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AARP Smart Guide to International Travel

Use these tips to book a bucket-list trip you’ll never forget

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Craving an adventure? You’re not the only one. According to a new AARP survey on travel, a majority of adults (62 percent) 50 and older plan to take at least one leisure trip in 2023 — and most will take three or four trips. International travel is also booming — Europe remains the most popular international destination, followed by Latin America and the Caribbean, according to the survey.

Although a globe-trotting spike could increase travel hiccups — including lost luggage and flight delays — it’s no reason to postpone your bucket-list trip. This comprehensive guide will help prepare you for every stage of your trip and includes curated tips for packing, avoiding common travel mishaps and where to go to beat the crowds.


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1. Research your trip

Sometimes, planning your trip can be a bit overwhelming. Start by reading updated guide books, exploring prominent travel sites and following travel bloggers on social media. You can even reach out to bloggers who have recently visited an area and ask specific questions. Check out our section below for ideas for international destinations. For lodging, make sure you find legitimate sites for hotels and other vacation rentals. And start to look for deals far ahead of time — some hotels will offer discounts on gift cards during the holidays, which will come in handy on your summer trip. For transportation, research whether there are taxis or other forms of transportation if you’re not renting a vehicle. Often you’ll find traveler discounts or deals on multiday passes for trains if you book in advance.

2. Get your passport

Passports are generally valid for 10 years, and travelers are often surprised they need to renew. If yours is a year away from expiring, it’s a good idea to renew (and some countries won’t allow entry if a passport expires within six months). If yours is expired, you can expect a wait of up to 13 weeks for a new one, according to the U.S. State Department, the federal agency that issues the documents. If you’ve never had one, the wait may be even longer. Even if you’re willing to pay a fee to have it expedited, you’re still looking at about nine weeks. Learn more (and bookmark the site on devices you’re bringing) on the State Department’s website, It’s best to make a copy of your passport and leave the original in a hotel safe while you are out and about exploring.

3. Plan for your reentry

Consider downloading the app Mobile Passport. It’s authorized by U.S. Customs and Border Protection and allows U.S. and Canadian citizens to bypass the regular winding lines at customs for faster processing. By answering most of the customs questions before you even get to the customs officer, you’ll spend less time in line. Download the app here.

4. Search for low-cost fares

If you’re itching to explore, but you’re not sure where, let flight deals be your guide. For Germany-based travel journalist Summer Rylander, who takes an annual overseas trip with her husband each winter, that means brainstorming what she wants out of the getaway — say, relaxation or adventure — then building backward from there via low-cost fares. “We let flight prices, and our mood, determine where we go,” she says. Check out our Smart Guide to Air Travel for more money-saving tips.

5. Alerting your credit card company

Most credit card companies do not need to be alerted that you’re traveling overseas. If you’re not sure, call your company or visit its website to learn more. You can also check if setting travel alerts is an option. Make sure your contact information is up-to-date and consider downloading the card’s app to have on hand in case you need to report fraud or freeze your card.

6. How to bring medications

If you need to bring certain medications with you, keep in mind that each country has its own laws on what’s allowed. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, common medications such as birth control, Adderall and Benadryl may be unlicensed or considered controlled substances in other countries and vice versa. If you are caught with medication considered unlicensed, authorities could confiscate it — or you could face penalties, including jail or prison time. According to the CDC’s website, you should “check with your destination’s embassy and embassies of countries that you have layovers in to make sure your medicines are permitted.” If a medication you need is not permitted, talk to your health care provider about providing an alternative or a letter explaining your condition and treatment plan. For more information, check out the CDC’s page on travel and medications. You can also check your airline’s website to see whether flying with certain medications, such as Adderall, is prohibited. Check to see if you’re allowed to bring over-the-counter anti-nausea, stomach upset and pain relief medication, just in case.

7. Get destination-specific vaccines, medicines and information

At least one month before you leave, make an appointment with your health care provider for destination-specific vaccines, medicines and information. You can also do a pretravel physical. Your provider can review your medications to see whether anything needs to be adjusted and offer advice on where to best store them. If you’re going to be gone longer than 30 days, inquire about getting enough medication for your trip — most insurance companies only cover a month’s worth.

