Shopping Abroad: A Traveler’s Guide

 

Some travelers get to know a place through its museums and monuments, others through its scenic landscapes or traditional cuisine. But for globetrotters who love to shop, there’s no truer way to experience a place than by haggling with merchants in a bazaar, browsing the handcrafted wares of local artisans or sampling designer duds at the poshest boutique in town.

shopping bags woman russia

Shopping abroad can be exciting and rewarding, but it’s not without its pitfalls. The intricate art of haggling is often a challenge for visitors used to fixed prices at their mall at home, and the sea of cheap knock-offs and tacky souvenirs in just about any major tourist destination makes it difficult to tell when you’ve found a true local gem. Become a savvier shopper with our tips for avoiding fakes, haggling like a pro and getting your goods home at the end of your trip.

How do you know whether that cute handbag is a genuine designer item or if you’re getting a good deal on that amazing carpet at the Turkish bazaar? Our rule of thumb is simple: research, research, research. Sure, window shopping and spontaneous spending are fun, but if you’re looking to make a major purchase, you’ll want to do your homework to make sure you’re getting a good deal — and the real deal.

If you know you’re in the market for a certain item, such as blown glass in Venice or a traditional kimono in Japan, do some reading ahead of time to learn what to look for when shopping at your destination. Which qualities ensure that the item is genuine? Which scams should you keep an eye out for? A good guidebook can be invaluable here, offering purchasing tips as well as recommendations for reputable shops and markets.

Another good bet is to consult the concierge at your hotel; he or she will be able to point you to trustworthy vendors that specialize in the types of goods you’re looking for. The local visitors’ bureau is another good bet. And, of course, the internet offers a wealth of information on any type of shopping you can imagine. Hop online before or during your trip to gather the wisdom of other travelers.

Once at your destination, shop around before purchasing to familiarize yourself with the range of merchandise and prices available. (Hint: If the price seems too good to be true, it probably is.) Tour guides often take travelers to preselected shops for purchasing souvenirs, but use caution — your guide may get a commission on anything you buy, often resulting in inflated prices. You may get a better deal at a shop you find on your own.

For big-ticket items such as jewelry and art, make sure to get a certificate of appraisal or authenticity at the time of purchase — and, if possible, pay for your goods with a credit card. That will help protect you if you get home and discover that an item isn’t actually worth what you paid for it.

Top Holiday Shopping Destinations

In North America and many parts of Europe, haggling is a bit of a dying art (unless you’re on a used car lot!). But throughout the rest of the world, bargaining and bartering are a vital part of any transaction — and you’re unlikely to get a good deal unless you can master your own negotiating skills.

It’s important to be familiar with the culture of the place you’re visiting, as your haggling strategy will vary a bit from country to country. For example, in some parts of the world, it pays to be assertive and forceful when negotiating a price; in others, you’ll do better keeping your tone soft and pleasant. Check your guidebook or do a Google search for a rundown on local haggling customs. CultureCrossing.net is another good source of information on cultural norms, listed by country.

No matter where you’re traveling, bring a positive attitude into the transaction. Think of haggling as a game — a competitive but ultimately fun and friendly exercise. Don’t get angry or insult the seller, even if the negotiations aren’t going your way. At the end of the day, both you and the merchant should feel happy with the outcome of the deal.

Never enter a haggling situation unprepared. By the time you approach the seller, you should have already shopped around and determined approximately how much the item you want to buy is worth. We suggest having two numbers in mind: the price you’d ideally like to pay and the maximum amount you’re willing to spend.

arabian shoes morocco moroccan market

Here’s a handy tip: If you’re paying in cash, set aside the money that you’re prepared to spend and keep it in your wallet; move the rest of your bills elsewhere. This serves two purposes. You can give the merchant visual evidence that this amount is the most you can possibly pay (“See? This is all I have!”), and it also helps prevent you from going over your own self-imposed price limit.

On a related note, be sure to carry plenty of small bills so that you can pay the exact price of your item. Occasionally a merchant will claim that he can’t make change for larger bills, hoping to convince you to let him keep the excess amount.

Make the seller begin the negotiations by waiting for him to make the initial offer. If you’re not sure how much to counteroffer, a good rule of thumb is to halve the initial price and negotiate from there. (As noted above, though, this strategy may vary from country to country.)

Traveling with a companion? Discuss who’s going to do the talking and what you’re willing to pay before you enter the shop and start haggling — that way you can present a united front (and your husband won’t ruin the deal right off the bat with an opening offer that’s higher than the maximum you want to spend).

Don’t show too much interest in the item you’re negotiating for, no matter how desperately you want it. Looking too eager tells a savvy merchant that you’re willing to pay a pretty penny to avoid walking out without that must-have item. In fact, you should be willing to walk; when you do so, you’ll often find the merchant following you into the street with a new, lower counteroffer.

Don’t rush the transaction. Negotiating a deal that works for both parties can take time — so enjoy the process and go with the flow. (This is a tactical advantage too; if you appear to be in a hurry, the seller may think you’ll settle for a higher price just to get out of there.)

