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Twelve Travel Tips

James McGlynn

I RECENTLY VISITED Eastern Europe, where I volunteered to teach English in Poland through an organization called Angloville. I received free room and board at a resort in exchange for conversing from breakfast through dinner with Polish adults who wanted to improve their English.

In addition to meeting Poles and being immersed in Polish culture, I used my free time to explore nearby countries. Planning a vacation abroad? Based on my recent trips to Poland, Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria and Hungary, here are 12 things to keep in mind as you pack your bags and plan your trip:

  1. A 220-volt adapter set. Pack adapters to charge your electronics. It might be difficult to charge your phone or iPad without them. I learned this the hard way on my visit to Berlin. Luckily, the hotel’s front desk had an adapter I could borrow.
  2. MasterCard and Visa. Many countries only honor MasterCard or Visa and not American Express. The good news is that most purchases can be charged, bypassing local currencies. Your credit card should also give you a fair exchange rate, and the U.S. dollar is strong against the euro right now.
  3. Airline lounges. These are insurance against long layovers, flight delays and crowded terminals—all epidemic nowadays. When I had a six-hour layover in London, I took a shower in the lounge. It also had free food, drinks and comfortable seating. I stopped at the lounges in Dallas-Fort Worth and Warsaw airports during my recent travels, as well.
  4. American Express. The major reason to carry the American Express card is to gain free entry to airport lounges. It doesn’t take too many visits to feel that the card’s cost is worth the sanctuary it can provide in a crowded airport.
  5. Seat61.com. This train travel site was invaluable in my rail journeys through five nations and seven cities. I booked my trips 60 days in advance for international train journeys, and 30 days if traveling within one nation. I paid a few dollars more for first-class seats, which saved the day when trains were overbooked and not everyone got a seat. I used the site to book a berth on the overnight train from Vienna to Berlin, arriving at 10 a.m. freshly showered and well rested. Sleeper trains tend to sell out early, so book them even more than 60 days ahead.
  6. Currency exchange. Yes, they charge high fees, but—surprise—not every European nation uses the euro. I needed a few forints in Hungary and the zloty in Poland for little things, such as coins for the public restrooms. For me, this was a return visit to Poland—and a former student exchanged some zlotys for dollars, so I eliminated some fees that way.
  7. International phone plans. Wi-fi is available in most hotels. Still, I needed phone service from AT&T at $10 a day for two reasons: Google maps and Uber. I used the map function almost everywhere I walked. I relied on Uber if mass transit was confusing. Uber or Bolt was available in every country I visited and was still quite affordable. Many drivers didn’t speak English but were able to drive me where I needed to go.
  8. Rome2rio.com. If I was in town for a few days, I’d attempt to take mass transit. This website helped explain which trams to take and when they were available. It was also a good backup site for train schedules.
  9. Tripit.com. I used Tripit to keep a detailed copy of my itinerary easily accessible on my phone. I forwarded my travel emails to the site so I could access all the information on my flights, hotels, trains and tours. I did carry a paper backup but didn’t need it except to scan QR codes for trains.
  10. VisitACity.com. This app and website has lists of things to do in thousands of cities, plus maps with walking distances between activities. It gave me good general information, though—to save on walking and to get more personal attention—I frequently took Segway tours.
  11. Hotels near train stations. As I was in most cities for only a couple of days, I limited myself to hotels near train stations. I was able to find conveniently located four-star hotels with a full breakfast for less than $100 a night.
  12. Angloville. I’ve traveled twice to Eastern Europe to take part in this immersive teaching experience. You must love to talk because English training sessions go from morning until night. Of course, this is a great way to meet others, such as the fellow teacher I saw in Bratislava, Slovakia, where we spoke with Ukrainian refugees one evening. I was even serenaded on my birthday at an Angloville resort. An opera singer wished me “sto lat”—may you live 100 years.

James McGlynn, CFA, RICP, is chief executive of Next Quarter Century LLC in Fort Worth, Texas, a firm focused on helping clients make smarter decisions about long-term-care insurance, Social Security and other retirement planning issues. He was a mutual fund manager for 30 years. James is the author of Retirement Planning Tips for Baby Boomers. Check out his earlier articles.

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BBrown
BBrown
3 months ago

I live in Wisconsin and travel to Romania frequently for work. As someone else mentioned, you usually only need electrical adapters for electronics because most support all voltages. However, fans, hair dryers, razors, toothbrushes, etc. may not work without a voltage converter. Check the voltage required by your device before leaving on our trip.

I too use my Apple Watch to pay for most things and rarely have an issue. I never need a PIN. Occasionally I’ll be asked for a signature. Yes, use a card that doesn’t charge international fees, like Chase Sapphire and other travel-oriented cards. Apple Card is another great choice.

I often split the cost of meals and entertainment with my coworkers while I’m working there, but most don’t use Apple Pay or Venmo. I’ve found that most have a Revolut account and its quite easy for me to exchange money and pull cash out at an ATM without extra fees using my own Revolut account.

tshort
tshort
3 months ago

Two thins to add:

  1. rather than pay your US mobile provider for international access, it’s easy to just buy a SIM card once you’re over there. 10 euro for a one month account includes 3Gb of data and unlimited calls. Plans are good across borders within the EU and some other neighboring countries. Works great.
  2. free Wi-Fi is widely available at airports and train stations and other public places. Be warned: you risk getting your credit card or other confidential info stolen if you use these. The solution is simple. Get a VPN for your phone and use it whenever you’re using a public Wi-Fi. This will defeat the hackers. We just had our credit card stolen while using it to buy train tickets on my mobile phone via public Wi-Fi. Now I use Surf Shark. There are others and they offer easy to use, low cost protection.
Michael1
Michael1
3 months ago
Reply to  tshort

A local SIM card can indeed be a cheaper solution, but the main downside in my opinion is not being able to receive calls from folks in the US who don’t have your foreign number – for example: your bank or brokerage custodian if something strange is going on with your accounts, anyone you do business with, authorities if something happens with a relative or your property, others I can’t think of but would not want to miss a call from.

