International Travel for Beginners, Pros, and Everyone in Between

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By Blake DuBose and Mike DuBose

Traveling abroad enriches the mind, body, and soul. It allows you to taste new foods, interact with different cultures, and see where history was made. We have visited a good many countries, and Italy is our favorite due to its beautiful sights, great foods and wines, and friendly people. Most Italians speak English, as do citizens of many other countries whose economies rely heavily on tourism. Despite what you may have heard about France, our second favorite place to visit, the people there are friendly, especially away from touristy areas.

However fun and exciting they are, though, international adventures also require careful research and preparation. Crossing the Atlantic means spending at least a day on an airplane each way and even more time recovering from jet lag. Some travel-related stress is unavoidable, but smart planning can keep a dream vacation from becoming a nightmare. In this article, we’ll share knowledge we’ve picked up over more than 1 million actual flight miles and numerous train rides, car rentals, and hotel stays—and all of the mistakes we’ve made on these trips! We strongly recommend that you read the other part of this article, The Art of Packing, at or The Art of Packing gives detailed tips and strategies for packing smart (and light)!

Getting a passport: Nearly every foreign country requires a passport to visit (even for US citizens entering Mexico or Canada). Cruise lines and hotels will want to see or store your passport as well. To apply for a passport, visit the closest major post office. Along with your application, you will have to provide a birth certificate with a raised government imprint (not the hospital version) and a 2X2 inch photo.

If you already have a passport, double check its expiration date at least three months before you plan to travel. Adult passports are valid for ten years, but children’s passports expire every five. Passport applications normally take about ten weeks to process, but if you are in a rush, you can pay more for an expedited passport. Some companies will even handle the rush application for you for a fee (you can find them using a Google search). Your congressperson can also help—Representative Joe Wilson has been very helpful in expediting emergency passport and renewal requests. You don’t want to have to fly to Washington, DC for a “same day” passport renewal as Mike once did for one of his kids!

Guard your passport carefully to protect it from thieves. If you do lose yours while traveling, you can visit a US Embassy for a replacement (write down the telephone number and address of the embassy in the country you will be visiting before taking a trip.). You should always bring copies of your passport, license, birth certificate, and other important documents in your carry-on in a separate place from the originals.

You can visit the US State Department’s web site at for detailed passport and travel information. The State Department provides a free service called the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP)to U.S. citizens who are traveling to or living in a foreign country. According to the site, STEP “allows you to enter information about your upcoming trip abroad so that the Department of State can better assist you in the event of an emergency.”We always use this service just in case.

If you travel frequently, considerjoining the US Customs Global Entry Program or a similar Known Traveler program. For a five-year Global Entry Program membership, you must pay $100, complete an application with a background check, and be interviewed at a major airport, but afterward, you can bypass long customs lines and use TSA domestic “fast lanes” where you do not have to take off your shoes or belts or remove electronics like laptops from luggage. We are Global Entry travelers, and it is a neat, fast program for both US and foreign travel! Learn more about Global Entry at Once registered, you will need to enter your number into your airline’s frequent flyer profile.

Develop a travel folder: Before every trip, we create a manila folder with all of our planning documents (reservations, notes, important e-mails, flight and hotel documents, copies of key items like passport, birth certificate, etc.) and write reminders of important things that we will need to do the week prior to departure on the outside. As details are finalized, we add to the file. We also keep 2” squares of paper with our hotel’s name, address, and telephone number printed on them in the folder. We keep copies in our wallets too—you can just hand them to your taxi driver, and off you go!

If you have an international-ready smartphone, you should also download the app for the airline you will be traveling. That way, if you experience delays or complications, you can call the airline’s reservations line via the app rather than waiting for a desk representative. If you do not have access to a similar app, record both the 1-800 and international numbers into your travel folder and cell phone. It may also be useful to carry Scott McCartney’s excellent March 28, 2013 article on passenger rights with you (find it on The Wall Street Journal’s website) in case of problems. If you are flying Delta and cannot resolve your problem, ask a Delta Red Coat for assistance.

Choosing a location: Each country and city has a unique past, offering travelers a huge variety of cultures, cuisines, and landscapes to experience. For example, Rome, Italy boasts the wonders of the ancient Roman Empire; Florence has the renaissance written all over it; Venice replaces streets and cars with waterways and water taxis; and Siena’s architecture takes you back to the 12th century! (In fact, Italy has 20 regions, many of which used to be mini-countries, so it has a number of unique cultures.)

On our first trip to Europe, we decided to visit Italy, France, and Switzerland because they are geographically close to each other. We have since learned that it’s much easier to pick one city as a “home base” and then branch out from there on tours. This eliminates the stress of finding transportation between cities and packing and unpacking multiple times. Search Frommer’s travel guides or online maps to find cities in the same area that you’d like to visit. Be sure to check the scale of the map to see how close to each other they really are! While the cruise industry has received some negative press recently, they still offer some excellent bargains, and you get to stay in one location while visiting multiple ports.

