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airplane childEvery so often you see a travel article about people who think babies and kids should be banned from air travel or moved to a separate section of a plane. These curmudgeonly business travelers assert their right to a library-silent, no-wails-allowed flight. They outline a mile-long list of grievances from squirmy infants grabbing their iPads and magazines to kindergarteners kicking the backs of their seats. As if the disappearance of people under 12 — make that 18 — would make flying so much more pleasant.

To everyone who has shot daggers at the bedraggled parents with the crying baby, daring them to even think of sitting in their row, I’d like to present the view from the other side. As a travel professional, who has flown many times with my son in his two years of life, including a solo cross-country flight without Daddy, I have learned many new things about flying since I became part of the diaper set. Here are some tidbits I’ve gleaned that might make you think differently about flying with babies onboard.

Families need to travel. I spend 40 hours a week writing/editing/talking about travel. I would be a hypocrite if I suddenly stopped flying just because I had a kid. My family lives across the country, I love to explore new places, and I want my son to be exposed to a variety of people and cultures. I’m not going to do that solely within road trip distance — and nor are many other families.

You can predict where babies will sit. Smart parents choose seats in two locations on a plane — the back of a domestic flight and the bulkhead on international flights. While most travelers avoid the back of the plane, parents flock there for easy bathroom access and extra time to hunt for dropped pacifiers while everyone else deplanes. International travelers book bulkheads because this is where the in-flight bassinets hook up so babies can sleep on long-haul itineraries. Kids will be scattered throughout airplanes, for sure, but avoid these two areas or you’ll really be in the baby zone.

10 Reasons Every Plane Should Have a Family Zone

Babies will not scream the whole flight. Except in rare cases of illness or colic, babies do not scream nonstop for an entire five-hour flight. They’re most likely to cry while you’re still on the ground, likely because parents are delaying their next meal until the airplane takes off because nursing or sucking on a bottle helps with the pressure change. Once the airplane levels off, it actually becomes baby heaven — white noise plus vibration is the magic combination that makes most children sleepy.

It’s toddlers you really have to worry about. Babies can be soothed and older kids understand threats (and the power of in-flight movies and video games), but if you’re going to fear anyone, be afraid of toddlers. They’re willful, mobile and vocal, and do not respond to logical arguments. And they love to throw things.

Don’t blame the parents. At least, don’t blame them until you see them ignoring disruptive children. Most moms and dads I know freak out about being “that family” on a flight, so they come prepared with new toys, stickers, coloring books and toddler apps to distract young ones, and they’ll start shushing the instant a disgruntled peep emerges from their child. I’ve even heard of parents handing out goodie bags and drink coupons to their neighbors on long flights. So please don’t judge sight unseen.

Airlines don’t make it easier for families. Airlines might roll out the red carpet for their super-duper-elite fliers, but kids don’t have expense accounts. Many carriers will not guarantee families seats together in advance, seating 3-year-olds with strangers while Mom is two rows back. Frazzled parents are left to beg the gate reps or flight attendants to facilitate swaps. (Please move if you’re asked. If you think flying with kids is bad, try sitting next to a preschooler who is half a plane away from her parents.) Also, not all airlines let families with small children board first. We are really trying not to bump into you as we drag kids and carry-ons down narrow aisles, and don’t mean for our children to be in your face as we quickly stow our bags, but there’s nothing we can do about our Group Four boarding placement.

Kids are curious. You may think it’s annoying that my son is staring at you over the back of the seat, but he’s likely fascinated with your beard or your colorful shirt or your electronics. Babies love to stare; they’re not trying to be rude. If you’re feeling friendly, engage a kid who finds you fascinating — peekaboo is a winner every time. It will buy a harried parent a moment of peace, and you’re guaranteeing no screams for at least two minutes.

The Hue and Cry Over Babies Onboard

Kids are just acting their age — please act yours. Little kids aren’t miniature adults. Their growing brains can’t understand the need to sit still and be quiet in public. They learn by being curious and exploring their environment, and don’t understand why certain things and people are off limits. And, depending on their age, the only way they know to express themselves is by crying. You, on the other hand, are old enough to hold down a job and book your own plane tickets. You should be mature enough not to throw a tantrum when your seatmate isn’t to your liking, to understand that a kid being a kid is not the parents’ fault, and to realize that making someone else feel bad will not make you feel better or improve your flight. So grow up. I’ve been more bothered by adults’ B.O., rude manners, snoring and incessant attempts at conversation than any baby’s vocalizations — and you don’t see me trying to get those people kicked off my flight.

