The Best Passports For Travel Access

US Passport
Clappstar, Flickr

Applying for visas and dealing with travel-related bureaucracy can be a tedious, irritating process, but the good news is that U.S. passport holders have fairly unrestricted access when it comes to foreign travel.

The Henley & Partners Visa Restriction Index ranked countries around the world based on how freely their citizens could travel with just a passport. The United States came in 2nd place, tying with Denmark, Germany and Luxembourg. American citizens can enter 172 countries without having to worry about red tape, according to the study.So what is the best passport to have? A British, Swedish or Finnish passport is as good as it gets, giving passport holders access to 173 foreign destinations visa-free. In general, being a member of an EU country helps a lot if you want to travel spontaneously, with nine out of 10 of the top countries all part of the European Union.

Some countries however, are not so lucky, with citizens in Lebanon, Nepal and Pakistan finding themselves towards the bottom of the list. Iraqis, unsurprisingly, are expected to jump through a lot of hoops to travel abroad, and have access to just 31 countries visa-free. And the country with the most restrictions? Afghanistan, whose people have passport-only entry to 28 nations around the world.

Knocked up abroad: foreign baby names in a foreign country

foreign baby namesJust arrived? Read more about pregnancy in a foreign country, Turkish prenatal care, travel in the first trimester, and Turkish superstitions on Knocked up abroad.

“Whatever you do, if it’s a girl, don’t call her Natasha,” was the first bit of advice a Turkish friend gave me about having a baby in Istanbul. While a common and inoffensive name in the US and Russia, in Turkey and many other European countries, Natasha doesn’t have the best connotation. It tends to be slang for, well, a certain kind of professional woman from Eastern Europe, or just a gold-digger; not things with which you want your baby to be associated. Naming a baby is always a difficult decision, but when you live a place where local names sound foreign to you, your own country’s names become foreign names as well.

Since the beginning of my pregnancy abroad, I’ve been certain I wanted to learn the baby’s gender as soon as I could, feeling that enough things were a mystery when having a baby in a foreign country and I didn’t need to add to them. My husband and each of our mothers disagreed, feeling a surprise is nicer, but suddenly my husband came home from work having changed his mind. He explained that he could never get the Turks to understand why he’d want it to be a surprise and try to tell him that he could find out nowadays. “But you know they can tell now? They can see in the ultrasound,” they’d say, perplexed. This is a similar reaction to my questions about cloth diapers or natural childbirth. There’s a newer and better way, they argue, so why wouldn’t we want that?While my husband and I are both American, we initially considered a name to reflect our baby’s Turkish birthplace. We loved Sofia, for Hagia Sofia, and it works with many languages and pronunciations. Unfortunately, we aren’t the only ones: Sophia/Sofia is now the most popular baby girl name in the US, meaning that in 2016, kindergartens will be full of Sofias. While we are also big fans of Atatürk, founder of modern Turkey, the names Mustafa and Kemal just wouldn’t go over so well in America as they do here. Perhaps Constantine for a boy, in honor of one of the city’s former names? The one season I watched of American Idol with the smarmy contestant Constantine Maroulis ruined that name for me, and I couldn’t deal with a boy nicknamed Connie. Maybe something to reflect our neighborhood of Nişantaşı, but spelling and pronunciation would be tricky in English.

The Turkish alphabet is mostly similar to English (thanks to Ataturk!), with a few notable exceptions. The letter C is pronounced as a J, so the Turkish name Cam is actually more like Jam, but if you add a tail under it, it becomes a “ch” sound. English amight have the “ch” and “sh” sounds, but our keyboards don’t have Ç or Ş. The Turkish alphabet lacks X and substitutes it with “ks,” familiar if you’ve taken a taksi to Taksim Square. There are two forms of I: with the dot sounds like “ee” and without the dot is “eh” or “uh.” Then there’s the tricky Ğ, which has no sound at all, except elongating the vowel before it, often making it a “ya.” Hence the former royal residence and now luxury hotel Çırağan Palace is pronounced “Chuh-ran.” Let’s not forget the pesky umlauts that sometimes accompany O and U, and mean that months after moving here, taxi drivers still don’t know what I’m asking when I say Ortaköy. I won’t even get into vowel harmony, which often changes a letter’s pronunciation entirely, but otherwise Turkish is relatively phonetic.

