Quite often I get asked about travelling tips, so in no particular order, here are my favourites. This is a long post, so feel free to TL;DR it.
Money and phone
- Leave the Traveller’s Cheques at home. Nobody takes these anymore, not even the banks. Cash or cash works best.
- As for cash, every major airport that you land at will have an ATM, where you can draw the local currency as soon as you land, you’ll have that cold local beer or wine in your hand in no time. Don’t be suckered into buying it at home before you leave, you’ll pay a premium.
- Speaking of ATMs, they aren’t called ATMs everywhere. Automated Teller Machines are a North American term. Use Google Translate to find out what ‘bank or banking machine’ is in the language of the country you are landing and use that term when asking for assistance. Most are clearly and plainly marked and look just like the ones from home. On that note, don’t assume banking machines are everywhere, like at home. [Ditto getting extra cash at the checkout.] Pretend ATMs are like clean toilets – when you see one, use it, even if you don’t have an urgency.
And it’s not Interac – it’s Debit outside of our known world.
- Remember to contact your bank and credit cards and let them know you’ll be travelling. They’ll want your itinerary, so have it handy when you call. I always say I’ll be home one day later, just incase of a delay or cancellation. Nothing like already being in a foul mood because your flight is delayed 8 hours, only to find out you can’t even buy a f*%^&$g glass of wine because your card is denied.
- Yes, your debit card will work around the world but only for cash withdrawal at a bank machine. It will spit out the local currency and charge your account in your home currency. Usually there will be a small charge plus the exchange rate. It will not work at the point of purchase, like we use Interac at home, so don’t even try.
- Most countries have daily maximum withdraws – they don’t give a rip if your bank allows $1000/day back in Canada, some countries have only $300/day and sometimes countries change it to stop a run on the banks, so be prepared. Don’t argue with the bank lady, she doesn’t make the rules. Be prepared if you have a big purchase. I have two accounts for this reason alone. If a country has a small daily amount, it’s per account, not card. So I take the small daily amount out of each account. Not always, but it will work in a pinch.
Cash is king – never assume you can use your credit cards, especially at Bed & Breakfasts, boutique stores, markets and restaurants.
- If you do use your credit card, be prepared to be charged a fee by the proprietor. Yes, this is legal. It ranges between 2-3%. (Not including the fee the credit card will charge you, along with the exchange rate.)
- Never give your card to the waiter/sales person if they have to walk away with it. Ask them to bring the machine to you or walk with them. One of the places my card has been compromised – twice – was the UK. Don’t assume you are safe in any country.
- You MUST have a PIN card to use a credit card for shopping in Europe. If you still don’t have a new card with a PIN, get one before you head over otherwise it will be useless. American’s always get caught with this as their cards don’t have PINs for some reason.
- Never, ever, ever, leave your backpack, purse, bag, or whatever hanging on the back of your chair. Always place it in front of you, even on the floor if necessary.
And it’s not cell phone – outside of Canada and the USA, it’s a mobile phone. (Ask for a cell phone and they’ll think you’ve been in jail.)
- Turn your locked North American roaming phone off and pick up a cheap unlocked phone with a SIM card at the first convenience, usually at the larger airports. You’ll be amazed how cheap they are here – the phone and SIM, which would easily last your whole trip won’t even be $30. You can add a data plan and it still won’t be more than say $50. Don’t fall for buying an unlocked phone and SIM card for $80 before you leave, buy them here – unless of course you want to pay double.
- If you have an unlocked phone, just buy the SIM card, mine was less than $20, which included 1000 free minutes and 1GB of data. You can top up minutes/data just about anywhere; grocery stores, tobacco stores, corner stores, gas stations, internet cafes, etc.. Japan has these cool WiFi boxes you can rent right from the airport, for $40/two weeks and voilà – unlimited WiFi everywhere you go – if you use Skype, no need for a SIM card. Absolutely no reason to come home to a $500+ cell phone bill for roaming charges anymore.
- When you see a price overseas, especially in Europe, it’s the total price – they don’t add the sales tax at the checkout till like we do at home. The VAT (Value Added Tax) can be up to 21% in some countries, so it’s best just to hide it within the price tag. I actually like this policy; just tell me bottomline what it will cost me, with no surprises at the checkout or when the bill arrives. If you look at your receipt, most will break the costs down for you, especially at restaurants, hotels and department stores. But honestly, best not to look.
