4 Tips for Using Public Transportation Abroad

Unless you are a seasoned traveler or you live in a big city, using public transportation while traveling can sometimes be intimidating. But public transportation is not only very budget friendly, it is also very efficient. As a bonus, you get the experience of traveling “as a local”. Recently, I used London’s Underground, more commonly known as the Tube, to get around the city. If you are still planning transportation for your upcoming trip and don’t know how you are going to get from the Tower Bridge to Westminster Abbey in less than 15 minutes, here are a few tips:

Purchasing your pass or tickets

If you know far enough in advance where you will be traveling, you can buy a pass ahead of time and have it mailed right to your door. But if you don’t have the chance to do this before your trip, don’t worry — Underground stations have a ticket counter or an automated kiosk where you can make your purchase. I did not purchase my card ahead of time; I simply used one of the automated machines.

To use the Underground system in London, you can choose to purchase a single / return ticket, a day pass ticket, or a reloadable Oyster card. The Oyster card is usually the easiest option, and it can also be used for other modes of public transport as well: bus, tram, London Overground, National Rail, etc. The Oyster card cost me a £5 deposit and then I was free to load as much money on it (or “top up”) as I saw fit. Another example is the Metro in Paris, where you can purchase a pass ahead of time, or buy individual tickets at automated Metro stations. Keep in mind that it is usually more cost-efficient to buy a pass, rather than point-to-point tickets.

Public transportation ticket options in London

Grab a map

Maps are often considered out of date and old fashioned in today’s technology-filled world. But I can tell you from experience that, when navigating a new subway system, a small portable map is your best friend. Stations always have large maps posted throughout, but with a portable map, if you are planning your day over breakfast, you can mark the names of your stops ahead of time. You can often find free Underground maps in the tube stations, or you can download and print them in advance. I also always download the local public transportation app on my phone, as this is always very helpful. But take note, sometimes cellular service while traveling abroad is spotty, especially if you are underground in a subway system.

London Underground map

London Underground map courtesy of Transport for London

Stay safe

It is very important to always be aware of where you are and where you are going. Double and triple check the names of your stop, and keep an eye on those around you. Always keep your personal items with you. Sometimes transport authorities will want to check your pass or ticket before exiting the system to make sure you have paid for your transportation. Make sure to keep your metro card or ticket in a safe, but easily accessible place until you have exited the station. It is not worth risking a fine because you did not keep track of your ticket.

Waiting for the Tube in London

Ask questions

Before you travel, be sure to ask your travel professional any questions you may have. They can assist you in purchasing these passes ahead of time, or guide you through the exact process for the city you are visiting. Stations also have professionals throughout the system to assist you if needed, so don’t be afraid to ask!


Have you tried using public transportation while traveling abroad? Share your experiences with us in the comments or on Facebook!

Croatia: 10 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About

10 Things - Croatia

Of the 22 countries that I’ve visited (so far), Croatia ranks among my favorites. And although European vacationers have been coming here for a long time, Croatia has recently become an increasingly popular travel destination among American travelers. But there’s much more to this amazing country than meets the eye.

Continue reading “Croatia: 10 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About”

Cruising the Panama Canal in 10 Days

cruising the panama canal in 10 days

Can I see the entire Panama Canal on a 10-day cruise? The answer is Yes!

My husband and I left on January 14, 2016 for a 10-day Panama Canal Cruise on the Island Princess. This cruise was round trip from Fort Lauderdale, and it was our third time cruising through the Panama Canal.

Eight years earlier, we sailed from Fort Lauderdale to Los Angeles on a 14-day Panama Canal cruise. I wasn’t all that excited to go that first time—I thought it was a cruise only my husband would appreciate. Little did I realize how much I would enjoy it, too. Before our first cruise, my husband bought the book The Path Between the Seas by David McCullough and we both read it. The history behind the building of the canal is amazing; the financial issues, disease, failed attempts, and the relatively simple design that still works today! If you don’t have a chance to read the book (which is also for sale on the ship, though it sells quickly and costs a few bucks more), you will still learn a lot about the history and construction of the canal during the cruise. A historian speaks over the ship intercom during most of the 50-mile long transit.

