Travel Essentials- The Breakdown of What You Need To Know to Have Your Best Trip
It always sounds simple, doesn’t it? It’s vacation time so we book the transportation, raid the bank, do the big shave, and get going. But a failure to plan, or an obsession with overplanning, can destroy your precious time away. We’ve got the goods on what you need to get going, stay sane, and make the most of your vacay…
It's almost as simple as picking your dream destination and hopping on the plane. Except it really doesn't always work out that easily, does it? Budget constraints are always a factor but time and your ability to travel long or short distances is also an important consideration. Australia is amazing but if you have a genuine fear of flying Sydney might not be your best option to conquer that fear. Conversely, just because you have a limited budget doesn't mean you can't plan a terrific getaway. I always marvel at how much money people are willing to pay for hotels when in fact it's the one place in which people spend the least amount of awake time in. A “good enough” hotel is perfectly fine and if it doesn't overlook Hyde Park it's OK, virtually any few-blocks walk to the park is fantastic. A little planning to balance budget and location, cut corners where they can be, and you can travel just about anywhere.
In terms of planning apps, we favor TripCase, a one stop app that contains our lodging, flights, trains, ferries and all relevant confirmation and contact numbers in one spot. Once it's been updated, it's available to us offline so we're never at a loss for our current or future trip information. TripIt is also an excellent app for those tracking expenses and flight miles online
Sights to See
It's true that you can see Berlin in 7 days, but it's also true that it will be very blurry if you do. We've preached this in many sermons at TwC: Pick the sights you really want to see and let the rest go. You can come back. And let's say you can't. In that case, pick the sights you really want to see and let the rest go. I know of folks who've blown through tourist checklists and that's great if that's your speed but know that there is another way, one that offers quality over quantity, usually saves a little money, and gives you a great reason to return! About 4 hours of seeing the sights, tacking on 30-minutes to 1-hour commutes, pretty much takes the day for you. We've found that choosing one 3 to 4-hour experience OR two 1.5-hour experiences is just about right to soak in everything each has to offer and not overload the brain or tax the body. If you're young, give yourself another half hour but always know your limits when planning.
Most major cities have a CityGuide app. Simply type in the name of the city you want to explore in your app search engine and voila, customized guides await. We prefer consulting Atlas Obscura on the web for unusual and off-the-beaten path items near us.
So it’s decided. You and yours are going on a big trip this summer as soon as the school year ends! Hurray! The lucky destination is…Paris! And while you’re there for those precious 8 days you’ll take in the Loire Valley. Afterall, it’s just a short hop from the City of Lights. You’ll be leaving mid-June for a glorious time. Wonderful! Guess who else has the same idea? Yes, half the travelling planet. Guess who predicted you and half the travelling planet will be in Paris and the Loire Valley for 8 days in mid-June? That’s right: Paris and the Loire Valley. They’re expecting you, so much so that they’ve jacked up their prices, created what they believe you’ll believe is a really great bargain package, and they can’t wait for you to get there, give them lots of money, and leave so they can get on with their lives.
If it’s possible, it’s wisest to leave the tourist season to those amateurs and use your time (and money) on the season(s) that are more reasonably priced and less populated with the touring throngs. We love “shoulder season,” that time from March to mid-May, and mid-September to December when the crowds are thinner, the seasons are more temperate, and the prices are more welcoming. It doesn’t mean we don’t go anywhere in summer- we travel full time so we’re always somewhere- but it does mean we choose the less plotted routes and settle into areas that don’t attract the amateurs. Choose the time that works best for your needs and keep away from the lemmings jumping off the Paris-in-June cliff.
If you don't have a passport, whether you plan to travel soon or not, we always advise you get one and keep it up to date. Then, if a sudden opportunity presents itself, you've already got the long tent pole. Passport turnaround times vary from country to country but count on anywhere from 3 weeks to a few months for processing time. Expedited service can be had- for a sizable fee- so best to just be prepared and have it ready. The occasion will indeed present itself if you're ready to go.
