© 2011 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.
With more than 1,500,000 air miles (2.5 million kms) under my belt (see "Travel - Fly Me to the Moon", from May 2010), and quite a few driving trips as well, I have a lot of experience at preparing for travel, and in this essay I'm going to share some of my tips with you. However, remember that I am far from normal!
Many years ago, I remember reading some advice about packing. It went something like this: Put on your bed all the stuff you are thinking of taking on your trip and divide it into three piles. Pile 1 contains the "absolutely essential" things; Pile 2 contains the "nice to have stuff"; and Pile 3 has those things that maybe, just maybe, you might have occasion to use. Now, when you have done that, take Piles 2 and 3 and put those things back in your cupboards! Personally, I find that to be good advice. With my packing, I try to be a minimalist, and I've gotten pretty good at it to the point that I rarely get back home from a trip and find that I didn't actually use something I packed, except hopefully the first aid kit.
- Unless you are seriously physically impaired or a small child, don't take more pieces of luggage than you can manage yourself at one time without any assistance for at least 400 yards.
- Buy only cases with wheels. There are two main kinds: those with two wheels that have a (sometimes adjustable-length) rigid handle you use to pull, and those with four wheels that have a flexible strap you use to pull. Whichever you get, make sure that the wheel assembly is well made and preferably recessed to protect it from damage. (That said, note that wheels don't work at all well on cobblestones, which are prevalent in many European streets, so be ready to carry your luggage at least some of the time.)
- Lots of luggage is cheap and nasty, and after only one bout of typical airline baggage handling, can show serious signs of wear. Don't buy a $20 case for a $2,000 vacation!
- Luggage will get cut, scratched, and marked, so don't get hung up about its appearance. And don't spend more than is necessary. Besides, having expensive/designer luggage marks you as a potential target for thieves and scam artists.
- In these days of security checks, your luggage may be opened by security without your being present, even if it is locked. Besides, locks only keep honest people out, so don't get hung up on locking your luggage. I never lock mine.
- Invest in some decent labels that cannot be removed easily. Print the information clearly. Most ID tags that come with luggage are pretty crappy.
- Put your home address and contact information inside the luggage as well, preferably written in felt pen, so it can't be erased easily.
- Many bags and cases look alike. By using a secure strap with a distinctive color or design, you can more easily identify your bag on a baggage carousel.
- Don't put anything really valuable or critical to your trip in your checked luggage.
- Limit your carry-on luggage to a computer bag or attaché case, a purse, a garment bag, and a fanny pack/bum bag. Yes, waiting for your luggage on arrival can take time, but trying to carry everything onboard a plane might mean you have to use the space under the seat in front of you for storage, and for those of us with long legs and/or on long flights, that's a definite no-no.
- Once at my destination, for personal activities I find a small daypack to be useful, to carry around a water bottle, some snack food, maps, guidebooks, and a first aid kit. If you don't take it aboard as carry-on luggage, fold it flat and put it inside your checked luggage.
- I'm a big fan of hands-free travel, so whenever possible, I take a backpack and I wear a fanny pack; that's it. That way, I can keep both hands free to push and shove my way onto public transport along with the locals, and to hold on to the bus/train straps if I'm forced to stand.
- Let's start with the most important item, shoes! My guess is that by far the weakest part of any traveler's wardrobe is his or her footwear. Specifically, people plan on doing a lot of walking in shoes that were not designed for that purpose. While I'm no spendthrift, I spend at least $120 for a pair of good walking shoes, which I buy at a high-end store that supplies hikers. [In fact, I practically live in those kinds of shoes any time I'm out of the house and not attending formal meetings.]
- Get practical! This means that while you might not go down your local street in your gardening clothes or without your hair done just right, almost everyone you will meet while traveling will be strangers who you will never see again. You certainly do not need a different outfit every day! In any event, dress to please yourself. But above all, be comfortable. It never ceases to amaze me how many people dress in business suits and such for an international flight during which they will sleep in their clothes! As for me, I like things loose, and I always undo my shoelaces while in flight, as my feet swell with the pressure difference.
- My favorite all-purposes clothing item is lightweight khaki trousers that dry quickly when wet, have zippered pockets, and whose legs can be removed by unzipping them and without taking my shoes off. For short trips I take only one pair; for longer trips I take two.
- My next favorite piece is a lightweight Gore-Tex coat with lots of pockets, some zippered some not. Buy one that supports a zip-in/zip-out liner jacket.
- Wear clothes in layers, so you can add or remove a layer at a time.
