Trudging through airports and climbing castle parapets.
Suffering airplane food and savoring traditional Old World dishes.
Struggling with a foreign tongue and grasping ancient civilizations.
Travel truly is an adventure, but it sure isn't easy. For every stumbling block and pitfall, however, there are discoveries and inspirations, lessons small and large.
How do you all do it?
I have a better idea of what it takes, now that I've journeyed overseas for the first time. My mother always says, "Don't try to do everything before you're 21." Well, Mom, I finally made it to Europe — at age 56, and after more than four years as a travel editor. Ironic, isn't it?
True, I've journeyed to the four corners of the Lower 48 states — and stood on the Four Corners of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado. I've cruised in the Caribbean, down to South America, and up to Canada. I've climbed Mayan pyramids in Mexico. But I've only flown a handful of times, mostly before 9-11.
So, even with all of my travels, plus the many consumer tips and travelers' tales I've edited, everything about my seven-day trip to Portugal was new: booking an international flight, finding places to stay, buying foreign currency and an electric converter, calculating baggage fees, and getting through security.
I made plenty of rookie mistakes, but they were mixed in with enough good moves — and good luck — to rate this overseas adventure a winner.
To be honest, I did panic and almost bailed out at the 11th hour, when British Airways canceled the first leg of my return flight. But colleagues who have logged many more miles persuaded me to embrace the challenge, and it all worked out — though I took a shortcut.
Mistake 1: Booking flights myself
Use a travel agent to book international flights, our syndicated column "Travel Troubleshooter" recommends. I probably should have taken his advice.
Out of curiosity, I started scouring Web sites such as Expedia and CheapOair, plus airline sites, for bargains. I quickly came across a $554 round-trip fare, which turned out to be the lowest price I'd find. But not knowing the market, I kept searching. Instead of dropping, the fares crept steadily higher, while the layovers lengthened, turning a seven-hour flight into nearly a daylong trip. And I refused to fly to Chicago or Atlanta before heading east.
Getting frustrated as the fares climbed above $700, I found my deal: a nonstop Continental flight out of Newark, and a return flight with only a two-hour layover in London, for $621 through Expedia. Normally, I would have looked for that fare on the airline's Web site or called my travel agent, but I didn't want to risk losing it. So, for the next 20 minutes, I frantically provided every piece of information Expedia wanted about me; my wife, Valerie; and 17-year-old daughter, Rebecca, including passport numbers.
Finally, I clicked on "Complete This Booking," only to have my bubble burst — Expedia couldn't find that fare.
What? Are you kidding?
I scrambled to call Expedia, and luckily, an agent found the fare and booked the trip, though we had to start from scratch.
I also bought Expedia's International Flight Insurance for $38 each — it seemed the prudent thing to do, though I wasn't sure what it covered. I printed the insurance vouchers, the itinerary, and a receipt — all from Expedia — the closest thing to tickets would be boarding passes, which I couldn't get till the day before the flight.
At T-minus-24-hours, instead of getting boarding passes, however, I found three urgent e-mails from Expedia:
"Please call us immediately regarding your 3/16/2010 flight. ... We have received notice from Continental Airlines that they have made significant changes that impact your itinerary. We must speak with you as soon as possible to discuss the airline's available options, which may be very limited."
My first thoughts are not fit for print.
It turned out that British Airways had canceled the Lisbon-to-London leg of our return flight because its largest union had scheduled a three-day strike. We had a few choices, the Expedia agent told me on the phone:
1. Keep the itinerary and hope the strike would be canceled.
2. Keep the itinerary and get another flight to London.
3. Cancel the itinerary, with a full refund, and rebook the trip — with substantially higher fares.
My good move had become a major mistake. Expedia and British Airways seemed helpful, but I wished I had booked with my travel agent.
Good Move 1: Listen to experienced travelers
My heart said, "Go," but my brain said, "You have to be crazy to fly 3,400 miles to a foreign country, where you don't know the language, don't plan on having a phone or a laptop, and don't know how you're getting home."
