Traveling Overseas? Get Prepared with My Top 5 Check List

Travel rocks!  Pretty simplistic statement, but seriously, seeing beautiful new places, having amazing adventures, and collecting memories that will light up the rest of your life – what could be better?  Not much in my opinion.

To get the most out of your travel experiences though, it pays to prepare a bit to make sure everything goes smoothly.  To that end, I’ve compiled my top 5 list of preparation items for your next overseas journey. Take care of these few items before you head out the door, and you can strike out with confidence.

  • Register with STEP. STEP stands for Smart Traveler Enrollment Program and is something you should register with if you are traveling out of the country.  It’s a free service that allows US citizens traveling abroad to enroll their trip with the nearest US Embassy or Consulate.  Once you’re registered, you will get important information from the Embassy about safety conditions in your destination country and give the Embassy a way to contact you in an emergency – whether it’s a local issue or family related.  It will also help expedite the passport replacement process should you have your passport stolen or lost while traveling.
  • Make a copy of your passport. I know you’ve heard this before, but it never hurts to review.  If you have a copy of your passport and it gets lost or stolen, you can get it replaced relatively quickly.  If you don’t have a copy, you will incur miles of red tape as the Embassy or Consulate tries to ascertain if you are who you say you are.  You’ll still be asked a million questions even if you have a copy, but trust me, it will make for a much smoother process.  I used to make two paper copies and put one in my carry-on bag and leave one with my emergency contact at home.  However, these days I just have a photo of it in my phone, and I email that photo to my emergency contact.  That way if my phone gets stolen along with my passport (heaven forbid), I can get an electronic copy emailed to me right away.
  • Check-in with your bank. You’re going to need local currency once you get to your destination, and the easiest way to do that is through a local ATM.  Of course, you want to be sure your debit/ATM card will work in ATMs overseas by calling your bank and checking with them.  Typically, if your card has a Visa or Mastercard logo on it, you’re good to go.  (You’ll definitely want to use an ATM at your destination to get the best exchange rates available – much better than the airport or at your bank before you leave town.) Also, while you’re on with the bank checking about your debit card, be sure to find out about any fees associated with using an ATM or making purchases with your card in a foreign country so you can plan accordingly.
  • Make sure you set your cell phone up with a plan that won’t incur overage charges. This one is really important if you don’t want to have a nasty surprise once you get back home.  Your friendly neighborhood mobile phone company will charge your lights out if you use your phone outside the country and haven’t purchased a temporary overseas plan with them.  Data usage is the worst offender.  We’re so used to using maps, social media and Internet searching at home, it’s only natural to continue the practice when you’re traveling.  All of a sudden, you’ve racked up $1000 of overage charges you didn’t plan for.  Call your phone company and set up a plan for texting and minimal talk time, and ask them how to change your phone settings once you’re on your flight to make sure you don’t incur unintentional charges.  Then find WIFI to connect to for data usage, and you’ll be able to communicate with home and your social media buddies without spending next year’s travel budget on all those selfies you posted.
  • Check in with your travel professional about local requirements. Many countries have specific requirements for visitors.  These requirements could include special visas, appropriate clothing, immunizations or possession of medications.  Now you could spend a bunch of time researching all these requirements and always having a niggle of doubt about whether you missed something, OR you could call a travel professional and get a complete list right away.  Guess which one I’d choose?

Happy travels!

How to Have a Great All-Inclusive Resort Experience

All-inclusive resorts used to have a reputation for shady clientele, poor food, sub-par accommodations and indifferent staff.  Boy, how times have changed.  These days, there are all-inclusive properties with five star ratings, gourmet restaurants and top-flight spas located in some of the most beautiful locations in the world.  (Most are in the Caribbean or Mexico, although there are some in the South Pacific, Asia and Europe.)  It’s a great concept providing a world-class experience that you pay for prior to arrival.  This allows you to enjoy the amenities, food and a full list of activities without having to take out your wallet at all during your stay, making you feel more like a pampered guest than a paying customer.

