Travel

Tom's Travel Tips

Things That You Learn and Are Told About

Traveling is a lot of fun for me. Even when I did not initiate the travel (i.e. when I was in the military) I made it fun. This is the attitude everyone should have on "Holiday" to use the U. K. phrase.

Separate Page: Travel Check List

Flying on Jets, going on Ferries, Trains and other Public Transportation Vehicles

Travel Advisory Sites

There has always been unrest in the world since the first people ventured from their caves. The modern world just lets you know about the problems that are going on faster and with more impact visually than written words in a letter arriving a week to years after the occurrence.

Here is a list of sites that you can visit for travel advisories

Packing

Zip-Lock Bags

When flying on a jet put any lotion and other squeeze bottle type items inside a zip-lock® bag. Cabin pressure is usually 8,000 feet MSL and the cargo hold can set to to be like at 16,000 feet MSL. All tubes will expand and if they expand too much and break then they will expand into the zip-locks thus keeping your bags from becoming messy. Be sure to remove all excess air from the zip-lock bag so as the air inside the zip-lock expands it will not also pop.

Pack Light

Really think about what you need. You have to CARRY everything at some point and if you cannot pick up all your own bags (without a cart), walk 15 minutes with them without complaining you have over packed.

What you need varies according to if you are a guy or a gal. A woman must, by social and physiological necessity, pack more than a man. However, when it comes to clothes pack according to what you KNOW you are going to do and not what you want to do.

If you are a person who likes to purchase T-shirts, jackets, sweaters of the country / place you are at while on vacation then DO NOT PACK ANY. You will be purchasing them so you have no need to pack any.

Sleeping on a jet

If you want to sleep then take a decongestant. Many state do not take while driving, operating machinery etc.; well you will be sitting for a long time so take those types when flying.

If a short flight or you do not want to sleep then take a non-drowsy type decongestant.

Where Am I on The Plane?

If you want to find a good seat assignment so you can sleep better, check out Seat Guru or Love My Seat to view a floor plan of the aircraft you are flying in.

Aspirin®

Take an aspirin® to thin your blood on long flights. Blood clots on long-haul airline flights, known medically as Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT), is a condition characterized by the formation of blood clots after long periods of immobility. This could help prevent leg cramps and other blood flow problems when immobile for long periods of time in seats by acting as a blood thinner. Course the best thing to do is get up, walk to the galley, look outside, then come back and sit down every 1/2 hour or so.

Drinking Lots of Water

When on an airplane you must drink more water than you normally would. An aircraft flies ABOVE the weather between at an altitude normally between 26 and 45 thousand feet. This means that when you look out a window you see clouds BELOW you. There is NO moisture at your flight level.

The air that the compressors bring in from outside also has no moisture in it - which is why aircraft humidity is so low and why you have to drink more water than normal. When you breath in air on an aircraft is so dry that when you exhale the air has an easier time of pulling moisture out of your lungs than what occurs at sea level.

Normal a/c mix in 35% outside air by volume with existing air every 20 minutes (I believe that is still accurate). But still after one hour of flying the cabin air is almost devoid of any moisture so you better drink at least a quart of water an hour.

Sleeping on Ferries, Trains and other Modes of Transportation

There is no central rule to follow for these since they will vary so much by country, ownership and regional history however here are some guidelines.

Trains

In Europe, generally there is no place to sleep lying down unless you reserve a sleeping berth. This holds true for both ferries and trains. Reserving a first class compartment on a train will generally mean it is all yours since most people travel 2nd class due to the price differences. Thus, if you are going a long distance it is best to reserve a 1st class compartment and travel overnight so you can get some sleep.

Ferries

If they are short (less than two hours) just book a 2nd class or general boarding pass and enjoy the view. If longer, like going from Dover to the Netherlands which will take around 5 hours, use my idea from the train section above, book a cabin and spend the crossing sleeping and resting for the next day.

Otherwise, you will have to have all your bags with you at all times as you travel across. This means having someone you trust watch all your bags or carrying them wherever you go on the ship to eat, using the toilet, taking pictures or just relaxing. This also means that you really cannot sleep since you cannot watch your bags while sleeping!