- Socks are important, and I often wear special polypropylene wicking socks underneath other socks, that wick the perspiration from my feet.
- I always carry a baseball cap in one coat pocket and a woolen cap and gloves in another.
- A sheet of aluminum foil: It's light and takes up next-to-no space, yet you can use it for a 100 purposes from wrapping up leftover food, making a drinking cup, to storing pills/tablets. But you have to remember to take it with you everywhere; otherwise, you won't have it when you need it!
- Some of those clear plastic zip-up bags, in various sizes
- An alarm: you can't always rely on a hotel's wake-up call system and, besides, who will wake you if you fall asleep with jetlag on a long bus or train ride?
- A small flashlight. [My friend John tells me that Mag lights are great. They are fairly small, built tough, waterproof, take only two AA batteries, and last a very long time. They also have an extra light bulb hidden inside the unit.]
- Some compact travel games and/or a deck of playing cards
- A pair of sunglasses (or clip-ons) and a spare pair of eyeglasses. And maybe even your prescription
- Insect repellent
- Sun screen and lip balm
- A hand towel
- Medication, headache tablets, a basic first-aid kit, blister pads and stuff to deal with foot problems when doing a lot of walking
- A strong, plastic knife, fork, and spoon (or spork): I sometimes take a plastic bowl and cup as well, although leftover containers from take-away food places work just as well.
- Swiss Army knife
- A compact pillow for the plane flight and/or the hotel. I can sleep on gravel if I have a good pillow!
- Some simple groceries: I often take some packets of ketchup, pepper, salt, sugar, instant coffee, and tea bags, which are things that are difficult to buy in small amounts while traveling.
- Reading materials
- A small roll of toilet paper or a pack of tissues. Not all public toilets will have paper, and €10 bills are not meant for that purpose!
- For longer trips, some washing powder: many hotels have clothes lines in their rooms; hotel laundry services are usually quite expensive, so find a coin-operated laundry instead
- Writing materials to send letters and postcards
- Passport and visa(s)
- Health/vaccination card
- Travel tickets and itinerary, accommodation and car rental vouchers, reservation confirmation slips
- A domestic/international driver's license, as appropriate
- Business cards: It's handy to give them to interesting people you meet, and you can write your personal contact information on the back. If you don't have a business card, consider making some on your home computer and printing them on card stock.
- My airline Frequent Flyer Club gives me "reward coupons" that I can hand out to gate agents, flight attendants, and such who give me extra good service
- Contact names, addresses, and telephone numbers
- Travel/guide books
- Foreign language guides
- Membership card for automobile club service
- Membership card for hosting organizations and host lists
- A map of your own country to show people who ask where you are from
Money and Valuables
- Some cash in your home currency sufficient for when you get back from an international trip and need a taxi or a cup of coffee, for example
- A primary and a backup credit card (along with their PINs): Some PINs contain letters, yet many cash machines around the world have only digits on their keypads, so if yours have letters, make sure you know the corresponding digits. Twice in the past two years, I've had my primary card cancelled for suspected fraudulent use while I was traveling, hence the recommendation to have a backup card.
- Check with your credit card company to see if they put a surcharge on purchases made outside your home country (mine charge an extra 3%)
- Cash machines are readily available in the developed world, so best to get local currency once there as you need it. However, some machines insist on giving you very large-valued bills, which can be hard to change.
- Buying foreign currency in your home country is very likely to be more expensive than buying it at your destination.
- Travelers checks are pretty much a thing of the past
- Consider having a money/passport pouch to wear under your clothing
- If traveling with companions, don't have one person carry all the cash; spread it around, so it doesn't all get lost or stolen at the same time
- I usually take a set of my country's coins (including some special-issue ones) to show people or to give as souvenirs
- Leave all but your "essential" jewelry at home
Electronics and Electrics
- Laptop or netbook computer: these are useful for handling email; browsing the internet; playing music; using an internet phone system (such as Skype); viewing, sorting/renaming, and backing up digital photos; and even viewing video.
- A headset for computer/internet phone use (my netbook has built-in speakers, a microphone and a webcam, but my laptop has only speakers)
- Spare high-capacity memory sticks to hold backups of computer files and digital photos
- Digital camera, spare memory card, and charger
- Digital video camera, spare tapes or disks, and charger
- International power adaptor: I have several that take "anything in" and have "anything out", which includes support for plugs and sockets for US, Australia/NZ, Continental Europe, and the British Isles, all in one unit. Sometimes, it is convenient to be charging more than one device at a time; however, an international adaptor has only one socket. As such, I take a 3-way plug and I put that into the adaptor, allowing me to charge up to three things at once.
