Monday, October 10, 2011

For the inexperienced traveler


Sorry for the long lag between posts; I am starting to think this may be a more sustainable way for me to maintain this blog now that I am not a student (and looking for ways to procrastinate on the computer... because hey, computer procrastination is better!  At least you're not walking away from your work, right?  Right...?)

Anyway, I met a woman the other day who was taking her husband and two sons on a trip to Disneyworld -- she was very excited for the trip, but also a novice flyer and very nervous about all the details.  She was becoming flustered because her phone rang while she was completing her online check-in, and it was clear that she was unfamiliar with the process, as well as some other aspects of travel that we got to talking about.

Which made me think -- there are a lot of novice travelers out there, and they need travel resources just as much as experienced travelers.  Actually, they probably need it more -- I felt terrible watching this woman's stress shoot through the roof, and I was thinking how the fact that she packed three different types of sleeping pills/anti-anxiety prescriptions might well translate to her children, making them nervous about travel, as well.

So here are some tips for new travelers:

-Whatever your mode of transport (bus, train, plane), make sure you understand what you will be expected to present at the time of travel.  Do you need to print your ticket, or can you simply show an ID? Do you need backup ID?  Should you bring the credit card the ticket was purchased on?  What time must you arrive?  When in doubt, bring more paperwork rather than less, and always print out or write down confirmation numbers for tickets and hotels.

-Flying is definitely more stressful these days, especially within the US, where is seems the TSA is always finding new ways to intimidate travelers (I've written a bunch on the TSA, have a browse through the archives if you want to learn more!).  Know the carry-on limitations and rules before you go, noting that some rules are those of the airline and some are those of the government, and you must obey both.  If you are unsure of how the security process or check-in process work, definitely ask an employee, and tell them that you are a new traveler.  I find most airport staff to be very helpful, but they tend to assume everyone is a frequen flyer and may forget to offer assistance -- and remember that they often deal with gruff or angry travelers, so being sweet will get you far!  Especially in these days of suspected terrorism every three minutes, your demeanor can do as much as your actions in terms of getting friendly service, as employees are now trained to look for agitated or upset passengers.

-Use email to your advantage -- always have ticket or hotel confirmations emailed to you, because then you can access them from anywhere (even if you don't have a functioning smartphone, you can pretty much always find someone with access to the internet who can pull up the relevant email for you).  If you do not receive followup emails for bookings, definitely follow up by phone in advance of your trip to ask why or get a replacement message sent to you.

-If you will be gone for a long time and require medications, be sure to check in with your healthcare provider.  Often, insurance will authorize extra amounts to be dispensed if you will be traveling, or can give you information about hospitals or dispensaries at your destination.  For OTC meds, the product names are different all over the world, so make sure you know the name of the active ingredient.  (Dispensing laws vary, as well -- for example, in the UK antibiotic creams are prescription-only, so if you are going there you may want to pack your own.)

-If you are leaving the country, tell your bank.  Call the number on the back of all your cards (just in case, you'll want all of your cards available to you), and tell them where you are going and when.  All the time people forget to notify their banks, and the moment they try to use a card in a foreign country, their bank account is frozen for suspected fraud.  You will also want the bank to tell you what their phone number is for international calls (it is usually toll-free, but this does not mean free if you are calling on a hotel phone or somewhere else where you are charged for phone use!)  And have more than one piece of plastic! (I was recently horrified to learn how many of my friends, some very well-traveled, only own one card for all transactions.  One of these friends then had her card frozen for fraud, and had no backup system -- lucky there were people around to loan her cash!)

-More on money -- traveler's cheques are really quite outdated at this point, so I don't advise trying to obtain any.  You'll like just return home with them, since it is getting harder to find places to cash them, and in our digital world they're actually pretty inconvenient.  Rather, arrive with cash on hand, enough to get to your accomodations, eat some food, and survive for at least two days in case you can't find a bank (you'll have to estimate depending on how expensive your destination is -- the internet is an amazing thing -- but I would personally never land with less than 300USD in the local currency).  Keep this cash divided among different spots -- you don't want to open your wallet in front of a taxi driver and have tons of cash on display!  Also, I always carry 100USD on me in American dollars, because in a tight spot I can go to a bureau de change at my destination and change cash for cash. (The economy may be tanked, but having dollars will still get you surprisingly far.)  If you've informed your bank that you're traveling, you should have no trouble using local ATMs, but beware -- some foreign ATMs will not accept PIN numbers over 4 digits, so you may need to change your PIN number to travel -- leave yourself a couple of weeks to do this!

-Pack lightly.  Really.  You can ALWAYS find things to purchase if you get in a tight spot, trust me.  The main exception to this is feminine products, which can be scarce, particularly in the developing world and remote locations.

-Judge people wisely.  Many new travelers' fears come from the fear of being robbed or otherwise targeted in a new place.  If someone gives you a bad gut feeling, definitely get away from them.  But American and much of western European society is relatively quite aloof -- in a lot of the world, people naturally stand close to each other or talk loudly or do other things that might make us anxious, and the trick is to relax and just use your instincts to garner whether they actually intend you harm.  Odds are, they don't.

-In general, obey the local norms and customs.  I've talked about this a bit before regarding clothing, but it is also wise to remember this in all manners.  You don't speak the language?  Please don't shout in English to make a point.  Behavior such as this are the sorts of things that give western tourists a poor reputation abroad.

So that's what I came up with -- do any of you have anything that I should add to this list?  In general, try to relax and enjoy the experience, and try to keep your cool when things don't work out according to plan (and they won't.  Sorry, that's just the probability).  It won't take long before traveling is a process that makes sense and is not so intimidating.  And for help planning a trip or researching a destination, see my Travel Links page, there are some great sites up there!

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