Researching your destination: Frommer’s guides rate major hotels, points of interest, and restaurants for locations all over the world. You can buy guides tailored to your specific destination at any bookstore. It’s up to you whether you choose one that focuses on an entire country (like France) or a certain city (like Paris), but be sure to get the latest edition. The Internet is also filled with travel information.

Determining when to go: Each country has its high and low seasons, but generally, the most economical months for international travel are September through May. Winter tends to be the cheapest time to visit anywhere. Google the average temperatures and rainfall for the place you will be traveling to pinpoint possible dates; however, staying flexible will often yield the best deal.

We generally like to schedule international travel for mid-April, May, mid-September, or October, when prices dip but the weather is still good. Summer (high season) trips are not only more expensive and hot, but also more crowded with other tourists. Be sure to take local customs into account when choosing travel dates. For example, many Italians shutter their stores and restaurants in August and go on vacation.

Learning the language: Don’t worry if you’re not fluent in your destination country’s language. You should learn key words and phrases in the language like “please,” “thank you,” “Do you speak English?” and “Where is the toilet?” but many Europeans (especially younger people and those in large cities) speak English fluently. You can even obtain English menus in most restaurants. If you are still nervous, install a translator app on your smartphone like Mike did. You select the language you desire, type in the phrase, and the app translates the message for you.

Booking a flight: Once you have determined when and where to go, your next task is getting there. You may use different airlines for your departure and return flights, although we recommend using just one carrier (we fly Delta Airlines because Mike is a Diamond Medallion Member and a Million Miler in their frequent flier program).

Try to book a direct flight or one with just a single connection. Be aware that some airlines may place you on partners’ flights. For example, Delta may fly us using a regional carrier from Columbia, SC to Atlanta and then situate us on Air France flight to Rome or Paris. We have experienced a lot of problems in the ticket process when partners are used, so we try to avoid it.

Also, give yourself plenty of time to get to the airport and make connecting flights. We allow 3-4 hours to get from Columbia, SC to Atlanta, GA, which is where we typically depart for international travel. International flights often park at the gate the night before and thus are usually on time. They board one hour before leaving and shut the doors earlier than domestic flights do. If you miss your initial flight, you could lose the valuable upgrades or nicer seats you paid for—or even worse, get delayed by a day or two since planes are full—so keep Murphy’s Law in mind and plan to get there early! However, arriving three hours before the flight (as many airlines recommend) is usually unnecessary unless you are leaving from a major hub like Atlanta or New York.

Be sure to join your preferred airline’s frequent flier program. This stores your personal information with the airline, expediting the ticket-buying process and allowing you to print out your boarding passes 24 hours in advance. Membership generates reward points, decreases your chances of being bumped off of an oversold flight, helps the airlines track you and your luggage, and allows you to receive information on delays or problems quickly. When registering, make sure that you fully complete the profile and select the notification options.

Most American airports will accept an e-ticket on your smartphone, but some TSA stations don’t have electronic readers, and many foreign countries will not accept them at all. Therefore, keep your printed boarding pass on hand. The staff at your hotel will usually assist you in printing your boarding pass if you tell them your flight information and/or frequent flier number.

Getting a good deal: Airlines typically announce flights and start allowing reservations 330 days before they are scheduled to depart. The earlier you make a reservation, the cheaper the price and the better your chances of using those frequent flier miles you have been building up. The key to finding the best prices is to set up a range of potential dates that you could leave and return. According to our research, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday offer the lowest fares, greatest selections, and fewest crowds. Fares are highest on Sundays and Fridays, when business travelers are going to work or returning home. If you see a deal in your desired date range, snag it. Prices change rapidly, something Mike recently experienced when a ticket’s price shot up as he and a Delta agent were talking on the phone!

Our recent research indicates that the weekend and Tuesday between 12:00 and 3:00 PM are the best times to book a flight. This is because airlines refresh their rates on Monday and competitors match prices for the week on Tuesday. Sometimes, the airline’s website may not advertise the best price, so it pays to call them as well. Be polite and agents will sometimes help you find the best price, even on different airlines!

Flight prices vary based on where you originate. The Wall Street Journal conducted a study of international flights in 2013 and found a wide variation in pricing between Atlanta, Detroit, and New York. A flight from Atlanta to Berlin was $1,541, but the flight was $680 on the same airline from New York! Therefore, ask an agent to price your trips from a few different large international airports or obtain online quotes from several major cities to determine the best deal.

If you are trying to save money, you can purchase each leg of your trip from different airlines. For example, you could buy a ticket on a Delta Airlines flight from Columbia, SC to New York and then a ticket from another airline to take you from New York to Rome. This strategy often nets lower fares; however, if you have checked luggage, you have to exit the secure airport area, pick up your luggage, return back through security, and sometimes pay higher baggage fees to switch to your second flight on the different airline. If you are late for one flight, you could be charged a change fee due to your delay. Thus, we caution against this method when planning international trips! If you plan to follow this strategy, fly to large cities like New York, spend a couple of nights having some fun, and then fly out to your foreign destination later on.

One money-saving idea we recommend is to use airlines’ credit cards to accrue frequent flyer rewards. We charge all of our company expenses to a Delta American Express account to generate SkyMiles, and we receive double SkyMiles if we purchase Delta tickets using the card. If you spend a certain amount of money annually on a Delta American Express card and buy a business class ticket, you can receive a companion ticket for free! We are also allowed access to the Delta SkyClub (formerly called the Crown Room).

