Most places do NOT take travelers' checks, whether in the USA or abroad. So, what good are they? They are accepted at most large banks (but many small banks or small branches will NOT take them), so you can get one cashed when you are in need of local currency -- and, of course, if a traveler's check gets stolen, it will be replaced (but make sure the company issuing such gives you that guarantee in writing). Myself, I've never used them.
ATM cards are accepted at most any ATM -- but not always. For instance, when I lived in Texas and visited my hometown in Kentucky, none of the ATMs there would accept my card -- I would have to go over to Evansville, Indiana to get cash from an ATM. I didn't have any problem getting cash with my German ATM card in Egypt, Jordan, the Czech Republic, or Spain... but I did in Italy. I use my ATM card while traveling abroad when I need to get local currency and locally when I need cash - but never as a credit card. If you are traveling abroad, call your bank and make sure your ATM will work overseas.
Also, few places outside the USA take credit cards; department stores and four stars hotel will take such, but small hotels, hostels, pensions, small shops and most restaurants do not. Definitely take your card with you, but have an alternative way to pay as well (cash is best).
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So Many Choices, So Many Styles
Travel can be simple, short and comfortable, like taking a weekend to drive and staying somewhere beautiful but nearby, staying in a little hotel or cabin, going to some festival in another town, or exploring a new-to-you place that's not too far from home -- you will be surprised at the travel adventures that are relatively close to you.
You can travel alone, travel with a friend or a group of friends, or travel with a group as part of a package. If you don't know where to begin, buy a guidebook for the area where you live, or near where you live. This can be an entire region or state, or a guide to national monuments, national parks, state parks and historical sites in a specific area. The Web is, of course, a wonderful resource as well, although many small towns and festivals still don't provide information online and can be found only in a traditional guidebook.
You can be a little more ambitious and hop on a plane and go to San Francisco, New York City, or some other legendary U.S. city. Again, just buy a guidebook, and let a travel agent help you book a room if you aren't comfortable doing it online. Pick a city with excellent mass transit, so you don't have to worry about a car (and parking and parking fees).
If you want to travel abroad, you might want to start with English-speaking countries, so you won't have to worry about navigating a foreign language. Canada, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, England, Australia, New Zealand, many countries of the Caribbean -- so many choices, and so many, many beautiful things to see. Rent a car (be prepared to drive on the other side of the road for many of the aforementioned!), buy a guidebook, and off you go!
Be even more ambitious and travel to a Western European country where you don't speak the language! Since most Western European languages are based on Latin, you will be able to figure out most important signs, and what's inside most store fronts and buildings. If you have European roots, then go looking for towns that fit in your heritage somehow. However, I really don't encourage a woman from the USA to travel abroad unless she has traveled at least a bit in the USA.
You have really graduated to a citizen of the world when you decide to make it to Eastern Europe, Asia, Latin and South America, Arab states and, ofcourse, Africa. However, for these countries, I do not recommend for a woman to go alone unless she is a very experienced international traveler. I met a woman from Columbia touring Egypt and Jordan by herself, but she was a very experienced traveler with excellent instincts who knew when to take chances and when to play it safe -- and I met her because she asked if she could tour Petra with us, as she had heard it was not a good thing for a single woman to do alone. If you can't find someone to go with you to these countries, but don't feel comfortable going alone, consider booking a formal tour (more on that in a moment).
When traveling, DON'T limit yourself only to big, famous cities; for instance, going to Berlin is fantastic, and I HIGHLY recommend it, but you will be missing what's really German if that's the only place you travel to in Germany. Madrid is fun, but there is oh-so-much more to Spain than that city. Same for Paris and France. Same for London and England. Same for Dublin and Ireland. And on and on and on.
Further advice, from a Lonely Planet Bluelist by a witty person called puddles_mcgee (no, it's not me):
Big groups, small groups, individual packages & DIY
I can't really can't say which is best for YOU, only for myself. And you are not me. Therefore, you have to try various scenarios and see what you like.
Organized group trips are nice if you are going to a place where you are too nervous to travel by yourself, whether that's New York City or a developing country -- or when you just can't deal with making or finding all your own food, and making all of your sleeping and travel arrangements. It doesn't have to be a bus tour with 50 other people and where you spend only 15 minutes at only the most famous sites and spend most of the time on the bus. There are lots of small groups, women-only groups, environmentally-focused groups, hiking groups, adventure groups, history-focused tours, and on and on and on. You can find them via stores like REI, via universities, via Lonely Planet, and just surfing the web for specialty travel agents. The advantage of a completely organized group trip is that someone else takes care of all your accommodations and other travel arrangements. The disadvantage is that if you don't like what the organizer has chosen, there isn't much you can do about it.
