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Maps are often considered out of date and old fashioned in today’s technology-filled world.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!

European Travel

A group of five is traveling to Europe. I am a part of this group. I have let two of the travelers do almost all the planning. This will be a first for me. I am usually the one who does the planning. It should be a new experience.

Speaking of new experiences our group will be using the Rail Europe train system for transport between the larger cities. We need to travel from Amsterdam to Brussels, then from Brussels to Paris. Witte Travel & Tours can arrange your Rail Europe travel before you leave the states. You can get your rail passes and your reserved seats that are used on the high-speed trains. Just be sure to remember to take the tickets with you! Looking forward to traveling by train. My husband and I used the rail system in Germany. It was quite an efficient way to travel. It wasn’t as hard to figure out as I thought it might be.

With less one week to go until we leave, it is time to start the lists and piles of items I need to pack. Something to do on the train might be nice, or maybe I’ll just look out the window.



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”

Planning a Safe and Independent Trip Overseas

I found a love of travel when I joined Witte Travel & Tours. Before then, I never thought much of traveling and now 16 years later, I have just completed my first independent adventure overseas. And you know what? I will travel overseas alone again in a heartbeat. Do I like to travel with others? Sure I do; however, I also find solo travel to be very freeing. As a woman, I never felt unsafe during any of my travels and that was due to my well-planned trip and tips I always use.

For me, the key to a well-planned and safe trip is to use all resources available. And in my experience, using a travel professional is truly invaluable. They have the knowledge and experience to ensure that your itinerary as well as accommodations and transportation options will work for you. They will listen to what you want and then research all of the almost limitless choices to find what works best for you.

A few key questions to ask yourself during the planning stages:

  • Airlines: What is the best schedule based on the time of year I’m traveling?
  • Transportation: Do you want to travel by train or drive between destinations?  Do you want to use public transportation almost exclusively in your target cities or will you use hop-on /hop-off tours?
  • Hotels: Do you want to be in city center, close to the train station, or close to a public transportation stop? What is most important – budget or location?
  • Sightseeing: Do you want to visit multiple museums or just exterior visits (so hop-on hop-off tour may be an option)? Are half-day or day trips via a motorcoach company or independent day trips via public transportation wanted?

After I had an idea on what I wanted to see, I got invaluable information from the staff at Witte in deciding all items mentioned above. I had originally gotten a hotel near the train station in Munich, however, changed it after one of my co-workers saw the location and alerted me it wouldn’t be the best area for a solo person. None of that information was mentioned on Trip Advisor, so I appreciated the information in order to change my hotel to a safer area knowing I was traveling alone.

My tips for staying safe while in Europe:

  1. Walk with purpose, even when you are lost. Always be mindful of where you are and who is around you.
  2. Do NOT be distracted with scenes that are being made around you. It could be a setup for pick pockets.
  3. Pick a hotel in a safe neighborhood close to transportation. While city center seems enticing, there are times when staying outside the center makes more sense. Look at the destination you want to stay at and plan from there. Be open to staying farther out.
  4. Keep extra money and credit cards in a money belt. Only have enough money that you need for the day easily available. Men, be sure to keep your wallet in your front pocket.
  5. Take along copies of your passport in case yours gets stolen.
  6. Currency: If you need to get currency from Banks/ATMs while abroad, be sure you are in a well-lit and safe area and that you protect the screen from being viewed by anyone around. Do not keep cash in easy view.

Traveling in Europe by Train

Have you ever decided to do something while traveling and then wondered if that was a good decision?
Recently, I planned a trip for my family to travel around Europe by train. We planned on visiting four countries during our vacation. After considering the pros and cons of renting a car or traveling by train, train travel stood out as the best choice for us. I have traveled by train in Europe without my family in the past and really enjoyed it, but that was years ago. What if traveling with a family was more difficult? What if I didn’t remember how to do it or screwed up and got on the wrong train or off at the wrong destination and lead my family astray? These questions swirled around in my mind.
Because we were going to several different destinations, I decided to purchase Eurail passes for each of us. Eurail offers quite a few options for passes, so you can pick the best-fitting one based on how many countries you will visit and how many days you want to travel. We purchased the Eurail Select Pass, which worked perfectly with our itinerary because it would allow us to travel throughout 4 bordering countries of our choice. Next, I looked at all of the train departure times and made reservations on the trains that required a reservation. I also downloaded the Eurail “Rail Planner” app on my phone. This app gave me access to rail schedules, made it easy to locate train stations, displayed city maps, and much more. We were well prepared before we left for Europe.