Two schools of thought exist on this: carry your credit card or carry cash. The right credit card can offer terrific rates if you're moving between currencies but check the rates to be sure. The right credit card can also give you a vacation now that you can pay for later. If you're that person, then we wish you well and have a great time. Just be prepared to pay interest on your vacation or prepare for a cash windfall to pay for it in one or two go's. Credit cards that allow high balances can blow your vacation budget right out of the water though, so if you're not a terribly disciplined person, this might not be your best option.
Cash is king no matter where you are. ATM's generally give the best exchange rates so if you choose this option check current exchange rates and your own bank fees. American banks will charge you if you're not their customer. European banks do NOT charge fees. Asia varies from country to country and from bank to bank so please, check before you leave.
A third option is to use a multi-currency card for cash and card purchases. This is our favored option. We use our own money so we don't rack up credit card debt, and we can use it anywhere. What's more, it's loaded with only as much as we need, making our budgeting much simpler. The exchange rates aren’t quite as good as ATM but they're better than kiosk exchange rates and there are plenty of no-fee options out there, so you don't have to worry about carrying wads of cash but you always have access to paper money.
Our money converter of choice is Globe Convert. GlobeConvert is connected to current currency rates and provides currency conversions for even the most obscure money. What's more, if you're switching from metric to imperial measurements or vice versa, GC can also help with that. I'd have burned any number of foods in the oven if not for this handy app!
We've always chosen to spend just a little bit of time learning at least the basics of the languages we're about to encounter. Some of them- German, French, Spanish- we've chosen to go several steps further, but we always spend about 10 days to 2 weeks learning what we have discovered are the essentials of communication and goodwill. We've provided a shortlist of things to remember to make your journey easier, but always remember: You're the guest; it's their home before it's your vacation destination. Trying to learn what you can of the native language is just polite manners.
We use Google Translate to grasp the basics before we go and to translate while we're there. What;s more, Google has a handy camera that will help you with menus, road signs, and the like, and your new friends can speak into the mic and Google will translate that for you!
Airlines are getting stingy about carry on luggage as well as checked bags. Packing for every possible eventuality is cumbersome and nowadays, it's downright expensive. We pack the bare minimums and understand we can always buy toothpaste somewhere. In fact, though this isn't for everyone, I don't pack a single liquid bottle for my flights so I have nothing more than a laptop to lay out for the conveyor belt at airport security checkpoints. That might not suit you, but you'll save your back, your wallet, and a whole lot of transport hassle by simply packing what you can easily carry with you. Trust me, you'll manage just fine.
I traveled extensively domestically and abroad for decades, and during that time I scuba dived at least a hundred times, flew a few gliders, and did a number of things for which I should have been (but wasn't) insured. One I hit 50, and I realized I might not live forever, insurance made more sense. Travel insurance would certainly have helped if I had developed the bends or crashed a glider but more than that, travel insurance is also there if something unexpected happens to the mechanics of your trip- your flight is canceled, your luggage is lost, your stuff is stolen, etc. It's up to you as to whether you want to risk it or not. The first six months after my move to the UK was without insurance and I used what is now our “go to” travel insurance group, World Nomad Insurance to cover me. We love it because you can decide your terms, your coverage time, and it's an inexpensive safety net should a calamity occur. There are an abundance of travel insurers out there so by all means, shop around. We've landed on World Nomads because they've provided the best support at the best rate for our needs. And no, you don't have to be a nomad to take of advantage of the best rates, but while we're at it, why not give it a good long think!
Our overall favorite travel app for everything is Kayak. We rely on Kayak to check hotel, airfare and car rental prices when we need them to get us the best deals. But Kayak can't do everything so we'll break down the specifics here for you.
Car- We don't rely on autos much but on the occasion that we need it, we use Kayak, which has proven to have the best rates comparisons. A car is easily the best way to call your own shots and get where you want to go on your trip. It is also the most isolating way to travel so choose wisely how you want to spend your valuable time: immersed in culture or driving from place to place.
