Archive for Travel Tips

Welcome to Amsterdam!

Our flights to Amsterdam were pretty uneventful and we arrived in Amsterdam right before 6 am local time.

We were exhausted but excited to have landed in the Netherlands! Apparently our options for taxis were a van or a Tesla…we chose the Tesla and were on our way!

We were lucky that we could get into our apartment right away. Out of all 6 of our European trips, this is the first time we’ve been able to get right into our room/apartment. We took advantage of that and made ourselves lay down and sleep for a bit.

Once we got up, we went out and bought tram tickets, purchased SIM cards for our phones, and grabbed some sandwiches for lunch.

A word about SIM cards…our phone plan does not have an option for international use, though I know several plans do. I’ve heard a lot of people talking about a plan that is $10 a day, which is not a bad deal really. However, keep in mind that in Amsterdam, we spent $70 for 2 SIM cards with more GB than we could use in the entire 16 days we were there. So depending on how long you plan to be there and if you plan to use your phone for the internet, it might be worth it to just get a SIM card for while you’re there, assuming your phone is unlocked.

We then headed towards the center of the city to try to catch a tour. We didn’t realize that the tour began at a church in the middle of the Red Light District. Somehow we didn’t know we were actually in the Red Light District until we started seeing ladies in lingerie in the windows. We just kept walking!

Unfortunately the tour we wanted to take was full so we had an hour to kill before the next one started, but fortunately, there was a coffee shop right around the corner so we got coffee and hot chocolate while we waited.

The tour was definitely worth waiting for. It was one of those “free” tours that runs off tips, and the guide was pretty great. It was about 3 hours long and she took us around lots of areas in the city and talked about things that Amsterdam is known for, such as prostitution, marijuana, and tulips.

In regards to marijuana, it is technically illegal in Amsterdam, but it is tolerated. I believe she said you are allowed to have up to 5 grams on you, because it’s considered personal use, and you can supposedly have 4 marijuana plants in your home for personal use as well. However, you are not legally allowed to sell it or manufacture it. Also, coffee shops (where marijuana is sold legally in Amsterdam) are taxed something like 59% on marijuana sales, so they definitely pay for it…

Prostitution was legalized/tolerated because it was assumed that sailors would be coming into the city and messing with the women anyway, and the idea was that if there were women willing to do the job, it kept the sailors away from the women who didn’t want the attention. Nowadays, labor laws continue to protect women doing this work. It is not legal to work for someone, so at least pimps aren’t taking most of the money they make. Instead, women register with the local government as business owners and they pay to rent their windows. They also pay taxes, just like any other business. It is also required that the room have an emergency button and the owner of the property must be there within minutes if the button is pushed. This insures the safety of the women working.

We were assured that the toleration of prostitution and marijuana don’t really have anything to do with a moral high ground, but that it is more related to the fact that the Dutch, being good businessmen, have found a way to monetize these businesses. Whether you agree or disagree with the policies, it is certainly interesting to learn about!

After the tour, we decided on Indonesian food for dinner. Apparently, Indonesia was formerly a Dutch colony, so their food is still popular in Amsterdam. It was different from anything we’ve had, but we actually liked it!

I’ll leave you with a few pictures of Amsterdam on our very first day!

Where in the Caribbean?

People are currently planning their summer vacations, and a common question I get has to do with where to go if you want to go to an all-inclusive, but you’re on a budget.

First, I want to say that all-inclusive resorts are the way to go if you want to relax, lay around, and not do much of anything. They are the ultimate haven for people just needing to get away from life for awhile. That being said, they are not all created equal. You do get what you pay for, but there are moderately-priced resort brands worth checking out if your budget has a limit.