8. Consider a medical evacuation membership

Many travel insurance plans come with medical evacuation, but Stan Sandberg, cofounder of insurance comparison site, suggests separate medical evacuation membership programs, such as MedJet, Global Rescue or Covac Global for reassurance. Evacuation is standard in a travel insurance plan, but a membership will get you to your preferred hospital. “If you had an emergency overseas and you’re admitted to a hospital, a MedJet plan is going to take you and bring you back to the hospital of your choice in your home state,” Sandberg says. “There are no interim steps. In a travel insurance plan, if you’re in a location that does not have adequate medical facilities, they will evacuate you to the nearest location that will treat you.”

9. Consider group or guided trips

You don’t have to pursue your dream trips alone. “The advantage of small-group trips is safety in numbers,” says Tami Al-Hazzá, cofounder of Femscape Sojourns, which runs boutique group trips for women around the world. “You also don’t have to think about booking anything or dealing with transportation; it’s all planned for you.” Even better? You could make lifelong friends. “It’s an opportunity to share experiences with others,” Al-Hazzá says. For more tips, read our Smart Guide to Solo Travel.

10. Brush up on local phrases

You don’t have to learn a new language before your trip, but if you’re traveling to a country where English is not one of the spoken languages, learning a few key phrases will go a long way. “I think every traveler should know at least the basics, such as ‘hi,’ ‘how are you,’ and questions about food,” Al-Hazzá says. “It really makes a difference to the locals when you try. They’ll be friendlier and more responsive to you.”

Use apps such as Duolingo, Babbel or Drops to help you feel more comfortable and confident with phrasing and pronunciation. And most iPhones come equipped with a Translate app, while the Google Translate app works on Androids and iPhones.

11. Get local currency through your bank

Arrive ready to hit the ground running with a currency supply secured pre-trip. “Most major banks in the U.S. will order foreign currency for their customers free of charge,” says travel journalist Hillary Richard. To order, call your bank and request the amount and currency and familiarize yourself with the exchange rate. It’s best to do this at least a few weeks in advance. “You can usually deposit whatever is left back into your account once you’re home,” Richard says. You can exchange currency at most airports as well. It’s also a good idea to look up what the tipping customs are where you’ll be traveling.

12. Enroll in Global Entry

Be one of the enviable travelers who gets to skip the customs queue when you arrive back in the U.S. by enrolling in Global Entry, which comes with TSA Precheck. “No one wants to wait in an hour-long customs line after getting off a long international flight,” says Alisa Cohen, founder of boutique travel agency the Luxe Traveler Club. “With Global Entry, it can take as little as minutes to be able to clear customs.” Given the renewed zest for international travel, the Global Entry application process is experiencing backlogs (four to six months). If you have a trip on the horizon, apply for Global Entry online as soon as possible.

13. Enroll in STEP

Enroll in the free Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to register your trip with the nearest U.S. Embassy or consulate. You’ll also get security updates and alerts. Enroll here.

14. Get a visa

Some international destinations require visas. Check to see if your dream destination requires one, and, if so, what the application process looks like. In some cases, you’ll obtain the visa upon arrival. In others, you need to mail your application with your passport in advance. If you’d rather leave the job up to someone else, look into hiring a visa service such as CIBT VisasVisaHQ, or Atlas Visa Services. Although the process can cost hundreds of dollars, these organizations take care of the logistics and ensure your application meets even the pickiest of requirements.

15. Download helpful apps

When traveling overseas, many cellular phone plans can charge high international rates for texting, so research what your particular plan covers. Some less expensive alternative communication apps include WhatsApp, Viber or WeChat — have friends and family members download the same app to keep in touch. These apps use Wi-Fi or your phone’s internet connection to send messages, photos and video. In addition, download your airline’s apps to get updated flight information, check in and have the option to purchase Wi-Fi and meals.


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16. Get trip insurance

Logistics abound when it comes to international travel. All too often, these logistics can go awry due to an illness, lost luggage or missed flight connections. With a well-researched trip insurance plan, you’ll be ready for the mishaps sans stress. Trip insurance is even more important on overseas excursions. “With international travel, you’re likely going to have an expensive trip, and you’re maybe planning further in advance, which leaves you open to the possibility of things happening between the time you buy your trip and the departure date,” Sandberg says. “Then, depending on the destination, you may not have the type of medical system or hospitals you need in the event of an emergency.”