Language lesson over, there are many names which just don’t translate culturally. The best example is the Turkish boy’s name Ufuk, which sounds perfectly respectable in Turkish, but not so nice in English. Kıvanç is a popular name that sounds nice in Turkish but to English ears “kuh-wanch” sounds like a polite euphemism for a rude body part. Berk is common enough here, but say the name to a Brit and learn what it’s slang for in the UK (idiot is the nicer way to say it).Americans would also snicker at Tuba, Voltan, and Fatih, while Turks would think Adam (meaning man), Dennis (sea, spelled Deniz) Dana (veal or calf), or Erik (plum) are a bit silly. An American/Turkish couple I know have named their son Aslan, which means lion in Turkish and sounds cool in either language but I hope he’s called Lan for short on visits to the US.

Going back to the Natasha problem; after a few months, my Leningrad-born-but-US-naturalized husband decided he wanted a Russian name and only a Russian name for the baby. I immediately nixed names like Svetlana, Vladimir and Olga, giving elaborate descriptions of the sour-faced old Russian masseuses I associated the names with (apologies to any Svetas, Vlads or Olgas reading this, I’m sure you are lovely people).My husband speaks fluent Russian whereas I only know a few basics and curse words, so anything I can’t even pronounce like Nadezhda (long form for Nadia) is out. Nikita is a cool name and while it’s for a boy, the movies and tv shows La Femme Nikita have permanently associated it as a feminine name. Ditto for Sasha, actually a diminutive for Alexander, but better known now as one of the first daughters. I began to call the baby Rasputin partially to mock my husband until it started to actually seem like a viable choice.

In case you wondered, we did finally see our baby’s gender and it turns out we are having a Natasha, er, a girl. I’ve been leafing through the book Russian Fairy Tales as a source if I want to name the baby after a swan maiden or bear hunter’s wife. I imagine we’ll continue to argue about her name until she is born, so if you have good ideas for Russian girls names, I’m open to suggestions. If you want to learn more Russian, Turkish, or other foreign names, check out HearNames.com. Each listing has an audio sample as well if you are still wondering how to say Ufuk without getting slapped.

Image from Cafe Press Turk Onesie store.

Stay tuned for more Knocked up Abroad.

Knocked up abroad: pregnant travel in the first trimester

pregnant travelFor more on pregnant travel, see parts 1 and 2 of Knocked up abroad: pregnancy in a foreign country here and here.

There’s no question that having a baby changes you: your body, your lifestyle, even your shoe size. One thing I hoped not to change altogether was traveling, as long as it was reasonably safe and comfortable for me and the baby. From the beginning of my pregnancy in Istanbul, my doctor has okayed travel, as long as I get up to stretch frequently on flights and try not to overdo it. Most doctors (and mothers) agree that the second trimester is the most comfortable time for pregnant travel but the first trimester can be a good time as well (while you can still squeeze into pre-maternity clothes and walk without waddling) with a little extra precaution and a little more babying (of the mother, of course).


The first trimester of pregnancy is a tricky time for many women: the risk of miscarriage is highest up to 10 weeks, morning sickness is common, and hormones are running wild. It’s too early to tell anyone outside family or close friends and without a visible belly, it’s impossible for strangers to tell as well. At later points in your pregnancy, a baby bump acts as the international symbol for pregnancy and can make it much easier to express your condition when traveling abroad. If you travel in the early months before showing, you may want to learn the local language words for “I’m pregnant” to avoid a Bridget Jones-esque “mit kinder” scene if you need extra help while traveling.


Over this past December, my husband and I were looking for a good trip to take over the holidays, when I was around 10 weeks pregnant. Our location in Istanbul changes the list of short-haul destinations considerably from what we would have considered from New York, and we debated between a warm-weather beach destination (husband) or a snowy and “Christmassy” European city (me). We ruled out Egypt (not warm enough and not Christmassy), New Zealand (even less convenient to get to than from New York), and Sri Lanka (not enough time to plan properly and some risks of disease I couldn’t be vaccinated against). In the end, we chose…Russia.
Going to Russia in winter while pregnant may seem crazy to some, but for me it made sense: Moscow and St. Petersburg are a few hours from Istanbul by direct flight, my husband speaks fluent Russian in case of any problems, and there was no risk of malaria or eating any food that had spoiled in the sun. While it was cold and snowing during our trip and I couldn’t take advantage of some of Russia’s cold-weather remedies like vodka and saunas, a week in Moscow and St. Petersburg was a perfect mix of exotic and comfortable.

