Mr. Dennis Newman took part in our Polish Delight Tour in 2017 together with his wife, Kathy. He's written down all his tips, hints and practical information for travelers to Poland (which can be applied to any kind of overseas travel) and agreed to share them with you on our blog. We hope that you find them useful when preparing to your Polish Delight or Ultimate Poland tour.
(Have you participated in the tour of Poland organized by RealPoland? We would be more than happy to have your review of our Trip Advsior profile)
Last month we spent an amazing 16 days, seeing things we’d most likely never have seen on our own, staying in lovely hotels, dining in some wonderful restaurants (of the 16 evening meals on our trip, 9 were included as part of our tour package). All of this, thanks to a tour-operator we discovered online: RealPoland—a company specializing in smaller tours (10-16 people). Their office, in Wiązowną (a suburb of Warsaw), was staffed by a most helpful young woman, Magdalena Gromek. Prior to the tour, I’d first spoken with Magda by phone from the U.S., then communicated multiple times by e-mail. Every question I had, Magda promptly (usually, within a day) answered—not always easy, given the 7-hours time-difference between Chicago and Warsaw! I was concerned, as we first were considering booking with them, about whether or not RealPoland was in fact a professional tour operator, or whether the “company” might in fact be an online scam, set up to steal money from the unwary.
My fears were initially reduced when I checked TripAdvisor, and found several reports, all commenting favorably, all seeming to be from actual travelers. And when I checked with Betty Fitzgerald, our travel agent from Hinsdale Travel Services, I learned that, in fact, RealPoland did hold an official Tour Operator’s license. It looked like my wife, Kathy, and I would be making a legitimate choice.
And indeed, we were. RealPoland did prove to be an excellent company. For those who, like ourselves, intend to book with them, or for others who do want to visit Poland for the first time but have chosen other tour operators, or perhaps even for those traveling to other countries, I hope the following thoughts might be helpful.
Before you leave the U.S., create a things-to-do list. I had two: one for a month-or two-ahead preparations; the second, for last-minute preparations. Here were ours. One or two months ahead of time:
Inquire of your cellphone service as to the best plan to use while overseas.
We chose Verizon’s cheapest: a $40 one-month plan (which would go into effect a week before we left on our trip, and then automatically end a month later). For our $40, we got: Talk: 100 min. ; Text: 100 sent msg / unlimited incoming; Data: 100 MB. In practice: talk, just a few minutes (in making one or two overseas phone calls before we left). We used no data, since upon landing, we turned our iPhones’ cellular data to “OFF.” Instead, for sending emails & photos back to our friends & loved ones in the U.S. while traveling, we relied on the WI-FI available in our hotels. There was also some (occasionally limited) WI-FI available on our mini tour-bus.
Inquire of your credit card company/companies about their overseas charges.
Here’s what we learned: there are 2 main kinds of overseas credit card fees: one, for use of an ATM; and the other, for simply using the card to make an overseas purchase. For ATM fees, all our credit cards charged a 3% overseas fee, except one: The Private Bank. So when withdrawing cash from an overseas ATM (which we did twice), we used our Private Bank MasterCard –which can work either as a Debit Card or as a Credit Card. We used ours as a Debit Card, with our pin #, to withdraw from Polish ATMs. (Be sure, by the way, to use only those ATMs located outside a bank, to avoid sneaky higher exchange rates possibly used by other, non- Bank ATMs.) The Private Bank charged us only a $1.00 foreign ATM fee (which they, upon request, customarily waive). Much less than any of our other cards! (NOTE: The Private Bank has just been bought out by CIBC Bank. So one would need to check, to see if any rules have changed.)The 2nd possible overseas fee would be for simply making an overseas purchase. This time, the one card that did NOT charge us a fee was our USAA bank card. All the others—including our Private Bank card when used as a credit card) did in fact charge us a fee: 3%. Ouch! That can quickly add up, what with charging restaurant meals, souvenir purchases, etc.
So for us, we used our Private Bank’s debit card for ATM withdrawals; and our USAA Visa credit card for individual overseas purchases. And saved ourselves some money!
Plan how you’ll get to and from your city airport.
In our case, we’re blessed. One of our daughters lives 15 minutes away from O’Hare. We were able to leave our car with her, after she and her husband had used it to drive us to the airport (Terminal #5, by the way, for international flights. So instead of taking I-190 west and driving thru the entire airport, just exit at Bessie Coleman Drive and go south one block, directly to the road that circles around to Terminal 5.)
Line up your overseas flight EARLY!
(at least 4 months early!) Kathy and I had started to do our serious planning for this September trip in May. One day I just happened to be casually looking for flights from Chicago to Warsaw (where the Polish Delight tour begins), and from what I could discover, there was only one airline offering non-stop flights: LOT Polish Airlines. When I clicked on the one flight that would work out for us (LOT 4, leaving Chicago at 9:25pm on Friday night, arriving in Warsaw at 1:30pm the next day—6 hours before our Welcome Supper at our hotel), I found that there were only 3 seats left! I immediately texted Betty, our Travel Agent, and asked if she’d reserve us 2 seats right away. She did so—and I breathed a sigh of relief. (Our cost, by the way: $868 per person, roundtrip, economy.)
