I’m addressing my comments primarily to first or second time foreign travelers. I have by no means been to all parts of the world, just Europe and the Middle East as well as most of the US and Canada. But my first bit of advice is to imagine you’re coming from a small town, never have traveled before, and go to NYC or LA or DC for the first time. I have actually had more problems in US cities than abroad. But you do have that Dorothy moment of “I’m not in Kansas anymore.”
Pack as little as possible for destinations abroad, then unpack half of it. Unless you’re a millionaire, you’re going to be lugging that stuff everywhere you go, so think about airplanes, trains, ships, (all of the screening in between), and getting it to your hotel(s). If (I speak as a woman) you are going for a one-week trip to Europe, a basic dress or two with matching jacket, a pair of slacks that match (or skirt) and depending on destination shorts is all you will need. If you have a fancy thing to go to, make the second dress special, but still keep the jacket to one. Wear one pair of very comfortable walkable, airport-removable shoes and have a nicer version for meals and events (or flipflops for beaches). Again to quote Rick Steves, you can always buy more when there, without the hassle of extra luggage. Plus it will be new! One time of overpacking long ago was all it took to teach me the joys of one suitcase (and to use airline terminology, one smaller item). I also find that when I pack lots of things to wear, I only wear a small proportion of them.
Never pack anything you need in checked luggage. I NEVER check luggage unless I have to and 2 of the 3 times I have (despite being a very FF), it was not lost but ended up on different flights. That can make for serious inconvenience, as it did for me when I did not get the suitcase till the 3rd day of a five-day trip to Israel. If you do check luggage, do not pack valuables, cameras, medications, basic grooming essentials, and at least one change of clothes/underwear. I will always go with carry-on after my second of the two ‘wrong plane’ experiences, except that I had no choice recently because I was injured and flying through four airports. (And, of course, the suitcase ended up on a different flight and was only returned to me the next day.)
Fit in. I can’t emphasize this enough. There is real truth to the maxim of “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.” This means learning basic phrases (available in almost all area guidebooks), which even mispronounced ingratiate you. If you are a woman older than 25, DO NOT WEAR sneakers but instead other comfortable shoes. This has been even more true for me in Europe than the Middle East. But when I was in Cairo I wore a hijab (head scarf) even though not required; I also did so in Istanbul (definitely not required). In Istanbul, I probably would’ve bought a burqa if I could have easily found one in order to fend off the carpet salesmen. They were ubiquitous, pushy, but not dangerous except regarding how much you spend and getting rid of them.
Pick local guides and cabdrivers carefully. For the former, ask the concierge; for the latter make sure they are metered cabs, which in many places are at cab stands. Negotiate the price before you get in. I read in one wrongheaded guidebook that in Athens you could simply hold up your hand in a forward salute. WRONG. One nice cab finally pulled over and the driver told me I should never do so as a woman alone, especially since I didn’t speak Greek. He told me to go to taxi stands.
If accosted as a woman, if you know any foreign language, scream or shout in it. This got me out of two situations in Italy and one in France. Scam artists think they have American tourists figured out, but not so much so for other Europeans. Gesture wildly. Yell polizia! Aiuta! Aidez-moi! loudly if you feel threatened. If you are in a place such as a park sitting on a bench, one of the tricks is for two men to sit down on either side of you. Grasp your belongings even tighter to you and leave immediately. Someone might also stop and say you’ve dropped something. Anything that seems like an attempt to distract you (from your belongings) probably is just that. Avoid swarms of children, who will often beg you for money. If you open your wallet, your camera or suitcase could be gone. Wave them off and shout if necessary.
Don’t be TOO cheerful. Americans are generally very well liked abroad (everywhere I’ve been), but we also have the reputation of always being cheerful and very polite. It is good to be polite, especially if you’re at the hotel, a nice restaurant, with a tour guide, etc. But do not speak to complete strangers – many will approach you offering help of some sort. Shake your head no or say no in the language or some other language and walk away.
Be very careful with ATM machines. Always notify both your credit card companies and bank if you plan to use cc’s or debit cards before you go. In Turkey, despite advance warning, they have had so much fraud that I could not withdraw money except through one of my credit cards. I was very angry at my bank when I got home since I had substantial fees as a result of cash withdrawals from credit cards. Many, especially in Turkey, are in public open spaces, and I actually chose to change money at commission points (which I never do) rather than using an ATM after the first time. Try to use the ATMs at banks or airports and always hold one hand over keypad as you punch in the code before withdrawing money (this happens in the US as well where spying devices have been put above keypads). But if safe and possible, DO use ATMs or credit cards for purchases because you get the exact exchange rate.