Salzburg Train Station

Waiting at the train platform in Salzburg, Austria

Once we arrived in Europe, we walked to the train station that was located right at the airport. By looking at the train arrival/departure monitors, we could see which track our train would come in on, as well as the exact time it was scheduled to depart. All we had to do was head to the platform and wait for the train. Once we loaded our luggage on the train, we were able to relax and enjoy the ride. After a long night of sitting cooped up on an airplane, it felt so nice to be on the train; we could get up and walk around as much as we wanted or enjoy the comfortable train seats. And the views out the windows were a great way to acclimate ourselves to our current location.

Train Travel in Europe

Enjoying the big windows and roomy seats on the train after a cramped overnight flight.

My family embraced riding on the train. Our teenagers were excited to discover that the “the train was just like the trains used in the Harry Potter movies.” They loved that there was a food car on most of the trains as well, and that we were served a meal on the long train rides. Traveling in Europe by train with my family was just as good as it had been when I traveled alone. The extensive rail network in Europe made it simple to transfer from one destination to the next, and getting on and off the train was much easier than I remembered. There was no reason for me to be worried at all and I will definitely plan to travel by train in Europe again.
If the ease, comfort, and convenience of train travel appeals to you, let us know and we can help you arrange rail tickets and passes for your next vacation. Witte Travel & Tours is the only agency in West Michigan that has a direct link to Rail Europe’s reservation system, so we can process rail passes quickly while avoiding costly shipping fees.
What has been your experience with traveling by train? Share your stories with us onFacebook, or let us know what you think in the comments!

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.

