“LOST MUSKET DIARY” Thursday October 30, 2014
Partly Sunny 80F/ 27C in Rancho Santa Margarita
Back on Monday a call from my credit union woke me up with the news that someone had been making charges on my credit card. In Italy! One of them was for $951 dollars. The credit union rep quickly reassured me that I would not be charged for the thief’s shopping spree. The credit union was on top of the situation. The card had been cancelled and a new card had been mailed to even before my phone rang. The caller could offer no explanation for how my credit card number came into the evildoer’s possession, except for a guess that I must have lost the card in Italy. Hmmm! Fat chance!
I explained that particular credit card had been used only once by me - to consolidate the balances on two other credit cards so I could close them out and off their balances at a lower interest rate. The credit card itself had never been out of my desk at home. I had spent two months in Italy last winter, but that card had stayed in California. So, I concluded that the credit union’s data base had been breached. And, while the credit union guy couldn’t confirm that, I cited the information that the credit union had made the discovery on its own, otherwise the card would not have been cancelled and replaced before I was even notified.
Now, I’m not complaining here. The credit union came through in championship fashion. However, this incident prompted me to get a head start on my next “Rome Diary” series and share some of what I have learned in my own travels. Since this story was prompted by a case of attempted ID theft, let’s start there with some of my thoughts on safer traveling with today’s edition of….
“MikeBo’s Travel Tips:”
· If you plan a trip out of town, especially to a foreign country, call your bank and let them know where you’re going and for how long. While you are on the phone, order one of those European-style credit cards with the imbedded computer chip to replace your magnetic stripe card. As we used to say on the electric radio at the end of all those live commercials, “You’ll be glad you did.” This is a good place to get in a plug for on-line banking. Remember, you’re going to be a long distance from your hometown bank branch.
· Order some currency from your destination country. Call your bank and order the cash over the phone or on line. You can pick it up at the nearest branch or delivered to your home or office. That way you have some local currency in your wallet when you arrive. You can order traveler’s checks before your trip, but plan on using your ATM or credit cards just like you do at home. The European standard calls for cards with those chips, but, many places still take the mag stripe cards.
· If you are going to Europe, the primary currency is the Euro, which is worth about $1.35 US. Just figure that when the clerk rings up €100 Euro on the cash register, it translates to about $140 US bucks. By using your ATM card you are drawing the Euros you need through your own bank at a better rate. Again, it’s a good idea to call your bank and let them know you’ll be traveling so they don’t think your identity has been stolen by Al Qaida.
· Make sure you have your passport and that it will still be valid one year after your planned return to the states. I decided to stay in Italy an extra month on a whim. If my passport had expired, I would have been like the Tom Hanks character in “The Terminal,” where he played the Eastern European immigrant without a country stranded at JFK Airport.
· Speaking about your passport. Be prepared to show it during the frequent passport checks you’ll encounter as you travel. At the Frankfurt Flughafen, I had to show mine about five times during a one hour stop to change planes. Also make a copy of copies and put one in each bag you bring. It wouldn’t hurt to put a scan copy on the laptop or tablet you bring with you. That way if you lose it, or, your passport is stolen, you can at least have some ID.
· If you are a licensed driver, stop by the Auto Club (AAA) and get an International Driver’s License. If you have an occasion to rent a car in Europe or borrow one from a friend, this will come in handy, and will provide an extra piece of validated ID for you.
· I caught a heap of flak from some of my American friends for this, but my suggestion still stands- make your flight reservations on an airline other than a U.S. air carrier. In my humble opinion, U.S. airlines have become penny pinching bus companies flying oversized sardine cans stuffed with fat people and screaming kids. My first choice among foreign carriers that I’ve personally flown is Lufthansa, a preference that dates back to my first trip to Germany in 1975. Swissair is another jewel of the international air carriers. They make international flying in this day and age just like it used to be, a real travel experience. If you like riding on a crowded New York subway, go ahead – fly Air Gringo. MikeBo Jr., who’s the real frequent flyer in my family, likes British Airways and Virgin Atlantic. For my next trip to Rome, I’m looking to avoid the dreaded LAX by taking a Jet Blue “Red Eye” from Long Beach to JFK in New York, laying over for a day and then catching an Alitalia flight non-stop from NY to Rome. The Pope flies Alitalia. I rest my case.
Some other handy household hints:
· Call your cell phone provider and sign up for “International Roaming.” That way your friends and family can still call or text you and not even realize you are out of the country. Muy Importante! Sign up, too, for a discount calling rate FROM Europe. It will save you a ton of money.
· One – learn some Italian, or French, or German or whatever language is spoken at your destination. Pick up some maps of where you’ll be going along with a pocket phrase book. A pocket dictionary is handy, too. If you have the time, take a language class for travelers. I took one through the Italian Cultural Society in Sacramento. Plus, there are a lot of free language tutors on the internet. Just consult Dr. Google.
· Plan on taking some guided tours on your trip. In Rome, I recommend the Dark Rome tours or City Wonders in Rome and other cities in Europe. First of all, my son the tour guide could use the money. The company prefers to hire native English speakers, which is the best way to go. I struggled through Pompeii with a guy named Enzo, who had the same effect on me as a Bengali call center.
For me, actually living in Italy was a great experience, and I’m looking forward to going back. I've left coins with all of my friends in Rome to toss into Trevi Fountain for me. Trust me. It works.