Karen’s Travel Advice #karenstravelstories



If you follow me on social media, you know a lot of weird things happen to me when I travel.  So much that a friend started using a hashtag #karenstravelstories about my trials.  My most recent story involved having to stop in San Jose, CA on the way to San Francisco, CA to get more fuel.  They are about an hour’s drive apart. Yeah, that’s weird.  So I guess my first advice is "Don’t travel with Karen". 

Even with all that bad travel karma, I get asked to share my advice for travelers enough that I decided to start collecting the "free advice that’s been paid for" I’ve collected over the 30+ years I’ve been a regular traveler.  Some things to understand before you work your way through them:

  1. These are all based on my experiences with work travel.  I don’t vacation much, and it’s almost always a tack-on to a business trip.
  2. This list initially starts with international travel advice because that’s what I get asked most.
  3. These tips are based on my mostly North American-centric starting points for travel.
  4. Right now this is a long post. I hope to turn it into something more usable in the future. But for now, a page on my blog.
  5. My advice has changed over the years.  Certainly increasingly bizarre security policies make changes.
  6. None of this should be taken as legal advice. I’m not a lawyer.  I don’t even play one on TV. 
  7. I’ll add more as I remember them (or experience another #karenstravelstories).
  8. I’ll add links within these later.
  9. Others have conflicting advice. That’s okay. These are just my ideas.


Cash & Credit Cards

You will never regret getting some local currency.  The use of credit and debit cards may not be the same as in the US or Canada.  Many taxis will not take credit cards.  Or they will tell you their machine is broken.

Don’t get a cash advance on your credit card: get cash from an ATM in a bank at your destination.  Use only ATMs attached or inside a bank. Be careful around ATM. Follow normal pickpocket safety rules.  ATMs will likely be cheaper than a currency exchange kiosk.

You’ll never regret getting more cash than you need all at one time. Everyone should have some Euros and Pounds in their bag if they travel internationally. Just in case.

I generally never get cash at home, unless I’m going to a less developed country and want to make sure I have enough cash upon arrival.  Even then my own bank gave me expired currency. Yes, that happens.  Make sure you know if your destination expires their currency and what the current features are in their cash.

Your hotel may be able to exchange cash for a good rate, too.  But you need to know the day’s rate to know if it’s good.

If your hotel, upon check out, offers to charge your credit card in local currency or your home currency, always check the rate.  In most cases, this "convenience exchange" is a horrible exchange rate.

Consider getting a credit card that does not charge you an exchange fee.  A rate, yes, but not the normal 3 to 4 % fee just to have their computers do a tiny bit of math.

Call your financial institution if you are traveling abroad before you go. Or check to see if your bank offers a notification service on their website to let them know that you and their credit card will be traveling to a foreign land. The last thing you want is to show up to your hotel or rental car and find out it has been cancelled because your bank denied the charges thinking it was fraudulent.


Do everything you can to pack with carry-on baggage only.  That’s one bag and a personal item like a purse or backpack. 

Know each airline’s carry on allowance, including weight.  For instance, most carry on bags that are fine in the US or fine with size are often way over on weight for European airlines.  For those, you will likely need to check that bag upon check in.

Put a foldable duffle in your carry on for your return.  If you collect swag/shop or get get gifts, you’ll need this. I like this one because it doesn’t take up too much room, but is HUGE when unfolded. Because it unzips completely flat, I can use it as a luggage cover for my wheelie back and still fit other things in it.

Get a multi-pack of Tiles (or other RFID tracker) and put them in your luggage, purse, wallet, backpack, keys, etc.  This helps you find things you have misplaced, to see if your checked luggage made it on to the plane, and to get others to help you find lost items. I even have some in our cars.  Some of us share our Tile records with others so that we can find each other at an event.

Put distinctive something on your carry on (and checked luggage). I choose NASA luggage tags and ribbons. When you are waiting for your bag at the gate check, you want your bag to stand out.

Make use of packing cubes, like these from Amazon, to help fit things into carry on and to make finding and removing items faster.

There’s a lot more to put here. I may make a new page.



Print out your hotel name, address and phone number and carry it with you.

Make copies of all your IDs at home. Leave one set at home. Bring a set with you.

Put digital copies in a place you can get to them.  Encrypt and password protect them.

Canada is indeed another country. As are all the other international places. You will need proper ID – a Passport if you are flying, a Passport Card or Enhanced Driver’s license to get in.  And even more important, those to get home.  I have traveled via air without a passport, but I had 4 other pieces of federal ID plus a police report number for my lost passport and an extra two hours early at the airport to deal with the airline. Yes, the airline.  TSA didn’t care at all.  But an airline is responsible for returning you if your destination country decides not to allow you in.