No Jet Lag

There are a few strategies for this. You can change your sleep patterns BEFORE you leave so that you are in sync with the local time when you arrive at your destination. You could stay up the 24 hours before you leave and be so tired that you sleep on the plane and thus be ready to relax / work when you arrive at the other end. A third strategy is to take some No-Jet-Lag pills that are supposed to combat the effects of your body clock not being in sync with the local sun time. They run $10 for a box and a package will last for 40 hours of flying. Locally in Portland you can get them at Powell's Travel Store. It is made from all natural ingredients in New Zealand. I enjoy flying so much I have never suffered from Jet-Lag so I have no personal experience with this product.

Get On Local Time Before You Leave

Change the time you go to sleep to match the time zone that you are traveling to a few days before you leave. This way you body will already be "in the the zone" by the time you get there.

After arriving do NOT go to sleep if it is daytime. Get outside and walk, explore etc until 7 or 8 local time then go to sleep. The next day you body will be 95% adapted to local time.

Try and anchor your departure and return around a weekend: depart Monday and return on a Friday. This gives you two days to adapt before and two days after.

VISA and Passports

It make take as long as 60 days to get your initial passport.

Some countries will not let you enter if you passport is set to expire within 90 days after entry.

VISA requirements vary from country to country so you must check ahead. If you are on a tour it is YOUR responsibility to have a valid passport and VISA for every country that you are going to go to.

Contact the nearest consulate or their main embassy (Embassies are always in the nations' capital, Washington DC for the USA) to find out their requirements.

Many European nations do not require VISAs to enter their country as a US citizen and the USA reciprocates that privilege. Check ahead to find out.

The USA, and soon other countries because of the US requirements being placed on passports in order to enter the US, will require all passports to be electronically readable (UPC type codes) so they can be scanned against databases and track your entry and exit.

Luggage

The TSA has started giving out fines if you TRY and take on a prohibited item. The fines range from $250.00 to $10,000 per item. You MUST check and ensure that no prohibited item is on your carry-on OR checked luggage. Go to http://www.tsa.gov/public/ Then find the link "A MUST read for anyone traveling by air" click it then download the PDF file that lists what is banned and what is prohibited. Of course everything is subject to instant change so what is good today may be banned tomorrow and you would be fined for trying to take it with you on an aircraft.

Luggage The Way You Travel

Purchase a good set of luggage. Get a set that is water-resistant or can be made so. Sometimes luggage will be outside in the rain during loading unloading and you do not want it to absorb water.

Getting a set with wheels is okay IF you can get an extension handle for it and the wheel base is wide. A set with a wide wheel base is best. Wide in this case if the wheels are set into the luggage near the edge along the longest edge. If narrow (10 inches or less between the wheels) it is useless since it will tip over more often if at a normal walk or in any turns.

Carry-On Luggage

Carry-on luggage is really the norm in the US. Some airlines restrict the number per person so check ahead on the number you can carry. Usually 1 carry-on per person.

Keep the Aisles Clear

After meeting the size requirements with your carry-on items when you get on board do not stand in the isle while putting it away into the overhead bins. It slows down boarding. Stand between the seats and put it on your seat till you can put it up in the overhead. Nothing is more annoying than watching people putting their luggage overhead from the center of the isle stopping anyone from walking down the isle when they could place it in the bin from between the seats. So place your carry-on items by standing between the seats.

After landing, the same rules basically apply but you have more time to get it from the bin since there is always around three minutes after they stop but before the doors are set to be open. Take your items out, place it on the seat and wait for the people ahead of you to move.

This avoids having to spend the 5 to 20 seconds to get it out of the bin blocking the aisle. It may not seem a long time, but if 200 people each in turn spend 5 seconds to pull their stuff from the bin then the people in back just spent 16 minutes waiting to get off the aircraft!

Keeping in Touch

Sometimes your own cell phones will work where your destination is. If each person has the same company then you can of course call each other if you get too far from each other and it will not cost anything. Most of the time you leave your cell phone at home when going outside your own country so in those cases take along a set of walkie talkies with you. The modern version does not use the CB band but a new high frequency band which means the new FRS type unit has a range of 5 miles or so. In a city it can easily go two miles so you can always stay in touch.

