Where my Father in the 1960’s used to plan his travel by writing letters to the hotels in Europe or sending a telex, or telegram, now you can go to a hotel or restaurant site online and book directly. Today with all of the available websites and information online, it is the easiest time in history to book your own travel.
Here are some tips I found that might be helpful as you plan your next trip:
Make sure you check your hotel, resort, airline or cruise refund policies before booking. You don’t want to be out any money if something happens and your plans change or there are cancellations. Trip cancellation insurance might be a great idea. Be aware that there are many airline schedule changes as airlines are constantly shifting their plans. So flexibility is key!
Check State.gov to check on travel warnings from the US State Department or to see if any specific visas are required for entry to a particular country. You should also make sure that your passport doesn’t expire soon, as many countries require it to be valid for a number of days upon entry, for example, 90 days.
Since Covid, people are traveling again and the amount of time it takes for renewing passports has become very unpredictable. The wait times can be ten to thirteen weeks. Give yourself plenty of time, as you don’t want to have to cancel your trip. I have worked with local companies in Chicago for many years, like Swift Passport Services at 1 E. Erie Suite 525, to process my passport renewal and obtain visas for other countries prior to traveling there. For those not near such offices, I found that iVisa.com is a very good site to be able to access their online application process, making it easy to get visas, health declarations or passport photos.
With more people traveling right now, there is a huge demand for car rentals in the US so make sure to book you cars as soon as possible to get the best possible rates. I would also book your hotels early and make sure to make the necessary reservations to visit our national parks, as they are becoming extremely popular right now.
When using frequent flyer miles for international travel, you might plan the flights for your trip a year in advance, if you can. I find that more miles are being required, so the earlier the better. Also sign up for emails from the airlines to be alerted for sales and specials. Southwest Airlines offers discounts and sale fares several times a year and will alert you when they begin.
I tend to book my flights directly with the airline and do it early to take advantage of good rates. I have heard about problems using the third party sites particularly if something goes wrong or the flight is cancelled. In that way if there is a delay you are notified, or in case of a weather issue, you can call and get on an earlier flight with no change fees.
Using Google Flights is a great tool to use to see who flies to a certain city along with times.
I have also used Booking.com which has an excellent selection of hotel options from bed & breakfasts to luxury hotels as well as apartments, vacation homes, hostels, cabins, villas and guesthouses.
I really love Tripadvisor as a source for smaller inns and bed and breakfasts as well as for restaurant recommendations. You can find a property, go to their website and book directly. You can also book directly through TripAdvisor for hotels, inns and rental homes. I also like Viator, a subsidiary, that allows you to book local tours, activities and excursions. On a recent trip to Paris, I signed up for a day tour and tasting in the Champagne region of France and had a great experience. They have tours all over the world.
Viator has nature walks and wildlife tours, US National Park tours including the Grand Canyon, walking tours, food and drink tours, arts and culture tours and attractions like the Vatican in Rome, the Eiffel Tower in Paris and Winsdor Castle and the Tower of London in England.
In case of a medical emergency, I recommend that you try a Medjet Membership. Medjet is the premier global air medical transport and travel security membership program for travelers. One in 30 trips end in a medical emergency, and safety while traveling has become a growing concern. Protect yourself with Medjet Assist or Medjet Horizon. I have been a member for several years. If a member is hospitalized more than 150 miles from home, Medjet will arrange medical transportation to the member’s hospital of choice in their home country. A MedjetHorizon membership adds travel security and crisis response services. A member must be hospitalized as an inpatient, and require continued inpatient care in order to be transported.
I also signed up for medical insurance with GeoBlue International Medical Insurance which covers you medical expenses while outside of the US. They offer a Single Trip Plan or an Annual Multi Trip plan.
I have taken a food tour in Queens on my last trip to New York City from Culinary Backstreets and really enjoyed it. They offer a number of food tours in several cities around the world in cities from Oaxaca and Mexico City, MX, Barcelona, Lisbon and Tokyo to New Orleans and Los Angeles. I am excited to take one on my next trip when in these cities. I recommend that you check them out when you are there also to learn about that city’s rich culinary heritage.
For cruises, hotels and other vacation packages, I recommend Dunhill Travel Deals.
Recently, I met John Shors when in Boulder, CO. He is friend of a close Chicago friend. John is a best-selling author. His first six novels, Beneath a Marble Sky, Beside a Burning Sea, Dragon House, The Wishing Trees, Cross Currents, and Temple of a Thousand Faces have won multiple awards, and have been translated into twenty-six languages. I learned when we met that he has recently formed John Shors Travel that offers small-group tours to exotic destinations. Featured destinations include India, China, Japan, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, the Galapagos Islands, and Eastern Europe. Many of the locations will take you to the locations that are featured in his novels like Agra in India to visit the Taj Mahal.