All-inclusive resorts are amazing, but like most travel, you want to get the best deal on a destination that truly suits you and your travel companion(s). To that end, here are a few tips for making sure you have a great all-inclusive experience.

  • Pick the Right Type of Resort – I put this one first, because it is the MOST important. If you and your significant other are looking for a romantic getaway, and you book it at a family focused all-inclusive because you really liked the photos on their Web site, you will not be happy with your experience.  A family all-inclusive is a fabulous place IF you are bringing children with you.  (Beaches is a good example for families.)  If you are a traveling without children however, you want to find a resort that’s adults only and all about couples.  Sandals is a good example of this type of all-inclusive resort where everything is geared to couples.  On the other hand, if you and your single friends are looking for a place to party all night, you definitely don’t want to be with children or honeymooners.  Never fear, there’s an all-inclusive for that too.
  • Book as a Group – If you have a group looking to go to an all-inclusive resort, be sure to have one designated person making the reservations for everyone. This will absolutely get you the best rates available at the resort you select.  Even better, call your favorite travel planner (guess who I think that should be), and she can take care of all the reservations and logistics for you.  On top of that, your travel planner may have a line on resort credits, specialty dining coupons or spa treatments for your group, so don’t miss out.
  • Bundle Airfare – Just like booking as a group, if you bundle your airfare with your resort reservations, you will often get a much better deal. Many times, airlines, tour companies and all-inclusive resorts have hammered out deals that can’t be beat using the a la carte method.
  • Book “off season” – Just like any other destination, all-inclusive resorts have an “off season” that you can take advantage of to beat the crowds and save some money while having the same fabulous time you would have during “high season.” For all-inclusive resorts, after Spring Break and before the summer travel rush is the most economical time, so plan your trip for late April or May (before Memorial Day weekend) to get the best deal.
  • Know the Tipping Policy – Tipping is always a sticky topic when traveling, but it’s a bit more confusing than usual at an all-inclusive resort since you pay for most activities, food and beverages prior to arrival. There are some resorts that have a no-tipping policy and some that are fine with tipping their staff, and you want to understand the individual policy so you can relax during your stay.  If you use a travel planner, they will give tipping information with your travel documents.  If you are a DIY person, you can check with the reservation agent during booking or the concierge upon your arrival to get the standard tipping practices for that particular resort.
  • Make Dinner Reservations – All-inclusive resorts provide multiple restaurants and watering holes throughout the property.  Many of these are buffet style with an amazing assortment of delicious food that you can enjoy whenever you want.  Some of the restaurants however are considered “specialty dining”, and man are they fabulous.  However, you will need reservations and, ideally, you should make them before you get to your resort. (Yet another reason to use a travel planner to handle little details like that.)  If you don’t have time to make them before you go, do so immediately upon arrival.  You don’t want to miss out!

Happy travels!

5 Things You Should Bring on Your Next Trip

Knowing what to bring with you on vacation is probably one of the hardest things to resolve as you get ready for your next grand adventure.  You’re constantly balancing what you really need to bring with what you really want to bring and all of that has to be boiled down to fit in the right amount of luggage. This tug of war is so difficult because there’s just nothing worse than running into an issue, and the one item that could help you out of the jam is the thing that got left behind.

It’s no secret that I’m a less is more kind of packer, but I believe in being as prepared as possible.  To that end, there are a few items I don’t leave home without.  Check out my list below and let me know if you have any items I should try on my next journey.

