A few weeks ago we discussed how to plan your vacation including booking flights and hotels as well as the activities you’ll experience while on your vacation. The next step in the travel experience is preparing to travel which is a step many eager travellers skip only to discover when they travel the value of such preparation. I’ll discuss these items in several timeframes: weeks ahead, days ahead and while in transit.
Weeks in Advance
Easily the most important item you need to look into when preparing for international travel is to look up the immigration, health and other regulatory requirements associated with the countries you are travelling in and through. For instance, if you visit a country affected by Yellow Fever, you’ll need to be vaccinated before going not only to protect yourself from illness but even to allow yourself to travel in the future as many countries require proof of vaccination before you visited the yellow fever country. Start by visiting your government’s Home Office website to look out for travel advisories for the countries you intend on visiting. For instance, before travelling to South Africa last year, I visited Foreign Affairs Canada’s website on the country which provided the following information:
As a final measure, you should consult Travel Centre, a resource put together by IATA, the organization responsible for international air travel which allows you to plug in the specifics of your travel and receive tailored travel advice.
Another key thing to plan for in advance is travel insurance which can cover medical, trip interruption, car rentals and even lost baggage! You’ll want to see if you’re already covered by your employer, home/auto insurance or even credit cards you currently carry. For instance, my American Express Gold card provides up to $5,000,000 in medical coverage on trips under 15 days. If not, you’ll want to shop around to find the most comprehensive insurance at the lowest cost. Sometimes it’s cheaper to purchase blanket insurance that covers you over a fixed period of time (i.e. travel up to 4 times in a given year) rather than to purchase it on a trip by trip basis. At a minimum you should have good medical insurance before you leave your home since medical bills can easily cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, especially if you are travelling in countries with unreasonably high medical costs such as the United States.
Finally, you’ll want to make copies of key travel documents such as passports, driver’s license and credit cards (both front and back). I’d recommend storing these copies on a secure online storage platform like Dropbox or Evernote and also provide a copy to a close friend of relative. These copies will protect your tail in the event you lose them and are stranded in a foreign country. It’s much easier to get consular assistance abroad if you can pull up a scanned copy of your passport to show to the consulate!
Days in Advance
Approximately 2-3 days before you commence travel you’ll want to take care of several routine items travellers often put off to the last moment, when the options available to them are limited.
You’ll want to start by confirming the travel details you have in your travel planning spreadsheet (i.e. flights, hotel reservations, etc.) as those can sometimes change between you made the booking and when you actually travel. Visit the websites/agencies where you made the booking to confirm the details. Once everything is confirmed, you’ll want to print off all relevant itineraries (i.e. flight itineraries, hotel bookings, etc.) including the spreadsheet we put together earlier. You should print at least two copies: one for yourself and one for a relative/friend you can contact in the event of an emergency.
A common mistake many travellers make is failing to contact their financial institutions (i.e. banks and credit card companies) to let them know they are travelling. While many institutions now claim that this process is not necessary as they have advanced technology that can predict where you’ll be on a given day, in practice that technology doesn’t always work. You’ll want to let them know of the cities/countries you’ll be in and when you’ll be there. This also allows the financial institution to protect your card from unauthorized transactions from elsewhere. The last thing you want is to be stranded in a far flung country without access to cash or a credit card! You may also want to consider picking up a small amount of cash (i.e. around $100 USD in the currency of the country you’re travelling to) to have on hand as emergency cash in the event your cards don’t work. You can always spend that cash towards the end of your trip so that you won’t have any foreign currency on hand when you return from your travel.
Determining what items to pack and packing your bags for travel should be done a couple of days before you travel since the day of travel is always stressful with last minute changes and surprises. It’s very easy to forget an item when packing. Start by making a list of the items you’ll want to bring with you on the trip. This list should be exhaustive and include everything you need. It should also take into account that the more things you bring with you, the more challenging the travel experience will be since you’ll have bags to check and if you’re travelling a lot on your trip, you’ll be lugging those items with you wherever you go! The list should end up looking something like this:
On most trips I’d recommend taking two bags with you: one that fits under your seat and another that will fit in the overhead bin.
The first bag is small (could be a purse!) and contains items you cannot afford to lose such as medication, travel documents, expensive electronics like an iPad or laptop.Since you cannot afford to lose these items, they will be with you at all times whilst in transit and so they can’t be checked in. If you’re travelling for a short period of time (i.e. weekend) the bag could even have a day or two worth of clothing. This bag should easily fit under your seat since virtually all airlines allow you to bring at least one item to be stowed under the seat. The bag I use (and would recommend) for this purpose is Uniqlo's 3-Way bag.