Using discount websites: Many discount travel websites have sprung up throughout the years. According to USA Today and The New York Times, some websites to consider are,,,,,,,, and However, be aware that if you use a discount site and run into problems, you will have to go through a third party vendor. Also, you may not earn frequent flier miles or get the seat you want on the airplane, and discount tickets often require several connecting flights, increasing the chance that your luggage will be lost or one leg of the flight will be cancelled or delayed. Therefore, paying a little more is sometimes worth it.

Selecting a good seat: On most flights, you have the choice between traveling in coach or business class. Business class has larger, more comfortable seats, private bathrooms, free alcohol, higher quality food, and more attentive flight attendants, and its travelers are first on and off the plane. The cabin air is even exchanged at a higher rate! However, it is significantly more expensive than traveling coach.

Coach is the most economical choice but offers the least personal space. Seats are smaller and packed closer together, and a ten-hour flight in them can seem like forever! If you fly coach, go to to view the different jets used by the airlines and their best seats. Bulkhead and exit row seats provide you with more legroom but do not recline as much as other seats in coach. They are also cold and you cannot store any belongings under the seat in front of you, so we generally avoid bulkhead seating, as well as noisy, high-traffic areas like food stations and restrooms.

Some airlines now offer a hybrid of first class and coach called “EconoComfort Class,” which situates you near first class in front of the engines (where it is quieter with less vibration) and provides more leg room. In a recent survey, we determined that it only cost $119 more each way for this improved seating on a flight from Atlanta to Rome. Perks include free alcoholic drinks and better food, plus expedited entry and exit to and from the plane.

Above all, locate yourself as far toward front of the plane as possible so you can exit earlier and reach customs faster. When an international flight lands, you will have to wait about 20 minutes before the plane’s door opens, so don’t jump up immediately after the plane touches down. Some airports, like Paris, France’s Charles De Gaulle, do not have exit ramps, so you have to lug your carry-ons down steep stairs to a bus on ground level that will carry you to the main terminal. It’s rough!

Arriving at the departure airport: After parking your car at the local airport, place the parking ticket on the dash and immediately place your keys into your carry-on luggage—Blake learned this trick the hard way when he put his keys in his checked bag, which was then lost! Using your smartphone, take a picture of your parking spot’s number for when you return.

Dressing for the flight: Long-distance flights tend to be cold, so we wear warm jogging suits with zippered pockets for storage. If you are traveling to a cool climate and need a coat, wear your bulkiest coat and shoes on the plane—they are space killers when packed. You can always take the coat off once aboard the plane and use it as a blanket or pillow. Wear a collapsible hat or toboggan on long trips since airplane air is dry and cool and most of your body heat escapes from the head.

Leaving the United States: You will probably not have to go through customs on the way out of the US, but you will need to show your passport three times: once when you check bags or pick up your tickets, once at security, and then again when you board the international flight.

Staying healthy on the plane: Recent articles in USA Today, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal have warned travelers about germs and bacteria on airplanes. Several times, we have gotten violently ill shortly after leaving a plane. It’s no wonder, given the unhealthy things we’ve read about. And we’ve personally seen a baby’s diaper being changed on a seatback tray table—yup, the one that people eat off of!

According to a study by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, you’re most susceptible to catching sicknesses on a plane from people two seats in front of, behind, or beside you. Although the airplane’s HEPA filters capture nearly 100% of harmful germs in the air, these filters are not running while passengers are boarding and exiting the plane, leaving you exposed. Viruses and bacteria can live on surfaces for hours, and viruses thrive in the dry airplane air! We suggest taking the following steps to avoid illness:

  • Stay hydrated.
  • Keep your nostrils coated with Vaseline to block germs from entering.
  • Clean hands frequently with alcohol-based sanitizer or wipes (especially after using the restroom).
  • Clean your seat, the back of the seat in front of you, and all of your surroundings (such as seatbelt buckles, trays, monitors, the rear of the seat in front of you, etc.) with alcohol. We fill a mini-bottle with rubbing alcohol and take aboard an old washrag for this purpose.
  • Open your air vent fully (after wiping it down with alcohol).
  • Ask to change seats if you are sitting near a sick person. In case that isn’t possible, you may want to purchase some paper nose and mouth covers from your local drug store to wear until airborne.
  • Don’t use the water in the plane’s bathroom to brush your teeth or clean hands; some research indicates that it could be contaminated. Instead, use alcohol-based sanitizers.
  • Take an 81 Mg baby aspirin on the day of your flight to prevent blood clots, and get out of your seat every couple of hours and stretch.

Avoiding jetlag: Jetlag, which happens when your circadian rhythm gets thrown off by a change in time zones, can result in fatigue, sleep and digestive problems, headaches, and irritability. To help reduce your possibility of being jetlagged, we recommend sleeping on the plane, staying hydrated (i.e. drinking bottled water and limiting alcohol) on the flight, and keeping your first day open after you arrive at your destination to just walk around, unwind, and get accustomed to the time change and new city.

