Friday, December 5, 2014

International Travel Checklist



I travel to so many races that it doesn’t take me long to get ready for a trip, provided the race is in the United States.  If the race is in another country, there are several additional things I need to do to get ready.  Some need to be done a week or more in advance.  A few even need to be done as I begin planning the trip.

My next race is in the Cayman Islands.  As this trip approached, it occurred to me that I’ve never made a checklist for international travel.  I have one in my head, but I’ve never written it down before.  Since I needed to make a checklist anyway, I decided to share my thought process.

Travel Documents

One of the steps in planning an international trip is to find out what travel documents are required.  Do you need a passport?  Do you need a visa?  Are there any other requirements for visiting this country?


I assume I’ll always need my passport.  Even if the country I’m visiting doesn’t require it, I know I’ll need it to return to the United States.  Just having a passport, isn’t necessarily enough.  Some countries require that the passport by valid for a certain period of time, such as 90 days.  Others require that is has enough unused space for the necessary stamps.  South Africa, for example, won’t let you into the country if your passport doesn’t contain at least two completely blanks pages.

So far, I’ve never needed any travel documents other than a passport, but some countries require a visa.  I know, for example, that I would need a tourist visa to travel to Brazil.  To find out the entry requirements for different counties, I visit Travel.State.Gov.  This is a website maintained by the U.S. Department of State.  It lists all kinds of useful information for U.S. residents who are planning trips to other countries.  (It also lists information for people from other countries who would like to visit the U.S.)

Language

One of the most useful things to know about the country you’re visiting is what language they speak.  Communicating with people is kind of important.  So is reading signs.  Aside from knowing what the predominant language is, it’s also useful to know if any other languages are commonly spoken and whether public areas have signage in other languages.

My native language is English.  I took German in school, but I never learned enough to be able to carry on conversations.  I don’t know any other languages, other than a few useful words and phrases.  So far that’s been good enough.

My first international marathon was in Athens, Greece.  I learned before my trip that most people who do business with tourists speak English and French, as well as Greek.  I don’t know Greek, but I know the Greek alphabet well enough to be able to read words and pronounce them phonetically.  That wasn’t necessary.  Most of the signage was bilingual.

For a subsequent trip to Paris, I made a point of learning a long list of useful words and phrases.  I could read signs well enough to get by.  I could ask simple questions, although I wasn’t always able to understand the answers.  Where I struggled was with pronunciation.  My French was so poor that when I asked a question in French, I often got an answer in English.  That’s OK.  They appreciated the effort.  The most important thing is to be able to greet people in their native language and ask them if they speak yours.

Once I know what language is spoken, I usually go to a bookstore or travel store and get a language guide that has the words and phrases I’m most likely to need.  In most places that’s enough to get by.  If not, it helps to have a tour guide or travel companion who speaks the local language.  Twice, when traveling to Spanish-speaking countries, I’ve been fortunate to be traveling with friends who spoke fluent Spanish.

The only time I’ve arrived in a country with no ability to even read the local language was when I traveled to Japan for the Tokyo Marathon.  I did quite a bit a research on where I wanted to go and how to get around.  I knew that the subway stations had signage that I would be able to read and understand without knowing a word of Japanese.  Tokyo is a very tourist-friendly city.

Local Customs

Besides language, there are other local customs that are useful to know.  In the United States, it’s customary to tip servers in restaurants.  In some countries, it’s unheard of.  In others, you should tip if you’re seated, but not for take-out.

When shopping, it’s useful to know if prices are negotiable.  In some places, you’d be a fool to pay the prices marked.  You may need to haggle.

There are countless other variations in local customs.  Some cultures are punctual.  Others have relaxed attitudes about time.  It’s good to know in advance what to expect.

I usually consult travel books or websites to find out useful information that’s country-specific.  Sometimes I learn answers to questions I wouldn’t have thought to ask.

Money

Some businesses will accept credit cards.  Others will only take cash.  It’s good to know what the local currency is, how much you’ll need, and where you can get it.