By Thomas Römer/OpenStreetMap data, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19678675

The difference between the 10-day and the 14-day cruise is that you cruise through the entire canal on the 14-day—because the journey continues to either the west coast or Florida, depending on where you embarked. The 10-day (or partial transit) turns around in Gatun Lake, but you still have the opportunity to transit the entire canal by way of a Princess shore excursion. A full-day shore excursion is on a small ship limited to only 90 passengers, so it’s very important to book your cruise early and sign up for this excursion as soon as it’s open for booking. Although I haven’t taken the canal shore excursion, I talked to shipmates who have. Other than it being a long day, they loved it!

1 - entering the first set of locks from the atlantic
Entering the first set of locks from the Atlantic Ocean.
2 - going through the locks
Going through the locks.
3 - gatun lake ahead
Gatun Lake ahead.
4 - heading west toward the pacific ocean
Heading west toward the Pacific Ocean
5 - Calebra Cut on the left and the Millenium Bridge
Calebra Cut on the left, and the Millennium Bridge.
6 - Passing under the Millenium Bridge heading west toward the pacific
Passing under the Millennium Bridge, heading west toward the Pacific Ocean.
7 - bridge of the americas entering the pacific ocean
The Bridge of the Americas– the entrance to the Pacific Ocean.

Ready to cross the Panama Canal off your bucket list? Join us for an 11-night cruise adventure along the engineering wonder that connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Along the way, Caribbean, South and Central American ports offer a wide array of cultures and sites. Find the tour brochure and additional details here!

Witte Travel Guide: Using Your Credit Card Abroad

using your credit card abroad
Are you planning to travel abroad, and unsure if your credit card will work overseas? With Canada, Europe, and much of Asia already using “chip and PIN” credit cards, here’s what you need to know before your next trip.

Continue reading “Witte Travel Guide: Using Your Credit Card Abroad”

Bike and Barge Tours: The Best of Both Worlds

Bike and Barge Tours

As more travelers seek out experience-based vacations and stray further away from traditional “tourist traps”, bike and barge tours have emerged as a booming trend—particularly among people over the age of 50.  With adventure travel and river cruising also rising in popularity, bike and barge tours offer the best of both worlds: the excitement of an active, culturally immersive, off-the-beaten-path experience, combined with the all-inclusive comforts and amenities of a river cruise!

So, with nice weather just around the corner and Witte’s Bike & Barge Tour from Amsterdam to Bruges coming up this September, I’ve answered some FAQ’s about bike and barge tours. Continue reading “Bike and Barge Tours: The Best of Both Worlds”

Guest Post: Upcoming Tours with John and Lynda Witte

John & Lynda Witte
This post was originally written by John Witte on March 23, 2016


Hello All,

Lynda and I want to update you on the tours on which we still have space for 2016, and give you some preliminary information on our 2017 plans.

On April 7, we are leaving with a group of fellow travelers to explore the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. After a summer break we will be on tour in Spain and Portugal, September 15 – 29. That tour is full but we are accepting people on the waitlist.

During October 17 – 22, we will be in New York City. I lived on Long Island for four years and traveled to the City regularly to see plays, visit museums, and just wander. Since moving away from Long Island, there have been almost yearly trips to the City and sometimes more. Lynda and I love NYC, and we put together a tour showing you some of the main sites– but also some places not generally included in other tours.

We will start the tour by crossing the George Washington Bridge and taking you into Washington Heights to visit Fort Tyrone Park for a great view of the New Jersey Palisades and the GW Bridge. You will also see the point where the Hudson River splits, creating the East River. Afterwards we will see some highlights in Harlem, stroll through Central Park, visit the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and eat dinner at Sylvia’s– one of Harlem’s most famous soul food restaurants. The following day will include a walk through High Line Park, once an elevated train route along the west side of Manhattan. That same day we will spend time in Chelsea, SoHo, and Chinatown, and we’ll enjoy dinner in Little Italy.

new york city tour
Another day will be spent in mid-town Manhattan where you will see St Patrick’s Cathedral, Rockefeller Plaza, Fifth Avenue, Grand Central Station, NYC Library and Bryant Park. We will take a break in the afternoon to take in a Broadway show and end our evening with dinner at the Carnegie Deli, across from Carnegie Hall. We will also spend a day in lower Manhattan to walk part of the Brooklyn Bridge, visit the St. Paul’s Chapel, the 9/11 Memorial site; Trinity Church, Federal Hall where George Washington was sworn in as our first President, Wall Street, and Battery Park for a great view of the Statue of Liberty.