17. Know what your insurance covers

You may think your health insurance will cover you abroad, but Sandberg recommends reading your plan thoroughly. “For senior travelers who may be on Medicare and retirees, the standard medical coverage does not provide coverage when you leave the U.S.,” he says. “Travel insurance becomes a way to put coverage in place temporarily while you’re traveling outside the country.” Though you can enhance a Medicare plan to include international options, Sandberg says, it’s not cost-effective if you’re only taking one or two trips per year.

18. Travel insurance and preexisting conditions

Getting travel insurance to cover your preexisting condition takes a bit of legwork — but it’s not impossible. “Spend a little extra time reviewing the terms of a plan, or get on the phone with a plan representative,” Sandberg says.

19. Should you use your credit card’s insurance?

Many premium credit cards come with travel insurance, but it’s important to know when to use the offering and when it won’t suffice. For example, credit card insurance can work well for covering a rental car abroad, but Sandberg says it’s typically not the best option for your health or covering an entire trip, especially abroad. “The travel insurance offering in a credit card is going to be a slimmed-down version of coverage you could find elsewhere,” he says. “It will have more exclusions and a more limited set of covered reasons.”

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20. Rewear your wardrobe

When it comes to what to pack for international travel, Rylander has a tip: “Don’t be afraid to rewear things,” she says. “I think people tend to overpack because they want options, but you’re traveling and you’re not going to see most people more than once.” Even if you do, she notes, they know you’re on the road. Opt for a mix-and-match wardrobe instead of a brand new outfit each day. Use packing cubes or vacuum-seal bags (most come with a small pump) and save room for souvenirs!

21. Study the weather

Nothing’s worse than getting to a destination and realizing you packed for the wrong conditions. “Check the extended weather forecast,” Rylander says, noting she looks at both long-term destination weather trends via Google and the extended forecast via her phone’s weather app, which is typically available seven to 10 days in advance. A plastic poncho and small umbrella may save a lot of grief.

22. Always bring a carry-on

More travelers in transit means there are more opportunities for your bags to get lost. “During a season when airports are busy, it’s important to pack in a carry-on, especially if you’re not staying in the same place the whole time,” Rylander says. If your bag gets lost, it can take a few days to reach you. Pack an extra pair of clothing, toothbrush and other essentials such as medication in your carry-on in case checked luggage is late or lost. Either take a carry-on if you’re destination hopping or build extra time into your arrival destination if you can’t avoid a checked bag. This allows time for a missing bag to reach you.

23. Have your tech figured out

It’s highly likely you’ll need a universal power adapter to charge devices, and there are multiple models to choose from. Most cost about $50 or less. Although you’ll save on space by purchasing a universal adapter, most don’t have grounding — so your best bet may be on getting a pack of individual adapters. Don’t forget a set of USB-C charging cables. If you’re going to try to sleep on the plane or just need to feel more isolated, bring along noise-canceling headphones. 

24. Monitor luggage

After 2022’s frenzy of misplaced luggage, travelers rely on small tracking devices to keep tabs on their checked belongings. This provides peace of mind when you’re checking a bag, says Kaleigh Kirkpatrick, founder of luxury travel agency The Shameless Tourist. That said, knowing where the luggage is may not expedite your receipt of it. “Airlines have their systems and procedures they must follow when locating lost luggage,” Kirkpatrick says. “It can be extremely frustrating, but it is helpful knowing when it does finally reach its final destination.” AirTags connect to your Apple devices. Similar brands include Tile Stickers, Cube Trackers and Chipolo ONE Point devices.

25. Print your travel essentials

“I make copies of all of my travel documents: credit cards, driver’s license, Global Entry and passport,” Sandberg says. Keeping copies in your luggage — but away from the original documents — is important, especially if your valuables or wallet gets stolen. If you lose your passport, you will have to go to the nearest embassy to report it. Having a copy of your passport, either printed or digital, will help expedite the cumbersome and potentially lengthy process of obtaining a new one.

26. Understand international airline baggage restrictions

U.S. airlines can sometimes be lenient in regard to carry-on bag sizes, but don’t expect the same treatment abroad. “Always read the fine print,” Kirkpatrick says. Rules can vary by country and by airline. Look at the restrictions ahead of time and prepare yourself, or look at baggage alternatives, such as upgrading for additional luggage allowance, if needed.

