Tips for New or Rusty Travelers

I didn’t travel much in my teaching years.  I flew home to visit family on holidays, sent two summers parsing Spanish verbs in Cuernavaca.  That was about all.

I decided to make up for lost time after I retired, and commenced the world wanderings chronicled in photo albums and blog posts past.  I wanted to travel solo, have done all my getting around in thirty cities and five continents on my own.

Norwegian Air flight over Northern Canada

Norwegian Air flight over Northern Canada

The getting around has been much easier than I’d expected.  English is a near global lingua franca now, rightfully or not, and the internet and smartphones have smoothed many of the rough edges of trip planning.  That said, I also learned plenty, and realized during a recent dinner with friends that (a) not everyone knows about smartphone currency apps and compression sacs and international debit cards, and (b) many would like to know, so they can go gallivanting about the globe, too.

The flow chart below summarizes what I’ve learned.  It’s incomplete, and far from expert; FlyerTalk forums are regularly frequented by folks who have forgotten more than I’ll ever know about international travel.  I humbly hope that it’s better than no post at all.

Off we go:

Caveat emptor

You’re probably better off with a packaged tour or cruise if disorganized, inappropriately trusting of strangers, or eager to visit a potentially dangerous or primitive place.  I have stuck mostly to low-hanging tourist fruit, and left frolics in the IS caliphate to CNN reporters.

Do you have a passport?

You’ll need one:  http://travel.state.gov/content/passports/english.html/

Figure six weeks processing time and $135.  A passport book will suffice; you don’t need a passport card.

Travel gear, excluding smartphone

These products have worked for me.  You may find better elsewhere.  Full disclosure:  I own shares in VFC, parent company of Eagle Creek, and in Verizon.

()  Travel vest.  Indispensable for carrying stuff.  I have traveled with a netbook-sized computer in a travel vest pocket when concerned about the weight of my carry-on.  The zippered inside pockets aren’t pickpocket-proof, but come close.   I check forecasts before I leave, and board with either a standard Scottevest vest or one of their cold weather jackets; I own both.   If it’s just barely cold enough for the latter, I can unzip the sleeves and morph it into a cold weather vest.

REI also sells travel vests.  I liked the first Scottevest well enough to buy a second.

()  Luggage.  Airlines may rarely lose bags, but I don’t want to give them the chance to lose mine, and am a card-carrying member of the “carry on at all costs” party.

All airlines publish size and weight limits for carry-on luggage.  Sometimes they enforce these limits, sometimes they don’t … but they always can, and the bag deemed too heavy or too large will get an unasked-for ride on the baggage carousel.  I want my carry-on to be within their published limits, for size and especially for weight.

Weight issues retired my 22 x 14 x 9, within-domestic-airline-limits carry-on earlier this year.  I had heaved this rollaboard into the overhead bins of flights to South America, Canada, Asia and Europe without a single check-in.  In early 2015, the same bag was flagged and checked-in twice for weight, and a nice sit on the bathroom scale showed why.  It weighs ten pounds empty.  I could stay inside the fifteen pound limit imposed by some international airlines by packing three pairs of jeans, and absolutely nothing else.

I bought a 1½ pound, 22 x 16 x 8 Cabin Max Metz for my last international trip and was pleased with it, although it feels more like a kid’s knapsack than luggage for grown-ups.  It is not a rollaboard, possesses no wheels, can’t be tugged behind me.  I have to tote it on my back, contentedly or not, but the bag’s 1½ pound weight allows room for 13½ pounds of luggage.

I also considered an eBags TLS Mother Lode Weekender Convertible Junior, but was unhappy with the base weight of 3 pounds plus.

22” x 14” x 9” and fifteen pounds is safe for most airlines, but some budget airlines are more restrictive.  Remember: they write their own regs, can enforce them as they see fit.

Airlines generally allow a second, smaller “personal item.”  This is always my camera bag, and I have no counsel to offer on alternatives.

I am not the only traveler concerned about carry-ons.  Please see:

http://www.flyertalk.com/forum/travel-products/895927-lightest-carry-bag.html

for six years and thirty pages of online discussion.