That said, if the negotiations have gone on for a while and you’ve reached a stalemate over the last $5 or $10 difference in price, it may be time to let it go. What will you regret more — leaving behind a unique memento of your trip or spending a few extra bucks? Remember, too: Odds are that if you’re traveling in a developing country, the merchant probably needs that additional $5 or $10 more than you do.

The Best Way to Carry Money Overseas

Dedicated shopaholics know to leave plenty of room in their suitcases for souvenirs — or even pack an additional bag to fit the extras. Duffel bags are a good bet to serve as your extra bag because they fold easily and don’t take up much space, but their flimsiness makes them appropriate only for dirty clothes and other unbreakable items, not your new porcelain vase. Valuable or delicate items should be wrapped carefully and stowed in your carry-on.

Occasionally you’ll purchase something that’s too large, heavy or fragile to carry home yourself. In these cases, you’ll need to decide between having the store ship the item for you (which isn’t always an option when buying from smaller merchants) and shipping it yourself.

If you’re having the merchant take care of the shipping, be sure to buy insurance for the item, pay with a credit card, and get an itemized receipt specifying exactly what you purchased and how it will be shipped.

box shipping ship package styrofoam peanuts

If you’ll be doing the shipping yourself, pack the item carefully and label the box with the contents of the package, the monetary value of those contents, and either “Personal Use Purchase” or “Unsolicited Gift” (for customs purposes). Your hotel concierge might be able to mail the package for you; alternatively, you can visit the local post office or seek out the nearest UPS, DHL or FedEx office (visit their websites for a list of locations). Again, purchase insurance for your package and pay with a credit card for the most protection.

10 Travel Money Mistakes to Avoid

Back in your own country, your goods will have to clear customs before you can bring them home. In general, U.S. residents are permitted to bring up to $800 worth of merchandise back from a trip without having to pay duty (numerous exceptions apply). For goods that you ship home to yourself, up to $200 is exempt from duty. Customs will inspect your packages when they arrive in the U.S., and if you owe duty you’ll have to pay it when your package is delivered.

For more information on customs allowances for U.S. residents, see our Customs and Duty-Free Guide. If you reside outside the U.S., check out the following links or visit your own country’s customs agency:

Canada Borders Services Agency
HM Revenue & Customs (United Kingdom)
Revenue: Irish Tax and Customs
Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection
New Zealand Customs Service

How to Pack Efficiently: 8 Products That Can Help

 

Ever found yourself rooting through your suitcase, tossing clothes and gadgets haphazardly around your hotel room in search of that one shirt you really want to wear? Or shown up at the airport with a suitcase that exceeds your airline’s weight limit, leaving you shifting your stuff from one bag to another in front of a line of impatient fellow passengers?

messy suitcase

If problems like these sound familiar, chances are you need a few lessons in how to pack efficiently. That means packing light, maximizing your suitcase space and staying organized during your trip.

We’ve identified eight products that will help you in the eternal quest for more efficient packing.

These old reliables are the ultimate tool for travelers who like to stay organized. Instead of having all your clothes and other items scattered around your suitcase willy-nilly, you can divide them into zippered compartments — larger ones for shirts and pants, medium ones for shoes, smaller ones for socks and undies. Couples or families who share a single large suitcase can buy packing cubes in different colors so they know which cubes are whose.

There are countless brands of packing cubes to choose from. Popular options include sets from eBags and TravelWise.

Garment folders serve a similar purpose as packing cubes but with a different design. These let you enclose a neatly folded stack of clothes, with the added benefit of compression. We like those from Eagle Creek, available in a variety of sizes (including large and small) .

What Not to Pack

Compression bags — also called compression sacks — are a godsend for travelers who never seem to have enough room in their suitcase. The bags allow you to squeeze tons of clothes into a small space by removing all the air, freeing up space while keeping things organized. We’ve even seen people use these on bulky items such as winter coats and even pillows! (Caution: Keep an eye on the weight of your suitcase when using compression bags. With all your newfound space, it’s easy to go overboard.)

Recommended compression bags include options from Packmate, Acroo and RoomierLife. We like these because they don’t require vacuum cleaners or special pumps to suck out air.

Note: The poor man’s compression sack is a simple zip-top plastic bag, which come in a variety of sizes (1 gallon, 3 gallons, 10 gallons, even 20 gallons). Roll or fold your clothes, place them in the bag and then flatten to remove as much air as you can.

Packing Tips: Should You Roll or Fold?

Daily pill organizers are a must for travelers who take multiple medications and/or supplements a day, but did you know you can also use them for jewelry? Keep necklaces, bracelets and earrings in their own separate compartments, and you’ll avoid having to spend mornings at your hotel unsnarling silver chains.

We like this option from Apothecary.

Avoid losing your keys or your cell phone in the depths of your purse by adding an organizer to your bag. With various compartments and pockets, these organizers ensure that you’ll always have what you need close at hand. As a bonus, you can easily pick up the organizer and put it into a different bag if you want to change purses between trips.

Pursfection offers an organizer that has 11 pockets and expands to 12 inches long. Txobag sells a larger version with 13 pockets.

luggage scale

One important aspect of packing efficiently is staying well within your airline’s weight limit. Digital luggage scales are inexpensive — especially as compared to baggage fees! — and easy to use. When weighing your suitcase, be sure to allow yourself a little margin for error just in case the airport scale is calibrated a little differently (and to save a few pounds for any souvenirs you might bring home).