  • First Aid Kit. When I first started traveling a lot, I bought a small travel-sized first aid kit and stashed it in my bag.  After about 5 trips, it was still unopened, and I considered ditching the idea.  I realized though, it wasn’t that I didn’t need a first aid kit, I just needed one with the right stuff in it.  😊  So, I found a spare bag with a zipper and filled it with things that I was buying while traveling.  Here’s my list of items:  Pain relievers, anti-histamine, band-aids, moleskin, Q-tips, cotton balls and a travel size container of hydrogen peroxide. If I can’t solve the problem with these items, we should probably be seeking out professional medical attention anyway (which is a whole other topic).  For life’s little emergencies, I added a pair of child’s scissors (blunt end), a few safety pins and one of those tiny sewing kits.   You can find this entire list in travel-sized options.  Customize your own kit for your next trip.
  • Plastic baggies. Baggies are my unsung heroes of travel.  They are flat and lightweight and fit in even the smallest nook of your suitcase, but the fact that they have so many uses is the reason I bring a handful along on every trip.  What do I do with baggies while traveling?  1) keep my camera or phone dry; 2) keep wet clothes away from dry clothes; 3) keep toiletries that have a tendency to explode from destroying my clothes; 4) add ice and soothe a hurt knee or ankle; 5) make my own washing machine; 6) keep small souvenirs like match books or ticket stubs safe; and 7) put shoes in them to keep my clothes from getting dirty.  I could go on and on, but you get the idea.  Bring some baggies!
  • Food. I’m going to break this one down into two categories: 1) Airplane food and 2) staving off starvation.  Let’s start with the airplane.  We all know the food they serve on the plane is pretty much a disgusting blob of chemicals and preservatives.  However, when you’re starving, anything sounds great.  What to do?  Make yourself an airplane picnic!  The night before your flight, freeze your favorite yogurt or apple sauce in a BPA-free container (3 oz or less so you’ll make it through TSA).  Make a sandwich, grab a piece of fruit, a little something sweet (because what is life without dessert), a plastic spoon and a napkin and put them in a gallon-size freezer bag in the fridge.  Right before you leave for the airport, add the frozen items to the freezer bag to keep your other items cold and put it all in your carry-on luggage.  Once you’re on the plane, everything has thawed and is ready for you to eat at your leisure.  So we’ve got the airplane food handled, but what do you do when you’re seeing the most amazing sunset from the top of a mountain and starvation is imminent?  You just dip into your plastic baggie (see what I did there?) of non-perishable food you were smart enough to bring along.  My favorite?  KIND bars! Any granola bar or trail mix will solve your problem though and keep you among the living until you can get a real meal.  They are small, light, can take a beating in your backpack and (shhhh!) good for you, so stock up before you head out on your next adventure.
  • A small change purse. Having a small change purse or additional wallet with you while traveling is a great way to not put all your eggs in one basket.  Each morning, I take the amount of money I think I’ll need for the day and one credit or debit card and put it in my change purse which I put in a really accessible place (front pants pocket or top pocket of backpack).  I then tuck my regular wallet with all the rest of my money and cards away in a safe place – either in my pack or in a safe if one is available.  Then I use my change purse to purchase anything I need during the day.  This serves three purposes.  1) It’s easy to access it quickly; 2) I’m not advertising to anyone who might be looking how much cash I actually have; and 3) If it does get stolen or lost, I’m only out a small amount of cash and one credit card.
  • Travel wipes. People can say Americans are much too fastidious about being clean, but it’s not going to change the fact that I like to stay well while I’m traveling.  We all know that the best way to do this is to wash your hands a lot.  However, sometimes there’s no convenient place to wash up, so I bring travel wipes with me to do the job.  LA FRESH (http://lafreshgroup.com/travel-lite-amenities) sells travel wipes for everything from cleaning your hands to applying sunscreen in nice convenient travel packets. Check them out.

Happy travels!

Finding That Next Great Travel Destination

Are you the travel planner in your family or circle of friends?  Does everyone look to you for the next destination?  “That was great Mom!  Where are we going next?”; “Awesome trip Dad!  Where are we going this summer?”; “That trip was fabulous sweetie!  Can’t wait to see what you cook up next!”; “It’s so great to spend time with our special group of friends in these cool places!  Where are we going next year?”  Any of this sound familiar?

I spent years formulating new adventures for my family and friends.  I loved researching to find just the right combination of activities, downtime and beautiful surroundings, and then planning every detail of the trip down to the color of the car rental.  In fact, I loved it so much, I decided to do it for a living.  I’ll admit though, there were times I wished I had a travel genie that would magically produce the perfect spot for that next amazing journey.