You’ll discover at the airport that many who do check in bags pay to have these bags swaddled in plastic wrap:

http://www.cnbc.com/id/101545775

()  Compression sacs.  Stuff in some bulky clothes, roll the sacs up tight, squeegee out all the excess air.  I forked over twenty bucks for the Eagle Creek Travel Gear Pack-It Medium/Large Compression Sac Set, and was surprised by how well it worked.

Compression sacs t’ain’t the same as “packing cubes,” of which I know little.

()  RFID blocking wallet, so nogoodniks can’t slurp up your credit card information with an RFID reader.   The Travelon RFID Blocking Billfold bought in 2011 still looks nearly new in 2015.

()  International electric adapters.  That outlet next to you in the U.S. is 120V, 60 Hz, and accepts a Type B or Type A outlet.  Different countries do the electrical thing differently.  I rely on the list at: http://electricaloutlet.org/ , but know I can google <country name> electrical outlets if that site goes dark.

The five adapters in the Ceptics GP-5PK International Travel Worldwide Plug Adapter Set got my smartphone charged in every country except Italy, which required the separate purchase of a Type L adapter.  There’s probably a more elegant solution.

Please note: read the little labels on your electrical doo-dads to see if they can hack the frequency and 220 – 230V power they’ll often get overseas.  Sticking a plug adapter on the end isn’t the same as giving that doo-dad the juice it wants.

My modern smartphone and tablet computer are comfortable with 50 – 60 Hz and 100 – 240 volt power.  Yours might not be.

()  Travel security product.  Maybe you’ll take to a waist stash, or a neck stash, or a leg safe, or a bra pocket (not me!), or security socks, or a money belt, but you’ll likely want something to securely carry that which musn’t be stolen.

()  Casio DW5600E wristwatch, to easily add or subtract hours as I move across time zones.

()  If you qualify and are determined to do a lot of traveling, Global Entry may be a good investment.  First trip abroad?  Don’t bother.

Trains at Fiumicino Airport in Rome

Trains at Fiumicino Airport in Rome

Travel gear, smartphone

Jacob Appelbaum has described smartphones as “tracking devices that make phone calls.”  I think he makes an excellent point, but can’t imagine traveling without one.

I use the Android apps below, presume that iPhone equivalents are available for most.  The last is easily the most important, but is geeky, no longer available through Google Play, functions only on Android phones, and merits a separate discussion:

()  Easy Currency Converter, converts USD into 180+ other currencies.

()  1Weather, but be forewarned: I’ve been misled by out-of-country weather reports far more often than I expect to be in the states.  I don’t know why.

()  3D World Time, graphically displays local times worldwide.

()  Google Translate.  It’s free, and permits me to download complete, offline language packs for the countries I plan to visit.  I’ve never used it in any significant way, but always have the appropriate language packs ready before I travel, just in case.

()  OnTheFly, the smartphone app for ITA Software’s hunt-for-flights-and-airfares search engine, described below.

()  Hipmunk, the app for my second favorite hunt-for-flights-and-airfares search engine.

()  Moovit, the closest thing I’ve found to an international public transit app.  Moovit supports seventy U.S. cities and more than five hundred worldwide.  I use it in San Francisco, too.

And finally, the indispensable:

()  RMaps.  RMaps is an offline, Android-only map, that requires no internet connectivity to function on a smartphone.  Yes, you can use the free, ubiquitous, probably-already-loaded-on-your-smartphone Google Maps instead, but I find RMaps to be far less cumbersome.

Please skip to the next item if the following step-by-step reads like Greek, or consult a techie friend:

  • I log into Google Maps, decorate a personalized city map with ‘pins’ (aka, POIs) for attractions and transit stops I think important, and export the ‘pins’ to a .kmz file. (e.g., paris.kmz, barcelona.kmz)
  • I change the .kmz extension to .zip, and extract the .kml file therein.
  • I copy both the offline map and the .kml file to my RMaps-equipped Android smartphone.
  • When I reach the city in question, my cell phone’s GPS will indicate my location on the RMaps offline map with a little blue circle. When I move from block to unfamiliar block, the circle moves with me.  All my POIs show up, too, so I can see just how far I am from a transit stop or museum or restaurant, without the sluggishness of an online map rendering over a lousy connection.