What to pack
- Clothes. Coin laundry is few and far between. Pack enough to wear your whole trip, remembering in the summer it is very humid and sticky, with most clothes worn once. Most laundry services, if you do find one, will insist they do it and you pick it up in a few hours. These will be in the residential areas and not the tourist areas, so ask your hotel staff where to find them. Expect about $15/load, including soap. Ironing will be extra. Although expensive, but cheaper than buying new, in an emergency get the hotel to do it for you but only if you have at least two days before departure. (Irons are not in every hotel room, so pack non-wrinkly stuff. I once was charged $15 to have a blouse ironed by the hotel.)
Clothes. European sizes are smaller than what we use at home, so if you are a medium at home, you will be a large here. And in Asia you’ll be an extra-large. It’s very demoralizing and you will quickly learn to hate shopping abroad.
- Clothes. Leave your exercise/workout/yoga pants at home or for the hotel. Europeans, Japanese, etc. dress appropriately and you’ll be out of place in your yoga pants when everyone else is wearing pants with a zipper. Leggings are considered what you wear under your skirt or dress, they are not pants and people will giggle at you for walking around in your underwear. Jeans are good. Khaki’s are good. Capri’s are good. You don’t have to wear a tuxedo everywhere but wear proper clothes, please and thanks.
- Clothes. Modest clothes. You might find that your shorts or flip flops are not considered proper in a casino, church or out for a meal after 7. Some church tours forbid bare arms. Some cultures don’t allow tight clothing on women. Some places insist on collars for the men. Ladies, a scarf can become a shawl in a pinch when you are wearing sleeveless. Men, leave your shorts for the beach; polo type shirts are cool and welcomed everywhere. Be prepared to be flexible and considerate. Leave the plunging necklines for the bathing suit and pool.
- Good walking shoes, not including Crocs or big honking runners. You’ll find you have to walk a lot, more than you do at home. Good walking shoes are a must but please no serious training runners. (Sketchers are okay. Nice white tennis runners are okay. Obvious trainers will be out of place.)
Your medications. Never assume you can get Advil or Tylenol outside of North America. Or your regular medication. Always carry it on the plane, never pack it in your luggage.
- On that note, bring lots of Advil or Tylenol, allergy meds, Gravol, Tums/Rolaids and Polysporin. You can’t get those easily over here and won’t find Tylenol, Gravol or Polysporin anywhere. Most countries you have to buy common ailment relief in pharmacies, not grocery stores or gas stations like we do at home. I once had a smashing headache at the Frankfurt airport and couldn’t find one store to buy an Advil or Tylenol. They are only sold in pharmacies in Germany. Remember to never assume and be prepared.
- Bring plug-in adapters from home. They are quite a bit cheaper at home and easier to find. Most luggage stores have a great selection. Unless you are bringing a curling iron or some such small personal appliance, no need for a voltage adaptor. Most electronics (laptop, iPad, phones, etc.) have built-in voltage adapters and you just need to bring the plug adaptor. Know the difference! If you are not sure, just bring your cord to an electronic store and ask them. But 99% of cords for electronics these days have a voltage adaptor or USB plugs into a voltage adaptor. (Hint: If your cord has a big square box or plugs into a big square plug-in, like the square Apple ones you just need a plug-in adaptor, not a voltage adaptor.)
- Protein bars. Don’t be surprised when lunch doesn’t start until after 2 or dinner restaurants aren’t even open until 8. Or your tour overruns because of traffic. When you are starving, gum won’t do it. Protein bars are easy to pack, light to carry around and difficult to find outside of North America. Also, if you have an early morning, they are a quick breakfast. They can also replace that whatchamacallit you ordered at supper but couldn’t quite finish.
- Batteries. Batteries are very expensive in Europe and elsewhere. Also, you may not know what you are getting – they could already be expired by the time you buy them. Bring what you need.
Never assume you can buy what you need when you get there. If you can’t live without it, for example your favourite toothpaste, bring it.
- Forewarned: Airlines within Europe are bag weight crazy. The agents get commission on every bag that they charge that’s overweight, so most do, even if it’s only over by 0.5kg. The majority of airlines have a purchased baggage allowance of 23kg, but some are only 20kg. Always double check the baggage restrictions online and bring a travel bag weigh scale from home.
- If you find yourself ill on your trip, first go to a pharmacist. They are trained and can legally prescribe basic medications. For example, swimmer’s ear, sinus infection, strep throat, digestive problems or any other type of general health complaint. Only after their suggestion doesn’t work, then seek out a doctor. If you are seriously ill, first call your health insurance company for instructions on where to go or who to see that will speak English. If you don’t, you could be denied reimbursement or coverage. Obviously, if you are in an accident, go where the ambulance takes you and have someone from the hospital call them ASAP. (They probably will anyway, to make sure you are covered.)
