11 easy steps for researching your journey abroad

By Philip Wagenaar
This item appears on page 54 of the February 2012 issue.

by Philip Wagenaar (Part 1 of 4)

As I was busy preparing yet another journey, my 14-year-old grandson asked me if I followed a certain routine when researching a trip.

“Yes, darling,” I said. “Come here and I will show you what I do.”

Regarding arranging for a trip, in the next few issues of ITN I will relate what I have learned over 60-plus years of international travel. It can be summarized in the 11 steps appearing in the box (opposite page). I will elaborate on each.

Step 1: Check State Department Advisories

Check advisories issued by the US State Department (888/407-4747). Among other things, its website provides the following:

11 Easy Steps

11 easy steps for researching your journey abroad

When arranging for a trip overseas, follow these steps in the order in which they are presented.

  1. Check the US State Department travel advisories for the countries of interest.
  2. Investigate the area’s climate, weather and best time to travel.
  3. Peruse public holidays and summer and school vacation periods.
  4. Decide whether you will travel independently or on an escorted tour or do a combination of both.
  5. Obtain medical information related to your own health and to diseases you may encounter.
  6. Buy the appropriate guidebook(s) and overview map(s). On the latter, delineate your tour with the help of the “Itineraries” chapter of each guide.
  7. Contact the appropriate government tourist offices.
  8. Decide how to reach and return from your destination (e.g., by air, ship, train, etc.). Research local transportation (e.g., Japan’s bullet trains).
  9. Integrate any desired accommodation into your plans (ensuring that hotels, etc., will be available on the chosen travel dates).
  10. Investigate trip insurance.
  11. Prepare your finances (debit cards, travelers’ checks) and apply for visas.

• A description of each country.

• Travel Warnings and Alerts. (Will it be safe to travel in the country or is there a threat of terrorist attacks? If so, where?)

• Entry/exit requirements. (Will you need a visa? How long are you allowed to stay?)

• Crime information. (Will you be able to walk around without having to worry about being mugged? Are there likely to be pickpockets?)

• Health information. (If needed, will you be able to get adequate medical care?)

• Traffic safety and road conditions. (What is the general condition of the roads? How carefully do the natives drive? Will it be safe for you to operate a vehicle?)

As my wife, Flory, and I had such a marvelous time 10 years ago when we motored by ourselves throughout Morocco, we considered revisiting the country in 2011. However, after reading State Department warnings detailing Moroccans’ driving habits, we backed out.

It is helpful to compare the US State Department advisories with those of the British and Canadian governments.

Join the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, or STEP, a free government service for citizens traveling to foreign countries. Sign up at home at travel.state.gov by clicking on “Tips for Traveling Abroad” and entering information on your trip. Subscribe to receive Travel Alerts plus other facts for particular countries.

Inform the government of your address abroad, which will facilitate emergency assistance and simplify contacting your family, if necessary.

Call Overseas Citizens Services (888/407-4747 or, from overseas, 202/501-4444) for help abroad regarding 1) the death, injury, arrest or detention of a US citizen, 2) a missing US citizen, 3) crime victims or 4) the abduction of a child.

Step 2: When To Go

• To determine your optimum travel time, visit the Lonely Planet webpage, click on the desired country and look for the sections on “Climate, Weather and When to Go.” If a “When to Go” chapter isn’t shown for a particular country, search Google instead.

• Also, check the WorldClimate site, which summarizes monthly rainfall and temperatures for multiple cities worldwide. Once you have found the city of your choice, the program facilitates navigation to many other towns within a large radius.

• For weather forecasts around the world, visit www.wunderground.com.

Step 3: Public Holidays & School Vacations

You may want to avoid travel during public holidays and school vacations, when tourist facilities often are overcrowded. To determine when these occur…

• Consult the relevant Lonely Planet guidebook.

• Check with that country’s government tourist office (GTO).

• Consult the Google website of the desired country, including in its native language (if appropriate for you). To find the site in the native language, type “Google” followed by the name of the country (e.g., “google france,” which would bring up www.google.fr).

To help your planning, I have outlined the holiday calendars of selected areas.

Western Europe — Whereas the majority of the population takes its summer vacation in July and August, school holidays usually are staggered. Vacation dates can be found in the Michelin Red Guides (available at booksellers or by calling 800/462-6420) of selected countries, such as Germany and France.

We always avoid France between July 1 and Aug. 31, when most French travel to the sunny areas in the south and to the beaches. Roads commonly are congested, and accommodations in the south are solidly booked.

During the month of August, all of France is on vacation. Cities in the north are empty, with even hotel owners taking off. (About two or three years ago, this August vacation frenzy even left hospital patients in Paris unattended.)

For us, Switzerland’s preferred touring season starts when the school vacations end, which usually is in the third week of August.

New Zealand — While summer vacation is roughly from mid December until Jan. 30, lodgings are not crowded until Dec. 26. Other school holidays take place around Easter and in July and October.

Australia — Summer holidays last from mid December to late January. The dates of public and three shorter school holidays vary by state.

Islamic countries — During Ramadan it may be difficult to obtain food from dawn until sunset.

Brazil — Avoid Mardi Gras celebrations, unless you want to join the Carnaval festivities.

Note that latitudes with warm climates may be packed with Australians as well as tourists from Northern Europe fleeing the cold.