On a trip to a Europe last year, we used the AT&T plan mentioned, but as little as possible. We advised family and friends to communicate with us via What’s App, which we would catch up on now and then when we had Wi-Fi. On rare occasions we needed to use cellular, that would be worth the $10. We also had an older foreign code with a Spanish SIM card that we would navigate and web search with.

On a trip we just finished, we just used our US phones and cellular with impunity. The $10 dollar a day fee caps out at $100 per billing cycle, and the second phone in the plan caps out at $50. For us it was worth it for the simplicity.

Cammer Michael
Cammer Michael
3 months ago

Thank you for these tips.
Important additional info: know the PIN for your credit cards. In Europe you need the PIN.
And a clarification, you may need a Platinum Amex card, not just an Amex card, for the lounge access. Whether you think the fee is worth it is a matter of personal choice.

Jerry Granderson
Jerry Granderson
3 months ago

Thanks for the good tips. Re phone I’ve used Google’s phone service for many years primarily because of the great international coverage at no extra cost. It automatically connects to local country’s phone service upon landing/arrival. Has always worked great for us.

Rich
Rich
3 months ago

I also recommend a voltage converter, the adapter is just what you plug into the outlet. I’ve traveled around the world many times and always had one along with a small electric fan because air conditioning is iffy in many countries and cities, i.e. Paris; and I’m talking nice hotels. It was a life saver at times when the weather was pleasant outside and boiling in a hotel room…the two best cities that take AC to new levels though are Dubai and Singapore, my favorite!

Michael1
Michael1
3 months ago
Reply to  Rich

I hear you. We bought a fan in Italy this summer and gave it away when we left.

mytimetotravel
mytimetotravel
3 months ago
Reply to  Rich

How big is the fan? I ask because I travel light – a 22-inch two wheeler and a small day bag – and I wonder whether it would fit. So far I have been able to time my trips and choose my accommodation (even on RTW trips) such that I have rarely needed a fan, but climate change may make that more difficult. (Or maybe it will improve the availability of good AC…) I have done a lot of travel over the years, but I have never needed a voltage converter: adapter plugs, certainly, I have quite a collection, but voltage converter, no. I did travel with a small dual-voltage hair dryer for a while, but these days the places I stay all seem to provide a hair dryer.

GW
GW
4 months ago

An Apple Watch using Apple Pay directly linked to a credit card has worked 100% of the time for me throughout Europe this summer. Credit cards inserted into terminals or tapped were hit or miss and did not work at least 20-30% of the time.

ATT $10/day unlimited calls and data maxes out at $100 so you are charged up to 10 days and get the remainder of the month for no additional charge.

Last edited 4 months ago by GW
Olin
Olin
4 months ago

Regarding #4 using American Express to access airport lounges, is that the same as airline lounges where normally a separate membership is required? If so, that is good information to know.

James McGlynn CFA RICP®
James McGlynn CFA RICP®
4 months ago
Reply to  Olin

American Express Platinum card allows access to American Express Centurion Club and Priority Pass Clubs. Delta and American have different lounges that you can use -I believe-only if you are flying on their airlines that day. depending on which airports you use one might be better. I hav found the AXP Platinum card worth the cost.

mytimetotravel
mytimetotravel
4 months ago

You can buy a day pass to AA’s Admiral’s Club lounges – I think the going rate is $59. You automatically get access if you’re flying business or first class on international flights. Don’t know about Delta and United but worth checking.

Olin
Olin
4 months ago

Thanks for the clarification. Almost had my hopes up.

Edmund Marsh
Edmund Marsh
4 months ago

Great tips! This article goes in the trip planning folder.

Garrie Powers
Garrie Powers
4 months ago

When I travel I use the free app Organic Maps which works offline.
Before I leave home, I download to my phone the map for the region I am travelling. I then mark on it the location where I am staying plus other key locations.
I have found the maps, which are provided free by OpenStreetMap, to have enough details for the places I have visited.
I do recommend it.

Last edited 4 months ago by Garrie Powers
mytimetotravel
mytimetotravel
4 months ago

Sounds like a great program. I have also heard of a similar program in Spain. Entirely agree about the value of seat61, but I do have some other comments.

1 – most electronics are dual voltage, you need an adapter because your plugs are not compatible with the outlets, not a convertor to change the voltage (unless you are trying to use something like a hair dryer – better not).

2 and 6 – try to travel with cards that do not charge a foreign conversion fee (mine are from Capital One) and use ATMs in preference to exchange bureaus. Also, watch out for the Dynamic Currency Conversion scam, which is an offer to charge your card in your own currency, always at a lousy exchange rate.

3 and 4 – entirely agree about lounges, also try to afford business class for long haul flights – I use my frequent flyer miles (from an affinity credit card) for that.

7 – if you are going to do much travel look into T-Mobile, it has coverage in many countries for very reasonable rates and can be bought month by month.

8 – Rome2Rio is good for initial planning, but on the ground Google Maps is better – it will show you where the station/bus stop is, tell you the fare, and let you follow along so you know when to get off.

11 – agree that you want to be near transport, but I prefer to stay in B&Bs (not AirBnB), pensions or small local hotels. Cheaper and friendlier. Lonely Planet, Rough Guide and sometimes Moon or Bradt are good resources, along with booking.com and tripadvisor (but read the latter with care).

Guest
Guest
4 months ago

Thanks Mr. McGlynn! You’ve recommended a couple of excellent apps/websites for me to add to my travel list.

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