My husband and I have returned from our 16-day international adventure in Europe – and what an experience it was! In the coming weeks, I will be blogging in detail about each of our destinations and various other aspects of our trip. But, seeing as this was my first international travel since college, I thought it would be fun to share some helpful tips from this experience of planning a vacation abroad.

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Several months ago, I spent 15+ hours budgeting out and researching every single detail of our vacation – airfare, currencies, tourist sites, hotels, restaurants, transportation, geography, local customs & culture, etc. It was an enormous amount of work. But, so many times during our trip, I found myself beyond thankful for my hours of preparation. And, even though I had yet to conceive of the idea of becoming a travel agent at that point, this intense experience definitely contributed to my overall expertise as a travel agent today. To put it bluntly…this ish was complicated!

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At this juncture in life, my job now is to save you those 15 hours. I perform all the research and planning so you can relax and enjoy your vacation. Thankfully, I’ve got a few more tools in my belt these days to cut that research time down considerably. Still, there are invaluable things I learned on this trek that might be of use to you in your own travels.

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1. Start Planning Early

To give you a general feel for the magnitude of this trip…a friend of mine turned 40 in early July and I received an invitation two years ago to celebrate with him and travel to one of his Bucket Lists destinations, Santorini (Greece). Seeing as Santorini was close to #1 on my Bucket List, I immediately accepted that invitation!

About 18 months ago, we put down a $500 deposit on the Royal Caribbean Vision of the Seas, departing Venice (Italy) on July 23rd with ports of call in Dubrovnik (Croatia), Kusadasi (Turkey), Santorini (Greece), and Katakalon (Greece). Ever since that day, we have been paying for this vacation. And, believe me…it took the full 18 months to finish paying! This was no impulse travel and we aren’t likely to replicate this any time in the very near future, that’s for sure!

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2. Take Advantage of Best Price Guarantees

Whether you are booking a cruise or a package deal, it’s good to know if a Best Price Guarantee is available. About a year after we made our deposit on the cruise, there was an amazing sale on our particular ship’s itinerary. All it took was one call to Customer Service and they took $1,000 off of our remaining balance due! As a travel agent, it’s part of my services to monitor these sales for you and call when a better offer becomes available.

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3. Prepay As Much As Possible

Once we put our deposit down on the cruise, we had to pay the full balance no later than 60 days before embarkation, so a remaining balance of $1,000+ was due by Mid-May. Like I said, we paid in small increments throughout the 1.5 years before the final due date and this was very manageable for us.

Our largest purchase was airfare. I was able to find a package deal with airfare and two nights hotel in Venice. We flew out of Chicago O’Hare, instead of Indianapolis. In addition, I found enclosed/guarded prepaid discount airport parking for $6.50/night at a nearby hotel that provided a free 24-hour airport shuttle. Even after the additional cost of gas to travel to Chicago and parking, we ended up saving $800!

With all these things prepaid, all we had left to financially prepare for was our meals for three days in Venice, spending money, and a final hotel night in Venice on the tail end of our trip.

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4. Notify Your Bank/Credit Card Company

About a week before we left, I went in to my bank to give them our entire travel itinerary. They put a note on our account so Fraud Protection wouldn’t block any transactions that occurred overseas on our debit cards.

Perhaps the easiest option for international travel is a credit card (you should call your credit card company to notify them of your travel dates and itinerary before you travel as well). Still, there are a lot of places in Europe that don’t accept cards, so at least some cash on hand in the local currency is advisable.

An easy way to get cash is to use an ATM at your destination’s airport, but be aware of currency exchange fees and cash withdrawal limits, both from the ATM and your card’s institution. Make sure your card has a chip and a 4-digit PIN, as most ATMs in Europe require the chip. In addition, if you are carrying a large amount of foreign currency when you travel, you will be required to declare it with Customs.

Since we don’t use credit cards and we were on a pretty tight cash budget, I went back and forth on whether to use our debit cards or to bring foreign currency in cash. My fear was that something would go wrong with the cards overseas, or that they wouldn’t work in the ATM, and then we’d be stuck with no backup funding in a foreign place. Despite reading over and over online that people had no problems with their debit cards and ATMs, I still worried. What can I say? It’s in my nature.

