I want to tell you all about my recent experience as a first-time traveler to Europe. But before we get into the oohs and ahhs, I'm gonna share with you some travel planning tips and how they translated into real live travel during our trip (see what I did there??).
One of the first things I did once we decided we were going to Europe was to Google my booty off. I spent a lot of time on Rick Steves' website. I also found a ton of info on Pinterest, believe it or not. It started with searches on what to pack and blossomed from there. And, of course, friends and family who had travel experience were very generous with advice.
My top tips:
- Backpack or roller? We went with backpack-style because we are in decent physical condition. Actually they were more of a soft-sided suitcase with backpack straps. Just be careful not to overpack.
- Shoes are heavy. Make them the last thing to add and the first to toss when trying to lighten your load.
- Sleeping comfortably on an international economy flight won't happen unless you self-medicate. Bring something to do in case you've seen all the in-flight movies. Hydrate. Plan that first day after you arrive as a recovery day.
- I'm not in love with the concept of the money belt, but I would've been much more anxious without it. I rarely took mine off. The hubs, on the other hand, was not a fan, and usually left his in the hotel room safe. Having said that, we had absolutely no safety issues in almost three weeks away, two of those as my daughter and I traveling alone after the hubs went back stateside.
- We had euros and pounds sent to us from our local bank in advance. Others may advise you to wait and exchange your currency when you arrive, usually because you'll get a lower exchange rate. But the exchange rates from our bank were comparable, and getting the currency by mail before we traveled eliminated the possibility of panhandlers or muggers loitering around the ATMs who target inexperienced travelers like ourselves. If you want to wait to exchange, do it at an airport at a booth that is beyond security. We had an unpleasant experience with a panhandler while exchanging pounds for euros at the Gare du Nord train station in Paris toward the end of our trip. Lesson learned. Oh and BTW their money is fun! Ours is boring!
The most important nugget of info that I was not aware of and that almost cost us our trip was passport status. Both of us have had passports since 9/11; neither of us have had a chance to use them until this trip. I remember feeling very dispirited when mine expired, still in pristine condition, never stamped. But I had it renewed anyway, just in case. Folks, this is a good strategy. You never know when you will need it! My husband's passport had a different renewal date than mine - it wasn't expiring until December 2016, so I didn't give it a second thought since we would be over and back long before then.
Little did I know that expiration date is meaningless. After the second person told me a passport is no good if it is set to expire within six months of your travel date, I got a little nervous and made some calls. Sure enough, it was true: apparently you can leave the USA with a valid passport expiring within six months. It's getting back in that's the problem!
The party line on getting a passport renewed is a six week wait. But of course no one would commit to that. If you're in a jam, like we were, you can pay for expedited service, which shrinks the wait time from weeks to days. Yay, but ouch!
To add more fun to our passport dilemma, before we knew about this expiration wrinkle, we had applied for something called a GOES pass (Global Online Enrollment System) to expedite getting through customs and TSA security lines. This process requires a background check and in-person interview, which of course requires you to bring your passport. So we couldn't send his passport off for renewal until after our GOES interview, unless we wanted to forfeit the hundo we had paid for his GOES application. We didn't.
GOES interviews are held at various locations around the country; usually at major airports. Our local airport is not considered major, so we had a minimum two hour drive to the nearest location. Securing an interview time is a dicey proposition. You will find many of the interview sites booked months in advance. But here's what they don't tell you: people cancel all the time. So don't despair! This just means you have to constantly check the GOES site to see if a date has opened up at a location convenient to you.
Once we learned this little hack, we were able to get an interview in a matter of weeks rather than months, just in time for our trip. However, it meant we would need to rush from the interview to the nearest post office to drop the passport off for its expedited service. We had a two week window between the GOES interview and the departure date. A very kind woman at the local post office who often dealt with panicky travelers like myself said passport turnarounds were running 8 business days, but of course she couldn't guarantee anything.
So we spent the next several days tracking the passport's renewal progress and sweating bullets. I suppose you know the outcome since I'm blogging about our family trip to Europe: yes, it arrived in time, thank goodness! It came on a Friday before we were set to leave on a Tuesday. People, don't do this to yourselves! As soon as your passport is within six months of expiration, get it renewed. It's fairly painless this way, loads cheaper, and you won't lose sleep over it like we did.
As for the GOES, yes, I highly recommend. As I mentioned, it speeds up TSA on the domestic leg as well as customs when you're coming home. One thing it does NOT do, however, is expedite non-TSA security screenings outside of the USA. Remember, security is separate from customs. This was a painful lesson learned, but I'll save that story for the next blog post, in which I'll discuss our first week spent in Germany.