Agonizing over the dilemma into the next morning, I consulted friends who have traveled the world. "Go. It will work out. Travel's all about adventure," they said.
Poised to take the plunge, I checked with Chris Elliott — the Travel Troubleshooter himself. I only wanted his advice, but he immediately sprang into Travel Troubleshooter mode.
That's my shortcut. I envisioned spending most of my time in Portugal working on a return flight, which could cost me stories about Lisbon, Fatima, and Sintra, so I let Chris make some calls.
Meanwhile, I kept trying to arrange a return flight, right up until our Boeing 757 started taxiing at 8:40 p.m. and I had to turn off my cell phone before hearing from Chris.
At least we were on our way to Lisbon — how bad could that be?
Good Move 2: Flying overnight
We purposely booked an overnight flight so we'd get a full first day in Lisbon, and it worked perfectly.
The seven hours over the Atlantic flew by, thanks to a ravioli dinner and fruit-and-croissant breakfast snack, plus more than 50 movies, TV shows, video games, and soundtracks on the monitors mounted on the seats in front of us. Even the earbuds were free.
While Valerie and Rebecca slept for a few hours, I planned our first day of sightseeing. We would tour Belem, one of the oldest sections of Lisbon, because it's easy to reach by tram, and the major sights — the National Coach Museum, Jeronimos Monastery, the Discoveries Monument, and Belem Tower — are close together. Of course, we'd have to stop at the Casa Pasteis de Belem, which has been serving Portugal's traditional custard pastries since 1837.
Arriving just after 7 a.m., we made it through a day of self-guided tours and getting our bearings, fueled by meat and custard pastries, coffee and milk, adrenaline and excitement. Turning in at 9:30 p.m., we woke the next morning in sync with Portugal time.
Mistake 2: Traveling disconnected
"Portugal Unplugged" is what a friend called my plan to travel sans cell phone and laptop. It was as much a vacation from being connected as it was exploring a new world.
At the last minute, I found out that Verizon would have provided a free global phone for $9.95 (the cost of shipping), plus $1.29 a minute for calls and 50 cents for texts.
Another lesson learned.
That's OK. We would duck into an Internet cafe as soon as we got settled in Lisbon, let our family know we had arrived safely, and hit the cobblestones.
It was a good plan — pre-airline strike. Now, I needed to stay in touch with Expedia.
Before leaving Lisbon airport, I tried to work out our return flight at service counters for Continental and British Airways. The Continental agent seemed close to booking us on a nonstop flight from Lisbon to Newark, and the British Airways agent was looking to replace her canceled flight to London with one on TAP Portugal, when they both hit a brick wall: Expedia had canceled our Lisbon-to-London reservations, they said.
What? How? Why? I hadn't authorized that. What if the strike was called off?
Both agents agreed the reservation shouldn't have been canceled, but their hands were tied. I had to work it out with Expedia.
I needed a phone — badly.
I had looked at a phone in the Newark terminal for about $50, but it wasn't guaranteed to work in Portugal. In the Lisbon terminal, however, I got lucky. At a Vodaphone kiosk, I bought a phone for about $34, with a few minutes' worth of calls, and added about $15 to it.
Feeling empowered, I called Expedia, told my story to an agent, got put on hold, and then was told I'd have to call back in about four hours, when customer service opened.
No help, and most of my calling time was gone. No problem. I returned to the kiosk and added about $45. I had a phone; I was in Lisbon; life was good.
Good Move 3: Location, location, location
Our hotel, VIP Executive Suites Eden, was perfectly situated on a major square in the center of Lisbon. Weeks of comparing guidebook listings with TripAdvisor postings had paid off. The Aerobus took us from the airport terminal to the Art Deco hotel — built in the 1930s as a cinema — for about $5 each. The driver didn't recognize the hotel's name (probably my pronunciation), but luckily I remembered the square, Restauradores, because I thought it was named for the nearby restaurant district (it's not).
