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Travel Talk – Tips offered for international travel case (Jan. 28, 2015 issue)

Most recently, this column has focused on traveling in Peru. However, international travel more generally is one of the most rewarding experiences, but it can also be one of the most overwhelming in planning. So, here are some of my tips to get you started.
Of course, some people prefer to go with tour groups. If you know little about the country you’re going to, don’t speak the language, or have never been abroad before, this can be a good idea. Tour groups will arrange your lodging and most of your meals. You will also mostly likely have a guide who will know his or her way around, speak the language, and be able to give you more information than you would otherwise have.
On the other hand, I much prefer going independently rather than with a large group. Tourist groups stand out, and I think it’s usually harder to truly interact with locals when you’re surrounded by a large group of fellow foreigners. Instead of going to your destination with a group, look for day trips or guides of the city or area you visit. You can do some of this research in advance, but it is usually just as easy to find a tour when you arrive.
You may want to pick a specific area or country to visit, and then pick a city to be based in. You can then find tours that will go out of that city and explore the area. For example, when I lived in the Provence region of southern France, my family visited my town of Aix-en-Provence and stayed there. One day, we took a bus to Marseille, and another day, they paid for a tour that took them to Arles. By doing this, they got to know Aix very well but still got to see much of Provence.
I always invest in a good travel book as well. Of course, if you have a smart phone or a tablet, you can download guides, travel apps, and maps, which would be less conspicuous. I also recommend using Trip Advisor to find reviews by other travelers for lodging and attraction recommendations. Regardless, I still like books and will read them before I leave or on the flight.
If you’re going to Europe, Rick Stevens has excellent guide books that usually include easy and informative self-guided walking tours. Fodor’s and Lonely Planet are also good options. If you go somewhere where English is not the predominant language, all of these guides also have a glossary or manual of important phrases.
However, the most important website to read before you leave the country is the U.S. State Department’s travel information. Here, you will find country information and tips for American travelers. It’s a good idea to register with state department travel program (S.T.E.P.) as well since they will send you necessary safety updates. The website will also tell you which legal documents you will need in each country.
While most countries just require a valid passport, some countries require travel visas. Depending on where you go, you can either obtain such documents when you arrive or before you go. If you will be gone for more than a month, most countries require a visa and each country’s process is different. If you do not have a valid passport, it will usually take a month to process but you should allow extra time.
If you do not speak a second language, do not let this hold you back! Around the world, people in the tourist industry often speak English, and you will be amazed at the universality of hand gestures and facial expressions. Nonetheless, you should always try to learn a few basic phrases before you leave. In most countries, people really are more helpful if you try to communicate in their language. If you have health conditions or allergies, it’s a good idea to learn those translations before you leave.
Personally, I tend to be a budget traveler. In other words, I like hostels. Typically, you will share your hostel room with other travelers but there are almost always lockers to store your luggage. Not all hostels provide towels, but many have towels to rent. Most also serve breakfast. More importantly, you will encounter other international travelers and good hostels are staffed by knowledgeable and friendly locals. All of these people can give advice of what to do or where to eat. Location and price are the major benefits of hostels. You can frequently find a hostel room for $20 a night, and many hostels are located in the center of town and within walking distance of the important tourist sites.
Even if you are not a budget traveler, you will want to research your trip and compare prices. Websites such as Expedia offer discounts for flights and hotels. STA Travel offers incredible discounts for students and teachers.
Regardless of where you go, plan ahead. Don’t forget to tell your bank and Credit Card Company where you are going. Learn a few words, and check the climate of your destination. Most importantly, bring a camera and charger or extra batteries (and don’t forget that some countries use different plugs, so you may need an adapter).