Travel Tips: Pack, Plan, Prep

Packing, Planning & Prep Work

The Right Port – Air or Ship!

Port of Departure – Always double check the exact address and location of your precise point of departure – cruise dock, train station or airport – before your set out! We discovered Los Angeles has at least TWO cruise ports (Los Angeles and Long Beach) – read about our adventure and how we nearly missed our ship on the post on our cruise out of LA! I know that many cities have more than one airport: Chicago, Minneapolis, New York City, London… Getting to the wrong place can be costly in time and money.

The Right Photographer Swap

Photographer Swap – When I travel, I want at least one photograph to prove I was actually there! As a single traveler, this is an on-going dilemma. As a couple, we can take turns, but it would be nice to have at least one of us together for our Christmas card! If I am traveling with a group – and especially because I are always the one with the camera and take good photos – I have to be very intentional about getting a spot in at lease a couple of the group shots. Of course, there is always the selfie, or figuring out how to use the time release option on my camera – or not! I can always engage a tour guide or food server, if they are available. But… sometimes it would be nice just to engage a fellow traveler to do the honors. The question is always how to approach – and trust – a stranger to take my photo with my camera.

Answer? It is multi-faceted. Here are some of my time-tested suggestions plus those of my colleague, Aimie, a seasoned world traveler and confident, savvy young woman who often travels alone both internationally and nationally.

1. Go with your gut; this is always #1. If something or someone does not feel “right,” forego it, no matter how great the potential shot.

2. Check out the person’s own camera. If it is worth less than yours, move on. Recently, while touring a near-empty cathedral, I asked a middle-aged, fellow visitor with an expensive camera if he would be so kind as to take our photo. He was happy to oblige. First, I knew I would probably get a good photo. Second, he surely didn’t need or want my cell phone camera! Lastly, if he had tried to steal my camera, it would have been nearly impossible for him to get away with it in that setting!

3. Look for someone who may be in need of a photographer swap. Keep your eyes open for an opportunity where someone else might want the same thing, trusting your gut of course. My method is to gently approach them, smile, and ask if they might like me to take a photo of them? If they say yes, I use their camera to take the first photo and a level of trust has been established. Then, if they don’t reciprocate, I ask if they will take a photo of me/us. If they initially say no, I go with that. If they act skidish, then my gut kicks in and the exchange is voided. I recently approached a mom with two young kids having a snack on a bench beside an iconic art work in a sculpture garden. I spontaneously asked if they would like to do a photographer swap; I’d be happy to take a picture of all 3 of them by the sculpture if they would take ours. It was a lovely exchange and we all parted with lovely photo memories of the day.

4. Be cautious of locals – unless they are “tied to a space.” This could be a security person (whose job is to keep you safe), a shopkeeper, server, guide, etc. Locals typically do not hang out at local tourist spots unless they themselves are hosting visitors like yourself.

5. Consider if your travel is domestic or international. Never forget that as a tourist, you are a target and need to be super vigilant in all ways. You are typically less of a target in your native country where you will more likely blend in – than in a foreign country where you are more vulnerable. Areas with lower tourist population are also safer than in an area with a high tourist population. This applies to trusting your gut and engaging a stranger in either conversation or in using your camera to take a photo of you.

6. Consider your comfort level with age and gender. As females, both Aimie and I admit that we are more comfortable in female-female exchange, but it is just our personal comfort level, not a rule of thumb. Also, neither of us are consciously deterred by the age of the person, experience has led us to feel more comfortable approaching older people/retirees – or parents in the company of their children. Maybe they simply seem more interruptible!

I’m sure there are more – but this should get you thinking in the right direction!

The Right Umbrella

Umbrella – the right umbrella is an important travel companion. It should always be included in your packing essentials. Warm topics have rainy days. Most seasons have rainy days. Umbrellas provide shade from the bright sun in hot, dry climates. Many philosophies abound about travel umbrellas; here are a few that have stood the test of time during my travels. Size: This is the most important element. It should be small, lightweight, collapsible, and easily pack in your day bag. A self-container envelope is OK but not necessary; they are easily lost. An appropriately sized zip-lock plastic bag will not only store it, but keep a wet umbrella from ruining the rest of your packed items. Handle. Check the handle. When extended, is it comfortable for you to hold for a length of time? Does it have something on which to easily hook a large carabiner? You can then conveniently hook it to the outside of your bag or a belt loop, saving space inside your bag and keeping its contents dry. Color. Any color will do, but I like to travel with a brightly colored umbrella. Easy to spot in your luggage, a bright cheery color adds a festive mood to an otherwise dreary, rainy day. Cost. This is one item that you can go inexpensive, although they come in all price ranges. I suggest going to the dollar store and picking up a couple, one for now and one for future travel. These may not be the best quality for the long term, but chances are it will probably only last one trip. If it gets broken, lost, left on a bus or taxi, you have not lost a major investment.