Camry and Spigen offer solid options.

Especially for longer journeys, doing laundry in the middle of your trip is the best way to cut down on the clothes you pack. But hotel laundry services are typically expensive, and no one wants to spend a day of their vacation hanging out at a local laundromat watching their underwear spin dry.

For these situations, a waterproof bag that you can use to wash your own clothes may be your most efficient option. (And you’ll even get a little workout, as you need to shake the bag for several minutes to mimic the agitation of a washing machine.) Scrubba and Laundreez make portable clothes washers that weigh less than a pound.

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Suitcases with clever compartments or even built-in organizing systems can help keep your things in order throughout your trip. One intriguing option is the ShelfPack, which has shelves that lift up out of the bag to create a mobile closet in your hotel room. There are small zipper compartments on the end of each shelf where you can store additional items.

If you prefer packing cubes to shelves, you might like Oregami luggage, which features three zippered interior compartments that unfold accordion-style from the suitcase. (Check out our Oregami review.)

For a lighter, carry-on-size option, consider this wheeled duffel from eBags, which not only has numerous pockets but also has a removable interior shelf that you can use to divide the main compartment.

For more information, see Choosing the Right Travel Luggage.

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The 5 Worst Trip Planning Mistakes (and How to Avoid Them)

 

Throughout history, millions of vacations have gone askew for variety of reasons. Remember the Griswold family’s cross-country drive to Walley World? (Fiction, yes, but no doubt representative of many real family road trips.) Naturally, attacks from crazy relatives can’t be stopped by any measure of good planning — but more common travel mishaps, like busted trip budgets or overpriced flights, are easily avoided if you plan right.

world map woman

After talking to a host of well-traveled friends and acquaintances, and communicating with IndependentTraveler.com’s travel community through our Facebook and Twitter pages, I’ve identified five all-too-common trip planning mistakes made by even experienced globetrotters.

Choosing set dates for your trip and then refusing to budge is a surefire way to pay too much for your flight. You can save hundreds of dollars on airfare by pushing your travel dates around by just a few days. Ticket prices tend to be lowest on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and the most expensive on Fridays and Sundays, but this may vary. Play with your dates, and use your booking engine’s flexible search option if it has one.

If you’re planning to fly during high-traffic holidays like spring break or Christmas/New Year, be prepared to pay top dollar for air transportation. Budget travelers may want to seek alternatives to holiday travel, whether it means taking the kids out of school or begging the big boss for some extra vacation days.

Although the dates of your hotel stay are probably at the mercy of the travel dates you set for your flight, keep in mind that flexibility pays off at many hotels as well. Whether it’s weekday specials at B&Bs or low off-season rates, a bounty of hotel bargains exists for the traveler who’s willing to move his or her travel dates around.

9 Creative Ways to Save for a Vacation

The days when most travelers would call up a travel agent, book a trip, hang up the phone and be done with it are long gone. Now, the Internet is a hodgepodge of hundreds of competing travel provider sites, all of whom are touting the “best deals” and “lowest prices” — and 9 out of 10 times it’s a mistake to book the first thing you see. While I can’t guarantee that a single travel site will always give you the lowest rates, what I can promise is that a thorough search of the major airlines and travel providers will almost always yield the best rate for your trip.

Aggregators like Kayak.com or TripAdvisor Flights scan multiple airlines to serve up a buffet of fares in one easy place.

Unless you’re staring at a jackpot fare that is mind-numbingly affordable — say, something like a $500 roundtrip ticket from the West Coast to Europe in the summer (jackpot!) — keep looking. You can always come back. (Well, almost always. We’ve found that some airfares posted on airline websites can change in a matter of minutes … which brings us back to the point about jackpot fares.) See Tips for Finding Cheap Airfare and How to Hack Your Way to a Cheaper Airfare for more help.

I’m a big advocate of the travel deal. Full price should be pared. Bargains should be booked. But, as with most things in life, one can take the deals thing too far. Travel deals often work against the consumer, and this is exactly how some businesses can afford to offer certain types of promotions.

On IndependentTraveler.com’s Facebook page, Pam Kreher Powroznik posted about the worst mistake she once made when planning a trip: “Spending $100 on the Paris Visitor Pass and then realizing the only thing we’d use it for was climbing to the top of the Arc de Triomphe — which we chose not to do! Good thing we had that ‘Whoops Factor’ built into our budget.”

Beware of discounted tickets or passes that you may not actually use. Also beware of discounts or special offers for hotels, cruises or packages that you probably wouldn’t book in the first place, or that exceed your budget even with a percentage off or a free night’s stay. Sure, it feels like you’re getting more value for your money if you’re paying less than the original price for accommodations. But if you’re still paying more than you would at a comparable, cheaper place, what’s the point?