All-inclusive resorts are generally found in the Caribbean. Contrary to popular belief, there are no true all-inclusive resorts in the United States. You do have to leave the country to get to what you are imagining when you are thinking of all-inclusive resorts. Many islands offer these kinds of resorts, including the Cayman Islands, the Bahamas, St. Lucia, Aruba, and Antigua. However, the main three that are the most cost-effective and easiest to get to are Jamaica, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic. (For the record, I do know that Mexico is not an island, but they do have some great all-inclusive resorts!)

So how do you know which one to visit? Here are some ideas to get you started…

 

Mexico

Parts of Mexico do not have the best options for beaches. Some tend to have a lot of seaweed and rocks that impede the view, but there are some stretches of beach that are really beautiful, so be sure you know what to expect if you go.

Mexico is probably the most cost-effective and there are resorts both near and far from the airport, so you have a lot of options.

As far as sightseeing, Mexico has a lot of adventure parks (think Xcaret), snorkeling opportunities (Cozumel is supposed to be wonderful!), and lots of options to see amazing ruins like Chichen Itza and Tulum.

 

 

Jamaica

Jamaica has a special place in my heart, as it is where we spent our honeymoon. We visited for our 5th anniversary and then again over our 11th anniversary. The main area for resorts are Montego Bay (which is where most people would fly into), Negril, Ocho Rios, and the South Coast if you are staying at Sandals South Coast. Negril, Ocho Rios, and South Coast are approximately 90 minutes from the airport.

Those sound like long transfers, but they are worth it! Negril is known for it’s beautiful beaches and Sandals South Coast has a long beach that is not in the middle of town, so only guests from the resort are hanging out there.

I was recently in Montego Bay. We stayed at Secrets St. James, and while the beach there was small, they utilized the beach area they did have and there were some really beautiful spots to relax.

Excursions include Bob Marley sites, hikes and trips into the mountains, and Dunn’s River Falls in Ocho Rios. There is also the bio-luminescent bay near Montego Bay

 

Dominican Republic

Punta Cana has some beautiful beaches. Many water excursions are offered, such as snorkeling and swimming with dolphins. The food isn’t as great as resorts in other Caribbean countries, but there are some very affordable options in the Dominican Republic. We spent 7 glorious nights there a year and a half ago, and we were perfectly happy to just lay on the beach, drink in hand.

Another perk of Punta Cana is that there are several options near the airport, so you don’t have to wait long to start your vacation!

If you are still planning your summer vacation and would like some help, make sure to contact me!

 

International Travel Tips

A lot of people are booking trips for spring break or summer or maybe even both! If you are travelling outside the country this year, these are some things you should consider before leaving…

  • Make sure you have a valid passport with at least 6 months left on it. Many countries will not allow entry if your passport expires within 6 months of your visit.
  • Make copies or take a picture of your passport and all the credit cards you will be traveling with. If some or all of these documents are lost or stolen, you will be able to contact your credit card company, and you will still have your passport information. Take a copy with you and leave a copy here with a family member.
  • Call the credit card company and the bank before leaving so that they are aware you will be using your card out of the country. Some banks and credit card companies must unlock your cards before they can be used, and some may not allow you to use them at all. This is very important to avoid being locked out of your account. Also, be sure that you know your PIN numbers on your debit cards and know the maximum amount of money your bank allows you to take out per day.
  • Register your trip with the US State Department at https://travelregistration.state.gov/. This lets the State Department know where you will be and when. The State Department will also send you notifications if there is a travel warning in the area you are traveling. Also, check for any travel tips or warnings for the country you will be visiting.
  • Know where the US Embassy is located in the country you are traveling in in case something happens and you need to get there.
  • Bring a charger adapter, if necessary. Some countries require different chargers.
  • Be sure to purchase travel insurance, as your medical insurance likely does not cover you while out of the country. Bring copies of your travel insurance cards.
  • If you plan to drive while there, be sure to obtain an international driver’s license. This can be done at AAA.
  • Check with your cell phone carrier to see if you will have service in the country you are visiting and inquire about any international charges for use of your phone in that country.