Step 4: Escorted Tour Or Independent Travel?

The next important decision is whether to travel independently or on an escorted tour or do a combination of both.


To find guided journeys…

• Look in ITN's archives with its wealth of advertised trips. Since many of these are critiqued by readers who have taken the tours, you can get a good idea of what to expect by reading the relevant ITN articles and exploring the tour companies’ websites.

• For additional options*, go to www.lonelyplanet.com/destinations. Besides tours, you will find many other gems.

• For more rustic tours, visit Intrepid Travel’s site, and G Adventures (888/800-4100)*.

• Peruse ads in the major Sunday newspapers.

• Contact tourist offices of prospective countries and cities.

• Contact tour operators in the US and overseas.

• Surf Google.

For complete guided holidays, investigate…

Road Scholar, formerly known as Elderhostel, (800/454-5768) and…

Cruises — For detailed, comprehensive information on cruise lines and ships, browse your bookstore or order any of the following books at Amazon.com:

• “The Unofficial Guide to Cruises” by Kay Showker (ISBN 9780470460337).

•  “Frommer’s Cruises and Ports of Call,” seventh edition (2010, ISBN 9780470636138).

After perusing the above volumes, book with the cruise line of your choice.


When moving independently, you can either be completely on your own or have a travel professional provide you with a self-guided package. In the latter, the professional supplies all or some of the logistics, leaving you free to follow the plan laid out for you using any of the following modes of travel.

a) Bicycling

For bike itineraries and maps, visit…

• The “bicycle vacation store” Fietsvakantiewinkel (Spoorlaan 19, 3445 AE Woerden, Netherlands; phone +31 348 421844, fax + 31 348 423839). This store has a plethora of bicycle maps and books (many in English). The reps will help you (in English) with any request for either a guided or independent tour.

• The store Wide World Books & Maps (Seattle, WA; 888/534-3453).

• Your local bookstore or the online equivalent.

• Google for bike clubs and bike tours in the country of your choice.

b) Hiking

• Buy hiking books (and maps, if necessary) at your local bookstore and/or at Wide World Books & Maps (listed under “a,” above) before departure, as most guidebooks overseas are written in the native language. Ascertain that you can obtain the appropriate maps abroad.

• Surf Google for hiking clubs and walking tours in the country of your choice.

• Contact Ramblers Worldwide Holidays in the UK (Lemsford Mill, Lemsford Village, Welwyn Garden City, England, AL8 7TR, U.K.; phone +01 707 331133).

c) Traveling by car

As drivers over 70 cannot rent a car in many European countries (varies by firm), consider leasing one (only for non-EU citizens) through Peugeot Open Road or Renault Eurodrive.

The Peugeot and Renault car factories are located in France. Pickup of leased automobiles in France is free; for pickup in other European countries, there is a transportation charge.

You pay in advance for the number of days contracted. The number of days for leasing is 21 minimum, 170 maximum. You will get a brand-new car with zero-deductible insurance. Make sure you can cancel without charge. Upon returning your vehicle, all you have to do is sign a form, which terminates the lease.

To lease a Peugeot or Renault, contact Auto Europe (888/223-5555) or Auto France at (800/572-9655). As prices are very competitive, compare Auto Europe’s price with that of Auto France. Discounts are usually obtainable upon request.

My wife, Flory, and I have leased Peugeot cars in the Netherlands for the last 15 years through Auto France.

If you need a vehicle for fewer than 21 days, you will have to rent. To verify your eligibility, call Auto Europe, a rental wholesaler. Mention your age and the countries in which you want to drive. Auto Europe will inform you of the auto retailers, such as Hertz, Budget, etc., that will allow you to rent.

d) Traveling by train

For European railroad journeys, go to the Eurail Railway Map, timetables and more. Also visit www.raileurope.com. Be sure to compare the prices for point-to-point trips with those of railpasses of individual and pooled countries and with the Eurail Pass.

e) Camping

To obtain camping information and directories, contact the relevant national tourist offices before departing. For European guidebooks, go to www.alanrogers.com/shop.

Consider buying a Camping Carnet International card (CCI) through your automobile association. The CCI is proof of identity and has the same value as a passport for the campsite owner. It offers third-party liability insurance during your stay at the campground and entitles you to discounts.

As the American Automobile Association (AAA) doesn’t sell CCIs, you have to go to either the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA) or one of the local automobile clubs overseas that are affiliated with the AAA. To obtain a list of those clubs, ask your local AAA chapter for the booklet “Offices to Serve You Abroad.”

f) Motorhoming

You can rent, lease or buy a motorhome. In Europe, pickup is least expensive in Germany, and insurance there allows you to drive anywhere in Western Europe. For more information, go to http://goeurope.about.com/od/motorhomes/bb/motorhomes.htm.

Australia and New Zealand have good setups for leases and rentals of RVs. CCIs are accepted.

g) Freighter travel

For freighter travel (regularly scheduled cargo ships accepting passengers), search Google.

Next month, I will continue my discussion of the various types of independent travel.

*In the version of this article printed in the February ’12 issue, Dr. Wagenaar mentioned GAP Adventures. That company is now called G Adventures.
*A correction printed in the June 2012 issue changed this URL from a nonworking Frommer's webpage to the current one.