What’s the secret to stepping off a plane and looking like you know exactly what you’re doing? To avoiding jet lag? To returning home without horror stories of being ripped off on your travels abroad? In short, how do you travel like a pro? Below are some tips, gathered from experience (read: learning the hard way) of almost 20 years as a pro travel writer:
1/ Set your clock
Jet lag is for amateurs. The minute you take off set your watch to local time at destination, and don’t let flight attendants confuse you by serving breakfast at 10pm and G&Ts at 7am*. If you concentrate on getting your body-clock synchronized into your new time-zone as fast as possible, the worst symptom you’re likely to suffer will be the natural mild fatigue of a long journey and a disturbed night, and rarely the full-blown 4am wakefulness of jet lag.
* I sometimes feel delightfully decadent drinking post-take-off G&T when I am trying to convince myself that it’s breakfast in Bangkok…but I rarely refuse.
2/ Organise your documents
Upload a security sheet onto your online email server with details of your credit cards (preferably coded) and ticket numbers, so that even if you lose everything you can still access the important information you need. Leave a copy with flight details etc with family so somebody is always familiar with your itinerary. Upload a scan of your passport* too.
* It saved me a lot of time and bureaucratic stress to have a copy handy when I had to replace a stolen passport in Guatemala City.
3/ Buy a SIM card for travellers
Avoid the unwelcome surprise of hefty post-trip phone bills by purchasing a pre-paid international travellers’ SIM card. I recently purchased a card from Ekit; apparently it works in 186 countries (I’ve yet to test it in all of them). This card also has a very cool advantage for family members who might be prone to worry about where you are – simply activate the fee “Journal” and your family can keep in touch with your movements. For an example see here.
4/ Get money-wise
Look up the exchange rate before you arrive in a country so that you can be sure you get the correct rate at exchange bureaus and ATMs. Once you have cash in your hand, try to familiarize yourself with the value of the notes – airport taxi drivers all over the world delight in the unexpected “tips” they get from new arrivals who mistook 100s for 10s.
5/ Stash some cash
Carry backup finances. It is invaluable to have at least two credit cards (one Visa, one MasterCard) and to keep them stashed in separate places. Also a stash of cash in the form of euros or dollars for last ditch emergencies.
6/ Lose the tags
Rip the baggage tags off your bag as soon as you’ve passed through customs – they label you (literally) as a new arrival and potential fresh meat for hustlers. Your survival tactics for the first few hours at least are based on trying to look as much as possible like “an old hand”. Walk like you know where you’re going and don’t let anyone hassle you into rash decisions.
7/ Make a plan
Try to arrive in a new country with a plan that will, at least, get you through the first day*. If you arrive late in the afternoon it can be worth shelling out slightly more for a hotel that offers airport pickup (factor in airport taxi prices and you can often even make a saving by doing this). Failing that, always use official taxis rather than unmarked private cars.
* If I’m forced to arrive without a plan – for delays for example…or simple lack of foresight – I always try to walk away from the international arrivals section and go in search of a taxi at domestic arrivals, where transport is usually cheaper and you’re seen as less of a temptation to hustlers.
8/ Learn the lingo
Learn a few words of the local language. Experts say that 200 words is all you need to communicate on the most basic level in any language, but a few stock phrases: please, thank you, excuse me, how much is it? and no problem will help you make friends and influence people.
* Two vital phrases you should know in any language: 1) “I already have one” is a great way to deter street salesmen and 2) “No problem” in the local lingo is enough to bring a smile to most faces…and if you can win a smile you’ll find that there rarely will be a problem.