In the summer of 2014, I joined two friends on a cycling trip across Europe and visited 17 countries over the span of three months. We didn’t want to carry three months’ worth of cash (in ten different currencies, mind you), so we relied on our credit/debit cards for everything. However, we soon learned that our American “swipe-and-sign” cards were becoming a thing of the past—the distantpast, judging by the reactions we got from servers and storeowners as they shook their heads incredulously at our swiping motions.
Over the past several years, Europe has switched from traditional magnetic-stripe credit cards over to “chip and PIN” credit card systems in an effort to reduce credit card fraud.These new cards contain a tiny visible microchip and require a PIN for validation, rather than a signature. Instead of swiping a credit card through the reader and signing a receipt, customers insert these “smart” cards (sometimes called EMV cards, for Europay, MasterCard and Visa) into a slot on the card reader and type in their PIN.
chip and pin
Photo Credit: bestofcategoryreviews via Compfight cc
These microchipped cards are effective at preventing credit card skimming, which accounts for37% of credit card fraud in the U.S. Credit card skimming devices snag the information from the magnetic stripe on a credit card, and copy it onto another card that can then be used to make fraudulent purchases. The microchip, on the other hand, creates unique data for each transaction that can’t be copied.
Since the U.S. seems to lag about 5 years behind Europe in many ways (policy, fashion, etc.), it’s not surprising to learn that financial institutions in the United States are finally starting to warm to the new technology. As of October 1, 2015, a “liability shift” has shifted the financial responsibility in the event of fraud onto banks, credit card companies, and retailers. As you might imagine, this has created a powerful incentive to switch over to a system that makes in-person purchases more secure. Banks have been issuing EMV cards to American consumers left and right—perhaps you’ve already received new microchipped versions of your credit / debit cards in the mail—and American retailers are starting to update their credit card readers. But there is an important distinction to make between the EMV cards in the U.S., and the EMV cards used in Europe.
The new microchipped credit cards that we’ve been receiving in the U.S. are mostly “chip and sign”, rather than “chip and PIN”. They require a signature for verification, just like our old “swipe and sign” cards. That won’t cause you any problems here, where our new card readers are prepared to accept both versions. But at self-service kiosks or ATMs in Europe, you might run into some issues if you don’t have a PIN.
credit card types
Or, you might not have a problem. MasterCard and Visa have said that “chip and sign” cards should still work abroad, and Rick Steves doesn’t seem too concerned, but my personal experience makes me skeptical. Many of the ATMs or the new portable card readers that were presented to me in Europe did not have a place for a signature, and were not able to bypass the PIN requirement. (Another way the EMV cards prevent fraud is at restaurants, where servers used to take your credit card out of your sight to run it through their POS – giving any less-than-upstanding servers the perfect opportunity to write down your credit card information for later use. Now, the card readers are brought to the table for customers to enter their PIN directly.) And trust me, nothing compares to the feeling of trying to buy a train ticket from a kiosk while the train is approaching, only to panic when asked for PIN that you don’t have.
Besides, even if mag-stripe or “chip and sign” cards can be accepted in Europe, it doesn’t guarantee that they will be. We ran into a few store owners and restaurant servers who had the technology to accept my old magnetic-stripe MasterCard, but still refused to do so for their own protection. Others simply didn’t know how to process non-chip credit cards, and couldn’t complete the transaction. I had to endure a few embarrassing incidents when a friend had to cover my meal because I couldn’t use my “swipe” credit card to pay my bill at a restaurant, or when had to sheepishly abandon two bags of groceries upon learning that the Lidl or Aldi I was shopping at would not accept my credit card. So, although you certainly might be able to get by in Europe without a “chip and PIN” card, you may find it to be a major inconvenience.
But the good news is – preventing such headache and humiliation before your next trip is actually pretty easy. If you’re not sure whether your new EMV card is “chip and sign” or “chip and PIN”, the easiest way to find out is to call your bank and ask. If it turns out that you have a “chip-and-sign” card, then you’re already halfway there– all you have to do is ask the bank for a PIN. Be warned that you might still run into a few issues at self-service kiosks (gas pumps, train stations, etc.), but these can often be solved by finding an attendant or cashier to help you.
If you’re really concerned about not having a true “chip and PIN” card for your next travel adventure, you may be able to get one—ask your bank if they can offer one, or check out this handy U.S. chip card guide. Here’s another helpful resource for finding “chip and PIN” options at decent rates.
A Few Last Pieces of Advice
Bring more than one credit / debit card with you! Upon landing in Denmark, I tried to buy a bus ticket at the airport, but my debit card simply would not work at any of the kiosks. I could’ve easily been stranded in Copenhagen with no access to money and no means of calling my bank to sort out the problem. Fortunately, my other credit card did work, so I was able to happily proceed with my trip.
If you are worried that your card might not be accepted, withdraw some cash ahead of time. The panic I felt while trying to purchase a train ticket from a kiosk in Colchester (as the last train of the night approached the platform) might have been easily avoided if I’d just withdrawn a few extra pounds to use at the ticket kiosk. Fortunately, one of my friends was able to spot me.
When in doubt, ask first! It didn’t take long for me to learn that the simplest way to make sure my credit card was going to work at a shop or restaurant was to ask someone first. Even though I didn’t speak any of the languages that I encountered in Europe, all I had to do upon walking into the grocery store was to greet a clerk with a smile, make a swiping motion in midair with my credit card, and then look at the clerk inquisitively. They either understood what I was asking and nodded “yes” or “no”, or they would respond with a motion of inserting an imaginary chip card into a reader, at which point I would thank them and leave.
Still have questions? Check out these additional resources:
Rick Steves – Chip and PIN cards
LA Times – Chip and PIN? Chip and signature? Here’s what travelers need to know
TIME – Here’s why your credit card now has a chip and why you should care
Bankrate.com – Will your credit card work abroad?
US News – Chip and PIN cards to consider before traveling to Europe
CreditCards.com – American travelers’ guide to chip-and-PIN cards