Try to select flights that will mimic your sleeping times. For example, the ideal time to leave the US on a long flight is near the time you go to bed so you will not interfere with your internal clock. Flying east (toward countries like England) is easier on the body and mind than flying west (toward Hawaii or Japan). When you arrive, try to stay up as long as you can to help your body adjust to the new time zone.

Several factors can help you get good sleep on a flight. If you can find multiple unoccupied seats next to each other, move to them when the airplane door closes and raise the armrests to make a “bed.” Use noise-cancelling earphones or plugs (like Bose Comfort 15 or a similar model) and eye covers (like Sleep Master) to block out noise and light. If you are traveling with someone, the person who has the hardest time sleeping should select the window seat so he or she can prop his or her head up, but travel pillows that wrap around your neck also provide great support. We like Comfy Commuter and TravelRest neck pillows, which run about $30-$40. Finally, you may want to take a 1 Mg melatonin supplement or ask your doctor for a mild sleeping agent like Restoril. (For more tips on sleeping on flights, check out Nancy Keates’ February 2, 2013 Wall Street Journal article on their website.) Sleeping on a plane is always tough!

Selecting your hotel: You don’t stay in your room long, so you can skip the ridiculously expensive five-star hotels. It’s more important that your hotel is centrally located near shopping, entertainment, and/or historic districts, even if it means straying from your typical hotel chain (we are loyal Hilton and Marriott members). When hotels advertise complimentary transportation to shopping centers, it often means that the hotel is not centrally located. We learned this in Rome, Italy when we stayed in a beautiful five-star Hilton with an awesome view of Rome—but it was located on a hill 20 miles away from the city! We want a hotel right where the action is, even if it is only a three-star hotel. This allows us to take rests and return to our hotel room to store souvenirs we have purchased. Our best hotel location was in 2012 in Florence, Italy, where everything was within walking distance.

Hotel websites can mislead you or make a hotel look better than it actually is, so check Frommer’s guidebooks, too. They generally give great advice on hotels from writers that have actually stayed there and can refer you to “hidden gems” that are low in price but offer good value and service. Once you have selected a few potential places to stay, we recommend visiting and looking for threads of consistency in each option’s reviews. With 53 million visitors each month, the site offers excellent, free feedback on 2 million hotels, restaurants, and attractions. users can also recommend things to do and see while in foreign countries.

European hotels often take some getting used to for Americans. European double beds are like our singles! They are also harder, and rooms and showers are smaller. Every hotel has a different shower system, some of which are very difficult to use, and hotels usually don’t provide washcloths. Many older hotels use old fashioned rather than electronic keys, and most don’t allow you to control your room’s thermostat. Often, you have to open a window. Check out your room before accepting it, and try to avoid rooms that face the street (they can be very loud). On our last Florence trip, we got to see our neighbor’s underwear hanging out on the line, and the street was very noisy!

Europe is on a 220 volt electrical system, whereas America is on a 110 volt system. You will need to bring a conversion kit (although many of the nicer hotels will lend you one). Each hotel we visited used a different adapter. Buy the adapters in advance online or at international airport concourses. You really only need the small adapters, not a huge set.

We normally place our valuables into the hotel safe and put sticky notes on the outside to remind us to open it before leaving. Otherwise, it’s easy to accidentally leave valuables behind. You won’t need your passport while walking around, but it’s a good idea to carry a copy of it.

We also take a picture of our hotel door with a smartphone and/or secure a hotel business card with the room number written on in case we get lost or forget. It is easy to become disoriented in a new city! If you are celebrating an important event like your anniversary, let the hotel or restaurant staff know and you may receive a present or extra care. For the most part, though, customer service in many foreign countries (especially European countries) is average at best.

Ask questions about charges when you check into a hotel and carefully review your bill for any surprises upon checkout. Always pay with a credit card to provide you with more rights.

Entering a foreign country: You will probably have to complete a form as you near your destination airport, so have a pen handy. When you disembark from the plane, just follow the crowd. There will be two lines at foreign customs: one for citizens who are returning to their country (it will be shorter), and one for visitors (you). You will need to provide the customs agent, who will be sitting in a booth or caged office, with your passport and completed form. Smile and answer their questions, which usually deal with the purpose of your visit (pleasure!). You will proceed to the luggage area to claim your bags, and then, you’re off!

Airports in foreign countries can be very different from ours, so ask your flight attendant in advance which terminal your return flight will depart from. We were surprised to learn that in Rome, Delta had its own terminal away from the main airport!

Automobiles are smaller in Europe because of the high price of gasoline, so if you are taking a lot of luggage, your chances of obtaining a taxi are lower. Many taxi drivers will negotiate on prices, while others were offended when we tried to cut a deal. Sometimes, you must approach several drivers to obtain a discount. Watch those taxi meters, and don’t act like a tourist. Be sure you have a clear price before they take you off into Euro Land!