So far, I've done just one package trip: back while at university, I went to London for two weeks as part of an intensive theater junket, where our hotel, site visits and theater tickets were all arranged in advance (although I did I blow the tour off for a few days at the end and went on my own until flight return time). I have sometimes booked a day tour for local historical sites after already arriving in another country: if my Lonely Planet guide doesn't have a recommendation, I tell the manager of the hotel where I'm staying exactly the kind of tour I'm looking for (small group, less than 10, and where I want to go), and no matter how small the hotel, or what country, they've always been able to make it happen. On such tours, the tour guide has always adjusted the tour per our suggestions (if we want to stay somewhere for three hours instead of 30 minutes, he will comply). And it's been great to meet fellow travelers -- and if I don't like someone, that's okay, because when the day is over, I don't have to spend time with them anymore for the rest of the trip. One of the great things about traveling with others is that it's nice to have someone always willing to take pictures of you!
But do try to do at least a morning or afternoon by yourself, if you are in an area where it's culturally acceptable to do so, and you feel safe to do so. There is something really profound about touring some place by yourself. In my case, I like it because I can do whatever I want to, and not have to take anyone else's feelings or interests into account -- and I'm selfish enough that, sometimes, I need that. It's also more likely that you will meet other travelers this way (particularly if you stay in pensions and hostels in Europe). It's also really empowering to explore a site or neighborhood by yourself. While in Luxor, my husband became quite ill, and I was on my own for an entire day. I had to walk around town to get him some necessities. I was so sorry he was sick, but I did love walking around a bit of Luxor by myself; I ended up having the most incredible conversation with a young shopkeeper, who was telling me about the woman to whom he would soon propose, what all he had to prepare for beforehand in order to propose, how they met, how long they would have to be engaged -- it was a view into Egyptian Muslim culture I would never have had otherwise. And when it turned out that I didn't have enough money to pay for everything I needed, he told me to just come back tomorrow with the balance, no problem. And I did.
But when all is said and done: do what is right for YOU. Don't let anyone bully you into traveling a way you don't want to, or make you feel self-conscious about your choices. I have friends who balk at the way I travel, and I've balked at some of their preferences. But, in the end, we did what was right for each of us, and had the trip each of us wanted.
I have many, many more things to consider regarding your transportation and accommodations choices (I would have put them here on the page you are reading now, but it was getting way too long).
Are You Ready to Start Planning?
My favorite travel guides are from Lonely Planet. I've used several different brands of travel books, but for me, Lonely Planet is the best. Their specific advice for women in every book is a must read. Their descriptions help you identify what you, personally, would find interesting -- whether you want to go cheap or you want to go luxury or you want things in-between. There are also lots of terrific web sites and books for travelers, many of them specifically for women. By contrast, my brother loves Rick Steves; I find his guides much too mainstream and conservative, but Americans, particularly families traveling with kids, seem to love them.
Don't let the preparation tips scare you from traveling!!! Life is risk, whether you are walking out to your mailbox or walking the streets of Berlin. Yes, I've been robbed abroad (pocket picked). I've also been robbed in my hometown of Henderson, Kentucky.
Get Your Passport NOW
Even if you are unsure about traveling abroad, and have no immediate plans to do so, get your passport NOW. Your passport will be good for 10 years, and you won't have to worry about getting one when you do decide to travel abroad (it does take some time, and rush charges are very expensive). There's complete information at the USA Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs.
I have many, many more things to consider regarding your transportation and accommodations choices (it includes advice on preventing motion sickness).
Also see my packing tips and health & safety considerations especially for women novice travelers, and links to online resources to help women travelers
When you travel, you are going to have problems: A hotel is going to lose your reservation. A plane is going to be cancelled. You are going to get lost. You are going to go to a lot of trouble to get to a famous site and it's going to turn out to be stupid.
There are two ways to deal with all of the above: get completely enraged or depressed and let it ruin your trip, or consider it a part of the entire vacation/adventure, something that's going to make a great story later. OFCOURSE you are going to get angry or sad over adverse situations -- that's normal human nature! But do your best to burn through those feelings and to focus on resolving or accepting the situation, and to let go of those negative feelings instead of holding on to them. Breathe. Never forget to breathe.
It's easier said than done, truly -- I struggle with my own advice all the time when dealing with a frustrating situation while traveling. Your emotions can be greatly heightened while traveling, because you are in unfamiliar surroundings, and you often aren't absolutely nor immediately sure where to find a solution to a problem. But when I've followed this advice, then later, I have no regrets -- instead, I've usually got a rather colorful story for later.
You can smooth the way for yourself by anticipating potential travel delays: Bring along a packed iPod with music and audio books, have a great book to read, have some munchies always available, write in your travel journal... all of this will help calm your nerves when you have to wait at a train station or airport or wherever. Also, look for opportunities to pass the time while waiting: whip out the camera and take silly pictures ("here is the ashtray that was next to the bench where I had to sit for three hours, and here is the ticket machine that ate my money").
Anticipate other potential problems as much as possible before you leave; you will get better at this as you travel more. For instance, make sure you have phone numbers and addresses of alternative hotels in any area you want to stay, and know how to reach another town if all of the hotels are booked in a particular area.
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Advice on things you should do before you leave on a trip, to ensure you can access information via any computer or your feature phone or smart phone that you might need while traveling
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