For music and theater events, I recommend that you book online. For example, if you are going to be in Vienna and want to attend a concert or opera, it is easy to search and book your tickets before the performance. You simply print out your ticket and present it at the door. I also like booking museum admissions in advance, so you can go on the days and at the time that you prefer.
In certain countries, like Colombia, Peru or Ecuador, I find it good to plan your airport transfer, in advance, through the hotel. Simply email the hotel or hotel concierge and ask them to arrange a transfer, giving them your flight arrival details. In that way when you exit Arrivals, you will see a driver holding a sign with your name. You can plan your departure transfer through the hotel once you arrive.
In certain cities, I also like getting a card of the hotel’s preferred taxi service. I have them call a cab for me to go to a restaurant at night and then have the restaurant call the number for the return trip back to the hotel. In Prague, people recommended not hailing a cab on the street or using the line at the train station. I stopped by the Tourist office to pick up my discount Prague Card and they called a taxi that got me to my hotel the cheapest way. I also found that when in Paris on a recent trip, that Uber is available and easy to use.
Depending on the location, sometimes it might be better to travel in a group rather than alone. I have taken a number of walking, biking and group trips from walking in Ireland, Peru and Morocco, biking in France and Spain and group trips to India, Japan and Egypt. I found one of the best ways was to get to Machu Picchu in Peru was to take the Hiram Bingham train from Cusco. I met some wonderful people on the train, had a small group tour of the ruins, a wonderful afternoon tea at the Belmond hotel nearby and wonderful meals. It was perfect day!
Fat Tire Tours is a popular tour operator since establishing it first bike tour in Paris in 1999. Today they offer bike, Segway, walking, skip-the-line and food tours in 12 locations in Europe and the United States. If you are traveling solo, this is the perfect way to connect with other travelers. I am hoping to do their walking tour of Montmartre next year!
Always keep some coins with you, as many public bathrooms require a small payment. Some have attendants and others might have a machine that gives change.
Check out promotional cards that you can buy ahead. For example, I bought the Barcelona Card for a certain number of days which included free or discounted admissions to many museums as well as included public transportation. I found many museums that I would not have known about if I had not had the card and the accompanying guide book listing all locations included in the pass. I did the same In Budapest with the Budapest Card and it was easy to hop on the metro during the 72 hours that my card was valid for. In Paris there is The Paris Pass. I opted not to buy it, since I was going to be there for 17 nights and their maxium pass is good for six nights. But for shorter stays, you might find it helpful.
I love booking my European rail trips through Rail Europe. I always talk to an agent and buy a pass or my individual tickets if a pass is not warranted. They can book individual trains and seats and also handle the sale of city promotional cards like the Barcelona Card, mentioned above. You can then pick them up at the train station when you arrive by presenting your prepaid voucher. I always buy a first class ticket. The cars are nicer and, on a recent trip to Europe, I found that there are first class lounges in some of the train stations which are available for your use with WiFi, drinks and a departure board.
I am also a big fan of getting a Eurail pass which you can buy through Rail Europe or direct from them. On my next trip to Europe I want to stay in Paris and do day trips to several nearby cities using the fast train or TGV. You can book your train and seat assignments as well.
Japan has an extremely efficient rail network that crosses the country with local, regional and high-speed or bullet trains. It can also cover Tokyo airport transfers along with buses and ferries. While visiting Japan, I recommend buying the Japan Rail Pass whether you are only going from Tokyo to Kyoto and back or planning to tour Japan in a one-, two-, or three-week period. The pass offers unlimited rides in the time period of the ticket and can be purchased with first class travel. It was an easy way to travel, particularly with the language barrier.
If you are going to a country where English is not widely understood or used, download the Google Translate app before you go, to help you with the language translation.
Make sure to let your credit card companies and your bank issuing your ATM cards know you will be traveling, so they won’t block any transactions. My credit card company does not require notification at this time, but you should check with yours just to be sure.
I do use ATMs while traveling to get foreign currency, particularly in Mexico. You might also call your bank and get some regional currency before you go. Their exchange rates are much better than the exchange window at the airport. You can always use the local ATMs if you need more.
Get a credit card that allows you to use it overseas with no foreign transaction fees. Getting one that allows you access to the private airline club lounges is also an added benefit.
Contact your cellular provider to add an international calling and data plan to your account for the time you will be gone.
You can find WiFi almost everywhere without having to pay for international data charges. Just ask the restaurant, coffee shop or hotel for their login info. I am amazed as to how many places have WiFi now, so you can keep connected during the entire day if you need to without racking up huge extra expenses from your US carrier. You can get a VPN or Virtual Protected Network, to make sure you can obtain a protected internet connection.
For free calling using WiFi check into the apps provided by Skype, Vonage, WhatsApp or others. As a Vonage residential customer, I can use their Vonage Extensions app and call free, with no roaming charges, using WiFi and putting the phone in Airplane mode.
I would print out any hotel confirmations or at least email them to yourself, so you can access them on your phone. You never know if you might not have cellular service or WiFi to be able to search online.