Another thing I always encourage is to do a little research about where you will be travelling. Not everywhere you may visit is the same as your hometown. Lots of things could be different, such as food, pricing, language,and the overall culture of the people. It helps to learn a little of the language; most locals really appreciate the effort, even if you know very little. The best advice I can give is to expect things to be somewhat different and be open to something new.

 

If Ever There Was a Reason…

….to use a travel agent and purchase travel insurance, it is now. Now that Hurricane Irma has dissipated, we can sit back and assess the situation and what could have been.

Can you imagine being on an island in the Caribbean, knowing that a hurricane is headed your way in less than a week? Your flight is cancelled and you have limited internet and phone access. This could be a terrifying situation, but if you booked through a travel agent, you may have someone who might be able to help you. It may not always be the case that an agent can get someone out of a sticky situation such as this one, but wouldn’t you want to have someone who would be around to at least try to get you off the island?

I was fortunate that I didn’t have anyone in a situation like this when Hurricane Irma began her voyage through the Caribbean, but I did spend several hours on hold with Disney to reschedule an upcoming trip that was affected by her arrival. While this isn’t quite as big of a deal as being stuck in the hurricane itself, it was nice for my client to have someone else to deal with waiting on the phone all morning instead of having to do it herself.

When it comes to travel insurance, some people like to gawk at the price and choose the least expensive option, if purchasing any at all. Yes, most of the time you probably won’t have to file a claim, but it happens. In fact, it probably happened for a lot of people this week. Imagine the same scenario I described above in which you are stuck on a Caribbean island staring a hurricane directly in the eye. Even if your airline hasn’t cancelled your flight, you may want to leave on an earlier one to be sure you are off the island when it hits. This means you might have to be ok with forfieting what you already paid for the flight you no longer want to take AND pay for a last-minute flight that leaves earlier. Depending on how much your policy pays out for claims, you may end up spending all your claim money (maybe even more!) just to get home, so it might be worth it to make sure your policy pays out more than 100% of your trip cost for trip interruption benefits.

No, travel insurance doesn’t cover everything, but it covers some of the things you might encounter, and I cannot stress enough how important it is to have some sort of medical insurance when you leave the country; you may not have as much coverage (or any coverage at all) as you think through your primary medical insurance plan outside the United States. Also, all travel insurance policies are different, so be sure to read the fine print and ask any questions necessary.

What I have taken from the situations of the past week has been how important it is to have some sort of coverage to fall back on, as well as how important it could be to have someone standing in your corner when this kind of thing goes down. Just something to consider for your next trip…

Things to Consider When Leaving the Country

When we travel overseas, as we’re getting ready to do, there are a few things we always try to do.

  • Make sure you have a valid passport with at least 6 months left on it. Many countries will not allow entry if your passport expires within 6 months of your visit.
  • Make copies or take a picture of all the credit cards and your passport you will be traveling with. If some or all of these documents are lost or stolen, you will be able to contact your credit card company and still have your passport information. Take a copy with you and leave a copy here with a family member.
  • Call the credit card company and the bank before leaving so that they are aware you will be using your card out of the country. Some banks and credit card companies must unlock your cards before they can be used. This is very important to avoid being locked out of your account. Also, be sure that you know your PIN numbers on your debit cards and know the maximum amount of money your bank allows you to take out per day.
  • Register your trip with the US State Department at https://travelregistration.state.gov/. This lets the State Department know where you will be and when. The State Department will also send you notifications if there is a travel warning in the area you are traveling.
  • Know where the US Embassy is located in the country in which you are traveling in case something happens and you need to get there.
  • Bring a charger adapter, if necessary. Some countries require different chargers.
  • Be sure to purchase travel insurance, as your medical insurance likely does not cover you while out of the country. Bring copies of your travel insurance cards.
  • If you plan to drive while there, be sure to obtain an international driver’s license. This can be done at AAA.
  • Check with your cell phone carrier to see if you will have service in the country you are visiting and inquire about any international charges for use of your phone in that country.