– written by Erica Silverstein

My greatest weakness as a travel professional? I can’t sleep on planes.

If you’re like me, then you know the feeling of dread that washes over you when you realize that nothing stands between you and an incredible trip to Europe (Asia, South America, etc.) but 12 hours of red-eye misery, cramped in coach class, a hard, unyielding armrest digging into your hips, head banging against the windowshade, legs going numb as you try to contort yourself in the one miracle position that will bring on sleep. And you almost don’t go.

But if you love travel as much as I do, you suck it up and go. In a desperate attempt to make long-haul flights more bearable and find a miracle cure for the sleepless flight, I took four travel pillows with me on a recent trip from San Francisco to Germany and the Netherlands. I chose products that seemed unusual or intriguing. Here’s how they ranked. (Spoiler alert: I barely slept a wink.)

Kuhi Comfort Travel Pillow
kuhi comfort travel pillowThe Pillow: The Kuhi Comfort Travel Pillow is not your standard-shaped neck pillow. It’s made of two soft cylindrical balls, attached by a strap. The selling point is that you can use it multiple ways. Turn it one way and the curved part is by your neck; flip it around and the flat part is against you. Straighten the strap and you can tuck one end over your shoulder and cuddle the other, put it behind you for back support and place it in your lap to rest a book.

The Flight: I was pretty excited about this one — the design is original and the materials feel high-end. To my disappointment, the fit is just off. The strap is too short and the balls are (ahem) too big. When the pillow was around my neck, I felt surrounded by material. Trying alternate positions didn’t work — the pillow is too bulky for good back support and too short to sling across your body. The final blow: Because the pillow isn’t inflatable, you have to carry it around in its little stuff sack, which attaches nicely to the handle of your rollaboard but dangles awkwardly if you’re carrying a backpack or other bag.

Final Verdict: I wanted to love it, but I just couldn’t make it work.

10 Ways to Survive a Long-Haul Flight

Cabeau Evolution Pillow
cabeau evolution pillowThe Pillow: The Evolution Pillow is an enhanced version of the standard, plush (non-inflatable) neck pillow. It’s made of memory foam and has raised side supports to cradle your neck — or you can wear the pillow backwards to support your chin. It even has a pocket for your MP3 player. It comes with a travel case and memory-foam earplugs.

The Flight: I was the least excited about the Evolution Pillow, but it was actually really comfortable. I used this one while dozing on an early-morning flight, and I did appreciate the extra head support, the soft material and the absence of the inflatable-pillow plastic smell. However, I would like to see a step-by-step video of how the designers scrunched the pillow down to a quarter of its size and fit it into the stuff sack. I couldn’t even get the entire pillow into the bag, so I couldn’t use the Velcro straps to attach it and it just dangled awkwardly, threatening to fall out.

Final Verdict: Until someone can show me how to make this pillow travel-friendly, I’m sticking with my blow-up model. (Editor’s Note: Cabeau recently offered us the following instructions for packing the pillow.)

EZ Sleep Travel Pillow
ez sleep travel pillowThe Pillow: Imagine a miniature version of an inflatable pool mat that you could stand up like a wall between airplane seats, attached by a Velcro strap around the arm rest. What you see in your mind is the EZ Sleep Travel Pillow. The concept is to create a support structure for you to lean against as you catch some in-flight Z’s, so your body isn’t flopping about like a rag doll.

The Flight: It hit me in the airport — if I have the aisle seat and someone else has the window, I may be too embarrassed to set this inflatable wall up. It’s big and it encroaches into shared territory. Luckily for me, I had two seats to myself. The pillow does not seem as sturdy as the claim — if I really fell asleep on it, I don’t believe it would hold my weight without collapsing onto my seatmate. What it was great for was putting against the armrest or the window to create a soft surface to lean against — preventing hard metal and plastic plane parts from bruising my body as I tossed and turned.