Purchases

Once you you purchase something you have to carry it with you.

There are two methods to handle purchases: leave ample room in your suitcase before you leave to store items and carry them around with you on the rest of your holiday or ship it back to your house from the country where you purchased it.

I find that it is best to ship back the items you want on your own from a post office. Pack it yourself, find a post office and ship it back by surface freight — which is the cheapest. It will take from 13 days to three weeks to get to you but by then you may already be back home to receive it.

Some businesses may offer to ship it for you but then you are paying them extra to do it and they often ship by air freight ($$) with a high handling fee — and you won't be home to pick it up when it arrives in two days anyway! Best to do it yourself and ship it the slowest method possible.

Some items, like chairs or other large items, you will have to trust them to ship correctly. Just be sure to tell them ship by surface so you get home before the item does.

VAT

VAT = Value Added Tax. Canada, England and other nations have this sales tax on all goods (throughout the supply chain) sold. Ask for a VAT form when you purchase.

When you purchase any item in England you MUST ask for VAT Refund document from the retailer. Most retailers will not volunteer to let you know about it nor does the English government educates any retailer about it. You will need your passport when you make the purchase. In various pockets of London most retailers I came across were not even English citizens so they have no idea of this form let along understanding English most of the time. This really varies by neighborhood.

Keep them all forms and at the airport before you go through security go to the customs office (usually off to the side) and get all the VAT refunded to you. It can take sometimes 15 minutes to an hour to get it due to lines so plan ahead for this need.

On a typical one week casual vacation trip to Canada it can add up to around $100 in refunds. In a two week trip to the UK it could easily be a few hundred dollars.

Photography

Film

Always hand carry you film in both directions and let them do a hand inspection at the jet way. In the US you can always request them to hand inspect. If you do, be prepared for yourself to be more thoroughly inspected since they seem to want to do both. It will add around 15 to 20 minutes to get through the security gate.

In the US you CANNOT leave the film in the boxes they were packaged in NOR can they even be in the plastic film cans - you MUST take them out so they can hand swipe each one for explosive residue. Takes around 15 to 20 seconds for them to check each one. if you have 60 rolls of film you WILL spend 15 to 20 minutes waiting for them to test them. They of course test your camera, lens, bag, and anything else you are carrying when they do that much film.

If you pack ANY film in your checked luggage it will be scanned and thus ruined. (This happened to David Attenbourough at Manchester Airport in the UK in 1998 and it wiped out 4 months of movie filming in the South Pacific. He sued the airport but I never heard about the outcome.)

If you put the film in a "film shield" type bag then when scanned in carry-on they will just UP the intensity to SEE into the lead lined bag and thus ruin the film anyway. Carry all film in your carry on baggage (some machines use less intense x-rays but they are STILL X-RAYS) then take it out for hand inspection.

Put all film into two zip-lock® bags: one exposed one unexposed so they can easily test them in batches and you can keep them separate.

X-Ray exposure is CUMULATIVE. 400 film scanned once will has only a 15% chance of being ruined. Twice scanned it is up to 65% and thrice scanned it is 95% chance of being ruined. 1000 ASA and higher film WILL be ruined on the first pass.

This comes down to:

Taking Pictures Of Younger Kids

Tie photo taking into their allowance. After so many pictures per day with the family or by themselves (and not acting up during it) they get their allowance.

Euro Star Scanning

If you take the Euro Star train between London and Paris they scan your film. They are not as nice as US inspectors in hand inspecting your film. They will assure you that x-rays will not harm your film, remind them in that case on their next doctor visit they should refuse any lead apron since such a small does should not harm them either.

Customs

Register all your camera and other high value items with US Customs before you go overseas. The piece of paper never expires. You can add onto it as needed.

Tape it to the last page of your passport to always prove that you took the gear out of the US to begin with.

Money Exchange

Convert a little currently before you go. This allows you to have some local currency on hand after you land to take a cab, make a phone call or anything that you need to do when you arrive.

