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Ten Tips for Traveling Overseas

by Bonnie

Traveling overseas can be daunting the first time out. There are so many “How will I?” questions, it truly gets overwhelming. Here are our top 10 tips for traveling overseas.

Full disclosure: Thus far, we have only traveled to Europe and the Caribbean. Tips for traveling in other countries may be slightly different. We will provide notes on those locations once we make it to them!

That said, these are tips we end up giving out to friends on a regular basis and they work.

Updated March 2019

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Tip #1: Pack Light

This is especially true if you are visiting multiple cities/countries on your trip. If you are constantly on the go, moving from city to city, you do not want to haul around three bags. Even if you are just moving a couple of times, dealing with multiple bags can be difficult.

Also, I strongly suggest you use a backpack, not a suitcase. It keeps your hands free to deal with doors, tickets, food, etc. and you don’t have to worry about your wheels on a cobblestone street. Trust me, the cobblestones will win. And you don’t want to have to carry a suitcase… Been there, done that. It sucks.

I will admit, when Grant first suggested the backpack, I was skeptical. Then I saw him use it on a couple of short, weekend trips. I think I ended up carrying it for him somewhere along the way and realized how awesome it was to have my hands free and how much other stuff I could do while carrying the backpack. I was sold and now will encourage everyone to use a backpack, especially if you are moving around a lot!

The eBags TLS Mother Lode Weekender Convertible is a geat carry-on pack for a weekend or longer.
The eBags TLS Mother Lode Weekender Convertible is a great carry-on pack for a weekend or longer.

We used to travel with the L.L.Bean Continental Rucksack, but have since upgraded to a couple of different packs to accommodate additional electronics while traveling.

Grant now carries the Lowepro Highline BP 400 AW and I have gotten the eBags Mother Lode TLS Weekender. You can read full reviews of these backpacks here:

Grant’s review of the Lowepro Highline BP 400 AW | Bonnie’s review of the eBags MotherLode TLS Weekender

We can fit about six to seven days worth of clothes and all of our toiletries, electronics, etc. and the packs will fit in the overhead bins on an airplane. Also, because it is somewhat on the small side, I can’t pack it so full that it is too heavy for me to get into the bins.

Grant's new pack is the Lowepro HighLine BP 400 AW.
Grant’s new pack is the Lowepro HighLine BP 400 AW.

We saw that several times in Europe: small women who could not lift their own bags into the overhead racks on trains. Remember, you don’t have to pack everything you need for three weeks. You can do laundry, buy more shampoo, etc.

Tip #2: Visit the small cities (and countries)

Of course you have to visit the large cities, too. Most likely, you’ll fly into a larger city because it will be cheaper (see tip #6). Yes, visit Paris, Rome, Barcelona, London, etc. Yes, you should see all the “big sites” that are the reason “everyone” visits. But you will be surprised at how different the small cities will feel.

Our favorite places, both in the US and abroad, are usually the smaller places. They are more intimate and, often, more authentic. They are not just catering to tourists. The small cities are where you will really be able to see and “feel” the vibe of that county.

Grape vines line the hill sides of Cortona.
Everywhere you turn in Cortona there is a view like this.

Some of our favorites: Siena and Cortona in Italy, Eger in Hungary, and Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic. Likewise, Slovenia, one of the smallest countries in Europe was a favorite.

You can usually get to these smaller cities via a short, inexpensive train or bus ride.

Tip #3: Use the ATM

No, you should NOT carry around all the cash you think you will need for a three-week trip right from the beginning. No, you don’t want to have to look for a currency exchange to cash a Traveler’s Check. Yes, you will lose money on ANY currency exchange.

Credit and debit cards for Italy.
We use the Chase Sapphire Reserve Card for credit card purchases overseas, along with our Schwab Debit card for ATM transactions. Neither has foreign transaction fees.

Instead, before you leave the States, open an account at a bank that refunds ATM fees AND does not charge any extra foreign transaction fees. We have an account at Schwab Bank for this reason. It even pays interest on the checking account. A few cents each month may not be much, but it is more than nothing at all! This particular bank has very few branches, so we do mostly online transactions. If that scares you, look for a local bank. There is a small regional bank right across the street from us at home that will refund ATM fees.

Also, pay attention to the currency where you are traveling. Despite popular beliefs, not all European countries, even those within the European Union, use the Euro. This is mostly the case in Eastern Europe. Our trip went through five different countries and five different currencies, only one of which was the Euro. This is important when determining how much cash you need.

Tip #4: Have a credit card with a chip and no foreign transaction fee

While Europe, in general, is more cash-based than the US, there will be times you will use a credit card. Personally, we use a credit card every opportunity we get so that we earn more rewards, but that is a whole separate article!

The Hilton Honors Ascend American Express and the Chase Sapphire Reserve are our two primary travel credit cards. (Personal Info edited out.)
The Hilton Honors Ascend American Express and the Chase Sapphire Reserve are our two primary travel credit cards. (Personal Info edited out.)

Do yourself a favor and make sure your card has a chip, which shouldn’t be difficult these days. You also want to make sure the company does not charge a foreign transaction fee. That is very hit-or-miss, so just check the cards you have. If you have to open a new card, look for our article on the best rewards cards and our updated article on using Chase Ultimate Rewards.

When using a credit card, be sure you only charge what you can afford to pay off when you get home.

