Planning Your First Trip to Europe?

Paris

Planning your honeymoon in Paris, backpacking it through Prague or touring the Italian countryside? Whatever your final destination may be, planning a trip to Europe can be exciting! But once the flight is booked and the hotel is confirmed most travelers are unsure of what they need to do next. Whatever your European destination may be,  here are some important details to take care of or consider before traveling abroad.

Currency, Credit Cards and Conversion Rates for Traveling Overseas

Taking care of financial details should be a main priority for travelers after booking the hotel and airfare. Most of Europe is on the Euro but other countries such as Hungary, Czech Republic or Iceland have their own currencies. Currency conversion rates vary depending on the country you are visiting and they fluctuate daily. It is a good idea to write down and keep a copy of the conversion rate and know how to figure it out even if you have to bring a calculator. All airports have a Foreign Exchange Desk but these do not always offer the best conversion rates. Before you change money ask them specifically how much you will get for the money you are converting, often there are hidden costs or extra fees.

A standard ATM often offers the best rate and they dispense the money in the currency of the country you are in. Keep in mind that foreign transactions and credit card transactions are subject to the exchange rate and a foreign transaction fee of usually 3% in addition to the ATM withdrawal fee. Despite the fees ATMs are still an affordable option to get foreign currency.

Some credit cards waive the foreign transaction fee which saves a lot of money, especially if you are paying for something costly such as the hotel or a tour in Euro. Look into Capital One, Chase, and American Express cards to see if these fees can be waived for card holders.

Call your bank or your credit company prior to the trip and report what countries you will be using your debit card and credit cards in. Many cards have fraud protection that will not allow transactions to go through overseas unless they are reported ahead of time. Make sure to give them the dates of the entire period you may be using the cards. For example I have been denied credit transactions weeks before my trip to Rome for the Vatican Museum because I had not reported that I may be purchasing items on an Italian website.

Get the international customer service phone number for your credit card. 800 and 866 numbers do not work out of the country. You can save the numbers to your phone or email the numbers to yourself for easy access in case of emergency.

Plan for Unexpected Expenses While on Vacation

Even though most people spend more money than anticipated on vacation, it is still a good idea to set a budget and attempt to stick to it. That way you won’t blow all your money the first half of the trip. Travelers should always plan for unexpected expenses. On a recent trip from Italy to Paris I reluctantly checked my bag and the worst possible thing happened-my luggage never arrived. The airline assured me it would turn up but after a couple days it was obvious it was lost. I had to purchase clothes and essentials for an entire two entire weeks plus another carry-on to hold my new clothes in. The added expense of the clothes could have ruined my trip if I hadn’t had enough money in the bank. Unfortunately I never got my luggage back but I did learn a couple valuable lessons: Consider purchasing travel insurance if flying on smaller airlines and don’t purchase expensive looking luggage. All airlines will reimburse for lost luggage but it could take months for the check to arrive.

Packing Essentials and Carry-on Luggage

The choice to carry on your luggage or to check them is a very important detail to think about ahead of time for a number of reasons. Price is always a consideration as many airlines charge additional fees when you check bags. Another concern is there is always the possibility of your luggage not showing up at baggage claim due to a delay or to it being lost. If possible I suggest to carry-on your luggage. Check with your airline for luggage carry-on sizes and weight restrictions. Most large airlines like United Airlines will allow one carry-on piece of luggage measured at 14 inches x 9 inches x 22 inches, and one personal item like a backpack, purse or laptop bag. Some smaller airlines or aircrafts have even stricter restrictions so it may be necessary to check your bags. Never pack items like electronics or prescriptions that are expensive or that you cannot do without in the event that the airline right before boarding asks passengers to check their luggage-which often happens.

Pack common over the counter medicines with you such as cold medicine, ibuprofen, eye drops or anything you regularly use. Do not assume you can purchase these essentials everywhere, European pharmacies do stock medicine of course but it is most likely not the same items you are used to using in America. Don’t forget to pack extra contact lenses and contact lense solution too if needed.

Make a copy of your passport and put it in your luggage- or scan and email copies of your passport and credit cards to yourself, in case you lose them. It is also a good idea to keep important documents and extra credit cards in the hotel safe when you don’t need them. Some shops ask to see your passport when you are purchasing items with credit cards, don’t be offended while this is not standard in the United States, it is typical in Europe.

Trip Logistics

Don’t forget to plan for your arrival at the airport. Taking a taxi from the airport to your hotel is maybe the easiest option but rarely the most cost effective. Don’t assume everyone speaks fluent English. I suggest printing out the hotel address to show the cab driver in case they are not familiar with your destination. You should be able to find a more cost effective method of transporation to your hotel and back to the airport by visiting the tourist board online for each country you will be visiting. Look for a shuttle, train or a bus which is generally more cost effective than cabs in Europe. Do the research before you go on your trip. Look for the most uncomplicated transportation option for a reasonable price. Check with the hotel you are staying at as sometimes they offer convenient shuttles for free or for a reasonable price. Another option is a shared shuttles that take passengers into the city center where they then will have to walk or take a bus to their final destination.