27. Consider wrapping your luggage

International airport terminals often feature kiosks such as Seal & Go, TrueStar and Secure Wrap, which offer to wrap a layer of cellophane around your luggage for about $20. It feels more secure, but is it necessary? To some, yes. The wrap can keep bags from opening and provide an extra layer of protection — staving off bad weather, nicks and scuffs and potentially deterring would-be thieves. But it’s not TSA-proof. If checkpoint screeners see something questionable in their scanner, they’ll cut off the wrap. And from an environmental perspective, always dispose of the wrap in a recycling bin, or you can save and reuse the plastic wrap for other flights. 


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28. Drink water, pack snacks and wear compression socks

One of Al-Hazzá’s keys to touching down in a new country fresh and healthy? Proper hydration. “Drink plenty of water and bring a few healthy snacks to eat instead of the carb- and sodium-heavy airplane food,” she says. According to Richard, it’s wise to get up from your seat regularly for a stroll. “Long plane rides can wreak havoc on your body,” she says. “Don’t be shy about standing up and walking or shaking your legs every couple of hours.” Consider bringing along hydration powder packets, which are easy to add to a bottle of water and give a bit more of a hydrating boost. Pedialyte, Gatorade, Propel, DripDrop and Liquid I.V. are just some of the options. In addition, compression socks can be extremely helpful for maintaining blood flow and reducing swelling.

29. Clean your seat

The airport crews may disinfect the plane before boarding, but Al-Hazzá recommends taking hygiene into your own hands — particularly on long flights where your seat becomes your makeshift bed. “Cleaning off your armrests and tray table when you first sit down with antibacterial wipes makes a difference and only takes two minutes,” she says.

30. Avoid jet lag

You may feel like a dishrag after a long-haul overnight flight, but Richard says it’s important to stay awake so you can adjust to the local time zone and avoid jet lag. “It’s not fun, but it works,” she says. Once in your seat, set your watch to your destination’s time, and eat meals on local time. To give yourself a reason to stay awake, try booking an easy walking tour for your first day. Al-Hazzá suggests adjusting your time zone back at home in the days leading up to your trip. “It helps a lot,” she says. When flying west, look to arrive in your new time zone in the evening, closer to bedtime. To help reset your internal clock, avoid naps longer than 30 minutes.

31. Leave adequate time for airport lines

Preparing for airport crowds and long lines at security and customs checkpoints is important. “When you book a flight, make sure you have enough time for customs,” Al-Hazzá says. “I’d say a minimum of two hours. You don’t know what kind of customs lines you’ll run into.” Equally important: Build in plenty of time for your return flight, especially if you’re used to breezing through your home airport’s TSA Pre-Check lane, as this service is not offered at overseas airports.

32. Don’t pack souvenirs in checked luggage

Be strategic about your souvenirs, and if you’ve acquired a valuable or potentially breakable item, Al-Hazzá says to hand-carry it. Packing a fold-up duffel or spare canvas bag is particularly helpful for safely toting souvenirs home.

33. How to get a flight-delay refund

While the U.S. doesn’t offer refunds or reimbursements for flight disruptions, you are entitled to compensation for delays in Europe, Sandberg says. “There are companies that focus on that exact thing, and they can determine whether you’re owed compensation or not, based on travel times of a particular flight,” he says, noting they process the reimbursement application for a fee. Some services that offer this include AirHelpSkycop, and ClaimCompass. You can also apply for a reimbursement directly with the airline.

34. Hire a VIP meet-and-greet service

One of the best ways to get your trip off to a good start? Hire help. “I recommend splurging on VIP meet-and-greet services that are offered internationally to expedite the [customs] process,” Kirkpatrick says. Adding to the arrival ease, book a car service to get you from the airport to your hotel, so you can avoid navigating train systems or rideshare regulations after a long flight.


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35. Mind your manners (and voice level) 

Travel is a time to let loose and have fun, but while you’re doing so, remember to be polite and monitor your voice volume, Al-Hazzá says. “Don’t be loud when having conversations,” she says. “It screams tourist.” This is particularly important in enclosed places, such as museums or restaurants, so be sure to read the room and be mindful of others around you.

