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Maps are often considered out of date and old fashioned in today’s technology-filled world.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

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”

Travel to Cuba: Who? Why? How?

Cuba blog postEverything you need to know about Americans’ new opportunities to travel to Cuba.  And if you don’t see it here – please ask in the comments and I’ll be sure to respond. As the United States reopens its embassy in Havana, here’s what you need to know about traveling to Cuba. Much has changed already since the publication of new regulations for travel to Cuba on Jan. 16, which loosened some restrictions on travel for Americans, though travelers still cannot just hop on a plane and go.

1. So we can go to Cuba now?

Yes. But that’s not what’s new.  Americans have always been legally allowed to travel to Cuba as long as that travel was done for a number of allowable reasons, like humanitarian aid, research or visiting family. What’s new in 2015 is that you no longer have to jump through endless hoops to try to secure the “specific license” in order to obtain permission to travel.  The new “loosened restrictions” means that you still have the same laws to follow, but as long as you know that your travel qualifies, then you just go ahead and travel.  That’s what’s known as a “general license”.  You are required to keep records of your travel transactions for five years.

2. So I can pack my speedo and go on vacation?

No. There are 12 categories of allowable travel, and tourism is not one of them.  Beach vacations are not allowed.  The most common category being promoted is educational activities known as “people-to-people”, which consist of a full-time program of scheduled tours and activities designed to provide participants an opportunity to interact and engage with the people of Cuba.  You’ll stay with a group the entire time – no optional activities. classic cars in cuba

3. How do I get there?

Flights to Cuba from the U.S. are run by charter operations that have been doing this for many years.  Most flights depart from Miami, but new options have already been started from cities like New York and Tampa.  Regular commercial flights already exist via other countries, like Canada and Mexico, so that may be an option for your tour.  It might even be cheaper and faster.

Major carriers like American, Delta and United all are giving indications that they will add more charter flight options and could be offering regular commercial flights soon (2016?).

4. What about cruise ships?

Cuba is the biggest island in the Caribbean and cruise itineraries are easier to adjust than airline routes, so yes, cruises are soon to be a big deal for Americans to Cuba.  Trips still need to qualify under one of the 12 licensed categories (think P2P), but the cruise lines are all over this new opportunity.  Carnival, Pearl Seas and other cruise lines will all be sailing in 2016.

There are also several ferry companies soon to offer service, and private yacht companies that have already started sailing.

5. I hear hotel space is an issue?

That’s true.  Not enough high-end hotels and the possibility of a LOT more visitors is going to be interesting to watch.  The first thing we do when starting to plan a tour to Cuba is secure the hotel space.  So plan early.

cuba street

For the right group, casas particulares make for an interesting option – staying in Cuban homes as a guest of the family.  This certainly nails the people-to-people component and gives you a much better chance at enjoying some awesome Cuban cuisine than you might get at a state-run restaurant!  Casas particulares can be found in any of the popular tourist towns and give the locals a chance to make a little extra income.

6. Can I use credit cards?

Yes, it’s now allowed.  No, it might be awhile before the banks get operational, plus most places where you might want to swipe will probably not have the equipment required, so plan on cash.  You’ll have to exchange to local currency when you get there.  The exchange rate is 1:1 with the US$, but it costs 13% in the transaction. It’s fixed, so exchange anywhere you come across – airport, exchange bureau, bank… just be sure to spend it all because there’s no changing it back.

7. What can I buy there and bring back?

Souvenirs.  Up to $400 worth of goods, including $100 worth of cigars.  Which is like 2 if you buy the good ones.

8. So where do I sign up?

Witte is going to offer several “open” tours in 2016 and beyond.  Stay tuned for that.  We are always able to put together a custom tour if you have a group of at least 10 people ready to go.  And one of our travel consultants would love to sit with you to discuss all the options there are to travel with operators such as Globus or Apple Vacations.

We’re having informational meetings here in Grand Rapids on September 23 and 24 – please plan to attend! Or call 1 800 GO WITTE to find out more.

What other questions do you have about travel to Cuba? Be sure to ask them in the comments, or let us know on Facebook!


Witte Travel Guide: Using Your Smartphone Abroad



[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]

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!

[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…)




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.


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!