Tip #5: Ladies, carry a wrap or scarf

This is advice that I have read several times since returning from our last trip, that I wish I had read before we went! In addition to dressing up a plain top or dress, your wrap can serve many purposes while traveling.

One of Bonnie's favorite pieces of travel gear is her scarf.
One of Bonnie’s favorite pieces of travel gear is her scarf.

On a long plane or train ride, you can use it as a “pillow” or to keep the light out of your eyes. If you are somewhere smelly, you can breathe into it. You can use it to cover up if you are cold. In a church, or other religious building, you can cover your shoulders or wrap it around your legs as a sarong.

I just purchased this wrap and am very much looking forward to using it on our next trip!

Tip #6: Fly to/from the cheapest city and take a train if needed

This is fairly easy if you plan to visit several cities or countries, but very doable even for those itineraries that are more stationary. Train travel is generally very easy and inexpensive. Even local airlines in Europe are fairly cheap.

When we went to Eastern Europe, there was just no way I could turn our itinerary into a loop, so we started in Prague and worked our way south. To get back to Prague (from Dubrovnik, Croatia), we ended up flying a local airline and “enjoyed” a layover in Rome (the airport was under construction, so it really was not that fun). It was still cheaper than getting a multi-city ticket with Delta.

Grant taking a nap on the train back to Krakow.
Grant taking a nap on the train back to Krakow.

A couple of years ago, Grant’s father was planning a trip for a river cruise, starting in Amsterdam. He was able to use points to book the tickets, but still had nearly $1,000 in fees! With a bit of research, we determined that he could fly into Paris and take a two- or three-hour train and save several hundred dollars on each ticket. Ultimately, they ended up not being able to take the trip, but he (hopefully) learned a valuable lesson!

Tip #7: Scan all important documents/cards

By scanning your passport, credit card, etc. you don’t have to carry anything extra with you and you’ve got copies of everything if you should lose it. You can always find a place to print them if needed.

Tip #8: Carry your passport with you

Most travel tips will suggest locking your passport in the safe in your room, unless you are crossing a border. That is what we did for our entire trip in Italy and the first part of our Eastern Europe trip. But one experience with a very unaccommodating ticket seller changed our tune.

A glimpse of the Sedlec Ossuary. The traditional outside is a stark contrast to the bones inside.
A glimpse of the Sedlec Ossuary. The traditional outside is a stark contrast to the bones inside.

We had traveled outside of Prague to Kutna Hora to visit the Bone Church and were buying a train ticket to get back to Prague. The attendant decided that she needed to see our passport just to process our credit card. She didn’t speak English; we didn’t speak Czech. She wasn’t budging… we didn’t have a passport to show her. She had our credit card; we needed to get back to town. It was about 10-15 minutes of back-and-forth with no luck. Finally, we showed her our Georgia Driver’s License since it was the only form of identification we had on us. Somehow that appeased her and we got our ticket and got on the train.

From now on, we will at least carry the passport card, if not the full passport, at all times.

Tip #9: Have an unlocked phone

Dealing with phones and data overseas is always a headache. Our trip to Italy was fairly easy because Verizon unlocked the SIM card slot on our phones for us. Then, we pre-purchased SIM cards through Holiday Phone. It would have been cheaper to just buy a SIM card once we arrived in Italy, but we were concerned about possibly needing the equivalent of an Italian social security number.

When we traveled to Eastern Europe our phones were relatively new and AT&T would not unlock them. Our workaround was to buy an unlocked hotspot and got temporary US T-Mobile service, which offers free data roaming in many countries throughout the world. That worked fairly well, other than we couldn’t get very good data speed.

This mobile hot spot will allow you to connect up to 10 devices to one data account. It also works as a portable battery for charging devices. I can't recommend the Huawei brand, though. Basically, Chinese intelligence has compromised the security of these devices.
This mobile hot spot will allow you to connect up to 10 devices to one data account. It also works as a portable battery for charging devices. I can’t recommend the Huawei brand, though. Basically, Chinese intelligence has compromised the security of these devices.

If we had it to do over again, we would have just purchased a SIM upon landing in Prague and replaced it as we ran out of data. We had to purchase a SIM in Slovenia and it worked fine for a few days in Croatia.

When the time came for our most recent phone upgrade, we purchased them from the Apple Store so they are unlocked.  On our next trip we should be able to just pop in a local SIM card, no matter where we are.

If your phone is locked and you can’t get it unlocked, do some research before you go! Options are always changing and will vary by destination. The hotspot above will do in a pinch and will give you 4G LTE coverage throughout a large portion of the world.

Tip #10: Always carry small coins for bathrooms

From our experience, it usually isn’t too difficult to find a pubic bathroom. However, you will pay for it. Usually, the cost is not more than a dollar and often cheaper.

Even at McDonald’s in Prague, we had to pay to use the bathroom that was inside the store. No, we did not eat there; just went in for the bathroom! It may seem weird to pay to use the toilet, but most of the time they are clean and well-stocked. That is more than I can say for some bathrooms here in the States.

And when you gotta go, you’ll be thankful it’s there, no matter what it costs!

Hopefully, these tips will help make your next overseas trip an enjoyable one!

Traveling overseas doesn't have to be stressful or hard. Armed with these 10 tips on everything from packing to money, you will travel like a pro!
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