Air- Kayak provides the best fare comparisons for us when we do fly but your favored airline is always the best bet, especially when you have accumulated miles or are planning to rack them up on this trip. If your flexible with time or destinations, Jetto is terrific at finding those great last minute deals for you and, like Kayak, you can set up price alerts as you wish.
Train- This is our favored mode of long haul transport because it is so civilized. And also Chelsea loves her trains. The Trainline app is great for shopping but again, as with airlines, your favorite operator is your best go to. Another global train purchasing/ticketing app is MBTA mTicket, which is an all-in-one train app.
Boat- Yes, sometimes you have to take a boat. We do every time we leave our home base country because, despite what the natives believe, it's an island. Operators generally seem to have monopolies on certain routes so our best recommendation is to search your origination and destination routes for the carrier of choice for you and possibly your auto. Stena is our choice to the continent or to Ireland.
Mass Transit- On the opposite end of car rentals is the good old mass transit option, and our preferred method of short range travel. And it is truly the polar opposite to car travel in that your time and destination flexibility is rather confined to timetables but the cultural immersion experience is unbeatable. Every major city and most minor cities have local transport apps that will contain purchase options or info, timetables, route maps, and virtually everything you need to plan your day. If you've got a dog and are in the US, Spain, or Portugal, this is not your best option. Animals and mass transit don't mix. However, all of Europe and select locations in Asia do allow dogs aboard (some for a small fee). Consult your world wide interwebs for the mass transit app that suits your needs and check the local area animal transport policy before you leave the house so your furry friend isn't stuck in a hotel whilst you're off living the dream.
Europeans (which for now still includes Brits) have it fairly lucky in our travels in that our phone plans carry into most of the continent seamlessly. However, when I travel back to the states I'm in a pickle. So a few things on the subject very briefly. First, if you have an unlocked phone- one that is not provided by and bound to your carrier- then your options are limitless. If your phone is unlocked simply purchase a SIM card at your destination that suits your needs and price range. This is much easier done outside the US as SIM card kiosks and shops are readily available. The more convenient (but typically more expensive) route is to buy an international package from your current carrier to cover your travel geography. If you have the money but don't have the time or inclination to shop for better prices, this is your best option. Our experience, and the experience of our friends who have traveled extensively beyond Europe also report that kiosks and cheap short term plans are readily available and accessible almost from the point of disembarkation. In the US things are very different. I have NEVER found it an easy task to simply grab a SIM and go anywhere in the states and have had to resort to shopping a few prominent carriers to price out data costs. Unfortunately, data costs in the US are comparatively very expensive and I've never found a few weeks worth of data that doesn't cost more than my entire monthly phone bill back in the UK. It has proven cheaper for me to extend my UK contract briefly to cover my stay in the US. We'll be writing more on this topic in depth but for now, these are your options. Please note that as data providers and national affiliations change, some of this information will become invalid. We'll do our best to keep you updated.
I love taking photos and I love to indulge in the local beer which means I have access to the local pubs' beer coasters. Those are my souvenirs. T-shirts wear out, frou frou gifts can break on travel or grow old once they've arrived back home. We dispense with that and collect the priceless, packable memories instead. If the beer coaster wears out, I never paid for it anyway. I store photos in the cloud and can bring them down to edit or admire them at will. T-shirts that say “Property of Cayman Islands” might tell everyone you went to the Cayman Islands, but only for about 2 years until it wears out and does anyone care anyway? Also, two days ago I had my choice from a whole rack of “Property of Cayman Islands” t-shirts on sale at TK Maxx in Lancashire and the Cayman's is one of the very few Caribbean Islands I've never visited. So there's that. Bottom line is you have limited room in your bags so choose wisely which souvenirs will travel back with you and give you lasting memories of your fabulous trip.
You’ve worked hard for this trip and you deserve it, so travel smart, travel safe, but always travel! See you on the road!