While I’m not a seasoned traveller (neither am I a business traveller), I have travelled enough, both with tour groups and on Free & Easy, to know that there are certain things while travelling that, when they go wrong, they mean more hassle than ‘adding spices to the travel memories’.
Let’s start with the most basic practice:
Buy That Travel Insurance
A travel insurance, like all insurance, is bought to safeguard against things we don’t expect would happen, but when that happens, it meant a lot of inconveniences and losses. Many of the bad surprises mentioned below could be mitigated by asking people for favours or receiving some solace by yelling at the customer service officers, but when the time comes for insurance covers, it usually mean factors beyond our control.
When I went to Seoul in 2006, I came down with sever food poisoning. When the tour guide finally brought me to the doctor in the morning, that jab cost me well over a 100SGD. Luckily, that was about the worst I had ever encountered on a trip, save for a few flight delays. But when the inconveniences amount to a sum larger than the initial travel budget, that few tens of dollars on travel insurance would seem trivial.
Pick Up Those Tickets
One of the unwelcome surprise after a red-eye flight to Paris (on a very uncomfortable Air France flight) was the realisation that I did not have the train tickets out of the airport (and by inference, all the tickets to and from Colmar and back to the airport) with me. I had arranged for the tickets to be sent to me, but somehow I had forgotten to make sure that the tickets were in my hands before I flew.
The horror that my whole family would be stuck in the airport for an unknown length of time struck me.
As it turned out, despite being a very modernised city, Parisians have difficulties sending packages to Asian addresses. That was ironic, because e-commerce is all the rage now and the woman at the counter told me ‘Asian addresses are so weird packages tend to get lost’. She did give a very useful advice, though, “Next time you come to France, pick up any tickets in France.”
Some to think of it, when I planned my Free & Easy tours, the only travel essentials I had delivered to me were the tourist passes, because they came with the guidebook that would be useful for researches. On the other hand, my rail tickets, theatre tickets and what-nots were collected in the destination city itself.
I did not know what came into me that culminated into that Paris incident.
However, that did prove to me that arranging for collection, though troublesome (and subject to queueing up in lines), is a very good safeguard.
Prepare Heat Packs
When people turn up the heat too much in an aircon room, I would tell them, “When you are cold, you can pile on more clothes. When I am warm, do you expect me to take off my clothes in front of you?”
The truth is, it is easier to prepare for cold than for heat, because humans evolved out of a warm climate and the fact that the temperature of tourist-friendly places more often than not tend to drop to temperatures lower than the human body could normally take.
But then I digress.
One time, on a trip to Silk Road, I made the mistake of not reading the itinerary properly. I had assumed that since it was still autumn in the region, I need only pack for that weather. In fact, as someone who can withstand cold rather well, I found no need to add on layers for most part of the journey.
However, there was a short part (perhaps only half a day’s worth) in which we went up to a few thousand metres above sea level, to cross a pass. We were told to go out for a photo-op, and that was when I regretted not bringing any coat with me.
That being said, packing for the sake of a 30-min photo op was a waste of effort. A heat pack would be convenient and useful.
Heat packs would be useful for people like me, whose knees start to hurt on long haul flights, because the prolonged cold and cramped position could really rob one of a good rest.
As for travelling to hot and dry places, there is no need for much preparations, because tourists tend to avoid those places and when they do visit them, there are plenty of people there to advice or provide support. Don’t ask me why. It seemed that people are more conscious about dying in the heat than dying in the cold.
The advent of big, hardy luggage case (note: hard case) and airline’s generosity of check-in luggage weight creates the illusion for travellers to ‘pack for emergencies’. The fact is, it would make more sense and practicality to pack small and light, albeit with multiple baggage, than to have 1 large, 25-kg luggage.
One fine example was the train trip from Charles de Gaulle Airport to Colmar. Like any other train, there was a luggage compartment near the door. However, there were just too many tourists who needed to keep their luggage there. My family and I could not secure a spot and had to keep our big luggage with us at the seats, which also blocked the aisle.
Halfway through, some passengers vacated the luggage compartment, but that was on the 2nd and 3rd tier. Our luggage was so heavy that I could not even lift it off the floor above knee level, much less onto the tier.
Had we packed lighter, or split our luggage, some of it could be stored in the overhead compartment instead. And especially important for travellers not travelling with tour groups, travelling on foot is the norm. Therefore, travelling light is the topmost choice over splitting luggage and packing into 1 heavy luggage.
Plan and Walk Less
Tour groups are good in a sense that tourists are literally brought to the doorsteps of most attractions, many of which happen to be out of cities and away from public transport.
By inference, travelling F&E meant a lot of travelling on foot.
Even in highly developed cities, where subway stations are abound, walking (and climbing steps) should still be factored in. Cities like Paris, HK and Tokyo are ‘walking cities’ with minimal escalators or elevators, in addition to their multitude of exits per station. This mean navigation and pre-planning is very important, especially to save ourselves from leg-fatigues.
Therefore, identify all attractions, plot it on a map with visible indications of public transport, and plan to visit attractions in a cluster. If an attraction is too way off, a cost-benefit analysis must be done, instead of ‘following heart’, because that would mean betraying your legs. Finally, match the itinerary with the opening hours of the attraction and re-shuffle if required.
And did I mention to pack light in anticipation of these long journeys on foot (and up and down steps)?
Prepare Spare Cash
No, that’s not for the unexpected shopping surprise. It’s more to buy yourself out of hassles.
And no, it’s not like what my father used to tell me. “Always have a $50 note with you, so that if you get robbed, the robber would not be angry and hurt you because you have no money to hand over to him.”
In Nepal, the best way to clear the customs fast (the queue could take up to an hour) is to be a Caucasian. In other words, if you are blond, you can literally jump the queue and push that Asian-looking guy already at the counter aside to get served first, and the police would still smile and welcome you to Nepal. The next best alternative is to show the officer cash that “happened to be in your passport”. In fact, what I witnessed was a guy who just walked up to the counter, pushed that guy who was already there aside, while waving the stack of cash before the officer.
That being said, promoting, or even abetting corruption is strongly discouraged. However, when in Rome, do as the Romans do. Holidaying overseas meant that we only intend to spend at the destination for a short period of time. Being embroiled in unnecessary, prolonged dispute should be avoided, especially when it could be resolved with spare cash in handy.
And then there’s that impromptu shopping.
Catch That Flight
The worst nightmare of all travellers was to miss that flight. It meant total change of plans and possible huge losses in money.
The old advice of planning to reach early is easy to follow, but the devil is in the details (and planning).
For one, never plan to catch a flight in another city. If you are flying from NYC, plan to stay your final night in NYC, even if the flight departs at night. A missed train, train delay or even cancellation of service would mean 100% chance of missing that flight. Planning to arrive the night before gives plenty of reaction time for such unexpected surprises.