I think it is worth sharing some of the planning and research I did for our recent Europe trip. Most of this info can also be used for other international destinations.
The weather: This is the most important factor for any vacation that I plan. There’s nothing like being away when most of the days are sunny and the temperatures are in 60-80 degrees. That’s the reason I pin down the final destination only 4-6 weeks ahead of the actual trip. Surprised??
It is not only the weather but mood factor as well. I usually have few destinations in mind but will know for sure which tempts me the most only before a month or two. Such short timeframe gets me excited and focused. This strategy has worked very well so far. For example, France and the surrounding countries had bad Summer this year but the Fall weather was beautiful.
Soaking in one place at a time: I hate to rush i.e. visiting too many places in a short span of time. We should give at least 3-4 days in one city. The culture, character and the landscape differs from place to place. Though we could have visited more countries but we limited ourselves to France and Belgium only during this Europe Trip. It gives us another reason to go back and visit other cities or countries.
No Guides or Tour Groups: I just can’t walk in groups or get tied to a fixed schedule, Sorry!!
Yes, it can be overwhelming in a new country or a place with a different language, people etc. But it doesn’t really take that long to get adjusted.
Though the adventure of unknown can be awkward at times but I have found it rewarding for the most part. Exploring new places, food and meeting new people is what travel is all about. Some of the best experiences we have had were unplanned.
Home away from Home: There is nothing like having the comfort of a home away from home whether it is the well appointed rooms or the convenience of a fully equipped kitchen.
It is amazing to see how smartly the space is utilized in some of these, not so big cabins or vacation homes. The hosts can also guide you on the best local spots to hangout, eat or how to get around in a new place.
I have found vrbo.com very helpful to find such homes whether it is in the US or overseas.
Now coming to the points specific to Europe:
Euros: You definitely need a good chunk of Euros for the trip. It comes handy whether you are paying for the room, eating out or for some of your transportation needs.
Buy Euros in the US for your immediate needs only i.e. for the phone calls, taxi etc. Because the exchange rate is poor in US.
Debit cards: You will get the best exchange rate when you use debit cards to withdraw cash in Europe. Call your bank and find out the partner banks to avoid any additional ATM withdrawal charges.
Also check the currency conversion (Euro to USD) fees. These vary from bank to bank. I found Bank of America to be cheaper than Chase. BofA also has an extensive network of partner banks in most of the European cities.
You will need to call your bank (same goes for the credit card companies) ahead of time so that they can flag your cards for international transactions. They will ask you the dates and countries that you will be visiting. Otherwise the transactions may be reported as fraud.
Credit Cards: Use the credit cards that don’t have foreign transaction fees. Usually the Capital One credit cards don’t but double check.
Keep some change/Euro coins for phone calls at the airport: You might need to call the hotel, taxi or your host when you land. Make sure you don’t use a credit card to make the phone call. I made the mistake of using credit card at Brussels Airport and was charged about $20 for a local call of less than two minutes.
After the trip, I googled regarding this issue and found many such incidents. It is a scam, supposedly there is a fine print somewhere on the phone that mentions higher charges for using a Credit card. I called my credit card company and disputed the charge. They happily refunded the amount after I explained to them what had happened.
A local phone card or a SIM can be convenient and works out much cheaper, so you might want to look into it.
I believe I have mentioned all the key points that I can think of. Let me know if you have other suggestions based on your travel experiences.