Kicking off the new year in practical style, we’ve been asked to share our top travel tips. Never ones to back down, we put our heads together and here’s what we came up with.
Before we dive in, a couple of caveats. If you’re from America, you are probably familiar with traveling around America. The same McDonald’s burgers can be found from coast to coast. You can order your Big Mac in English and the same dollar can be spent anywhere. This guide is (mostly) for you, although the tips are useful for anyone, from hardened road warriors to complete international travel newbies. If you have questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out and ask.
We grouped the tips into four categories: Planning (before you go), Going (for while you’re in another place), Returning (for when you come home again), and Reminiscing (telling everyone you love, and anyone else who’ll listen, about your amazing trip).
The first thing to consider is how much work you want to do yourself, versus having someone else do it for you. If you’re fortunate and have a travelling partner, you can always foist the detailed stuff on them. Travel agents still exist, but they have mostly been replaced by websites. Filling the gap between travel agents and surfing the internet are tour operators. Request a glossy brochure, take a stiff belt of tequila before you check the prices, then choose a trip that works with your dates. They do the rest.
Assuming you take the DIY approach, one of the biggest changes to independent travel planning has been the introduction of variable pricing. Ever wonder why an item or a trip goes up in price from one moment to the next? That’s variable pricing and it’s almost always based on your internet browsing history. Companies set cookies based on your searches and their algorithms judge your interests. Prices get set according to how often you’ve searched similar items. Here are a few ways to control how much information travel sites (and others) gather about your online interests:
- Clear your browsing history regularly. As often as every time you head to a new site to comparison shop. Certainly each time you close your browser it’s worth clearing your cache, history, and cookies. I use the Firefox browser and configure it to do all that automatically.
- You can also configure your browser to use ‘private’ or ‘incognito’ mode. Then you won’t store cookies at all. It may sound like a hassle, but the less they know the more likely you are to find a better deal.
- Consider getting a VPN (Virtual Private Network) to mask your IP address. It can even pretend you’re in a different country. Check out ProtonVPN, which has a free version. There are plenty of others. Many will give you a free trial that will cover your planning period
- Use multiple sites. For airlines and cars, we often start with Kayak.com, but we also check with airlines directly, visit Expedia.com, Priceline.com, and Orbitz.com. New aggregators pop up regularly. Carol recommends checking out Justfly.com and Hopper.com, too.
- For hotels, we start with Booking.com, and Airbnb.com (for self-catering). It is always worth narrowing down an area to a couple of choices, then emailing the hotel or host and ask about booking directly. Fees charged by online agencies are stiff, and we’ve had a lot of luck with this approach. Everyone has Google Translate, so don’t sweat the language barrier.
- You pay a lot more for flexibility! Unless you’re very flexible. Let me explain: If you’re not constrained by children, work, study, pets, or any other first world challenges, and can travel when others are not (especially during school holidays), then you can save a ton of money.
- Shoulder season in Europe includes April and May, then October through November. If you’re really hardy, or antisocial, travel in the dead of winter to summer resorts. Prices can drop by 50-75%, or more. Your accommodations might be a little chilly, but at least the window seat at the only open restaurant will be available.
- If you are constrained by life, you may want to pay more for air tickets that can be exchanged, or hotel reservations that can be cancelled. Bargains are reserved for those willing to spend 72 hours in transit for a 12-hour journey. Be sure to read the fine print on terms and conditions before you fully commit. Note: Most airlines give you 24 hours to change your mind once you’ve pushed the button.
Paperwork and Passports
The US Department of State is fairly efficient at issuing passports these days. The post-Covid rush appears to be over. Nonetheless, start early and order your passport well ahead of your trip. Many countries won’t let you in if you have less than 6 months validity remaining on your passport. Therefore, if it expires within a year, get a new one. The Feds will credit the time remaining on your old one. Other countries have other rules, and document processing times may vary widely.
If you are visiting America from another country, you must buy health insurance. Americans visiting other countries should check with their healthcare insurance provider. Most will reimburse you for overseas medical expenses. Remember, too, that the rest of the world has regulated healthcare systems and the pills you left on your bedside table can be found at a local chemist for less than your co-pay back home.
Some form of travel insurance may help put your mind at ease, but check on what’s covered. The last-page, impulse purchases that the airlines push generally don’t cover healthcare, only cancellations and lost baggage.
Keep your vaccinations up to date! Make sure you know what is required by the country you’re visiting well before you go. Boosters often give you flu-like symptoms, so don’t leave things to the last minute! Bring proof of vaccination with you in case you get asked for it. Your physical Covid vaccination card and a photo of the same, for example. If you have a yellow WHO vaccination card, bring it. The CDC provides useful information on travel health.
Where to Stay? And How long?
Broadly speaking, the more people in your party and the less time you have for your trip, the longer you want to stay in one place. That might mean a week in Disneyland Paris with your family. For a fit young couple it might mean three days in Paris, two days in Nice, and three days in Ibiza (one for a raging party, one to recover, and another to re-book the return flight).
Honestly, we aren’t great at forward planning (see here). Our modus operandi is to turn up, grab a local SIM card with lots of data, try and rent a cheap car, and figure it out from there. That said your local library has plenty of travel guides available. Read some and make a note of the one you like best. Then buy an updated copy to take with you.
