Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Perils of Trip Planning ...continued...Some Tips on How to Reduce Some of Those Perils

As promised, here are some tips to make your travel planning easier. Of course, everyone has their own way of doing things and I’m sure I've only covered a very small portion of what needs to go into some trips. My list is comprised of things I learned along the way that have helped me make the process an easier one.

TRAVEL PLANNING TIPS – The beginning stages

We’ll assume by this point, you have already decided where to go so now you need to do some research on your destination. Even if you prefer not to plan ahead and wish to just jump into a country knowing very little beforehand, it is important to do some research. Research everything about the country. Research things like:
-crime statistics
-emergency numbers
-local customs and traditions
-the weather
-bus schedules
-how much things will cost
-what type of currency will you need
-accessibility to things you may require during your travels such as banks, hostels, embassies and bus stations.
-natural disasters that can occur in the area

Make sure to find out what is required of you to visit the country you are traveling to. Do you need proof of vaccination? Some countries have no vaccination requirements, some recommend you get certain vaccines and some require proof of certain ones. This needs to be done as early as possible because you will need to make an appointment with your doctor and have any needles administered at least 6 weeks before departure in order for them to take affect. Is there an exit fee at your destination? If so, you will need to have cash on hand to pay it before departing. Does the country you are visiting require you to have proof of an ongoing ticket in order to enter? If you need this and do not have it, you may be refused entry or you may be required to purchase an ongoing plane or bus ticket. Are visas required to enter the country you are traveling to? You can find out by visiting your federal government’s website. Do you plan on driving at your destination? An international driver’s license may be required.

There are many ways to learn more about your destination. You can:
-Ask friends and family members who have been there.
-Read other traveler’s experiences on their personal blogs.
-Read reviews on travel websites such as Trip Advisor.
-Watch videos about your destination or watch movies that are set there.
-Take part in travel forums. I needed to find out some information about my trip and found the use of forums, such as the ones on Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet, to be very useful.
-Read books about your destination

TRAVEL PLANNING TIPS – Midway

Once you have decided where you are going and have done some research (which should be ongoing right up to departure), you can now figure out the rest of your trip such as flights, accommodation, activities, etc.

Flights
Getting a good deal on flights can be tricky. In fact, it’s a gamble to say the least. One day, your preferred flight route could be half the price that it is the next day. And vice versa. Here are some tips on getting the best price for your flight:
-Sign up for “deal alert” newsletters from a number of airfare suppliers including the airlines themselves and other sites such as Hotwire,Expedia, CheapOair and Orbitz. There are many such sites and a simple search in Google or other search engine will turn up many results. Hotwire, in particular, has a feature that allows you to type in your desired itinerary and other information to receive periodic alerts of when that route is on sale and when the price goes up.
-It is said that airfare is at its cheapest on Tuesdays at 3PM. Whether or not there is any truth to this or not, many travelers and industry professionals back up this claim so it can’t hurt to make this timeframe a priority when searching for airfare.
-Try not to book too early unless you do find a very good deal. Booking to early means you could miss out on last-minute deals later on and there are some very good deals to be had at the last minute if you can wait that long!
-If possible, book flights that fly in and out of smaller, lesser-known airports as this can also save you some money.
-Being flexible with dates can also get you a good deal and there is also the option of flying on stand-by if your schedule allows. If you are lucky, your plane may be overbooked and you can volunteer to get bumped by a day or two and in return be thanked with airfare vouchers to be used on future flights with the airline.
-Make sure to read the fine print before you book so you are aware of the airlines cancellation policy and extra fees.

Accommodation

While it is not necessary to book accommodation well in advance, one thing you should look into when doing your research is whether or not there will be any accommodation available or not. In other words, travelers should always check if there is a major event, holiday or religious celebration occurring during their visit because if there is, you may need to book far in advance or plan to be very creative with your sleeping arrangements. While researching for my trip to Costa Rica, I learned that Easter celebrations are a huge event in the country and, because I was traveling close to that time, I did some more research into the dates and discovered that I would be traveling the week after Easter. Had it been the opposite, I would have a very hard time finding accommodations in San Jose if I started looking now! Finding the right place to stay can be a bit of a trying experience as there is so much information out there and so many places to choose from so I came up with some tips to share with you that have helped me in the past:
-First, you need to determine your budget. If you are a luxury or mid-way traveler, you may prefer to stay in a 5-star resort or luxury chain hotel. Budget travelers save the most money by staying in hostels but Bed and Breakfasts and some smaller hotel chains often offer great deals too. Websites such as hostels.com and hotels.com have comprehensive lists of accommodation available in every country and Trip Advisor is a great place to read about other traveler’s experiences. More creative and adventurous travelers can try couchsurfing or house swapping. Both of these options have their pros and cons. You will be opening yourself up to complete strangers on one hand but on the other, you will meet new people and get to learn more about the culture of the country you are visiting.
-If you are traveling anywhere in North America or Europe, the hotel star system is pretty accurate but in other places, such as Central and South America, it gets tricky. For example: A 5-star resort in Cuba is what you might consider to be a 3-star back home. I stayed in a 4-star in Cuba and with puddles of water on the floor in the bathroom, very little hot water, a television that didn’t work, faulty power outlets, cockroaches scurrying around in every corner, a patio door that would not lock, leaky windows (that caused massive puddles in the rainy season monsoon I got caught in), very plain and dated d├ęcor and a shortage of virtually everything, it was more like a 2-star or lower. But that is Cuba and tourists are warned beforehand that Cuba is very, very different. Don’t get me wrong; I loved Cuba and would go back there in a heartbeat and probably stay in the same type of accommodations. I’m just telling you this so you know not to rely on the hotel star system.
-Again, sign up for travel newsletters that deal with hotels and other accommodation.

