Tips When Travelling

Christopher Columbus, an experienced traveler by any measure, set sail for ‘the Orient’ but instead landed in the Bahamas. Experienced travelers still make mistakes, but most of us have learned how to minimize them after countless hours in planes, trains and automobiles visiting our great planet.

Whether you’re experienced or not, travel wisdom is earned from missed departures, misplaced passports, stolen phones and wallets, cultural missteps and buckets of avoidable diarrhea from eating ‘tourist’ food. Based on our 30 years of traveling together we’ve assembled some of our top tips as a quick guide to maximize your travel enjoyment.

Airports and Airplanes

Queues: Customs, Immigration and Security Lines

Sometimes, avoiding the wrong queue is as simple as not getting in line behind inexperience and confused travelers: families, children, hillbillies. You can spot seasoned travelers — they have small luggage or a briefcase, looking organized and calm. That’s the line you want.

To minimize security line hassles even more, explore one of the Trusted Traveler programs, which surely everyone knows about, but just in case, these are fee based customs and security pre-check services that most countries have. In the United States, they are CLEAR, Global Entry, SkyPriority, and TSA PreCheck. Some European equivalents available to foreign travelers are Germany’s EasyPASS, the U.K’s Registered Traveller Program, The Netherlands’ Privium. NEXUS and SENTRI are for frequent travel into the US from Canada and Mexico. The small fee (often reimbursable by certain credit cards) and interview process are worth the benefit.

The scanner and security check points can stress travelers and flummoxed folks can leave behind personal items (see Theft section below). It’s easier to stay focused and organized when you have a simple system. For instance, wear a travel vest or jacket with zippered pockets big enough to hold things like phone, wallet, keys, cash from your pockets, etc, and then put the vest on the conveyor. Keep an eye on it. Buy a travel shirt with zippered front pockets which holds you passport, boarding pass, covid PCR test results, entry visas, cash, etc. Always pack you liquids in a clear container and always store it in the same spot, so you can toss it onto the conveyer belt without searching for it. All laptops look alike, so put a small piece of colored tape on yours to thwart would-be thieves. You’ll sometimes be required to remove shoes and belt, so choose ones that are easy to wear and remove.

VIP Services

A way to avoid the long customs and immigration lines when arriving at a foreign airport is to use a VIP service available at many airports. Depending on country and airport regulations, these fee-based passenger services can be obtained from some airlines and from 3rd party providers like Swissport and Royal Airport Concierge. From our experience with Swissport, you book directly with them, which we did in Johannesburg, or use one of their subsidiaries, like QAS which we used at Ben Gurion airport in Israel.

Some VIP services are provided by pre-qualified agents who meet their guests when disembarking and by-pass the regular customs line-up, just like the VIP services above. We used this option twice at the Cairo airport pre-pandemic, although the last time we were there in October 2021, the security rules had changed (temporarily?) and that service wasn’t available, at least not to the agency. Certain airlines also offer VIP services, like Qatar’s Al Maha service, which we’ve used at the Doha airport.

We mostly use these VIP services after a long international flight, when we just don’t feel like standing in a long line, or for airports that are really inefficient, like Johannesburg which is one the 20 slowest airports in the world for international arrivals (the slowest airport is Kansai, Japan and the fastest is Luxembourg).

Connections

Everyone wants to fly direct, but some routes need a connecting flight. Sometimes it’s more expensive to use a single airline when connecting, especially if RyanAir flies that route, but our advice is to avoid when possible connections between different airlines (referred to as an offline connection). When a single airline books a connecting flight (called an online connection), it is their responsibility to get you on the second plane. When using different airlines, you’re on your own.

Even with no delays or cancelations, connections can pose problems if there is insufficient time between gates. For example, Los Angeles Intl can have connecting flights in different terminals when using different airlines (ex: Allegiant/Delta), which will require you to exit one terminal and go through security again at the new terminal. Sometimes flight attendants are familiar with the layout of gates, or upon landing, there are usually information kiosks to help.

The airline industry uses a metric called Minimum Connection Time (MCT), established by airlines and monitored by airport authorities. This is the amount of time considered sufficient for a passenger to make a connection between an arriving flight and a departing flight. If you’re planning your own connecting route between two airlines, make sure you know what the MCT is (use it as a best case scenario). For example, you can find Air Canada’s MCT data here.

Connections are not always terrible — you can try to use them to your advantage by building in a layover. For example, visit the Louvre traveling back from Istanbul, or stop in Egypt to see the pyramids on the way home from Kenya. Travelers can schedule an extended stopover in a city (often the main hub of the airline) en route to their final destination, allowing you to explore two destinations during your next vacation for the price of one.