I love using Open Table for restaurant reservations in the US and often times in Mexico. I have also used Top Table, now Open Table UK, a similar service in the UK. Check out other international locations on Open Table. You might check to see if there is another such website where you are traveling or just go to the restaurants website which will often have a booking service available or an email where you can request a date and time. It makes it so easy, particularly if you want to get into a popular spot. I found it very easy to book restaurants in Paris, simply by going to their website and requesting a date and time.
Make copies of your passport to take with you. You can also register your passport and credit cards with a service that you can notify if they are lost or stolen. Very important, is to check the expiration of your passport. “In fact, many countries require it to be valid for six months beyond your intended return date. If it expires before that, you may be denied boarding or entry upon arrival at your destination and have to go straight home.” Make sure to check the requirements of the country you are planning to visit. Also certain countries visas upon entry. Often you can buy at immigration at the airport upon arrival. Others you may have to have before you go so you may have to use a visa service or apply at a local consulate. Again check the requirements. Also check to make sure how long you can stay in a location if you plan on staying for an extended period of time over 90 days.
Global Entry is a wonderful way to speed up Customs upon your return. It is good for five years by paying a fee. You can renew online! With this you can also get TSA PreCheck which helps you with security on the front end, by not having to take off shoes, take out liquids or remove computers from your bags. Having TSA PreCheck is a great idea right now as airline traffic is way up and the security lines can be very long particularly near holiday travel times.
For car rentals, hotels, vacation packages and cruises use sites like AARP or Costco for great discounts. You can also check out car rental discounts or hotel discount after you book a flight, say on Southwest. I find that the earlier you book, the better the rates. You can choose the rental company and the type of car by the ones offering the best rate. AAA is another good site for travel deals for its members.
When traveling by air, make sure to check for your departure terminal before you head to the airport. For example in Chicago, United’s international departures leave from Terminal 1, but many carriers leave from the International Terminal. Check the monitors for any gate changes. I had one recently in Amsterdam where I had checked in and went to the gate and found it had been changed. When traveling by train, check the boards for departure times. I always double or triple check by asking the conductor, or even other passengers, if I am on the right platform or in the right car. Getting there a little early is always advisable. I had an experience in Prague when the platform announcement was very close to the time of departure. You have to be able to act and move quickly to get to the gate on time.
When traveling by train, I still like to give myself plenty of time at the train station. In that way you can get your seat assignment if you don’t have it already, get a snack for the train and exchange the rest of your currency. For example, I changed my last Hungarian and Czech currency into Euros when I departed. I was using Euros on the last part of my trip and knew that I will always use Euros in the future if I have any left. I had a couple of connections on my last trip to Europe and I also looked at the schedule to see what later trains were on the schedule just in case I had to change my plans. For tighter train connections, ask for the location of your train car to save time. I also found some stations have a diagram showing exact locations of each car.
An airline club membership can be great. You can get food, drinks, newspapers and magazines and free WiFi and sit in a comfortable setting while waiting to board.
For international flights, I have learned to take an Ambien and sleep as long as I can. It is easy for longer Asian trips, to eat and then take your pill. For shorter European flights, I find it best to eat before you board, take your ambien and then go to sleep for as long as possible, waking up for breakfast before your morning arrival. I then take a pill for one to two days after I arrive to help set my clock and again upon my return to the US.
As a tea drinker in the morning, I tend to throw in some tea bags from my favorite brand. I often take some paper, fillable tea sleeves so I can buy loose tea if I see any that I like along the way.
A tip for riding the subway in a city where you don’t speak the language: The lines are usually numbered or colored. Just look for the direction of the stop at the end of that line in the direction you want to go. When transferring from one line to another just follow signs to that same direction.
Get a currency converter app to calculate the cost of anything you are buying in a particularly currency.
With different electric currents in certain regions, remember to check what converters you will need for your computer and phones that you will need to bring to your destinations. Mexico is the same as the US and none are needed.
Particularly when traveling overseas, take full advantage of your hotel safe. I never carry my passport and always lock it up along with my laptop and extra cash. I also lock up my camera in the evening when I go out for dinner. I like leaving my camera at the hotel in the evening and just use the camera on my iPhone. I would hate to have an issue losing my camera on a long trip.
I have seen several news segments recently on the extremely poor air quality in countries like China and India and particularly in Beijing and Delhi. I suggest buying some air masks for pollution that you can take and use if the conditions are dangerous for your health.
I love taking road trips. Often I fly and rent a car once I land. But sometimes, I opt to drive my own car from my home in Chicago. One suggestion, is that before you head out, make sure to have your car serviced. Check the oil, fluid levels and tire pressure. Make sure to take your insurance coverage information with you as well as any cards for any roadside assistance programs that you subscribe to. Also if you are taking toll roads or turnpikes, you can take your transponder from your car at home and take it with you to allowing you to pass through the express lanes without having to pay cash.
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