5 Affordable Ways to Upgrade Your Vacation

If you’re dropping several thousand dollars on your vacation, I don’t blame you for wanting to get your money’s worth by stuffing an extensive schedule of sightseeing into your itinerary. But it’s key to leave plenty of room for the unexpected in your trip, whether it’s a missed connection in Chicago or a broken-down bus in Costa Rica. (It’s also smart to leave some space for spontaneous adventure. You could come across a fantastic deserted beach or undiscovered locals-only cafe when you least expect it.)

road sign

In particular, too-tight flight connections are a big travel mistake. I once booked a multi-leg flight on Expedia.com that included less than 60 minutes between connecting flights at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. My first flight was about 20 minutes late, and I ended up sprinting for 15 minutes through the airport to my terminal, where I was faced with a long, snaking airport security line. By this time I was sweating profusely and pretty certain that I was not going to make it onto my next flight. I got lucky when a Frenchman in the security line noticed my hysteria and got out of line to tell airport security, in French, that I was about to miss my flight. (When I had previously attempted to communicate this in a mishmash of English and lapsed college-level French with an American accent, security had instructed me to stay put.) Thanks to the kind stranger, I was allowed to bypass the line and made it onto my flight with only minutes to spare.

Keep in mind: That itinerary was originally created by Expedia, which, like a lot of travel providers and airlines, doesn’t always give travelers enough time in between flights. Always leave plenty of time for connections. We recommend at least an hour between domestic flights and two hours between international flights. This may vary by airport or time of year.

How to Create the Perfect Itinerary

Even travelers who carefully draw up a budget before their big trip can end up with financial plans slaughtered by baggage fees, airline surcharges, costs of airline meals and snacks, ATM fees, hotel service charges, car rental fees, Internet charges, taxes, tips, local payments and other pesky little (and big) fees. Overlook the surcharges and your trip could cost hundreds more than you bargained for.

The nickel-and-diming airlines are by far the worst offenders, but hotels, cruise lines, all-inclusive resorts and car rental companies aren’t far behind. Your best bet is to always read the fine print and to ask your travel provider to outline exactly what is and what isn’t included in the price. Don’t let phrases like “all-inclusive” or even “free” fool you. Plus, be aware that many hotels and B&Bs, especially overseas, list rates per person, per night as opposed to per room, per night.

Unexpected mishaps like the theft or loss of an important item can also destroy a well-planned budget. Sarah Schlichter, Senior Editor of IndependentTraveler.com, says she always budgets an extra $25 to $50 per person, per day for miscellaneous expenses when traveling. If you leave some wiggle room in your budget for extra fees you didn’t consider, like an unplanned cab ride or a battery charger for your camera to replace the one you lost, you’ll be less inclined to fret over the expenditure (and most importantly, you’ll be able to pay for it!).

For more tips and information, read Hidden Hotel Fees, and create a trip budget with our Travel Budget Calculator.

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6 Things to Pack When Traveling Alone

 

In many ways, packing for a solo trip isn’t that different than packing for a trip with someone else. If you and your partner always use packing cubes, you’ll probably still rely on them when you’re by yourself. Can’t travel without your Kindle, no matter who you’re with? Of course you’ll bring it along.

woman traveler with view of verona italy

But there are certain concerns that become more pressing when you’re traveling alone — particularly when it comes to personal safety. If you don’t have a companion to watch your back, you’ll want to take a few extra precautions and consider packing the following six items when you travel alone.

Because deadbolts and other security features vary widely from hotel to hotel, packing your own door stopper can help you add an extra layer of protection. (This is especially true at many motels, where doors open to the outside, and at budget properties with shoddy locks.)

The DoorJammer Portable Door Security Device weighs just eight ounces and can be wedged under your hotel door to keep an intruder from opening it. The SABRE Wedge takes it a step farther by including an alarm that goes off when pressure is applied to the door.

Hotel Safety Tips

When you’re traveling with a companion, you can split your money and credit cards between the two of you so there’s less impact if one of you is robbed. But if you’re alone, you’ll still want your valuables to be in more than one place.

We recommend carrying the bulk of your cash and cards in a money belt hidden under your clothes, while keeping only what you need for the day in an inexpensive wallet, which you can put in a front pocket or in a crossbody bag that’s difficult to steal. If you’re mugged, you can toss this dummy wallet away from you without giving up all your valuables.

You may also want to keep some emergency money (perhaps a $100 bill, or the local equivalent) in a place that a mugger would be unlikely to access — tucked away in your shoe or bra, for instance.

One money belt we like is this RFID-blocking option from PEAK. (RFID stands for radio frequency identification; passports and some credit cards have RFID chips in them with sensitive data that could be skimmed by opportunistic crooks.) If you’re looking for crossbody bags with anti-theft technology (such as slash-proof straps), Travelon offers a number of options.

Money Safety Tips for Travelers

If you become incapacitated during a solo trip, you won’t have a companion to speak on your behalf to medical personnel — which could be life-threatening if you have allergies or health conditions a doctor needs to know about. That’s why it’s vital to have your medical information in a place where first responders can find it easily.

NomadSOS is a medical ID card that you can customize with information about your blood type, allergies, medications and emergency contacts. Or try a service called My Important Information, which gives you a card with a QR code on it that first responders can use to access your medical and other essential data.