Flight Cancellations and Delays

Flights get cancelled sometimes, and delayed often. When these events cause you to miss a connection, you need to react quickly, before the hundreds of other people on your cancelled flight grab the last seat on a different flight. You need to speak with an airline agent, whether that’s in a business lounge (preferred) or on the phone, or by walking to a service desk in the terminal. If you’re really prepared, you will have your airline’s customer support number stored on your phone, so quickly call them, even while waiting in line at a physical desk if the line is long, because time is of the essence in this situation.

Large airports have a few service desks so if one is very crowded or unhelpful, try another desk or go the business class lounge where airlines usually keep their top customer service reps. Remain courteous and calm with the agent while they help you get the last seat on a flight, or a meal/hotel voucher. Even if you’re not traveling in business class sometimes it’s best to scoot over to your airline’s lounge, and pay the daily entry free if that’s an option, and enjoy the comfort of the lounge and the better quality agent, instead of standing in a long line.

If your airline can’t solve your problem you might have to book with a different airline, which we had to do in Australia in 2019. Our flight from Cairns was initially delayed 5 hours, but then cancelled entirely until next day, a delay which would cause us to miss our cruise ship’s embarkation time in Adelaide. For the record, the airline that cancelled was Jetstar, a low-cost subsidiary of Qantas. The Qantas desk wouldn’t help us, but luckily Virgin was happy to take our money for the last 2 business class seats on a flight about to depart, and they didn’t gouge us for this last minute booking. On principle, we contacted Jetstar and were successful in obtaining a partial refund.

An airline ticket is a form of contract, which details your rights and the airline’s obligations. If a flight is delayed beyond a certain time or canceled, compensation from the airline is usually required. Details are in the fine print.  

Airport Lounges

An airport lounge is usually a nice respite from the noise and crowds, but we’ve been amused by some fellow travelers who excitedly describe their experience at upscale lounges as if the lounge itself was the highlight of their trip. Most of the better lounges have showers, lockers, business center, free Wi-Fi, game rooms, massage chairs and many places to stretch out comfortably on your layover. Some lounges only offer free drinks and buffet, others offer very competent à la carte options. The food quality can vary greatly, from fresh sushi to filet mignon to most esculent Mediterranean tapas. At the comical low end, one ‘lounge’ we visited had a dubious buffet that featured what looked plastic wrapped salmonella sandwiches.

Access to lounges is usually automatic with a business class or first class boarding pass or from being a frequent flyer or through an airline’s co-branded credit card. In our experience, the Amex Platinum Card seems to offer the best worldwide access to lounges (Airspace, Centurion, Delta Sky Clubs, Escape, Plaza Premium, Priority Pass, in addition to some Lufthansa and Virgin Clubhouse lounges), although many travelers also speak highly of the Chase Sapphire Reserve card.

If you don’t have any of these, you can sometimes purchase access to a lounge for a fee, usually less than $65/pp at the lounge desk or by using an app like LoungeBuddy, although since Amex bought Loungebuddy in 2021 you now need an Amex card. Lounge Pass is another online service that seems to sell passes, although we’ve never used that. Swissport, mentioned above, also manages about 60 airport lounges where you can pay regardless of seat class, mostly in the UK and Europe.

There’s no shortage of blogs describing and comparing the world’s best and worst airport lounges in every detail. In our experience, it’s worth investigating which airport lounge you’ll have access to, but unless you have a very long layover don’t fret too much over the lounge.

Flight Prep

Reducing stress at the airport hinges on your level of preparation. Check-in online when flight opens up and choose your seat. We like to sit near the front, but not the very first row because often the first row’s overhead bins are reserved for safety gear. Print your boarding pass, so you can go right to the gate (assuming you’ve only got carry on), unless PCR test verification is required at the gate.

Prepare paper copies of key documents: flight, hotel, entry visas, PCR tests, Covid vaccination, so that you have quick access. Dedicate a specific big pocket in your vest/jacket or a suitcase flap where you always store them. Prepare electronic copy of your passport photo page and your credit cards and store them on your phone and elsewhere in case your phone is lost. Also take photos of your medication, luggage and clothes. This will help identify lost/stolen items more easily and facilitate your travel insurance claim.

Getting to the gate early has one definite advantage if you fly with carry-on: there’s a better chance of getting an overhead storage near your seat. When you board after everyone else, those overheads might be full.

Health, Safety and Comfort

Carry hand sanitizer, because some of the dirtiest surfaces on an airplane are the tray table, seat-back pocket, and entertainment system surfaces including the remote. Don’t wear sandals or flip-flops on flights, not only because of evil organisms growing on the carpet, but because flips-flops are useless if there is an emergency landing.

