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Coping with Foreign-Travel Hassles

All travel involves at least some hassle, and foreign travel involves more than you find at home. You can avoid some hassles by careful planning and some by throwing money at them, but others you just have to anticipate and endure.

Hassles You Can Mitigate

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Foreign Currency in Advance. Many guidebooks still advise you to get "some" foreign currency so you can pay for transportation when you arrive. These days, that is an unnecessary hassle, and you typically get a lousy exchange rate. Most big airports provide lots of ATMs and exchange offices where you can get local currency at a better rate than you'd get at home.

Getting into Town. Most important European and Asian airports offer rail access to the city center, which is typically fast, convenient, and inexpensive. The downside is that you often have to contend with multiple staircases, not easy while schlepping a heavy carry-on suitcase. To ease the trip, you can often arrange a shuttle bus, which you can locate through an airport's website.  

Miseries in Economy Class. Being stuffed into a tiny seat on a domestic flight is bad enough, but on a long—likely overnight—intercontinental flight, it can be sheer torture. Paying an astronomical business-class fare is probably out of the question for most of you, but if you have the frequent flyer miles, trying for a business-class award or upgrade to an economy ticket will be truly rewarding. Alternatively, try to find a highly discounted business-class ticket—airlines sometimes offer big cuts during slow business seasons, and some discount agencies, such as Access Fares, arrange big discounts year-round. And if that's not possible, consider flying one of the airlines that offers premium economy, including many big European and Asian lines, which is overpriced but not as much as business class. And if you're on a U.S. line, opt for the extra-legroom economy section.

Shills. Around any blockbuster visitor center, you're likely to be approached by a very friendly local, who either wants to be your guide or just wants to be helpful. You can spot the guides immediately, and just don't bite unless the guide is licensed. The "helpful local" is not asking to be paid anything, but almost always invites you for a "cup of tea" at a nearby art gallery, rug merchant, souvenir store, or whatever. In other words, a shill. Your defense is simple: Just keep saying ,"I have no intention of buying any art/rugs/whatever today."

Sightseeing Tours. I hate sightseeing tours: Typical tour buses are among the least senior-friendly contrivances I know, timing is dictated by the slowest members of the group, and the long mandatory stops at souvenir or handicraft shops—where the tour company gets a kickback—are infuriating. A better bet is to find one of those hop-on-hop-off bus systems where you buy an all-day ticket: The buses stop at the city's most important visitor centers, where you can stay as long (or short) as you want. Most offer recorded multilingual audio guides. Once you've decided where you want to concentrate, use local transit to get there.

Anticipating the Unavoidable

Overheated Airports. On my current trip, I've been surprised to find most airports significantly overheated. You can't ask an airport to turn down the heat (or turn up the air conditioning), but you can at least dress in anticipation of spending your first arrival hours in what feels like a sauna.

Long Immigration Lines. I spent more than an hour in line in Dubai, and a half-hour or so at Seoul, Beijing, and Istanbul. Coupled with the overheating, the net effect is an extremely bad first impression of a country. Unfortunately, you can't do anything to ease this misery; just be prepared for it.

Double Security Screening. You sometimes encounter going through airport security screening twice. You can't avoid it, just don't think that the first time will be the last.

Go Anyhow. Despite the hassles, foreign travel is great. Accept the bad stuff and enjoy the good.

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Ed Perkins Seniors on the Go is copyright (c) 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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