General Travel Tips

I had so much fun doing the London Tips page that I decided to branch out into general travel tips! Although most of these are about preparation, packing and air travel, I hope they come in handy for all travelers! As always, this page will undoubtedly grow as I learn new tips from my own travels or from the helpful bunch of readers… so check back often!

Check Your Travel Documents I – Many countries will not permit you to enter their nation if your passport expires within three to six months of your dates of travel. Here is a partial list of such countries: Brazil, Ecuador, Indonesia, Israel, Malaysia, Paraguay, Romania, Singapore (six months); Cambodia, Denmark (including Greenland), Fiji, Switzerland (three months). To make matters even more confusing, some countries date their requirement from the day you enter their country whilst others date it from when you leave their country. And Denmark applies its three-month rule to your stay in any of the core 15 EU countries, so even if you pass Denmark’s requirements at the time and pass to to a country that doesn’t have such a rule (say, Italy), Denmark will still refuse you entry if your passport would enter the three-month zone after you’ve left their country!

Check Your Travel Documents II – Many Middle Eastern and African countries will refuse you entry if you have entry or exit stamps from Israel in your passport. If you have an Israeli stamp, you’ll need to renew your passport before you go.

Check Your Travel Documents III – Although most countries that you would consider visiting for an international vacation no longer require visas, some – particularly Australia – still do, so be sure to include the three or four weeks’ time it’ll take to get the visa in your travel planning. Many – perhaps most – of the countries that you might have to visit for business require visas too, so make sure you have that cleared up before you travel, ‘cos getting stuck at passport control in Azerbaijan simply can’t be any fun! See this site for a complete country-by-country breakdown.

Check Your Travel Documents IV – Most countries will allow you to drive in their country using your US driver’s license. However, some countries might have some additional requirements you might not be aware of. When I went to Germany in 1991, the law at that time said that you could not rent a car unless you’d been a licensed driver for four years. I was 20 and had, in fact, been driving for the required four years… but I’d also gotten my license renewed several months before the trip, and the “issued date” was from March of that year. From the rental agency’s point-of-view I had only been driving for eight months. So I was not allowed to rent the car at first! After twenty minutes of animated discussion with the agent (and his boss, and a phone call to his boss), we were finally allowed to get the car. Of course, the law might have changed since then, but the point of the story still applies: make sure you know as much as possible before you leave, and be sure to ask your travel agent as many questions as you can think of, or consult as many travel websites as possible.

See If Upgrades Are Available – For my last London trip, I was able to buy two transatlantic first class upgrades off eBay for $50. Aside from the obvious perks – better food, better seats, better entertainment options, being called “Mr. Cofer” instead of “hey you” – you might find that flying first class has other advantages as well. Most airlines tag first class passengers’ luggage with special “priority” tags, which means that your bags will be the first off the plane when you land. US Air in particular gives out “Fast Track” coupons to all first class passengers flying into Gatwick airport that allow them to jump to the front of the passport control line; this certainly beats waiting in line for an hour just to get your passport stamped. First Class also gets you free access to US AIr’s Gatwick lounge, where I had a welcome shower while the missus enjoyed free muffins, Diet Cokes and yogurt. For a measly $25 per ticket, it would have been stupid not to buy them! Note that not every airline uses vouchers for upgrades. Also, take some time to read up on which vouchers can be used with your class of airline ticket; I had to buy “Space Available” upgrades because the “Space Positive” ones (which can be redeemed as soon as you book your ticket) only work with “full fare” tickets. I might also be worth your while to contact friends or family members that are frequent fliers. They might be able to transfer you enough frequent flier points for upgrades.

Buy TWO Maps – You probably already thought to buy a map of your destination city. But go ahead and buy two maps. Put one up on a wall in a common area, like your kitchen or home office. Mark the locations of your hotel and any tourist sites, restaurants, shops, etc. you might want to visit. This will not only help organize your daily itineraries, it’ll also help get you familiar with local streets. And having the map in a common area means that you can easily add or find sites you see on the Internet or travel shows on TV.