Unfortunately, there’s no magic solution, but I do have a pretty good method to help you come up with your best vacation ever.  Download my Travel Inspiration Sheet (TIS) and print it off.  Now, grab a pen and in less than 15 minutes, we’ll be on our way to finding that place in the world that’s just been waiting for you to experience it.

  1. Make a list of things you love to do.  First things first.  Take 5 minutes and jot down things you really love to do.  Need some inspiration?  How about cooking or hiking or viewing art or sitting on the beach with margarita in hand?  There are no rules, other than you have to write them down.
  2. Have anyone going with you make a list of things they love to do as well.  If you are including children in your travel plans, this is an awesome exercise to do together.  Your kids will feel like they’re participating in the vacation planning, and you just might learn something you didn’t know about them.
  3. Make a list of things you do NOT want to experience on your vacation.  This can be a tricky one.   Maybe you don’t feel comfortable traveling where the people don’t speak your language very well.  Maybe you don’t want to go when the weather is too hot or too cold.  Maybe you don’t like lots of crowds.  You get the idea.  Knowing what you don’t want is an important factor in finding the perfect spot.
  4. Think about your favorite vacation ever.  Have it in your mind?  What was it about that one vacation that separates it from the rest?  OK, quick!  Write down why it was your favorite.
  5. Set your budget.  Most of the time when I ask people for this, they think I only mean the money they want to spend.  The monetary budget is certainly a factor, but actually, the amount of time they have to spend is a more precious commodity these days.  Write down your time and money budget.
  6. Set the timeframe.  Are you constrained by school calendars or seasonal work issues?  Do you want to travel to a festival or celebration of some kind?  If you answered yes to either of these questions, write down the details.
  7. Pull out that dream destination list.  Most people have one, but many just put it away in the back of their mind thinking they’ll get to it someday.  Well, today’s the day.  Let’s get that list out, dust it off and write it down.
  8. Ask for expert advice.  Now that you’ve got your Travel Inspiration Sheet (TIS) done, you have two choices.  You can take the sheet and research your dream destinations to see which one matches the things you love to do and the things you don’t want to experience that’s within your budget in the right timeframe, OR you can hand that TIS to a travel expert and ask for help finding the perfect destination.  Guess which one I think you should choose?  😊  In all seriousness, a travel expert will save you time and energy AND they have access to information that’s not readily available to non-travel personnel.  Usually, they will have recommendations right off the bat (and many times first-hand experience) about places and activities that will fit that perfect journey you outlined in your TIS.  Think of them as a treasure map to your best vacation ever!

Happy Travels!

Keeping People Out of Your Pockets

Unfortunately, pickpockets and sneak thieves are a part of life, especially in touristy areas of big cities.  As an example, I’ll tell a story on myself.

About 10 years ago, my son and I were traveling in Italy on his high school trip and one of our stops was Rome.  When in Rome, you must see the Spanish Steps of course, and our group split up around the entire area.  We were being typical tourists, when some local gentlemen wandered up, grabbed my son’s wrist and starting “weaving” a bracelet out of string and wouldn’t let go of his wrist until he got paid 5 Euro.  Another two gentleman tried to peel me away from my son, which wasn’t working, so they started telling me about how they were poor students.  The main fellow was 40 if he was a day, and I snorted and said, “What are you studying?  Life?”  He thought that was funny and for some reason, wouldn’t let his compatriot snatch my son’s money.  Luckily, all we ended up with was a crude looking bracelet and a good story to tell.

I spent a bit of time after that reviewing how we got into that situation in the first place, and came up with some “don’t-be-a-target rules” that are now part of my regular routine while traveling.  Check out these easy to implement travel “rules” for yourself.  They might just keep you out of the hands of clever gypsies.