Don’t drink the water on an airplane, or coffee or tea, because aircrafts pump drinking water into its tanks and the airplane water quality depends not only on the source of that water, but also on the potability of source of water plus all the equipment that is used to transfer the water including truck tanks, hoses, nozzles, connections etc. In the USA, the safety of aircraft drinking water is jointly regulated by the EPA, the FDA and the FAA. In 2004, the The EPA randomly tested the water on 158 aircraft, including domestic and international carriers:  20 planes tested positive for total coliform bacteria and 2 had dangerous levels of E. coli in the water.

A 2006 study found that window seats were 4 dB noisier than middle or aisle seats, and seats forward of the engines were generally quieter than those behind them. Noise cancelling headsets or earplugs can help reduce the noise-induced stress produced by the engines. Noise cancellation devices are only effective on frequencies < 1 kHz, which includes the noise from engines and fuselage, earbuds and foam plugs only attenuate sound > 5 kHz. 

One of our relatives is an engineer who designs and manufactures filters for the aerospace industry. His advice: the overhead air vent has filtered air that’s relatively clean. Turn it on and let it blow over you as soon as you get on board. When airborne, almost all commercial aircraft use HEPA filters but less than 50% of the cabin air gets filtered through HEPA. The other half comes from outside, which people think is nice and fresh, but the fresh air entering the cabin must be pressurized which is why it is taken from a special chamber from the engines. in from outside the plane.

Theft

An ABC news story from 2012 reported that about 400 TSA officers across the U.S. were fired for theft, listing the worst 5 airports for theft: Miami, JFK, LAX, Atlanta, Las Vegas.

More recently, a WBTV news item from 2021, reported almost 200 thefts (wallets, laptops, cellphones, luggage) in one year at a single airport (Charlotte Douglas Intl., North Carolina), from checkpoints and from overhead bins. Checked luggage is not much safer: a 2012 CBS news investigation reports over 200 thefts every day from checked luggage at JFK airport in New York.

Not that American security personnel are different from airport workers elsewhere: many years ago, we briefly left a small knapsack at the security checkpoint in Santiago, Chile. By the time we remembered and went back to retrieve it, some security personnel had deftly removed a small camcorder, which I didn’t notice was missing until our flight was airborne.

Booking Your Travel

Booking Flights

In our experience, it’s best to book directly with the airline you want to fly rather than from a 3rd party, unless the price difference is enormous. If you’re really budget conscious and booking online, be sure to look at connection times, especially if you have checked luggage. Some online searches will show an attractive price but the connection might be too short or too long. If two separate airlines are involved you will have to claim your bag from the first flight and re-check it for the 2nd flight. Research the on-time performance and safety ratings of whichever foreign airlines and airports are involved.

Flights from Sunday through Wednesday usually enjoy lower airfare and avoid the weekend crowd. With morning departures, tickets are usually cheaper, and lines are shorter.

Meals with dietary restrictions are usually served first, so if you’re given the option at the time of booking, specify some restrictions for your meal if you want to be served earlier, like trying to squeeze in more sleep on a flight. On the other hand, these special meals can be very bland and unappealing, we have often ordered the low sodium option and did not eat it.

Seat Selection

Getting a good seat is a must, especially on long flights, and a little research on the type of plane helps your seat selection. If you’re unsure whether a Boeing 777 is better than a Airbus 380 (it is not) use sites like SeatGuru which have the seat layout and identify which seats are worse than others.

Newer planes are generally better than older models (all things being equal) for many reasons, including cabin noise, cabin air and seat comfort. We try to get into the pointy end of the plane (business class) when we can, which solves the comfort problem.

As mentioned above, window seats are noisier, and selecting a seat in front of the wings and engines is also quieter.

The front row seat behind the bulkheads used to be our choice but we noticed that many times the first overhead bin(s) on the port side are often designated for cabin crew.

If you don’t select seats when booking, then you can usually select them when checking-in online. In economy class many airlines charge a small premium for seat pre-selection, but in our experience it’s worth it. We had a flight on Ryanair once from Oslo to Paris. There were only 4 passengers including us who paid the extra $10 (approx) to pre-select seat and board early! Once the flood gates opened and everyone else stampeded onto the plane jostling for a good seat… and saved $10


Upgrading Seats From Economy

The advantages of an upgraded seat include priority check-in, priority luggage, priority access to the security, and most times access to the lounge. In the past, empty business/first class seats would be offered as upgrades to frequent flyers with lots of points. Since about 2015, most airlines instead auction off those empty seats to anyone in economy willing to bid the highest price. We’ve upgraded our seats this way many times.