Research Transportation – Lots of people use the Internet to search for information about specific places they want to visit, but folks sometimes forget to look up how to get to those places. This is a mistake. Getting from point A to point B can be costly and confusing, especially in Europe. You might think that because Belgium is a tiny country you won’t have trouble getting from Brussels to Antwerp for a day trip. Maybe. But probably not. Here’s an example: on my past two trips to London, I’ve wanted to take a day trip from London to Amsterdam. After all, the cities aren’t that far apart, yeah? The flight only takes 50 minutes, right? Well, here’s the problem: most of the discount airlines fly out of Luton or Stanstead, which is a 35-minute, $35 per-person rail fare from central London. And the discount airlines don’t fly into “Amsterdam”, but rather a small airport in the boonies, so you have to take a bus to the city. This takes 90 minutes and costs $40 round-trip. So before I would’ve seen a single red light, I would have wasted six hours of my day just moving myself from London to Amsterdam. And then there’s the money factor. Many of the UK’s discount airlines offer insanely cheap fares, but you can’t be certain that you’ll get the fares going both ways. I could have booked a flight to Amsterdam for only £1 per person; the fare for the flight from Amsterdam was £69 per person, with around £20 in taxes tacked on to both trips. So when you add up all of the rail, air and bus fares, you’re looking at $500 just to spend four hours in Amsterdam. You could certainly take a major airline like British Airways that leaves from Heathrow and flies directly into Schiphol airport, but then you’re looking at a fare of £348 ($641) per person. You could take a cheap “booze cruise” (ferry) from England’s coast to Amsterdam, but here again, you’re looking at spending $100 per person just to get to the coast, on top of what it costs to actually take the ferry, and that’s not even taking into account all the time you’ll waste in transit (which is a lot). In the end, Lisa and I decided that it was cheaper to simply wait for our travel agent to offer a cheap weekend excursion to Amsterdam than to go from London to Amsterdam. It doesn’t make any sense – a travel package from Charlotte, NC to Amsterdam with flight and hotel costs just a little bit more than a day trip from London… but that’s how the travel industry works!

Research Transportation AND Your Hotel – It’s usually cheaper, often significantly cheaper, to stay at a hotel outside a city center, especially in Europe. But if staying at a suburban hotel means having to pay $50 for a round-trip taxi ride to see the things you want to see (or having to spend an hour on a bus or train) you’re probably not saving any money, and you’re also wasting precious time. TRUE STORY: Back in 1991, I read in my local newspaper’s travel section that a large chain hotel in Manhattan was having an unprecedented $65/night sale. I booked a stay there, expecting that one of my friends would join me on brief trip to NYC. As it turned out, none of my friends could or would go, but before I cancelled the reservation, my uncle called and asked if I wanted to join him at the Kickoff Classic, a college football game played in East Rutherford, NJ. As luck would have it, the dates of his proposed trip lined up perfectly with my existing $65/night reservation. But for reasons I’ve never understood, my uncle didn’t want to stay at the hotel I’d booked. So he got a room at a Holiday Inn in Elizabeth, NJ. It was a terrible decision: the only thing we wanted to see in New Jersey was the football game… the three other days we were there we wanted to go to Manhattan. So we had to drive across the NJ Turnpike, pay to park at Newark airport ($10) and take a bus to Manhattan, which cost (I think) $15 per person, round-trip, per day. The whole thing took an hour, too! And the kicker: the Holiday Inn was $99/night, so not only was it much less convenient, it was more expensive, too! One last thing: if you stay in a city center, it’s easy to go back to your room and drop off shopping bags or take a quick nap or get out of the heat for a while. If you have to take a $25 taxi or 45-minute train ride, this is much more difficult.

