European Travel: Tips for making that big step to travel abroad – Part I

Welcome to part one of a three part series on what it takes to get out and explore the world. In part one we will explore how to plan and book your trip. In subsequent posts, we will discuss getting around and what to do upon return.

The Blue Mosque in Istanbul Turkey

All it takes is one trip away from the US to get the traveling bug. Just one time being exposed to a new culture and seeing landmarks only seen in textbooks to give one a desire to go away. For many, however, it seems like a lot is required. I have known a lot of people who often take multiple trips to places like the Bahamas, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico, and that’s their extent to travelling off of the continent. Believe it or not, for what some travelers pay to go those places, many could take the big step and go to places many dream of, and only see on TV and in the movies.  Even if you are not quite ready to leave the US, take a trip to Canada or Mexico to experience life outside of the US confines.

What this will be is a basic guide to help those willing to take the big step of travelling out of the US. This guide may not cover everything, as we will leave some of the discovery to you. However, for those that have yet to discover what needs to be done, this will get you started.

Mykonos, Greece
Mykonos, Greece
  1. The Planning Stage

The first step of your journey, is knowing where you want to go. While this may sound very basic, in my opinion it’s best to know where you want to go before deciding to go anywhere. Once you have picked your place, get an idea of the sociopolitical landscape before going. Is the country going through a civil war? Are there any strikes or labor disputes that might disrupt your travel? What about any health or weather issues? One would be shocked at how some of the most innocuous things may actually impact your trip. Check with the State Department website before planning your trip, to find out if there are any flight restrictions for US citizens. My wife and I have actually been lucky on our journeys. When we went to Athens back in 2010, the workers were on strike due to the money issues that Greece has had going on for years. Thankfully, its effects were minimal. However, our visit to Israel was tense due to the fighting that has been going on for centuries. Again, the point is to do your research regarding the locations you want to visit, BEFORE you actually go.

     Booking your Trip

I won’t get into hotels & flights, because there are so many factors into getting those. I would advise, however, that you find out what counts as the offseason for your destination. Occasionally, rates may not be as high as they would be during peak travel times/dates. A few services that my wife & I have used, with which we’ve had satisfying results for booking trips are: Shondra Cheris Travel, Black Will Travel,  Liberty Travel and European Destinations (they offer monthly payments).

Of course the next step is getting your passport. This is something that will take a bit of time and the more you rush it, the more it costs. The basics that you need to know about getting a passport are that it costs about $110 to get, and takes just over a month to have it mailed to you. Passports lasts 10 years and US citizens are required to show proof of citizenship to get one. If you want to know everything there is to know about obtaining a passport, click here. Also, make a copy of your passport and leave it with a family member or friend that you trust in case your original gets stolen. It’s also suggested that you make a copy for yourself if you were to lose it or have it stolen from you on your travels.

Now, I may have skipped ahead a bit but let’s talk about planning your trip.

Real Talk: Depending on your income, family situation, and obligations at work, you may want to take a year or more to plan your trip. Don’t rush it.   Take your time, save up some cash and get excited about going someplace new.

I am someplace in Africa...
I am someplace in Africa…

Some people ask about what to do about the language barrier. There are a few ways to deal with this. If possible, learn the language, or see if you have friends who are going and know the language, because that’s a plus. You can get apps such as Google Translate that can help out as well. There are plenty of countries where you will run across enough people who know enough English to help you with your needs. Sometimes you can also just wing it and you will be just fine. Make sure you are very humble and thankful when given help. Don’t be a typical rude American!

Now that you have your destination picked out, passports in hand and some cash sacked away, let’s get down to the nuts and bolts of prepping for your trip.

Our tour group in turkey
Our tour group in turkey

Guided tour vs. Self Guided tour

For the true beginners, you may want to opt for a guided tour. These trips involve excursions that will take you to the major sights along the way. Also, they allow travelers to be able to learn about some of the history with some time devoted to explore, and in some cases food and drink will be served. The main thing to keep in mind is that with a guided tour, you may be limited in the time you have to spend in certain spots and you may not have opportunities to explore certain areas on your own. The biggest caveat travelers need to know is that you will wind up paying more money to have someone show you around than you would if you did it yourself.