Most credit cards charge fees for foreign transactions.  Most banks not only charge fees to use their ATM cards at other banks, but they’ll also charge fees to get foreign currencies.  If you know these fees ahead of time, you can figure out which method of payment has lower fees as a percentage of the amount you’re spending.

My American Express card doesn’t charge any fees for foreign transactions.  Naturally, I try to use this card for most of my expenses.  I also travel with a VISA card, since some businesses don’t accept American Express.  Now there’s a new wrinkle.  Some countries, particularly in Europe, have transitioned to credit cards with imbedded chips.  These cards are harder to forge.  My American Express card is the new style.  My VISA, like most American credit cards is the only style, which only has a magnetic strip.  In the near future, I may find that some businesses will accept the American Express, but not the VISA.

Of course, there will always be some businesses that only take cash.  This is particularly true of street vendors, smaller shops and cab drivers.  I try to anticipate in advance how much cash I’ll need, so I can make sure I always have enough.

If I’m going to need cash, I like to have some when I arrive.  If it’s a widely used currency, such as Euros, I can get some at a bank before I leave.  Another option is to get cash at the airport.  If I might need more during the trip, I like to know ahead of time where there’s a bank with an ATM.  I only use ATMs that will accept my bank’s ATM card.  Using a credit card to get cash is something I avoid.  The fees are outrageous.

My willingness to get more local currency than I know I’ll need is related to my likelihood of being able to use it on another trip.  My last trip was to Ireland, which uses the Euro.  I started the trip with some case that was leftover from a trip to the Netherlands.  I ended the trip with leftover cash that I can use on a future trip to Europe.  I know I’ll be visiting other countries in the Euro zone.  It’s just a matter of when.

My next trip is to the Cayman Islands.  This may be the only time I travel there, so any leftover cash would need to be exchanged back to US dollars at the end of my trip.  The Caymans Islands has its own currency, but I’ve learned that US dollars are widely accepted.  I’ve also learned that if I pay for something in US dollars, I’ll most likely get change in Cayman Islands dollars.  I’ll try to use exact change if I can.

Notifying Banks

If I try to use my ATM card in another country without notifying my bank, it won’t be accepted.  One of the items on my mental to-do list for foreign trips was to set up a travel plan with my bank, so they know where I’m going to be traveling and when I’m going to be there.  I used to have to call them.  Now I can set up my travel plan through their website.

I also have to notify my bank if I want to use my VISA in another country.  Conveniently, it was issued by the same bank where I have my checking account, so I can include this card in the same travel plan as my ATM card.

American Express doesn’t need to be notified.  They’re confident that they can distinguish between fraudulent charges and legitimate charges.  They seem to be good at it.  So far, they have a perfect track record of detecting fraud without ever flagging a legitimate charge.  The one time someone got ahold of my card number, the American Express security department called me about it the next day.  Within 24 hours, I had a new card.  I wasn’t even on a trip.  I was home, but my card was being used in California.

Phone and Internet Service

I usually travel with a smart phone and a laptop computer.  I never use my phone for voice or text in other countries, because it’s too expensive.  I usually get a global data plan.  There’s a limited data allowance, so I use Wi-Fi networks where I can.  It’s worth paying to have data access when I’m traveling, because I never know when you might need a map.  It’s also handy to be able to check my email.  I keep in touch with people using either emails or Facebook messages.  As with the banks, I contact my cell provider before the trip to add global data to my plan.

While it’s possible to access websites with the phone, it’s not easy to see a web page on such a small screen.  That’s why I bring the laptop.  I try to stick to hotels that provide internet access, preferably for no additional charge.  Of course, there’s no guarantee that they’ll have good bandwidth.

Time zones

Knowing the time difference between your home and the place you’re visiting is something that’s applicable to all trips.  Where international trips differ, is that you may be traveling across multiple time zones.  Unless you live in Russia, domestic trips don’t usually involve large time differences.
Another difference is that not all countries observe daylight savings time in the same way.  I discovered on my trip to Athens that Europe set their clocks back to standard time a week before the United States.  It happened to be the morning of my race.  When I returned home, I had to adjust back to daylight time, in addition to adjusting to the difference in time zones.