If you don’t already own them, pick up at least 2 European electric-outlet adapters. And a power-strip. We used ours every evening, for recharging cellphones, for an iPad, for a hearing-aid overnight dehumidifier.
If you don’t already own it/them, pick up the correctly-sized suitcase(s). A year ago, I’d purchased a TravelPro 29” roller-style suitcase. It was only when I happened to double-check LOT’s website (and subsequently, SouthWest Air’s website) that I discovered that, while luggage manufacturers measure that 29” from top to the bottom of the case, airlines measure from top to the bottom of the wheels. So what to the manufacturer is a 29” suitcase becomes, for the airlines, a 31 ½” suitcase: slightly too big for their official rules!
So we ended up returning our sale-priced 29” piece of luggage to Kohl’s in August. Since TravelPro luggage (a brand Consumer Reports had recommended) was not on sale, I was forced to make due with an old, bad-zipper 25” case I had at home. (And halfway thru our trip, the main zipper jammed!)
When we arrived at the LOT counter on the day of our departure for Warsaw, I asked the young ticket-agent if a 29” suitcase would be allowed on board—without one having to pay an expensive overage fee. He replied that, yes, if a suitcase was not egregiously oversized (& he mimed standing next to something as tall as his neck), then it would be allowed as free checked-luggage.
However, I think it was wise that we didn’t take chances. Another, more irascible agent might take a stricter interpretation of the rules. And we’d suddenly find ourselves having to pay an additional $75…
Add a reminder to your smartphone Calendar to check-in for your return flights. (And if necessary, line up someone to do that for you…)
Unlike the domestic carriers with which I was familiar, LOT allows one to check-in 36 hours ahead of their flight-departure. So I put a reminder on my iPhone Calendar to do an online ticket check-in for 36 hours ahead of time. In our case, since our flight back home wasn’t leaving from Warsaw until 4:50pm on Monday, I ended up using the public-computer at our hotel in Krakow (Amber Design). The only trickypart: Amber’s computer wasn’t hooked up to a printer. And so I had to send our ticket-confirmation as an email to the hotel’s front desk, where they then printed it out for me.We had one further complication. Yes, our trip to Poland would be ending with a return flight to Chicago on Monday, Sept. 25th. But six months before our Poland trip, we’d already agreed to spend a few days with friends at their timeshare in Colorado during the week of our return. So I’d booked a flight from Chicago to Denver for 10:30am the following morning, Tuesday. That meant that we needed to arrange with someone to check-in for us at 10:30am Monday morning Chicago-time (24 hours ahead-of flight-time)—which would be 5:30pm Warsaw-time, when we’d already be onboard our flight home. So a month before, we simply asked a dear friend if she’d kindly check-in for us, and email us our ticket-confirmations, so they’d be ready for us to print-out, before we got to bed late Monday night. Which she did!
Passports: ‘Just a reminder: Passports have to be good for at least 6 months past the date of your trip. If they’re not, then you’ll need to get new ones (delivery of which may take at least 2 months).
If you don’t already own a pair, buy some comfortable walking shoes. Our RealPoland tour necessitated a lot of walking. On our 1st full day, Sunday, Sept. 10, our mini-bus took us first to Wilanów (pronounced: “Vee-LAH-noof”) Palace on the far south side of Warsaw. We spent an hour walking thru the many richly appointed rooms, then another half-hour walking thru the gardens outside. Later that day we visited Warsaw’s Old Town, on the NE side of the city, along the Vistula River ((which Poles call, the Wisła—pron. “VEESS-wah”). That was another good hour of walking. So be prepared to get some exercise—a good thing, to work off all those pierogies you’ll be eating.
Read some Polish History. On the Polish Delight tour, you’ll be hearing the names of a lot of Polish kings, and events like, the “3rd Polish Partition of 1795.” And being aware of the horrific Katyn Forest massacre of 1940 (when Stalin’s soldiers executed 22,000 Polish officers & intelligentsia) is a must. So knowing a little history before you go would be most helpful. The legendary scholar is Norman Davies, who wrote God’s Playground: a History of Poland. I thought this 2-volume set might be a bit too long, so instead, I ordered a copy of A Concise History of Poland, by Jerzy Lukowski & Hubert Zawadzki. Each of these 2 authors concentrated on a different half of their book. I, unfortunately, would not recommend it. The first half, in particular, suffers from unexplained “name-dropping.” The author would mention a king, for instance, & casually throw in the fact that he was a “Vasa”—without any prior explanation as to what a “Vasa” was. I found myself constantly referring to Google, to look up a name or a battle or some other event, just to get the fuller explanation which the book should have provided. So Davies might indeed be the better choice. Or check out Amazon, and see what else is available. NOTE: James Mitchener also wrote one of his historical novels, simply called Poland, that might also provide a sense of the land & its history.
If you haven’t already done so: Prepare a binder containing your financial information, any Trust documents, Wills, etc. Put it in a safe place, and tell your trusted loved one(s) where it will be kept—just in case.
Click to continue reading: Things to Do One Week Before You Leave
© 2017, by Dennis J. Newman, Minooka, Illinois 60447- U.S.A. Used with permission.