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A Journey is Born
07.26.12
Planning Your Trip

Every journey begins with a dream—of new vistas, discoveries and experiences. Turning your dreams into reality is a journey in itself, from picking a destination to deciding what clothes you’ll wear each day.

Best Times to Travel

It’s no secret that high summer (July and August) brings out the traveling masses—and the accompanying peaks in hotel occupancy and travel cost. It’s often the same during prime winter months as snowbirds hit the slopes or flee to tropical destinations and sunnier spots. If you have time on your side, avoid the crowds and plan trips during "shoulder season,” the months between a destination’s high and low seasons. Besides avoiding the tourist crush, you’ll benefit from lower prices and still catch some great weather. The key factors in finding shoulder-season deals are timing and destination. Autumn travelers may see fares of 15–20% less as well as stellar weather in many areas of the world. Think sightseeing in Europe, a stay in Provence or a visit to a national park. A beach escape to Mexico after hurricane season ends but before the hordes arrive in December can be quite affordable. In April, consider skiing in parts of North America when most people have left the slopes. Hit Italy’s vineyards in May or even June, and linger in the blissful calm before the tourist storm. Consult guidebooks and hotel and travel websites for the best value seasons to go.

Once You Land

Taxis and rental cars are the most obvious solutions to get from the airport to where you’re staying. However, they are not always the most practical or economical. Do some advance scouting to find out the options:

  • Shuttle Service: Check with your hotel to see if it offers airport or downtown shuttle service. It’s often free.
  • Public Transport: Check airport websites. Most major airports around the world have excellent public transportation connections. In modern, high-density cities with chaotic traffic, such as Tokyo, public transport is often the best option. Subways conveniently depart from lower airport floors, and Airport Express buses stand ready.
  • Private Car: Hiring a car and driver takes away any mystery and lets you ride in style without lining up, hailing or haggling hassles. Airport and car rental websites often provide options for limos and private cars. Ground Link lets you summon a private car in many parts of the world for immediate pick-up or within the hour.

Passports

Since a U.S. passport is generally valid for 10 years and not used daily, it’s easy to forget about it until you need it. Always check the expiration date of your passport well ahead of an international departure. Increased security means longer wait times for passports to be issued or renewed. The U.S. Dept. of State recommends beginning the renewal process nine months before your passport expires. If you need your passport in a rush (within two weeks of international travel), you’ll have to pay extra or make an appointment at a Regional Passport Agency. Keep in mind that many countries require a passport to be valid at least six months beyond your dates of stay; if it isn’t, you may have to pay a penalty. Airlines may also bar you from boarding your flight.

Visas

Overseas travelers may need a visa to enter certain countries. The type of visa required is based on the purpose of your travel. Tourist visas are the most common type and often cover 2–6 months of travel within the country. Many countries do not require a visa application for tourists, but some do. Always check well in advance of travel for entry requirements of the countries you plan to visit to make sure you have ample time to apply for a visa. Foreign consulates and embassies vary in speed and efficiency, and often suffer the same bureaucratic red tape as other government offices.

Finding the Right Credit Cards for Travel

Approx. 90% of credit cards quietly assess a foreign transaction fee (usually 2%–3%) on each purchase or transaction made abroad. Debit card ATM withdrawals often incur an extra charge as well, sometimes before you know it. Do your research and find a no-foreign-transaction-fee credit and/or debit card, such as Capital One®. Today, Visa® and MasterCard® are the most accepted brands worldwide. Whichever you choose, be sure to call your credit-card company and/or bank before departure to inform them of your dates of travel. Suspicious activity and international use may be flagged and cause your account to be shut down just when you really need it. It could take up to 24 hours to reinstate your card, so it’s a good idea to carry a second one, just in case.

The Demise of Traveler's Checks

In the old days, American Express® offices were often the main point of contact for currency exchange, traveler’s checks, traveler assistance and simply transacting with friendly faces in English. Traveler’s checks and AmEx offices still exist today, but most travelers prefer the convenience of debit cards and credit cards, and most countries now have ATMs. However, food stands, shops, cabs, buses, and hotels and restaurants in the countryside or off the beaten path may not accept credit cards (or even larger denomination bills). Be sure to have some cash in small bills on hand in case an ATM isn’t readily available or doesn’t work. Hotels will often exchange currency without a fee, but you should ask in advance of travel to make sure you’re covered.