Traveling outside the United States can be exciting and a great experience; it may just take a little extra planning, but it is totally worth it!

Need Help Planning a Trip?

They say that January through March/April is the busy season for travel agents because the holidays have finally passed and everyone is looking forward to spring break and summer plans. Now is the time do think about what you want to do this spring/summer!

I actually (mistakenly) always thought that it was more expensive to book trips through a travel agent, but the truth is, you just might find a better deal. It’s true that for some of the trips we have planned in the past, we have been looking for a specific type of hotel and we couldn’t get what we wanted through an agent, but in a lot of situations, we actually got a better deal, so it is always a good idea to have them price something out for you. If it’s better, then it’s better, and if it’s the same price, then you’re getting out of having to do all the work and letting her/him do it for you. There is just no reason not to have your agent check pricing for you.

Here’s why.

We really want to go to Greece this summer. We’ve been thinking about it for years and I think we are really going to do it this year, but we were really discouraged by the fact that flights are almost $1500 apiece. That’s almost $6000 in just flights for the four of us and nothing else. When I looked in one of my supplier’s databases, I was able to find flights for the four of us and 3 nights in a hotel room in Athens for right around $3600. Yes, you read that right. $3600. Over $2300 cheaper than doing it outright and by just purchasing flights, we still wouldn’t have any hotels included in it. For $3600, we could get flights for all of us and 3 nights in Athens at a hotel. And this is before my agent discount. This is a deal I could get anyone. Is it the hotel we would have chosen on our own? No. It’s not. But that $2300 savings is the difference between us being able to actually go, even if we have to stay in a hotel that we wouldn’t normally have chosen, and not being able to afford to go at all. I will also add that there is nothing wrong with the hotel we would stay at. We just typically prefer smaller bed and breakfasts or apartments, and this hotel is a chain. But like I said, it is going to be totally worth it to spend 3 nights there if it gets us that kind of savings.

So, please always check with your travel agent to get pricing. You never know what you will find.

Other reasons to use a travel agent, besides the fact that they might get you a better deal:

1. They have access to all kinds of suppliers that are offering different deals that you would know nothing about. Sometimes suppliers offer deals that only agents have access to.

 

2. They can make sure you are booking a service with a reputable company. There are a lot of scams out there.

3. More than likely, they have a network of other agents to ask specific questions to if they don’t have the answers.

4. If something goes wrong with your trip, she/he might be able to help get things sorted out. The very first trip I booked had a glitch. I got a call early one morning from my client who was in London and had missed their flight to Vienna, which meant they were going to miss their train to Salzburg. I was able to call the supplier to have the hotel notified that they would be arriving late and I was able to get the name of the train station my client needed to go to and the times for train options that evening. I was also able to start their insurance claim.

6. Speaking of insurance, travel agents can get you a great plan…and on any big trip that has non-refundable parts to it (like flights) really should be insured in case you need to cancel for a covered reason. And anytime you leave the country (if you live in the US), you really need insurance because it’s very likely that your primary insurance does not cover you medically when you leave the country.

All this being said, please contact me if you need me to check any prices on anything. It is worth a try, and it costs you nothing to have me check something for you. You can contact me through email at RachelM@MyAmbassadorTravel.com. I will also be adding a travel contact page on my blog that will make it easier, but that is the way to contact me for now!

 

How to Keep a 3-Year Old Busy While Traveling

I have been posting a lot about our trip, and I’m sure many of you are wondering how we kept the kids busy. Felix was difficult. he was just starting to walk/cruise when we left so it was really hard for him to be in the stroller and on buses and trains all the time. Anya was much easier, thankfully. I came up with some projects for her to work on, though she called them “missions.”

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Finger puppets! I packed these and gave them to Anya a couple at a time.

