Friday, 18 January 2013

Rich Harrill's Travel Tips

Rich Harrill’s Travel Tips
There are lots of travel tips out there—from Mark Twain’s classic witticisms (“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”) to firsthand observations found on Web-based Trip Advisor.  Humbly, I here offer only a few observations from my many years of international travel.  I hope this travel tips blog will be instructive to first-time travelers and seasoned tourists alike.
You probably can find as many lists of travel quotes as you can travel tips.  However, there are two insights that I find especially instructive to travelers.  My favorite quote by far is attributed to travel writer Susan Heller:  “When preparing to travel, lay out all your clothes and half your money.  Then take half the clothes and twice the money.”  This quote speaks volumes about travelers’ tendencies to underestimate expenses when traveling, and also how hurrying or simply reaching for what is comfortable makes proper attire less of a priority.
My other favorite quote is by novelist Paul Bowles:  “If I am faced with the decision of choosing between visiting a circus and a cathedral, a café and a public monument, or a fiesta and a museum, I am afraid I shall normally take the circus, the café, and the fiesta.”  This quote sums up the individuality of leisure styles.  Choose travel partners carefully, as they may be adamant about dragging you to a cathedral, public monument, or museum!
In the spirit of these quotes, I offer some of my own travel tips.  I would love to hear from readers offering their own observations and tips!

Getting Ready--Homework

Do Your Homework—All dream vacations must begin with a little homework.  I like to purchase at least one good, comprehensive travel guide to the destination country if I have never been there before.  Compare the information found in the book with more updated information that may be found on the Internet.  Local conditions can vary significantly from country to country, so make sure you investigate what shots or vaccinations are necessary.  I have found that most counties have a travel clinic in their health departments offer that the most cost-effective shots.  Check the U.S. State Department travel advisories for recent incidents involving travelers.  Ask a person currently living in that country about conditions for travelers.  Read Internet sites such as Trip Advisor for ratings of hotels and restaurants.

Getting Ready--Passing Port

Passing Port—Make sure your passport is valid.  Make sure you leave the house with your passport in your possession.  I drove all the way to Charlotte, NC from Columbia, SC (about 1-and-a-half hours) to catch a flight to Barbados, only to find I had left my passport back home in Columbia!  If taking an international flight, be at the airport at least two hours before departure.  Sweep through your home to ensure utilities have been turned off.  Don’t announce on social networking sites or phones that you are traveling.  Long-term parking can be expensive—have a friend or colleague drive you to the airport or take a cab.  If your final destination requires a visa, make sure your name is spelled correctly on the visa, matching the name on your plane ticket and passport.   One Chinese visa was issued to a Richard H. Marrill.  I always use the express service with visas, which provides ample time to correct errors.       

Getting Ready--Turtle Up

Turtle Up—I’m always shocked to see the many expensive soft bags coming off the baggage belt at the airport.  I advise all luggage be the hard-shell type.  Airlines twice have left my luggage on the tarmac in the rain—ruining several good suits.  Although you can be reimbursed, the process is cumbersome and the odds of satisfactory settlement are against the traveler. 

Like spare tires, making sure you have spare suitcases in case that zipper quits just before you are due at the airport.
While some travelers insist on carrying onto the plane all that they will need for the trip, I’ve found that it is actually quite rare that the airlines completely lose your luggage.  Don’t be afraid to check luggage, but inexpensive travel insurance protection against loss, damage, or theft might be a wise option.
If you must carry on, be prepared to deal with wrinkled clothes on arrival.  Some clothing stores, e.g., Brooks Brothers, offer wrinkle-free clothing for business travelers.  Seasoned travelers will know the trick of hanging these items in the hotel bathroom and letting a hot shower run for a few minutes—the steam eliminates all but the toughest wrinkles.
Choose a style and color of luggage easily identifiable on the baggage belt.  And don’t lose the claim ticket—some airports will ask to see the ticket as you leave baggage claim.

Getting Ready--Call Ahead

Call Ahead—Always inform your bank that you are traveling.  I once flew from Beijing to Paris and the bank cut me off because they thought someone was globe-hopping on my bank card.  I was fortunate that a French café owner simply asked me to return the next day to straighten things out.