Ever-Changing Baggage Regulations & Fees

When planning a trip and finding deals, don’t forget to take baggage regulations and fees into account. They may have some impact on what you pack or what you’re actually paying to get to your destination. At the time of this posting, Southwest Airlines is the only American carrier that still allows passengers to check bags free domestically. On all other airlines, plan on paying $20–$35 per bag. On international flights, airlines still let you check one or two suitcases for free, but stricter weigh-ins (usually a 50-lb. limit) with hefty penalties are now the norm—and it may not stop there. Although airlines are installing more overhead luggage space for carry-ons, Allegiant Air has already implemented fees for overhead bin space. Rules and regulations are constantly changing. Check with your airline for the latest information, and see our handy Carry-On & Check-In Guidelines.

What Type of Bag Is Best for Your Trip

If you’ll be staying in one place for your whole trip or traveling first-class, a regular suitcase will do just fine. If you plan on moving around, less is always more. Think about where you’re headed. In Asian countries, hordes of people move through rail stations and central transportation centers, so you don’t want to get stuck there trying to carry a heavy bag. It’s also best not to depend on escalators or elevators to work (or even exist) in many parts of the world. Remember that you may have to maneuver your suitcase up and down the stairs at small inns and bed-and-breakfasts, or from one platform to another at railway and subway stations. If you’re headed out on safari, an overland trip or the high seas, soft bags are better to stuff into tight spaces, car trunks or overhead racks, as well as small train and ship compartments. Rolling bags are invaluable in airports and when you need to walk with your luggage in tow. If you need to navigate cobblestone streets in Europe or gravel or dirt roads in the countryside, be prepared to carry your bag. Check out our entire array of luggage.

Luggage Shipping

If you plan on staying in one place and dream of doing away with luggage-related issues such as carrying, security, tipping, check-in, waiting at baggage claim and customs, consider a luggage transportation service, particularly if you have heavy bags that will incur extra fees. In the business of shipping bags as airfreight, baggage forwarders collect luggage from your residence and ship it to any destination around the world without you lifting a finger—except, of course, to pack. Most companies offer overnight, two-day, three-day and five-day service, depending on your destination. Pickups and delivery usually occur within a specific timeframe; service on weekends may cost more. For peace of mind, many services offer baggage tracking and insurance. Visit the websites of the companies listed below, and have the following information handy: size/weight of your luggage, pick-up location, delivery location and dates of travel. Compare the price quote with what your airline will charge for your bags, then decide what your energy and budget can handle.

Some companies to consider:

What’s New with Airline Seats

Economy, Business and First-Class are still the main choices on the aircraft seating menu, but several airlines have ramped up their offerings by adding a category of seats known collectively as Premium Economy.This mid-grade class usually resides between Business and Economy, and offers wider seats, more legroom (pitch), extra seat recline, leg rests, complimentary beverages and other perks. If you don’t want to pay first-class or business-class prices, plan ahead and reserve a seat in Premium Economy. For a small fee, those extra inches of legroom may go a long way in making your flight more pleasant. The four main U.S. carriers offer the following new seat designations and additional features:

Powering Up & Stretching Out in Flight

For travelers who want the goods on the best seats in the house, SeatGuru® offers a trove of information on aircraft configuration and insider info. Head to the website or download the SeatGuru® app from iTunes to look up the best seats for napping or Internet yakking. A handy, color-coded seating chart of each aircraft identifies the most desirable seats for legroom and recline. SeatGuru® also displays the locations and availability of onboard power ports, and lists in-flight amenities like food, entertainment and Wi-Fi. Traveler reviews and recommended power adapters for specific airplanes make this a must-visit site for anyone who likes to be in the know.

In-Flight Internet Use

Many aircrafts are now equipped with wireless Internet service. If you want or need to be online while in flight, check in advance to find out if your airline and aircraft are equipped with Wi-Fi, as well as any related costs. For example, United Airlines offers Internet service on flights between New York (JFK) and both Los Angeles (LAX) and San Francisco (SFO), with more connections to be installed in 2012. Gogo® Inflight Internet offers wireless passes for domestic and Canadian travel on AirTran, Alaska, American, Delta, Frontier, US Airways and Virgin America. In-flight wireless bundles range from a single-use flight pass to 24-hour, multiple-day, monthly or annual passes, depending on the airline. Pricing varies by flight length and device type. Check with your airline or car rental company to find out if they offer promotions for free in-flight Wi-Fi based on travel purchases such as airport parking.