Some airlines open the bidding up about 72 hours before flight, when they send you an email and invite you to bid online. Others open available premium seats on a standby system, where you pay in advance for a desired upgrade, and if you don’t get the upgrade you’re refunded. For example, Asiana does this (or they used to), and their prices comparable or better to an auction system.

Some airlines use their own bidding system but most use Plusgrade‘s system for their seat auctions. For example here is Air Canada’s seat upgrade site: https://upgrade.plusgrade.com/offer/AirCanada

Using Frequent Flyer Points

Redeeming Points

If you’re just setting out to achieve frequent flyer status, you’ve surely come across the very many blogs that describe point-earning benefits of credit cards, with their affiliate earning links for you to click on. In our experience, the Amex Platinum Card seems to offer the best travel benefits, including lounge access worldwide: Airspace, Centurion, Delta Sky Clubs, Escape, Plaza Premium, Priority Pass, in addition to some Lufthansa and Virgin Clubhouse lounges. Or you might be better of with some credit cards offering flexible points, like Chase Ultimate Rewards, Amex Express, and Capital One Miles, which aren’t tied to a single airline but instead be transferred to other loyalty programs.

If you’re already a frequent-flyer you probably don’t need to read this post, but just in case this is your first time redeeming some points here’s some suggestions:

  • Get familiar with terminology like award seat and award inventory, blackout period, codeshare, etc. See our terminology section below.
  • Get familiar with the 3 major Airline Alliances and Partnerships: Skyteam (Delta, KLM, Alitalia, etc); StarAlliance (AirCanada, United, Lufthansa, ANA, etc), and Oneworld (American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay, etc). Although not all partner airlines make space available to each other, booking points through a partner airline is a technique that can help you. However, in our experience, most airlines save first class award space for their own members, rather than allow partner programs to book them. For example, Emirates will favor Skywards members, Air France-KLM will favor members of its Flying Blue program, etc.
  • After you pick your destination and departure date, you need to see if there are any award seats left on inventory for that flight, either by phoning the airline, or by attempting to book your seat, or review our section on online resources, below.
  • If you can’t find award seats, know that some airlines provide access to award inventory almost a year in advance, others only provide this access ~300 days in advance. Regardless, many seats get snagged in the first few weeks after they’re made available, therefore booking early is better, especially for popular routes to London, Paris, Rome, etc.

Based on our 30 years of traveling, much of it on points, our advice is don’t hoard points, they’re likely to depreciate in value over time due to increased award redemption costs and restrictions, blackout periods and fees. 

Post Flight

Accommodations

Accommodations are dependent on location and budget. The issue of whether to book a hotel chain versus a boutique hotel has everything to do with the area or city you are visiting. In the world’s great cities, such as Rome or Paris, we love the boutique hotels as they provide a more intimate experience than the large hotel chains. However, there are certain cities where selection is limited, you want the comfort of knowing that there is going to be a basic level of service. The large chain hotel gives you that comfort. For instance, in Addis Ababa, the Sheraton or Hyatt gives you a product that you can rely upon, as selection is limited and a boutique hotel would be a gamble. It is important to note that what constitutes a five star rating in North America may differ drastically from a five star in Europe and elsewhere. We normally suggest you deduct two stars from a rating in Europe when comparing to North America. We have stayed at B&Bs in France and elsewhere in Europe and some have been memorable experiences, but not all the time. We always make sure to read the reviews. We have never stayed at an Air B&B.

For large chain hotels, we generally book directly with the hotel unless one of the big OTAs (Booking, Expedia, etc.) is providing a much better refundable rate. With boutique hotels, we like to book directly with the hotel as we want a more personalized service, the rooms may not be as standard as in the large chains and we want to make sure there will be no surprises, which means talking to someone at the site. The most important reason to book directly is that it will be much easier to change the date without having to cancel the entire reservation and rebook, this is especially important if you are booking way in advance or if your plans are not firm.

Depending on where we are going, we also book through the Leading Hotels of the World, a group of independent hotels that always deliver an incredible product, as does the Small Boutique Hotels of the World. Both these sites feature independent and branded hotels worldwide and we’ve never been disappointed. If your destination is Europe, both these sites are worthwhile looking at.

When booking a trip segment through a travel advisor, such as a safari or where language may be a problem, we do our own research to verify their hotel suggestions (read the reviews) and ensure they don’t overlook better options. For instance, in Marrakesh (Morocco) many travel advisors will suggest you stay at one of the tourist hotels clustered outside the walls of the old town, like the Sofitel, Mövenpick, Four Seasons, Marriott, etc. After doing our research, we booked a charming historical Riad inside the Medina. A Riad is a traditional Morrocan dwelling built around an internal garden and courtyard. We were a little apprehensive when our driver dropped us off at a nondescript door in a dark alley, but he assured us the inside was much nicer and he was right.