In the end, we brought cash with us. But, at the end of the trip, we came up a bit short and needed to use our debit card a few times. I was so thankful I took the extra step to go in and set things up with our bank.

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5. Think About Currency Exchange

This was the most daunting part of preparing for this trip, in my opinion. As I said, we traveled with cash. Estimating how much we’d need in each location was not the easiest, but I spent several hours reading about exchange rates and thinking about how much we might need to purchase in each currency. I even checked restaurant menus for pricing so I could figure out how much we’d need for food in each city.

When it all came down to it, I went to my local AAA and exchanged US Dollars for Euros, Croatian Kuna and Turkish Lira. They also have a nifty TravelMoney prepaid Visa that you can preload with money and use most anywhere in the world.

It was so incredibly helpful to have this cash on hand throughout the trip. I honestly don’t know if I got the very best exchange rate, but the peace of mind I had carrying local currency going into the trip was worth whatever small percentage I might have saved if I would have waited for the ATM at the Venice airport.

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6. Build In Time For Airline Drama

This was actually a lucky accident on my part. We decided we’d like to spend a few days in Venice outside of the actual cruise, so we were going to fly in on an overnight flight, arriving on Thursday morning. Then, we’d have two full days and nights in Venice before embarking on the cruise on Saturday.

Wouldn’t you know it? Our first flight from O’Hare to Newark was delayed. Then, it was delayed again. Then, delayed again. When it was all said and done, we left O’Hare 5 HOURS LATE. And….missed our connecting flight to Venice!

Bad News: There is only ONE United flight per day to Venice from Newark, so we were stuck in Newark overnight.

Good News: As stressful as it was to delay our trip for a day, we didn’t have to freak out about possibly missing our cruise. Phew!

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7. Luggage Precautions With International Travel

As part of my many hours of research, I read that it’s a good idea to pack a change of clothes and toothbrush in your carry-on luggage, in case your checked luggage is lost or stolen en route. I went a step further and also packed my swimsuit in my carry-on.

SIDE NOTE: Listen, a swimsuit for someone my size is not something where you can just pick up a spare at Prada in Venice, okaaaay? That thing was pricey! And I shed too many tears trying on suits to lose that sucker right before a 7-day Mediterranean cruise!

Anyway, the swimsuit might have been a little bit of overkill. BUT, as I mentioned above, we were delayed and missed our connecting flight to Venice.

Bad News: Since it was a connecting flight, the airport kept our luggage, so they could assure it was loaded with the luggage on the next day’s flight to Venice. So, no suitcases for us!

Good News: After a full day in an airport, excessive sweating and an overall gross feeling when we finally made it to our Newark hotel, I had a change of clothes in my carry-on for the following day’s long haul flight to Venice. And I could brush my teeth. Victory!

Additional Helpful Hint: Before we left the U.S., I ordered two RFID Neck Stash Security Wallets as a travel precaution. These specially made wallets are durable, lightweight and made from a material with RFID blocking technology, to protect against electronic pick-pocketing and identity theft (i.e. people can actually scan your passport from outside your bag).

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8. Don’t Fly Ultra Cheap

We didn’t fly First Class or Business Class. We just flew regular old Coach. But, we also didn’t snag a bargain bin airfare from one of those super mega cheap airlines either. We flew United Airlines and Air Canada (mostly due to schedule), but we were glad we did when we heard the horror stories of our travel companions, who chose a discount carrier.

We were allowed to check one bag each (up to 50 lbs) for no charge. That’s about $100 saved. We also had free in-flight entertainment (movies, games, music, etc). We were also given two meals and a snack, plus extra bottles of water every couple of hours. Do you know what our travel companions got on their overseas flight? No food. Of course it was available for purchase, but nothing was free. Our friends also had an extra stop in Canada, which was not listed on their original itinerary. What a pain!

Ultimately, our missed connection turned out to be a disappointment, but not the end of the world because United provided us such excellent service. Not only did they advise us on the best plan of action while we constantly dealt with delays at O’Hare, but once we arrived in Newark, they took care of everything for us and paid for a night in a hotel, plus transportation there and back. And they threw in free breakfast, lunch and dinner for me and my husband. I will admit…I haven’t worked with any of the budget carriers for international air, but I do have my doubts about whether their service would have been nearly as stellar in a similar situation.

