Thursday, September 24, 2015

Travel smart

I know I seem to be talking a lot about travel lately, but that’s because my mind is preoccupied with planning a few trips towards the latter part of the year. I keep making notes to myself, reminding myself of the things I need to do, arrange or bring. In my mind, there’s nothing worse than being unprepared when embarking on a trip. And I’ve made enough mistakes to know what I need to plan for and what I could have done better. So here are some of my tips to travel smart.

There’s nothing I like better than to head for the beach or an island resort, where everything is taken care of and I don’t even have to step off the property to have a good time. Meals are taken care of and the hardest decision I have to make is probably deciding whether I want my massage before or after dinner. But when it comes to trips that involve moving about from place to place, checking into multiple accommodations and checking out different towns and their offerings, a lot more planning has to go into it.

1. Plan ahead.
Thank goodness for the internet – with the help of sites like Tripadvisor, I can find out just about anything, from places to see, activities to pursue and restaurants to try out. I either store all this information on my phone or print it out. Then I just carry around the pages relevant to the particular location I’m in. I also makes lists – of clothes, medicine, toiletries, gadgets, documents that I need to bring - so I don’t forget anything.

2. Score the best flights and accommodation.
With all sorts of information available on the internet, there’s no longer a need to book through a travel agent or stay in hotels all the time. With so many airlines offering all kinds of deals, you can score really cheap flights if you’re flexible about your dates of travel. Travel search engines like Skyscanner are really useful to suss out the best deals. I find Tripadvisor a great help in gaining insights on accommodation that suit every budget, and I’m a huge fan of AirBnB which offers a homelike environment. Best of all, there’s something for every budget. Filter through the criteria you set, like pricing and location, to avoid information overload.

Rolled up clothes save on space
and creases
3. Pack smart.
Packing light saves me a world of trouble when I’m traveling, especially when having to consider excess baggage charges. I know many others prefer hard-shell suitcases, but personally, I rely on a lightweight duffel bag on rollers, which allows me to cram a lot of stuff in. My bad back prevents me from hauling a backpack, but my duffel is hardy enough to go over uneven terrain and cobblestones. When it comes to clothes, I try to consider the weather I’ll be heading into. For colder climates, a few thermal tops and bottoms are great when I’m layering (Uniqlo’s Heattech series is a real lifesaver!). I bring the bare minimum of neutral-colored separates so everything matches. I roll everything up to save space and creases. If necessary, I’ll pack a little black dress to see me through any formal occasion.

4. Act smart.
Nothing spoils a holiday like having your bag, phone or passport stolen, so take some precautions. I make copies of all my documents, including passport, flight and accommodation documents and credit cards. I also email them to my own email address, so in the event of them being all stolen or lost, I can still retrieve them on the internet. Try to be aware of your surroundings instead of being engrossed in your phone or camera taking pictures. If you need to check something on your phone, notes or map, step aside from the thoroughfare first, to draw less attention to yourself.

5. Smart etiquette.
It only takes a little research to acquaint yourself with the local customs. Respect the cultural rules and social norms of your host country. Find out what is the customary greeting and adhere to the dress code as well. Learning simple things, like how much to tip waiters, taxi drivers and bellboys, go a long way too. When driving, observe all the local ordinances. I’ve learned that it helps also to learn on which side of the escalator to stand, as it varies from country to country.

6. Eat smart.
Part of the fun of going to a new place is treating your senses to new sights, sounds, smells and tastes. Find out a little bit about the local cuisine before your trip and where best to enjoy it. There’s nothing like chatting with some locals to get their take on what’s authentic and delicious. I do know that as I grow older, I not only long for my own bed when I’m away from it, but also the tastes of home. Nowadays, I bring along some cup noodles to indulge in when homesickness hits hard, but they certainly don’t form the bulk of my diet. Nothing beats the local markets, cafes and restaurants to get a feel of what the local cuisine is like.

7. Stay healthy.
The combination of jet lag, sleep deprivation, fatigue and unfamiliar foods puts your body at risk of catching a bug. So take the necessary steps to stave off illness. I bring along all my usual supplements, and pack some dried fruit and nuts as well just in case I’m not getting enough fiber. I also make sure I get enough sleep at night to replenish whatever energy I’ve lost through the stress of travel.

8. Spend smart.
It’s always advisable not to carry so much cash on your person, but do have some of the local currency on hand for small purchases and any emergencies. I’ve read enough advice on the internet to know that when I’m paying for something with my credit card and given the option by the store of paying in the local or my own currency, it’s best to pay in the local currency. That’s because the store may not be able to give the best exchange rate as compared with your credit card company. If you’re planning to use the local ATMs to withdraw cash in the local currency, check with your bank at home first to find out how much they charge for each withdrawal so you won’t be unpleasantly surprised when your statement arrives. If you’re making large purchases that entitle you to VAT refunds, do go through the process of filling out the forms and getting back your refunds either at the airport or through having them credited to your credit card. Allow yourself plenty of time at the airport as the process of getting your refund back can be long and tedious.

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