The Right Scarf

Scarf – the right scarf is a great trip companion. It must be light weight (to crunch in your travel bag) and washable in a solid, dark color (so as not to show the dirt) in a navy or black (to literally go with your whole wardrobe, formal or casual). I recommend a long and rectangular scarf for versatility. It can cover your shoulders, legs or head in places of worship for respect; in subways, trains or theaters for drafts. It can cover eyes as the need arises if you want to catch a few winks in a space that is too bright. And also, I discovered, is great to hold an ice pack on your injured body part!

The Right Tour

Tour – the right tour is critical for a successful trip. The first question to answer, of course, is if you should travel independently or with a tour. It is dependent on several things. Have you traveled there before? Are you comfortable with the culture, the currency, the language, your safety, etc. If the country or city are new to you, if the area is prone to political unrest, the language is difficult and/or transportation is challenging–a sanctioned tour and tour guide should be a must. Or you might consider a combination as the best option for you. For example, I personally would always book a tour to countries such as China (lots of unknowns: language, food, political climate)–and anywhere in the Middle East, even if–and especially because–I’ve been to Israel, Egypt and Jordon before. Because I’m more familiar with western Europe (France, England, Spain), I’m more apt to explore on my own or do a combination of independent travel and guided tours. As a travel consultant, I enjoy working with people to help them sort out which might be the best option for them as they plan their trip.

Group tour travel is another discussion. The right tour, one that showcases the places you want to see and visit, is essential. I recall the first time I visited Florence, Italy with a group and we walked right by the Ufizzi Gallery and did not/could not go in. As a professor of art history, I was devastated! That was the first thing on my list to do in Florence! I made sure it topped my list on my next visit to Florence–and on my last visit, I booked even more time so I could see it ALL, not just the highlights! Plus museums and sites I had missed the first two times. You, on the other hand, may not be interested in museums, but rather want to take a culinary tour–or just shop! These are all great options to also do in Florence! Keep in mind that tours can get you into places that you might not otherwise get into, or have to wait in long longs to purchase admission tickets. But you must be on the right tour–if any tour at all!

Guide – the Correct tour guide is also critical. Is s/he focused on what you want to do and learn–or their prescribed agenda? My favorite example is while leading our first group to Italy. The travelers had been studying all year and were anxious to hit the ground running and explore and experience Rome. Our tour guide, a pedigreed college professor was used to leading illiterate, uneducated tourists. We defied that category and politely, but restlessly, endured his lecture on the basics of the Coliseum which we already had studied in depth and had reviewed that morning. We leaders approached him to share our concerns; no change. Mid-day, we had enough and fired him on the spot, releasing our travelers to successfully explore on their own. I refused to allow him return for the next day’s tour of the Vatican Museums; as their art history professor, I could do a better job for my group than he would have! The tour company manager led our Vatican tour and asked for input. After our explanation, she astutely replied “I see! All year your students/travelers have been studying and filling their ‘box.’ My job is not to cram more things in their box, but rather guide them as they pull information out as they experience it.” Bingo! That insight guided us on all future tours; we never had to fire another guide!

Side note: We discovered in some cultures, male/female societal roles were significant. For example, on our tours, my husband is the business manager and works with the hotels, transportation staff, etc. I am the artistic director and plan all the sites and what we see at each one; I work directly with the guides. In the Middle East, male guides kept deferring to my husband, as a male. He had to keep referring them back to me. We quickly learned to request female tour guides as they worked the best with me.

Film Discussion: for anyone who has traveled, or plans to travel, with a group, the film “My Life in Ruins” (discussed in one of my Film Discussion blogs; coming soon) is full of insights into the plethora of personalities one will encounter–including diverse styles of tour guides. Be sure to discuss what you are looking for with your travel agent or whoever is matching you up with a tour. Do you want to shop? Go to the beach? or dig into the history and culture of the place you are visiting? There is no “right” or “wrong,” just what is right for you and your fellow travelers.

The Right Luggage

Coming Soon!

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