For those of you who are contemplating travel, or for those that have but didn't enjoy it as much as you thought you would, I hope this page is of some use to you
Tip #1 - Plan your trip
"The best travelers aren't those with the fattest wallets, but those who take the planning process seriously. Structure rewards the traveler with freedom, and 'winging it' can become a ball and chain of too many decisions, too little information, and precious little time to relax." - Rick Steves, Europe Through the Back Door
I'm not talking about planning every minute of every day, or even every activity. The most important things to plan for are transportation and lodging. Winging it, especially with regards to lodging, can be both expensive and stressful. Expensive, because you missed the best online or early-bird deals, and many of the best rooms where you wish you'd stayed will be unavailable. Stressful, because now you don't have a place to stay and it's getting dark.
Having a general idea of what you'd like to see, or where you'd like to go, is also an excellent idea. It's good to have a Plan B as well, especially if your activities are dependent upon weather. If an activity requires/accepts advance reservations, it's a good idea to make them. Inquire about their reschedule or cancellation policy as well. The worst regret you can have is returning home and discovering that you missed something you would have truly enjoyed.
I don't plan for transportation or lodging until I know what it is we want to see or where we want to go. Guide books are very helpful for this, as well as online resources. A $20 guide book can more than pay for itself in less than a day of travel. And Google is a great, free tool. Just search for "Must see places in Venice" or "Best Caribbean reefs for snorkeling" and you're on your way.
I use Kayak to search for plane tickets, although I purchase them directly from the airline website once I've found the best deal. And I use Tripadvisor or AirBnB for all of our lodging, once again booking directly once I've located the best place to stay.
Tip #2 - Pack light
"I've never met a traveler who, after five trips, brags 'Every year I pack heavier.'" - Rick Steves, Europe Through the Back Door
Don't pack everything you "might need." Pack only those items you can't live without. You can purchase most basic items anywhere in the world.
With few exceptions, we only travel with one carry-on bag each. It contains five days of clothing. Learn to do laundry, or have your laundry done, while traveling. We always bring a clothes line or two, and a packet (liquid or dry) of laundry detergent. It doesn't take much time. And trust me, no one will care if you wear the same outfit two or three times. In humid or cold climates, non-cotton dries faster. And long pants that unzip into shorts provide two options in a single piece of clothing.
We always try to wear our bulkiest clothing when we're traveling so we don't have to pack it. If you're bringing shoes and sandals, pants and shorts, and a light jacket, wear the shoes, pants and jacket on the airplane and pack the rest. Compression bags can also come in handy when you're traveling with a lot of bulky items such as Winter gear.
Tip #3 - Be prepared
C'mon boy scouts, you should know this one. Research travelers insurance, emergency medical care, and notify your bank you'll be using your bank cards overseas. Know your options, or suffer the consequences during the 1% chance when you may have a crisis. You'll want more peace of mind and less stress as you travel.
If you've reached you maximum allowance of carry-on liquids, purchase sunscreen or toothpaste after you arrive. Traveling to a tropical third-world country? Bring medications that aid in the treatment of diarrhea or repel mosquitoes. Traveling by boat and prone to seasickness? Bring along some Dramamine. Understand where you're going, what they have, and what they charge if you don't bring your own.
Traveling some place cold? Thin layers, and many of them, might be a good idea. You can wear the outer layers more than once, so don't assume you'll need a check-in bag for cold weather clothing. Plan on snorkeling, scuba diving, skiing, etc.? Know whether gear is provided, can be rented or purchased, or if you should bring your own.
For electronic devices, such as cameras or mobile phones, bring a fully charged spare battery or at least a portable way to charge your device on the go. A spare memory card can also come in handy, especially if you plan on taking many photos or video and won't be able to offload them to another device.
Tip #4 - Personal security
Surprisingly enough, I've found that the major cities in the United States and Europe have some of the highest rates of pick-pocket theft. You can wear a money belt under your clothing to keep valuables safe. Don't put more than a days worth of currency, and NEVER carry credit cards, a mobile phone or passport, in your open pockets or purse.
Wear clothing that has zippers or buttons on the pockets, or a zipper or similar closure on your purse. Attach your backpack, camera bag, or purse to your chair when you sit. Never leave your mobile device out in the open. We sew velcro closures on our otherwise open pockets. And I've read that putting a thick rubber band around your wallet can make it more difficult for someone to remove from your pocket.
Tip #5 - Learn the language
This can be daunting for someone who isn't comfortable with languages. But a few useful phrases, and a lot of pantomiming, and you should be okay. I consider it courteous and respectful to at least try to communicate in the local language. Don't assume everyone speaks English. They don’t. How would you feel if a German tourist came to the United States and only spoke to you in German?
