Friday, August 8, 2014

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: International Travel Tips

A few days ago I returned from a two-week trip to the South of France.

Two weeks.

No dirty diapers to change, no snoring husband.

All by myself.

*Cue Celine Dion*

Sounds like heaven, right?

Yes, the trip was amazing. Words can't describe and pictures could never capture the virginal beauty of the sleepy village of Mons overlooking the serene Mediterranean waters. I discovered the wonders of sulfite-free wine, became acquainted with several new friends, celebrated the joining of two inspiring souls who are very much in love, and basically just breathed deeply for the first time in what seems like years.

Though the retreat was wonderful, there were a few several lessons on international travel to be acquired along the way. I remained calm and positive through every mishap, however I do hope my new found experience will help you the next time you decide to hop over the pond to embark on a wild trek through Europe.

And so I give you:

Ten Tips from a Tired Traveler

1. Be Smart When Booking Flights

I speak from experience when I tell you to book direct flights whenever possible--even if it means spending a little more money. Nothing is worse than realizing your two hour layover before your first connection has diminished to fifteen minutes due to flight delays. If you're unlucky like me, you will still sprint across O'Hare to the next gate only to find that the plane pushed off from the gate five minutes early. Yep--book direct. Or just not through O'Hare.

2. Packing: Less is More

I consider myself a fairly low-maintenance lady. A week before a big trip like this, I usually make a packing list and spend several days refining and re-thinking what I will really need to bring with me. Do I really need to blow dry my hair? No. Must I bring five books to read when two will do? No. After packing my most needed belongings into the suitcase, I still find myself weeding out seemingly excessive items. Even so, my bag somehow ended up weighing around 46 lbs--4 under the limit. Great, right? Yes, unless you consider the treacherous cobblestone mountain I needed to climb once I arrived to the village with said bag. It took me and the strength of two friends to drag the heaping monster to my door. And then I almost passed out trying to drag the thing to the bottom of two flights of stairs. How would I ever fit the three bottles of wine I planned to bring home? Lesson for you? Don't bring so much crap!

3. Travel Apps

No matter how many times I mentally rehearsed the French phrase for "I'm allergic to wheat, dairy, and eggs" my brain always froze when I actually needed to deliver it to the nice lady at the counter. Though I didn't have reception to use data on my phone, I already typed in these words and other helpful sentences into my iTranslate app. If I was too jumbled up to actually speak the words on the screen, I could simply show my phone to whomever I needed to speak with and they instantly knew what I was trying to say. The long list of pre-loaded phrases was a life saver (literally).

Another app I like, Trip It,  plans your travel itinerary using information it pulls from your email inbox. Trip It was able to access all of my ticket confirmations and reservations so I was able to view an easy to read list of my travel plans. Since I had a few flight mishaps along the way, I did end up needing to confirm gates with airline websites, but that wasn't Trip-It's fault. My favorite part about using this app? I didn't have piles of paper to keep track of. Wonderful!

There are so many travel apps out there--peruse them and find the ones that will help you!

4. Fighting Jet Lag

My best advice? Sleep on the plane. Whatever you have to do---just get some sleep. I brought earplugs, Aleve, an eyemask, and a little extra money for some wine. Another tip from a friend was to stay well hydrated. I concentrated more on fluids during my flight to the EU than I did on the way back, and I noticed a sizable difference. I was also surprised to see water fountains and/or bottle-fill stations in the airports, so bringing an empty water bottle in your bag would be an excellent idea. Just don't use a straw bottle with a bite-valve, it will erupt in your carry-on during the flight. I unknowingly tested and proved this theory not once, but twice. See below for info on a wonderful travel towel.

5. Carry-on Must Haves

In addition to the items listed above, I will ALWAYS pack extra clothes, glasses, contact solution/case, and a toothbrush in my carry-on. I've never had problems with bags before this particular trip, but I was sure glad I had an extra pair of undies handy when my mammoth suitcase didn't appear on the baggage claim belt in Nice. Though my things were hand delivered to me the next day, I know of several others who haven't been so lucky.