If you re flying domestically, you’ll still want to carry international ID, such as a passport, for cases where your flight gets diverted.  Trust me on this.

Find and keep a paper copy of your travel agent contact information to carry with you.  Many travel providers’ corporate support will not help you when things go wrong because that’s the job of your travel agent if you used one.  Yes, even if you used Expedia or Orbitz you used a travel agent.  When things go wrong, you want to get help as soon as possible, hopefully while the other 200 people on your flight are waiting hours in line to get help.

Print out all your travel reservations and itineraries.  Yes, having them on your phone helps, but having paper copies when something goes wrong will help someone help you much faster.

Memorize your passport ID/number, it’s issuing location, it’s dates.  Memorize at least one credit card number, expiration and CCV/CID.  Memorize your most commonly used frequent flyer number. At some point when a flight goes wrong, being able to list these off may make the difference between a gate agent getting you on a plane right now or tomorrow.

Have your Record Locator/Reservation number at your finger tips for the same reason.  Printouts are best, phone second best.  You will need them if you have to rebook something.

NEXUS logo

If you are going to be traveling across borders more than a couple of times a year, get a Nexus card.  You may see people telling you to get Global Entry.  However, if you are a US or Canadian national you can get a Nexus card and it includes Global Entry.  It’s also cheaper.  These cards have other perks such as PreCheck for airport security. 

If you don’t think you will be crossing borders, get PreCheck.  This will get you through security faster. And at some airports, you may need to clear security even for connecting flights.  Having a faster track through security is always a good thing.



Never book a flight, rental car, train or hotel reservation without a frequent flyer/stayer account on that booking. Even if you never plan on accruing enough points to get something free, just having a loyalty number on your booking means you will be one rung higher up on the oversold flight list, the overbooked hotel list and the out of cars list. Signing up for accounts is free, takes about 5 minutes and can save you much grief later. Plus you never know, you might end up with enough points one day to get a free day/night/flight. You want that number on your reservation from the minute it is created, not just as you arrive at the gate or after your flight. 

Always always always check in online as soon as you can. Normally this is 24 hours before your flight or your room reservation. Again, the earlier you check in, the higher up the list you are on getting your seat or room.

Use Seatguru.com to choose your seats.  And yes, I highly recommend you pay that extra $15-50 to preselect your seats at booking time, unless it is a very short flight and there are lots of flight options for you.  That’s right, people who have paid for seat selection are another run up the ladder in not getting turned away at the gate due to overbooking.  For longer flights, never underestimate the need for you to pick a seat in which you will be comfortable.  That means knowing if you have picked a bad location (next to toilets, next to the galley, a seat with no armrest, a seat with no window, a seat that does not recline, a seat that is extra cold or extra warm, etc.)  Yes, some of these won’t bother you.  But on longer flights, this can make the difference between just plain old flying pains to horrible suffering for 7 hours or more.

Sign up for TripIt.com and use it.  This is an app that lets you email your reservation confirmations and it consolidates it all in one place.  You can also share that information with friends and family via the app/website.  I highly recommend the TripItPro version, which gets you notifications and other features to help you out.

Check for travel advisories for connecting flights as well as your destination.

USA Travel Advisories https://travel.state.gov/content/passports/en/alertswarnings.html

Canada Travel Advisories https://travel.gc.ca/travelling/advisories

You can let your home country’s government know you are traveling abroad in case there are weather, health  or other incidents where you might need their assistance at your destination.  I typically only do this for higher risk locations or places where I have zero language skills.

USA Travel Assistance Enrollment https://step.state.gov/step/

Canada Registration for Travellers Abroad https://travel.gc.ca/travelling/registration


The most important change to flying over the last 10 years has been the extreme decrease in available seats when something goes wrong with your flight. That’s why getting on the plane you actually reserved a seat for is so important. On one cancelled flight I was first offered another flight a week in the future. That’s right, 7 days later.  So make sure you follow all the advice above on getting your priority higher up the ladder.

I try really hard to take first thing in the morning flights so that I have several more hours and more flight options to get to my destination.  This is especially true for United flights because they have one the worst on-time records for US domestic airlines.  That means many delays and missed connections. If you must be somewhere by a specific time (say, for a cruise or a speaking engagement), book a flight the night before.  Your next seat to Miami or St. Louis might be days away, especially if you are flying as a group.

Checked bags mean even fewer flight options when things go wrong, as there may not be any time to reroute your bags on an alternate flight.  Under most circumstances, you must travel (or wait) with your bags.

Know your carry-on baggage limitations.  Measure your bags and weight them.

