How to plan your trip abroad

By Maureen Hart

If you are thinking about a trip in the near future, here are some hints I’ve learned throughout decades of traveling—not only in Europe, but anywhere outside of the U.S.

INDEPENDENT OR TOUR? Both tours and independent travel have good aspects. Early on, I took organized tours because traveling abroad was all new to me and I had no idea how to navigate on my own, nor do I speak any other language. Way back then, it was more difficult to plan things on your own without the advantage of the Internet for doing research on your itinerary and making reservations. It involved old-fashioned snail mail and costly overseas phone calls.

Today, if you are not a veteran traveler (or even if you are) who is determined to cover a lot of territory, a tour is still probably the best idea. Everything is planned out for you and your guide can help you if any problems arise. 

However, since the 1990s, I have planned our trips independently, including my most recent trip to Italy, as well as a month-long tour of Spain, my so-called “Mozart” trip to Prague, Vienna and Salzburg, and a trip to England and Scotland.

HOTEL OR AIRBNB: Early on, I booked hotels, but now I prefer Airbnbs or VRBO because they offer me more of the ambience of another country. Think a Tuscan-themed apartment right near the sites in Florence; a white-washed apartment in the midst of Rome with its own courtyard for evenings relaxing with Prosecco, or your own cabin on a hillside in Sorrento. Also, if you need more than one bedroom, a hotel will be more expensive. I have done this in the States and abroad.

But do allow for special accommodations in various countries. For instance, in Spain we booked rooms at their famous Paradors, which are renovated palaces, castles, abbeys, etc., which also offer wonderful local cuisine. I loved having Spanish hams, goat cheese, and figs with my breakfast. In London I booked modest accommodations except for a splurge on a hotel on Russell Square featuring a staircase by the same designer as the one on the Titanic. One time in Austria we booked a gorgeous schloss (once an aristocratic hunting lodge) in the Vienna Woods, only to disccover it had a fantastic.view but no air-conditioining! So always check the details!

You have to be careful choosing your bookings—read every review available, and check out the location so you are not too far from the main sites, but not too close to noise and traffic. Check if there is a metro or bus stop fairly nearby.

BUSES AND TRAINS: Oh yes, don’t be afraid of using local transit. The trains and buses in Europe are far superior to ours and can get you anywhere you want to go quickly and cheaply. We also used cabs in Italy, which were affordable enough, but then we figured out the bus and train schedules and off we went.

SPECIAL HINTS: Look for specific hints from seasoned travelers on travel bulletin boards online. But, allow for differences in opinions. For instance, I was convinced that I would look like a fool in Italy if I did not eat the traditional 3-course meal of appetizer or soup, pasta course, and main entrée, plus dessert. I thought the waiter would throw up his/her arms in disgust. But guess what? That did not happen. They are used to tourists who have different customs. The three courses were too much for me. So, I might have a Caprese salad and a pasta. Or soup and entrée. Nobody blinked.

PACKING: This could be a whole separate article, and maybe it will be in the future. But please, please take my advice, especially in these days when airports are in such chaos. 

On my most recent trip abroad, I took a 21-inch carry-on suitcase onboard for overhead storage and a tote that fit under the seat. Believe me or not, but there was actually one pair of slacks I didn’t even wear!

On the plane I wore black capri pants, a striped tee top, a black jersey sweater, and black walking shoes. 

IN MY TOTE: In my underseat tote I packed my Iphone, a small pillow, water bottle, medications, passport and vaccination cards, masks (this was last May), copies of our plane/ lodging reservations, electronics including air pods, charger, and travel adapter; a clear bag of liquids according to TSA guidelines including hand gel, shampoo/conditioner, hairspray, toothpaste/brush, small perfume; a cosmetic bag with lipstick, eyeliner and shadow with brush, hair pick, Kleenex, shower cap, floss, deodorant, sleep mask, small mirror, Suduko booklet, pencil, pen, wipes, sunglasses,and snacks (pretzels, biscotti). 

IN MY SUITCASE: I bought a Travelon purse that provides extra security with straps that resist cutting, and which I packed flat in my suitcase, along with a beige sunhat and small umbrella.

Also in my 21-inch suitcase (the size required, and which cannot weigh over 22 pounds) were a light laundry bag, underwear, bras, 2 nylon nightgowns (easy to launder), another pair of black shoes, black sandals for beach and shower, pink wristlet purse, 3 sundresses, 2 skirts, beige cotton slacks (did not wear), and dressier black capris with lace trim. These were paired with a pink polka dot top, black and white polka dot tee top, black long and short-sleeved tee tops, white cotton gauze blouse. Also, a pink cotton shawl (pink was my accent color), beige scarf, blue scarf, bathing suit and travel towel (available on Amazon, foldable with mesh bag). 

I wore things that were light and cool but not messy. Scarves dressed things up. I used a black, white and beige theme with some pink accents. 

What I did not need: Beige cotton slacks (I preferred sundresses and skirts in the heat), small Sudoko book (no time), and pink wristlet purse. I could have done with one pair of shoes and the sandals. What I did need: It was cold and rainy our first night in Florence and I bought a pashmina from a street vendor. But I am glad I did not pack one as it gave me a souvenir. 

HINTS: Whatever you might forget, trust me, they have it there. I thought I lost my deodorant, but bought another one there. Also, allow that you might want to buy tee or sweat shirts, a pretty hat or handbag, beach tote, sandals, or jewelry on your vacation. Jewelry is a great souvenir because it is small and every time you wear it, you remember where you bought it. 

I do not take any extra jewelry with me, having lost valuable/sentimental pieces a long time ago in a hotel theft in Miami Beach. I wear my wedding/engagement rings, another ring, a bracelet, and a pendant necklace that go with everything—no losing or leaving behind. I do not take them off in the hotel room for fear of forgetting or losing. (A friend of mine lost her heirloom diamond by knocking it down a drain.)

Why you should do this: There are thousands of stories of lost luggage right now. A friend recently asked my advice before leaving for Scotland with her sister and brother-in-law. Upon her return, she thanked me because she did the 10-day trip with one small suitcase and a carry-on with no problems. Her relatives said such light packing was impossible, but their luggage was lost when they landed, they had no extra clothing for the tour (always pack at least one change in your carry-on if you insist on checking baggage), and their suitcases have yet to be found, months later.

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