When traveling across multiple time zones, I try to have a strategy for coping with jet lag.  On trips to Europe, I’ve always had overnight flights.  I’m rarely able to sleep on a plane, and I often don’t even try.  Sometimes it’s better to arrive tired and stay busy until evening.  Spending time outdoors during the daylight hours helps your body to reset its clock.  If I’m able to get to sleep at an appropriate time the day I arrive, it’s much easier to adjust.  

If I’m traveling by myself, I stay in touch with Deb via email and Facebook, so we don’t need to be online at the same time.  Still, it’s good to keep in mind what time it is in her time zone, and what her daily schedule is.

Health Risks

I’ve mostly traveled to developed countries, so I haven’t had to worry much about health risks that I wouldn’t face at home.  If in doubt, I consult Travel.State.Gov.  I also ask my doctor if he recommends any vaccinations.

Before my trip to South Africa, I got vaccinated for Typhoid and Yellow Fever.  Yellow Fever wasn’t a local health risk, but if you travel through a country with Yellow Fever on your way to South Africa, you won’t be allowed into the country unless you can show proof of vaccination.  I had a non-stop flight from Atlanta to Johannesburg, but I still opted to get the vaccination in case unforeseen circumstances caused my flight to make a stop in another country, e.g. to refuel.  If you touch down in a “yellow fever country,” you need a “yellow card” to get into South Africa.  It doesn’t matter if you never left the plane.

It’s also good to know if it’s safe to drink the water.  I’ve mostly traveled to developed countries with good water quality, but on a trip to Mexico, I only drank bottled water.

Crime and Personal Safety

Every country has crime.  Busy tourist attractions in large cities are favorite spots for pickpockets.  I always read about crime and safety risks before traveling.  I’m careful about how I carry my passport, credit cards and other valuables.  I also try to be aware of people around me at all times.  Pickpockets prey on people who are distracted.  If you’re traveling with a group, you can watch out for each other.

Electrical Plugs

Different countries use different styles of electrical plugs.  There are also regional differences in voltage and current.  Before my first international trip, I bought an outlet adapter kit with a voltage converter and outlet adapters for several different countries.  Before a trip, I search online to see what I need.  If it’s not already part of my kit, I can probably find the adapter I need at a AAA travel store.

Laptop computers, tablets and other devices with AC to DC converters are usually designed to handle a wide range of voltages and AC frequencies.  The fine print on the box usually specifies the range it can handle.  If your converter already handles the local voltage and current, you only need to have an outlet adapter for the plug.

Weather

When I plan a trip, I learn what the climate is typically like in the region I’m visiting.  As the trip gets closer, I’ll look at the forecast.  I do this for all trips, but it’s more important for international trips, as you may encounter weather patterns that are outside your usual experience.  On a trip to Venice, Deb and I were caught off guard when rains from a storm system in Eastern Europe combined with unusually high tides to cause flooding that was much worse than usual.  Had we known what to expect in advance, we would have brought tall boots.

Transportation

When I travel within the United States, I usually rent a car.  With the exception of large cities on the East Coast, the U.S. is oriented toward driving.  I rarely drive in other countries.  So far I’ve only driven in Canada, Switzerland, Germany and The Bahamas.  With the exception of The Bahamas, those were business trips.  I’ve never tried to drive in a less-developed country.

If I’m considering driving, I read about road conditions, local driving laws and the habits of local drivers.  This is another area where Travel.State.Gov is a good starting point.

In the rest of the world, I’m more likely to take trains.  Europe in particular was excellent rail systems.  I’ve learned to use the subways in Paris, London, and Japan.  In other cities, I’ve either walked or taken the bus.

If I need to get someplace that can’t be conveniently reached by walking or public transportation, I’ll see if I can get there as part of a guided tour.  I always give some thought to where I want to go and how I can get there.  Then I’ll plan an itinerary.  I may have some days when I’m taking a guided tour, some days when I’m taking public transportation, and other days when I’m staying within walking distance of my hotel.  One thing I can always count on is seeing a few of the sights on foot while running a marathon.

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