After dinner on your own we will attend another Broadway show.  Our last full day in the City will be a special treat.  My friend, Daniel Meeter, pastor of Old First Dutch Reformed Church in Brooklyn, will join us for a tour of some Brooklyn neighborhoods.  Our evening will end with a dinner cruise on the Hudson and East Rivers; the ship will also pass closely by the Statue of Liberty.  You will have a free morning on the day we are scheduled to fly home.

new york city tour
There has been a lot of attention in the news about Cuba. I am hosting a Cuba tour November 1 – 9 which still has space for ten persons. Besides spending time in Havana, we will explore the lush botanical province of Pinar del Rio, the World Heritage city of Trinidad, and the colonial city of Cienfuegos. This tour will be repeated November 8 – 16, which both Lynda and I will host. That tour is almost sold out, but we are accepting waitlist applications.

Cuba tour destinations

Our tentative plans for 2017 include a tour of Costa Rica during late January into early February, which we will both host. This will be my sixth tour of Costa Rica; it is one of the most beautiful places in the world! We are also finalizing the details for a cruise (February 25 – March 8) which will begin and end in Fort Lauderdale, and will include stops in Aruba, Grand Cayman, beautiful Cartagena in Columbia, and Costa Rica. We will even travel through part of the Panama Canal to Colon, Panama, and will come through the same section of the canal on our return.

Costa Rica cruise tour

During September, we will be doing a Southern Italy tour focusing on Sicily, the Amalfi Coast, Naples, Pompeii, and possibly Rome. Our final adventure will be to Australia during the first half of November.

Let me know if any of these trips interest you, and I will send you more detailed information as it becomes available. And we always appreciate it if you share this information with others!

Sincerely,

Johannes and Lynda Witte

(616) 304-0504


Passionate about expanding their own horizons and those of others, Johannes (John) and Lynda Witte have been leading tour groups to destinations in North and South America, Europe, Africa, and Asia since 1985. John and Lynda’s knowledge and experience have earned them a reputation as top-notch tour leaders, and group members appreciate the way they cater to each individual’s needs and interests. They especially enjoy leading small groups.

Guest Post: Iceland First, Then Norway!

Iceland First, Then Norway!

Lynn and I enjoy traveling to new places like Switzerland, Greece and the like. Knowing this, Lynn’s good friend Jerilyn asked us: “Then why haven’t you visited Iceland?” (Jerilyn’s husband was born and raised in Iceland and she has adopted it as her second home.) “Give us 3 good reasons” was Lynn’s response, and here they are:

The first is the beautiful city of Reykjavik, which boasts of having both good shopping and places to enjoy coffee or other beverages of choice. Many simply fly over both the city and the country of Iceland, but those who choose to come and see are never disappointed.

Reykjavic
Reykjavic

The second is the unbelievable landscape, which seems to change depending on the direction you are looking.  Waterfalls in one direction and lagoons in another– it almost seems unreal and yet it’s there, right before your eyes.  So many beautiful places to be seen and appreciated!

Double waterfall Hjálparfoss
Hjálparfoss waterfalls
blue lagoon
The Blue Lagoon

And the third are the people. Every country has its native people and the people of the “ice and rock” country have varied livelihoods; from fishing to sewing, bus driving to providing the everyday services needed by all.  It is fun to sit and talk with them, or listen to qualified guides sharing the local history and folklore.

But then for us…it’s on to Norway.

Stoughton, Wisconsin, where we live, is home to the Norwegian Heritage Center, where the story of Norway is told in captivating ways. In addition to housing the area’s Norwegian heritage, our town also boasts of being home to our own Norwegian Dancers– high school students who have accepted, and then perfected, the art of the Norwegian dance. Colorful dress and athletic movements raises the question “Where does this comes from, and what is the history behind this beauty and grace?”