You may also want to consider wearing a medical bracelet or necklace engraved with important health conditions such as heart disease, severe allergies or diabetes. (Amazon offers numerous medical necklaces and bracelets.) And, of course, we strongly recommend purchasing travel insurance.

hand with plain wedding band

Wearing a wedding band may help deter unwanted attention, even if you’re not actually married. And some travelers who are married buy cheaper wedding bands to wear on the road in place of sparkling engagement rings and diamond-crusted bands. A plain band will attract less attention, and if it’s lost or stolen, it won’t be a big loss.

Plain stainless steel bands are available for less than $10. Titanium bands are also sturdy and very affordable.

Single Travel: Tips for Going Solo

We don’t recommend carrying pepper spray when you travel, as it’s illegal in many countries (as well as on planes). However, having a whistle or other noise-making device can help scare away an attacker or draw the attention of others in an emergency.

This personal alarm has a backup whistle that you can use even if the battery dies, and it clips onto a purse or backpack. You can also buy a simple safety whistle such as this one from Fox 40.

We recommend that every traveler bring a few medical necessities, but it’s even more essential when you don’t have a travel buddy to run down the street to the nearest pharmacy on your behalf.

You can create your own first-aid kit with items such as antibacterial wipes, adhesive bandages, tweezers and over-the-counter pain medications. Or you can buy a ready-made first-aid kit such as this one from SadoMedcare.

What other safety tips would you recommend for solo travelers?

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Get Our Best Travel Tips and Trip Ideas!

 

What I Wish I'd Known Before My First International Trip

Preparing for your first international trip is an exciting time — but it’s also stressful. Should you create an hour-by-hour itinerary or wing it? When and where should you exchange money? Jet lag can’t be that bad, right?

woman with map exploring europe

We asked our staff and other experienced travelers what they wish they had known before their first trip abroad. Learn from their mistakes — while knowing you’ll make some of your own. It’s all a part of the journey.

“You will arrive, in most instances, on a red-eye flight feeling utterly bewildered, off-key and just plain tired because of a foreshortened night’s sleep. Your hotel room won’t be ready when you arrive, sounds will bounce off the city as if you’re inside a tin can, and for that first meal, just for that very important first meal, you’ll want to find home food. Sometimes, McDonald’s is a life saver.” — Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor-in-Chief, Cruise Critic

“I wish I knew (even though I sort of thought about it) to bring more than one pair of comfy shoes. My first international trip would have been more fun without the sore feet.” — Rachele Concep

“Renting an apartment away from the tourist centers is a great way to get some R&R while enjoying a taste of the way locals live.” — Jan Harding

Ditch the Hotel: 10 Cheaper Ways to Stay

“Wi-Fi! I wish I realized that when you don’t have Wi-Fi or cellular data while traveling internationally, you also don’t have maps, apps and Google. Remembering to do the research while you have the use of Wi-Fi is key when traveling internationally. Or purchase a SIM card and you don’t have to worry about it.” — Courtney Elko, Associate Editor, Family Vacation Critic

“You can’t do it all in one trip, so don’t try. I spent my first few vacations in Europe sprinting from one major attraction to the next, which was fun but exhausting. In retrospect I wish I’d chosen fewer sights to see and spent a little more time at each place.” — Sarah Schlichter, Senior Editor, IndependentTraveler.com

“Pack light! You will probably be dragging that suitcase up and down stairs and onto trains.” — Kathy Keevan

The Carry-On Challenge: How to Pack Light Every Time

“I learned to bring my own medicines pretty quickly because even if they do have meds that would work (which they might or might not), they’re probably named something different and if I don’t know the language, it’s hard to explain what I need.” — Dori Saltzman, Senior Editor, Cruise Critic

“I wish I had known that ATMs are often the cheapest way to exchange currency. I made the mistake of doing it at the airport, and I got totally ripped off with the surcharges.” — Ashley Koscoiek, Ports and Copy Editor, Cruise Critic

“Get a free Schwab account so you can use ATMs fee-free worldwide. Best exchange rate.” — 2BTraveling

The Best Way to Carry Money Overseas

“Remember to check hours for major attractions like museums/cathedrals — many are closed on Mondays, and there might be a local holiday or something you didn’t account for.” — Brittany Chrusciel, Associate Editor, Cruise Critic

airport

“There’s an assumption that airports will sell useful things — whereas a traveler knows they sell some useful things, but not all and it’s always expensive, even food. People are still quite shocked by that — and don’t realize they can simply [pack their own] snack or sandwich.” — Carrie Gonzalez, Director of Marketing, Cruise Critic

“I wish I had known not to take a nap on my first day abroad. Power through the jet lag.” — Amanda Geronikos, Features Editor, Family Vacation Critic

“Even if you tend to have a ‘wing it’ mentality, do your research on the area (local attractions, hiking trails, etc.) before you go. If you do plan to go on some kind of offbeat excursion, look up top-rated outfitters in the area to ensure you get the most bang for your buck.” — Gina Kramer, Associate Editor, Cruise Critic

“The baggage doesn’t necessarily arrive when you do.” — Irene Keel

“If you plan to wing it with accommodations (i.e., not book in advance), find out when local holidays and school breaks are. I got screwed over in Granada when I showed up looking for a hostel and discovered it was a long weekend and everything was booked.” — Erica Silverstein, Senior Features Editor, Cruise Critic

Don’t Miss Top Travel Tips — Sign Up for Our Newsletters

“The point of the trip, no matter how far from home or for how long, is to enjoy life. Sometimes trying to see everything and do everything takes away from the joy of the experience. Remember to relax and revel in the present moment. Remember to slow down, pack less and eat local. Remember to sleep when you feel tired and be spontaneous if you feel like it.” — Lora Gilchrist Coonce

“I wish I’d known how easy it was.” — Landra Haber

What do you wish you’d known before your first international trip? Post your thoughts in the comments below.