NOTE: I’m not saying it’s a bad idea to ever fly a discount airline. In fact, I am planning on doing just that when I fly to Orlando for CruiseWorld in November. You really can’t beat a flight to Orlando for $59! But, in the case of an international flight, don’t skimp on service. It’s such a grueling travel day as it is…you don’t need more headaches. And, under the circumstances, you should spring for the extra pampering in flight. It’s the little things that make or break your experience.

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9. Print All Documentation

So, this tip is a lot easier for a Type A personality (like me) than it is for Type B (like my husband), but it is absolutely essential if you are going overseas. You will want to have a hard copy print-out of every single detail of your travel itinerary. For this voyage, that meant that I had everything in order in a 24-page packet: Airport Parking Receipt, Airline Confirmation & Itinerary, Hotel Confirmations, Travel Insurance Policy (yep, the entire thing), List of Venice Restaurants we found on TripAdvisor, and our Royal Caribbean Confirmation & Itinerary. This monster packet was constantly accessible in my carry-on and I referred to it no less than 100 times on our trip.

The entire travel insurance policy might seem extreme, but honestly…if something happens, you will want to have immediate access to phone numbers and details of coverage. What if you are in an area that doesn’t have WiFi and you can’t get to your e-mail to look up the info? We purchased an international cell phone data plan and, guess what? It worked ONE TIME while we were overseas. Best to have the information ready. And, hey, we actually used it when our connecting flight was canceled and I had to call and deal with the Venice hotel adjustment (because we missed our first night reservation). Lifesaver, guys.

Lucky for you, I will prepare, organize and send this to your doorstep before you leave on your vacation. One less thing for you to have to worry about!

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10. Don’t Skip Travel Insurance

I’m not even going to go into all the reasons travel insurance is a must-have in this blog. In fact, at the request of a friend, I plan on creating a full blog to discuss this more in depth in the near future. Let me just share why I was, personally, thankful that we secured insurance for this particular trek.

First of all, did you know that the airlines mishandled over 21 million bags in 2013? This is the simplest and most practical reason for travel insurance. When our connecting flight was canceled and we were re-booked for the following day, the airline kept our luggage in some storage room in the basement and promised they would get it onto our newly scheduled flight the next day. We were anxious to say the least. Fortunately, United came through for us and our suitcases appeared like clockwork at baggage claim in Venice when we landed. Phew! But, if we wouldn’t have received our bags, we could have purchased clothes and necessities to get by and our travel insurance would have reimbursed us for the full cost.

Perhaps most reassuring of all…if there were some sort of medical emergency while we were traveling, everything would be covered and taken care of by our travel insurance provider. We’re talking medical care/direction, emergency air evacuation, customs and border patrol, hospital stay, etc.

Everyone goes on vacation thinking nothing like that will happen. Everyone has that split second at booking where they question whether it’s a waste of money to pay $300 for travel insurance. But do you really want to “get your money’s worth” with travel insurance? No way. The end goal is to not use the insurance. Having it in place, though, makes things a lot less scary.

A number of incidents on our trip could have led to medical & financial disaster for us. My husband hauled luggage up and down about 500 steps (on the bridges) in Venice on our way to and from the cruise dock. What if his back went out or he fell and broke his ankle? The day we boarded the ship, I was walking across the pool deck like a normal person and I suddenly hit a patch of water and slipped, spilling the drink in my hand and slamming down on my knee. That’s not even the worst part, though. This actually happened TWICE! TWO TIMES I could have been badly injured ON THE FIRST DAY OF OUR TRIP! No fault of my own…just walking! Furthermore, our ship was about 1.5 hours late leaving port because the ship was “dealing with a medical emergency”. How much do you wanna bet someone fell on that pool deck and actually broke something? If any of these scenarios had occurred and we didn’t have that policy, we would have been stuck in a foreign land, not knowing the language, with very little money and no health insurance. That’s a sure way to ruin the vacation of a lifetime. Anyway, as I said…much more on travel insurance in the days to come!

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I hope these international travel tips were enlightening and might help you in some small way as you prepare for your next dream vacation. If you’ve got more useful international travel tips, feel free to comment or contact me on Facebook, Twitter or via e-mail at leah@drmdestinations.com. To sign up for my monthly newsletter, The Daydreamer, click here!

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