Prepare for your specific destination. Know where you’re going even if you’re taking a limo or cab. If a cab, negotiate the price in advance. Never, ever go for the guys inside the airport terminal who claim they will give you a great rate for a trip to e.g., Rome. They are ALWAYS more expensive than the regulated cabs. (And not nearly as interesting – in many places, including Italy and Egypt, I’ve ended up with a taxi driver who acted the part of tour guide as well for no extra charge). If you are going to a brand new place, consider arranging transfers in advance. I don’t usually do this, since it is usually much more costly, but I did so for Cairo and Tel Aviv.
Try not to use a map, at least obviously. While you will get some very helpful people, you might as well be shouting out loud that you don’t know the area. If you have to, duck into a doorway to do so. And if you do have a map, unless you are hopelessly lost, just say you don’t need help to those offering advice (nicely). I find in new places that plotting out where I want to go and how to get there while still in my hotel room is the best strategy and keeping a small map in a pocket if necessary.
Once in the hotel always lock all the locks when you are in the room. I also put a do not disturb sign on the outside when I leave and sometimes leave the television on. Use the safe provided for electronic devices, computers, jewelry and prescription medicines.
If you carry a purse, make sure you can put it over your shoulder and neck so that both hands will be free. This is even more true if you have a camera. I was reading up on Naples, IT recently and it said most Neapolitan women wear their handbags that way on a regular basis.
All of this is meant to ensure a safe, happy and wonderful trip, not to deter you from traveling the world. I have done so much of the latter in the past three years and it has enriched my life enormously. But evidently I have learned to give off the right signals – in France, old Frenchmen will complain to me in French about nasty tourists while Americans will ask me for directions in halting French. Sometimes you have to simply resist the impulse to be as nice as you would be at home, at least out in public. Observe not only your surroundings carefully but how the locals act and behave. I think in France and Italy, I have spent so much time there that I think I have an attitude that can be described either as aloof or contemptuous, which is good for a woman who travels alone. Even if you’re traveling as a couple or in a group, many of these same guidelines would apply.
Anyway, others please add your tips!
Great points, and for a person who has had to learn "The Hard Way", (Camera stolen from checked luggage at LHR), and other "Dumb" things, here are a few of my tips:
* Take some clothes/shoes on the trip that you plan to leave behind. I have made many a maid happy with nice, but outdated clothes. That gave me more room on the return trip for gifts. Likewise, pack a "Bag in a bag", you can use the packed bag or suitcase on the return, and save a baggage fee on the outbound flight.
* Make sure everyone in your party has the name and address of your hotel. Teenagers and young people sometimes wander and have no idea where they are staying. This happened to me in Paris with someone else's kid, just after the Ren. Louvre opened and they could not find there way back, and no-one in the city had heard of the new hotel. It made for a bad Christmas Eve.
* Use currency conversion locations at the hotel, AMEX office, or banks. Stay away from crowded train stations where many criminals watch you. Let me tell you they can tell nationalities by the blue jeans you are wearing. I no longer wear jeans when traveling.
* Have the hotel concierge assist you in transportation, and let them know your schedule. They provide a great service in having your family and you picked up at the airport and getting you directly to the hotel. Likewise, discuss them your meal budget and desired type of food, you will be surprised how much they may be able to save you.
* Rent cars only as a last resort, when you do, get a GPS that has your language available. Have a good navigator and map, you will probably need it. Make sure the location you are planning to return the car is in fact open and available at the time you are going to turn your car in.
* If you can, check your bags in before turning your car in. It will save you a lot of trouble in getting from the rent-a-car return to the check-in area. Meet there and then proceed to security.
Hope others have suggestions, because mistakes that could have been avoided can make for a "Rough trip".
Great list of travel tips!
A couple of things I have learned over the years to add to the list
1) Buy some local clothes to wear. Its fun to do, helps you blend in, especially in less affluent countries, and will be a nice sourvenir from the trip. When I was in Russia with friends, people would pick me out of the group as the American. Turned out it was my sunglasses, and my gortex. I went out a bought a Shearling coat in a Russian Department store and a hat, so I wouldn't need the glasses. I also wear a headscarf in Turkey and Morrocco, my sarong in southeast asia, etc.
2) Do not turn around and look when someone yells in English when in a non-English speaking country. This is how they pick out of the crowd Americans, Canadians and English. It is used by alot of the illegal immigrant gangs in Europe to pick you out of a crowd. Then they strike up a conversation, where are you from, where are you going, and you can't get rid of them. Eventually they will pick a fight, and if you run, or stay and fight, others will show up and take your things.