RMaps is no longer in the Google Play store for Android apps, for reasons unknown.  You will have to learn about it yourself from the developer’s page,  and contemplate installing the app as an .apk file.  This is plenty geeky stuff, for many, and I can’t and won’t provide advice.

Locus is an untried-by-me alternative to RMaps.  Google offers offline maps, too; I haven’t tried them.

Using a smartphone abroad

I signed up for Verizon global services, and query their online trip planner to see if I’ll need anything special to connect overseas.  So far, the trip planner has told me that I’ll need only my wallet.  I am generally charged about $25 per 100 megabytes of data used overseas, which adds up in a hurry, and strongly discourages idle web browsing without a wi-fi connection.  I usually expect to see an extra $100 or so on my cell phone bill for several weeks of data usage overseas.

In traffic enroute to Ezeiza airport near Buenos Aires

In shuttle bus enroute to Ezeiza Airport near Buenos Aires

I was stung once, badly, when I visited the United Arab Emirates, a country not then covered by Verizon’s $25-for-a-100-megabytes bundle.  I paid a thumping $500 in data charges for a couple of days in Dubai.  Ouch.  The Verizon trip planner had informed me that the UAE was pay as you go, but without a big font-ed warning about potentially high charges.  The moral: pay attention, and ask questions if in doubt.

Phone calls are more expensive still, but I rarely place voice calls abroad.

Verizon global services usually have worked well.  My cell phone takes a few minutes to hunt for service at the destination, then informs me that it’s connected with Vodafone or Telstra or some other local provider, and thereafter functions about as it does in the U.S.  Connections are slower, but usable.  I remember sporadic connectivity problems in some cities; I couldn’t check email in my hotel room, say, but could elsewhere.

I’m sure other carriers provide overseas packages, which may be cheaper and better than Verizon’s.  I don’t know, haven’t investigated.

Some travelers rely on wifi on the road.  I never use any service requiring a log-in with wifi, for security reasons, but may have missed out on a secure strategy for wi-fi use.  (VPN, perhaps.)  You’re not reading this post in Ars Technica.  I’m just a user.

Finally:  if your cell phone is unlocked  and you plan to be in one overseas place for awhile, you may want to swap in a local SIM card. I tried this in Istanbul, Budapest and Marrakech, was mostly happy with the results, and wrote up the saga in a separate post.

Money issues abroad

I use a debit card to withdraw cash in the local currency at the airport ATM, then stop at a currency exchange counter on my way out of town to change any remaining funds to U.S. dollars, or the currency of my choice.  If I’m flying from Seoul to Shanghai, for instance, I might change remaining won to yuan.

International ATMs bear the Plus or Cirrus symbol.  I haven’t had any trouble finding or using them, but often google “[airport name] ATMs” before leaving home.

Some debit cards allow no or low cost withdrawals overseas:

Please interrogate your financial institution about the fitness of your current suite of cards for international travel.  You don’t want to discover their inadequacies halfway around the globe.

If you doubt that you can withdraw funds from an overseas ATM, you could bring U.S. dollars in a travel security product (see above) as a back-up.

I swapped my debit and credit cards for cards with pins, for reasons explained at:

Card issuers vary, but most will want to be informed in advance of international travel.

Cabbies in some cities try to curry favor with prospective clients by lingering near airport ATMs to offer unsolicited advice to arriving passengers on use of the machines.  I don’t like chatting with strangers while fetching money, but can’t recommend a method to shoo them away.  In Santiago, I had to pretend to get angry.

In Changi Airport in Singapore

In Changi Airport in Singapore

I naively visited one Shanghai bank in the hope of changing a single twenty dollar bill to yuan.  I got it changed, all right … after forty minutes with a stoney-faced bank manager hovering over the teller’s shoulder.  Such a transaction was an unfamiliar big deal to them.  I learned my lesson, and have stuck with ATMs and currency exchange counters ever since.

