Friday, April 20, 2012

Travel Preparation

I have had the good fortune to have been able to do a lot of traveling. By plane, bus, train, car, boat, and foot. You wouldn't think so, as it doesn't seem like most people from Wisconsin tend to leave there.

But I have been through it all, from the lost luggage to the gate changes to missed and cancelled flights, to planes being nothing actually fazes me anymore. I have come out wiser, and learned a few tricks along the way also. Traveling isn't rocket science, but it can be scary and overwhelming if you don't know what you are doing. Hopefully I can help you alleviate some of that fear!

I am actually going to be attending an educational conference in Paris this summer, so I am pretty pumped for that. I speak French fluently, and this will be my second time back, so I am excited to explore more that I haven't seen, eat lots of yummy food, and reunite with old friends. Without further ado, here are are some tips! This is everything I wish someone would have told me, and that I didn't have to find out the hard way!

Before your trip:

*Get a passport early. The current wait is a bit of a long one. Even if you aren't sure you will be traveling internationally, you will have one on hand just in case, and it's good for something like 11 years. No need to rush to get it then if the opportunity arises! Check out more information here.

*Plan ahead. I cannot stress this enough. If you are well prepared for your trip, you will not be stressed out or worried about what you forgot, what you need to do, etc. Start with a simple timeline or checklist, such as when you will pack, what you will pack, when you will check in for your flight, etc. down to the last detail.

*Make a copy of all of your itinerary: your flights, hotel information, ID (Passport if you are going international), visas, and all other relevant, important documents. Keep these in a safe place, like your carry on bag or suitcase. Just in case you get mugged, which I hope doesn't happen, you have backups of all that you need.

*Let someone back home know where you are going: flight info, hotel info, etc., in case something happens to you, they know where to look or ask for you. 

*Do your homework. Learn the language (at least enough to get by) on CD or take a class, and grab a book and study up on the culture and practices of the country you are visiting. This is just common courtesy, so that you know a bit about where you are going and what to expect, but also so you can avoid making a cultural faux pas. For example, a thumbs up in America does not translate the same in France. It means, "Up yours." I wouldn't want to make that grave mistake! People native to that country will respect that you are making an effort, and will be friendlier and more apt to help you out in general.

*Research exchange rates. Change some of your currency over before your trip, if possible. This will save you hassle, and also keep you from getting ripped off.

*Buy an international phone card. If you can't have your cell phone on because calls would be crazy expensive, and you don't have access to a computer, a phone card will do the trick to call home. Check the back of the card for countries that apply. These are available everywhere, and I usually get one from Walgreens.

*Buy an international adapter or converter. What's that? It's for plugging in your electronics, because electrical outlets are not like they are here in the U.S. everywhere else in the world. An adapter simply is a plug that fits your electronic plug prongs on one side, and the other is designed to go into a wall for power. This is ideal for charging a phone, camera battery, etc. A converter converts the power of more powerful plug in electronics (hairdryers, electric razors, laptops, etc.). American appliances run on 110 volts, while European appliances are 220 volts. (These numbers can vary slightly — for example, 120 instead of 110 volts in the US.) Most newer travel accessories are "dual-voltage," which means they work on both American and European current. If you see a range of voltages printed on the item or its plug (such as "110–220"), you're OK in Europe.
*Check on your flight times, and check in 24 hours before your flight. You can avoid the hassle of standing in line to check in at the airport for the most part, and print your boarding pass at home. If you need to check luggage, however, you will have to stand in line to check it, but talking with an airline representative may get you ahead in the line if you have already checked in.

*Limit your liquids (shampoo, toothpaste, etc.). This is for multiple reasons. One, you can't take anything more than 3 oz in your carry on bag. You can view the guidelines here. If you do, TSA will take it from you and either chuck it in the garbage or make you check it into your luggage. Two, you don't want anything liquid exploding or leaking in your checked luggage. If you must have liquids, put them in a plastic Ziploc or shopping back, seal them tightly, and try to keep them in a separate pocket or area of your suitcase, away from clothes. If you need water to drink, buy it after you go through security at the airport. Otherwise, TSA will make you chuck it. I've had TSA make me throw out lotion, shampoo, mustard (ugh, that one was sooo sad)...

*Budget. Figure out in advance roughly about how much you want to spend on food, lodging, travel expenses, ground transportation, souvenirs, etc. Have some emergency money on hand or in the bank if you need it. Things you can get cheap, like shampoo, you can always buy on the other side.