Exchanging currency: Before traveling anywhere, you need to know what currency the countries use and the conversion rate, which can both be found online. For example, 24 countries in Europe use the euro. We recommend that you obtain about $700 of the currency of the country you are visiting. You can purchase foreign currency in US airports’ international concourses, but be careful: use cash, not credit cards, or your purchase will be treated as a money withdrawal at 21% interest (or higher)! Foreign exchange bureaus will buy your leftover currency back when you return, but we keep our extra foreign currency for future trips. Bring a few personal checks just in case.

Once you arrive in your destination country, try to think in its currency, not dollars. Most large international cities have plenty of ATMs with an English-language option, which means you don’t have to carry around large amounts of cash. We were pleasantly surprised to find that Bank of America debit cards can withdraw euros and other currencies from any ATM worldwide and deduct it from our checking accounts back home. Debit cards with the Visa emblem are most widely accepted. Beware, though: banks may charge you a 1% processing fee to use foreign ATM’s.

Financial institutions often have banking partners in foreign countries. For example, Bank of America’s partners in France are BNP Paribas (which has 3,000 ATMs) and Deutsche Bank (1,800 ATMs, though they must feature the G/L logo to avoid fees). In Italy, we use BNA. The key is to ensure that both your bank and the foreign bank’s ATM are members of the Global ATM Alliance. Whichever you use, carefully check your bank statement for fees once you return.

Contact your bank and credit card companies prior to your trip to let them know your dates of travel and the countries you will be visiting. Otherwise, they might suspect theft and freeze your accounts (there is a serious problem with overseas thieves stealing US citizens’ identities and making purchases with their credit cards). We advised Bank of America of our dates of travel and the countries to be visited in advance. We also asked that they raise each of our ATM withdrawal limits to $1,000.

Most guides recommend primarily using credit cards for international purchases. However, many cards charge a 3% processing fee for converting foreign currency to American dollars. We use Chase Sapphire MasterCard and American Express Platinum, which do not charge a fee. Procure a card with no international fees before your trip.

You can even use credit cards to earn travel rewards. We use American Express Platinum, which also provides useful concierge services, covers emergency medical evacuations, and allows you to transfer reward points to hotels and airlines like Delta. In a recent USA Today study, the cards that provided the best returns were:

  • MasterCard “Priceless Cities” program
  • American Express Platinum and Centurion
  • Capital One Venture Rewards
  • United MileagePlus Explorer

Carefully check fees on all cards, including rewards credit cards, before using them in another country.

Making phone calls: Many cell phones will not work in foreign countries or charge outrageous rates. Contact your carrier or visit their website to understand how foreign travel will impact your cell phone service and charges. Most Apple iPhone 4S and 5 versions are international-ready; however, you will have to call your carrier to alert them to your future travel and pay a small fee to activate international calling. Regardless of your provider, prices for data, e-mails, texts, and telephone calls in foreign countries are very high. To avoid astronomical charges, keep your phone off most of the time and disable automatic software updates, most apps, data roaming, fetch data, automatic Facebook, and synching functions, all of which are usually located in your general or cellular settings.

As an alternative, carriers like Verizon offer pre-programmed, inexpensive cell phones that you can rent and use in foreign countries. We recommend, however, that you purchase an international long distance calling card from the airport or a tobacco shop at your destination. These cards, which usually only work in the country where you purchase them, have very reasonable rates—5-10 cents per minute for calling back to the US. Caution: if you use a calling card at a public telephone, 30 extra minutes will be deducted from your balance (in addition to the time used during the conversation). It is usually best to use the phone in your hotel room, but beware: sometimes, hotels will charge you by the minute for using their phones (we once had an extra $90 bill for using our calling card!). Another traveler told us that you can use the phone in the hotel’s business center to call home with a long distance card at no charge.

Using the Internet: Obtain the appropriate passwords and turn on your phone at restaurants and hotels that provide complimentary Wi-Fi. It’s often good to take a break, order a drink or appetizer, and people-watch while accessing a restaurant’s free Wi-Fi. This will help you avoid a massive phone bill upon your return home. We once received a $1,500 Verizon bill because we did not properly set our laptops and cell phones when crossing into different foreign countries! Of course, you will need to familiarize yourself with your phone’s wireless settings and write them down. Have your carrier turn on international-ready mode a few hours before you are in the air to your foreign destination and turn it off promptly the day after you return (just in case you are delayed).

Another way to get online is to visit an Internet café. Internet cafés (rooms with computers that you can use to go online) are very reasonably priced at about $10 per hour, versus the high prices that hotels charge. At Internet cafes, you can access your e-mail accounts and read and write e-mails. However, be warned that European keyboards are arranged differently and can be tricky! Most Internet cafes are open late, which is convenient.

Obtaining good insurance coverage: Check with your medical and car insurance agents to determine if your policies cover you while travelling internationally—most don’t. You can, however, obtain supplemental coverage for foreign trips for as little as $25 per month. Mike was surprised that his medical policy covers 70% of some emergency medical expenses incurred overseas, but he purchased additional coverage to be on the safe side. Medicare, however, does not cover any medical expenses in foreign countries. If you are retired military, you may be covered for medical emergencies through TriCare when visiting NATO countries, but the process can be complex.