Final Verdict: If you and a family member are sharing adjoining seats, by all means, set this pillow up. Otherwise, it might not be worth packing the EZ Sleep to use in conjunction with another pillow for your head or neck.

Top Tips for Sleeping on Planes

Travelrest Travel Pillow
travelrest travel pillowThe Pillow: Here’s a new one — an inflatable pillow shaped like a banana, or possibly an apostrophe. It’s larger on the top, so you can rest your head, and then tapers into a slight curve (this part slings across your body). A long string at the bottom lets you attach the two ends to secure the pillow around you or your airplane seat.

The Flight: This pillow was hands down my favorite. I contorted my body into all sorts of positions trying to sleep across two airplane seats, and whether I was sitting up or half-lying down, the pillow cradled my head and gave me something to wrap my arms around so they didn’t just dangle uselessly. The only downside was the plasticky smell that plagues all inflatable travel pillows, though perhaps that would go away after a few uses.

Final Verdict: While it didn’t help me sleep, the Travelrest pillow made my attempts more comfortable. I’m keeping this one and will definitely use it again.

– written by Erica Silverstein

amsterdam harpsichordAmsterdam has a lot going for it — like the Anne Frank House, boat rides along its storied canals, the Van Gogh Museum and cycling amongst the tulips (or green fields in less glamorous seasons than spring).

Visiting these places via a guide or a pre-arranged tour can certainly offer insights you might not otherwise get, but as an independent-minded traveler, I find usually them slow-moving, frustrating and — okay, I’ll say it — sometimes quite dry. So it was a big surprise to me that on my last visit to Amsterdam, a guided tour led to the best day I’ve ever had in that city.

Our Favorite Spots to Stay in Amsterdam

I’ve always been fascinated by the houseboats on Amsterdam’s canals, but the closest I’d ever gotten to visiting one was the city’s Houseboat Museum. And while I appreciated the history I learned there, the experience didn’t give me a true feel for life in Holland today. I found that instead on a walking tour offered by Van Aemstel Productions, which enabled me and other visitors not only to go inside local homes but also to meet their residents.

The locals were as interesting as their houses. One was a children’s book writer, another a television producer, a third a retired tour guide. One revealed the unique challenges of living in a houseboat — like the limited space; the patio that, while adorable, is visible to every tourist walking by; and the need to move out completely every few years so the boat can be brought into dry dock for hull inspection.

Another local welcomed us into his narrow 17th-century canal house, gamely maneuvering his broken leg up a set of ladder-steep steps to his top-floor apartment. Once there, he gave us impromptu concert on a harpsichord (on which he’d painted a gorgeous seafaring vista). Like the houseboat resident, he was willing to put up with a more challenging lifestyle in order to live in an atmosphere that was special, unique and central to the character of his city.

Van Aemstel Productions, it turns out, specializes in the kind of guided tours meant to give travelers insights into contemporary life, not just history. Perhaps on my next trip there I’ll check out its tour of the Red Light District, led by a former cop who walked that beat.

8 Tours for People Who Don’t Like Tours

That tours could offer more than just history lessons was a revelation to me, and since then my antenna has been attuned to experiences in other cities that offer a sense of what’s real there. In San Francisco, for instance, Vayable.com offers a chance to learn about the city’s homeless issues via a tour with a gent who, indeed, is homeless; you can also forage for your own seafood with a local fisherman. Visitors to Buenos Aires might initially put a tango lesson or a visit to Eva Peron’s mausoleum on the top of their sightseeing lists, but personally, I love the sound of Vayable’s “In the footsteps of dictators” experience, which traces the city’s dark history. (Learn more about Vayable in Tourist No More: Three Secrets for Traveling Like a Local.)

I’ve become a guided tour convert — how about you? Share your favorite guided tours below!

– written by Carolyn Spencer Brown

Stuttgart Library You’re in a new city and you have the near-unavoidable checklist of sights to see and things to do. Let’s review here: Museums, national parks, historic sites, art installations, so-and-so says this is the home of the world’s best wiener schnitzel — the list could seemingly go on forever.

