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When in Rome

Dennis Friedman

MY WIFE AND I VISITED Italy this year. We flew to Venice, where we stayed three days, and then hopped a train to Florence, where we spent the next five days. After that, we rented a car for three days and toured the Tuscany countryside, before catching a train to Rome for our final six days.

I learned a lot about Italy, but I also learned some things about myself. Here are 11 takeaways from our trip:

1. Going home was one of my favorite parts. Before I retired, I thought I’d spend months on the road, and maybe even live overseas for a while. But after two or three weeks of traveling, I’m ready to go home.

I miss my home, friends and routine when I’m away for a while. I don’t see how people, no matter how much time they spend traveling, can sell their house and not have a place to go home to. I wouldn’t feel safe and secure.

2. If I’m going to travel and see everything I want to see, I better do it now. While we were in Florence, my wife and I climbed to the top of the dome that covers the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, also known as the Duomo. It was 463 steps to the top, and the passage is sometimes steep. There are many towers in Italy with breath-taking views that also involve climbing many steps.

I can’t see us being fit enough in our 80s to do things like that. Our 70s might be the last chance to travel without physical limitations.

3. Travel is not cheap. We have two more major trips planned this year. Funding these trips means drawing down our investment portfolio.

I don’t know if I’d have felt comfortable spending this much money on travel if I didn’t have a financial advisor giving me the thumbs up. That reassurance allows us to spend without fear that we’ll run out of money.

4. I wrote in another article about having only one credit card in our later years—how it would simplify our finances and make them easier to manage. I was wrong. We should have at least two credit cards.

My wife and I paid for almost everything in Italy by using credit cards. While dining at a restaurant in a small town in Tuscany, our credit card was rejected. We tried three times with no luck. I checked my Citi Mobile app and it was temporarily shut down for maintenance. Maybe that was the reason for the rejection.

Luckily, I brought another card with me—because we didn’t have enough euros to pay for the dinner. That’s another lesson I learned: Make sure you have enough local currency for emergencies, because you might not be able to charge everything to a credit card. For instance, we stayed at a hotel in a small town where we were required to pay part of the bill—the city taxes portion—in euros.

5. How to manage the exchange rate can be tricky. When you use your credit card, sometimes restaurants and hotels will ask you if you want to charge in euros or dollars. I once paid a restaurant bill in dollars. But the exchange rate seemed higher than when I was charging in euros.

According to American Express, if you’re using a credit card with no transaction fees, you usually save money if you make the purchase in local currency. When you choose to charge in dollars, there’s sometimes a hidden currency conversion fee added to the transaction by the merchant’s credit card processor.

6. I bought an international wireless travel plan when we went to Italy. Yes, you can make phone calls, text and access the internet using wi-fi. But I wanted to use Google Maps and get real time directions on my iPhone, and for that I needed a cell signal. Not all rental cars have GPS navigation.

If you’re traveling overseas, Google Maps is a lifesaver when trying to find your way around on foot or by car. It’s easy to get lost when walking those narrow pathways that traverse the canals in Venice, and those country roads while driving in Tuscany.

If you don’t want to pay for data usage, you can use wi-fi to download your destination ahead of time in Google Maps and save it. But transit and walking directions are unavailable offline. You also won’t get traffic information, alternate routes and lane guidance while driving.

7. If you’re traveling in Europe by train, the Trainline app is an easy way to check train times and prices, and to purchase tickets. There’s no need to print out a ticket. If you have the app, you can use a mobile ticket with a QR code that’s stored on your phone and that can be scanned at the station or after you board the train.

8. If you’re renting a car, it’s a good idea to schedule an early morning pickup because of the shortage of automobiles. When we picked up our car at 10 a.m., we were fortunate to get the last car that was available. If we had scheduled the pickup later in the day, we might not have gotten a car that would have fit our schedule.

9. You should shop around for the best deal on hotels. When traveling overseas, we usually book our rooms through Hotels.com. For every 10 one-night stays, you get a free night valued at the average value of the previous 10 nights earned. If you’re a gold member, you’re entitled to complimentary room upgrades, early check-in and late check-out at select properties when they’re available.

We received a free upgrade at a hotel in Florence. The room was located on the top floor, and had a private outdoor patio with a view of the city. It was one of the highlights of our trip. The accompanying photo shows the view of the Duomo from our room.

10. If you take medication, keep it in your possession when boarding the plane. Don’t stash it in your check-in baggage because it could get lost in transit. Also, the plane’s cargo area can get very cold for medicine that needs to be kept at certain temperatures. Losing your medication is a good way to ruin your trip.

11. When you live on the West Coast, it isn’t easy traveling to Europe. How great it would be to fly from Italy to Newark, New Jersey, and not have to take the long six-hour connecting flight to Southern California. Still, no matter how tiresome and inconvenient it is, we wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.

Dennis Friedman retired from Boeing Satellite Systems after a 30-year career in manufacturing. Born in Ohio, Dennis is a California transplant with a bachelor’s degree in history and an MBA. A self-described “humble investor,” he likes reading historical novels and about personal finance. Check out his earlier articles and follow him on Twitter @DMFrie.

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