The train station, subway, and tourist office were steps away, Restaurant Row was a few blocks off, and the bustling main square, Rossio, was a two-minute walk.
Inside, our suite was much roomier than anything else we'd seen on the Internet, with a bedroom filled by a queen bed, a living room with pullout twin beds, kitchen, and bathroom. Lisbon is known for its highly rated hostels, but a private bathroom was a must for Valerie and Rebecca. We got a bargain by booking on the hotel chain's Web site for about $129 a night — nearly half the rack rate.
The decor was basic white with few embellishments, but from our fourth-floor window we could see the square and bustling Avenida da Liberdade through the hotel's trees and garden. And the rooftop terrace and pool offered a panoramic view of the city with its red-tiled roofs; the Tagus River, which the great Portuguese explorers sailed on; and imposing Sco Jorge Castel.
Not that we'd be spending much time at the hotel — we were here to get a taste of Europe.
Mistake 3: A little knowledge . . .
For our first dinner in Lisbon, we headed to Restaurant Row for a second-floor spot recommended by a guidebook and our hotel staff for its traditional decor and dishes. While we searched for it, we were greeted — or accosted — by hawkers trying to lure us into their eateries.
"We have the best food in the world," one young guy promised.
"We have the best prices," another assured us.
Each of them wielded color photos of their dishes and price lists to make their case. Unswayed, we asked for directions to our restaurant, and a woman hawker helpfully led us to it. But dissatisfied with that limited menu, we returned to the street and went to her restaurant, Torremolinos.
The prices seemed extremely reasonable — entrees of grilled chicken, beef or pork, served with french fries and white rice, starting at about $9; seafood dishes a few dollars more.
I had read that appetizers such as olives, cheese and smoked ham are placed on the table, and you're charged for what you eat. Leave them untouched, and they're removed. We found that some restaurants include those items on the menu, others don't, but all charge for them (a pat of butter and a roll each cost about $1).
And they charge for just about everything else. We tackled a basket of rolls with a few pats of butter. A hostess poured what I thought was a complimentary port aperitif. My seafood stew begged to be served over rice, which the waiter gladly provided. When I got the check, I saw why — we were charged for the rice, the port, the bread and the butter, plus bottled water. ("Tap water no good," they said.)
Even after they corrected an overpriced entree (maybe a mistake, maybe not), the $68 tab was about $25 higher than we expected. As our tour guide told us the next day, it's often difficult to decipher the check and figure out your charges. Plus, my $9.50 tip was overly generous.
Still, we had enjoyed a good Portuguese meal, dining al fresco on a clear, comfortable night, entertained by street performers and jewelry vendors.
And we had good news. My Expedia inquiry, helped along by Chris Elliott, had reached a senior specialist, who called on my European cell phone to work out a new flight home. It was all but confirmed.
I could get used to this traveling abroad.
Good move 4: Lisbon: Gateway to Europe
For the next two days, we toured the capital city and Fatima, where three shepherd children saw apparitions of the Virgin Mary during World War I. Pope Benedict XVI's scheduled visit to both spots next month added gravitas.
Then we took a 45-minute train ride to Sintra on the Atlantic Coast, for two days of exploring castles and palaces in a fairy-tale setting.
I had picked Lisbon for my first European visit mainly because we haven't had a story about Portugal in our travel section for years, and the flight was one of the shortest.
It turned out to be the perfect choice. The city is compact enough that visitors can get a good feel for it within a few days. Its history is manageable, because although its founding dates to the Romans in about 205 B.C., the Great Earthquake of 1755 and the resulting tsunami and fires leveled it.
The locals speak enough English that I never had to consult my Portuguese phrase book and dictionary, though Rebecca's high school Spanish came in handy a few times. Everyone was friendly and helpful — a woman who overheard us talking about Fatima led us to the bus station and the pilgrimage site.
Since we visited a few weeks before peak season, there were no crowds, though boisterous supporters of a soccer team from Spain livened up Rossio Square one day. And the weather cooperated — no rain, and temperatures in the mid-60s made for comfortable walking tours and outside dining.