So we’ve asked our Norwegian friends, “Why visit Norway?”  Here is what they have to say:

“You just have to see the fiords!” Breathtaking beauty, awesome grandeur, unbelievable majesty. The deep cuts in the mountains leave everyone at a loss for words to sit in wonder of the creation that is ours to enjoy. Worth taking pictures? Take as many, or as few, as you like—many keep and store them forever in their mind and in their heart.

fjords
Søgne, Norway

Next, “don’t miss sampling the food and drink!”  The uniqueness of any culture comes alive in their food and drink.  Visiting the places that the locals go in order to socialize and relax gives a glimpse into who they are today, and the heritage they proudly carry.  The language is different but the welcome is sincere and heartwarming. Sit back and enjoy!

And finally, “make sure you see and appreciate the historical buildings unique to Norway.” Of particular interest are the churches, courthouses, homes and farms—they all tell a story of how things were at another point in time and how the foundations they set are still found in the country’s life today. Aided by knowledgeable guides, these buildings and places come alive literally “talk” to we who visit and choose to listen.

Borgund stave church in Norway
Stave Church

We are excited to see these places and experience them for ourselves, and we would be delighted to have you join us on our tour.


Rev. Jerry & Lynn Tews are passionate about traveling and experiencing other cultures. They have taken many groups on tour to Europe, but this will be their first time visiting Iceland and Norway! You can learn more about the itinerary or sign up for the tour here: Splendors of Norway with a Touch of Iceland!

Splendors of Norway with a Touch of Iceland
July 24 – August 3, 2016

From the geothermal springs in Iceland, to a cruise on the sparkling fjords, and a railway excursion in Norway, this tour is sure to pique your interest! The 11-day tour begins with two days in the Icelandic capital city of Reykjavik. Highlights include the Blue Lagoon geothermal springs, harbor views and an in-depth guided city tour. A short flight to Norway and we’re in the land of fjords, mountains and midnight sun. Stops in Norway include Oslo, Lillehammer, Sogndal, Troldhaugen, Bergen and more!

Have you visited Iceland or Norway? Share your story with us in the comments or on Facebook!

Witte Travel & Tours Turns 40!

August 2015 marks our 40th year of sharing the world with others. We’ve come a long way since Henk Witte first started Witte Travel in the basement of his home in Ada, Michigan in 1975, and to celebrate this anniversary, we want to give you– our fellow travelers and travel-lovers — some great prizes to thank you for your support during all these years.

So, this month we’ll be running weekly contests on Facebook and Instagram. Each week, one winner will receive a fantastic prize package that includes a Witte tote bag, a leather travel wallet, a coffee mug, luggage tags, a 2015/2016 calendar, a $40 gift card to Amazon.com, and a $40 travel voucher that can be used for future tours, airline tickets, or cruises!

prize_blog

All you need to do for your chance to win is to participate, so be sure to follow us on Facebook (www.facebook.com/wittetravel) and Instagram (@wittetravel)! We’ll announce each week’s contest winner on Fridays.

We look forward to another 40 years of traveling the world, and we hope that you’ll join us!

Witte Travel Guide: Using Your Smartphone Abroad

 

 

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[col2]Using Your Smartphone Abroad[/col2]
[col2_last]These days, we rely on our smartphones for just about everything. They function as a computer, an MP3 player, a camera, and a GPS. We need them to make calls, send emails and text messages, update social media, take and share photos of our trips, and navigate foreign cities. The very thought of being disconnected from all of that can be slightly terrifying, especially while traveling to a new place. However, the fear of unwanted roaming fees, data charges, and connectivity issues often leads people to leave their phones at home or in their hotel room. But there’s good news — it doesn’t have to be that way. First of all, you probably will not actually need your phone or the internet as much as you might think. Consider this opportunity to “unplug” while you travel as an invitation to experience the world vividly again, with all of your senses and attention intact. Lift your eyes from your screen so that you can see new skylines and vast landscapes as they are, and not as they appear through an Instagram filter. Put away your phone so that you can free your hands to feel the textures of ancient castles or crumbling ruins or faraway seas. Take off your headphones, and pause to listen to the conversations around you in languages you don’t understand. Liberate yourself from the compulsive need to read every email, Facebook notification, and text message the moment that you receive it, and marvel at the fact that life carries on anyway. All of that being said, there is also joy in sharing your travel experiences with others back home. And there is peace in knowing that you can be reached if there’s an emergency at home or at work, or in letting your loved ones know that you made it safely to your destination. So if you’re not quite prepared to go completely offline during your next trip, here are a few tips to help you stay connected without breaking the bank.[/col2_last]
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International Phone Plans