- In Europe you will find most things closed on Sundays. If a family run store is open on a Saturday, it will most likely be closed on a Monday. Restaurants are the exception, open 7 days a week in the tourist areas and closed once a week (usually during the week) in the villages.
- Eating times vary from country to country, be prepared for breakfast to be over by 9:30 or not start until 11. General rule of thumb is the warmer a country is, the later they eat the final meal of the day. In Spain it is quite common to eat supper at 10:00 pm or later in the summer.
- You can drive with your North American driver’s licence in most countries, all you need to do is go to the CAA or AAA and get an international licence, which is basically the translation of your DL in different languages. It ranges from $35 and up and is good for a year, just bring your DL and two passport photos. Most car rental agencies won’t even ask to see it, as long as your DL is in Latin lettering. The police will ask to see it. (At least that’s what I’ve heard.)
- If you are going to the UK, you will be limited to automatic vehicles only.
- If you are going to Japan or Asia, just don’t drive. Cabs and public transport is cheap and the way to go.
- If you are going to any third world country, just don’t. See #5 above.
- If you don’t know how to drive a standard, learn because even though you can request an automatic transmission car, it’s never guaranteed. Chances are, you’ll get a standard. Every time.
Food tastes different abroad, even your favourites. It’s part of the experience. Don’t whine when your hotdog doesn’t taste like they make it back home. Nobody cares.
- There’s no such thing as free refills abroad. Not for coffee, tea or pop.
- You’ll find wine and beer are much cheaper and spirits or spirit drinks more expensive than back at home. Adjust accordingly.
- Water isn’t automatically served at restaurants overseas, you will have to ask for it if you want some with your meal. If you don’t want to pay for water, ask specifically for tap water, otherwise you will get a bottle water. (Note: I always get the bottled water unless in places I know they have great water standards, like Holland or Germany. France, Spain, Greece and Italy are surprisingly not tap water recommended, mostly due to old piping systems.)
- Sure, see the big tourist item but then walk three or four blocks away to get the authentic, better food, service and experience for much cheaper.
- In Holland, a coffee shop is where they smoke pot. A café is where you drink coffee. Know the difference. If you are unsure, look for the green triangle on the door, that’s the marijuana licence.
In most places abroad, children are welcomed into pubs and bars but they cannot order or drink alcohol. Ditto dogs and cats.
- Speaking of dogs and cats, don’t be alarmed when you see them in the malls or restaurants; as long as they are on a leash, it’s allowed.
- Tips: Every country is different, so check. In Japan a tip is an insult, so no tipping allowed. In Europe it’s any where from simply rounding the bill up to 10%, depending on country and venue. Some places automatically add a tip, so check the bill. Africa is the same as Europe, check first so you don’t insult them by leaving a tip or too little. But generally it’s nothing like the out of control tipping in North America.
Oh, and one more thing…
Always try to book yourself, directly with the hotel/airline/tour, etc.. I know travel agencies don’t like to hear this, but when you are in a delay or cancellation situation, the hotel/airline/tour, etc. won’t deal with you, they will refer you to the booking agent. And guess what? It’s 3 A fu&*%$g M in the morning back home. Your booking agent is sleeping… And the hotel clerk isn’t budging… and the next plane out is already boarding.
But, if you had booked directly with the hotel/airline/tour, etc., they’ll gladly rebook you, re-route you and generally give a little bit more shit about you because they consider you their customer. I know it shouldn’t matter, but it does overseas. They will consider the booking agent the customer, not you. (Customer service overseas is a whole separate discussion.)
Booking directly with the hotel/airline/tour, etc. is easy and quick. Just do it. (But DON’T waste your travel agent’s time, get them to gather all the information then book on your own. They work for commission and that’s not only stealing, it’s just rude. Google is your friend – they don’t care how much time you waste or who you book with in the end.)
My dream trip is to show up at the KLM desk in Amsterdam and say, “I want to go on the next flight out, as long as my passport/visa will allow.” And my own personal caveat, just to make things interesting, is that I can only bring 10 items with me. Then repeat at least twice, with the last flight my flight home. Still working on my list of 10 things. When I think it’s complete, I’ll do a post about the 10 essential travel things.
Do you have any general travel and packing tips that I didn’t mention here? Feel free to chime in, in the comments area below. Or if you think this is the most brilliant travel information you have ever read in your life, share it with the world – on Facebook, Twitter, whatever. I’m not picky.
And thanks for making it all the way to the end. 😀