*Pack a small carry on bag with the essentials: clean undergarments, a sweater or jacket, snacks, a change or two of clothes, walking shoes, medicines you take daily, etc. In case your checked luggage gets lost, you will have some options for hygiene, until it is located and returned to you.

*Get enough sleep. The time difference may screw up your sleep schedule, so being as rested as possible will help keep your nerves more calm also. I know, it's hard to sleep when you are excited, but try!

*Get a check up at the doctor's office. You may need special vaccinations or medicines, depending on where you are going in the world. Especially with trying new food, or water from a different country, you may need anti-diarrheal medicine if your stomach is upset.

*At restaurants, avoid getting ice in your drink, tap water, and fresh vegetables/fruit from countries with water that your body will not be used to. The ice will be made from the tap water, and the veggies/fruits will more than likely have been washed in it. Stick to bottled water, and well cooked food. Oh, and buffets. Stay far away from those!

*Always take any and all medicines in your carry on bag. If you are traveling with needles or liquid medicine (or both!), bring a travel letter signed by your doctor, so that you won't get any grief from airport security in other countries.

*Pack lightly. Easier said than done, I know. I am always guilty of overpacking, because I like to have options. Rick Steeves, the travel guru, had a great tip that I love--you should pack your suitcase, then walk around with it in your own city (before your trip) for an hour. If you are worn out after the hour of lugging it, it's probably going to be too heavy for your trip. Leave room in your suitcase for souvenirs, or bring an extra empty bag along. Consider that you may be on a foot a bit, and so you wouldn't want to be lugging heavy luggage all over the place. I actually would recommend to not check luggage, if you can carry it on, because you won't have to worry about it getting lost, and you don't have to wait for it to arrive on the other end. Plus, with all the airline fees, you won't have to pay anything extra. Also, roll your clothes. Sounds kinda weird, but it will save you a TON of space. I used to do this for summer camp, when I had to pack for 3 weeks. It's the most efficient way to pack a lot of things into a little space. See the pic below:

*Things to not forget to pack: chargers for your electronics (camera battery, phone, etc.), good walking shoes, money belt, passport, warm clothes

*Mark all your bags with your name, address, and phone number and email, inside and out. In case your bag gets lost or stolen, you have a way to get it back to you.

The day of your trip:

*Arrive early. For domestic flights, you have to check in at least 45 minutes before your departure, and be at the gate at least 15 minutes beforehand. For international flights, I think it's more like 2 hours. If you are early, grab some food, read a magazine or book, and settle in and wait for your flight to board.

*Bring snacks. You never know if you will get delayed, and a few snacks can tide you over on those long trips. Especially with airlines charging fees for everything these days, your wallet will thank you also.

*Be aware. Don't blast your music in your headphones while you are waiting for your flight, or you may miss a gate change announcement or other important information about your flight.

*Bring Clorox wipes and hand sanitizer. I swear to you that I am not a germaphobe, but when it comes to planes, those things are dirty. I always wipe down my tray top to bottom, front to back right when I sit down. The air is enclosed and limited once that cabin door is shut, so germs are hovering from sick people. Blech!

*If you are in for a long flight, make sure to get up and stretch and move around from time to time. This will prevent you from getting blood clots. An easy exercise for your feet and legs is to trace the alphabet in air with your left foot, and then your right. Do this about every 2 hours. Do knee lifts in your seat. Point and wiggle your toes. Stretch your arms out. Get up and walk around. Stand in the galley or next to an empty seat for a few minutes. And also, drink lots of water or juice in-flight to stay hydrated.

During your trip:

*Don't forget to take lots of pictures! This is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and you may never make it back. With digital cameras, there's never a shortage of memory space.

*If you forgot anything, buy it abroad (toiletries, clothes, etc.) 

*Double check that your hotel room door locked behind you, just to keep those valuables safe!

*Check in back home--someone somewhere is worrying if you made it in all right.

*Ladies, don't carry a purse. It's better to have an out of sight money belt or purse for your money, passport, etc., so that nobody can "ninja" rob you on the train or anywhere in public.

*Don't travel alone at night. Go with friends, and stay in safe, well-lit areas. I don't want you to be kidnapped and sold into slavery, especially if your dad is not Liam Neeson.

*Be friendly to new people but not TOO friendly. In other words, don't let them know if you are alone, where you are staying, etc. for your own safety. 

*Be open-minded. Don't be afraid to try new things and new foods! You just never know what you will end up liking, plus it makes for a great memory.

I hope you enjoyed my tips! Stay tuned for some clever travel tricks coming soon. What have you learned from traveling?

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