If you are not covered, we recommend that you purchase comprehensive travel insurance. In an excellent February 2013 New York Times article, Seth Kugel recommends several providers, but was his top pick. Travel insurance differs by plan and provider, but your policy should cover medical emergencies, baggage loss, trip cancellations, and/or automobile accidents. Read all the fine print, because “pre-existing conditions” may be exempt from your policy. Before his open heart surgery, Mike purchased travel medical insurance from American Express for $20 per month; it covers a wide variety of care but excludes his heart-related conditions. For the money, though, it’s a good deal. Airlines also sell travel insurance, but it often only addresses your flight.

Wall Street Journal travel writer Scott McCartney recommended determining if you have any coverage under your credit card. He suggested that travelers purchase insurance covering the possibility of trips getting cancelled, interrupted, or delayed (ideally, a policy where you can “cancel for any reason;” however, these are often higher in price). Carefully examine all “small print” before buying any travel insurance. Frommer’s has a good outline of some temporary policies and reputable vendors.

Check the immunization requirements and suggestions for your foreign destination well before leaving. You do not need additional immunizations to travel to Europe; however, we once visited Costa Rica and later learned we were staying in the one of the highest malaria zones in the world! We had not been vaccinated, either!

Scott Moseley of Irmo Insurance Agency (our excellent insurance agent) said that most homeowners’ or rental insurance policies will cover any theft while in foreign countries. He once had a client accidentally leave jewelry in a cruise ship’s safe, never to be seen again, but it was covered under the client’s homeowners’ insurance. Our automobile insurance, however, will not cover us in foreign countries other than Canada. Consult your policy details and insurance agent to determine if you will need additional coverage.

Traveling by train: Trains come in two categories: slow, standard trains (50 MPH) or fast ones like the Eurostar, which reaches speeds of 150 MPH. We took the fast Eurostar trains, but even at 150 MPH, it does not seem like you are going that fast. They were great for touring the countryside and, in our opinion, are the way to travel!

Frommer’s lists places where you can purchase train tickets in the US, or you can Google “Eurail” and select the American locations to buy tickets. When we called, our Eurail agent was an experienced foreign traveler and a great resource, and Eurail responded to our emails in an excellent, timely, and detailed fashion. Order your tickets months in advance so they can be mailed to your home before your trip.

Eurail train tickets are honored in most of the 24 European Union countries. You should receive a map and a booklet with a variety of coupons with your tickets. The Eurail map will illustrate the different routes and the types of trains that you can take.

You can determine the exact ticket you will need by selecting the number of countries you plan to visit, the days you will be traveling, and the time frame over which the travel will occur. For three countries and eight days of travel over a two-month period, first class tickets cost $400 each for two adults. (Of course, we did not need a full two months, but the agent recommended buying it in case our trip was delayed and we needed flexible dates.) As with airplanes, coach is cheaper, but we recommend that you purchase first class train tickets. The cars are quieter and less crowded, with overhead bins and larger, more comfortable seats that can be reserved—otherwise, you might have to stand! Once you have secured tickets, you can travel to any country within the Eurail alliance within your designated time window.

NOTE: If you are traveling by train, you must visit the train station’s ticket counter, pick up your ticket, and request your seat assignments. Train stations can be very confusing, especially if you are brain dead from a long flight. Thieves tend to target people who look tired or disoriented, so stay alert. Look for an information booth or ask uniformed individuals where the ticket office is. Once you find the counter, grab a number from one of the machines that tells you when you will be served and in which window. These are good basic guidelines; however, every train station is different. If you need help, just keep asking people if they speak English until you find someone who can guide you.

Once you have obtained your ticket, return to where the trains are located and look at the scheduling signs. Find your train number, its destination, and the track number (these change frequently). Departure times may not be posted until 15-20 minutes beforehand, and trains often run late, which can be frustrating. You should arrive with plenty of spare time to find and board your train. Remember that most train schedules are on a military-style twenty-four hour time system. As a side note, most major train stations have a separate train that will transport you to the nearest airport as part of your Eurail ticket.

Next, look at your ticket to determine your train car and seat numbers. IMPORTANT: Store your bags where you can see them to avoid theft. If you don’t have an assigned seat and a car is full, you can walk between the cars, but don’t forget your luggage. If you are traveling within the country to another city, you will need to stand in the domestic line – not international. That little bit of knowledge saved us hours! The train will stop at different towns on the way to your destination where you can disembark and stretch your legs. Or, you may decide to stay a day or two and then continue your journey (you do not have to give notice to the conductor). . Once you are within the European Union, moving from one country to another is relatively simple. Security is very lax, and you can travel on any route without having your luggage inspected. Occasionally, a SWAT officer might walk through the train with a machine gun and trained dog.

Within the Eurail alliance, each country has its own trains and staff. We liked the Italian train system the best. They served complimentary drinks and had battery chargers or converters in the bathrooms and some seats (if you had the right adapter). We recommend eating in the dining car for the experience, and the food was pretty good. The Swiss sold drinks and food from carts like US airlines do, and the French required you to stand in line at the bar on the back of the train to pay for food or drink. Each coach has its own air conditioning system and attendants are not alerted if it quits working, so you must tell the conductor if you can find him or her.