When things go wrong: Yes, get in the line people in the airport tell you get in. Then immediately call your airline or your travel agent for help, while you are waiting in line.  Gate Agents have the most power to get you on another flight, but if there are 100 people ahead of you, that’s 100 seats already gone. Don’t wait to call. Don’t wait to get in line. Just get yourself in the queues to get help.  Sometimes you can wander off to find someone who can help you where there isn’t a line, but that can be risky.  If you have access to the airline lounge for a US carrier, they can sometimes help.


Mobile Devices

I almost always get a prepaid SIM card when I arrive. You must have an unlocked GSM phone for this to work. I usually get a data-only card, then use skype to make calls. But I’m not a phone call person.   Sometimes (London) SIM cards in vending machines at the airport are good deals.  Sometimes (Asia) they are not.

If you decide you will just use your regular home data plan when you travel, be sure to call your mobile provider and ask if they have travel packs.

Make sure you understand how much data comes with a travel pack. 100 MB a day will get you through your emails and some maps, but not much more.

Wi-Fi, especially free Wi-Fi, is not as common in many places outside the US.  That means you can’t always depend upon being able to get by without data.  I use Boingo Global to ensure that I can get on wireless in many more locations.  Their $5-10 a month for mobile devices is a real bargain. In Europe, many cellular provider Wi-Fi services are available via Boingo. 


Getting Around

I use trains and metro most places in Europe and rarely use a car. But it all depends on how far I have to go and where.

Uber or Lyft may work in your destination city, but not always the way you are used to at home.  In some locations, once your driver shows up, they will expect you to know the address and directions to where you are going.  Be prepared, with print outs.

Your hotel may offer car services that are safer and more reliable. This is my preference in India.

In Europe, it is common for people to just walk to a location.  Bring shoes that are walk-friendly. 



Get at least two adapters for your destination. Note that some locations have multiple power outlet standards.

Get a multi outlet with USB slots device. Something like this.http://amzn.to/2dp1SD2 (aff link). It will cut down on how many adapters you need to carry around.

Consider getting a laptop cord that has your destination plug type at the end. Like http://amzn.to/2d1905o (UK) http://amzn.to/2dpm1UX (Euro Apple) http://amzn.to/2dpliD8 (Euro) or http://amzn.to/2dAdIZz (multiple countries – Thanks Allan Hirt for this find)

Most everything you have will auto switch to 220v. Blow dryers don’t. But check everything.

Using external batteries means you won’t have to search for plugs and adapters all the time.

Many hotels will lend you adapters and occasionally a transformer to 220v.  Ask.


Credit Cards & Payments

Credit cards may not be accepted everywhere. You need cash.  See above.

If you have more than one credit card, carry them separately.

If you have chip and sign cards from the USA, call your bank to see if you can add a pin.  This is more important in Europe because many train kiosks and places will take only chip and pin.  Not all stations have places to buy tickets without a chip and pin card.

Look up tipping rules/customers for where you are going.



You likely can’t get into your room before noon or 3pm.   If your flight arrives in the early morning, it will be worth it to visit an arrivals lounge, have a shower, grab some breakfast. If you don’t have free access for that, you may have to pay $50-75 to do so. But better than walking around jet lagged and stinky. Many want to save that money. I think they are crazy. And stinky. Just consider this part of long distance travel expenses.

You will likely have to show your passport when you check into the hotel. 

If you used a discount, like AAA or a membership, you are more likely internationally to be asked to show the card that gave you that discount. Trust me on this. Germany, especially.

Many international hotels have a slot by the door that your keycard needs to be in for lights and AC to work.  Most of us who travel a lot have an extra keycard or ask for one so that we can be ugly Americans and have everything Always On all day.

Many international hotel rates include breakfast.  Ask when you check in.

In many locations, your bed will be made with a bottom sheet and a comforter.  I like having a top sheet, too, and I have to request one. And be pushy about it.

Some hotels that cater to international travelers have multiple outlets at the desk in your room. Look for those so you don’t need to use an adapter.



Outside the US and Canada, water will be bottled water.  Often cheaper to drink other things, though.

You won’t get ice much in Europe, and if they offer it, it will be one or two cubes.  You probably don’t want those ice cubes anyway. 

Because all other countries have chip and pin, your credit card should never leave you when you pay. The pay terminal comes to you. If someone comes to your table and wants to take your card away, ask them why.  Follow your card.

In many locations, the bill will not be brought to the table until you ask for it.



It’s more common in other countries to take formal coffee/tea breaks.  Respect that.

It’s also typical that lunches are actual lunch breaks.

Print out your event/office name, address, cross street and phone number. Carry it with you.


Dig out all that foreign currency and keep it safe for your next trip. You won’t regret it.

Put your adapters in a safe place, so you’ll have them for your next trip.



If you have other or better tips, let me know in the comments. I’ll give you a shout out in the text.

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