Considering a destination

You’ve got a destination in mind, and want to know when to visit, and if you should visit at all.  Check out:

()  travel.state.gov.  Enter the country’s name in the ‘learn about your destination box’ on the home page, then investigate:

•  Entry, Exit & Visa Requirements, to see if you’ll need a visa.  If the answer is ‘yes,’ you’ll probably have to study tedious ‘how to get a visa’ information on the country’s embassy web site, mail in your passport with an application and fat fee to the embassy office, and wait to get the passport back.  Alternatively, you could allow time for a couple of tedious visits to a local consular office.

(Some countries make it easier.  Visitors to Argentina must fill out an online form and pay a $160 ‘reciprocity fee,’ but nothing more.)

I wanted to ride the Moscow subway badly enough to get a visa, but have otherwise avoided destinations that require one.

•  Safety and Security, to see if crime is a concern

•  Health, for information on recommended vaccinations.  I haven’t had to get one yet.

()  wikitravel.org, this wikipedia page or some other site for a notion of how many locals speak English.

()  numbeo.com/cost-of-living/ , for an idea of how much you’ll pay for stuff while there

And finally:

()  travel.usnews.com, or another web site, for the best time to visit.  This matters plenty.  You might enjoy Dubai in January, wouldn’t enjoy it at all in August.

Look for a flight

Prices can vary dramatically.  For example: as of early May, 2015, I can book a one way economy non-stop from San Francisco to Zurich in mid June for around $2,900 through Swiss or United.  I can check Hipmunk and book essentially the same ticket through a consolidator — an independent company that buys tickets in bulk, then resells them — for about $1,200.  Or, I can research my own $740 itinerary by combining an Oakland-to-Stockholm nonstop on Norwegian with a Stockholm-to-Zurich flight on SAS.

Price differentials like that are the norm.  I don’t always find a cheap way to get there, but rarely regret the search.

ITA Matrix has been much complained about in Flyer Talk forums since it became part of the Google fold, but is still my first choice search engine.   Hipmunk is my second choice.  Hipmunk — and momondo, skyscanner, mobissimo, kayak, others — will show prices available from consolidators.  Matrix won’t.

 

In Athens International Airport

In Athens International Airport

 

Results from Southwest and a few other carriers won’t show in these search engines, and can be hunted for on the carriers’ individual web sites.

Norwegian and WOW both offer low fares to Europe.  I haven’t used WOW yet, but have flown Norwegian often, with good results and one qualification: they’ve struggled to get reliable performance from their 787s.

I experienced only one significant delay on Norwegian, but still try not to count on an on-time Norwegian arrival when drafting travel plans.

Skytrax ranks airlines from one to five stars for quality.   I noticed the difference when flying 5 star Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines, but will happily fly on any airline rated 3 stars or above.  I have successfully avoided Ryanair, Spirit and other 2 star airlines.

I check the on-time track record of specific flights on FlightAware.

How much time should you allow between flights?  Read these articles, for a start:

The longer the flight, the more I appreciate the freedom of movement offered by an aisle seat.  Others prefer the window.

If flying far, understand the international date line, to be sure of booking rooms on desired dates.

Americans and Europeans travel backward in time as far west as Hawaii, and forward in time most everywhere else.  For a demonstration, compare the googled results of “current time” Honolulu to “current time” Auckland.  Please note the dates.

Look for a place to stay

airBNB doesn’t pass my Golden Rule test:  I don’t want the home next door to me turned into a de facto hotel, and so don’t book de facto hotel rooms for myself when I travel.

That leaves hotels, and the web sites that review them, especially the 800 pound category gorilla: tripadvisor.  I believe, but can’t prove, that tripadvisor.com is frequented by both honest reviewers — travelers like me , willing to share personal experiences — and by scammers, out to plump up star ratings and, perhaps less frequently, to slander competitors.