BEWARE: The conductor will come through the car to check and stamp your ticket. It is your responsibility to write the date of your travel and the people who are accompanying you on your ticket; otherwise, you could be fined. Conductors got upset when we failed to do this on our first train trip!

Once we understood how the train system worked, it became easier to maneuver. Some trains also had sleeping coaches, but these special rooms need to be reserved, and if you do not reserve the whole car, you could have company! On sleeping coaches, the conductor locks you in for the night with your luggage.

When you reach your destination, be sure to make a reservation for a specific seat on your next ride. Otherwise, it is every man or woman for themselves.

European airlines are very competitive, and sometimes it is cheaper to fly between cities than take the train, so be sure to consider that option as well. Alitalia Airlines in Italy provided us with great customer service and even served complimentary wine in the coach section.

To drive or not to drive: Unless you are a daredevil, don’t plan on renting a car in Rome, Paris, or any other large foreign city. Parking is horrendous and people drive like it is their last day on earth! If you ever want to see something hilarious, check out the cars zooming around the eight unpainted lanes circling the Arc de Triomphe in Paris!

We chose to use taxis, buses, private guides, and trains rather than risking the roads ourselves. If you decide to rent a car, get plenty of insurance from the rental agency. As American Express members, we are partially covered and can take out extra insurance for $20 per rental. Check with your credit card company to determine if you are covered in foreign countries.

In Europe, cars are much more expensive to rent than in the US, and gas will run about $10 per gallon in 2013. Driving in the countryside could be fun and less hectic, but consider if all of your luggage will fit into the smaller cars prevalent in Europe. (By the way, Europeans use the metric system, so forget the miles, pounds, miles per hour, gallons, etc.!)

Traveling by bus: Europe has a decent bus system, but it is also very disorganized and chaotic. Once you determine the location of the bus station in a city, you have to purchase a ticket at the counter. Then, you stand in line at a designated parking stall to wait for the bus. Locals often break in line, and if you have not found a seat when the bus fills up, you have to wait for the next bus. Most buses are old and the shocks are about worn out.

However, if you are staying in one location, buses are an inexpensive way to see the surrounding towns. We took one from Florence, Italy to Siena. Some of the smaller towns have archaic schedule signs, and there are no bus representatives other than the bus driver. We had to ask questions to find out the return schedule and how to get around town. Thus, always ask the ticket counter representative in the larger bus station any questions you may have!

Group touring options: Folks like to travel in different ways. Some like highly-structured tour groups, while some prefer group tours with ample free time. Others would rather plan the sightseeing themselves. Luckily, there are options for everyone!

Guided tours run the gamut from large groups to one-on-one tours where the guides provide a private car (our favorite!). Your options will be determined by your budget and the size of the group you are comfortable touring with. USA Today and the Wall Street Journal recommended the following websites when selecting private guides:


# Guides

# Countries






Website allows you to sort by guide rating, pricing, and types of guides.

(Our pick)



Established in 1995 and features 5,500 tours and a mobile app. You can e-mail guides to ask questions and see guides’ ratings, pricing, and suggested itineraries. and Googling words like “Private Italy Tour Guides” can also be helpful. We generally look for guides who are members of a guide association and prefer those that accept credit cards to make sure we have some legal rights. Always ask for and check references from US-based customers who have used the foreign guide’s services.

We have several guides who we have used in the past and would recommend:

  • If you are traveling in the Tuscany region of Italy, we highly recommend Vivian Kramer of Custom Tours in Tuscany (, 847-432-1814). She is US-based and can arrange a variety of tours, cooking classes, and guides.
  • For southern Tuscany tours, another excellent guide recommended by many on was Gianni with Tours Around Tuscany (
  • If you require private transportation from Rome, Italy, to nearby towns, we recommend Roma Shuttle Service at (E-mail Alfredo Costabile at [email protected]).
  • If you want to see battlefields and learn more about World War I and II, Dr. Andrew Thomson of Thomson Tours( is excellent!

If you do not hire a private tour guide, you can purchase guided group tours at the hotel where you are staying or online before you leave home. You can select individual day tours in each city you travel to and arrange your own transfers, or you can purchase a tour package from a company like Globus or Trafalgar and stay with the same group the entire time. There are often long lines at the big tourist sites, and guided tour groups will get you in and out faster. Plus, it is wonderful to have a multilingual guide to explain things and answer your questions about the sites! Tour guides tend to specialize in one city or region; few are experts on whole countries.

AAA has always been helpful to us in providing maps and tour recommendations. The $95 membership fee is well worth it for the discounted hotel rates, free towing, and travel planning support that AAA provides. Hotels and airlines also have travel agency partners to help you book travel packages and rental cars. Another option is to use a private travel agent who specializes in the area you are going to.

Reserving bus tours: For those who prefer to travel individually, most large US and foreign cities have double-decker open-air tour buses that are very fun when the weather is nice. You can buy inexpensive tickets at souvenir shops, visitor centers, and the bus companies’ offices. Once you board the bus, you receive earphones and can listen to an audio guide in English as you are driven around the city. The buses stop at all the major landmarks and you can hop on and off anytime you want. If you choose this option, make sure to do your research beforehand to determine which buses stop at the sights you want to see.