Consider Escorted Tours – I was born in 1971. To people of my generation, “escorted tours” are something that only senior citizens and high school French clubs go on. And while I’m still not a fan of escorted vacations, I’ve come to the realization that escorted day tours might actually be a good thing. Consider this: on my three trips to London, I’ve wanted to take a day trip down to Portsmouth to see the historical ships and museums there. It’s not expensive to go, but actually figuring out how to get to Portsmouth requires a master’s degree in logistics. Trains leave from several stations in London. Some trains only run on certain days. Some trains are “express” trains that only make a couple of stops, while others take several hours to get to Portsmouth because they make so many stops along the way. So if you miss Monday’s 8:05am express from Waterloo station, you’ve got to either hightail it to Victoria to make the 8:35 (which takes two hours longer ‘cos it makes many stops), or you have to wait until Wednesday and try Waterloo again. Oh, and you have to repeat this entire process to get back to London! On my last trip, I saw an ad for a tour company that does bus tours to Portsmouth from Waterloo station; all you have to do is be there at 8am and they handle the rest. And for only £35 per person (including admission to the museum), it’s cheaper than doing it yourself, too!

Scale It Back – If you don’t travel much, you might be tempted to cram way too much stuff into your itinerary . “After all”, you might think, “how often am I going to be able to go to Europe?” I know what you’re thinking there, but any seasoned traveler will tell you that less is often more when traveling. Don’t try to cram a dozen cities into a two week trip. Pick two cities and stay there for a week each. Not only is it much less hectic and rushed, you can get a much better “feel” for a city and how its people live. And even if you’re only staying in one city, scale the daily itinerary back so that you’re not rush, rush, rushing from point A to point B. Prioritize your list of “must-sees” and accept that you might not see everything you’d like. But that’s OK: on my many trips I’ve seen many great tourist sites… but some of the most memorable times I’ve had came from popping into a some pub or restaurant that looked interesting, or even just walking down a random street I had no idea even existed.

Be Honest – If you’re the kind of person who prefers dog tracks or smoky bars to museums, don’t plan to go to museum after museum after museum on your trip. If you’d rather sit on the beach or on a barstool your whole trip… that’s fine. It’s good to expand your horizons, so try to learn something about your destination by visiting a museum or memorial or historic site. But you don’t have to force yourself to be “cultural” if you don’t want to. After all, it’s YOUR vacation… have fun!

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Pack Half – If you’re a chronic over-packer, try this: before putting your clothes into your suitcase, lay them out on the floor or the bed. Now put half of them back in the closet. Seriously. You almost certainly won’t need the clothes you put back, plus you can always visit a laundromat or use the hotel’s overpriced laundry service, or you can simply buy a new pair of boxers or socks when you get to your destination if needed.

Kamikaze Packing – This tip isn’t for everyone, but some people love it. If you’re going on a trip, why not pack older clothes that you are planning on discarding anyway? Once you get to your destination, simply throw the dirty clothes away (or be nice and give them to a local charity). This way, your suitcase actually gets emptier the longer you stay!

Cross Pack! – Traveling with a significant other, close friend or family member? Consider packing half of each traveler’s things in each person’s suitcase. That way, if the airline loses one person’s bags, the other person will still have a small stash of their stuff in the other’s suitcase!

Don’t Worry About Your Clothes – Every so often someone posts a thread in the Ars Technica Lounge that says something along the lines of “I’m going to [European location]. Does anyone have any tips for me?” These threads often contain great information, but almost always get ruined when some pretentious jerk posts something like: “Don’t wear jeans, they’ll know you’re American”. Allow me to say this: nothing could be further from the truth. Jeans and t-shirts are standard European wear for anyone under the age of 35. On my last visit to London, I saw more Brits wearing New York Yankees baseball caps than I did that last time I was in NYC! NBA jerseys were also all the rage amongst the younger crowd; at times I had a hard time figuring out if I was in London’s West End or Atlanta’s West End! And let’s face it – you’re probably going be be visiting touristy sites, right? If so, I assure you that you’ll be surrounded by people from all over the world, most of whom will be in the Japanese, Polish or Italian version of “horribly dressed”. It is true that Europeans do tend to dress up more when going out at night, and many European restaurants and clubs do have strictly-enforced dress codes. And the British in particular have deep psychological issues with grown men wearing shorts. But overall, there’s nothing about wearing a t-shirt and jeans that will make you stick out, especially during the day at some tourist site. Dress up at night, but during the day it’s all about comfort!

