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Travel Tips Series – Be Prepared Before You Go

Answer These Eight Questions Before Going on Your Next Vacation

Everyone loves a vacation, and research shows that the time you spend planning a vacation brings you even more joy than the vacation itself – as you anticipate and talk about the enjoyable times you’ll be spending once that circled date on the calendar arrives. The period between “Thank you for booking with Orbitz” and “We’re now boarding group five” is a magical time of wistful expectation for distant exotic lands, where everything will work out perfectly, every pampering need will be met, and that horrible jerk from accounting will be nowhere to be found.

I’ve been similarly excited for every leg of our trip (disclaimer: all previous colleagues from my accounting departments have been delightful!). As we traveled from country to country planning each of our next stops on our One-year Retirement, we developed a checklist of questions to ask ourselves before we walked out the door to the airport.

Going through this planning checklist before each stop is a two-fer benefit for me: I get the great endorphin rush of anticipating how great the travel will be, and I get to head off any frustrating or expensive mistakes that could put a damper on the trip.

For some of these questions, we were keen enough to check on them before we started our trip. For others, we realized a mistake we’d made along the way and added or refined a question on the list. After 33 countries, we now have developed a travel-tested checklist that can help ensure the only surprise on your vacation will be that complimentary drink from the hotel.

This checklist is part of a three-part series of travel tips I’ve picked up after traveling to 33 countries and 120 cities and towns over the last year. This week we’re focusing on how best to prepare for your trip before you walk out the door.

Jim’s Pre-Flight Checklist

For the each country we visited, we made sure we answered these eight questions before we departed so that we weren’t scrambling at the arrival airport and were ready to enjoy our destination as soon as we landed.

1. What is the visa requirement? Yes, it’s obvious, but especially if you’re traveling to more than one country on your trip, this could get lost in the shuffle. Most countries have either an online form so that you can receive an approval via email, or no requirement for U.S. travelers. But know before you go, obviously. And if your destination allows for day trips to another country, as it does in much of Europe and some southeast Asian countries, check the visa requirements for U.S. citizens for those countries, too, in case you decide to make an unscheduled side trip.

2. How are we getting to the hotel/AirBnB?

Don’t wait until you land to figure out how you’re getting to your hotel, and what the route will be. You are going to be tired from the plane ride, so make this leg of your journey as simple as possible. By the time we had landed in Paris – our 26th country on the trip – we thought ourselves experienced travelers, but after a late-night arrival to Orly airport, we accidentally stepped into an unauthorized cab. This resulted in a call to hotel security and a late-night shouting match with the cab driver in front of the hotel. I don’t speak French, but I’m pretty sure I heard a not-so-friendly reference to my mother. That’s not how you’ll want to start your vacation. So look at the transport ahead of time and choose based on what’s available and what you prefer:

  • Public Transport: If you’re adventurous enough to use public transportation in a new country, determine if there’s a convenient bus or subway ride to your hotel. If you’re nervous, you can check the public transport websites before your trip, but invariably there will be written directions or staff available to explain everything. You can also check with your hotel website or Airbnb host to get advice on the best route from the airport.

  • Ride-sharing Service: Uber or Lyft would be easiest, if they’re available. Check the apps, and if they’re available in your destination country, make sure they allow for airport pickup. Then make sure you’ll have airport wifi or a SIM card (see my tip on getting a SIM for international data) in order to ensure you can access the app when you land.

  • Taxi: If there’s no Uber, Lyft, or other ride-sharing service, check online travel sites like TripAdvisor to find out if there is a cab-ride purchasing service at the airport. These help prevent unscrupulous cab drivers from overcharging tourists by pre-paying for the cab ride at the airport and designating total ride costs beforehand. You can also email your hotel or Airbnb host and ask for advice on using taxis.

3. Do we need local currency? Some travelers make a stop at their bank to get destination currency before they leave, which is unnecessary. Unless you’re traveling to Gilligan’s Island, you’ll have no problem getting the best currency rates at a local ATM (don’t use airport currency converters whose rates are less favorable to customers). The local ATM is usually our first stop at the airport. We use a debit account, so we make sure before we leave that we have enough cash in the account so that we can withdraw it from the airport ATM. We use the Charles Schwab debit card, which doesn’t charge international withdrawal fees, and even refunds us for all ATM bank fees anywhere in the world. If you travel a lot, get this card. If you prefer to use your own card, just make sure your card doesn’t charge international fees for withdrawals. Over the past year our Schwab card saved us hundreds of dollars in international fees, and sent us monthly refunds on ATM fees totaling an additional $145!

4. How do we get a SIM card?

Eliminate your phone company’s international roaming charges and get a SIM card for use while you’re in the country you’re visiting. I wrote extensively about this last week. Many times, you’ll be able to get a SIM card in the airport. If so, that should be be your second airport stop.

4. Can we drink the water?

Check online to see if you can safely drink tap water in the country you’re visiting. While we were in much of South America and Southeast Asia, we bought bottled water either at the airport or at the nearest bodega when we arrived, so we immediately had it at the hotel/AirBnB.

5. What should we tip?

We decided we’d follow local customs on tipping. So in each country we’d research how much was typically tipped for servers, cab drivers, etc. so that we could feel reasonably comfortable that we weren’t short-changing anyone. We’ve used as a resource.

6. Do we have the Map?

For many users, Google Maps is your preferred GPS mapping app. If you’ll be in a major city, I’d recommend using CityMapper app instead. CityMapper is better equipped with more features, including great integration with local public transport options. (But make sure your city is on the app before you arrive as not all cities are integrated into this more comprehensive service yet.)

Regardless of which app you use, make sure you not only have the hotel address on your phones before you arrive, but also download the city map via Google Maps to your phone, so that even if you can’t get a SIM card or Wifi, you have a map of the city ready to input any directions you need. Downloading the Google map of a city onto your smartphone is easy. Just type the city name in your Google Map search bar, then pull up the city information and click on “download.” It only takes a minute to download and is available to you for the entire trip regardless of your wifi situation. Save your lodging destination on your map as well so you can easily find it when you land. Find the hotel on the map, pull up the summary information, and click “save” to put a star on the map where you’ll be headed.

7. How do we say “Hello” and “Thank you”?

Interacting with locals is much easier if you show that you’re making even a cursory effort to understand their language. Starting a conversation with the native “hello” makes that conversation go much better, even if you don’t know another word. And of course say thank you, because that’s what your mom taught you.

There’s a lot of winging it when it comes to travel, which can sometimes provide an entertaining story when you’re back home, but more often than not just results in frustration, headaches and unnecessary costs. Go through this checklist before you leave, and leave the spur-of-the-moment decisions to your dinner plans and whether you’ll have a bottle of red or white.

Let me know what you’d add to this travel checklist, or your travel successes or failures that we could learn from. I'd love to hear from you in the comments below. And be sure to "like" and forward this post! Next Friday, I’ll provide my best tips on how to save money while traveling.


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