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–written by Amanda Geronikos

What I Wish I’d Known Before My First International Trip

 

Preparing for your first international trip is an exciting time — but it’s also stressful. Should you create an hour-by-hour itinerary or wing it? When and where should you exchange money? Jet lag can’t be that bad, right?

woman with map exploring europe

We asked our staff and other experienced travelers what they wish they had known before their first trip abroad. Learn from their mistakes — while knowing you’ll make some of your own. It’s all a part of the journey.

“You will arrive, in most instances, on a red-eye flight feeling utterly bewildered, off-key and just plain tired because of a foreshortened night’s sleep. Your hotel room won’t be ready when you arrive, sounds will bounce off the city as if you’re inside a tin can, and for that first meal, just for that very important first meal, you’ll want to find home food. Sometimes, McDonald’s is a life saver.” — Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor-in-Chief, Cruise Critic

“I wish I knew (even though I sort of thought about it) to bring more than one pair of comfy shoes. My first international trip would have been more fun without the sore feet.” — Rachele Concep

“Renting an apartment away from the tourist centers is a great way to get some R&R while enjoying a taste of the way locals live.” — Jan Harding

Ditch the Hotel: 10 Cheaper Ways to Stay

“Wi-Fi! I wish I realized that when you don’t have Wi-Fi or cellular data while traveling internationally, you also don’t have maps, apps and Google. Remembering to do the research while you have the use of Wi-Fi is key when traveling internationally. Or purchase a SIM card and you don’t have to worry about it.” — Courtney Elko, Associate Editor, Family Vacation Critic

“You can’t do it all in one trip, so don’t try. I spent my first few vacations in Europe sprinting from one major attraction to the next, which was fun but exhausting. In retrospect I wish I’d chosen fewer sights to see and spent a little more time at each place.” — Sarah Schlichter, Senior Editor, IndependentTraveler.com

“Pack light! You will probably be dragging that suitcase up and down stairs and onto trains.” — Kathy Keevan

The Carry-On Challenge: How to Pack Light Every Time

“I learned to bring my own medicines pretty quickly because even if they do have meds that would work (which they might or might not), they’re probably named something different and if I don’t know the language, it’s hard to explain what I need.” — Dori Saltzman, Senior Editor, Cruise Critic

“I wish I had known that ATMs are often the cheapest way to exchange currency. I made the mistake of doing it at the airport, and I got totally ripped off with the surcharges.” — Ashley Koscoiek, Ports and Copy Editor, Cruise Critic

“Get a free Schwab account so you can use ATMs fee-free worldwide. Best exchange rate.” — 2BTraveling

The Best Way to Carry Money Overseas

“Remember to check hours for major attractions like museums/cathedrals — many are closed on Mondays, and there might be a local holiday or something you didn’t account for.” — Brittany Chrusciel, Associate Editor, Cruise Critic

airport

“There’s an assumption that airports will sell useful things — whereas a traveler knows they sell some useful things, but not all and it’s always expensive, even food. People are still quite shocked by that — and don’t realize they can simply [pack their own] snack or sandwich.” — Carrie Gonzalez, Director of Marketing, Cruise Critic

“I wish I had known not to take a nap on my first day abroad. Power through the jet lag.” — Amanda Geronikos, Features Editor, Family Vacation Critic

“Even if you tend to have a ‘wing it’ mentality, do your research on the area (local attractions, hiking trails, etc.) before you go. If you do plan to go on some kind of offbeat excursion, look up top-rated outfitters in the area to ensure you get the most bang for your buck.” — Gina Kramer, Associate Editor, Cruise Critic

“The baggage doesn’t necessarily arrive when you do.” — Irene Keel

“If you plan to wing it with accommodations (i.e., not book in advance), find out when local holidays and school breaks are. I got screwed over in Granada when I showed up looking for a hostel and discovered it was a long weekend and everything was booked.” — Erica Silverstein, Senior Features Editor, Cruise Critic

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“The point of the trip, no matter how far from home or for how long, is to enjoy life. Sometimes trying to see everything and do everything takes away from the joy of the experience. Remember to relax and revel in the present moment. Remember to slow down, pack less and eat local. Remember to sleep when you feel tired and be spontaneous if you feel like it.” — Lora Gilchrist Coonce

“I wish I’d known how easy it was.” — Landra Haber

What do you wish you’d known before your first international trip? Post your thoughts in the comments below.

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Road Trip USA

Road Trip USA

“Road Trip USA…takes you as close to the real America as you are ever likely to get.”

Here’s a question for you. If you had the time and the money to undertake just one extensive trip by road on any continent on the planet, which one would you choose, and where would you go? I ask this question because time and money seem to be the only things stopping many people from undertaking their ultimate dream vacation.