Car Rental & Hotel Booking

Getting a good deal on car rentals and hotels usually depends on the timeframe between when you book and your dates of travel. It may also depend on the season (high, low or shoulder), what day of the week you are traveling and whether your trip coincides with any holiday, convention or special event. Research peak travel times and events at your destination well in advance and book accordingly—a year in advance for peak season and special events, and at least a month in advance otherwise. There are literally hundreds of thousands of sites that offer hotel and car rental booking, package and price options. Allow yourself ample time for research.

To get started, use sites like Expedia®, KAYAK and Travelocity® for ballpark prices and comparisons. Find reviews on Hotels.com® and TripAdvisor® to read about what others have experienced. If you spot something you like, call and/or visit the hotel or car rental website directly to find out when and if they offer any specials or deals. Bidding sites like Priceline.com® and Hotwire® offer outstanding deals at larger hotels in major metropolitan areas.

Alternative Accommodations – Home Swap

Despite their convenience, hotels are often quite uniform and do not provide the local experience that many seek. If you own a home, you might consider a house exchange/home swap instead—it can save you thousands in hotel bills. Just trade your house—and even your car—with a traveling kindred spirit and live the life of a local while having a built-in housesitter back home.

Companies and organizations like Home Exchange®, HomeLink International and Love Home Swap offer inspiring country, urban and suburban properties in countries around the world. Each one works a bit differently. For an annual membership fee, Love Home Swap gives you access to its database of homes and lets you transact with owners around the world. Nervous about who might be staying in your house or what kind of house you’ll get? Read the FAQs online to educate yourself about how home swaps work. Then take a look at the properties on offer. It’s an option worth exploring.

Park Permits & Skip-the-Line Passes

If hiking, camping, fishing, hunting and national parks are on your agenda, find out if you’ll need permits, reservations or passes. Popular parks have limits on the number of visitors allowed entry to certain areas during specific times to reduce the human footprint and control crowds. In 2011, California’s Yosemite National Park instituted a temporary 400-permit lottery for daily access to climb the iconic Half Dome, while Zion National Park has a wilderness reservation lottery in place for July. Visit park websites well in advance to get information on special events, trails, best seasons to visit and wildlife activity. Alternately, if you’re on a cultural trip and plan on visiting museums and galleries, look into skip-the-line passes. Visitors can go online to pay for tickets and pre-reserve time slots to avoid standing in long lines for hallowed halls like the Alhambra, the Vatican or the Louvre. Sites like Viator offer all kinds of options.

Tech Tools & Gadgets for Travelers

  • Adapters/Chargers If you’re taking electronics on your trip, you’ll need a charger. And if you’re going overseas, you may also need an adapter/converter. Our All-In-One Adapter/Converter has a USB port for charging, comes equipped with the four most common plugs, and converts from 220V to 110V. Check out our array of adapters and chargers.
  • Headphones – Noise-canceling headphones take you to your own world on planes, trains, buses and anywhere else you’d prefer to leave behind. The larger ones cover your ears completely, while the smaller ones fit conveniently in your ear. Shop our selection of noise-canceling headphones.
  • E-Readers – We love books, but they’re heavy to pack. For a super-lightweight and portable option, invest in a Kindle, Nook or tablet computer and carry 1,000 books wherever you go while adding less than a pound of weight to your bag.

See our complete assortment of handy devices and accessories.