For some people, adding international service to an existing phone plan is an appealing strategy for keeping in touch while traveling. First, think about how you might use your phone during your trip. Will you be making or receiving a lot of phone calls? Do you need to be reachable at all times? Do you require regular access to your email? If so, you might consider signing up for an international plan with your service provider. Although you can still make calls, text, or use the internet without one, the “pay-as-you-go” prices and roaming charges can get really expensive. An international plan can help cut down on some of those costs, and may be a more economical choice. Check with your service provider to learn more about what international plans they offer, and then simply cancel international service once you return home.

On the other hand, if you can be more flexible about when and how you can be reached on your phone while traveling, there are lots of alternative options that allow you to use your smartphone abroad for free or at a significantly lower cost.

Use Airplane Mode + WiFi

Before your international flight takes off, make sure that you put your mobile device on Airplane Mode. Activating the Airplane Mode setting disables the device’s signal transmitting functionality, and prevents the device from making or receiving calls, using text messaging, or accessing the internet without a WiFi connection. This ensures that you can still access your camera, music, games, podcasts, and other content downloaded onto your phone without having to worry about roaming charges!

Activating Airplane Mode (sometimes called Flight Mode or Offline Mode) is very simple to do. On most devices, you’ll find it in your Settings menu. If you need help, a quick Google search can yield detailed instructions for Android phones, iPhones, BlackBerry, Windows Phone, etc. If you’re still not sure how to switch on Airplane Mode and how to turn WiFi on/off, just ask your cell phone provider to show you, or send me an email and I would be glad to help!

Accessing the Internet / Finding WiFi

In many countries, it is fairly easy to find WiFi—often for free. Once you are connected to a WiFi network, you can use the internet to check your email, upload pictures to social media, and even make phone calls!

Here are a few things that you should know about using WiFi when traveling:

  • Many hotels, restaurants, cafes, shops, bars, and even gas stations offer WiFi, although you may need to ask for a password in order to log on.
  • WiFi isn’t always free. For example, some hotels may charge you to use WiFi, so don’t hesitate to ask about the policy if you’re not sure. Other places may limit the amount of time that you can use WiFi for free (often 30-60 minutes), with the option to pay for continued access.
  • If you plan to sit at a café or a restaurant to take advantage of free WiFi, it is polite to purchase a beverage or a snack in return. Besides, sipping a local beer or munching on a croissant while checking your email and observing the culture around you is a great way to spend an hour in a foreign place!

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[col2]Apps to Keep You Connected

As I mentioned earlier, there are lots of applications (apps) out there to help you stay connected while traveling, and these are some of my favorites. A couple of things to keep in mind:

  • All of these apps are free to download and to use, although some of them offer premium features for a small cost.
  • All of these apps require a WiFi connection to use.
  • It’s a good idea to download any new apps onto your device before you leave home, when you don’t have to worry about limited bandwidth.
  • All of these apps can only be used to communicate with other people who also use that app. (Skype is the exception to this rule, but I’ll get to that…)

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Skype

Compatible Devices: Most computers, smartphones, and tablets

Features: Voice calling, video-chatting, instant messaging, file-sharing

Pros: It’s free to communicate with other Skype users, but you can also use Skype to make international calls or send text messages to any mobile phone or landline worldwide at a very, very low cost. Pay-as-you-go rates using Skype Credit are just pennies per minute, or you can buy a one-month subscription for $0.60-$3.00 to get unlimited calling at even better rates.