And while many attractions are simply a case of beholding them (it’s free to stare at the Eiffel Tower but not to climb), entrance fees and related costs add up over the course of a vacation.

So what destination is available in just about every city you’ll visit, is a great porthole into local culture, offers spectacular people-watching as well as potentially free Internet access (handy in a foreign land) and is always free to visit? Libraries! I’m not just talking about Washington D.C.‘s Library of Congress (on many actual to-do lists), but any community building for book loan. You probably grew up visiting your own, from time to time, and never even considered it as a tourist attraction. Admittedly, that’s because some libraries are a tad more impressive than others — not in what they stand for, but perhaps how they stand (picture a repurposed industrial complex in Germany shaped like a Tetris block and filled with books).

Flavorwire recently put together a slideshow of 15 standout libraries from around the world — including one in Denmark featuring a giant mouth that recites poetry aloud, as well as reading nooks resembling birdcages in an eco-retreat at a Thai resort.

Editor’s Note: Slides one and nine represent private, home libraries and while awe-inspiring, are not recommended for your next sightseeing list!

What Not to Do in a New City

While attending college in Poughkeepsie, NY, I was drawn to study in the library of my friend’s alma mater, Vassar College — not for the millions of pages at hand, lying dormant in their many tomes, but for the Gothic architecture: the marble touches, hidden staircases and stained glass windows. This didn’t improve my grades as much as fuel my wandering imagination, and solidify my appreciation of libraries that appear as grand and mysterious as the knowledge within.

If the library you find doesn’t resemble a cathedral or a giraffe, don’t fret. The volumes you find abroad may not always be in your native tongue, but the communal library experience is guaranteed to be shared. Libraries are often used as a space for community announcements and events, so take advantage of tapping right into the source — find a bulletin board or events calendar (if you can read it) to get a pulse on the area.

12 Great Museums You’ve Never Heard Of

What’s the best library you ever visited at home or abroad? Share your experiences in the comments below!

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

couple with tablet If you’re reading this, you’re clearly wired. Perhaps you limit yourself to perusing travel Web sites’ blogs, but if you’re like most of us, you likely throw some e-mail and social media into the mix, too. Whether it’s sharing photos from your current travels on Facebook or tweeting about a harrowing airport experience, we’re curious how long you can go without staying connected.

In a recent Facebook poll, we asked this: What’s the longest you can go when traveling without checking your e-mail/Facebook/Twitter/social media outlet of choice?

Given that the vehicle for the poll is Facebook, it’s amusing that the general consensus among those who commented is that they can forego online communication when a vacation is involved. (It’s also worth noting that several respondents mentioned cruises, where it can be difficult — and particularly expensive — to get Internet or cell phone service.)

“Social media, likely not a problem,” says Wynne Gavin. “E-mail? Now THAT would be hard, but since that’s the way I’d keep in touch and let people know I was ok, it’s moot.”

Steven Long says he sticks it out through his whole trip: “… through the entire cruise! I do not need Facebook to live!”

Lavida Rei takes it a step further, claiming she could go “forever” without it if she really wanted to.

What’s your take? How do you keep in touch while traveling? Weigh in below.

How to Escape While Staying Connected

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

rugelachWe had a pass to get into our hotel’s breakfast room. But there was a mistake: Our breakfast pass actually belonged to a couple named Johnston and Shirley. I don’t know who Johnston and Shirley are, but their names were printed on the card.

When we checked with the hotel receptionist, he insisted that it was fine and that we should keep using the pass — so for the rest of the week, we were Johnston and Shirley.

We had fun imagining what Johnston and Shirley might say to each other while having breakfast. Johnston was pretty uptight, I remember, and was concerned with being a successful-looking “man’s man.” Shirley was a total airhead who lost interest in things quickly. I can’t help feeling that we were unfair to Johnston and Shirley. I think we pigeon-holed them.

We were in Barcelona, so we’d expected a classic Spanish breakfast — even though I didn’t know what that was. I’d pigeon-holed that too.

It wasn’t what I’d expected. The hotel pretended to make its own food, but every morning you could watch the waiter or the bar man making the trip across the road to the bakery to pick up fresh goods to serve.