Please see these articles:

To distinguish between reviews that are real and unreal, I usually: ignore a hotel’s overall star rating; confine my search to hotels that have collected a representative sampling of reviews; pay more attention to 2, 3 and 4 star reviews than to 1 and 5 star reviews (although I have awarded 5 stars); presume that complaints about conduct of hotel staff usually tell me more about the reviewer than about the hotel, unless the reviewer rarely complains of such matters; look for yawning disparities between descriptions offered in positive and negative reviews, and check the reviewer’s contribution history, sometimes carefully, while understanding that a determined effort at sockpuppetry can deceive me.  (My imperfect techniques are more fully described in a separate post.)

Tripadvisor’s strong suit — its moat, in investor terms — is its user base of honest reviewers.  Scammers can work harder, craft elaborate sockpuppet profiles and posting histories, but can’t keep honest reviewers quiet.

I am nervous about providing credit card information to the sometimes primitive websites of overseas hotels, and thus often book rooms through priceline.com.  There may be better alternatives.

I may be a bad person to give advice about hotels.  I want a good night’s sleep and a trouble-free stay, and often have overpaid to get it.

Moscow hotel room

Moscow hotel room

I don’t want a room next to the elevator or with a connecting door to another room, and say so when I arrive.

I unload my clothes and travel gear only to a few areas in the hotel room, and do not scatter them on every free shelf or drawer.  This discipline has made it much easier to pack on check-out day without leaving that all-important adapter, charger or toiletry item behind.

I usually prefer American hotel chains to international competitors.  Usually, not always.

Bedbug concerns

You don’t want bedbugs to hitch a ride home on your suitcase.  Two rigorous checks are described at:

I check the bed, at least, and keep my luggage on the bathroom floor while doing so.  I store my luggage on the room’s shelves or on a rack, rather than on a sofa, which may be likelier to harbor bed bugs in its seams.

The first thing I do when I return is to launder all clothes worn during the trip.  I also store my luggage in an out-of-the-way place, far from my bedroom.

Look for transit information

I haven’t yet visited a city without frequent, moderately priced express rail or bus service between the airport and city center.  Assume such service exists, unless your destination is pretty obscure; you just need to find it.

I expect to do all my getting around by transit once in town.  I rode a few cabs in Dubai, and one in Singapore.  Those were the only exceptions.

If you’ve gotten around with a transit pass in a big U.S. city, you shouldn’t be too surprised by what you encounter abroad.  Think of your straphanging skills as another lingua franca.  Metro systems are generally similar; the relation of metros to streetcar and bus lines is similar, too, as are fare and ticketing schemes.

Airport SkyBus in Melbourne, Australia

Airport SkyBus in Melbourne, Australia

I look online for:

()  The agency in charge of local transit services.  Googling ‘transit [city name]’ usually turns it up.  Sometimes I find both a regional agency and a city-specific agency, as in Berlin’s VBB and BVG.

()  Fare information.  Can I buy a one, three or seven day transit pass, or a ‘tourist pass,’ for visitors like me?  Do I have to worry about zones?  Can I store a pass or cash-for-rides on a credit card-sized ‘smart card,’ like the Clipper in San Francisco or TAP in Los Angeles?  Can I buy the pass and/or smart card at the airport, or do I need to wait until I’m in town?

()  Service information.  Where can I download .pdfs of the metro, tram and bus network?  Does the transit agency offer a smartphone app, and/or an online trip planner?  Is the city covered by moovit, my international transit app of choice?

Some city transit services are easily researched; others are a chore.  So far, I’ve always been able to learn the essentials before I leave.

Those who don’t want to do this research in advance can take a chance I’m unwilling to take, and save questions for the information kiosk at the destination city airport.  You’ll almost certainly get answers there.

Trip Prep odds and ends

Can I drink the water there?  What kind of electric adapters will I need to bring?  What are the tipping practices?  Should I know any country-specific customs and courtesies?

The internet will tell me; I do the research before I leave.  I also jot down emergency contact numbers for local U.S. embassies and consulates, but haven’t had to call one yet.

You’ll probably want to know if your destination country is on the Schengen Visa Country list.

Consider the State Department’s STEPS program, which allows you to apprise the State Department of your overseas whereabouts in case of emergency.  I’d rather they know than not know, and signed up.

Language issues

English is widely accepted as a second language.  Young urbanites are likelier to understand English than older folk from the sticks.