3) Do not let anyone put a flower on you. Step back to get out of the way, walk away quickly, but don't let them touch you. Where ever they place the flower, usually near your security bag or belt, or pockets, they will be picking it clean.
4) Carry lots of coins and candy for the kids. When they crowd around you, you have something inexpensive to give that keeps their hands busy and distracts them. They are usually more interested in this, than what the adults sent them to take from you, and which they don't get to keep as some adult takes it away from them. You can not exchange foreign currency coins anyways, and they only way I have ever gotten rid of them is the coin casino in Schipol airport. Especially good in countries where the coins have no value.
5) I only travel with costume jewelry. If its lost, broken, stolen, its not a problem. And sometimes I give it away as gifts. Costume jewelry is cheap to pick up in NYC, and very expensive everywhere else. Folks are thrilled to get it.
6) Always take a stack of hotel business cards in countries with an alphabet you can not read, e.g. Asian countries You can use these with cab drivers to bring you back to your hotel.
7) Countries where English is limited to non-existent, and you can not read the alphabet, its time to get a guide, e.g. Eastern Europe. Often these countries do not have street signs either, and you need to stop at intersections and ask which way to go.
8) Observe what is going on around you. If people do not smile, then keep a straight face too, or you will stand out. If women are swimming with their clothes on, then do not put on a bathing suit. And for women traveling in Turkey, middle eastern countries, africa, etc, when you end up somewhere and there are no women about, just men, you probably shouldn't be there either.
9) Pack light. I use a backpack and carryon so that I do not need to check luggage, and I can take advantage of public transport. Also you can focus your attention on your surroundings and not need to be focused on your luggage. My last trip to the UK, it cost me 43 GBP to get from Healthrow to Dover cause I was able to use the Underground to National Rail. The cruise line was charging $200 USD/pp for their bus. And I had a lot more fun out and about with the locals. A few other folks did the same thing, but brought large bags. The luggage racks were not large enough to hold them, so they had to set their bags by the doors, and at every stop move them out of the way. Luckily it was an express train with only a handful of stops unlike the underground that had 24 stops.
10) Airport pickup in countries with Security issues, e.g. Mexico - I order a limo through the hotel, and I have the hotel arrange transport around the local area, so that I am always dealing with companies the hotel uses, never on my own. Same is true of cruises. Do not use the indpendent operators outside the port. Use the cruise tours as they are safer. Not that you your guaranteed no problems, but they will far fewer.
Thanks for the tips which are always appreciated.
The thing that I always do in going to a country where I don't speak the language or high crime, is to have the hotel send a car for me. It is usually more expensive but safer and many who just take a taxi get "taken for a ride" all over the city and many time pay more because the meter is running.
Returning to the airport, I have the hotel put me in a cab. Many keep a register on the cab # and destination. They tell the cab where to take me and tell me the price.
I always wear a good walking shoe that I could run in if I needed to. I never wear flashy anything. I wear a cheap Casio wrist watch and leave the good one at home.
Thanks for all your additional tips! One thing we all seem to have in common is to blend in. I thought about adding jeans (when I said no sneakers for women over 25), but I'm glad you brought it up. You can look quite local and quite elegant if you dress as women your age do in that country. I imagine it's less of a problem for men, but jeans and a Hawaiian shirt probably wouldn't go over big for men in their 50s in some countries . And BTW, in Italy, don't blend in so much that you could be taken for Berlusconi.
This may well be one of the best posts I've ever had the fortune of reading on Insiders. I'm not sure if there will be an annual Roady Award for top post of the year, but I'd say this is definitely a top candidate for that one! The additional contributions posted here are really stellar as well.
Thanks so much! Really, there is nothing that will ruin both a trip and your personal experience of a place than starting off on a bad footing, whether it be a serious but ultimately minor inconvenience like lost luggage to much more serious incidents like theft or harassment. It's why after the attempt to rob me by the ice cream gun sprayer on my first trip to Rome left me with such a bad feeling about the city until I went back and back and back. Even in that incident, since I'd already lived in France for two years in the 80s, I kept everything tightly against myself and told him to get lost (I didn't speak Italian then, but just said my hotel is right ahead and kept walking). It was still an inconvenience when the hotel proprietor noted my black dress now had white spots all over the back.
So I think especially first time travelers need to be nice, on their guard, and learn to shake their head no at the very least. Typically the would be thieves are not going to harass you in Italian, French, Arabic, whatever -- they know English very well because it's essential to their trade.