Our Favorite Barcelona Hotels

The bakery was a small place run by an elderly Jewish couple. Every morning, they provided the hotel with delicate scones and muffins, savoury burekas (small, flaky puff-pastries that people could take to eat for their lunch if they wanted to), and bagels. Later, there was rich coffee cake and little rugelach, which tasted how the inside of Christmas Eve might taste.

The owners had migrated to Spain in the 1970′s, along with many thousands of other displaced people, from Argentina, where they faced political violence from the oppressive military junta that had taken control there.

The diaspora’s culture manifested itself in many ways, but for us, it manifested itself in breakfast.
We could only have found such unexpected delicacies by accident. We’d have been so busy looking to find “authentic” Spanish cuisine that we’d probably have missed the exceptional pastries that all the locals were eating.

I remember a Chinese restaurant in Amsterdam where a man piloted a smoking wok over a hob that looked like an upturned jet engine. It was one of those floating palaces in the harbor that had looked so much like massive tourist hulks that I’d been pretty happy to avoid them. I’d wanted to eat something Dutch — I was in Holland, after all — but our friends, who’d been living there for a couple of months already, had taken us here instead.

It was incredible! To think I’d almost missed out because I’d had a preconceived idea of what I ought to be eating in Holland. This was one of the best Chinese restaurants I’ve ever been to. Everyone who lives in Amsterdam knows about it and heads there to eat after work while the tourists are sipping Heinekens in Rembrandt Square.

There’s no such thing as a mono-culture, and setting out to experience only one facet of a country’s food, music or social life will never give a full or representative experience. So many things influence countries and cities, helping to make them what they are.

The next time I’m pigeon-holing, even if I’m pigeon-holing Johnston and Shirley, I’ll try to remember this. Maybe I’ll enjoy a place more for what it is than what I think it should be.

12 Delicious Destinations for Foodies

– written by Josh Thomas

mailbox with moneyHow do you fulfill your travel dreams when home expenses, kids and other necessities get in the way?

Obviously, saving money throughout the year helps a little, but it’s been my experience that what I manage to save is never quite enough to cover the one or two big trips I like to take a year.

What I really need is a decently-sized, lump sum of money suddenly handed to me. I play the lottery but so far that hasn’t paid off. What I have been able to count on is my yearly tax refund. And while I’ve never gotten enough money back from the government to fund an entire trip, what I do get helps a lot.

Top 10 Stunning Spring Destinations

Apparently, I’m not the only travelholic eagerly awaiting her IRS refund in the mail. A recent survey of some 1,788 U.S. travelers found that a little over 40 percent (43.8) will use all or part of their tax refund to pay for their travel. More than a quarter (27.4 percent) said they’d use all of it.

Equally as many respondents said they’d use a little less half — or $1,000 to $1,499 — of their refund (assuming a $3,000 refund). Just over seventeen percent said they’d use $1,500 to $1,999, while 13.7 percent said they’d use $500 to $999.

The survey results come care of Travel Leaders Group, a massive travel agency company, so their customers aren’t entirely unbiased when it comes to travel. As an example, 94 percent of survey respondents have already taken or plan to take at least one leisure trip this year. Travel is not unimportant to them.

It’s so important, in fact, that 36.1 percent said they plan to take more leisure trips this year than last, and 39.7 percent said they will spend more on their leisure trips this year as well.

Travel Budget Calculator

What about you? Will you use any of your tax refund to fulfill your travel ambitions this year?

–written by Dori Saltzman

seattleIf I can offer you only one piece of advice for traveling to Seattle it would be this — dress in layers.

While never too cold or too warm, and, of course, famous for an almost daily drizzle, the weather in Seattle is nevertheless hard to predict, especially in late winter/early spring. And weather forecasts aren’t always helpful.

Prior to jetting off to Seattle for a recent four-night visit, I checked Weather.com to see what I should expect. Heavy rain storms and cool weather were predicted, so into the suitcase went several cold-weather items. But then my overpacking gene took over and, despite the ugly forecast, I threw a few warm-weather options in as well. Thank goodness I did.

As it turned out, three out of four days started out foggy and cold, but then turned warm and sunny, before ending crisp and cold again. Because I had thrown in some tees, a light sweater and a zip-up sweatshirt, I was able to put on and take off layers as needed.

