If you’re anything like my wife and I, the thrill of international travel starts with planning: poring over guidebooks, reading travel blogs, watching Rick Steves videos on YouTube and basically devouring any tidbit of info you can get your hands on regarding the amazing places you’re about to visit.
It was no different when we decided this year on an early summer trip to France and the Swiss Alps. Out came the lists and spreadsheets and maps and passport wallets. In fact, we found ourselves getting a bit overwhelmed at the information overload.
Luckily, we switched from an old insurance provider to AAA since we had last been to Europe, and we quickly made use of the incredible AAA travel services and benefits available to us with our membership. From tips on packing, info on car rentals and international driving permits (a must!), to super-convenient passport services and yes, free maps, our AAA membership was like having our own personal travel assistant at the ready 24/7. AAA travel agents are also available to plan your entire trip!
We ended up having the trip of a lifetime. And while it was relatively hassle-free, the journey didn’t come without a hiccup here and there. When we got back, I checked in with travel writer Jen Pellerito, who had just returned from Spain and Portugal with adventures of her own to chronicle. As it turns out, even the pros make silly mistakes when traveling in a foreign country, and it’s really not a “real” trip until you’ve had a couple of snafus.
Here’s where Jen and I landed on the top international travel trips to make your next journey abroad as smooth as can be.
Triple-Check Your Travel Docs
International travel often means buying airfare several months or even up to a year in advance of peak travel season. Check your travel documents every month or so to make sure departure and arrival times have not changed significantly, and always make sure your passport is valid. “It really is surprising how quickly passport rules can change, even in Europe,” says Pellerito. “As a rule of thumb, especially if you are on a longer, extended trip, be sure what your visa restrictions are and triple check the expiration date of your passport.”
Get Ready to Drive
Although my wife and I travelled across Switzerland mostly by rail, Pellerito rented a car to explore the areas beyond Lisbon and Porto and also get off the beaten path in northern Spain. “I got an international driving permit through AAA and secured a car reservation before I left,” she says. “The permit is more widely recognized and particularly helpful in eastern Europe countries like Romania and Serbia that use a Cyrillic alphabet.”
Bottom line: don’t depend on your driver’s license alone and make rental reservations in advance, particularly if you can’t drive manual, as automatic transmissions are less common abroad. Your local AAA branch can assist with everything from setting up car rentals to entire tour itineraries. Did you know that AAA members can save up to 20% on Hertz rentals at home and abroad?
Make Your Money Count
When it comes to currency exchange, be sure to get cash right away, at the airport and from an ATM. Cash can immediately help you get a cab, a meal or forgotten sundries should your credit card fail you on day one, and Pellerito and other travel experts agree that the bank-to-bank transfer via ATM cuts down on middle-man fees at currency exchange counters.
Airport ATMs are also often most up-to-date on exchange rates. “My top currency hack is to open up a debit card before you leave that will reimburse you for fees incurred at the ATM, as it can save you quite a bit during the course of your trip,” Pellerito says. “And don’t withdraw a lot. It’s always better to carry less cash to cut down on risk and losses from pickpockets and the like.”
Embrace the Crowd, Avoid the Crowd
Although my wife and I had been to Paris before, it was in late summer when the Parisians are mostly on their own vacations and tourist traffic has died down, so we were surprised, in mid-June, to be amongst a throng of humanity visiting the city.
“When you go to a major sightseeing location like the Eiffel Tower it can be overwhelming and surprising to see thousands of other people who had the same idea on the same day as you, especially if it’s your first time traveling outside of the country in a long time,” Pellerito says. For creative crowd control, purchase tickets in advance to the big museums and sites, and schedule the rest of the day (before or after) as free time to just wander and explore without the pressure of commitments.
Let Yourself Be Different
Indeed, Pellerito says the key to having an authentically great travel experience is to try not to feel rushed and embrace the differences of other cultures rather than being annoyed by them. “The difference is one of the most rewarding aspects of travel,” she explains. “Savor the opportunity to change up your routine temporarily to broaden your horizons and better understand the global community as a whole, and realize that it’s fun to pretend you’re an Italian for a day.”
And with that, my wife and I are already off to the library for books on our next trip to Venice and Rome. If I’m lucky, we might squeeze in some pizza tonight, too. Arrivederci!
Share your best international travel tips in the comments below.