Money exchangers NEVER take coins — they will only exchange paper currency. (They will, of course, give out coin for the fractions.) Currency exchangers purchase low and sell high and also charge a fee at times. This is how they make money converting currency. When all of Europe went to the Euro on 1 January 2002 a lot of money lenders had their profits lowered - no now the margins of buy sell are even more to make up the lost country to country exchanges. With the same currency used in most all European countries means less opportunity to force people to exchange money. The UK (United Kingdom, i.e.: Great Britain) Denmark, Turkey and Finland still use their own currency thus going to those countries then another one means you will have to convert currency if you live there and for travelers to have their own currency converted.

Traveler's Checks

These are almost worthless to carry around now-a-days. With the rise of ATMs most everywhere in the top 50 industrialized nations in the world, and these ATMs are networked so you can access you own checking account from them, paying a fee to get traveler's checks, then paying a fee to CASH them at 3 1/2 percent of their face value (if you can find places willing to accept them) makes them WAY more of a problem than they are worth.

Best now to just find a local ATM and pull out money as you need it and charge everything else to your credit card. Most banks will charge $1 to $3 per transaction to pull out your money from a networked ATM. Still way cheaper and less hassle than using traveler's checks.

Credit Cards

Banks are now charging a conversion fee for each transaction that you put onto your card. This is not a flat fee (which would be simple and reasonable since the processing task is the same regardless of the amount) but instead directly tied to the amount being charged. They are charging a percentage of the transaction so you pay more the more you charge on the card.

Find out in advance if your credit card charges a fee and if it is a flat fee or a percentage. If they do, then shop around to other credit card companies to see if what they do. If you find one that does not then open up a new account with them and use it for you whole vacation.

Hotels and Bed & Breakfast Amenities

Check what amenities the place you are staying at has before packing.

If you know every location that you are staying check to see what items come with the room. Some places have hair dryers, shampoo, soap, coffee pots, refrigerators, bathrobes, and so forth.

If you are staying at a hotel that has hair dryers, or a B&B that has them for you to use, that is one less thing to pack (and carry!) on the trip. This applies to other items on your list of things you are taking as well.

Renting Vehicles

Trucks

If you rent a truck type vehicle to move (U-Haul, Penske, Ryder etc.) be aware that some of them have engine governors on them that will limit the top speed that you can drive. This means that on some sections of Interstates in the US (or in Europe) where you are allowed to go 75 mph (110 kph) you will be limited to only 65! This will add lots of travel time to any trip. Check with the firm before renting to find out if the vehicle does indeed have a governor and what the top speed it is set at.

Cars

Always book a car in advance of travel. There are many agencies and there are many types of cars. Match the car to both the type of driving you are going to do and the terrain you are going to drive in. Overall, it is best to hire a car that has an automatic type gearbox to ease the burden of driving even though they get less mileage per gallon than a standard transmission. Not everyone can drive an standard (stick) shift car.

If you are going to Europe and plan to be in the U. K. as well as other European countries then book one car for England and then book another hired car to pick up on the continent. Much easier and cheaper to do that than pay for a U. K. car to go across on the ferry with you and back.

If you are doing a day trip to France from the U. K. then just pay the fee for your car and take the "chunnel" over to France and buy your liquor over there - much cheaper.

To find out what the current fuel prices are you can check AAA - they post current prices for gasonline (fuel, petrol) in the USA.

CDW and other Car / Vehicle Charges

Check with your credit card company as to what expenses they will cover in case of an accident and general damages that happen while you are renting a car.

You may think you have insurance but there are always those cases where even a minor dent is not covered and you will have to pay $300 to $800 in deductible claims to repair the car. It also can vary from country to country so check ahead.

Daily insurance can easily be $20 to $35 a day. If you are driving in a foreign land in a rental car you have to decide if you can afford to pay $20,000 out of your pocket if the car is damaged for any reason due to your own fault or someone hitting it while parked - or it being stolen.

Even a simple dent can add up to $2,000 since they charge you for both repair and the loss of use of the car while it is being repaired.

Picking a Car

The car to use is directly proportional to the number of people on the trip and how tall / large you are. Most cars are designed for people of 5' 10" in height and trim in size. If you are above that you will have to get a car size above the economy size.