The Ultimate Guide to Travel Packing

Care for a second piece of Seattle travel advice? Rent a house or apartment.

I was in Seattle for a cousin’s bat mitzvah; with me and my husband were my parents, and my sister and her family, including my 3-year-old niece. We looked at hotels at first, but the cheapest rates we could find (in a decent hotel) started at about $140. That wasn’t bad, but the necessity of eating out would add to the cost. Then my dad looked on VRBO.com for short-term rentals. Prices, when split three ways, were slightly less than the per-night hotel rates, plus we would all be together and could cook meals in the house and share grocery expenses.

Not only did renting a house bring down the overall trip price, but we got a great location right on Green Lake, within a 20-minute drive of everywhere we wanted to go.

The last tidbit I picked up during my short stay in Seattle involves parking near Pike Place Market. If you’re planning to drive to the Market, try and wait until Sunday. Parking on 1st and 2nd Avenues is free that day, though you’ve got to get there pretty early to snag a spot. Otherwise, don’t park in a lot within three or four blocks. The first lot we pulled into on 2nd Avenue would have cost about $40. A lot just two blocks farther away, on the corner of 3rd Avenue, cost $12.

Our 6 Favorite Seattle Hotels

– written by Dori Saltzman

santo domingo dominican republicBefore my recent trip to the Dominican Republic, I was warned by a number of colleagues, relatives and friends (including one who’s Dominican) that I should be careful. Not just “don’t drink the water” careful, but “wear no jewelry, don’t make eye contact and don’t even think about going outside at night” careful. The good news: I survived my trip safe and sound. But with so many dire warnings, I didn’t stop to consider some of the more practical (and less dangerous) issues I might encounter.

Rental Car Runaround
Scenario: Even though I’d reserved a rental car ahead of time for pickup at the airport, it still took an hour for the paperwork to go through — and I was the only customer.

Lesson: Because of differences in languages and processing methods, you should always leave extra time for things like this, especially in places with a slower pace of life.

Scenario: After the first time I stopped to refuel, the car wouldn’t start. I called the rental agency, who told me that the vehicle’s keyless entry safety feature was prohibiting the engine from turning over. I clicked a few buttons, and the car started right up.

Lesson: Ask if there’s anything specific you should know about the car before you leave the rental agency. Ask also for a phone number where you can reach someone if you have problems (and keep a phrasebook handy in case the person on the other end doesn’t speak your language).

The First 10 Minutes of Your Car Rental

Scenario: On the day I flew home, I tried to return the rental car an hour earlier than scheduled — but nobody was at the desk. I waited 20 minutes before calling the customer service number again. I was told that because I was an hour early, nobody would be there to take the key. I was instructed to hide it behind the computer at the rental counter.

Lesson: In other countries, not all businesses are open during what we would consider “normal” operating hours. This is especially true in locations that don’t see many tourists. Treat rental car reservations like doctor’s appointments: show up only at the times you specify for rental and return.

GPS Guffaw
Scenario: While driving from the airport to my hotel, the GPS in my rental car kept screaming at me to “turn right” when no right turns were present, leaving me lost in Santo Domingo for two hours. I called my hotel’s front desk, and they were able to get me on the right path.

Lesson: Don’t rely entirely on technology when traveling. If possible, find and print directions to take with you in case your cell phone or GPS gets lost, breaks or dies along the way. And carry the phone number of someone at your destination in case you find yourself in a pinch.

3 C’s: Credit Cards, Currency and Cell Phones
Scenario: My credit card was denied when I tried to purchase snacks. I paid with cash and promptly called the company to discuss the problem. (I always call to alert my bank and my credit card company before traveling to avoid having my cards blocked when I need them most.) I was told that some card companies won’t allow transactions in certain locations if they’re considered “high-risk.”

Lesson: Sure, you know to tell your card company that you’ll be globetrotting, but it’s also a good idea to bone up on its policies regarding the specific places you’re visiting. Keep the company’s phone number handy and carry cash as a backup.