On the other hand, self-guided tours are just that; once you have an idea of where you want to go, you are responsible for your own fun. You are also responsible for getting your own transport there and back, and you have all of the time in the world to make it happen.

A few other things you may want to look into before you go:

  • Power converter. Nearly every country outside of the US works on a different electrical standard than we do. If you want to do things such as charge your phone or use your laptop, you will need a power converter in order for your device to work.
  • Check with your health insurance provider to find out how much it may cost in case you need to see a doctor in the country you are going. Also, if you have any prescriptions that are critical, get them filled as soon as possible.
  • Travel wallet. Trust me, you do NOT want to carry your everyday wallet around. You want a separate wallet that will carry the necessities for your trip. In fact, your travel wallet should only contain your ID, and your insurance card. If you opt to have a credit card, only take one. All other items such as your Costco Club card and other innocuous items should stay home. Amazon has a wide selection of wallet types that you can look into, most of which can be used to keep your passport on your person.
  • Cell Phone. Check your phone carrier to see how your phone works in the country you are going to. Some carriers may require you to get a loaner phone, some may give you a SIM card, and others may have you dial in a code to activate international data usage.
  • Wait, you have been saving up some dough right? Yes, all of this time you were supposed to be saving some money to spend on your trip! Remember back in the old days when you were told to take traveler’s checks? No longer. One service that we tried recently was Travelex prepaid cards. You load the amount that you need for the country you are going to, you get a pin and that’s it. The card also comes with a chip to cut down on identity theft and along with the PIN, your card should remain secure. Also, check in with your bank and advise them that you will be travelling abroad just in case you have to use your regular ATM card.

One more major thing you want to do before you go on the trip, is watch YouTube.   Do yourself a favor and watch videos made by the everyday tourists as well as official TV productions. YouTube videos will help you discover places that you didn’t even know existed. Use this time to find out about the popular landmarks, good places to eat, and cultural norms you are expected to know. For instance, when we went to the Blue Mosque in Istanbul a few years back, we were told what the dress code was for women and that we had to abide by it. There are no ifs, ands, or buts about this. You can’t say that you are an American and you shouldn’t be treated this way. Going to another country is like going to someone’s house. You are expected to respect their customs regardless of what they do, whether you agree with how citizens are treated or not. Know the basic rules before you go.

If you're not quite ready for Europe, but you want that vibe as well as an island experience, go to Bermuda.
If you’re not quite ready for Europe, but you want that vibe as well as an island experience, go to Bermuda.

Packing your bags

At this stage, you are a few days away from getting on your plane and heading out. Let’s talk about packing your bags. First and foremost, most airlines allow bags to weigh no more than 50lbs (22.7kgs) before they charge you extra fees for your bags being overweight. Check with the airline you are flying with to find out their luggage policy before packing. Also, you really don’t need to pack your bag that full anyway. Leave enough room to bring back any souvenirs you may find. If you aren’t sure what your bag weight is upon packing, grab one of these to find out. Also, if you want to conserve space, Google a few sites to learn how to roll clothes and pack tightly. Also right when you pack, know what the weather is going to be for your location. There is nothing like getting to your destination expecting sunshine only to find that it’s raining and you have to buy a jacket. Also, if you are carrying any electronics or your camera, pack that in your carry-on bag. NEVER pack it in your checked baggage, as it may get stolen or damaged along the way.

Nothing says London like their phone booths!
Nothing says London like their phone booths!

As far as your carry-on bag, pack at least 1 days’ worth of clothing, toiletries and prescriptions just in case you get delayed or your luggage gets misplaced.

The last thing you should be aware of is that you should get to the airport at least 2 to 3 hours ahead of your flight, especially if it’s international. Screening for international flights tends to be tighter than domestic flights, and you’ll want to be prepared for any hassles or delays you may have at checkpoints along the way. Now, that’s all done, your bags have been checked in, let’s get away!


Check back in for part 2 which will give you a few pointers of how to get around town!

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