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She was able to practice writing on plane and train rides.

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I created two different “photo hunts” where she had to take a certain number of pictures of certain things. These were awesome for outdoor tours. Sometimes she really got into them and kept pointing out when she would see what she was looking for.

Eric found this idea for how to make a sturdy folder to hold paper and markers out of a DVD case, so he made this before we left.

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It holds paper and markers!

 What have you used to keep your kids’ occupied while on vacation?

Souvenir Ideas

When we go on vacation, we like to get a few souvenirs, but what we don’t want is a bunch of new junk to find places for. I know everyone likes different things to remember their trips, but here are a few things we often look for when we travel:

1. Ornaments wpid-wp-1388850897739.jpg

I’ve mentioned this before, but we really love putting up our tree every year and seeing the ornaments from all the places we’ve been. Some places (especially in Europe) don’t always have ornaments, but we usually find something that we can make into an ornament, like a magnet or a key chain or something similar.

2. Earrings

I know this might be a little strange, but I love buying earrings on vacation. I remember where I bought all of them and every time I get them out to pick a pair to wear, I think about where I bought them. I’m sure I can get similar looking earrings anywhere, but I like buying things like this in markets and from street vendors when we’re on vacation.

3. Shot Glasses

This is totally my husband’s thing, and we have what seems like a million of them sitting upstairs in a room. He likes to find these on vacation when he has a chance.

4. Dolls and other Toys

When we took Anya to Europe two years ago, we let her pick out a couple of dolls from street vendors and she still has them in her room. We also think it’s kind of neat for the kids to have toys from other countries. We were in Prague before we ever had kids and bought a little puppet just because it was cute and we thought any future children we had might enjoy it.

5. Paintings/Sketches

A Life in Tune - Travel Souvenirs

We bought this right outside the Musee de Orsay in Paris.

This is one of my favorite souvenirs. They are a little pricier than other souvenirs, but I love having paintings and watercolors to hang in the house. I don’t dislike what we currently have hanging on the walls, but my goal is to someday have only family pictures and pictures and paintings from our travels.

 

 

 

 

6. Music Boxes

Anya really enjoyed the music boxes we bought in Germany two years ago, so this is something we may start looking for. She still gets it down several times a week and plays with it.

7. Wine

Do I really need to say anything about this? It’s just too bad there is a limit to how much wine we can take home!

8. Home Decor

Sometimes we find little things to use as décor for the house. Another goal of mine is to have most of the décor be from our travels. It is happening slowly but surely!

What are your favorite souvenirs?

Preparing for a European Trip

Last week, I posted ideas for preparing small children for a big trip, but there are also things we tend to do to prepare ourselves as well. Besides all the physical and obvious preparations (accommodations, transportation, itineraries, etc.), there are lots of little things that help keep us excited about the trip (as if we really needed anything to sustain the excitement!).

1. Find books to read for the flights, trains, etc. I know that I am really weird about this, but I don’t like to read anything “scary” while I’m on vacation. Normally, I love a good vampire novel or a good historical fiction novel, but I don’t like to read anything too heavy while on vacation. I normally go for something that I can go back to and not have to remember a lot to jump back in. I never know when I will have a chance to read, especially when the kids are with us. A lot of times I end up with Chick Lit or “feel good” books. Anything with plane crashes or terrorist attacks are off the list!

2. Don’t watch any movies with scary plots. This means no plane crashes, terrorist attacks, or people being kidnapped or imprisoned abroad. (Basically, no Brokedown Palace or episodes of Locked Up Abroad.) I know this might seem silly but I really don’t want to watch movies about people catching a nasty virus on a plane or a plane being shot down right before I’m getting ready to get on one!

3. Peruse the forums and look at pictures. Nothing gets me more in the mood for a trip than reading others’ trip reports and questions/comments and seeing pictures of the places we are visiting.

