Your bags are packed. You can still smell the fresh ink on your plane ticket. You are ready and rarin' to go…or are you? Here's a few simple ways from a travel pro you can help ensure your dream trip doesn't turn into a nightmare.
First, PACK LIGHTLY. You don't need 8 pairs of shoes and different outfits for every day. Bring one "nice" outfit for dining out, going to the theater, etc., and only a few inter-matching tops/bottoms, all season-appropriate, of course. Unless you're a supermodel about to hit the catwalk, you don't need to bring your delicate designer labels – you will want to dress for comfort, believe me. Don't forget a good pair of walking shoes (more on those later), plenty of socks, and plenty of underwear. Bring an umbrella and at least one cool-weather jacket, suitable to wear in the rain as well. No matter wear you go in the world, even in the Summer time, there will be cool weather on the occasion.
Pack items that are wrinkle-resistant/wrinkle free. With few places overseas outside of the luxury hotel realm carrying complimentary irons in their guest rooms, this is a must. If you can't do wrinkle-resistant/wrinkle free, consider rolling your clothes instead of folding them. That's right, rolling them. Not only will this lessen the chance of wrinkling your threads, but it will give you more room in your suitcase. Plus, think about all of the souvenirs and other keepsakes you'll be bringing home! You'll need to have plenty of room for them. While exploring for said souvenirs, make sure you have invested in a good pair of walking shoes that are BROKEN IN before you go. Otherwise, your feet will suffer.
Take a pair of earplugs, too. Many budget hotels don't have air-conditioning and require that you open the windows. One such place I stayed during the Summer months was less than a mile from the train station. Without my earplugs, I wouldn't have slept a wink.
Avoid lots of bulky, clunky electronics like hairdryers, curling irons, flat irons, etc. If you must have one or some of these item and can anticipate needing them for future travels, invest in a smaller, travel-size version.. For overseas travel, don't forget the voltage converter plugs! All of these items are relatively inexpensive and good to have if you know you'll use them again. Try and find miniaturized versions of your favorite toiletries, too – you can find tiny tubes of toothpaste, itty-bitty bottles of shampoo/conditioner, shave gel, mouthwash, etc. for $0.50 a piece at your local drug store.
Your Identity=Your LIFE
I HIGHLY, HIGHLY recommend using a travel wallet that hangs from your neck and tucks under your shirt. In this wallet, you can store your passport/drivers license, money, credit cards, hotel key, and anything else of vital importance to you while you're out and about.
Are they trendy and fashion-forward? Usually not.
But, chew on this…there are people out there who prey on tourists and will – without thinking twice – pick your pocket/backpack/purse and before you know it, all of the things that make traveling possible – especially when traveling overseas – all gone. Now, are you stuck away from home forever if you lose these items? No – but the hassle of replacing your license, credit cards, and in some cases, your passport (which must be done at a US Consulate location, often times hundreds of miles away) could cause you to miss important pre-planned outings with family/friends, shows/ticketed events for which you paid good money, and even flight/train/bus connections to other destinations. SO NOT WORTH IT.
Tie a ribbon
Upon landing after what seems like a lifetime spent on a plane, all you want to do is grab your bags from the baggage claim and get the you-know-what out of the airport. But did you realize that so many others had the same exact color suitcase as you? You may think yours is unique, but the exhaustion and jet lag that results from long flights tends to dull even the sharpest of minds. Make it easy on yourself. Buy cheap spool of ribbon at the local fabric store. Cut several six to eight inch strands and tie a tightly-tied bow around the handle of each of your bags. Your bag will be much easier to spot and will stand apart from the crowd. If there are more than one of you traveling together, make sure everyone has the same color ribbon. That way, if you see a friend's bag come 'round the corner before they do, you can grab it, cutting down on the time for all of you.
Just In Case
Luggage gets lost. It stinks, but it happens. If it happens to you, make sure you're prepared. Keep the following things in your carry-on bag: A change of underwear, a fresh shirt, any medications you take regularly, a travel toothbrush/toothpaste, and any other travel toiletries you might find necessary if you're stuck without your belongings. In most cases, the airline will find your luggage and deliver it to your hotel within 24-48 hours. Until then, you will undoubtedly feel like a new person after a shower and a change of clothes.
Exchange Before You Depart
If traveling abroad, exchange the majority of your currency before you leave. Not only does this reduce the hassle once you get overseas, but you will likely save yourself from being charged lots of fees which target tourists like yourself.