For etiquette’s sake, I learn enough of the native tongue to say:

    • Excuse me.
    • Do you speak English?
    • Please.
    • Thank you.
    • I am sorry

… and approach strangers with the most gracious Excuse me, do you speak English? I can muster.  I speak Spanish, but would think it presumptuous of a Madrid tourist to approach me on a California street with a query in español.  I’d like her to ask me first if I understand her tongue.

English is so widely understood in Copenhagen, Singapore and Dubai that I started English conversations in these cities without fear of giving offense.

I like the free Codegent ‘Learn [language] phrases’ apps, but have irritably deleted all the other language apps tried to date.

A travel list

I heartily recommend that you draft, refine, burnish and hone a travel list.  An edited version of my personal list is online.  Feel free to regard it as ludicrous overkill; it has repeatedly saved me from forgetting something essential.  I don’t regret a single detail on it, eagerly add every new persnickety reminder-to-self that occurs to me, and always print out and carefully read and re-read every item before I leave.

I’ll offer a deal: I’ll smile while you laugh at my obsessive, overdone travel list, so long as it’s you, and not me, who gets to realize halfway across the Atlantic that the indispensable something-or-other is still in the desk drawer at home.

While on the road

I understand that I am at my most vulnerable when arriving in an unfamiliar environment after an overnight flight, and prepare with extra care for this segment of the trip.  I’ll be exhausted after I get off the overnighter that takes me home, but will be weary on familiar turf.

Ezeiza International Airport in Buenos Aires

Ezeiza International Airport in Buenos Aires

As I approach the airport security check line, I transfer wristwatch, cell phone, spare change, keys and other metal-bearing trinkets to a zippered pocket of my travel vest, and then put the vest on the conveyor belt to be x-rayed.  Security personnel get to see what they want to see, and I don’t feel harried while scooping up all those little trinkets on the other side.

Hotels either provide an iron and ironing board in each room, or — with a few exceptions — will provide one if asked.  I travel with clothes encased in the compression sacs described above, and iron out the many wrinkles after I check in.

Most hotels charge a king’s ransom to wash, press and return travel duds.  Some hotels provide coin laundry machines; unfortunately, many don’t.

Think ill of me if you will, but I often wear outer garments a couple of days, while washing undergarments in the hotel room sink.  If you check the room’s shower, you may find a little pull-out cord for the drip drying of such garments.

Google ‘[city name] free walking tour,’ and you’ll likely find something in a destination city.  Guides are tip-supported, so participants are expected to give something, but can decide for themselves how much is appropriate.

These tours are usually two to three hours long, and cover the basics.  They’re also a great way to meet fellow travelers on the road.  Those walking with you likely hail from spots all over the world, and are happy to share travelers’ lore.

Tripadvisor offers “things to do” suggestions and reviews for major cities, as well as city-specific travel guides.  I don’t suspect staff at the Louvre or the Met of creating fake user accounts to massage star ratings, and thus trust these attractions reviews far more than I trust reviews of hotels.  (Unless the attraction is small and commercial.  The Vatican Museums aren’t going to juice reviews, but Estafador Cocktail Beach Spree will, eagerly.)  Travel books still have an important niche, too; you can try first, with a library check-out, then buy.

For more information: travel web sites with Q&A forums:

http://www.tripadvisor.com/ForumHome – TripAdvisor, all travel, hotel emphasis

https://www.lonelyplanet.com/thorntree – Lonely Planet, all travel

http://www.fodors.com/community/ — Fodor’s Travel Talk Community, all travel

http://www.flyertalk.com/forum/ — Flyertalk, flying emphasis

http://www.ricksteves.com/travel-forum — Rick Steves

http://discussions.flightaware.com/ — Flight Aware, all flying

http://www.frommers.com/community/ — Frommer’s

Flyer Talk seems to attract the most sophisticated travelers.  Please practice good forum etiquette by hunting for answers first on Google.

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12/3/2015: Post updated with a link to a CNET article about installing .apk files, and with a link to my own immortal prose about working with prepaid local SIM cards.

 

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