In England best to get a compact since all the streets are so narrow. You have to ask what the size really is since cars brands of England are meaningless to those coming from the US (or vice versa). Each company uses different categories so there is no universal way to ask for it. If one location does not have it then look at another location. Else, reserve one, go there, then refuse the car and ask for something smaller. Best to drive a car equal or SMALLER than what you drive at home on European highways but always ask for a economy compact car when driving in Europe.

If you are going to be gone for more than a few weeks and changing locations often (every few days) then having a larger car makes it is easier to haul all of the luggage and people around in since there is less time spent packing things into the trunk.

Always try and get a vehicle that has a car alarm on it. Also be shown how to use it. They do vary on how they work from firm to firm.

If you plan to drive in Great Britain then find a computer driving simulation that simulates driving on the left side of the road. This will help you getting your mind to work and trained for U. K. style roads and driving. Otherwise, have a mantra like I do: "Think Left – look right" and start saying that a few weeks before going to England.

Personal Security

It has been fact of human recordings that there are thief's. When traveling there is always the possibility that someone will try and steal your items. As a tourist you are carrying everything you need for the whole time away from home thus becoming a known high value target. Concentrating on "being there" always makes you less aware of your surroundings (people) at times which also means that an opportunist thief will have a better chance of stealing from you and getting away. The chances of a tourist coming back for a trial is almost nil so there is very little risk in it for them.

Carrying Items

Over the shoulder bags, both personal clutch bags (i.e. known to women as purses in the USA) and cameras should not be just be draped on the outside shoulder where they can be pulled off by a "snatch and run" type thief. The best way to carry them is putting by the strap diagonally around your body. This leaves your hands free to pick up items, it won't fall off your shoulder, and no one can pull it off and run with it.

When at a table, purses and cameras should either be left around your body per above or wrapped around the table / chair that you are sitting on so that they cannot be grabbed and run off with. Sometimes scooters are used by thief since you cannot catch them.

Water Safety for Equipment using Zip Lock® Bags

When on a dive boat or similar vessel which could allow your camera or other valuables to go overboard put them into a big Zip Lock with lots of airspace. This way if they get knocked into the water they will likely float. You can test this out at home before going to see if that camera will actually float inside a Zip Lock bag. The 1 gallon size with the zippered closure works best.

Put your film into zip locks to protect them also.

Purchase moisture absorbing packs and put inside the zip-lock bag to keep moisture from forming on your camera, film, or other items.

Carrying Money

Never put all your money in one place in your baggage or on your person. Put your money in various pockets on you so that during the day you seldom have to take out your wallet to spend money. Use a money belt or a neck pouch when carrying large amounts of cash. Putting money in a fanny pack may seem easy and secure but they can be cut and taken very quickly. If you sew a steel wire (like a fishing lead) into the strap that will stop any sharp cutters from slicing through the leather or plastic belt. This can be done also for camera and purse straps too.

Use traveler's checks.

Carrying Valuables

Even in the best hotels things are stolen and or lost.

Don't put laptops, jewelry cases, cameras, video records or anything that you are not willing to lose in common areas or to hotel bellhops (not to slight them, see below).

Your luggage is not insured while in any hotel and the waivers in all hotels say they are not responsible for anything lost or damaged. The bellhops are not paid to guard your items — just to move it from place to place and live off of tips if they do it in a fast and friendly manner. So even after given your items to them it may be mixed up with other items from other travelers or stolen from the area when they are not watching.

Put all valuables in the hotel safe when out of your room. Many high end hotels have safes in the rooms.

Lost Airline Luggage

Things will get lost given the sheer volume of baggage moved. Statistics ensure that it will happen.

Put your name / home address inside every item that is set to be in checked baggage. If the outside name tag is lost then once it hits the lost luggage area and they open it they will find your name and address and try and contact you.

Course you are not home so . . . put your initial destination hotel inside there too. It might catch up to you before you come back.

Thief Opportunities / Scams to Watch Out For

Spilled items. Someone spills something on you and a "friendly" person offers to help you wipe if off after you put down your stuff to — and others grab your bags and run away with them.

Fake fights. Young people (usually boys) stage a fight and one of them in tears asks for some money to get home. Out comes the wallet, he / she grabs it and off they run.

Baby toss. People hand you a baby (or toss a fake one) you drop your bags to save the "baby" and others grab your bags and run off with them.

