crowds around every corner when trying to take a photograph.
>> Don’t pack more that you can carry straight up a cobblestone street in 90-degree weather without freaking out. I swore after my trip to Capri, Italy, that I would never pack that big of a suitcase again. I can’t remember a time when I was ever that hot.
>> Leave some room in your suitcase when you initially pack for a trip. You will always buy something along the way, and I swear your clothes seem to grow when you’re trying to jam everything back into the suitcase on the return trip home.
>> If you have a connecting flight, check that your bags are checked all the way through to your final destination. Do not assume. If not, you will need to pick them up before clearing customs and recheck them. There is no way to go back through once you’ve cleared customs. I made that mistake once with a connecting flight from Madrid to New York City on my way home to Chicago.
>> If you have a multiple-leg flight, make sure that you take all the flights. They will cancel your return flight if you don’t complete all legs. Believe me: been there, done that. I did not use the second leg of my flight when flying to Croatia on Lufthansa and they cancelled my return flight home! I didn’t figure it out until I was trying to check in on my way back, and I had to pay an additional $150 fee to re-book my ticket.
>> Sign up for the loyalty program of whatever airline you are flying. Download the airline app on your phone. If anything happens (like your return trip on Lufthansa gets cancelled), the airline already has all your information in your profile, which makes finding a resolution to your problem go that much smoother.
>> Visit the big European cities in the spring or late fall—less crowds and off-season rates. If visiting in the summer, go to the off-the-beaten-path locations or stay at the beach. Crowded cities in 90 degrees are the worst. If you can, avoid staying in any beach towns that are a cruise ship port. The extra 5,000 people in your way carrying umbrellas during the day gets old quick.
>> A lifesaver when driving in Europe is an international data plan and Google maps. Although, be careful because the navigation is always trying to take you on the highway instead of the scenic wine trail route in Tuscany, which you actually may prefer. Brush up on your manual driving skills, too.
>> Don’t assume that the Uber app works in all European countries. Check before you go for the cities you are visiting. Uber is illegal in Denmark, so I had to figure out the train schedule quickly.
>> Spend the $100 for global entry. Spending less than five minutes to clear customs and not having to fill out any forms upon your arrival back to the United States is more than worth the money. Trust me, by that time you will be done with all people, crowds, and lines. This can also save you precious time. I swear that every time I come home from an international trip, I remind myself that global entry is the best $100 I have ever spent.
>> I never show up to a city for the first time at night. It’s too disorienting and I hate being lost and hungry when it is dark out. It just feels safer too.
>> Wear comfortable shoes. I mean really comfortable—the ones you can walk a minimum of 80 miles in. Clarks, Merrell, and Dansko seem to be the ones that have never caused me any pain. I could be the poster child for these shoes; I once walked 14 miles in Budapest in my Dansko boots without any pain.
>> Beware of blisters. They can ruin any trip. Keep blister sticks and bandages with you, just in case. European pharmacies are the best. Hopefully you don’t need one, but if you do, they are amazing.
>> Don’t debate spending $20 if it makes your life easier. Upgrade to first class on the train, take a taxi instead of the bus or walking. You will have plenty of other opportunities to tough it out. Trust me, after being lost in Madrid for hours, the decision to take a cab back to the hotel was well worth the $20.
>> When trying to save money, factor in the opportunity cost. It may save you $75 to fly to a remote airport in London, but what it is worth to you when you have to spend half a day on the train and the bus to get there?
>> Keep your phone on airplane mode when not in use so your battery doesn’t drain too quickly.
>> Get an international data plan—one that you can turn on and off, if and when you need it. It has saved me more than once. There are also SIM card options that may actually save you money versus the hefty cell phone plan charges. Wi-Fi is everywhere; most all the airports, cafes, and museums usually have it, so you are never too far away from a connection if you are in a city. And many of the ferries now have it too.
>> Don’t forget to have fun, relax, breathe, enjoy, and disconnect!