6. Money Matters

To have financial peace on your journey, I recommend a little pre-trip budgeting. Figure out how much money you plan to spend (in whatever currency you will use...for me it was euros), and use this spreadsheet to keep track while you are gone. I used a paper version because I didn't have access to a laptop, but since this spreadsheet has all the formulas plugged in, using it on a computer would be much easier. Though I didn't use one, I'm sure there are apps that can help you with this as well.

7. Cover Your Butt

Passport: If something happens to your passport while you are roaming the world, you'll have trouble coming back to the US without verification of your identity. To prepare for this dreaded occurrence, I recommend leaving a copy of your passport with a trusted family member. As an extra precaution, I also made an extra copy and hid it in another (locked) part of my luggage.

Credit Cards: Make copies of these as well and give your financial institutions a heads up on where and when you will be traveling. If you forget this step, you may find yourself in a big mess when the company cuts off your spending.

Security: When traveling internationally, it's a good idea to register with the US Embassy in the country you plan to visit. Even if you never need to contact the embassy while you are abroad, the program can keep you updated on travel alerts and warnings.

8. Let the Locals Be Your Guide

I'm sure this is a gigantic surprise, but people do things differently than we do! Who'da thunk? One day on my trip, I made the poor decision to jog part way down the mountain and back. When I reached the top, I was gasping desperately and incredibly thirsty. Previously, I noticed several places in the village where water was continuously flowing out of spickets on the wall. Thinking the purpose of the fountains were of purely historical or decorative nature, I didn't give them a second thought. However, as I was trudging back from my jog, I witnessed a local (a runner who had effortlessly passed me along my way...grr) walk up to the wall, cup her hands, and slurp the hydrating goodness. Really?!? I'm allowed to DRINK from the fountain? I'm such an idiot. Nevertheless, acting as if I planned it all along, I swiftly fell in behind the savvy French lady and took a nice long glug myself.

9. Smuggling Wine

Wine in France was literally like 4 euros. GOOD WINE. The best wine I've ever had. Don't be like me. Buy the wine cheaply from the cute village market and pack it in your checked luggage. DO IT. I was a dork and waited to get it in the Duty Free section at the airport. The same wine was quadruple the price. End result? I have crappy American wine in my refrigerator again. Boo. Hiss.

10. It Is What It Is

If you choose to heed any of these tips, heed this one. Arrive at your departure gate with NO EXPECTATIONS. It's so easy to build up the anticipation of your international adventure to be a dreamy fantastical traipse through gold encrusted happy land. Though my trip was wonderful, there were definitely bumps and dings along the way. I wasn't always in a good mood, and I didn't always feel physically equipped to do what I needed to do. Nevertheless, I had a very realistic attitude about the whole thing and entered my journey without many expectations. It's a good thing, because even though things didn't pan out perfectly, I was able to roll with the punches, find humor in the dysfunction, and enjoy every cobble-stoned step of the way.

Tried and True Travel Gear

Nook HD--The charge on this thing lasts FOREVER. I contentedly read Gone with the Wind for the duration of my flights.

Airplane Headphone Jack Adapter--Unfortunately only one of my flights had a screen within my view, but it was also the only plane that required a two-pronged headphone adapter! Score!

Travel Towel--There were no available towels in my rental apartment in France, so I brought this one with me. It was a lifesaver--especially since we also didn't have a dryer. It was big enough to wrap all the way around me and absorbent enough to get me and my waterlogged hair completely dry without all of the bulk of a regular bathroom towel.

Jewelry Organizer--I usually don't require this much vanity, but seeing as though I was in a wedding and needed to accessorize several formal outfits, I figured I'd make a concession for myself. This bag is amazing--a place for studs, rings, and roomy pockets for necklaces and dangly earrings. I got mine at Target (and the colors are way cuter), but they aren't listed online.

Ginger Candies--These were a delight! I found them at a local healthfood store--and they settled my stomach during take-offs and landings. Also useful during pregnancy!

1 comment:

  1. All great advice Katie. It was great spending time with you (my fifth daughter) on this adventure! I'll add one idea, I took old towels and left them behind in order to make more room in my bag for the loot to bring home. Where should we go next?