Tour Guides

We almost always book a local guide when we’re touring. If the city or region you are visiting is a religious or political hot spot, it is important that you consider the bias that a guide may present to the tour. In Jordan, our guide replied to one of our questions by saying that he was not even allowed to ask the question we were asking, let alone answer it. In Jerusalem, we hired three different guides, each with a very different background and religious history, in order to get a less constrained picture. Of course, there are guides who have overcome their biases and can truly deliver an apolitical, non religious experience. In northern Ireland, we went on a ‘political’ tour of Belfast and our guide was truly objective and kept us guessing until the very end of the tour whether he was catholic or protestant. He made it such a non-issue that we can’t even remember today which one he was. We have found this to be the exception.

We also insist on local guides when on a safari. If you purchase a tour package through a safari operator, the guide is part of the package. There have been instances where the tour operator decided to bring guides in from outside the area, as there were not enough local guides to service the guests. The outside guides are never as familiar as the locals, and they don’t know the local guides who often help each other on the radio to find wildlife. Unless you specify beforehand that you want only local guides, the tour operator has the option of using the guide of their choice.


Tours with ‘Lunch’

When hiring a guide for the day or a private package day tour, one of the gotchas is letting the guide pick lunch locations. For instance, our guide in Bhutan drove past a nice new restaurant and we asked if we could stop there for lunch, but he said the location he’d planned lunch was even better, except it wasn’t and the bathroom that was too filthy to describe. Our guide in VietNam offered to take us to his cousin’s wedding for lunch, in lieu of a local eatery. Of course we jumped at the opportunity, but after seeing how the food was being cooked and no running water in the kitchen, we practiced fasting instead and just enjoyed the cultural event.

The local guide is incentivized to pick the cheapest location they can that still meets minimum health or nutritional requirements; generally they have deals with specific restaurants who cater to tourists, where the guide will eat for free and pocket the difference between their meal allotment and actual cost of meal. We mentioned this issue with tour operators who acknowledge it’s a problem. To get around this, we make sure that the tour advisor has vetted the lunch choices, and in many cases we like to do our own research and suggest the restaurants.

Using a local tour operator has its advantageous: you can usually pay with local currency, you can almost always pay with a credit card, you are on the same time zone when planning the trip. However, it also has its disadvantageous: when you are actually on the trip, you are no longer on the same time zone, you do not know how reliable the foreign contacts are until you are over there and need them, if you need to make itinerary changes, it can take over 24 hours, etc. There is also the disadvantage that your North American tour operator (or any operator not in the country you are visiting), may not have current information that can severely impact your trip. We used a South African tour operator for one of our safaris (in Tanzania) and she was not aware that a certain bridge had been rendered dangerous and was closed. The bridge was a required crossing to get to our next safari lodge. Without access to the bridge, it was going to add 14 hours to our travel time. We had to change to a different lodge, not easy to do while on safari.

We hate “off the shelf” tour packages, we feel they do not maximize your time, energy and cost. Most of these packages include stops to visit vendors selling everything from carpets to scarves. They also include stops to such places as Treetops in Kenya (see our post on Kenya), Cleopatra’s bath in Siwa (see our post on Siwa), etc., places that were a waste of time. Because our time and money is valuable, we do enough research to determine what should be eliminated from the tour operator’s initial package suggestion. Sometimes, we add items to the tour, such as our trip to the Camel Market in Daraw, Egypt. It was not advised by our tour operator but our research suggested it was an enriching experience. We always end up with our own unique package.

Online Reviews: fake, coerced, genuine

If you don’t think fake reviews have any influence, read the true story about The Shed at Dulwich,  which was a hoax restaurant ‘created’ by a journalist, who enlisted his friends to post fake TripAdvisor reviews for his entirely fake restaurant. Within 6 months (May to November 2017), this fake restaurant became the highest ranked eatery in London based on Tripeadvisor’s trusted reviews.

Honest hotel reviews help other travelers and we ourselves do not book a hotel until we read about other travelers’ experiences. A few years ago, we decided to review all the B&Bs on our rural road trip through France. Our reviews were on TripAdvisor, and were honest and fair. After the first review we received a message from the B&B that our review was extremely harsh and unfair and that the 4 out of 5 we gave them would hurt their business. This happened for the next two or three reviews, where the B&B were fine but not outstanding yet they wanted a perfect 5 or asked us to retract the review. If we give an average family run B&B a perfect 5, how do we score our stay at Nihi Sumba or Amanjiwo, which were not only truly perfect but memorable? We did give a perfect score for our stay at the Chateau St. Michel in the Bourgogne region of France, maybe because the wine tasting exceeded our expectations. Our review did not attract any complaints.