Last year (March 2008), a survey conducted by the Australian online automotive website Cars Guide indicated that Aussies love to hit the road. In fact, the survey of 810 respondents, found a whopping 99 per cent of Australians would go on a road trip because of the freedom and spontaneity it allows.

Not long after the Cars Guide survey appeared, a Rand McNally survey (May 2008), examining American attitudes to long road journeys found similar opinions to this form of vacation. According to the Rand McNally survey (of 2,030 U.S. adults), three in four adults (75%) were at least somewhat likely to take a road trip, and about three in ten (29%) said they were very likely.

Meanwhile, a recent article published in the online edition of the Wall Street Journal (May 2009), reported that the road trip was poised to make a comeback as the American summer travel season began, despite the lingering recession and rising fuel prices.

While the cost of fuel and accommodation were nominated as the two biggest concerns both in Australia and America, it seems our respective love affairs for the open road is not likely to diminish any time soon.

Which brings me to Road Trip USA.

Jamie Jensen’s best-selling guide book, Road Trip USA: Cross-Country Adventures on America’s Two-Lane Highways, (Fifth Edition, Avalon Travel, 2009) takes you as close to the real America as you are ever likely to get.

With 11 trips to choose from, covering classic American landscapes such as the Appalachian Trail, Atlantic Coast, Oregon Trail, and the famed Route 66, Road Trip USA steers intrepid road warriors through major cities like San Francisco and Chicago as well as remote, but charming all-American towns like Dyersville, Mississippi (where the baseball field created for the Kevin Costner movie Field of Dreams attracts visitors from near and far); or the small blue-collar town of Seneca Falls, in New York state (which saw the birth of the American women’s movement in July 1848).

As you might expect, Jensen’s routes also lead to popular destinations such as Disneyland, Yellowstone National Park, Niagara Falls, and the Statue of Liberty. Complete with local lore; oddball trivia (Memphis’s gifts to American culture – and the world’s – include the supermarket, the drive-in restaurant, the Holiday Inn, oh, and Elvis Presley). Filled with noteworthy details and roadside curiosities (a sign in Texas spelling out the command: “Rattlesnakes Exit Here”), Road Trip USA contains a wealth of recommendations on where to stop, what to see, and where to eat and sleep. This is one guide aimed at getting travelers off the freeway system, and driving into the heart and soul of America.

Other features of this edition include:

o A flexible network of route combinations, color-coded and extensively cross-referenced to allow for hundreds of possible itineraries
o More than 125 detailed driving maps
o Full-color interior with modern and vintage photos and illustrations
o A road trip resources section with contact information for popular hotel and motel chains, car rental companies, state tourism boards, and road condition centers

My personal criteria for a good guide book is that it should inform, enlighten, and occasionally even surprise, so I’m please to say that Road Trip USA has no trouble being informative, enlightening, and yes, even surprising.

I have no hesitation in saying that when I undertake my own road trip across America, this will be the one book I will have by my side at all times.

What’s Missing?
Unfortunately, Road Trip USA is almost entirely devoid of links to online resources. In an age when almost every printed piece of paper has a website URL and an Email address on it somewhere; and when so many modern electronic devices come Internet ready, this seems to be a glaring omission. I can only assume this is a deliberate choice by the author and publisher. With thousands of places of interest detailed in the book, they may have taken the decision to try and cut down on the visual clutter associated with URLs, and make the contents more ‘readable’ by avoiding them altogether.

While one doesn’t expect a URL or Email address for every location mentioned in Road Trip USA, surely major places of interest do warrant the inclusion of a web link (where available). A quick look through other guide books on my bookshelf reveals that all those printed over the last five years or so, include web addresses throughout, and future editions of Road Trip USA would be well served to do the same.

Before You Go
I think Road Trip USA would also benefit from a ‘Before You Go’ section outlining basic information regarding preparations for the journey. This chapter might cover such topics as:

o Useful (online and offline) sources of information regarding trip preparations.
o Information about safety (personal, vehicle break down, and other safety issues)
o What to do in an emergency (break downs, accidents, personal attack, etc)
o A checklist of possible items to pack and prepare
o A checklist of pre-trip vehicle preparations (brakes, tyre and engine checks, etc)
o Traveling with children and pets

Road Trip USA does have a small Resources section at the end of the book, running to just eight and a half pages – four of which contain a Recommended Reading list. The others refer to organizations associated in some way with automobiles and highways; a short list of hotel/motel chains, and car rental companies; and a list of U.S. and Canadian agencies dealing with State Tourism and road conditions. And that’s pretty much it.

The good news is, the omissions noted above do not detract in any way from the overall depth and quality of the detailed information presented in Road Trip USA. At just over 900 pages, I think it is fair to say that Road Trip USA covers all the ‘bases’ and then some. In deed, I have no hesitation in saying that when I undertake my own road trip across America, Road Trip USA will be the one book I will have by my side at all times

The Five Golden Rules of Cross Country Road Trip Planning

The Five Golden Rules of Cross Country Road Trip Planning

A cross country road trip is like no other road trip! For most road trippers, it’s the Holy Grail of trips. For you, it may just be a long desired vacation or chance to visit family. No matter what your reason, you’ll need some tips in order to prepare that are very unique to a cross country road trip. These five Golden Rules of Cross Country Road Trip Planning will ensure that your trip is a success!

