Welcome To Travel Tips:
PLANNING - Make sure you have a valid passport that does not expire while you are on your trip. Many countries require a visa for entry, and some will not allow you to enter if you do not have two blank passport pages available for their use. For a complete list of entrance regulations, visit www.travel.state.gov/travel. Always check the time between your connecting flights as soon as you get your flight schedule. If you have an excessively long layover or a very short layover, ask your agent to redo your flights. You do not want to spend hours sitting in the airport or having to fear making your connecting flight if your flight is delayed arriving or if you have to change terminals. Make sure the name on the ticket is the exact name that appears on your ID. Select your seats well ahead of time. You can go on the internet at your airline website and look at your seat and make changes, if you wish. Many times hotels near the airport will allow you to park your car there for the duration of your trip. This can save you a lot of money since parking at the airport can cost from $8.00 to $12.00 a day.
AIRPORT - Arrive early, at least two hours before your departure time. If you are leaving between 7:00am and 9:00am, arrive earlier because the airport is very busy at this time. Know the airport code of your destination, and check the baggage label they attach to your luggage to make sure it is correct. Always ask if they are checking your baggage through to your destination. Errors occur and even though you have a ticket, one of your connecting flights may not be in the computer. Find some way of making your luggage more noticeable so it is easy to find as it appears on the baggage claim conveyer belt. If you miss a connection, don't stand in line waiting for an agent. Call the airline customer service number (carry the number in your wallet). You will get to speak to someone faster, someone who is less frazzled and who does not have twenty angry customers waiting to talk to them. Be prepared for security. If you have a carry-on, place metal articles from your pockets in it before you get to security. If not, have a zip lock bag and put the items in it. Never give the security people any trouble. If you do, they will make your life miserable and you could miss your flight (particularly in foreign countries). Be careful of "duty free" shops. Many times they are more expensive than at your local mall. If you have someone picking you up at the airport on your return, have them use the airport's "cell phone lot". The person picking you up can wait in the lot until you call them to come to the arrival area.
DRIVING IN FOREIGN COUNTRIES - Forget driving in the United Kingdom or Ireland. They drive on the left side of the road, and it is confusing and dangerous because everything is opposite to what you are used too. In the rest of Europe driving is reasonable. Germany is particularly easy as is Austria. The roads there are great and the drivers courteous. Don't expect to find route number signs in Europe as they are scattered and few. You have to look at the map before you leave your hotel, and note the towns that are on the route to your destination. Follow the signs for those towns. Driving also requires you to purchase gasoline that is very expensive; the exchange rate on the Euro is not good. You can check the currency rates by clicking on the currency converter on the home page of this website. I would not reccommend driving in third world countries.
TRAINS - The trains in Europe are a good option. They are clean and on time. The trains that run after 9:00am are cheaper than those that run before 9:00am. There are two types of trains, the fast and the slow. The fast train makes fewer stops and is more expensive. The slow train is cheaper but makes a lot of stops. If you are looking at a long train trip, a low cost air carrier may be a lot cheaper and faster.
PARKING - Parking is a real problem in the cities. In Italy, parking is a problem everywhere. It is said that Italians don't park their cars, they abandon them. Get a map of the city, look up the parking areas and get there early. The parking lots have machines where you pay the parking toll. Make sure you have local currency for them. There is usually a parking office where you can pay but be aware that in many countries the office closes in the afternoon usually from 1:00pm to 3:00pm.
CURRENCY - You do not have to take local currency with you. Many countries gladly accept USA dollars (the United Kingdom does not by law). Even so, ATMs are becoming very common paticularly in cities worldwide. Airports and hotels also have ATMs. We have never had trouble finding an ATM to use, and if you have a guide he will know where to find an ATM. You will get the best exchange rate through the ATM or when you use your credt card for purchases. The booths you see offering to exchange your dollars for local currency are the worst option. The rates are not good and they charge a commission. Contact your bank before you leave on your trip, and let them know the countries you will be visiting. You will avoid problems with your ATM withdrawals this way. Do not buy currency from people who approach you on the street. Many times it is counterfeit.
PHOTOGRAPHY - Photographs make great memories of your trip. If you are traveling on your own, try to get to the popular tourist sites early. The buses usually start to pull in at 10:00am until about 3:00pm and unload hoards of people. The best light for pictures is the early morning and late afternoon. If you are using a film camera, take plenty of film. If using a digital camera, have enough batteries and memory cards. You will be amazed at how many pictures you will take with a digital camera. In many countries you will need a converter to change the 240 Volt current to the 120 Volt you need for your charger. When taking pictures of people, ask their permission first. In some areas of the world people do not want you to take their picture, or they may want a tip for allowing you to take their picture. After you return to your hotel at the end of the day, take some time to catalog your pictures. We always look at our pictures we took that day and write the image number and a description of what is in the picture. You will be surprised how this helps you remember as you review each picture once you are home.
A good source of reviews of hotels and restaurants around the world is Trip Advisor on the internet. The reviews will give you some guidance before you make a reservation. Be aware though, you should read several reviews before deciding. And remember, you can't please everyone so you may see six positive reviews and one nasty review.
HOTELS - You can make your hotel reservations online for alnost anywhere you wish to travel. It is important that you have a printout of your reservation as confirmation. Have it in hand when you go to the reservation desk. This can save you a lot of hassles. Think about joining a hotel awards program so you get points for your stays. We found that the Starwood Preferred Guest program (Sheraton and Westin Hotels) is one of the best. Our American Express card is tied to the Starwood program, so we get points from our stays and our credit card spending. This allows us to gain enough points to take nice vacations at top Sheraton and Westin resorts around the world.
EXPERIENCES - We have traveled with the following travel companies:
- Grand Circle - Our experiences with Grand Circle have mostly been positive. The guides are accomodating, knowledgeable and will go out of their way to make the trip a great experience. They do large groups sometimes as large as 42 people.
- OVERSEAS ADVENTURE TRAVEL - OAT, as it is known, is a small group tour. They don't take more than 14-16 people. We have been with them where there were 12 people. As the name implies, it is an adventure group and you will do some hiking and walking, sometimes over rough terrain. You will go places where the normal tours do not go. Because the group is small, the guides can be more flexible. We have had good travel experiences with OAT.
- Idyll Untours - Idyll Untours is a different type of tour operator. They will arrange a place for you to stay while you are visiting. It may be a hotel, chalet, apartment, villa, or even an apartment in a castle. They will also make your flight arrangements and your transportation arrangements. It may be a rental car, or a pass for the trains, buses, and boats. When we did Germany on our own, Idyll arranged for our flight to Munich, the rental car and an apartment in a castle, Schloss Sommersdorf. A great place to stay since you are close to a train station, and it is a unique experience to stay in a castle. The host, Dr. Manfred Baron von Crailsheim, is a congenial man who is very welcoming and helpful. He also held a candlelight dinner party in the large dining room of the castle to which we were invited. The castle's website tells the history of the castle and how to arrange a stay. The website is www.schloss-sommersdorf.de.