As regular readers know, I love to travel and have been fortunate to go on many adventures around the world. What fascinates me the most besides seeing new sights and tasting new food, are the things I learn along the way. It is eye opening to view different ways of living, exotic flavors, and both ancient and unusual customs, which have helped me gain new perspectives and have made me a better traveler. I want to share some of the practical and surprising travel tips and tidbits I’ve picked up from my journeys to spread awareness and help you in your travels too. There’s more things than I can fit in one article, so stay tuned for another post later. I’ve divided things up into a few main categories.
Logistics And Pre-Travel Preparations
Set reminders to renew your passport 8 months before it expires.
Do yourself a favor right now and check when your passport is set to expire. Then set a reminder about eight months before the expiration date to get it renewed. Most countries won’t let you through customs if your passport is expiring within six months. I like to plan ahead and know that I can hop on a plane and go overseas at any time, so I always renew my passport a couple months before it falls into the six month remainder period. It’s also easier to renew a passport that hasn’t already expired.
If you don’t want to pay for expedited renewal fees, having an extra cushion of time before you need to leave the country comes in real handy. Remember you have to mail in your existing passport or turn it in to an embassy during the renewal process. I had a colleague get stuck in the renewal process for two months because of a typo that “lost” his renewal application, so give yourself plenty of time before you need to travel in case a hiccup comes up.
Don’t get turned around after a 14 hour flight. Check visa requirements in advance!
It sounds obvious to check for visas, but it’s easy to forget when you’re busy with work and distracted with the excitement of escaping to see far away lands. I was planning a trip to Vietnam, all giddy about visiting Halong Bay and Hanoi and kept thinking in the back of my head to check if I needed a visa, but I kept forgetting.
I finally found dates and flights I wanted and was almost ready to click “complete” on my airfare order when thank goodness I remembered in a flash to check the visa entry requirements. To my surprise, visas are in fact required for US citizens in Vietnam, even for a short duration less than 30 days. Thank goodness I caught that before booking nonrefundable airfare. While I could have gone to the Vietnam embassy to apply for a visa, I was crunched for time so I ended up changing my travel plans and went to Japan instead.
Order an international travel adapter online before you leave.
After a trip to Spain caught me off guard when I went to charge my cellphone – I totally forgot that most countries have different electrical plugs than we do in the US and my hotel didn’t have a converter – I made the smart decision to buy an international travel adapter. It’s bulkier than just buying separate individual adapters for a single region, but it’s a lot more convenient because I don’t have to figure out in advance if I have one that will work or if I need to buy a new one. Now I just pack my universal adapter in my bag and I’m good to plug in my devices anywhere in the world.
Check the CDC website now if you’re headed abroad.
If you’re traveling to a new country, it’s always a good idea to check the CDC website for any health warnings before you go. If you make an appointment with your doctor like I did for travel vaccines, they’re simply going to direct you to the CDC website if you haven’t finalized your itinerary.
Not all health insurance policies cover travel vaccinations and medications, but it’s worth the expense to be prepared so your trip isn’t ruined by unexpected illness. I was able to get an antibiotic Z-pack for $10, a month supply of malaria pills for a $20, and a Hepatitis A vaccination for $0 thanks to my insurance.
Money And Credit Cards
Credit cards with chips are convenient.
When I started traveling to Europe about six years ago, I was surprised how my credit card wouldn’t work at a lot of places including train stations and tourist attractions simply because it didn’t have a chip on it. I’d never seen a credit card like that in the States so I found the whole thing quite bizarre. Fortunately my debit card worked in ATM machines and I had enough cash to get by but that was all new to me. Now one of my two primary credit cards has a chip on it, so I don’t have to worry anymore when I go abroad.
Check for last minute coupons for currency exchange.
If I have enough time, I usually like to exchange US Dollars for foreign currency right before my trip. It saves time at the airport when I’ve got my hands full or am running to catch a connection. I randomly came across a coupon for 50% off the transaction fee on my way to find the exchange company the last time I went and plan to do so from now on. It’s worth there aren’t any available, but it’s worth checking.
Check with your credit card company on international fees and charges.
I have to primary credit cards. One charges 3% on all foreign transactions but my other one charges 0%. If you travel a lot like me, it’s worth trying to find a credit card that has low to no fees on non-US purchases if you want to be able to use your credit card abroad.
Even though my credit companies say I don’t have to put travel alerts on my cards, I do it anyway. It’s just so much easier not getting stuck with declined purchases and having to get the cards unblocked. It takes just a couple minutes with customer service on the mainland before you leave and I do it every time before I travel.
Airports And Airlines
Take both arm wrests if you’re stuck in the middle seat and don’t feel guilty about it.
It wasn’t until I read a WSJ article a few years ago that I realized it’s common practice for the person stuck in the middle seat to get both arm wrests. Sweet! Normally I book the aisle or the window, but I’ve definitely ridden my fair share of flights stuck in the middle. Now I have no guilt taking both arm wrests to help make the flight a little more bearable being squeeze in between strangers, even if I am much smaller than both of them.
Look before reclining your seat to be polite.
I picked up this courtesy after noticing people doing it. It only takes 2 seconds, but is a nice gesture. All you’re really doing is making sure the area is clear for your seat to go back so you don’t accidentally bash into somebody or knock someone’s drink over their laptop or something.
Some airports have security checkpoints at the gate. I wish more would do this!
The weirdest thing happened when I was trying to board a flight home from Amsterdam one year. I was walking to my gate when I realized I hadn’t gone through any security. How odd I wondered. What I soon realized is that the airport had security checkpoints at individual gates! I’m not sure if the entire airport is setup that way, but it was for my flight. I think it’s genius actually because you get to where you need to be so much faster and the attendants can see you waiting in the security line if you’re running late so they are much more inclined to wait for you.
Think twice and look around you before taking pics at airports and on planes.
I read an article recently about a guy that wasn’t allowed to board his flight because he had taken pictures of some passengers and a crew member when he was in line to board the plane. I’ve done that tons of times before simply because I’m excited about my trip and want to have pics for my blog. Little did I know that some airlines are really strict about this and can turn you away if they feel threatened in any way. Some don’t even want you to take pictures while inside the plane either. Long story short, if they ask you to delete your pictures, do not refuse and if you feel super inclined to take pictures, do so discreetly.
Heads up – old planes still exist for long international flights even on big airlines.
I’m not tied to any particular airline. When I need to book a trip I usually just browse Kayak for the best prices and shortest duration itineraries. While I used to dread long international flights, they really aren’t that bad at all nowadays with personal in-flight entertainment, USB ports, electrical outlets, WiFi, and all the apps and games we can cram into our personal devices.
So I was a bit surprised when I took an international flight to Asia on United and the plane didn’t have any personal monitors in the headrests nor did it have any USB chargers. I felt like I was back in the 90s. So if those things are important to you, especially on long flights, you should research what is and isn’t available on each airline/flight number before booking.
Search for hidden electrical outlets on planes and trains.
I’m glad that airports are starting to have more charging stations and the majority I’ve been through all have free WiFi. But I’ve also been on several trips where not a single electrical outlet was in sight or the few that were visible were already being used.
Thank goodness airlines are offering more outlets on planes too. But the trick is knowing where to look as signs aren’t always posted. The most common place I’ve seen outlets on planes is below the divider in between seats.
Sometimes trains have them too. The Amtrak’s I’ve been on have them in plain sight on the walls. But other trains like BART, in the San Francisco Bay Area, only has hidden outlets below a couple seats on each car. A nice passenger told me about them when I was riding with my laptop once.
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