Don’t Worry About Your Nationality – The travel threads in the Ars Lounge also come to a screeching halt every time someone mentions wearing a Canadian flag t-shirt or putting a Canadian flag patch on your backpack… mainly because this is some of the stupidest advice ever. Look, it’s true: there are some people in other countries that will hate you simply because you’re an American. There are also people in this country that will hate you simply because you’re white, or a Christian, or wear glasses or are from the South. But that doesn’t mean that Southerners are getting rolled every day in New York or that Christian tourists are being attacked in Chicago. People around the world are like people anywhere else: there are nice guys and jerks on every block. They may say that they hate “Americans”, yet most judge others on a case-by-case basis. You might find that many actually hate the American government, but have no problem with you personally. All in all, I’ve only encountered anti-Americanism once, and that was in Australia – and was also my own fault. My mother and I were trying to find a pay phone that could call internationally (harder than you might think in 1989). I was exasperated, and mouthed off to a shopkeeper about the “stupid phones in this country” and got an earful from her! NOTE: none of the preceding information applies in countries that really *do* hate Americans, like Iran and Libya.

Learn the Lingo – Having said all that in the preceding tip, don’t be the “Ugly American” and automatically assume that everyone in Europe (or elsewhere) speaks English. Chances are good that they do speak English (or at least enough to answer a simple question). However, most people appreciate you taking the time to try and learn some of their language. I used to know some German, so when I went to Germany I always approached folks in German first. They’d hear me mangle their language and reply in English, but you could tell they appreciated the effort. Also, if you’ve never traveled internationally before, consider going to Canada, the UK, Ireland or the Caribbean first; you’ll probably be overwhelmed with passports, different currencies and driving on the “wrong” side of the road… there’s no need to throw different languages into the mix as well!

Use a soft carry-on – Bags with soft sides can often be crammed in overhead bins, under seats, and many other places that hard-sided bags cannot. If you can’t find a space in their overhead bins for your hard-sided luggage, it’ll have to be checked.

Use Ziploc Bags! – Pack “wet items” like mouthwash and cologne in Ziploc bags; if one of the items leaks, it won’t ruin everything in your suitcase. Be sure to bring several additional gallon-size Ziploc bags with you, as their possible uses are almost endless: keeping receipts and travel documents in a single safe location; keeping travel guides, magazines and books from getting damaged; keeping wallets and jewelry in a single location in hotel rooms; isolating wet swim suits in your bag on the way back from the beach; impromptu liners for ice buckets; ice water bags for “sink coolers”; keeping food items dry in a cooler; keeping each person’s “gadget paraphernalia” (like chargers and batteries) organized; making small kits like first aid and laundry kits; storing dirty underwear and\or small items that might go in 100 different directions if your bag should get opened by customs… the list goes on and on!

Tag Your Bag – Since black is the default color for suitcases, it’s sometimes hard to locate your bag amidst the sea of black at baggage claim. Make life easier on yourself: make your bag unique by tying a distinctive ribbon to the handle, putting a unique cable tie or piece of tape on the handle, or put some stickers on your luggage (make sure they don’t come off easily!). Consider buying luggage in an unusual color if it’s time to buy new bags.

Business Cards Only – If you have the type of luggage tags that have a clear plastic window, consider putting your business card in the tag instead of writing your home address on the blank card. Not only is this safer – after all, any baggage handler that might steal your stuff also knows you’re on the 4:30 flight to Oakland! – but it can also come in handy if your bag gets lost, especially if your office is open 24 hours a day. Leave your itinerary with a coworker and they can direct the airline to your hotel! Also consider putting a business card inside your bag, in case the luggage tag gets ripped off by accident.

Wear Natural Fibers – It’s morbid to think about, but if a fire should break out on the plane you’ll be much better off if you’re wearing cotton or wool than a synthetic fiber like rayon or polyester – which might actually melt into your skin! Also consider wearing layers, since planes can vary between stuffy and hot and icebox cold, even on the same flight!