Cash, Credit & Debit cards

After years of calculating the benefit of credit card versus bank wire, we normally now pay by credit card, unless the tour provider is charging a hefty fee for credit card payment. The value of each travel point, if you use it for business travel generally has a higher conversion value than the difference in rate between your bank and your credit card company. This is a flexible situation and depends on which credit card, which bank and whether the vendor is also charging you a fee when using your credit card.

When paying for travel expenses BEFORE you leave, and assuming you have full trust in your tour operator, it is usually more economical to wire the funds as your bank will give you a better exchange rate than your credit card company. However, you will not get your travel points if you pay by wire and depending on the value of each travel point, it may still be advantageous to use your credit card.

Travelers are advised to tell their bank and credit card companies of their travel plans before they leave. In our experience, if a charge is flagged on your credit card because you are in a foreign country, it doesn’t help that you told your bank where you were traveling to. The flag on the charge is placed automatically and it often cannot be overridden until you call your bank.

Carry more than one credit card in case one gets blocked. In Kathmandu we tried 3 different banks and credit cards before we could finally get money out of the ATM so it’s good we had a few different cards to try. Another reason to carry more than one card, is if you have to cancel your card mid-trip due to fraud, you won’t be able to use the card. Debit cards offer less financial protection than credit cards so only use ATMs located inside banks and upscale hotels to lower the risk of card shimming and other types of ATM fraud.

When paying for a transaction with a credit card, use the chip reader rather than swiping your card or worse, handing your card to the clerk. Many years ago in Havana, we were enjoying lunch and cocktails (not necessarily in that order) and when it was time to pay, the bartender said his machine wasn’t working so he had to go next door. He was gone about 15 minutes, and we suspected he had cloned the card. Sure enough, we checked our account and found charges from unknown vendors in Miami, necessitating a quick call to reverse the charges and cancel the card.

Some banks who offer a travel cards have not geared their fraud center to travelers’ needs. For example, one of our cards is a Canadian TD Visa (Aeroplan), and when potential fraud is triggered the fraud center sends an alert requiring us to respond to verify the purchase, which is great. Unfortunately, TD sends the SMS alert using short code (6 digit address instead of full phone number), and since short codes are provisioned on a country basis they don’t work internationally so we can’t respond when we travel! Why use a communication method that only works nationally for a travel card? Short codes don’t even work between USA and Canada!

Travel Insurance

Travel insurance can cover various disasters from getting robbed and being injured, to having a flight cancelled, and is one of the crucial expenses for an expensive trip. Some credit cards offer care rental insurance, and we were fortunate we had paid for our Avis rental with our Amex card when someone ran into us; we paid nothing and there was no hassle with the claim.

You will probably be offered travel insurance from the same source as where you buy your flight or car rental, because travel agents earn a lot of commission on selling travel insurance. We always use the same insurer for travel insurance as they have all our information on file already and we only need to let them know about changes to our health, etc.

Generally, trip interruption is a better value than trip cancellation. Trip cancellation includes insurance for unforeseen events that prevents you from leaving for your trip, whereas trip interruption is for unforeseen events after you have left, that require you to cut your trip short. It is better to pay for your tour, etc. as close to the departure date as possible so that you do not need a lengthy trip cancellation period, which will be very costly. We generally purchase only trip interruption insurance, unless we had to prepay for a very expensive safari, in which case we try and pay as close to the departure date as possible. The difference between two weeks and two months of trip cancellation insurance can be very high.

Make sure you have proof of stuff you bring on your trip. Receipts, pictures, pictures of you with the items, anything that can prove you owned them. This will help if you have to submit a claim for theft.

Because we travel for months at a time, we stick to the bigger insurers who have an annual or semi-annual multi-trip policies, including Allianz and Manulife and some smaller insurers like WorldNomad and SafetyWing that we haven’t used. In all cases, read both the positive and negative reviews before choosing and prepare some questions for them when asking for a quote:

  • deductible on health-related claims, and excluded procedures (ambulance, doctor visit, emergency surgery or dental work?
  • exclusions for lost or stolen luggage or cash?
  • deductible and upper replacement value for camera equipment or laptop?
  • excluded ‘adventure’ activities: scooter, scuba diving, rock climbing?
  • Flight cancellations, missed flights, trip interruptions fine print?
  • exclusions for covid-19? During the last year, most policies include covid insurance but you should verify.