Nearly every cafe had a variety of non-alcoholic and caffeine-free beverages for me to choose from, I even had non-alcoholic sangria, mojitos, and mulled wine in addition to fresh juices and herbal teas. Both cities are beautiful to explore in the snow, with plenty of museums and cafes to warm up in, and the New Year holiday displays made it festive.

If you are planning a trip to a foreign country while pregnant, it makes sense to keep in mind the following guidelines. Always discuss plans with your doctor before booking and err on the side of caution when choosing a destination.

Check airline restrictions – Most airlines allow pregnant women to fly internationally up to 28 weeks, after which you must provide a doctor’s note issued within a week or so of departure. 35 weeks (earlier for women carrying multiples) is the cutoff for nearly all airlines to prevent women from giving birth on board. Most US domestic carriers will allow pregnant women to fly up to the final month; hilariously, Continental will not let women board if “physical signs of labor are present” though they don’t specify what.

Consider travel insurance – If your medical insurance doesn’t cover you overseas, you may want to look into supplementary medical travel insurance, but be sure it covers pregnancy as many policies do not. Additionally, if you are traveling to a country where English is not spoken, you may want to research the name of a clinic or doctor in case of emergency as well.

Be prepared for jet lag – Before pregnancy, I had little issues with jet lag, trying to get on local time as soon as possible. I discovered when flying back from the US to Turkey that it hits you much harder as a pregnant traveler, especially as you can’t use sleeping pills or alcohol to help you sleep. Factor this into your schedule and give yourself plenty of time to acclimate and adjust to time changes.

Realize your limits have changed – On a usual trip, I’d be up early to walk around a city all day, have a late lunch (or maybe just a big afternoon beer) followed by more museums and exploration, and still be up for checking out the local nightlife. Once pregnant, I required more sleep and three solid meals a day (plus maybe some snacks, I am eating for two!), tired after walking short distances, and was ready to call it a night long before last call. If you have an itinerary, pare it down to the must-sees and double the time to see everything; better to take it easy and enjoy your trip than feel exhausted and sick.

Look for destinations that don’t require vaccinations – One of the first tests your doctor will give you after confirming pregnancy will be for immunizations to hepatitis and rubella. If you haven’t had the vaccines, they will have to wait until after the baby is born as they are not safe for pregnant women. I have not had the hepatitis vaccine yet, and thus have a greater risk of contracting it, which rules out much of Africa and southeast Asia for travel, but also means I must avoid raw vegetables including salad in Istanbul. Most other medications and vaccines commonly given to travelers before going to an area prone to Malaria, Typhoid or Yellow Fever are not advised for pregnant women. But there’s still a big world out there, check the CDC for destination-specific information.

Be extra aware of food and water safety – Pregnant women are more susceptible to food poisoning the average person, as the immune system is suppressed so it doesn’t reject the fetus. This is the reason most pregnant women are told to avoid sushi and food that is not prepared in sanitized conditions. Even adventurous eaters should play it safe while pregnant and drink bottled water when in doubt. I recently had an opportunity to visit Mumbai, India but after consulting with a few friends who had lived there, I worried I’d spend the trip inside my hotel room eating pre-packaged food. Again,

check the CDC and use the same common sense you’d use anytime while traveling: stick with food that is freshly prepared in restaurants full of people.


Stay tuned for more on pregnancy travel, including Turkish superstitions and customs, travelling in the second trimester, where to do pre-baby shopping, and more on having a baby in a foreign country. Check here for further updates.

[Photo courtesy Mike Barish from the Istanbul tram]

Knocked up abroad: getting pregnant in a foreign country

pregnant in a foreign country My first clue that something was different came when I woke up one night on vacation in Kiev at 3am, proceeded to eat 3 slices of toast with caviar spread, went back to bed and woke up a few hours later wondering if they made blueberry muffins in Ukraine (tragicially, they do not). That “time of the month” hadn’t happened but flying tends to always mess with your body, so I didn’t give it much of a thought. Since moving to Istanbul from New York in May 2010 for a work project, my husband and I take frequent trips around Eastern Europe (see my Weekending posts) and that week we spent exploring Kiev and Warsaw while Turkey celebrated Kurban Bayramı (the Muslim festival of sacrifice).