Dining: Food service customs are different all around the world. In Europe, for example, you will have to ask for your check, and 10% is usually considered a good tip. If you order and eat inside a small cafe that offers outside service, the price of food and drink is often 30-50% less than if you were sitting outside. For example, a Coke was $3 inside and $7 outside. At outside tables, waiters will also sometimes slip in a 12% service fee and expect a tip on top of that. You pay a premium to sit outside, but it’s usually worth the price to sit and watch the crowds.

To find good restaurants, we always ask customers about the quality of food and observe how their plates look. Hotel staff can also give great advice on where to find the best, reasonably priced local favorites. Generally, small, hole-in-the-wall restaurants on side streets where a lot of people were eating were good choices. In very touristy areas, quality tends to be lower, the servers ruder, and the prices higher. Many foreign countries lack public bathrooms and most hotels or restaurants will not let you use the toilet if you are not a customer, so you may have to buy a drink at a bar or cafe to use theirs.

Foods and drinks are different too. Europeans drink a lot of wine and consume plenty of pasta, cheese, and dairy products. European coffee is stronger than most of us are used to and Europeans do not offer many artificial sweeteners, so consider taking your own. If, like Mike, you prefer your coffee more like ours, be sure to order it “Americano” while in Italy! There are no free refills on soft drinks, and they sometimes have slightly different names (i.e., instead of Diet Coke, it is Light Coke and tastes flat). Few Europeans use ice and you will not receive any with your drink unless you ask. They consume a great deal of bottled water, both carbonated (“with gas”) and without. We got a few laughs from that one! Fortunately, tap water in Europe is safe to drink and tastes fine.

Grocery stores tend to be smaller and harder to find than in America, and most sell alcohol—but hard liquors, especially the Canadian brands like Crown Royal, are usually not available.

Entertainment: We counsel against over-structuring your activities and trying to see everything. Simply wandering side streets or sitting in an open-air restaurant, sipping wine, and people-watching can be one of the highlights of your trip!

Shopping is also a fun pastime. Almost all merchants and vendors will bargain with you and are very friendly. Shop on side streets for the best deals—high-tourist spots have higher prices and merchants are less apt to bargain. Also, carefully examine souvenirs; most of them are made in China! However, you could just cut the tag off. Who cares where it was made as long as it represents the country you visited? Remember that Europe has an additional 20% value added tax called VAT. If you make any purchases over $200, ask the retailer to complete a VAT form and that you can turn it in at the airport for a refund. However, you should decide if it is even worth the hassle.

Protecting your belongings: Violent crime is not really a big problem in places like Europe. Pickpockets and thieves are your greatest threat, especially around the airport, train, and bus stations. Don’t leave valuables in your hotel room or car, and when you’re out and about, hide money and expensive items in a concealed pouch under your clothing. Keep an eye out at train stations, as sometimes Gypsies will act like they work for the station. Then, when you accept their help, they demand a tip! Other times, one thief will distract you while his or her partners steal any accessible valuables. Thus, you need to be smart and on guard in crowded areas.

Leaving a foreign country: Rush hour traffic in large foreign cities is very slow! Thus, we recommend staying at a hotel near your departure airport the night before you leave. That way, you can wake up, have breakfast, and go directly through customs and security with the least amount of travel time and stress. For example, in Rome, the airport Hilton connects directly to the airport. They also have a bus that will take you into the city for last-minute shopping or a nice dinner the night before your departure.

Major US airlines often contract with locals to run their operations, so foreign airports can be pretty confusing. Signage is not usually very good, so you may have to find an English-speaker and ask for directions. Build in plenty of time to go through security. If you are flying business class, airlines usually have a special registration desk for you and also will allow you to use their SkyMiles Club (or the equivalent). Some designate special security lines for business class travelers. Now is the time to find the VAT refund desk if you qualify for value added tax returns.

Entering America: Since you are essentially chasing the sun back home from Europe, most flights back to the US leave early in the day. As you approach the US, you will be asked to complete another customs form. Visit for information about the items you can and can’t bring back. After landing, follow the crowds to customs. Usually, you will either see long lines or none at all, although with recent federal budget cutbacks, we have heard of 2-3 hour waits. If you are Global Entry Travelers (GET) like us, proceed to the GET machines located near customs, place your passport into the machine, have a picture taken, and place your fingers on the reader to scoot through customs in about ten minutes! If you are not a GET traveler, you will have to stand in line and customs will want to see your passport. Once you have cleared customs, you will pick up your luggage, which takes an additional 30-60 minutes or so, and exit the airport. However, if you have a connecting flight (from Atlanta, GA to Columbia, SC, for example), you then have to go back through security. In the Atlanta airport, they have a really nice terminal for returning international flights, but it is a 30 minute walk to the airport trains! Build in 2-3 hours for clearing customs and arriving at your next connecting flight.

Conclusion: Well, there you have it: everything you wanted to know about international travel but were afraid to ask! Please send any additional suggestions or tips to add to this evolving article to [email protected]. Bon voyage!