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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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