At the Airport--Ask and Thou Might Receive

At the Airport
Ask and Thou Might Receive—From airline counters to hotel reception, always ask for an upgrade at the same reserved price.  I once scored a free business-class trip to Turkey simply by asking just before I boarded the plane.  The airline needed the coach seat.

At the Airport--Strip Tease

Strip Tease—Yes, going through security can be uncomfortable and even dehumanizing, but a necessarily evil in this age of terrorism.  Make it easy on yourself and follow TSA rules, but also by wear articles of clothing that can be easily removed and slipped back on after the process.  Once you pass security go directly to your departure gate and determine when the flight will board.  You can then obtain food, drink, go to the restroom, read, and relax while waiting to board unhurried.

On the Plane--Please be Seated

On the Plane

Please be Seated—I’ve found that for long-haul flights, the aisle seat is the best seat for bathroom breaks, and a little more leg and elbow room on the aisle—watch out for the food and beverage carts.  Similarly, bulkhead seating (the first row of seats) and the emergency-exit row offer a little more room.  Some airlines offer coach seats with extra leg room at a price, e.g., United’s Economy Plus.  To me, Economy Plus on an aisle or bulkhead is as good as Business Class.  Also, take a jacket—in my experience plane cabins can be quite cold, no matter the destination or time of year!

On the Ground--Hotel Bound

Hotel Bound—Some hotels offer shuttle service from the airport that can be arranged in advance.  Remember that some shuttles service several hotels, meaning several stops to drop off passengers.  It may be easier and faster to catch a cab.

On the Ground--Dealing with Jet Lag

Dealing with Jet Lag—Years of long-haul travel to Asia have given me considerable experience with jet lag both ways.  So far, the only remedy I have found helpful is a little champagne before bedtime.  If a bar is handy you might also consider a cocktail called a "French 75"--champaigne or cognac with a shot of gin.  The alcohol helps the head and the bubbles aid the tummy.  A warm bath will help you relax as well as provide rehydration through the skin.

On the Ground--Show Them the Jacksons

Show Them the Jacksons—People fuss a lot about travelers’ checks and credit cards when traveling.  In many places, travelers’ checks simply aren’t accepted or are accepted with great hassle.  Credit cards or ATM cards typically carry a fee for withdrawals.  Some banks and credit card companies offer an international travel card with no transaction charge.  Against conventional wisdom, I feel it is important to carry a healthy amount of cash—preferably in $20 denominations.  Cash is still king in most places, and the U.S. greenback still has considerable clout around the world.  I advise a mix of credit and cash. 

In countries that don’t accept U.S. currency, I recommend exchanging money at a local bank if possible, followed by a local exchange shop with good exchange rates.  I have found the hotel and airport exchange shops to have the highest exchange rates, but the airport shops are safe and handy in a hurry.  Shop around for the best rates, but don’t let the search take time away from your vacation!
Use pickpocket-proof clothing and bags.  And don’t overlook the small safe now common in most hotel rooms.  Finally, while it may be cheaper or more fun to use the subway (such as Tokyo's elaborate subway system), a cab may be safer.

On the Ground--(Don't) Dress the Part

(Don’t) Dress the Part—Nothing says American tourist like brand names, sports gear, and tennis shoes, as well as expensive jewelry, pocket electronics, or sunglasses.  Wearing shorts is considered gauche or juvenile in some countries, even in those with hot climates.    I have found a pair of boots and a dark-colored shirt tucked into a pair of jeans to be sufficiently generic, anonymous, and possibly stylish in some quarters.  If walking a lot, some companies, e.g., Clark's, make surprisingly comfortable ankle boots.  Be conscious of your movements and body language--nothing says "tourist" like someone walking and at the same time head tilted back and gawking at street shops, architecture, or skylines.      

On the Ground--A Little Lingua Franca Goes a Long Way

A Little Lingua Franca Goes a Long Way—You need not take an immersion course in a local language before traveling there.  There is nothing more distressing or funny to many hosts than a traveler butchering their language in a strange accent.  Many of them were forced to take years of English in school and will jump at the chance to practice with you.  However, common etiquette is a worldwide standard, and all hosts will appreciate your use of a few phrases of greeting, gratitude, and thanks.