Reserve the smallest car possible – As a general rule, rental car rates are based on the size of the car, with compacts being the cheapest and full-size cars and vans being the most expensive. Because the smaller cars are cheaper, most people opt to rent them instead of paying extra for a larger car… which means that the rental agency might be “out” of the smaller cars when you arrive at your destination, which means a free upgrade to a larger size! In all my travels, this trick has worked every time but once, and that was when I needed to rent a car at the last minute for a business trip. Of course, if you’re traveling with a large family and you *need* a bunch of space, it’s probably better to reserve a bigger car or van instead of hoping for a free upgrade.

Photocopy your documents – Make three photocopies of your passport(s). Keep one copy in a piece of each traveler’s checked luggage and another in each traveler’s carry-on luggage. Leave the third copy with a trusted friend or family member – preferably one with easy access to a fax machine. If your passport(s) are lost or stolen, having a photocopy can be invaluable in dealing with the U.S. embassy. While you’re at it, you might want to consider photocopying the contents of your wallet (driver’s licenses, credit cards, etc.). Make sure to copy both sides of the credit cards – that way you have both your card numbers as well as the toll-free numbers you need to call to cancel them if they get stolen.

Be sure to consider your electrical needs! – Most modern electronic gizmos like mp3 players, laptops, video and digital cameras and cellphones have “autoswitching” power supplies, which means that they’ll will work with every country’s power system. In fact, if all you have are autoswitching devices, the only thing you need in your destination country is a “plug adapter”, which allows a two-pronged US electrical device to fit into a three-pronged UK outlet or two pronged EU one (and so on). Such adapters only weigh a few ounces and are amazingly cheap – don’t pay more than $5 for one, ever. On the other hand, most non-electronic devices – things like hair dryers, curling irons and electric shavers – are not autoswitching. This means that you’ll need a voltage converter and a plug adapter for the device to work. Most voltage converters are bulky, heavy, and only work within a certain wattage range. I have two voltage converters at home; one is the size of a early 2000s cellphone and can power any device that pulls less than 85 watts: enough for a lot of devices, but not all of them. The other converter is the size and heft of a brick. It can power devices up to 1600 watts – which is a lot – but it wouldn’t power an 1800w hair dryer. So how can you tell which devices are autoswitching? Look on the charger or the back of the device. If it says “Input 100v-240v~50-60Hz”, then you have an autoswitching device. If it only says “Input 100v~60Hz”, then it needs a voltage converter. Seriously consider leaving such items at home. After all, most chain hotels offer in-room hairdryers and irons. And although most “tourist class” ones don’t offer such things, you might want to just buy one whilst you’re on vacation. In fact, if you’re staying in a “tourist class” hotel, I’d advise you to go up to your room upon arrival and survey the toiletries. Many cheaper hotels offer tiny soaps, “ketchup packets” of shampoo and don’t offer washcloths. If having “normal” toiletries are a must, just go to a drugstore like Boots after your survey and buy what you need. You can get normal size bars of soap, shampoo and a washcloth if you need one – or even a hairdryer for around £8. And you can even pay it forward by giving your hairdryer to the hotel when you’re checking out so that the next hapless American to visit won’t have to do the same!

Note where you parked! – I always put a spare business card in my wallet and write down the aisle\section number where I parked at the airport. It’s easy to forget after a long trip!

Bring Benadryl! – Allergic to cats? Bring Benadryl or some other allergy medicine with you on the plane. Some airlines allow passengers to travel with cats, but even if the passengers leave lil’ Fluffy at home, dander and hair might be trapped in their clothes, and that can irritate you in an enclosed space.

Check the ‘Net I – Connecting through an unfamiliar airport? Most airports have websites with downloadable maps these days; just print yourself a copy and take it with you. Not only will it make getting to your next flight easier, you’ll be able to find bathrooms and smoking lounges easier, too! And of course, most airlines allow you to check-in and check flight statuses online too.

Check the ‘Net II – Going somewhere where you can use your cell phone? Take some Internet time before you leave to look up the numbers of a couple of taxi companies in your destination city as well as some restaurants you might want eat at. Put these into your phone’s address book, along with the number of your travel agent and your airline’s customer service number. This could be invaluable if you miss a connecting flight and need to book another flight, or if you’re stuck in an unfamiliar city with no idea how to get back to your hotel. NOTE: I wrote this tip with domestic trips in mind. A reader wrote to say that 800 numbers do not work internationally, and he’s right. If your trip is of an international nature, be sure to include either a non-800 number or the local numbers for your airline or travel agent.