36. Know your surroundings

It’s easy to get lost in the moment — that’s what travel is all about — but don’t get too distracted, Al-Hazzá says. “Always look people in the eye and know who’s around you,” she says. “This should be a given, but also don’t go to deserted areas at night.” Additionally, be smart about your belongings. You don’t have to use a money belt, but use bags and purses that have locking zippers and or compartments or can be worn cross-body style — anything to deter a potential pickpocket. Large cities such as Barcelona, Paris, Madrid and Rome boast busy city centers with many distractions — and a lot of opportunities to be separated from your phone and wallet.

37. Get cash from a trustworthy ATM

Don’t get your cash supply from that sketchy side-of-the-road ATM. Instead, Richard says, head to the local bank. “Use an official bank ATM, preferably one inside the bank with cameras for safety,” she says. Additionally, look for debit cards that offer international fee-free withdrawals before your trip.

38. Purchase in the local currency

Before you go to pay for a meal or souvenir, heed Richard’s payment advice: “When a store lets you choose between being charged in local currency or U.S. dollars, go for the local currency. Your credit card will adjust the cost for you automatically based on the official exchange rate of the day.”

39. Download offline maps

If you’re the navigator of your travel group, or you’re heading out solo, make sure to download offline maps of your destination before you leave home, Rylander says. On Google Maps, you can download a full city map or even a country map to use without cell service. To do this, open the app and search for the location, then below the location (and to the right of “Directions”), scroll to the right and select “Download Offline Map.” Once the map is downloaded, click on your profile photo near the search bar and scroll down to “offline maps.” Other apps with downloadable maps include HERE WeGo Maps & Navigation and Sygic GPS Navigation & Maps.

40. Connect on the go

When the need for internet arises, Rylander has tips for snagging Wi-Fi on the go. “Wi-Fi is prevalent in cafes, hotel lobbies and sometimes even in grocery stores,” she says, but connecting to public Wi-Fi gives savvy hackers easy access to your personal information, so use a VPN or a virtual private network service to protect yourself. A VPN costs $30 to $100 per year. Alternatively, use your smartphone’s hot spot to connect to the internet more securely.

41. Take food reviews with a grain of salt

Review sites can help you avoid problematic hotels or meals, but Rylander suggests keeping an open mind. “Don’t get too hung up on reviews,” she says. “They’re great for a general reference, but people have different tastes. Don’t be afraid to try a place even if the reviews are, say, a 4.1 instead of five stars.”

42. Ask before you photograph

With smartphones, snapping photos has become second nature, but it’s important to remember photography etiquette when you’re traveling. “Ask people before you take a photo of them, and don’t just walk into a restaurant and stick your camera in a person’s face,” Rylander says, noting the same goes for street performers, animals and especially children.

43. Use your phone carrier abroad

These days, you don’t necessarily need a new international phone or special SIM card to use your smartphone internationally. According to Kirkpatrick, most phone carriers offer international day passes for $5 to $10 per day. “It’s easy to just add this plan onto your current cellular phone plan and not worry about the SIM card,” she says.


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44. Hit the local market

See the city like a local with a trip to your destination’s neighborhood markets. “You can meet locals at markets, or by taking classes, like cooking or pottery, hosted by locals,” Al-Hazzá says. You can research the markets ahead of time, or ask your concierge, restaurant hostess or shopkeepers for tips throughout your trip.

45. Try a food tour

Food is the heartbeat of a city. To soak up the local flavors, and the cultural history, book a food tour, Rylander says. “I love a food tour, usually on day one or day two of the trip, because it helps you get oriented around the city, and you get an introduction to the local food,” she says. Even better: If you really love the dish, you’ll have time to try it again.

46. Ask for local recommendations

You may be tempted to plan your entire trip before even touching down, but Dawit Habtemariam, global tourism reporter at Skift, suggests leaving room for local recommendations from people who don’t necessarily work in the tourism industry. Another place he finds out-of-the-box recommendations is through TikTok. “It’s a search engine for a lot of people now,” Habtemariam says.