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”


We got up in Leipzig after sleeping in somewhat. I heard it rain all night, sometimes quite hard. When we got up about 8:00 and headed downstairs to breakfast it was done raining. The breakfast buffet at the Best Western Leipzig was really nice. There were lots of options to choose from and the staff was very friendly.
We decided not to go into town and headed to the station to catch the train to Berlin. That was easy. We had to wait just minutes before it arrived and we could board. The train travelled at speeds of up to 220 kph. Arriving in Berlin a little after noon, we navigated the central train station and found a S-line train to near our hotel.
We are staying two nights at the Hotel am Steinplatz – a Marriott Autograph Collection hotel. It is very nice. We have a view of the center garden. The only problem I have had with all the hotels rooms on this trip is that the beds offer a heavy comforter and a pillow, no sheet or blanket. We have both been very warm at night.
We dropped our stuff off in the room and headed out with the intention of taking the Hop-On Hop-Off bus tour of the city. That didn’t work. We walked to the place where we were to meet the bus and purchase the tickets, but the man there said he was told not to sell tickets after 3:00 pm. There was “30,000 things going on” and the tour couldn’t go the regular route. He told us to come back tomorrow.

Wilhem Kaiser Church
The damaged spire of the old church has been retained and its ground floor has been made into a memorial hall.
Kaiser Wilhem Detail
Detail of some of the damage the church received during the bombing raid in 1943.

We decided to walk past the Wilhem Kaiser Church and on to the Tiergarten. We walked along the garden and ended up the Kultural Forum. There are several museums on this campus. We wanted to see the old masters’ painting and went into the Gemaldegalerie. There was a long line to purchase tickets. This was due to the special Botticelli exhibit. We chose not to see that exhibit as it cost extra and were not that interested in it. Because of the special exhibit, they had the center of the space reserved. This required the viewer to go through the whole permanent exhibit then back track and see it all again to get out. Not a very good layout. The lighting in there also wasn’t very good for the very large paintings. Quite a lot of light was reflecting off the paintings making it hard to see some of the details. Overall a good collection of works and worth the time. We chose to purchase the Museum Pass that would let us see the Musical Instrument Museum as well. That museum, however, closed at 5:00 – unlike the others that close at 6:00pm. This was disappointing. We decided to see that tomorrow.

Brandenburg Gate
A more artsy photo of the Brandenburg Gate. It was a very busy place both times we stopped by.

We continued to walk down the side of Tiergarten and then crossed a path into the park. This part is very large. The Brandenburg Gate is at the east end of the park. As we walked we began to hear cheering and a voice over a loudspeaker. There was a rally going on near the gate. We couldn’t tell what it was about, but overall it seemed peaceful. We wandered around there for a bit and decided to take the S train back to the hotel area. There was a restaurant that we had passed earlier and we went there for dinner. It featured traditional German food. It was very good. We each got something different and then shared them. After dinner we walked back to the hotel to rest up.

Berlin Jazz Fest Poster 2015
Tonight we had planned to go to a jazz club. There were four to chose from and we ended up walking to the A-Trane Jazz Club. What we didn’t know was that the Berlin Jazz Festival was going on. We got there only to learn that the first was sold out. We waited around a bit just in case there were some no-shows for the tickets. While waiting we met two young women and a young man. They were each there on their own and didn’t have tickets either. Once the 9:30 pm show started without any of us getting in, we all walked across the street to a cafe/bar owned by the same people that owned the A-Trane. Ollec, Grodal, and Andrea were great fun. Ollec is from Russia, Grodal from Tunisia and Andrea from Germany. That we all met at a jazz club in Berlin was very cool. We had a beer and talked while waiting to see if we could get into the next show that night. By the time we went to check back it was getting closer to 10:30 pm. Tim and I decided to pass and said goodbye to our new friends. I hope they got into the show.