Whether you're a seasoned international traveler or venturing out of the U.S. for the first time, planning for international travel can be difficult. Here are my Top 5 Tips you should know before you start planning for international travel.  

 

Tip # 1:  Make sure your passport is valid for at least 6 months after the date of travel.

For travel in Europe, you are required to have a passport valid for at least 6 months after the date of travel. A visa is not required for these countries. For countries outside of Europe, the website http://cibtvisas.com contains visa information for all countries. Passport applications are available at most U.S. Post Offices, as well as at regional Passport Agencies.  When booking your flights, make sure the name on the airline ticket is EXACTLY as it is printed on your passport.  Not doing so could cause problems with check-in, TSA, and passport control.   

It is a good idea to give a photocopy of your passport to a friend or relative before you leave on your trip. It’s also advisable to put a copy in your luggage. If, during your travels, your passport is lost or stolen, it is best to contact the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate. They can assist you in getting a replacement passport as quickly as possible.

 

Tip #2:  Check with your cell phone carrier and select an international phone plan, get contact numbers to use while traveling, and make sure you check to see if your phone is working as soon as you arrive at your destination.

 You may wish to carry a cell phone while traveling. It is very important to check with your cell phone provider beforehand to confirm that your phone will work in the destination(s) you are visiting. The following are a few different options for using your phone (voice and text)/data in Europe:

·         The easiest (but most expensive) is to simply use your phone by taking advantage of international roaming. Nevertheless, I would not recommend this. It will cost a fortune. The rates for international roaming, especially when it comes to using data, are extremely high. You can easily spend $50 or more just sending a few emails and viewing a few web pages. Be sure to call your mobile carrier before you leave so that they can enable international roaming.

·         Another option, which I would recommend, is to sign up for an international data plan from your mobile phone provider. The prices will depend upon the carrier and the specific plan. Because many people use their GPS while traveling, I would consider a plan with more, rather than less, data.

It is important that you confirm that your phone is working as soon as you reach your destination. You do not want to wait until you really need your phone to realize there is a problem. When signing up for an international plan, make sure you obtain an international contact number for your provider and ask what to do in case there is a problem. Cell phone stores overseas are not always familiar with American phones and many times cannot help you. Also, don’t forget to cancel international service when you get home.

Using data roaming on your cellular network is handy for times when you can't find Wi-Fi. But while convenient, data roaming is also potentially expensive, depending upon your international plan rates. You'll want to be conscious of how much data you're using, since you're probably paying for a limited amount of bandwidth. Still, data roaming can be worth it when you're out and about, need to get online, and don't want to waste your valuable vacation time hunting for a Wi-Fi hotspot.

 

Tip #3:  Don't worry about getting foreign currency prior to your trip.  It is easier and less expensive to wait until you arrive at your destination to change your currency.

When traveling, I would suggest having both cash and credit cards available for purchases. Moreover, it is not necessary to have foreign currency prior to leaving the U.S. Many U.S. banks and credit unions do not carry foreign currency in their branches and may have to order it (which takes a couple of days). Also, on average, at an American bank, you lose 8 percent when changing dollars to Euros or other foreign currency. In addition, when you use currency exchange booths such as Forex or Travelex, you lose around 15 percent. Wait until you arrive at your destination to get foreign currency, and use your bank’s ATM. Most U.S. banks and credit unions have international branches and ATMs, or they partner with institutions in different countries. Every international airport I have visited has had an ATM available.

Once you’ve reached your destination, your bank’s ATM network is the best option for cash. If you bank at one of these institutions, you may be able to withdraw cash with low fees (1% to 3%) or perhaps no fees. Use your institution’s app to find an ATM near you. Make fewer trips to the ATM and withdraw larger amounts if your bank charges ATM fees. Out-of-network ATMs may be an option; however, in addition to a possible foreign transaction fee, you could end up paying surcharges to your bank and the ATM owner. Also, avoid cash advances. Instead of getting cash with your credit card (and paying fees plus interest for the convenience), use your bank ATM card. If you must convert U.S. dollars in Europe, the postal banks inside post offices usually have the best rate.

Tip #4:  Don’t assume your credit card will be accepted everywhere, and be aware that Europe’s “chip and PIN” cards are not the same as U.S. “chip and signature” cards.

Major credit cards are accepted at most restaurants and shops in Europe.  However, street vendors and small shops and restaurants may accept cash only.  Just about every business that does accept credit cards will take your Visa, MasterCard, or EuroCard; businesses that cater to well-heeled tourists and business travelers usually honor American Express.

Most U.S.-issued credit cards rely on magnetic-strip technology or “chip and signature”. This “chip and signature” card is different than the “chip and PIN” cards which are increasingly common overseas. The “chip-and-PIN” cards require users to punch in a personal identification number (PIN) instead of signing for a purchase. For example, many automated ticket kiosks, such as those commonly found at train stations, gas pumps and parking garages, don't accept cards without a chip and PIN. Unfortunately, in these instances a chip and signature will not work. However, most cash registers in stores, restaurants and businesses are equipped to handle American cards, both with a magnetic strip and “chip and signature”.

It is important to call your credit-card company before you travel. In the U.S., some banks and credit card companies may reject overseas transactions unless they've been notified of your trip ahead of time. As long as you're calling, ask about "foreign transaction fees," so you don’t get blindsided with these fees on your bill.

Carry a backup card, and bring photocopies of cards with you. If you own more than one credit card, carry a backup card just in case your primary card doesn't work. It is best to carry the backup card in a different place from your main card.

Also, it's wise to make photocopies of your cards (including the customer-service phone numbers on the back) so you can report any theft or loss of your card immediately. Keep the paper copies separate from your cards, and if you're traveling with a companion, let the other person have a copy of your card information. Finally, and most important, guard your cards! Don't carry credit cards in a backpack, a carryon bag, or a suitcase, and don't keep your wallet in a hip pocket or a belt pouch. Pickpockets and purse snatchers know that tourists are often careless, so they'll be watching you.

Tip #5: Book your accommodations early

Good hotels in most major European cities sell out quickly.  I would suggest booking your accommodations as soon as you have confirmed travel dates.  Many of the hotels allow cancelations up to 30 days prior to arrival dates, but check with the individual hotel for that information.  If you are booking with a travel site such as Expedia or Hotels.com, make sure you choose an option to cancel if you are not 100% sure of your dates.

TripAdvisor.com is an excellent resource for reviews on hotels in Europe.  Even though some higher-priced hotels may be widely advertised, this does not guarantee top quality accommodations and service.  Reviews are often a good way to guide you when selecting hotels.  A few candid reviews could save you money and headaches down the road. 

VRBO (Vacation Rental by Owner) and AirB&B have become very popular in the past couple of years.  Properties offered on these sites can be great alternatives to hotels, especially for families and close friends.  The cost of a large house can be significantly less than a block of hotel rooms.  However, there are some things to watch for.  Make sure your accommodation has air conditioning.  Air conditioning is not as common in Europe as it is here in the U.S., even in the cities with warmer temperatures.  Another consideration would be Wi-Fi.  You may think you don’t want it (we’re on vacation), or that you can just go down to the closest café, but the benefit of having Wi-Fi in-house will probably outweigh the time spent looking for it elsewhere. 

Now you’re ready to head to the airport, board your plane, and enjoy the fruits of your labors! 

Arrivederci!

Buon Viaggio!