The second bag is larger such as a hiker’s backpack or roller bag and contains items that are bulky and can be easily replaced such as clothing, toiletries, umbrellas, shoes, etc. While this bag can be checked in I would generally recommend against it in most cases since checking bags generally costs money (i.e. $25 each way), eats away at your vacation time since you have to spend time waiting in line to check a bag and waiting for the bag to arrive in the baggage carousel. This of course, is supposing your checked bag makes it to its final destination which isn’t a guarantee. Most importantly, checked bags limit your flexibility in travel. If your flight gets cancelled, you’re stuck at the airport with your checked luggage which must get transferred to the new flight. However, if you had carry ons you simply need to board your new flight. My recommendation would be to stick to a 40 litre hiker’s backpack which can easily fit in the overhead bins on most aircraft and makes it easy for you to make connections/transfers since you aren’t lugging around a heavy bag on wheels. If it's a short trip (1-2 weeks) I'll stick with my trust Uniqlo Boston bag since it's portable, has ample room and can easily fit anywhere as a carryon. Otherwise I'll use my Osprey Kestrel hiking bag (both pictured above).
Regardless of the bag I use, I always roll my clothes up which makes the most use of the available space and makes packing a breeze. Using this technique I was able to pack everything you see in the picture above in the Uniqlo Boston Bag and 3-Way bag.
Access to mobile data and calling has increasingly become an essential element of travel these days. Tools like Google Maps and Translate allow us to take the path less travelled and experience culture we otherwise would not have experienced. Unfortunately, for many of us overage and roaming costs make the use of smartphones abroad an impossible dream. Fortunately, there are ways to enjoy all your mobile features while abroad. Start by contacting your wireless provider to see if they have any roaming packages available to the countries you’re travelling to. Many carriers will charge a fixed rate (i.e. $10/day) to access the features of your plan while abroad. You may also want to look at competing wireless providers at home (i.e. T-Mobile in the US) that offer attractive roaming options and consider switching to them before travelling. Another option to consider is picking up a prepaid SIM card or phone at the country you’re travelling to which can cost as little as $10 and provide you with gigabytes of data! Information on prepaid SIM and phone plans can be found readily online on sites like TripAdvisor.
The final thing to look into before heading out the door is determining how you’ll get from your home to the airport. For many that involves simply driving to our local airport and parking at the airport. However, one thing to keep in mind are the costs of parking at the airport. Smaller, regional airports tend to offer attractive onsite parking rates while larger international airports tend to charge an exorbitant amount of as much as $50 per day. If you’re away for a week you could literally be spending hundreds of dollars on parking! In those cases you’ll want to look into third party parking providers that charge significantly less albeit at the cost of having to wait for a shuttle to pick you up from the parking spot. Other options include public transportation such as shuttle buses or trains. In some cases, it may make sense to pay for a cab leaving the driving to someone well rested!
While in Transit
Whenever I travel abroad, I try to put all purchases on my credit card for a couple of reasons. First, by avoiding withdrawing cash a large amount of cash I reduce the risk of coming home with a bunch of foreign currency I have to exchange back at a loss. Second, it’s safer to carry a limited amount of cash with you. Would you rather get pickpocketed with 20 Euros in your pocket or 500? While the credit cards may get stolen, you only need to make a few calls to your credit card companies to cancel them and get new ones shipped to you. Since credit cards in many countries offer 0 liability protection, you won’t be responsible for paying a dime of any fraudulent purchases made using your card. You’ll also avoid withdrawal fees many ATMs charge each and every time you use them.
While most countries accept credit card, not all vendors will, and even if they do it may be limited to a couple of brands (i.e. MasterCard) or an additional fee will be charged. Hence, the first thing you’ll want to do when you arrive at your final destination is to pick up cash. The amount of cash you take out will depend on how long you’re there and the country you are in. If you’re in a country where credit cards are predominant, I’d recommend taking out only about 25% of the money you’ll need, leaving the rest to your card. Otherwise, you’ll want to take out around 75% of the money you intend on spending in the country in question. Avoid going to currency exchange shops since they’ll often charge a markup of 10% or more for the privilege of converting your money. Instead, you’ll want to find an ATM from a major bank in the country (i.e. Barclay’s if you arrived in London) at the airport that accepts your credit/debit card. Using your debit card abroad is virtually the same as at home although you’ll want to follow the instructions carefully, as most ATMs will warn you of any ATM fees associated with the withdrawal. Generally, credit card companies will charge around a premium of 2.5% on top of the official exchange rate (although some cards waive those fees) which again is a bargain compared to the countless foreign currency businesses wanting to charge you 10% or more for that privilege.
From time to time ATMs and vendors who accept credit cards will offer to convert the foreign currency (i.e. Euros in France) to your currency (i.e. Canadian Dollars in my case). While on the surface, it may seem like a great deal as you’ll avoid those pesky foreign exchange fees charged by credit card companies, realize that these companies are often charging a premium as well, often as much as 10% on top of the official foreign exchange rate. Hence, you should insist on paying in the local currency.
Now that we’ve made all the necessary arrangements to get our trip off the ground from researching and booking travel to preparing for it, it’s time for the fun part: vacation! However before we do all of that we have to run the gauntlet that is modern travel from long lines at the check in desk to security, immigration, boarding the flight and making connections! It’s no wonder then that the travel experience of the vacation is the most stressful and uncertain! Over the next few of articles I’ll tackle these issues head on and provide you with a game plan to make your travel more enjoyable.