THE EDUCATED TRAVELER: Foreign Travel Advice From An Expert

By: Sandra B. Wilkins, M.A
Senior Agent,
[email protected]

“I don’t know where the shame of being a tourist comes from.  I’ve heard many friends in full touristic swing say that they don’t want to mix with tourists, not realizing that even though they don’t mix with them, they are just as much tourists as the others.  When I visit a place and haven’t enough time to get to know it more than superficially, I unashamedly assume my role as tourist.  I like to join those lightning tours in which the guides explain everything you see out of the window—‘On your right and left, ladies and gentlemen…’  one of the reasons being that then I know once and for all everything I needn’t bother to see when I go out later to explore the place on my own.”

—Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I confess my pet peeve when traveling out of the United States is hearing many times over “well, they don’t do it like this at home!”  Certainly not, my dear sir from Des Moines, if you want life the same as it is at home, by all means stay there, and stop wearing those dumb Bermuda shorts with tacky black knee socks and brown sandals.  In fact, go home, you’re spoiling my enjoyment of the delicious differentness of it all.

Foreign travel, while often taxing and frequently difficult, has brought me the most wonderful pleasures.  It has expanded my sensibility, made me humble, reduced my self-centeredness, and taught me I always have a lot to learn.  What can be more civilized than cooking like the French, savoring theatre like the English, emulating the manners of the Spanish, admiring art and architecture  like the Italians, taking great joy in small things like the Mexicans, meditating like Tibetans, and generally acquiring beautiful new layers of sensibility with each new culture we experience?  To my thinking, nothing is more rewarding.

International Travel Deserves Homework
and Requires a Passport.

But to be blessed with these gifts, you first have to get out of town, and most international travel deserves homework and requires a passport.  I think everyone should have a passport.  Number one, if you lose your drivers license it’s a dandy and foolproof form of identification for cashing checks and proving you’re over 21 when needed.  Secondly, who knows when your friendly travel agent might call you up and invite you on a spontaneous free flight to Paris for dinner!  Then, there is the possibility that just having one will encourage you to use it.

Obtaining a passport is a fairly painless exercise, with two exceptions: one, you must have a notarized and raised seal copy of your original birth certificate, no copies area allowed.  These can be obtained from the Department of Vital Statistics from the state in which you were born.  Next, you will be required to stand in a line at the U. S. Passport office for first time applicants, or appear in person at an U.S. Post Office that has a Passport Office..  But, a one page form, $140 cash, check or money order, and two photos will put this treasured little blue book in your hands in two to four weeks (expedited passports are possible within 48 hours for an additional cost), and a U. S. Passport is valid for 10 years. Once you own a passport, you can simply renew every 10 years, and bypass the standing in line routine.

Passport in hand, now comes the homework.  It should be a labor of love to decide where in the world you want to go.  First consider your personal interests and hobbies, and what you most like to do for fun and recreation.  Make a list of these things.   That’s the first bit of advice I always give clients who call and moan “I’m stressed to the max and have got to have a vacation, but don’t know where to go.”  “What do you like to do with your personal time?  What constitutes fun for you?,” I ask.  It hardly makes sense to go to Switzerland if you like sunshine, palm trees, beaches, and loads of laid back time to relax.  On the other hand, Switzerland is a grand idea if you like hiking, biking, snow skiing, and fondue.

Information abounds on endless “special interest” destinations, so based on your own personal interests, you’ll be able to choose from a wide variety of places in which you may indulge them around the globe.  Once you’ve chosen your destination, go immediately to the library or bookstore and collect a small cache of literature about where you’ll visit.  Be careful not to acquire too much material, but get some comprehensive guides that will educate and enlighten you about your destination.  Our website at has excellent information about many destinations throughout the world.

Generally speaking, I think it’s wise to have one big guidebook, and a couple or three specialized references.  Everyone has their own preference about the general guides.  Everyone will want to have the Insight Guides in their library, for the sheer depth of information about the country and its culture.

You Have Your Passport and Your Destination. What Next?

So, now you have your passport, have chosen your destination in a reasoned manner, and possess more information about the spot than you will ever use.  What next? Budget and time.  Some of us have a plenty of time, and not much money, others have more money than time, and some of us have very little of either.  However, how long you can be gone frequently determines, or certainly should, where you can go.  For instance, I’d never recommend trying to visit Australia, New Zealand, or other South Pacific areas in less than 20 days.  You spend a full 4 days getting there and back, and another 2 suffering debilitating jet lag, so the travel itself shoots a week of your vacation.  Similarly, it’s hard to do Costa Rica in a meaningful way in less than a full week.  Although Costa Rica is relatively nearby, the flight schedules almost demand a forced overnight in San Jose on arrival, and the night before your return home, leaving you a mere 5 nights to savor one of the most magical places on the earth.  I’ve lost business more than once by flatly refusing to plan a trip to Europe for folks who want to see Paris, London and Rome in a week.  It’s totally ridiculous.  You don’t remember anything that distinguishes one from the other.  So, it’s important to consider the time factor carefully, then work with the budget to accommodate the length of time you have to spend.

As a rule, remember there are a number of given costs involved in any trip, anywhere.

1) Transportation:  how do I get there?  Car, train, plane, boat.  What is the roundtrip cost from my home to my destination?

2) Lodging:  Where will I stay?  Hotel, guesthouse, bed & breakfast, hostel, tent.  How much will it cost me per night, INCLUDING WRETCHED FOREIGN TAX & SERVICE (often 15% to 21% on top of the accommodation itself).

3) Food and drink:  How much should you budget per day for sustenance?  This is a somewhat controllable cost, depending on your budget and palate, but on average you should plan on $35 to $60 per day per person, including tip, without alcoholic beverages included.

4) Transportation while traveling:  Rental cars, taxis, rail, rail passes, ferries, subways, other air flights.  Most cities are big places; that’s why they’re cities and not towns.  Getting around in Mexico City, Hong Kong, Paris, or Kiev often requires more than your feet, so you’ll need to budget for additional transportation while on vacation.

5) Admission fees for various sights:  Museums, galleries, zoos, parks, historical houses, movies, theatre, dance, opera, etc.  These too will cost money while you’re vacationing, so investigate carte blanche  passes when possible, and know ahead of time what to expect a movie or play to cost.

6) Incidentals:  Post cards, stamps, tips to bellboys, three coins for the fountains, tokens for restrooms, etc.

More than likely your budget should include all of the above.  What is not included is any shopping you may do, so after the required essentials are covered, then what’s left is yours for shopping sprees.

Our company, specializes primarily in offering our clients the best of escorted tours around the world, offered by over 40 top tour operators.  Most especially for first time travelers to foreign countries, an escorted tour is the way to go, hands down.  First of all, it will save you an average of 40% over making all those arrangements on your own.  Secondly, you’ll have a full time tour director with you throughout, fluent in the language (or languages if you’re on a multi-country tour) and these incredible folks are experts in the destinations you’ll visit, and will take care of all the details for your tour from beginning to end.  Going abroad for the first or tenth time…put yourself in the hands of an escorted tour.

So, let’s go somewhere!  Ciao, and au revoir.

~ Sandra

Contact Sandra:

Sandra B. Wilkins, M.A
Senior Agent,
[email protected]