Rental car insurance coverage is covered by some premium credit cards. Whenever possible, you’ll want to use a card with primary rental car coverage. It’s also worth noting that some credit cards offer primary rental car coverage abroad, while they only offer secondary coverage in the United States. Of course, you need to pay for your rental car with your credit card to get their coverage. Be aware of exclusions in certain countries or certain types of cars or rental duration.

Unless your policy has a provision for direct pay to the health provider, you have to pay your hospital bill out of pocket and then file a claim, and hopefully the insurer will reimburse you.  

In all our years of renting cars and driving across the U.K, Europe and the U.S., we’ve only had 2 mishaps, both by distracted drivers bumping into us, and both times the insurance coverage dealt with the issue.

Packing

For over 25 years, we’ve been traveling with only carry-on luggage, including a few RTW trips. The two obvious advantages are no lost luggage and much quicker exit from airports, but we’ve found it to be less hassle all around. Packing light is part science and part art: you need to pack lightweight clothing that is easy to wash, versatile in function and easy to color match. Lightweight ‘technical’ clothing (ski/hiking) are very versatile because of their wicking and insulating qualities. Stores like REI and MEC in North America, and Decathlon in Europe offer a good selection. We pack a few extra pairs of socks because we hike in the countryside and pound the streets in cities. Most hotels have laundry, but if you’re uncomfortable with their pricing or don’t have time for the laundry turnaround, most technical items are easily washed by hand and dry more quickly when you use the ‘towel twist’ method.

Do pack all the toiletries you will need as some items may end up costing up to ten times as much overseas as they do in North America. One special case in point, a makeup item ($3 item in the US) in Switzerland cost $25. Of course, this was not an essential item, but you get the point.

If technical sports clothing has no appeal, you should at least pack wrinkle-proof fabrics like polyester, knits, spandex, and lyocell.

Avoid items like blue Jeans and heavyweight fleece, and linen blends, although the morbid downside of synthetic material is that it will melt to your skin in case of a fiery air mishap, whereas cotton will just burst into flame.

For women, dressing for dinner is important and you will want to include a few lightweight shirts and pants that are wrinkle free but have a bit more color than your muted khakis. You will also want to include at least one lightweight skirt that can be worn over tights or alone for places such as mosques and religious temples that require a skirt for women. Also, bring a lightweight shawl. It can serve multi purposes and is ideal for mosques and temples, when you may be expected to cover your head and shoulders, whether or not a skirt is required.

For men, don’t bring a light colored blazer because it will stand out in every single photo and difficult to keep clean.

Bringing a collapsible day pack that folds up small so that it fits easily into your luggage, because some museums and attractions don’t allow large backpacks, and small backpacks are useful when walking about all day in a city.

If your carry-on is near the weight limit or overfull, you can wear your bulkiest clothing in transit and carry heavier items like small cameras and lenses, power banks and extra batteries in the pockets.

Invest in a travel vest

Wearing a travel vest with large zippered pockets while in-transit can really solve lots of problems. If you dedicate one large zippered pocket for travel documents, you’ll never fumble around for boarding pass, PCR test result or passport. You can jam in your phone, charger and cable and wallet in other zippered pockets to ease the pain of security/scanner queues. When our carry-on is near the weight limit or overfull, especially on small aircraft flying into safari airstrips, we can use our vest to temporarily carry camera bodies and lenses, power banks and extra batteries. Even when not in transit, vests offer great utility for photographers and hikers and good security for carrying valuables when city touring.

Travel Apps

In addition to the obvious apps you’d use for music, Kindle, etc, here are some of our favourite travel apps. Most you will have heard about and used, we’re just including them for completeness. If you haven’t one of them yet, should install it and become familiar before you leave. For instance, GTranslate let’s you download a language so you don’t need network access to use it.

  • Lounge Buddy (lists airport lounges based on your location, airline status and current memberships)
  • Flightradar24 (provides live air traffic from around the world)
  • XE Currency Converter
  • Google Translate, Google Maps,
  • AP News (bias free international news source for the road)
  • WhatsApp or Signal
  • Waze (better than google maps for police radar traps)

Electronics & Phones

Be selective in which devices you bring, which makes it easier to manage them all and lowers security risk. Do you need a smartphone plus a tablet plus a laptop? When we’re gone for months at a time we each bring a laptop, but for short trips of a week or two, we either forgo the laptop or share one. Regardless of which devices you bring, ensure the passphrase is complex, that the device can be locked, and that the system software is updated before departure.

Unsecured Wi-Fi hotspots can be a security risk in airports, restaurants and hotels, and while most smartphones have a VPN option, that won’t help your laptop or tablet unless they are configured to connect via your own VPN server at the office/home or to a VPN service. In addition to the problem of insecure WI-FI at your hotel, it can be expensive and restrictive if they charge per device or limit the number of devices that can connect.