  • Don’t look like a tourist.  Pickpockets and con artists look for easy targets. Therefore, advertising that you are a tourist is not the best method for staying out of their way.  You need to blend in a little bit.  The best way to do this is to match the colors of your clothes to the local people.  You can do a little research on the Web or just ask your handy-dandy travel planner for tips.  A general rule of thumb is to wear muted colors. You pretty much can’t go wrong with that plan.
  • Keep your bags, purses and backpacks zipped up.  This seems like a no-brainer, but when you’re distracted and you’ve had to unzip that front pocket to get your camera or glasses out all morning, it’s easy to forget to zip it back up.  There’s nothing more tempting to a pickpocket.
  • Use Google Maps offline.  I know I talked about this last week, but I’m bringing it up again because there is nothing that announces TOURIST louder than walking around with a huge folding paper map. Use the maps on your smart phone, if at all possible, and walk with purpose to your destination.
  • Be aware of your surroundings.  Again, this one seems obvious, but in the excitement of seeing new people and places, it’s easy to forget to be aware of who is around you and to watch where you’re going. Stop and take a look around every once in a while and make sure you have a tight grip on your belongings.  This will make you a much less enticing target than someone who is not paying attention.
  • Leave your good jewelry at home.  Not wearing your best jewelry meets the goal of blending in with the people around you.  If you have a piece that you don’t like to take off or leave at home, turn the stone in a ring around to your palm or tuck a necklace under your shirt if you’re walking through an area where it might attract attention.
  • Move wallets to your front pocket or wear your backpack in front of you in crowded areas. This is especially true if you’re riding public transportation.  My husband put an empty wallet in his back pocket one time when we were riding the subway just to see if it would get lifted.  Sure enough, within 5 minutes of being on the train, it was gone and he never felt it happen.  Putting wallets in your front pocket and moving your backpack or purse to the front of your body announces to anyone interested that you are aware of your surroundings and they will move on to easier targets.
  • You don’t need to be polite. In America, most people don’t like to be rude to anyone and pickpockets count on this.  There are usually at least two people needed to pick your pocket successfully.  One to distract you with a question or situation (like tripping in front of you), while the other one is relieving you of your wallet.  If this happens in front of you in a busy area, put your hands on your belongings and move along.

Happy travels!

Travel Hacks that Really Work

Over the years, I’ve traveled a lot of miles.  During my travel-for-business phase, there wasn’t really time to be creative about handy items to help make travel easier.  I basically crammed everything into a roller carry-on bag and ran out the door to catch my flight.

Lucky for me, I’ve slowed down in the last few years and been able to cover a lot of ground just for the pleasure of traveling.  Each trip I try out a few new ideas I’ve heard about from various sources.  If they work, I keep them on as a regular part of the traveling ritual.  If they don’t, I just discard them and move on.  Honestly, there’s more things in the discard pile than the save pile, but you have to try things before you know they don’t work – right?

This week, I thought I’d share some handy travel hacks I found that actually live up to their claims of saving you time, money, space or sanity.

  • Use Google Maps Offline – So you’re staying in a foreign city and you’ve decided you want to explore a bit on your own.  You don’t want to use the map on your smartphone to find your way because you’ll be charged a fortune in roaming data fees.  What to do?  Download the Google Maps app to your phone before you leave home.  Open the app while connected to WIFI and find the area of town you want to explore.  Once you have it displayed on your phone, touch the menu option (top left of screen) and select Offline Areas.  You can download that area map to your phone so you can use it without any roaming data or WIFI required.  WARNING: You will need between 70MB and 300MB of space on your phone to do this download.
  • Make it easy to get a new passport or driver’s license if you need to – I personally keep my passport strapped to my body when I travel abroad because I have a paranoia about losing it.  I haven’t lost it yet, so maybe this is a good method.  As a backup though, I scanned my passport and driver’s license and emailed the documents to myself so I can access them from anywhere.  This will make it much easier to replace them if they are lost or stolen.
  • Put a dryer sheet in your suitcase – This is a simple and easy method to keep your clothes smelling fresh in your suitcase (even on long trips) with the added benefit of reducing static electricity.
  • Leave your jewelry box at home – In the spirit of packing light, bring jewelry that will go with more than one outfit and use a 7-day pill organizer to store it.  You’ll be able to fit several pieces into the nice, flat container AND you can find those earrings you love really quickly.
  • Wear Flight Compression Socks – So these are not the most fashionable items in the world, but they are clinically proven to help blood circulation in the legs and thighs.  On long flights, suck it up and put on your compression socks.  You can get a pair on Amazon for less than $20.  It really helps reduce the risk of blood clots and they are nice and warm as well.
  • Use ATM Machines for the Best Exchange Rates – I have tested this out, and when you get local currency from an ATM, you’re getting the best exchange rate available.  This is because your bank has negotiated exchange rates for bulk transactions and even though you’re just getting 20 Euro at a time, you get the same rate as your bank does.  WARNING: Be sure to check with your bank before leaving on your trip to see if there are fees associated with using your card overseas.  This will help you plan how often you use your card at an ATM or with local merchants.