Golden Rule #1

Recognize that this country is HUGE. Looking at a map may give you the illusion that you can cross it in a couple of weeks. There is no way you can do that, no matter what any mapping site says. Day after day spent entirely behind the wheel is a hell I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, and you certainly don’t want to suffer through it. A typical enjoyable cross-country road trip can last anywhere from a month to two months depending on whether it’s round trip or not.

Map It – Whether your cross country trip is round trip (from home and back) or one way (a rental or another car you can drop off and fly back), get on a mapping website that will estimate the number of hours it will take you to drive to your destination (and back if that applies). There are tons out there including Google Maps and MapQuest.
Get Real – If you think you can drive for 8 hours a day, you’ve got another thing coming. For a fun (I hope this isn’t some method of self-torture) road trip, you’re going to want to spend no more than four hours behind the wheel a day. That will allow plenty of breaks and sightseeing along the way, and you’ll need both on your vacation. To make your trip even more pleasant, plan a day “off” from driving occasionally during your vacation. Plan that day to be at a destination where there will be enough to see and do to entertain you for a full day.
Consider Your Destination – Wherever you’re going, it’s probably somewhere you’re very interested in, or you wouldn’t be crossing the country, right? Plan at least a few days there to really soak it up before heading back home, no matter whether you’re flying back home or driving back.

Golden Rule #2

Spend some time planning out the sights you’ll see along the way as well as your time at your destination. Winging it with this can lead to some very boring breaks along your route. Most great things just aren’t visible from the highway. Great resources for planning your stops/sightseeing are:

Guidebooks on each state you’ll pass through.
Travel forums – especially ones that address specific areas/states and cities.
Websites that specialize in a state/area you’ll be passing through or in road tripping attractions (like mine).

Golden Rule #3

One common question I get is whether to book all the hotels/campgrounds/other lodging and plan each day or just to “wing it” and hope for the best. The answer: you can do either, but there are rules specific to each. For the planner, it’s easy – plan! Booking ahead will usually ensure cheaper lodging and will guarantee that you’ll have a place to lay your head at the end of each day (winging it can be more dangerous, but there are tricks to make it less so).

If you want to “wing it”, you’ll still need to do some planning. At the very least, book your lodging in the areas you’ll be visiting along the way that are popular destinations. Trying to get last minute reservations near a place like Yellowstone Park in the summer is insanity. It won’t happen. Consider the time of year also – New York City in the month of December is a crazy time. Plan accordingly.

Otherwise, “wing it” people can either use their GPS and really fly by the seat of their pants, or they can protect themselves from trouble by doing the following.

Before You Go – Research areas along the way and at your destination that may – or may not – be places you’ll want to stay. Make a list of 3-5 lodging choices for each and take down the address information and the phone number. Put it somewhere safe and accessible for your trip (I use a folder).

On the Road – Every morning, make the decision. Where do you want to go that day? Select your evening destination and make calls to your listed lodging choices. Don’t put this off until later in the day if you want to guarantee a place for the night. What vacancies exist in the morning will probably be snapped up by the afternoon. Now you can follow your whims every day and still have the security of a reservation each evening.

Golden Rule #4

You’ll need to really baby your car before taking a cross-country road trip – more so than for any other road trip. You’re about to push it to its limits! Here’s a checklist of things to have addressed by your mechanic before you hit the road:

Read your manual and have all maintenance that’s due taken care of now. Timing belts, tune-ups, system flushes, etc. all fall into this category.
Get an oil change unless it was literally just changed.
Have your mechanic check the following: hoses, spark plugs, belts, air filter, and all fluids. Also, if there’s any problem/weird noise or smell that you’ve been noticing with your car, deal with it.
Tires are vitally important. If they’re old, they won’t be able to handle heating up as they roll on the road and will probably blow. Replace them now if warranted. Get your tires rotated and alignment checked

Be sure to pack a roadside emergency kit (jumper cables, flares, tire patching kit, jack, spare tire), make sure you renew or get a roadside service membership, and pack extra water, a blanket, a flashlight with fresh batteries, and some emergency snacks.

Golden Rule #5

Packing for a cross-country road trip is all about streamlining. Unlike other vacations, this is not one where you’ll want to pack an outfit for every day. The best plan is to have 5-7 pants/skirts/jeans and 7-9 tops/shirts that coordinate well (as well as shoes, underwear, socks.

Stick with neutrals (kaki, white, gray, black, navy, blue jeans) for easier mixing and matching. Add 3-4 sweaters and jackets (more layers if the weather will be colder) that also are in neutral colors. Bring a gentle detergent for hand-washing (or using a machine when your lodging offers it) to make these outfits last as many weeks as your trip lasts. Don’t worry about your travel companions growing bored with your wardrobe – most people don’t care about your clothes as much as you do!

When it comes to other items, be sure to bring enough of the things you can’t easily get on the road (prescriptions for instance). For everything else (drugstore shampoos, soap, shaving cream, etc) just bring what’s easy to pack and get more as needed on the road. You don’t need to bring everything – you’re not going into the wilderness!