- I use a Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) for my calendar, contacts, notes, and diaries. I could also use it for email and web browsing. It has a charger. A mobile phone might suffice for most of these activities, but international phone roaming charges may bankrupt you!
- If you can avoid it, don't take any appliances that draw a lot of current, such as hair dryers or curling tongs
- Men, for the most part, you can probably find support for an electric shaver, but you might want to take a hand razor and small soap stick instead, if not as well
- Tent with poles, pegs and waterproofing sealant if not waterproofed ahead of time (rarely works once you are there and it rains and leaks; a patch of duct tape works best then)
- A small roll of duct tape or some wrapped around the outside of your thermos or water bottle
- Bedding: pillow, sleeping bag, mattress, air pump
- Lantern and spare mantles
- Gas bottles
- Waterproof matches
- Cooking pots, pans, utensils, sharp knives, and cutting board
- Crockery and cutlery
- Axe and shovel
- Bucket and quart/gallon plastic jug
- Ice chest and ice
- Folding chairs and possibly a table
- Garbage bags
- Ropes and octopus straps
- Thermos for hot/cold drinks and/or food
- Basic set of tools
- A whistle
- Groceries, including cooking support such as oil and spices
Traveling with Kids
- Take along activities to keep them happy especially when they have to wait 8 hours at an airport for a delayed flight. The two best things I found was a deck of UNO cards and some sort of music player on which you can record their favorite books
- Some airlines and train services still give out play kits to young travelers, so ask. And with the more sophisticated airline video systems available now even in Economy Class, kids have a much wider range of things to watch
- Don't expect your kids (or many adults, for that matter) to want to spend 4 hours in an art museum! Plan some kid-friendly activities and keep an eye out for playgrounds
- Take a spiral-bound book and work with your child/children to make a diary of the trip. Not only can you write in it each day, you can have the people you meet write in it, in their native language. You can glue in post cards, stickers, and stamps, receipts, brochures, and tickets, for example.
Things to do Before You Leave Home
- For not-necessarily-exotic destinations, at least 8 weeks in advance check if any vaccinations or (anti-malaria or other) tablets are required
- Arrange for garden and/or indoor plant support
- Arrange for pet support
- Arrange transportation to/from your home airport/train station
- Suspend postal deliveries or arrange for someone to collect your mail
- Suspend newspaper deliveries and have someone collect any free community newspapers that get thrown in your yard
- Consider leaving one or more lights on inside, or have them be triggered by a timer
- Consider recording a new answer phone message (see below)
- Switch off appliances, computers, and such
- Switch off the water supply to the washing machine or perhaps the whole house
- Adjust the heating/air conditioning levels
- Tell your immediate neighbors, so they can "keep an eye" on your place
- If appropriate, disable automatic downloading of email to your home computer, so you can get it on a different computer while traveling (this is necessary if you use something like MS Outlook, but not if you get your mail via a web browser)
- If you have a mobile phone and want to be able to make and/or receive calls while abroad, you'll need to see if you need SIM cards, and what the call charges will be. Alternatively, you might want to look at renting a mobile in the destination country
- On most personal trips, I keep an electronic diary. Before the start of each trip, I clone the general outline from the previous diary and get that setup with headings for each day of the new trip, so it's "ready to go".
- Check with your credit card company to see if they would like to know where and when you will be going, so charges made in those countries at those times will not be considered suspicious and cause them to suspend or cancel your card while you are away
- If you have just bought a new still or video camera before your trip, spend serious time getting to know how to use it properly before you go. If you don't you run a high risk of capturing all those wonderful moments abroad, yet find they are pretty crappy once you get back home and look carefully at them. This is especially so with video where people move the camera way too fast, and with stills when they pay no attention to where the sun and other glare is while they take pictures.
Make sure you leave your house in a "safe" state, but without advertising to the casual passerby that you are actually away. For example, this suggests that you might not want to change your answer phone message to say that you are away, or at least not say just how long you will be gone.
Now, who has the most to gain by having a good trip? You do. And who has the most to lose by having a bad trip? You do. So who should make the most effort to plan for a successful trip? Obviously, it's you, not your partner and not your travel agent or friend who recommended the trip.
Above all, have a Plan B, even for Plan B. When things don't go right or as planned, be ready to move to a backup plan before you let yourself get upset. And if you find there was something you should have brought along but didn't, write it down and update your travel-planning list when you get home.