We try to learn from the mistakes we've made during our travels. Years of traveling around the globe have taught us a lot of valuable lessons and we try not to make the same mistakes twice. Here are lessons we've learned, some the hard way!
1. Taking Only One Credit Card or Taking the Wrong Card
Ever have your credit card swallowed by an ATM machine or reach for it and it's gone? It's a heart-stopping experience, especially when it happens on a Sunday and you're 5,000 miles away from home.
Paul was on a subway in St. Petersburg, Russia. It was shoulder to shoulder and as he was getting off, someone bumped into him. In that second, his wallet was stolen. Fortunately he had brought more than one credit card and he kept the additional card separately. Our bank made him whole, but you want to avoid being in that situation. And not all cards are accepted when you travel abroad. We always take a card we know will be widely accepted where we're traveling in addition to our debit card. Do your research to know which cards are accepted at your destination and which are not. Be sure to notify your bank or credit card company that you'll be traveling abroad if your card requires it.
Remember to take a copy of the front and back of each credit card. We keep a copy with us separate from our cards and leave one at home for family to access if necessary.
2. Forgetting to Check Your Passport and Requirements for Vaccinations and Visas
Especially if it's been a while since you've traveled internationally, you may have stashed your passport in a safe place and forgotten about it. Some countries require that passports be valid for an additional six months from the date of travel. Be sure to check the expiration date and leave enough time to renew it if necessary before that long-planned trip of a lifetime!
Don't assume that you won't need any vaccinations. Make sure you know what is required or recommended for all the countries you'll be visiting. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US has a good website. I keep my vaccination record with my passport. As of this writing, we don't yet know if "Covid passports" will be required, but I now also have my Covid vaccination card safely stored with my other vaccination card.
Make sure you know the visa requirements for your destinations and leave enough time to obtain them. Some can be obtained online prior to travel.
And finally, take copies of the page in your passport with your photo and other identifying information. We keep a copy with us (separate from the passport) and leave a copy at home.
3. Overbooking Your Days and Not Pre-Booking Sites
If you've read our posts, you know that we tend to be "attack and burn" tourists. Before we retired, we were constrained by the number of vacation days we had and/or meetings we had to return to. And we were younger! As we age, we find we need time during the day to recoup and now that we're retired, we have the luxury of adding a day or two to our trips. We've also learned to keep the day after we arrive light to adjust to jet lag. And let's face it, what's better than sitting at a sidewalk café in Paris with a glass of wine for a blissful hour or two watching the world go by?
These days I'm making more and more bookings online. Standing in long lines is tiring and wastes precious time. I've seen the line to enter the Louvre extend across the Seine; you don't want to be part of it!
Sometimes it's even possible to access the site before the hoards. Casa Battló, one of Gaudí's amazing creations in Barcelona is one example; I was able to enter before the official opening, avoiding the crowds in the photo above, and I felt that I had it to myself (photo below). It was a little more expensive, but well worth it!
4. Packing Medications in Checked Luggage
This probably goes without saying, but pack your meds in your carry-on. Years ago Paul's suitcase disappeared as we were en route to Turkey for 16 days. He had packed all his medications in his checked bag - rookie mistake! He made it through with no major issues, but it was scary. If you do need meds abroad, talk to the pharmacist at your destination. Sometimes medications that require a prescription in North America are available over the counter in other countries. I once developed a painful ear infection in Italy and was able to successfully treat it without a prescription thanks to the helpful pharmacist.
5. Assuming Your Reservations Haven't Changed
It's important to check your reservations often, especially if like me, you book your air well in advance. Recently I saw that one of our connecting flights in Europe had been cancelled and I wasn't notified of the cancellation. Spotting it well in advance enabled me to reschedule the air for that portion of the trip with no problem. If you travel with a partner and it's important that you sit together, make sure the airline hasn't reseated you which can happen when they substitute a different type of aircraft. In the rare instances where I book Paul and myself separately online, I call the airline to link our records so if they change our seats, we continue to sit together.
6. Neglecting to Leave Enough Time at the Airport
Last-minute packing and preparing to leave your home or hotel can be stressful. What's more stressful is arriving at the airport and having to wait in an interminable check-in or security line while watching the minutes tick by. I'd rather have to wait at the gate than wonder if I'm going to make my flight. And if you have mobility issues, you'll need to plan accordingly. I always make sure when I'm in a new city to ask how much time I'll need to get to the airport. Then I add extra time. Not long ago Katie and I were traveling from Paris to Strasbourg by train. The hotel suggested we leave at a certain time for the Gare de l'Est and I added 30 minutes to it. We took a taxi rather than the métro and almost missed our train due to having to detour around protests taking place that day. If we had left at the time the hotel suggested, we would have missed the better part of a day in Strasbourg.