Call your Credit Card Companies!
Credit card companies are surprisingly good about watching out for unusual activity on your accounts. If ,one day, your spending habits go from filling your gas tank and buying groceries to buying a $1,000 African Mask or even larger-than-normal single purchase here at home, there is a chance they will either try to reach you to confirm these charges (which might not be possible if you're not home!) or suspend your card for security reasons. I purchased a laptop here in my hometown two years ago resulting in a $1,100 charge on my credit card and their security folks called me immediately to confirm the purchase.
Get a hold of your credit card companies and let them know you'll be traveling. Be prepared with lots of information to verify – billing address, card information, pre-established security questions/answers, dates you'll be traveling, even the most recent charges on your statement – to confirm you are you and not a thief.
Do You Speak English?
This is a biggie when you're destination is non-English speaking. Try – at LEAST try – to learn a few key phrases of your destination country's language before you leave. It doesn't matter how bad you are. Your global brothers and sisters will appreciate the effort, believe me. Invest in a short, $10 phrasebook from your local bookstore. Learn the basics:
"Where's the restroom?"
"Please" and "Thank You"
"Two Beers Please" (hah, that one's optional!).
Keep your phrasebook handy for any other situations that come about. This can be especially handy in times of an emergency.
Do most shop keepers/locals in big foreign cities know at least some English? Sure. But it is a sign of respect to those you come in contact with to show you've at least made the effort to communicate with them in their own tongue. If you are going to be traveling in more remote places, it is likely no one will speak English, and if they do, it is likely very basic – too basic if you need serious help. So, you may not have a choice BUT to know the native tongue! Don't be afraid to mispronounce something, they will know what you meant almost every time. Even if you do mess up, they won't laugh at you! Don't be bashful! Let the locals see that you're trying and they will not only be more likely to help you, but will respect you as well.
Mind Your Manners
Don't give someone else a reason to give you a hard time or even involve local law enforcement. Be considerate of others at all times, especially of the locals of the area in which you're staying. While this seems like common sense, it's easy to take the laissez-fare attitude of "I'm on vacation! Who cares!" If you plan on consuming alcohol, do so without impairing your judgment/memory/motor functions. Remember – you are far away from home. You will have to make it back to your hotel room at some point. If highly intoxicated, this becomes difficult to do successfully.
Also keep in mind that when traveling in other parts of the world, drinking is a normal part of growing up. It's an accepted part of of the culture. So college fraternity drink-till-you-drop-and-keep-the-neighbors-awake atmospheres aren't always as widely accepted. In fact, it's sometimes how other cultures know how to spot the tourist.
However, if you're in a European pub watching the home team score the victory point, then shouting, laughing, cheering, and other boisterous behavior is to be expected.
So, bottom line, use your best judgment. Adapt to your surroundings. Don't make your own rules. You need to have your wits about you to speak coherently enough to ask for help/directions (and often times, in another language). If you make the locals mad, then you'll likely be on your own.
USE YOUR HEAD!
Safety is key when you're traveling. Always keep a business card of the hotel at which you're staying in case you get lost; this way, your hotel's name, address, and phone number is always with you. This becomes especially handy if you have to hail a cab to get back to your place of lodging. If you're sketchy on the local language, then just hand the cab drive the card, and you're off! If no cabs are available, you can at least show one of the locals the business card, and they can better assist you. Use bus/subway transport where available. In most cases, it is safe and well-lit with others trying to get around town just like you. Again – the local citizens can be your best friends!
If you're in a group, make sure someone is always with you. Do NOT roam by yourself. Male, female, it doesn't matter. Make sure to set a landmark/location at which to meet up immediately if you realize you've been separated. If this isn't possible, revert back to the hotel business card for backup. If you are traveling alone, navigate your way using public, well-lit streets and/or use trusted methods of public transport where available. Don't get into someone's personal car or allow anyone who's not a cab driver to take you ANYWHERE (again, common sense).
The cold truth in todays world is that some people of certain backgrounds, ethnicities, etc. have become targets in some areas of the world. Don't make it any easier on those who would make you their text target if they could.
Traveling can be GREAT fun if you just use a little common sense. So, in summation…
Pack lightly and intelligently. Use common sense. Don't make yourself a target. Be an ambassador.
…and, of course, have a great time!