Even if you don’t anticipate making phone calls during your trip, I highly recommend that you buy $5 of Skype Credit just in case—it never expires, so if you don’t end up needing it then you haven’t lost anything, but you can save a lot of money if you do have to make an unexpected international call.

Here’s an example: During a recent trip to Denmark, I was having problems using my debit and credit cards even though I had notified my bank that I would be traveling. I had to call the number on the back of my card, and then I was transferred to several different departments and put on hold multiple times while they tried to figure out what the problem was. The entire call took at least 30 minutes, and pay-as-you-go rates for international calls on my normal cell phone plan cost about $3/minute. On top of being stranded in Denmark with no access to my money, I could have been charged $90 for that necessary phone call, but instead I paid less than $1 using Skype.

Cons: The quality of voice calls and video chats isn’t always great, especially if you have a low wireless signal or if you are using a public WiFi network.

iMessage / Facetime

Compatible Devices: iPhones and iPads only

Features: Voice calling, video-chatting, instant messaging, photo-sharing

Pros: If you have an iPhone, then chances are that you already have and use iMessage – it’s the built-in app that you use to send/receive text messages. You can continue to use it while traveling abroad, as long as you are messaging another iMessage user. If you can’t remember which of your friends and family have iPhones, don’t worry—there’s an easy way to tell. You may have noticed that some of your conversations appear in blue text bubbles, and others appear in green text bubbles. If your message appears in a blue text bubble, you are sending an iMessage to another iPhone user (free). If your message is in a green text bubble, then you are sending an SMS text message and you may be charged accordingly. (Another benefit to turning on Airplane Mode– SMS messages will simply fail to send, so you won’t be charged.)

Similarly, FaceTime is the built-in videochat app on iPhones and iPads, and you can also use it for voice-only calls. To find out if the person you are trying to reach also has an iPhone, open up your phone’s Contacts and pull up their name. If that person has an iPhone, you’ll see a FaceTime option underneath their phone number.

Check out this helpful Triphackr article for more information and instructions for using your iPhone abroad.

Cons: You’re limited to using iMessage and FaceTime only with other iPhone users.

WhatsApp

Compatible Devices: Most smartphones

Features: Text messaging, photo-sharing, voice calling

Pros: This is just another option for sending free text messages. You can message other WhatsApp users on any smartphone.

Cons: It’s still catching on, so the people that you wish to contact may not have it installed on their phones yet.

Facebook Messenger / Video

Compatible Devices: Facebook Messenger—any computer, smartphone, or tablet.
Facebook Video—computers only.

Features: Instant messaging, voice-only chat, video chat

Pros: Facebook Messenger has been around for a while now, and is a reliable way to send text messages to other Facebook users on any device. Recently, Facebook has added video chat and voice calling to their messaging feature, and although it doesn’t offer anything new that you can’t get from Skype or FaceTime, the benefit to using Facebook is that you can reach anyone with a Facebook account—which is a lot of people.

Cons: Facebook Video is not my favorite way to video chat or call people when I’m traveling abroad. Because those features are fairly new, there are still some bugs to work out. For one thing, although you can use your phone to send text messages to your friends using Facebook Messenger, the video and call features only work on a computer—and only if you use certain internet browsers (Google Chrome, Firefox, and Opera). You also have to set up the video feature, which means that your Facebook friends also need to have it set up before you can video chat with them.

“What do I need to do in order to use my phone during my trip?” is one of the most frequently-asked-questions that we get on a daily basis. As technology advances more and more every day, WiFi availability continues to improve worldwide and international communication becomes easier. But, as the options grow and vary, it can be tricky to stay on top of the latest developments. My favorite resource is Rick Steves’ Travel Tips: Phones & Technology. He offers lots of really great suggestions for internet calling and messaging, smartphone travel apps, and internet security for travelers. Although his information is geared towards European travel, much of what he says can apply to just about anywhere.

We want to hear your favorite tips and tricks for staying in touch while traveling– Share your ideas with us in the comments or on Facebook, and if you have any other questions about using technology and smartphones while traveling, let us know!