General Travel Tips

Sometimes Travel Plans Change. Are You Prepared?

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I’m somebody who, in general, is very prepared for every trip I go on. I book my flights well ahead of time, I research the best hotels and Airbnbs for my budget and book well in advance, and I also do things like reserve train tickets and other such things well before my travel dates. I’m not somebody who likes to have every day of my journey planned in advance as I believe that one of life’s great pleasures is arriving in a new place and enjoying the freedom to explore and discover at my leisure. However, when it comes to the basics…flights, hotel rooms, and transportation arrangements, I’m on top of it.

Usually, this works out well for me. I arrive in a new country, and, having already arranged my transportation to my hotel/Airbnb as well as reserving the room itself, I ease into my arrival, get to my room, and have a nice shower and a rest before venturing out into my destination to enjoy the joy of discovery. If my plans involve multiple destinations or cities within a country, all plans such as train tickets, connecting flights, or rental cars are taken care of ahead of time so all I have to worry about is showing up at the right time and enjoying myself.

The thing is…sometimes, even “the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry”, so they say. My recent trip to France certainly kept me on my toes.

This was not my first time visiting France, and I would say that, in general, it’s a fairly easy country to travel to as an American. 90-day visas are issued upon arrival to the country, there are plenty of direct flights from the United States, and the country’s first-world infrastructure means that services and transit are generally very good in the country. For those who are nervous about things like language barriers, they really shouldn’t be. I do speak a fair amount of French through my studies over the past couple years, but on my first trip to France I didn’t speak any at all and had no issues whatsoever getting around and communicating with people or finding out the information I needed to know in any situation. Most people speak English in tourist areas anyway, but even when they don’t, signs are well marked and it’s really not too hard to figure anything out. So, this trip was supposed to be one of the easier, more relaxing journeys.

Like any diligent traveler, I booked my flights, Airbnbs, and train tickets to my various destinations around France ahead of time. I left most of my plans open to allow for maximum freedom, but the big stuff was well taken care of ahead of time. That is, of course, until the French decided to announce a massive transit strike just before I was set to head over there.

My first indication of the strike came because I had started following The Local-France, an English language news source for France. I started seeing articles posted about French transit strikes, and of course my investigations led me to discover that rail strikes were scheduled for 2 out of 3 of the days I had booked long-distance rail journeys on France’s TGV high-speed train. I then emailed Rail Europe, the company I had booked the tickets through, and they confirmed that, yes, the trains would be canceled on my scheduled days and I had the option of either canceling and getting refunded or rescheduling the journeys for non-strike days. I thought about it and did a little research into alternative options. Flixbus, a German bus company that operates in France, came up as an option, but when I discovered that my five-hour train journeys would turn into 14-hour overnight bus journeys, including a 2-hour window of time at 2am where I would be sitting at the Lyon bus station waiting for a connecting bus, I decided maybe renting a car would be the most sensible option.

I’ve been to Europe many times, but I’ve never rented a car there, so this prompted a lot of research into French road signs, French driving rules, and what would be needed for me to actually legally drive in the country with my U.S. driver’s license. Thankfully, it was all pretty straightforward and with a few exceptions, the rules of the road didn’t seem too different than the rules at home, so I chose renting a car.

Thankfully, my diligence in monitoring French news led me to take these actions. I can see an alternate world where I arrived in France with absolutely no knowledge of the strike at all, only to discover it when I tried to board my train. I can see the scramble to try to figure out an alternative solution at the last minute. I can see the stress of trying to find WiFi to make these arrangements after I had already checked out of my room. I’m not saying these kinds of things haven’t happened to me in the past, but I am saying that it was much better to have two weeks at home to realize there was an issue and solve it before ever flying over there. Besides, it allowed me to see a little more of the country while out on the open road. Win-win.

Here are a few tips I have on being prepared for a trip which can help you to avoid some nasty last-minute surprises…

  • Monitor Local News
    • A month or two before your trip, find an English-language news source that covers your destination, or just periodically Google “news” and “your destination”. This will help you to know what is happening in your destination and will help you avoid situations (such as a French transit strike) if necessary.
  • Reserve ahead of time, but try to go with flexible cancellation policies whenever possible.
    • Flexible cancellation policies are always great when reserving things like flights, hotels, transit tickets, and everything else. If possible, go with this when reserving. It’s not always possible because sometimes (especially when it comes to flights), these can be a lot more expensive, but if it’s available and you can afford it, this will help you to avoid headaches should plans change.
  • Travel insurance
    • It’s great to purchase travel insurance so that you’ll be covered financially in case something goes wrong. Make sure you read carefully what your particular policy covers ahead of time and get the coverage you think you might need. Travel can be expensive and it’s a real bummer to lose all that money due to something out of your control. Travel insurance can help with this.
  • Carry cash in the local currency with you on arrival.
    • Before I head to a new country, I always get about $200 or so of local currency at my bank before I head out. This is great because things like credit card issues can definitely happen and that amount of money allows me some time to get it all sorted out. Even if your credit card is fine, cash is great for catching a taxi on arrival, and if you don’t see an ATM at the airport, it can be useful to have a little money to get you through until you find one. Besides, what if you arrive and you really want a coffee, but the coffee stand is cash only? It  just makes sense on multiple levels to have some cash to start out with. Order your cash a couple weeks ahead of time at the bank to make sure it arrives before your journey, then just get more from banks and ATM’s as needed while traveling.
  • Register with your country’s embassy or consulate in your destination country. 
    • It’s pretty easy to do…you just fill out a little form online that allows the embassy/consulate to know you’ll be visiting the country, and then they email you helpful reminders and news updates of important things you should know while traveling. I got an email from the U.S. embassy in France about the transit strikes a couple hours after I saw the news story posted. Plus, if you have any issues while you’re abroad, it will be a little easier to get assistance.
  • If you think you might be driving, get an International Driving Permit. 
    • These are NOT required in France or elsewhere in Western Europe in order to rent a car and drive, but they can be helpful as they provide a certified translation into many languages. You carry it with you and use in conjunction with your driver’s license. Really only useful if you get pulled over and asked for it, but here in the U.S. it only costs $20 and can be easily obtained at any AAA location on the same day it’s applied for, so I don’t really see a downside and it’s better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it.
  • Turn on International Calling for your phone, if possible
    • My phone plan allows me to turn on international calling for the duration of my trip, for an extra fee. I rarely use it, but it’s useful to have should any issues arise, so I always do it. I just contact my phone company before my trip and tell them to turn it on, then turn it off again after the trip. I still turn my phone to WiFi only while traveling, but if I do have a problem and need to use the phone, it’s there for me.
  • Speaking of WiFi….
    • On my trip to Japan last year, I rented a portable WiFi device for the duration of my trip and it was amazing. I was able to travel all around the country with the little device. It connected to the phone networks and my phone connected to it through WiFi. I was able to use it for Google maps, looking up information and hours of places I wanted to visit, and of course doing silly things like live videos of us hanging out at Shibuya Crossing or playing fun Japanese arcade games in Akihabara for our friends back home. I liked it so much that I decided to purchase a Skyroam device, which is the same thing but good in a lot of countries around the world. I purchase day passes for the Skyroam and use them in the same way, wherever I’m going. This was great in France and I can’t wait to use it in more places! If you don’t want to purchase your own device, rentals of this kind are now offered in a lot of places worldwide. Look into it! Besides, WiFi is great to have in case of issues arising. I’m just saying.

These are just a few suggestions to keep your travels running smoothly as you explore the world. Do you have any tips for keeping on top of things while traveling? I would love to hear all about them!

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