Now that I've gotten a taste of Europe, I'm looking forward to returning to the Continent in the fall. I'm booked for eight days in Dresden and Leipzig, Germany — for Oktoberfest.
TRAVEL MOVES, GOOD AND BAD, ON A FIRST TRIP TO THE CONTINENT
For each mistake I made, there was a good — or lucky — move. And, since I learned from each one, they all contributed to a fun, exciting, and rewarding first trip to Europe.
• Use e-mail and phone. Thanks to e-mail, I reserved the only apartment at Cinco 5 in Sintra, eliminated Lisbon hotels that couldn't accommodate three in a room, and lined up a tour guide. I called our Lisbon hotel to confirm our reservation and request a morning check-in after the overnight flight — and the suite was waiting for us.
• Buy euros. I bought $800 worth of euros at an American Express office in Philadelphia, and that lasted me until the last day of the trip. But, the conversion rate, $1.46 for 1 euro, was 10 cents higher than the rates on Internet conversion calculators, in the weekly Travel section chart, and what my MasterCard company charged (see "Credit card fees" below). Still, it was one less thing to deal with once we arrived in Lisbon.
• Checking bags. I wasn't clear on Continental's baggage fees, so we only checked one suitcase. That left me weighed down by carry-on bags as we made our way through the security check and the Newark terminal, shopping for a phone, getting a snack, and using the restroom. We were each entitled to one free checked bag, and on the return flight, TAP Portugal allowed two checked bags each. Luckily, we took advantage of that, because our carry-on bags were searched at the gate at Porto.
• Pack light. My plan was to dress in layers, but I could have left some T-shirts and a sweatshirt home.
• Bring an electrical converter. I bought one at Wal-Mart ($19) at the last minute. We needed it and the plug-in adapter for an electric razor and curling iron. In our rush to check out, though, we left the adapter in the outlet.
• Do some homework. Guidebooks by Fodor's, Frommers, and Rick Steves gave me a good feel for the neighborhoods of Lisbon and the sights at Fatima and Sintra. They also helped me find a hotel, the VIP Executive Suites Eden, in a safe and central neighborhood. The Steves book includes self-guided tours of sights such as Belem's Jeronimos Monastery and Sintra's Palacio Nacional.
• Homework, Part II. Here's a tip I've never come across: Check a pronunciation guide while you're reading about your destination. I left that until last, only to find that I was mispronouncing the names of Lisbon's main neighborhoods. It left me fumbling with them most of the trip.
• Credit-card fees. Checking with my companies before I left, I found that Visa charged a lower "foreign-transaction fee" than MasterCard or American Express. Since many sightseeing spots and our Sintra landlord did not take credit cards, the fee wasn't much of a factor. Before my next trip, though, I may get a Capital One card, which does not charge the fee.
• Personal tour guide. The Rick Steves guidebook recommends Claudia Costa, and she was worth all 100 euros (about $145) for our four-hour walk through Alfama and Baixa, including famous sites and the neighborhood where she grew up in her grandmother's house. She led us to a section of the city's 14th-century wall that we never would have found on our own, preserved in a fashionable shopping mall, and hustled us away from a pickpocket. And when the tour was over, she joined us for a drink — introducing me to an aperitif of white port and tonic — and chocolate mousse while sharing more stories and tips.
• Beware of pickpockets. Forewarned by the guidebooks, I went to my local AAA store and bought a wallet with a chain that wraps around a belt loop ($13.99), and a money belt ($11.95). I only used the money belt for cash and passports when we took the train to Sintra, but the wallet stayed securely in my front pants pocket the entire trip. When we missed a tram to the landmark Castle of Sco Jorge, Claudia said we were better off taking a bus. "The tram is dangerous," she said. "Pickpockets." I also made use of the safe in our hotel room.
• Use mass transit. Even Claudia hates to drive in Lisbon, so I was glad I didn't rent a car. The subway system is clean and covers the city well, with trolleys reaching into the surrounding sections. You can buy a pass that covers both.