Bring matches – When you leave your hotel room, bring a book of matches, a pen or some of the hotel’s stationary with you – anything with the hotel’s address on it. You might think of your hotel simply as “the Hilton”, but a big city might have three or four Hilton hotels. This advice especially holds true if you’re planning on doing some heavy drinking!

Posted Prices Only! – Europe has thousands of small markets that offer good deals on local folk art and other unique items. However, don’t buy from any stall that doesn’t post their prices; chances are that this vendor has two prices: one for locals and one for tourists… Guess which one’s more expensive? Also, be very wary of any name brand goods sold at a market. Chances are overwhelming that the goods are either stolen (or, more likely) counterfeit. Choosing to buy a fake Prada bag is one thing; thinking it’s genuine is something else.

Buy Earplugs! – Earplugs cost less than $2 and are available at every drug store in America. A flight with earplugs is so much better than one without that you almost can’t afford NOT to buy some! Think about it – no more babies crying, no more jumping in your seat from unplanned pilot announcements, no more annoying seat chatter. They also work great on trains and in loud hotels, too!

Special Meals – Although most US carriers have eliminated food on domestic flights, you’ll still get meals on most international flights. Most people know that airlines have been serving Kosher meals for decades, but many aren’t aware that airlines also have meals that are appropriate for Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, diabetics and vegetarians of all kinds, as well as kid’s meals and meals for those with low-sodium requirements or peanut\gluten\lactose allergies. Check your airline’s website to see what they offer and call them 24 hours before your flight if you want to request a special meal. One of the side benefits of ordering a special meal is that you get served first! Some travel websites also suggest ordering a special meal even if you don’t require one, as the food is sometimes better. I personally think it’s a crapshoot: I once saw one of Delta’s “vegetarian meals”, which consisted of the same salad everyone else was eating, along with a sad bowl of steamed broccoli. On the other hand, everything I’ve heard and read about Indian airlines seems to indicate that they offer terrific vegetarian meals. As always, your mileage may vary.

Bring Your Own Food – Since airlines have stopped serving “free” food on many flights, they’ve started selling food instead! Although the grub sold in airport food courts isn’t much of a bargain, it’s usually of a better quality and quantity than what you’d buy on the plane, plus you have much greater selection at the food court than you do at 35,000 feet. Assuming that the TSA allows you to bring food onboard, do so! I’ll take a $15 burger from a food court Chili’s over generic, a $7 US Air “sandwich” any day! Also, consider stocking up on snacks for longer flights. You just might get the munchies hours before the airline decides to serve you a “snack”, and Ziploc bags of trail mix, pretzels, beef jerky, etc. can be lifesavers!

Use Your Head – Common sense says that you shouldn’t put items like diabetic or heart medications, passports, jewelry or family heirlooms into checked baggage. Alas, to paraphrase Voltaire… “common sense isn’t so common”. After watching the TV show Airline and witnessing countless people leaving insulin, nitroglycerin, wallets and grandma’s pearls in their (now lost) checked bags, I guess I need to spell it out for some of you: don’t check that stuff. Keep it in your carry-on!

Be Nice! – Let’s face it: traveling can be a nightmare. Airlines lose bags, their staff can be indifferent or downright hostile, and unwanted delays can make you miss your connecting flight. We’ve all been there, OK? Yelling at airline staff might make you feel better for a few minutes, but it’s counterproductive in the long run. The reality is that most airline staff are overworked and underpaid, and in many cases are trying to do the best they can for half the pay they used to get and with fewer support staff. If you find yourself having a problem, be polite, yet direct and firm. Don’t corner a gate agent and ramble on and on about how you’re going to call your lawyer and how Delta\Southwest\American Airlines are tools of the devil. Approach the agent with direct questions. Keep your cool at all times. Be pleasant and crack a joke or two if you can. Just try to put yourself in their shoes. Most of us wouldn’t go out of their way to help a jerk at their own jobs, so why should a gate agent do the same?

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