The most useful things to learn are 1) asking for and receiving directions, 2) making purchases and 3) ordering food. "Where is the national museum?" or "How many yen does it cost?" Be prepared to understand the answers as well, such as, "Three blocks ahead, then turn to the left."
Here are a few universal words and signs you can use:
The Google Translate application can also really come in handy. You can download an entire language dictionary to use offline.
Tip #6 - Money
The easiest and best way to get foreign currency is at a local bank automated teller machine (ATM). Using a currency exchange provider will cost you much more, as their exchange rates are not usually competitive and they charge an additional service fee. Banks will give you the best exchange rate using an ATM. After you arrive at your destination, find the nearest ATM and withdraw some cash. Since you will likely be charged for using the ATM, it’s better to withdraw larger sums and less frequently. We usually withdraw anywhere from $200 - $500 USD equivalent at a time. I use the Unit Converter Pro application on my smartphone. It can give you the current exchange rate, as well as convert information like kilometers, kilograms and temperatures.
Only carry with you the cash you think you’ll use for the day. Keep the remainder some place safe, preferably not on your person. Keeping your wallet away from your back pocket, our out of your purse, is always a good idea. See my theft tips above.
Many places accept credit or debit cards, but some smaller shops and restaurants don’t. You will almost always get a better deal if you pay in local currency. If they ask if you’d like your purchase converted into USD, politely decline. Your bank will give you a better exchange rate during the transaction.
Tip #7 - Culture, respect, and blending in
This one can be tricky, but it’s definitely important to know and understand. This is also where a good guide book comes in handy.
Each country and region has it’s own unique culture and beliefs. Though you may not agree with them, you must respect them while you’re there. You are a visitor, a guest, in a foreign country. Be a polite one. If something strikes you as odd or uncomfortable, don’t make a big fuss about it. Is the bus really crowded? Are there long lines at a bank? Is roasted scorpion on a stick not something that appeals to your pallet? It’s normal for locals and simply part of their way of life. Take a deep breathe, acknowledge it, and accept it. This is part of the beauty of international travel.
Here are a few good ways to blend in:
Tip #8 - Public transportation
Public transportation is not only cheaper than renting a car or paying for a taxi, but more of a cultural experience as well. Even though a multi-day/multi-transportation agency pass might not necessarily be cheaper than paying per ride, it sure is a lot more convenient. One card, one tap takes you anywhere you might want to go - by boat, rail, or bus. And remember, tons of locals are using this mode of transportation daily, so it can’t be that difficult. But never be afraid to ask for help.
tried and true items we USE
1. eBags Carry-on luggage - expandable, rugged, and well designed. Some of their carry-on bags also contain backpack straps.
2. Repel Natural Insect Repellent - tested and approved in the primary rainforests of Costa Rica and in Tanzania without a bite on me. And I accidentally walked around without any repellent just to ensure there were actually blood-thirsty mosquitoes. :-/
3. Teva Sandals - great for hiking in relatively open and dry areas, sightseeing, and most importantly wading through water with jagged surfaces like rocks, coral or seashells.
4. Kuhl Liberator Convertible Pants - comfortable enough to wear anywhere, these pants are nice enough to wear to a concert and rugged enough for hiking. They also convert into shorts, also good for swimming.
5. Skechers Relaxed Fit shoes - easy to clean surface, nice enough to wear to a concert, great for sightseeing, and rugged enough for muddy hiking.
6. Laundry bag - some people forget that they'll have dirty clothes when they travel. This also doubles as a great laundry basket once you've washed and folded your clothes.
7. REI Sea to Summit clothes line - it packs small and light, and has rubber beads to hold clothes in place without the use of clothes pins. And it has hooks so you can easily wrap it around anything.
8. Tommy John underwear - non-cotton, it dries within an hour, packs so thin you can take a dozen pairs in your carry-on, and won't even notice you're wearing it.
Our personal travel preferences
We prefer to travel mid-week (Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday). Ticket prices are usually cheaper, and airports are less crowded.
We enjoy staying at a bed & breakfast. They’re usually cheaper than a hotel, in quiet residential neighborhoods, have more character, and you have the added bonus of a local to talk with and ask questions.
No large tour groups or cruises. We don’t enjoy being surrounded by large groups of people, and prefer to set our own itinerary and pace.
We are eco-tourists. We enjoy the flora, fauna, and scenery of the great outdoors! Hiking, snorkeling, biking, and kayaking are favorite activities when we travel.
We appreciate local culture and cuisine. Traditional costumes and dance, indigenous music, and traditional regional foods all appeal to us. We also enjoy the local markets, parks and architecture.
We are adventurous! We’re not afraid to try something new, like hang gliding or rappelling, and actually seek out new experiences each time we travel.