Tourist Maps and Guide Books

Once you arrive at the hotel ask the hotel clerk or concierge for a map and explanation of the area and city. They generally have a helpful but standard speech prepared that gives visitors a quick rundown of the main streets to use, local restaurants, and the main attractions to check out.

Bring a practical guide book with for the cities you are visiting. I am not a fan of the guidebooks that list every single fact and detail of the country. These are fun to read before you go on the trip to learn interesting facts but do not provide enough practical information for me. I like the guides that list the main attractions and neighborhoods and outline itineraries that make sense for travelers. My favorites are the DK Eyewitness Top 10 Travel Guides and Fodor’s 25 Best Travel Guides; both of which are compact and can easily fit into a backpack or a purse. They also contain valuable practical information such as pull out maps, list of attractions of a city, and have suggested itineraries.

Travel Adapters and Converters for Europe

Europe has different electrical outlets than in America, so it is imperative that you purchase an adaptor plug for the country or countries you are visiting. You will have an extremely hard time finding them overseas. Voltage throughout Europe is 220 volts at 50 cycles while the standard American household operates on 120 volts at 60 cycles. Which means you cannot just plus your items into a European outlet.

Not all of Europe uses the same standard adapter plug either. Do not wait until the last minute to purchase an adapter it is easier to find the standard US to European adapter but some countries like Switzerland may have a different style plug, these may have to be ordered online which can take a few days to get. Keep in mind travel adapters do not change the electricity. So the adapters are all that is needed for cell phone chargers, battery chargers, and most laptop plugs, but if you are bringing a hair dryer or hair straightener then you will need to purchase an electricity converter. These converters actually convert the power down from 220v to 110v. But if you are not taking these items don’t bother purchasing one the adapter will work for everything else. If you are visiting for an extended period of time it may be cheaper to purchase a hair dryer or curling iron from a department store, this eliminates the need to buy a converter.

How to Use Your Cell Phone or Skype in Europe

Before you depart for your trip call your cell phone provider and notify them you are going out of the country. They will need to turn on roaming otherwise your phone will not work internationally. While you are on the phone with customer service ask them how much the rate is per minute in case you need to use your phone. The most cost effective advice is to turn off your phone, as any calls that go to voicemail will be charged by the minute and by call whether you answer them or not. Some companies such as T-Mobile have an international plan that will save you money on both data use charges, texting and calls. Don’t forget to turn off the data or internet on your smartphone or anytime you turn it on you could be racking up some hefty charges.

Make sure you know how to check your voicemail too-which doesn’t just work by dialing the standard voicemail number you use in the states. Check the text rates too-as this is a much cheaper option if you need to contact someone back home rather than call. If you bringing a laptop a cheap way to make calls is through Skype, this free service allows users to call other Skype users for free. Many tour guides and travel agents use Skype too.

Most tourists bring a camera on vacation but don’t forget the accessories. Always take extra memory cards. Purchasing them in Europe may cost more or worse, you may not be able to find one that fits your camera or a convenient shop that sells them. I also suggest buying an extra battery in case something happens to the one you brought. Also don’t forget to pack the battery charger.

Taking a vacation to Europe should be exciting and fun not stressful. Taking care of these little details will ensure you can enjoy your vacation; no stress involved.

Dude…Where’s My Luggage?

 New York LaGuardia International Airport

We had just arrived in Paris! Excitedly we hurried off the plane from Palermo discussing what to tackle first; the Eiffel Tower or Notre Dame? While waiting at the luggage turnstyle at Charles de Gaulle Airport I started to get nervous when the last bit of luggage was scooped up by a fellow traveler. Watching as the empty belt circled around a second time not carrying my luggage, it finally sunk in…the worst has happened my luggage was missing. Now what?  

Whether you are traveling internationally or domestic, when your luggage doesn’t make it to your final destination it is a huge inconvenience to say the least. But don’t worry – there are some preventative measures you can take to lessen the likelihood of this happening.

With the cost of travel so high, saving money on flights is always a huge plus but make sure to check all the details before booking that cheap flight. Minor inconveniences such as tight layovers between flights, flying on multiple airlines, or flights involving multiple stops may save you money now but your luggage may be affected if something goes wrong. According to the Aviation Consumer Protection Division, the safest option (for your luggage, that is) is to take a nonstop flight; and the riskiest is an interline connection meaning change of aircraft and airlines. It might be worth it to spend a little more money to take a non-stop flight on a reputable airline. One potential scenario is missing your connecting flight, this can mean bad news for your checked luggage especially if the flights are on multiple unrelated airlines; you may not have enough time to recheck your luggage between flights. Your luggage may get lost in transit when taking flights involving two or more stops-the more people handling your luggage, the higher risk you take in it getting delayed or lost.

Pack Smart for Travel

Of course the best guarantee against lost luggage is to carry-on, but this may not always be an option. Sometimes during boarding if the crew notices that the overhead space is getting tight they will ask the remaining boarding passengers to check their baggage. Some smaller planes used for domestic travel will have different baggage limits too forcing you to check it before getting on.