Camera hostage. Someone offers to take your picture with your camera then demands $10, $15 or more to return it too you. Never give your camera to anyone you do not know.

Airport Security Trap. Teams of people would work together and after you put your items onto a bag the person in front would trigger alert while others grabbed your items. This is not really a problem now in the US since only ticketed passengers are allowed to pass through security. Overseas this can still be a threat. Never put your items onto the belt till the person in front has passed through the detector. If there are two of you traveling together one goes through first before anything is placed on the belt so that they are there to collect and watch over your gear.

Fake parking attendant. Someone becomes a valet and parks your car — where there is no valet parking. Your car and everything in it is gone.

Tire flat. Some thief's work as a team to puncture tires. An outrageous fee is quoted to fix a flat that occurs in a gas station. Some thiefs manage to ensure a punctured tire on the road and when someone "helpful" stops and helps you change it others steal items out of your car. More of a problem when traveling alone in southern Italy, Spain, Morocco. Anywhere there is large distances between towns with few police on the road. If you get a flat call the rental agency and then wait in the car with doors locked. If people come by roll down the window a bit and tell them help is coming. If you have no phone give someone the phone number to call and then wait. If they offer to call have them dial then give you the phone to talk to the agency.

Broken ATM. Someone offers to help you use the ATM. They steal your PIN by watching you punch it in three times until the machine locks and holds your card as designed. They later retrieve the card and use it to draw out your cash.

Travel Insurance

Travel Insurance should be taken out on any long distance multi-connection trip. This is especially true if you are traveling in the winter to someplace warm since a single storm can shut down the air system for a day and all your connecting flights, tours, etc would be just gone.

The determining factors are the number of connections you must make, the amount of money that you will lose if you miss the ship / plane / train and the policy of the firm you are booked on has if you do miss it. You must also factor in external factors that could cause things to go awry — like the company going out of business, storms that cancel everything, accidents that causes thing to be suspended, war or any host of other factors.

If you are spending more than $1,000 and 7 days on a trip then it is worth purchasing travel insurance.

Cruises

If you miss a sailing cruises will NOT refund you money no matter how justified the reason . In this regard they are like some new style airline tickets: not refundable and not transferable to another flight at all. This is true no matter what the reason you may have for missing the sailing time.

Get travel insurance for any cruise.

Going to a cruise it is wise to arrive a day early, spend a night in a local hotel, then arrive at the port to embark. This way you also are rested — no jet lag — and will not miss the boat.

Planes

If you go with a cheap fare it usually means no refunds, no flight changes allowed (or if so $50 or more per segment changed) and bunch of other restrictions. If you miss the flight you are out of all money and there is no recourse — you signed a CONTRACT when you purchased the ticket(s).

Aircraft schedules change and if get your tickets way in advance and then one flight changes and the flight on another airline you thought you were going to take takes off before the first one lands you are out of your money!

It is best to get insurance on package deals and on tours to destinations overseas. You will be spending $5,000+ so spending $100 to $200 more to ensure that you do not lose $5,000 due to unforeseen happenings is well worth it.

Problems

If you have any problems or promises get it in writing from the person you talked with. Else it is like the standard wind from people testifying in front of a congressional hearing: "To the best of my recollection I do not remember anything."

Tipping

Tipping is a way of rewarding (thanking) a person for doing a good job. Some cultures expect it (mainly western) some frown upon it, some build it into their bills (the French mainly). Some places put the gratuity into the bill — usually 15% or 20% if a party is 6 or more people. This occurs a lot in the US.

Here is a US based guideline on tipping service personnel:

Travel Road and Weather Information

There are many places that you can check to find out about what is going on at your destination before you leave the comfort of your home.

Travel Tour Operators

Questions you can ask before booking a tour:

Want to find out about them?

Now don't forget the rules of being a tour guide:
Must have some unique object to hold up so people can find you.
Must not give people "thought time" after explaining something which would allow them to ask questions.
Never give away the whole tour - just the next destination so they never know when it will end.
Never show them everything that is interesting at a stop so you can hold another tour!

Weather

Check weather sites on what the normal high, low, rainy season etc of the destination that you are going to.