Never pack a bag larger or heavier than you can lift above your head! Get a carry-on bag with two wheels. The ones with four wheels (like the one in this photo) waste interior space and manoeuvre unpredictably. If you pack light on your out-bound leg, feel free to buy gifts and souvenirs for your return. If your bag is bursting at the seams, consider donating anything you haven’t worn to a local charity before buying anything else. From the age of seven our kids packed and pulled their own suitcases. Later in life they sized up their partners by how small they packed for a trip. Carry a decent backpack, too. Especially if you have kids.
Wear sensible shoes and bring a bathing suit. If you’re not a walker, book a cruise, or bus tour. You’ll still want sensible shoes for negotiating the uneven cobblestones at the Coliseum.
For the full experience, keep a (paper) journal, write postcards, take photos with a camera, and leave your smartphone at home. That sounds romantic. It is a pity those little smartphones are so damned useful. But they need data! The least expensive option is buying a local prepaid SIM card. In the EU roaming is free, so buy one with enough data and take it with you. The next alternative is buying a global service like Google Fi. Lastly, the most expensive option (typically) is buying an international data add-on from your cellular provider.
Make sure your phone is compatible with local networks. Recent iPhone models work most everywhere, less expensive Android phones may struggle in some areas.
If you’re staying in one place, try and learn 300 words of the local language. Tools like Duolingo (download it) and Pimsleur (find it at your library) are good places to start. Bone up on charades and hand gestures. After a couple of drinks, things get easier. Remember to smile. Nowadays, Google Translate is used everywhere. It’s free. Download the app and the local language pack to your smartphone before you go. Don’t forget the four most important words in the world: ‘Can You Help Me?’ And remember to smile!
What to see
Once you’ve read all your travel books and made a list, great. You have a plan. Prefer winging it like we do? Open Google Maps and search for ‘sites’ and choose something. Hop in a cab, grab a bus, or pick up your feet and walk there. Your hotel, your waiter, and other travellers will all have recommendations. Say, ‘Can you help me? I need a recommendation for…’ If you like museums, look for discount multi-day passes valid in lots of places. In Turkey, for example, you can buy a 15-day tourist pass that gets you into every major museum and archaeological site in the country for 1000TL (about $60). Theatre-goers can find last minute bargains in most big cities. Your handy travel guide or a quick web search can direct you.
We use Google Maps in cities. The quality of the information is variable, but no worse than a travel guide. Tourist offices still have folding maps that will get you around. For hiking we like two apps: AllTrails.com (better for North America) and Mapy.cz (for Europe). For the truly directionally challenged, get a compass. There’s nothing worse than walking four miles in the wrong direction at the end of a long day. Better yet, hail a cab and show the driver your hotel’s business card that you thoughtfully picked up before you left.
Folding money, including traveller’s checks, ain’t as popular as it used to be. That makes carrying a credit or debit card essential. Be sure to call your bank and credit card company and tell them where you’re going and when you’ll be gone. Double check what international fees your bank charges. They can rack up quickly if you’re not paying attention. Newfangled things like mobile wallets are available only to Millennials. We missed the age cut-off for that high-tech stuff years ago.
Watch for pickpockets. When I’m heading someplace popular and crowded, I’ll put one credit card and my driver’s licence in a zippered pocket and I’m set for the day. My wallet and passport stay in the hotel’s safe.
The quality of a restaurant is inversely proportional to its distance from a major tourist attraction. Get off the main tourist trails and explore. Google Maps reviews can help.
We eat at odd hours, late lunches, early dinners. Find out when everyone else eats and schedule accordingly. That way you can eat at better restaurants when no one’s there. Of course, many kitchens close for the afternoon, so take that into consideration. Gastro pro tip: Michelin starred restaurants often have bargain-priced lunches.
When you find an eating spot settle in and relax. Do as the locals do. Take your time. Try new things! Ask the waiter what their favourite foods are? What’s the local specialty? Vegetarians are better catered for than they used to be. Although the dreaded plate of steamed frozen vegetables still pops up occasionally as the only option. Should you have food allergies most restaurants provide detailed information on the menu. Still, it never hurts to ask just in case. Want street food? Go for the cooked stuff. Anything raw from a street vendor, like ceviche, is asking for trouble. Drink bottled water or champagne. You’re on holiday!
Lock your hotel door and use the deadbolt. People walk into the wrong room all the time, so you’ll sleep better feeling secure. Gizmos like door alarms work about as well as an aging Labrador retriever (very unreliably). That said, the rest of the world is, generally, much safer than America. Petty street crime (theft usually) is more prevalent, but guns and gun crime far, far lower. Use the same common sense you would at home.
US Citizens should get the Mobile Passport Control app. On arrival, look for the MPC or Mobile Passport designated lane. You’ll beat the queue and make the country more secure. You might even teach the immigration officer on duty about the app.
Follow the rules on the I-94 form and don’t bring in a bunch of raw meat. It excites the customs agents almost as much as it does the sniffer dogs.
Should your friends be travellers then you have a willing audience for your tales of adventure. On the other hand, if their idea of a good time is trolling websites and lolling around in front of the TV, don’t be surprised if they’re disinterested in your life-changing journey.
These days the journey is the story, so you may already have said everything in your Insta posts. Research, however, shows people that take lots of selfies and regularly update social media remember less about their experiences than people who take it all in. The same thing is true when you follow Google or Waze driving directions. Because there’s no need to remember how you got someplace, you don’t form the neurons. Consider taking a rest from social media for a couple of weeks and grow some new memories instead. Your brain will thank you later. Most of all, don’t be boring.
Travel? Do it! Go! Enjoy!