Whether you're going to France or Finland, Spain or Switzerland this summer, travel in Europe offers breathtaking scenery, feasts of culinary delights, enriching educational opportunities, and introduction to new cultures. However, many of the conveniences we take for granted while traveling in our own country either cannot be found in Europe or are quite different what we are accustomed to. Luckily, with a little advance planning, you can avoid costly mistakes and those frantic, frazzled moments that can tarnish your treasured time away. We spoke with local travel agents who put their experience to work and compiled these travel tips for you.
1. Make sure passports are up to date. Most European countries now require that your passport is valid for at least six months from your return date of travel. If you need to renew your passport, you may do so by mail, but it can take up to six weeks for processing. If you need the passport sooner, you may request expedited service for an additional $60.00. If you need to renew your passport 14 days or less before departure, you must call the National Passport Information Center at 1-877-487-2778 to schedule an appointment to submit the forms in person to the nearest US Passport Office. For more information on obtaining a passport and current government regulations, go to www.travel.state.gov.
2. Pack wisely. Most European travel involves moving around frequently, and if you pack light, you will be thankful. Make sure your luggage is lightweight and easy to carry. Try to limit yourself to one small carry-on bag and one small to medium-size suitcase which will not only make transporting your luggage easier, but will give you less luggage to keep track of. Consider filling sneakers and hiking boots with socks or underwear to make use of all available space. Before leaving for the airport, make sure all of your luggage is properly identified with your name, address and telephone number (business cards are excellent for this).
3. Pre-reserve and pre-purchase rail tickets and museum passes. Don’t wait until you are at the rail station overseas to buy point-to-point tickets. Purchasing your tickets in advance not only guarantees you a seat on the train, but curbs the language barrier, and saves you time at the rail station. For information on rail passes or to purchase point-to-point tickets, talk to your travel agent or go to www.raileurope.com. If you enjoy visiting museums, you may want to consider pre-purchasing a museum pass before you leave for your trip as it is more economical than paying admission for each individual museum you visit. Your travel agent can secure these for you as well.
4. Familiarize yourself with sightseeing and dining options. This will save you time and guarantee you enjoyable meals throughout your journey. Be sure to talk to your travel agent for recommendations. If you have internet access, research the area you are visiting, and print articles of interest for your trip. Put them in a folder with your carry-on luggage, and read them on the flight over. Fodor's or Frommer's travel guides are both excellent resources as they contain reliable restaurant ratings and suggested tour options.
5. Purchase a comprehensive travel insurance policy. Missing a vacation is bad enough. Losing the money you paid for the vacation is even worse. No one likes to think of calamities that can happen before or after a trip, but they do occur. Choose an insurance policy that offers protection against trip cancellation, trip interruption, missed connections, airline ticket coverage, medical expenses, emergency medical transportation, baggage, baggage delays, accidental death, and 24-hour travel assistance service. Also, be sure to leave a copy with your family members who are not traveling with you.
6. Prepare a contact-information sheet. Leave this important document with family members who are staying behind. The contact sheet should include the names, addresses, phone numbers, faxes and email addresses for the following: your travel agent, the hotels where you’ll be staying with the dates you check in and out, flight information, and the name of your travel insurance company. Many travel agents will prepare this for you. In addition, enclose a copy of the contact sheet in the front zipper compartment of any checked suitcases in case your bags are delayed. It's also a good idea to make photocopies of your passport and credit cards for family members.
7. Carefully select the items to go in your carry-on bag. Make sure to pack a change of clothes and important items, such as your prescription medications (make sure they are in their original containers). Along with your wallet, always keep your passport on your person when traveling. Do not pack aerosol sprays or sharp objects such as nail scissors or razors. Include a small disposable camera and a pair of binoculars. Streamline your cosmetic bag by cutting down on any unnecessary supplies. Don't forget a good paperback!
8. Think twice before packing your hair dryer. If you plan to use any electrical appliances while away, (hair dryers, curling irons, etc.) bear in mind that European voltage is twice that of American 110, and their outlets are different. Most electronic items purchased in the US will need a power converter and adapter in order to work properly in Europe. Hair dryers can be particularly tricky as they require a great deal of power and have been known to blow fuses in older, small hotels. If you can't live without your hair dryer, consider buying an inexpensive one in Europe or check and see if your hotel provides them.
9. Consider communications overseas. Unfortunately, European cell phones operate on a different network than the US, so your cell phone will not work unless you have made special arrangements. Most service providers offer service in Europe, but you will most likely have to pay an additional fee to have the service activated and pay expensive per-minute-usage charges. Check with your cell phone provider for details concerning your individual plan. It is also possible to rent cell phones that will work throughout Europe, a service which many overseas rental companies offer.
10. Start early! Make a list before leaving home to remind yourself to cancel newspaper delivery, arrange for pet care, and to ask the post office to hold mail. Make photocopies of your passport and credit cards to leave with family members or friends so they can help expedite replacement should they become lost or stolen. Be sure to set timers on lights, both upstairs and down, and check them before you leave to make sure they work. It's also a good idea to notify your neighbors that you will be away so they can keep an eye on the house during your absence.