4. Read books or watch movies that take place in or near the places you will be visiting. This is, of course, as long as the movie isn’t about how terrible and corrupt the city is!

5. Walk. A lot. We’ve been walking with the kids in the double stroller, as well as walking with Felix in the Ergo and Anya walking with us. She walked almost 2 miles the other day! It doesn’t seem like a big deal but I think people do a lot more walking in Europe than most people do here, at least where we live. We always try to make sure we are in decent shape when we go so that we are physically able to do the things we want to do.

6. Read about the sites you plan to see. I find that if I know more about the sites we plan to visit, it is much more exciting when we actually get there because I understand what it is I’m seeing.

7. Look up food to try while you are in Europe. Some cities have food they are known for, so we like to have a short list of things we definitely need to try. Langos in Budapest are a must, as are tapas in Spain!

8. Check the weather. As we get closer to our trip, I’ve been googling the weather in each of the cities to get an idea of how hot (or cold) it might be so we know how and what to pack.

Preparing for a Trip

This time around, there will be two little ones in the picture!

So I know a lot of these are probably overkill, but I get so excited when we get closer to the trip that I need something that helps me to contain the excitement!

What do you do to prepare yourself for a big trip?

 

You’re Taking Them With You?!

1. Take them off a strict schedule. I realize this is counterintuitive to a lot of people, but if you’re going to take a trip like this with your kids, it will be much more difficult to do if your kids are completely dependent on a strict schedule. Don’t get me wrong – a schedule is really great at home for lots of reasons, but on vacation, planes run late (so do trains and buses on occasion), and it’s not always possible to find food to eat at the times the kids are used to eating. Then, there’s jet lag and the time change to adjust to. We have been lucky that our kids have never been completely dependent on a schedule, and we have never been really great about implementing one, so traveling with the kids tends to go well most of the time. I do realize that lots of kids do better with schedules, so I’m definitely not saying schedules aren’t good. Just saying that they aren’t always easy to keep up on a trip like this.

2. Encourage them to try different foods. We purposely make different kinds of food at our house and visit different kinds of restaurants, so our kids are always trying something new. This makes it so that they are more comfortable with trying new foods in other countries. They may not always like it, but they will at least try it!

3. Simply talk to them about what’s going to happen on the trip. This doesn’t really work with our son yet, but our daughter did well with this on our last trip two years ago. We talked a lot about where we were going, how we were going to get there, and what we were going to do when we got there. I really think this helps them to have some idea of what to expect, especially if they have never gone somewhere like this.

4. Show them pictures of where you’re going. Again, this is something that works for Anya but not Felix. I’ve been showing her pictures of the places we are going, especially the ones I know she will enjoy and she has been really excited about it. We’ve also been listening to flamenco music.

5. Take them out. Anywhere. We purposely take our kids to places so they learn how it is to be in public. It’s not always pleasant but for the most part, they do pretty well. On our last trip two years ago, we migrated from the “cry room” at our church back into the general population because we wanted to be able to attend Mass in some of the countries we were visiting. By sitting with the congregation in our own church, we were able to do that. We also have been taking Felix to places with a considerable amount of noise so that he is more used to crowds. He doesn’t do as well with lots of people around as Anya did but is starting to feel much more comfortable with this.  

6. Find something for them to do during the “boring” stuff. It is definitely worth your while to go through your itinerary and identify things that might not be exciting for them. Then, come up with something for them to do during that time. We are working on things like finding new apps for the Ipod/Ipad, creating a book of search and find pictures, and coming up with “missions” for Anya to do. We also plan to do outside things or go to the park (or something else they will probably enjoy) for the other part of the day.

The bottom line is that kids will throw fits and there will be problems at some point during your trip, just like there would be at home. But hopefully, with a little preparation, these kinds of situations will be minor and most of the trip will go smoothly!

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The kids trying out their new ride for the trip!

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Anya and I enjoying a playground at Schonbrunn in Vienna.

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