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Take mystery, stress out of international travel

Travel agents can help with planning, find special deals

By Gita Sitaramiah, Star Tribune
Published: March 2, 2024, 5:23am

MINNEAPOLIS — Declan Halloran’s family considered traveling to popular Algarve region spots Albufeira or Lagos in Portugal last summer, but he knew those cities would be hot and packed with British and Irish tourists.

Instead, he planned a trip to nearby Costa Vicentina, a wind-swept coastal area that’s less touristy.

“We were the only Americans there,” he said.

While exciting, international travel involves many considerations. Do you want to see Machu Picchu or the Great Wall of China or go on an African safari? Do you want to avoid other tourists? What can you fit in without rushing? And can you even afford your grand plans?

To help plan an ideal trip while keeping all of your priorities in mind, here is some expert advice to consider:

Plan early

Travel agents said the majority of Minnesotans they help go to Europe for a week to two weeks. While information about those countries is widely available, the agents are still busier than ever.

Linda Snyder, vice president of travel and retail services for AAA Minneapolis, has already started booking client trips to Europe for next year and the year after that. River cruises book up fast. You should reserve every tour, church and museum visit before departure, if possible.

“Ideally, you’re planning a year ahead of time,” she said. “That’s not to say you can’t plan three to six months out.”

But if you do, you might have to make more compromises or spend more money.

A1 Travel agent Monique Delph books flights six to nine months before departure.

“I’ve seen the ticket price double closer to the trip from six months out,” she said.

Check your cellphone coverage and consider texting and calling free via WhatsApp, a widely used international messaging app. You can pay extra to still use your plan’s data coverage, just plan to use free Wi-Fi or purchase or rent a portable Wi-Fi to use while in the other country.

Wherever you go in the world, review the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for entry requirements and consult your doctor or a travel health clinic for any vaccinations or medications needed.

Also find out whether you will need to apply for a Visa to enter the country.

“You need to make sure your passport has six months of validity beyond the date you return. That’s something people miss,” Snyder said. “If you’re going for a month, you should have six months left from when you come back. That’s true for most places.”

She also encouraged travelers to enroll in the STEP program so the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate knows of your trip in case of a natural disaster or other global event.

“It’s a good safety measure,” she said.

Money matters

Realistically, you’ll likely spend more than you planned. But it’s better to realize that sooner than later and start saving now.

“The biggest question is the budget, and there’s usually some sticker shock,” Delph said.

After paying for the flight and hotels, she recommended a minimum of $100 a day per person, but that can swing up or down. A luxury buyer or party animal might spend much more.

Delph recently booked a nine-night trip for a couple in central Paris. Including the flight and a 4½-star hotel, the cost is $5,850. A mother-and-daughter trip Delph booked to Rome and Florence for 10 nights during spring break was similar at $5,800.

Experts said the days of waiting for flight deals have passed, and travelers agreed.

“Last minute doesn’t exist because of these algorithms,” said globe hopper Noopur Curtis of Minnetonka, who often flies to Chicago in search of better travel options to India. “I’ve tried for the past two years and haven’t found a deal.”

As prices easily climb well more than $1,000 for a roundtrip to Europe, other locations farther afield are often even costlier. Traveling to Africa will be double a Europe trip from New York, said Georgina Lorencz, owner of African Travel Seminars.

When traveling to many countries, a combination of credit cards, an ATM card and cash to exchange is all you need but look into the specifics of your destination. Lorencz tells clients to bring a Visa or Mastercard and $500 to Africa. When exchanging for local currency, bring clean, newer bills and ask for the same. She recently tried to exchange some British pounds with the late Queen Elizabeth’s image, but the currency exchanged declined them.

Timing is everything

Flight delays and changes are more common. Try to book the first flight of the day and build in extra time for travel even if it’s not needed, such as staying near the airport before an international flight home.

Airlines flying in other countries often operate under stricter consumer rules and might offer refunds and compensation. So it’s worth filing a claim for any trouble at the carrier’s website.

Consider whether you want to go to your destination in its high season, which will be more expensive. For a first-time trip to Europe, Snyder recommended going in fall or winter when your money goes further, and crowds are more sparse. Want to go to the Olympics in Paris this summer? At this point, you’ll need lots of money or lots of flexibility. Probably both.

“Another big question is, ‘How many countries can we see in a week?’ ” Delph said. “If it’s just a week, I would tell them to do one.”

Be creative. Halloran’s family sometimes stays at ski resorts in the Alps in summer that offer great hiking and rooms at half the price of ski season, said the University of Wisconsin freshman, whose side hustle is travel planning for friends and family. Michael Florey, a semi-retired Minneapolis attorney, suggested trying pricier spots like Michelin-starred restaurants at lunchtime and renting rooms at vineyards to see the countryside.

“You can try the wine, and don’t have to worry about driving drunk,” Florey said. “You can just go to your room.”

Travel agents can help

Even with so much information available online, hiring a travel agent could still be a good option. Travel agents say they offer expertise, relationships and organization, such as when your trip involves multiple stops or you need to hire a trusted driver or guide abroad.

“Planning tours in advance and skip-the-line tickets, all of those are things travel professionals can help with,” Snyder said.

They also may understand the local customs and hotel standards, which can vary widely.

“I still believe in travel agencies,” Curtis said. “I have built travel agendas myself. That takes a lot of work. Travel agencies can do a lot of that work for you at a small premium.”

Lorencz provides her clients going to Africa with a comprehensive 30-page guide with everything they need to know about preparing for travel and what to expect on the ground. She also works to make the trip efficient. Since many African restaurants cook food to order, Lorencz coordinates with them ahead of time so her travelers aren’t waiting more than an hour for their meals.

“Imagine if you walk into the restaurant on your own,” she said. “You would be sitting there for a while”

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Pack strategically

Packing a large bag to check might be no problem if you’re going to only one destination or on a cruise or guided tour. If you’re taking buses and trains between multiple locations, think again.

“Sometimes you get to those cities, and the cab can’t even get down the street, and you have to get out and roll your bag down cobblestones,” Snyder said.

Another advantage of a carry-on is being able to keep the bag with you on a plane for peace of mind. Consider packing cubes to fit more in, taking fewer clothes and sending out laundry for longer trips.

“Always keep a small medicine kit,” Curtis said. “Your Advil, something to stop diarrhea, and something to get you through a cold.”

Study cultural norms

You might have to cover your shoulders and wear long skirts or pants to visit sights in many Islamic countries as well as many cathedrals in Europe.

Avoid using your left hand at the dinner table in Africa and Asia. A hand gesture like a thumbs up common in American culture is offensive in Africa. Be aware that several languages might be spoken in some countries and English might not be as familiar, particularly in remote or rural areas.

Lorencz recalled an appreciative traveler who attempted to hug a cooking class instructor in Morocco, but he found out it’s a no-no in Islamic culture to touch a woman who’s a stranger.

“I couldn’t believe how fast she jumped out of the way,” she said. “She was somebody’s wife. She was older and more traditional. No, don’t touch her.”

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