Cool Apps for the Traveler

Translator/Language Apps
earworms MBT® – Musical brain trainer; 70-minute audio lessons use repetition and music to help remember key words and phrases in another language. ($9.27–$9.99; Android™, iPhone®, iPod touch®, iPad®)

Google Translate – Translates typed and spoken phrases into your choice of 57 languages onscreen. It can also translate into audio playback for major languages. (free; Android™, iPhone®, iPad®, iPod touch®;)

Jibbigo – Speech-to-speech translation that works like an interpreter: you speak a sentence, it relays it aloud in another language. ($4.99; Android™, iPad®, iPod®)

Transportation Apps
AllSubway HD – Subway maps for 128 cities around the globe. Available offline for when you’re underground. ($0.99; iPad®, iPhone®, iPod touch®)

Google Maps Navigation – Turn-by-turn, text-to-speech directions that have street names, walking directions and street-view mode. (free; Android™)

HopStop – Door-to-door transit, walking, biking, taxi and car-rental directions, schedules and transit maps in over 100 cities in the U.S., Canada and Europe. (free; Amazon, Android™, BlackBerry®, iPad®, iPhone®, Windows®)

iFly.com – Comprehensive airport guide for over 700 airports including terminal maps with GPS and flight tracking. (free, $6.99 for Pro; Android™, iPhone®, iPod touch®, iPad®)

Miscellaneous Apps
SitOrSquat – Guide to finding the ever-elusive bathroom by city, zip code or geolocation. Toilets rated by cleanliness and type. (free; BlackBerry®, iPhone®, iPod touch®)

Wi-Fi Finder – Locate the nearest hotspots in 144 countries. (free; iPhone®, iPad®, iPod touch®)

XE – Live currency converter. (free; Android™, BlackBerry®, iPhone®, iPod Touch®)

World Phones

Not all cell phones work overseas. Designed for use internationally, world phones, such as the BlackBerry Storm® and iPhone® 4, operate on different radio frequencies and networks used around the world. These “tri-band” or “quad-band” phones are available from all major carriers, but may need to be unlocked in order to use SIM cards from overseas networks, which allow you to make or receive local calls at local rates. Note: As of 11/11/11, all iPhones sold are locked. AT&T does not allow unlocking, while Sprint allows it for customers who have had their phones for at least 90 days; Verizon allows it for customers in good standing.

Before you pack your phone:

  • Contact your carrier to find out if your wireless device will operate in the country you plan to visit.
  • Investigate your carrier’s international rates, roaming options and prepaid data plans to learn the cost of each.
  • Make sure your international roaming plan is activated and/or that your phone is unlocked.
  • Remember to bring along an adapter if required for different plug outlets in different countries.

International Roaming – The Real Hangover

Although many travelers realize that calling or texting home from their phone will incur international roaming charges, they may be unaware that data charges for web surfing on a smartphone while traveling outside the U.S. can be prohibitive. Rates for international roaming from the four main U.S. providers (AT&T®, Sprint™, T-Mobile® and Verizon Wireless) range from $0.59 to $4.99 per minute to talk, while texters can expect $0.20 to $0.50 per sent message and $0.15 to $0.20 for those received. Messages that contain pictures and videos (not to mention web surfing) cost even more. It’s imperative to do your research in advance if you plan to use your phone overseas. Find out how much it costs and determine how much you plan on using your phone. If it’s too costly to roam, you can always turn off your phone’s data roaming or cellular network connection (which we recommend in order to avoid accidental texts or calls) and use your phone’s Wi-Fi connection instead (see below). To find international rates and coverage for specific wireless devices, visit your carrier’s website:

Wi-Fi & Hotspots

To get around international roaming fees, many travelers connect to the Internet via Wi-Fi to use their mobile devices and call home using Skype™ and Google Voice™, a much more affordable alternative. To do this, you’ll need to find a wireless hotspot. Here are some tips for locating one in an unfamiliar area:

  • Head to an Apple Store, Starbucks, McDonalds or a library (in the U.S.) to try and connect for free.
  • Use the Wi-Fi Finder app to locate free Wi-Fi hotspots.
  • Hotels usually offer wireless, often for an hourly or daily price; find out what it is before you go.
  • If you want to avoid wandering a city in search of free Wi-Fi or wish to avoid individual setup, login and payment for each connection, use Boingo . This wireless aggregator allows your device to connect to hotspots all over the globe for a set monthly fee. The $9.95 plan works for any two devices and provides unlimited minutes in North and South America. The unlimited global plan for mobile devices starts at $7.95/month.
  • For an even higher-end solution, try MiFi (“my Wi-Fi”), a compact wireless router that provides you with your very own personal wireless hotspot and allows access for up to five devices. XCom Global® International Hotspot will rent you a MiFi with rechargeable battery and charger for the duration of your trip and provides a local SIM card with an unlimited data plan. Rentals start at $12.95/day.

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