In the event that something delays your luggage it is always wise to take a small carry-on bag for your essentials and valuables. Items such as jewelry, camera equipment, lap top, phone/camera charger, medicines, and itinerary are not only hard to quickly replace but also are not covered by most airlines lost baggage policy. Don’t forget to carry your spare glasses and contacts as these items are hard to locate internationally or the prescriptions are not the same.

Camera chargers and extra batteries can be heavy but they can be hard to replace internationally especially if you have a DSLR camera. Often they need to be ordered online which is not feasible on vacation. Make sure to pack all camera equipment in your carry-on to avoid this potential problem.

Choose your Luggage Wisely

Choose your luggage wisely. I love designer bags and luggage but the only time my luggage was lost in Paris was coincidentally when I checked an expensive and stylish Guess upright. When we arrived in Paris, my bag was the only piece that was missing. Skip the super expensive-looking luggage and go with something a little bit more conservative.

To avoid having someone accidentally pick up your luggage at the baggage claim, make sure it stands out. One suggestion is to put a colorful tag or sticker on it so it is immediately recognizable to avoid this common occurrence.

Make sure to have a baggage labels that are clearly visible and durable enough so they cannot get easily ripped off. Clearly print your name and contact info including your email and phone number. It is a good idea to put a label inside the luggage as well.

Don’t lock your luggage. Airline security may need to inspect your luggage and if it is locked it may get delayed or detained.

Don’t Check in Late for a Flight

I found this rule out the hard way. While traveling to Texas to hike the Guadalupe Mountains, my friends and I had individual carry-on bags but we had to check the one bag with all the camping equipment; tent spikes and propane and all the dangerous items not allowed on a plane. We were running a little late but had more than enough time to board. But we did not look up the airline’s baggage check in deadline. This is often a shorter deadline then you have to make it onto the actual flight. Our luggage had to be put onto the next flight and we had to wait at the airport in Texas for our bag to arrive. We were all happy the luggage finally arrived but it put us behind a few hours. If we would have had a connecting flight it would have been a big mess!

I also found out that in some cases the airline will not assume liability for your bags if you miss this deadline. This is one mistake that can start the trip out on a bad note.

Purchase Travel Insurance

I have never been a proponent of travel insurance until my luggage was permanently lost. Purchasing travel insurance may provide the traveler with additional reimbursement of up to a standard of 1000.00 for lost luggage and an additional 500.00 for delayed luggage expenses. Travel agents and even Travelocity offer travel insurance for a small fee.

Although every airline has a lost baggage policy the key benefit of purchasing travel insurance is it is hassle–free to file a claim. Most airlines take a minimum of three months to cut a check for your lost items. When Easy Jet; a UK based airline, lost my luggage on a trip from Palermo, Sicily to Paris, France (a non-stop flight,) it took over six months, 3 claims forms, and 10 follow-up emails to get a check for my items. For a small airline they actually had a pretty good reimbursement policy and I got paid $1700.00, but I had to provide original receipts and an itemized list of everything in my bag

I highly suggest reviewing the lost luggage policy on the airline you will be taking to find out if you need travel insurance. I was surprised to learn that there are limits to how much an airline will compensate you for lost luggage. For example American Airline and United have a similar lost luggage policy. Maximum allowances for lost luggage on domestic flights (U.S.) is generous with a maximum of $3,300 per lost checked baggage, however, international travel will only be reimbursed up to $9.07 per pound with a maximum of 70 pounds per checked bag. That is hardly compensation at $634.00 per bag. Under the Montreal Convention 1999, International airline carriers in the EEU may be liable for damages up to $1500.00 depending on the exchange rates and airline policy.

Most travelers erroneously believe if their luggage is lost they will be compensated for all its contents. Unfortunately this is not the case. Almost all airlines share a common list of items that are not reimbursable such as jewelry, cameras, laptops, medicines and personal documents. It is also required when filing a claim with the airline that you must submit receipts and a detailed description for every item in your bag. Failure to accurately fill out the paperwork, not providing receipts or failure to file timely may result in a delay of your reimbursement check.

What to do if your Luggage does not Arrive?

You’re waiting at the baggage claim as others pick up their bags and leave you start to get nervous. The worst has happened. Your luggage has not shown up at your final destination. Now what? Go directly to the lost baggage department to file a report. Even if they assure you it will turn up make sure you have all the necessary information and understand it before you leave the airport. They will give you a lost baggage number; you will need this number for everything including tracking and later for filing a claim. Make sure you have your baggage tags claim tickets and boarding passes for outbound and return travel. Ask where your luggage will be sent when it finally arrives. Leave the dates and addresses of the hotels you will be at in case it arrives and they will ship it to your hotel. Clarify what number to call or web address to check to find out the status of your luggage.

Find out if they have a policy on purchases made for essential items. When my luggage was lost, Easy Jet airline reimbursed me up to $300.00 for the first three days my baggage was missing, but it ended up being incorporated into the total amount I could claim.

Most airlines do not consider luggage officially lost for 21 days, at that point you will have to file an official lost baggage claim with the airline.

To check or not to check…that is the question. I advise carry-on whenever possible. If you have to check your bag, always take the above precautions to minimize the inconveniences that will definitely follow when your luggage does not make it to your final destination.

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