A solution to this problem is to carry a little portable WiFi router with an Ethernet port. There are many low cost options available; even a Raspberry Pi running OpenWRT or Wireguard would work. We’ve purchased several GL.iNet travel routers, which are equally cost effective, highly portable and dependable. Some hotels have LAN ports in the guest room, so that’s the recommended connection point for a travel router, or you can configure the travel router to connect via Wi-Fi.

Some online travel bloggers suggests it’s possible to connect a travel router to a hotel TV that’s connected via a DHCP Ethernet connection, and technically that’s true. However, recently we stayed at a chain hotel where their Ethernet connected TV was malfunctioning. We called the front desk who sent the maintenance person, and we learned that so many guests try to connect devices (Xbox, etc) and mess up the connection that this hotel charges guests for breaking the internet.

A portable battery pack (or power bank) is almost indispensable if you have photography gear. The TSA requires you to place these in your carry on, not your check-in bags.

International calling and using high speed data when traveling used to be a veritable headache, and phone companies in North America were notorious for billing unaware travelers crazy amounts. We used to carry an extra phone and buy a prepaid SIM card in each country we traveled to, which solved local calling and data within that country, but since 2016 we’ve been using Google Fi and it has worked well for us for both international calling and data. In countries where available, we also combine an eSIM with the Fi service, which gives us a local number in the foreign country and lowers data cost even more.

Safety tips

Travel Doctor

Even before the pandemic, health related travel restrictions affected certain regions. Yellow fever (YF) and malaria are the two biggest concerns, and proof of the yellow fever vaccine is required for entry into much of West Africa and some of East Africa and elsewhere. Be aware that just because a country doesn’t have a requirement for proof of vaccination against yellow fever doesn’t imply that there is no risk of yellow fever transmission in that country. Therefore if you intend to travel internationally to ‘interesting’ places, you may as well get your YF vaccine because it’s good for life. We got our yellow fever shot in 1999 for a trip to Kenya, and we’re sill using the same Certificate of Vaccination, for instance to visit Uganda in 2021.

Malaria has no vaccine, but it is very infectious with any endemic malaria map showing how prevalent it is. It is so infectious and dangerous that although it was eradicated from Europe in the 1970s, there is even a low malaria presence in the EU, with Greece actually experiencing an outbreak in 2011. And if you’ve never had a polio shot, know that there our polio outbreak countries too.

Since various mosquitos can transmit many viruses: Malaria, Dengue, West Nile, Chikungunya and Zika, it’s good to always bring clothing in case. In our experience, wearing breathable, long-sleeved light colored clothing is best.

We highly recommend visiting a travel doctor or travel clinic, who should inform you about potential risks and protections related to Ebola, Lassa Fever, Dengue, Cholera, Malaria, Mers, etc., in the countries you’re visiting.

Travel Terminology

  • Award Inventory: a plane ticket that can be redeemed for points is an award seat and the total number of award seats available on a given flight is the award inventory for that flight.
  • Blackout period: specific dates, like holidays, where award seats or special rates are not available, due to high demand.
  • Cabin class: 4 levels of cabin classes are economy, premium economy, business and first. Different than fare class below.
  • Codeshare: An agreement between airlines where they market each other’s flights.
  • Connection: (aka Layover) when a traveler changes planes to reach their destination, and connection duration is < 4 hours for domestic and < 24 hours for international flights. Connections can be Online (same airline) or Offline (2 different airlines). A long connection time is called a stopover, explained below.
  • Direct flight: passenger doesn’t change planes, but the aircraft may stop at multiple airports en-route to the final destination, as long as the flight number doesn’t change. Different than nonstop flight, below.
  • Fare class: (aka booking class) are the rules associated with a fare: (ex. refundable or not, rewards miles earned, etc.)
  • Fifth-freedom flight: refers to the right for an airline to carry passengers from its own country to a second country, and from that country onward to a third country, resulting sometimes in better priced fare and better choice of aircraft.
  • Layover: typically refers to a connection described above. A stopover (see below) is longer than a layover.
  • Net Fare (aka consolidator fare or private fare), is the fare contracted between an airline and a consolidator and sold to retail travel agents. This is different than published fare, which offered to general public through any vendor.
  • Nonstop flight: No landing en-route. By definition, all nonstop flights are direct.
  • Open-jaw ticket: a return ticket where origin or destination are different. Fly from A to B, return from C to A. Double open-jaw tickets are fly from A to B, and return from C to D.
  • Stopover: when a connection is > 4 hours domestically and > 24 hours internationally.