My Sister-in-Travel, Kim, intentionally does not book the next connecting flight. She says, "I never book the shortest connection. I’d rather sit there for a couple of hours than miss the connection because the originating flight didn’t leave on time. It might not be the cheapest flight, but it could save you money in the long run if you have to rebook something because of a missed connection."
If you're not already enrolled in TSA Pre-Check and Global Entry, I'd strongly consider enrolling. They're worth their weight in gold!
7. Not Purchasing Travel Insurance
Don't assume that your personal health insurance will cover you when you travel internationally, and it won't cover trip interruption or cancellation. Especially as we age, I always purchase a travel insurance policy. Sometimes it can be purchased at the point you book the air on the airline's site, or you can search the many options online. I also make sure the policy includes transportation back home for medical emergencies. If pre-existing conditions are a concern, some policies require purchase well in advance of travel for those conditions to be covered, so check carefully for that and other restrictions.
8. Not Being Prepared for Lost Luggage
Lost or delayed luggage is much less a problem than it used to be, but it still happens and it's a huge inconvenience when it does. We've had our fair share of lost luggage and the airlines are pretty good about reuniting travelers and their stray suitcases, but there are some things you can do to minimize the inconvenience.
We make sure we have a good quality tag on each of our bags. We never put our home address on our luggage tags; we include our name, email and mobile phone number. You can also include the address of your lodging at your destination. You'll need the address of your destination anyway so your luggage can be delivered to you. The paper tag you get from the airline is better than nothing, but replace it with a good quality tag as soon as you can.
Take a photo of your suitcase and know the dimensions. That will make talking to the lost luggage people a bit less stressful.
So much luggage looks alike, so we make sure we can easily spot ours. Lately we've been putting a brightly colored ribbon around the handle or a bright piece of duct tape on the suitcase. It's not pretty, but it helps to identify your bag among all the others on the luggage belt, especially if it's a common color like black.
Pack a toothbrush and a change of underwear in your carry-on. It doesn't take up much room and you'll be happy you have it if you need it.
Last but not least, consider carry-on. Many apartments have a washing machine and many hotels have laundry service. And, especially as we age, it's nice not to have the weight of a larger suitcase.
9. Not Being on the Right Data Plan
You generally have two options for cell phones when you're abroad: buy a local sim card/throwaway phone when you get to your destination or buy an international data plan with your carrier before you leave. For US phones, carriers like AT&T and Verizon have very cheap (~$10/24 hours) international plans. You can turn it on online or when using the app, and once you use it for the first time in your new country the 24 hours begins. You'll be thankful to have access to your email for any confirmations you need last minute, or Google Maps when you take a wrong turn. Our daughter once accidentally used data for three days in Canada without realizing it and was hit with a $1,000 phone bill. Her carrier retroactively sold her a $125 international data plan and forgave the fees, but you may not get so lucky.
10. Traveling at the Wrong Time of Year
Now that we're retired, we enjoy the flexibility to choose when we travel that we didn't have all the time while we were working. We like to travel during shoulder season (usually spring/fall) but I make sure I know, for example, if we're going to coincide with a national or religious holiday. You may want to avoid being in a country on a holiday when shops and other sites might be closed, or conversely, you may want to enjoy the festivities. Years ago we happened to be in Budapest on the Hungarian national holiday. Lucky for us, museums were free of charge and we were treated to a spectacular fireworks display while cruising on the Danube. Make sure you know what will likely be open or closed at your destination. On a trip to Italy, we intentionally used November 1, an important holiday when many stores are closed, as our transfer day from Puglia to Sicily.
And if you're looking for affordable hotel or apartment rates, do some research before making your air reservations. You may be able to avoid excessively high rates by adjusting only by a day or two.
We've learned over the years that a little pre-planning can make or break your trip. However you plan, we hope you have a trip of a lifetime!
➜ Top Tips
What are YOUR top tips for mistakes to avoid? Write them in the comments; we'd love to hear them!
You might also want to read our post on the 12 tips to prepare for stress-free travel.