On the Ground--The Art of the Deal

The Art of the Deal—Negotiating for great deals is a fun part of travel and expected in many countries.  However, haggle too hard and you will soon be persona non grata in the marketplace.  Spend too much and you will become a potential mark.  If you learn to strike a balance between spendthrift and sucker, you will have friends in the host community for many years to come.  Think about how much you spend in an average weekend back home.  I always like to pay a little extra for those unique, one-of-a-kind items, e.g., crafts, paintings, and sculptures (provided it will fit into your luggage or that it can be shipped), that will remind you of a great trip and enliven your home décor for many years to come.

On the Ground--Social Studies

Social Studies—Travelers often overemphasize spoken language and underestimate body language:  they should know more about a country’s customs, etiquette, and protocol.  Check gifts for appropriate color and value.  Respect locals when taking pictures—politely ask for their permission to do so and be prepared to offer a small tip.  Finally, respect local laws, as penalties for relatively minor infractions back home mean major trouble abroad.  It is my experience that most travelers who get into trouble abroad are doing things or saying things they ought not be doing or saying.  And remember, “if you get into trouble” (actual language in the U.S. passport), contact your local embassy.   

On the Ground--An Ounce of Prevention

An Ounce of Prevention—In countries where there exists a large income disparity between hosts and guests, travelers might be surprised how much they are watched, and not necessarily by local officials.  There is no reason to be too upset by this—many residents are simply being attentive to the needs of their guests.  Others, however, are looking for patterns of behavior that can be exploited.  Simple questions like “Where are you from?” “Where are you staying?” and “How long will you stay here?” can be used to draw a quick economic profile of the traveler.  Learn to answer questions politely but indirectly.  In addition, change your daily routine to avoid appearing too predictable.  Good hotels have a vested interest in protecting guests, especially in this age of the Internet and TripAdvisor where bad news travels fast.  Let them know if you have any difficulties with suspicious locals, vendors, or staff.    

On the Ground--Eat, Drink, and Be Merry

Eat, Drink, and Be Merry—Any experienced traveler will tell you that one of the best aspects of international travel is sampling the native cuisine.  In fact, there is a growing market segment of “foodie” travelers who plan entire trips around restaurant-hopping. However, the reality is that some food-borne illness may occur sometime in your travels.  Traveler’s diarrhea or “la tourista” is well-known to most travelers and easily treatable with antibiotics, water, and Pepto-Bismol.  This condition is not serious but can ruin a trip.  Consult your physician about antibiotics and anti-diarrhea medications to take with you.  Ask your hotel if it has a physician on staff or on call—a health care professional trusted by the hotel to provide quality medical care and obtain the appropriate type and dosage of medicine from the local pharmacy. 

In general, you can’t go wrong with hot food and drinks prepared from safe water sources, including ice.  In some countries, I even go so far as to brush my teeth with bottled water!   When eating with a local family, making such choices may be tricky, but try to gently inform your hosts that you prefer warm or heated (as opposed to “hot” or spicy) foods.  Finally, hosts will appreciate your enthusiasm for the local beer and you will appreciate that it has been properly pasteurized.

Going Home--Room Sweep

Room Sweep—Make sure you have swept the room for all items before packing.  Check the safe for valuables.  If you leave anything, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to recover.  For international travel, remember to be at the airport at least two hours before departure, taking into consideration weather and traffic.  Don’t overestimate the amount of time you will have for sightseeing before departure—sometimes it better to just relax and prepare for a long flight.  If possible, have the hotel arrange airport transportation the night before.  

Going Home--You Can Go Home Again

You Can Go Home Again—In all likelihood, you will have to pass through international customs when you arrive, extending your trip a bit.  And yes, be prepared for yet another pass through security.  You will be tired and ready to sleep in your own bed.  Don’t rush back into your daily routine.  If you have been out of touch with family and friends, take some time to call and catch up.  Give yourself time to recover from jet lag and enjoy the memories of your travels.  After a few days, begin to plan your next trip!