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Friday, January 6, 2012

6 Frugal Foreign Travel Tips for Baby Boomer Ladies

6 Frugal Foreign Travel Tips for Baby Boomer Ladies

The obviously American gentleman was eating dinner while reading at a cozy French restaurant, but I just had to interrupt with a somewhat rude question: "Why do so few older men travel alone in Europe?"

I'd been on the road for two months, touring the world as a travel writer, and this was the first American male I'd seen flying solo. He responded with just one word: "Fear." I thanked him and went on my merry way, only realizing later I hadn't asked, "Fear of what?"

The flat fact, however, is that older women are more comfortable traveling to foreign countries without a partner or tour group. You see them sitting in caf├ęs, diligently scribbling in their journals and taking in the passing scene with genuine smiles. I formed easy friendships with many of these women everywhere from Abu Dhabi to Krakow, and learned quite a few frugal foreign-travel tips, which I'm delighted to pass on to men and women alike.

1. Hostels
I can't stress strongly enough how much cheaper and more enjoyable it is to stay in a hostel. Other overnight residences are not only more expensive, they tend to segregate you from the reality of a city or region. Hostels throw you right into the mix, which nowadays includes travelers of all ages -- not just the young.

Hostels usually provide breakfast, the heftier ones yielding leftovers from which you can use for lunch. Free Wi-Fi access and front-desk workers who can point you to unique sites worth seeing round out the many benefits of staying in a hostel.

To make reservations before you leave or while you're on the road, Lonely Planet and Hostel World allow you to search by location, price and type of hostel, with photos and a description of the accommodations.

2. Food
Shopping local markets is a great way to interact with residents, learn about new foods, and how to prepare them. It's amazing how easy it is to converse about food when you don't share a common language.

You'll want several Ziplock bags of varying sizes to store bread and dry foodstuffs. In France, I'd make a to-die-for baguette sandwich with any of their hundreds of cheeses, then stuff it into a large bag for train travel.

A couple extra tips: If you're heading to Spain, I found a cheap and delicious dinner of tapas came free with sangria orders placed during "happy hour." Most stores in Arab countries will offer you a cup of coffee just for stepping across their threshold, should you need a caffeine jolt while shopping.

3. Guide Books
Thanks to online guides, there's no need to fill your luggage with heavy books. I printed out the pages I needed and created a list of vital foreign words I'd need, like "please," "thank you" and "How much does this cost?" Omniglot has an easy-to-use website that will get you started.

Lonely Planet has some great PDF guides and you can buy them by the chapter (roughly $5 each). and Hostel World offer free online guides, but they're not as comprehensive and the selection is limited.

If computers aren't your thing, buy a bound guidebook, read it, and cut out only the pages you'll need.

4. Trains
Boy do I love train travel. It's cheaper than renting a car or flying, helps you meet new people, and usually drops you off close to the action in major cities. The trick, if you're traveling to a rural destination, is to know the stops before your destination so you can be ready to hop off at a moment's notice.

Another couple handy phrases you should learn in each language are "How much does a ticket cost?" and "From which platform does the train depart?"

It's best to buy your Eurail train passes before leaving as it's cheaper in the United States. My pass ran out once, however, and Eurail provided free shipping on the second one.

5. Money
Rule number one: Never, never, never exchange money at the airport. You'll pay the highest rate possible. Instead, look for an airport ATM and take out the maximum amount (usually around $200). You'll pay a fee, but not nearly as high as the airport exchange rate.

Rule two: If you're going to travel a bit upscale, buy gift cards at a discount from sites like GiftCardGranny to purchase American services found in foreign countries. This might include airlines, hotels or car rental agencies for which you can realize up to 25-percent savings.

6. Plastic Safety
Notify all credit card companies you plan on traveling outside the U.S. so they won't place a hold on your account for unusual activity.

Finally, note your credit/debit card numbers and foreign contact phone numbers and keep this info in a safe place, separate from the cards. I stored mine in my email account with a bogus "subject" line. You might need this info should your plastic be stolen or problems arise.

That's about it, except I highly recommend you keep a journal. Traveling alone is lonely at times and writing out your thoughts and experiences helps fill in some gaps. As a bonus, you'll have a personal record of your adventures.

Happy trails!

Kate Forgach is a Baby Boomer consumer specialist for Kinoli Inc. She has written about senior issues for 11 years and has been featured in USA Today, Detroit News, New Orleans Times-Picayune, New Yorker magazine, "ABC World News," NBC's "TODAY" show and many other media outlets.