Ground Transportation – Know your options beforehand

-Some forms of ground transportation, such as cabs and local buses, cannot be booked in advance, but can certainly be researched. If you are traveling with a group or to an all-inclusive resort vacation, chances are, your ground transportation is already included in your itinerary. Make sure to double check this and get all the information you need in order to secure your safe passage to your destination. Ask for a phone number and the name of the person to reach if you are unable to locate your shuttle upon exiting your plane. Have clear instructions on where to go to meet your driver and get instructions on what to do in the event of a delayed flight or missed shuttle. I made sure I had all necessary information about my shuttle before I arrived in Cancun and this helped a lot! I was able to navigate through crowds of people who couldn’t speak English but were obviously trying to scam me into taking their cab or bus to another destination.
-If you are traveling independently, there are some options to get you where you need to go such as inter-city buses, coachline buses that travel between cities and countries, trains and short-haul flights. For my ground trip from San Jose, Costa Rica to Panama City, I have the option to book with TicaBus which offers routes between various countries and cities in Central America. Flights, in particular should be booked in advance but trains and buses usually accept last-minute passengers who can purchase a ticket at the station. It is important to do some research into these options before you leave to make sure you are able to secure a seat.
-If the train or bus company you are traveling with has an online bus schedule, print it off and take it with you. You should also take a picture of the bus schedule when you arrive at the terminal just so you have it with you in case it is needed again.
-In some countries, buses and trains are rarely on time, so incorporate this into your trip planning so you can arrive early at the terminal.

THE FINAL STAGES- The last minute details before departure

-Print a few copies of your passport, itinerary, identification and other important documents. Leave one set at home and keep at least one set with you in a separate pocket or bag from the originals.
-Put alerts on all your credit and debit cards so that your banks know that you are away in case any suspicious activity should show up on your account. Failing to do this can result in your bank blocking access to your account after they see that someone abroad has been using it. If you don’t tell them, they will not know that the person using it is you.
-Register with the federal government in your country so it is known that you are abroad in case of natural disaster or civil unrest in the area. I am from Canada and there is a website where I can do this and I am also provided with a phone number to contact in case of emergency, so I assume most other countries offer this service to travelers as well.
-write down all important phone numbers such as close family and friends, any hotels you will be staying at, bus stations, airlines, etc...any phone number you think you may need while on the road.
-Don’t wait until the last minute to pack – start at least a week before you leave. Be careful not to over-pack because you will end up paying extra fees and you are the one who will have to lug around that heavy, overstuffed suitcase or backpack. Besides the obvious, some other important items you should pack include an adapter if it is needed at your destination and a good pair of walking shoes. Things you do not need include cosmetics other than a few necessary items, jewelry and anything that you do not need or will not use.
-Determine what type of currency you should have on-hand at your destination and acquire some from your bank beforehand. You can watch the exchange rates online at various websites such as http://www.xe.com/ucc/.
-In the weeks and days leading up to your departure, be sure to check for any government issued travel advisories that may have been put out about your destination.


UPON ARRIVAL – Know what to expect and be prepared

You are about to get off a plane in a place you may never have laid eyes on where, perhaps, no one speaks the same language as you. Airports are always going to be crazy, hectic places but there are ways to make it easier for you to get through this initial stage and get on your way!
-Follow instructions given to you by flight attendants and ask them questions if needed because you may have trouble finding someone who speaks English in the airport.
- If your ground transportation is already included in your trip, Find your shuttle driver or tour operator and make sure you get on the right bus with the right people because there are many scams occurring in airports all over the world and ground transportation is one of them. For example, when I traveled to Mexico, I was warned about rogue shuttles that take tourists to their hotel but actually take them on a detour which ends with them trying to persuade you to buy a timeshare. While no danger is present in this type of circumstance, I would have been quite annoyed had I been lead away from my destination for a day. Fortunately, I knew who those people were right away and, without making eye contact, just passed by them and found who I was looking for.

Taxis
Taxis can be sketchy in some places but can also be the safest and cheapest method if you know what you are looking for. Always go with clearly marked taxis that are either metered or have drivers that are open to fair negotiation on how much it will cost to get to your destination. Do not share cabs with strangers. The only time doing so may be considered safe (because it can save you money) is sharing with someone you met on your flight who is going in the same direction with you. Sharing a cab with someone you just met at the airport or on the street can present some danger as there are professional criminals who do exactly this to prey on unsuspecting and trusting travelers.

And that, my fellow travelers, is how I do it and (almost) everything works out in the end for me every time. Hopefully these tips will help you to feel more at ease when planning your next trip.

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