Happy travels!

Impossible to Pack Light! Think Again…

Anyone who’s ever traveled with me knows I’m a notoriously light packer.  There’s nothing worse to me than lugging a 49.9 pound suitcase everywhere you go, not to mention the taxi driver’s face when he has to heave that puppy into the trunk.  However, I confess I’ve been caught a few times without some really useful items because I refuse to pack in a larger case.

The truth is, you don’t need to feel deprived OR weighed down; you just need to be efficient.  Efficient with your choices on what to bring and the way you pack them in your bag.  Let’s take a quick look at the top five ways to pack lighter.

  1. Get a smaller, lighter suitcase or rolling duffel. Having a slightly smaller bag than you’re used to is the first step towards packing lighter.  It will make you think twice before adding that fifth pair of shoes to your “must take” pile.  There have been great advances in suitcase design and materials in the last several years.  You can get a super light bag with so many ingenious pockets and expansion abilities that you won’t feel like you’re compromising at all.  eBags (www.ebags.com) has long been my favorite place to find all the latest travel gear.
  2. Make a list of what you’ll need. I know this sounds like a pain, and honestly, I avoided this step like the plague for years.  However, if you take just 15 minutes to make a packing list, it absolutely makes a difference.  Not just in packing lighter, but also in helping you remember that special necklace your Aunt Harriet gave you when you travel to her 90th birthday party.
  3. Bring multi-purpose clothing items. This one is essential.  You want to pack clothes that can be worn multiple times, but don’t give the appearance of being worn multiple times.  How do you do this?  Bring basic, wrinkle-resistant black trousers.  (Ladies, a little black dress will do the trick as well.)  If trousers aren’t your style, blue or black jeans work too.  These form the basis for your travel wardrobe while keeping dirt from showing and reducing the variety of accompanying items you need to bring along.  Add shirts, tops and jackets that coordinate and match your weather forecast, and you’re good to go.  Scarves are also a fantastic way for women to change the total look of an outfit, and they take up almost no room at all in your suitcase.  Get creative and remember, all your other clothes will be waiting for you when you get home.
  4. Roll or Bundle-wrap your clothes. Either of these methods will save you a ton of room when packing and keep your clothes as wrinkle-free as possible.  I prefer the rolling method because it works really well with my rolling duffel suitcase.  If you like using a suitcase with square corners, the bundle-wrapping method works beautifully.  (For a great step-by-step on bundle-wrapping, go to onebag.com/pack.html.)
  5. Make your own washing machine. Got you thinking on this one, didn’t I?  It’s actually a really easy and inexpensive way to save room in your suitcase.  Here’s what you do.  Bring several gallon-sized, zip-lock freezer baggies and a small baggie full of powder detergent.  When the socks and underwear you brought just can’t go another day, put them in one of the large baggies, add a little detergent and water, seal the top and shake that bag until you’re satisfied the clothes are clean.  Rinse with clean water and hang to dry.  If you want to get really fancy, you can buy a travel clothesline like the one shown in the picture for less than $10 on Amazon.com.  This makes drying a lot easier and takes up almost no luggage room.