The Best Way to Carry Money Overseas

Scenario: On my last day, I made a wrong turn on the way to the airport. (Thanks again, GPS.) I found myself at a pesos-only tollbooth (having purposefully gotten rid of my remaining pesos immediately prior) and conjured up my high-school Spanish to ask if they’d accept U.S. dollars. When two heavily armed police came out of the booth, I took that as a firm “no.” But one officer did offer me 500 pesos — enough for the toll — in exchange for a $20 bill. He made a $10 profit on the deal, but you don’t refuse a man with a machine gun when he stands in the way of your flight back to civilization.

Lesson: Always carry enough local currency to get you through end of your trip. Airports usually offer exchange services, so don’t worry about having too much leftover cash.

Scenario: Although I added international texting and data coverage to my cell phone plan before embarking on this adventure, I turned down the international calling plan since I didn’t think I’d use it. But with all my hapless calls to the hotel, car rental agency and credit card company, I used quite a few minutes. At $2.95 a pop, I’m now facing a pretty nasty bill.

Lesson: Always, always say yes to a calling plan. If you run into trouble, phone calls are almost always your best means of finding help. Keep in mind, too, that if you’re traveling abroad, your phone will be roaming the second it connects to a network, even if you don’t make any calls. Because service can be spotty in some locations, ask your carrier about availability and consider purchasing a prepaid phone when you arrive at your destination.

International Cell Phone Guide

–written by Ashley Kosciolek

currency exchange money foreignWhen it comes to international travel, getting the most for your money is a big deal. While we usually recommend withdrawing local currency from an ATM as soon as you arrive, there are certain times when it makes sense to purchase currency in advance.

Mark Rowlands, sales director at currency provider Covent Garden FX, explains that buying in advance allows travelers to shop around for the best rate and hedge against exchange rate fluctuations that might affect their buying power. Buying in advance can also give you peace of mind if you’re traveling to a place where ATM’s might not be prevalent, or if you’re concerned about your card being declined.

Below are Rowlands’ tips for getting the best deal when buying foreign currency.

1. Shop around — and shop online. This might sound obvious, but it’s amazing how many people assume their friendly travel agent or supermarket will look after them. Think about it: They are in business to make money, and you are a captive audience. Politely decline and go and surf the net. You can cover the whole marketplace from the comfort of your home.

2. Plan ahead. Don’t leave buying your currency until the last minute. When buying online, you need to allow enough time for your payment to go through, your identity to be confirmed and your currency to be delivered.

Get the Best Exchange Rate

3. Beware of “free delivery” offers. What really matters is how much currency arrives on your doorstep. What’s the point saving five bucks on delivery if it costs you $15 worth of currency? Look out for extra hidden charges, and try to find out how much you are paying in total and exactly how much currency you will receive. The benefits of a great exchange rate can be totally negated by commissions and handling fees.

4. Avoid Saturday delivery. There is often an extra charge to get money delivered on weekends. Some companies will deliver to your work address during the week, but make sure you have a secure place to keep your travel money safe.

5. Get together with friends. If you order your currency in bulk, you will have greater buying power. Even online bureaus are happy to negotiate for larger amounts. Call or send an e-mail asking for their best deal.

6. Ask for a price match. If you’ve found a better deal elsewhere, ask a company to match it.

7. Check the money market. Compare the deal you are offered to the market rate. Visit XE.com and look at how much profit margin has been added. You can’t buy from a wholesaler, but knowledge is power. If your supplier is adding 5 percent — which is not unusual — walk away.

8. Beware of the credit/debit card trap. The bureau will probably inform you it has a small charge for debit cards. This is quite reasonable with such tight margins. But very often that’s not the end of the story; most credit cards and many debit card providers will treat your transaction as a cash advance. Check the small print or call your provider. If someone tells you there is no additional charge, get that person’s name. Sign up for Internet banking and pay using a bank transfer to avoid hidden charges. The last thing you want is a 3 percent charge plus interest on your statement when you return from your vacation.

The Best Way to Carry Money Overseas

9. Don’t be fooled by buy-back “guarantees.” Read the small print: Is what you are getting really worth paying for? You might be better off shopping around for the best deal for unwanted currency when you get back home. Never assume you have to take your unwanted currency back to where you got it from. Take it home, cash it in and shop around for the best buy-back rates available.

– written by Mark Rowlands and Sarah Schlichter