Things to do before planning a trip abroad that no one tells you

June 29, 2019

Me in the adorable village of La Morra, near Barolo, Italy

Travel is one of those glorious experiences where you learn as you go. Opportunities come up and you find yourself saying, "glad I know that for next time."

Over the last few years, I have done a fair bit of international travel and am all about sharing my experiences with others so you aren't the clueless traveler that I have been at times. This post is geared specifically toward aspiring travelers to Europe, but could be helpful to traveling to almost any destination. Here are some things I have learned about international travel (often the hard way) that will hopefully help you, fellow wanderluster:

  • Research the holidays in the country you are visiting before you lock in your travel dates. France has a lot of holidays and, unlike the USA where stores and restaurants are still open on national holidays, entire towns are shuttered in observance of these occasions. On our most recent trip to Europe, we stopped over in the Alsace region of France for three days only to find out that the towns would all be closed the next day due to Ascension Day. Our Airbnb host informed us that the town gates would be lowered and no restaurants or shops would be open. We found ourselves making an evening grocery run to stock up on food and supplies and spent most of the next day in our apartment playing cards and drinking wine (mostly because I was pretty ill...keep reading).
  • Find out if there are any festivals happening in the place(s) you want to visit also before you solidify your travel dates. We were super bummed when we got to Vevey, Switzerland and were told about the upcoming Fête des Vignerons, which only happens once every 25 years. The nearby village of Montreux also hosts its annual Jazz Festival in late June into July, and we were a couple of weeks away from missing that one as well.  
  • Roundtrip plane tickets may be easier to purchase, but they are often not the cheapest option for air travel overseas. Unfortunately, this step requires a lot of time and playing around with options if you want to find the very best deal for your travel dates and itinerary.  The very first time I went to Europe, I flew into Edinburgh, Scotland and decided I wanted to hop over to Paris for a couple of days before heading home and it ended up saving me about $400 on my ticket rather than R/T through Edinburgh.
  • Taking the train isn't always the most economical way to get around, especially if you plan to drive several hours between destinations. Europe has no shortage of budget airlines that compete neck-and-neck, and the fares often tally up for much cheaper than a train ticket.  Travel guru Rick Steves has a great blog post on how to make the most of budget air travel here.  
  • This one isn't so "secret" but I can't stress it enough - try to learn some of the language before departing on your trip if possible.  The difference between my trips to France before I knew any French and the last trip when I had taken several French lessons beforehand is completely different.  Everyone from the flight attendant to the Airbnb hosts and restaurant servers were thrilled at my efforts to speak their language (even though I am sure my French is horrible). Not only that, but they actively try to help you learn words. And I have found that they are much nicer to you if you speak in their native language first...even if it is to say "Parlais vous Anglais?" My favorite travel-related phrase books are by Harper Collins. Duolingo and similar apps are great for beginners as well. This time, I found a teacher and did Zoom lessons twice a week for several weeks leading up to my trip, and it was well worth the time and money.  
  • Do NOT try to do everything and see everything in one trip...you won't get an authentic experience of the culture AND you'll be running around like crazy trying to fit everything in, which will exhaust you. I can't tell you how many times Herschel and I went through our last trip itinerary and took stuff out...repeatedly. And, once we were overseas, there were still a lot of things we decided not to do because we didn't want to have to rush from one place to another. Choose the things that are most important to you and remember to leave time to explore and relax so you can digest the place(s) you are visiting.  
  • A couple of medical tips:
    • Get yourself some Compeed! Even the most fit person often does more walking on vacation than in regular home life, and that means tired feet and blisters. Blisters are a vacation killer. Order some from Amazon and stick it in your medicine bag...you'll thank me later.
    • If you are prone to allergy and sinus issues, load up your bag with as much medicine as you would need if you were to have issues every day of your trip. My drug of choice for regular sinusitis is Advil Cold & Sinus, which cannot be found in Europe (or even delivered there...yes, I tried to Amazon Prime it to myself...don't judge).  On day four of our 35-day trip overseas, I got a terrible respiratory virus and ran out of Advil Cold & Sinus in just a couple of days, and was miserable without an equivalent. It meant several canceled plans and a lot of sleeping. 
Oh, and one last one that we will laugh about for years to come...don't expect pizza toppings to be the same in a foreign country. I was thrilled in a northern Italy pizzeria when they said "yes, pepperoni!" What we got was a pizza piled up with banana peppers and cheese...NOT the salty cured meat goodness we know back in the states. 

If you are planning a trip...I wish you bon voyage! What are your favorite tried and true travel hacks? Feel free to share them in the comments below.

Salut,
Amanda



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