Since I’ve just returned from a meticulously planned and busy but fabulous trip to England and Paris, I am feeling magnanimous, so I am going to share a few of the things I learned while traveling there this time around. Those of you who might be traveling that direction for the first or second time might find some of what I picked up useful. Those who have done more traveling might find this simplistic, or it may still be helpful in some ways. Either way, have fun!
- Get the right outlet converter. You may know, as I did years ago when I first traveled to Paris, that electrical outlets/plugs are different there than they are here in the States. We use two- or three-pronged 110-volt outlets and cords, and the Europeans use 220-volt outlets. So when I went on that first trip 9 years ago to Paris, I picked up a voltage converter at Radio Shack. Worked just great. Back then it allowed me to charge my laptop quite easily. Well, here’s the kicker: England is, once again, different than the Continent and different from here. Just as those wacky Brits drive on the left side of the road, opposite of the States and the rest of Europe, they also use a different plug. I thought that I was all prepared for all of our trip using the old voltage converter, but no. England uses a big three-pronged plug that’s different than what we use here in the U.S. and different than the tiny two-pronged plugs in France and Italy, for instance. Next time we go, I will make sure I have a converter that works for each place we visit. (We happened to get lucky, however, in our nice hotel in London: that blessed place had a whole variety of outlets behind the desk in the room, including an American-style outlet, so I was able to charge all of my gadgets. Yay for the Rembrandt!) Also remember that even if you do get the right converter, if it only has a two-pronged “in” for your gadgets, you might be out of luck with your three-pronged grounded items. I found this to be true when I got to Paris. Yes, my old converter worked, but it was only two-pronged, and my newer netbook has a three-pronged plug, so I wasn’t able to charge it anymore once we left our posh London hotel and got to our less-nice Paris digs.
- Prepare your credit card. Here in the States, we swipe magnetic strips on our credit cards and then sign for them. In England and Europe, they have moved on from swiping to using chip-and-PIN cards. A special chip is embedded in the middle of the card, and you must use a PIN to be able to use the card once the card is inserted in the card reader. If you want to be able to charge purchases on your trip, call your credit card issuer and request a chip-and-PIN card. Otherwise, I don’t think it’s possible to use the old swiping-style there anymore. And you’ll be up a creek. Also, when you call your company, let them know that you’ll be traveling, where and when, so your card won’t trigger fraud alerts or not be authorized. That should smooth the way for your travels and ease your mind so even if you plan to use mostly cash, you can still use that credit card in a pinch.
- For clothes, pack in layers. Weather could easily be very different from your home town, so be sure to check the weather. Even then, pack light jackets and prepare with layers. I took short-sleeved shirts and tanks and then layered with short-sleeve and long-sleeve light sweaters and jersey “cardigans.” I kept the long-sleeved cardigans in my carry-on and could swap out with the short-sleeved if necessary.
- For heaven’s sake, make sure your passport is up to date. Passports are issued for 10 years. But if you’ve had one for a while, make sure it hasn’t expired. Otherwise, you have about 4 to 6 weeks to get a new one. If you’ve never gotten one before, apply in person. Most likely, your local Post Office has a spot for doing that. If you need to renew, all you have to do is send in the proper paperwork along with the old passport through the mail. For more details, go to the State Department’s website.
- To make things a little easier, get a feel for local currency before you travel. I knew what the exchange rate was for dollars to pounds before we traveled, so that was helpful in judging how much things were “really” costing me in dollars when I made purchases. But when I pulled out my cash, I was embarrassed at how long it took me to pick out the right coins for the job. One time, a cashier just picked out the coins from my hand. I’m guessing he was being honest. After a week in England, I still felt a little shaky over the sizes of the coins. It might have made things easier if I’d taken the time to acquaint myself with the coins before I left. Not crucial, but nice, and a little less embarrassing.
- Make sure your suitcase(s) and carry-on(s) are easy to carry/wheel around. If you’re anything like us, you’ll end up on a lot of trains and/or taxis and subway cars, and having a suitcase and carry-on that are in good condition and wheel comfortably, etc. will be a godsend. I did some shopping a few months before the trip on Overstock for a new suitcase that would be a few steps up from the cheap set I bought at K-mart years ago, and I’m so glad I did that. One, my new suitcase and matching tote had very bright, multicolored stripes, making them easy to spot on the luggage carousels and easy to spot when my husband was taking a turn wheeling one around. I always knew where he and the luggage were. More importantly, the newer and nicer case had a much higher quality set of wheels and telescoping handle, making it easier and lighter to wheel around. We took those suitcases everywhere and on all kinds of transportation and in between, on planes, trains, taxis, ferry, underground, metro, and on lots of sidewalks in between. I’m SO glad I spent an extra hundred bucks on the nice case. Take a look at mine: (but don’t buy the same exact one, people. We’re trying to stand out here, right?)
- I highly recommend making a day-to-day detailed itinerary for yourself of where you’re going, when, and how. I printed up about 10 pages of fairly detailed instructions for myself for every stage of the journey. Since we did so much traveling from town to town via lots of modes of transportation, it was SO helpful. First page was my first flight, then my second flight, then the arrival time and the train we were supposed to take to the next destination. Then I had the hotel information for our first night, then the transportation info for the second day’s travel to the next stop. I just checked off where we were/what we’d done and flipped the page. It really made the journey a lot easier to look to that main itinerary.
Above all, my last “tip” is simply to relax and enjoy yourself. No matter how much time you allot yourself, you won’t possibly see everything there is to see or everything you’d like to see. Just pick a few highlights that are most important, and give yourself plenty of time to enjoy them. And if you get worn out and have to take a nap at the hotel, don’t beat yourself up that you’re not seeing more sights. Just remember, IT’S YOUR VACATION. You’re meant to be having fun, relaxing, and enjoying yourself. If you have to take pit stops to rest and regroup, then do it and don’t feel guilty. Now go out there and have a great time.