47. Look for events in the local newspaper

Habtemariam may be a fan of TikTok for travel, but he also recommends sticking to the classics: newspapers. “When I was in Reykjavik, I found a local newspaper with music listings, and I kept going to these cool live music shows,” he says, noting he also found restaurant and bar ideas via print papers. “This old-fashioned way has some hidden gems.”

48. Find niche-interest events

To meet local people in an authentic way, join a niche event. “I’m a big improv person, so I look up social gatherings around this hobby,” Habtemariam says. “In Berlin, I went to an improv comedy café and got to perform with the locals.” You can find these kinds of events for all sorts of interests: photography, painting, pottery, cooking, history, running — you name it.

49. Be a savvy souvenir shopper

It may be tempting to scoop up every souvenir in sight, but Al-Hazzá cautions against overdoing it. “Think about if this is something you’ll want in five years,” she says. “The local attire is probably beautiful, but will you actually wear it back home?” If you’re deciding between items, aim to purchase something that’s unique to the country.

50. Leave room for spontaneity

It’s helpful to start your trip with an agenda, but leave room for spontaneity. “Be willing to abandon the agenda if something else comes along,” Al-Hazzá says. “Those are usually the most memorable experiences. If you have the opportunity to do something with the locals, do it, because then you gain an authentic experience.”

51. Be in the moment

From new architecture to interesting food, it can be easy to take hundreds of photos without even realizing it. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but Rylander suggests being intentional about how you photograph so you don’t miss the moment. “Don’t feel like you need to capture every second,” she says. “Think about whether this is something you personally will want to look back on.”

52. When to snag a restaurant reservation

In some places, restaurant reservations are a must. In other cities, they’re a rarity. Rylander suggests researching your destination’s stance on them; if they’re common in your getaway, snag them early — especially come summer. “If you really have your hopes set on a place, make a reservation,” she says.


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The bounce-back of international travel has left some destinations struggling from overtourism. To help you avoid the crowds, we asked travel professionals for their recommendations on alternatives to the most popular (read: busiest) destinations. Their destination swaps include:

53. Instead of Mallorca, Spain, try Menorca, Spain

Mallorca’s powder-soft beaches and teal waters may be alluring, but for another captivating and less busy escape, try Menorca, Spain, Al-Hazzá says. This low-key destination is like a postcard from paradise, with clear turquoise waters, secluded shorelines and an abundance of marine life.

54. Instead of Rome, try Puglia

Sure, Rome is iconic, but the crowds can feel overbearing. As an alternative, Al-Hazzá recommends Puglia in southern Italy. You’ll find ancient villages, fresh-grown fare and access to the Adriatic, sans big-city crowds.

55. Instead of Santorini, try Milos

There’s a reason Santorini tops bucket lists. The Cyclades island dazzles with whitewashed villages perched atop crystal waters, but heavy throngs of tourists can dim the magic. Instead, Al-Hazzá suggests Milos, another Greek island with paper-white abodes overlooking the shimmery sea, a laid-back beachcombing culture, otherworldly cliffs and caves and most important: a fraction of the Santorini crowds.

56. Instead of Tanzania’s Serengeti, try South Africa’s Sabi Sand Nature Reserve

“Rather than the Serengeti, we recommend South Africa’s Sabi Sand Nature Reserve to our clients because of the easy airlift from the U.S., and it offers a great value of the rand currency against the USD right now,” says Sunit Sanghrajka, founder and CEO of Alluring Africa, a boutique travel-planning team focused on Africa. This alternative is not only a quick flight from Johannesburg; it also has a lower malaria risk, and the chance to see all of Africa’s famed animals, such as lions, elephants and leopards. “You can get close to the game without the overcrowding seen lately in Kenya,” Sanghrajka says.

57. Instead of Munich, try Nuremberg

Charming Munich attracts tourists with its diverse architecture, bucket-list sights and famous frivolity, but Rylander recommends a less-crowded — yet equally charming — German escape: Nuremberg, a haven for art, architecture and history.

58. Instead of Prague, try Ostrava

Cobblestone-adorned Prague may be a fairy-tale destination, but it’s also one of Europe’s most visited cities. For an alternative, Rylander recommends less-trodden Ostrava in the Czech Republic. The getaway, near the border with Poland, delights with a colorful main square, a three-nave Neo-Renaissance basilica and buzzing pubs and restaurants.

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