When we arrived back home in Istanbul a few days later, I dug out the Turkish pregnancy test I had purchased a few months earlier after a previous false alarm. Though the instructions were in Turkish, peeing on a stick is fairly universal, and the “POZITIF” results were hard to misinterpret. Excited and nervous to be pregnant in a foreign country, my husband and I wondered what a mountain of paperwork we’d have to provide U.S. Customs in 9 months, what the medical system in Istanbul would be like, and if we could get away with having a baby in Turkey not named in some way for Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, father of modern Turkey and namesake for millions of Turks. Being pregnant in a foreign country is the ultimate way of “going native,” the most “authentic” travel experience you can have. It’s also challenging, sometimes scary, and limits where you can travel, but can be a great way to discover a culture, their hospitality, and traditions.Once I confirmed that I was in fact hamile with bebek, I noticed how child-friendly Turkey is, though not without challenges for the expecting expat. I could only find one English-language pregnancy book (co-written by Oprah’s fave, Dr. Oz, who is of Turkish descent), I’ve heard C-sections are pushed on many women as the only option for childbirth, and I’ve found maternity clothes are mostly limited to childish t-shirts and denim overalls. Turkey’s also a dream for the pregnant traveler: fresh fruit juice is cheap and easy to find at most cafes, vaccinations aren’t needed to visit, and Turks treat pregnant women with the utmost respect and care.

Having a baby, especially a first, in a foreign country isn’t for everyone. My family and support system is far away and I don’t know where to go for things I can find easily in my hometown. My doctor speaks excellent English but many of the nurses and hospital staff do not, and my Turkish is hardly fluent enough to cover every situation. Though the cost of domestic help is low, I’m not sure I want a lady with whom I can’t fully communicate telling me how to raise a baby.

Pregnancy also changes how you look at travel, both where you go and how you do it. I’ve been fortunate not to have morning sickness, but I’m just as at risk for disease as other pregnant women and have to weigh the risks of visiting countries with suggested vaccinations or food- and water-borne illnesses. Growing a baby is tiring work, and it’s hard to reconcile my usual travel self (lots of walking, few breaks) with my pregnant self (tired and hungry almost all the time). The best part about pregnancy travel is learning how each culture values pregnant women and mothers, hearing childbirth experiences from locals and foreigners, and seeing how kind strangers really can be. And all the food cravings help you discover the local cuisine, too.

Stay tuned for more on pregnancy travel, including Turkish superstitions and customs, the lowdown on prenatal medical care in Istanbul, where to travel in each trimester, what to eat when pregnant abroad, and more on having a baby in a foreign country. Check here for further updates.

Travel to Sri Lanka grows, along with obstacles for tourism

Travel to Sri LankaSince the end of the Tamil Tiger confilct in May 2009, travel to Sri Lanka has been increasing, with the country celebrating their 600,000th foreign tourist last month. This year, 700,000 are expected with tourism growing to 2.5 million a year within 5 years, reports the BBC. “The nature has blessed us with beautiful beaches, waterfalls, exotic wildlife and historic places. We as a nation have a reputation for our hospitality,” says Basil Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka‘s Minister of Economic Development. While the increase in visitors is welcome, Sri Lanka is experiencing some growing pains and challenges as a tourist destination.

India and the United Kingdom are currently the largest sources of tourists, though now it is claimed that the Eastern European tourists who came during the confict are being ignored in favore of Western travelers. Russian-speaking tourists are being turned away in the tourist boom, hotel prices have soared, and Russian guides complain of lost income. A proposed change in the visa process could discourage more visitors, though the government claims the new system is designed to help travelers.The visa can currently be obtained for free on arrival for citizens of 78 countries including the United States. Similar to the Australia electronic visa, the new visa process would be done from your home country online. Approval would take 24-72 hours and “special facilities” would be provided on arrival for tourists with the online visa. An added fee could potentially dissuade visitors who could instead spend their vacation dollars at a free visa destination.

The government hopes to allow tourism to develop naturally without direct intervention, though some small businesses feel they are struggling while larger-scale projects are planned. In northwest Sri Lanka, an adventure tourism zone is being developed with whale watching, scuba daving, and an underwater vistor center. A similar Tourism Promotion Zone is in the works near the country’s international airport to capture a similar transit market as Dubai, and increasing Sri Lanka’s flights as a major Asian hub.

Have you been to Sri Lanka? Planning to travel there now that warnings have ceased? Leave us your experiences in the comments.

[Photo of Sri Lanka’s Pinewala Elephant Orphanage by Flickr user Adametrnal.]

Anthony Bourdain enjoys Sri Lankan street food in the below video.