Each month, we pitch a new question to our staff and readers. If you have a question you’d like us to answer, email it to us. This month we asked: What are the travel tips you learned the hard way?
When it’s oh-my-god-o’clock in the morning local time, and you’ve been dozing as the train trundles through the Estonian countryside for hours and hours, and you’re more half-asleep than you’re half-awake, and seven-foot-tall Russian border guards come bursting into your train cabin shouting something unpronounceable in Russian at you and gesturing and waving their arms, and you see their HUGE MACHINE GUNS hanging from straps over their shoulders—you get your passport out of your pocket. OK? You get your passport out, and you show it to them. Don’t do anything else. Just don’t.
If you ever find yourself driving through Chiapas, Mexico, in the middle of a nighttime downpour that seems to have been procured by K’uk’ulkan himself and obscures any vision you might have of the road ahead of you through your rapidly blinking rental windshield wipers, you should probably know that in Chiapas, the highways have speedbumps.
For the parents: Do not feed your small child a lot of dried fruit before a long flight. My two-year-old chowed down on dried apricots on the ride to the airport, then screamed for the entire flight from Charlotte to Minneapolis from belly pain that turned into exactly what you would expect. On long car trips, by all means bring a DVD player for the kids—but wait as long as possible to break it out, and have one screen per kid if possible to minimize accusations of “hogging.” In general when traveling with kids, be grateful when it goes well, and try not to lose it when it doesn’t. Preparation, flexibility, and optional anti-anxiety meds go a long way toward a successful trip.
International travel does not necessitate a “travel buddy.” In fact, unless you really like someone, have similar interests, and know how she is going to act under pressure, leave her at home. When I was stranded in Spain two years ago after being robbed, I learned (the hard way) that I really couldn’t stand my companion, and that made trying to hop the border back into France sans passport, driver’s license, money, or any knowledge of the Spanish language that much more miserable. I also learned that people are generally more willing to help a calm tourist than a hyperventilating one, so if something goes wrong, try to chill out before hassling anyone.
Pack in layers. If you don’t, it will be cold—really, really, really freaking cold—and you will wind up wearing every article of clothing you brought, at the same time, every day of your trip. If you do pack layers, you will have options, you will have great weather, and your photos will reflect that you did in fact pack more than one outfit.
Travel tip: America’s reputation abroad can be quite important, actually. Though I consider myself a well-seasoned traveler, I nonetheless found myself pulled over for speeding through the outskirts of Marrakesh without a driver’s license in a rented car. My sister and her boyfriend, in the passenger and back seats, were carrying neither licenses nor their passports. The intimidating, uniformed police officer who’d pulled us over naturally wanted to see all of these documents. I started to wonder what a night in a jail in Marrakesh might be like. But then he sized us up, told me to drive slower, and let us go. As we pulled away, his partner raised a fist in the air and shouted, “Barack Obama!” In that moment, every minute I spent knocking on doors during the primaries was redeemed—somehow I don’t think John McCain would’ve kept me out of trouble.
While recently visiting Spain, I fell in love with jamón ibérico de bellota, exquisite thin-sliced cured meat from the leg of an acorn-fattened cerdo negro. I knew that the U.S. banned imported cured meats, but while walking around in Seville, I found a shop that sold beautiful vacuum-sealed packs of ibérico. “We get tourists in here all the time,” the salesman assured me. “Our shop is the only one in Andalucía that provides export numbers so you can legally take home our products.” I bought an embarrassing amount, packed it into my luggage, and declared it on my customs form. At the Newark airport, I learned that there’s no such thing as an export number, and my kilo of jamón was confiscated. (Add Newark to the list of airports in which I’ve cried.) My friend Jesse bought jamón from the same shop, concealed it in his luggage, declared nothing, and he enjoys it to this day. I learned two things: Salesmen will always tell you what you want to hear, and just because you’re doing something right doesn’t mean you’re supposed to declare it.
Bedbugs don’t discriminate. Even if you are at a five-star hotel, make sure to keep your baggage on the luggage rack and not on the chairs or beds or other furniture. You are less likely to pick up an unwanted hitchhiker going on the luggage rack tour route.
Nicholas R. Soto
When traveling it is best to remember that though the airport bar may seem like a nice welcome home gesture, beware! If the first three drinks are like the slow ascent of a roller coaster car up its initial hill, then surely that fourth will send you hurtling down the other side at about 100 miles per hour. Consider: On my last trip to the Big Apple, I somehow managed to get completely ham-faced (as Neruda used to say) prior to discovering that my flight had been cancelled. Drunk and confused, I took a cab to Times Square, got into a fight with the cabbie about fare, had an altercation with a police officer, somehow found my way back to LaGuardia, and woke up the next morning with a splitting headache and a cheap airport issue blanket over my head. And the worst part of it all? My copy of Exile and the Kingdom was nowhere to be found.
Don’t travel with unique condiments. My favorite birthday present this year was some pink Hawaiian volcanic sea salt. When boarding my flight from Kauai back to Oregon, the T.S.A.—suspicious of what was, in effect, funny-colored sand—tested a sizable scoop of the salt at the security checkpoint before begrudgingly allowing it on the plane, lest it be a dangerous chemical in disguise. Knowing that my salt isn’t a threat to national security has really given me an edge in the kitchen, but I don’t think I’ll be flying with it any time soon.
I recently traveled from New York to San Francisco for a company party and decided to pack light—as light as possible. Thinking I only needed one pair of pants, as it was a one-night trip, I brought only the pair of jeans that I was wearing. After an ill-advised powerslide on the dance floor that evening, my jeans were split from the crotch to the knee. This of course delighted my coworkers, who were even more amused when I arrived at work the next morning wearing my gym shorts and carrying a shopping bag from Old Navy with a new pair of jeans. I learned a valuable lesson that trip: No matter how light you pack, don’t ever travel without an extra pair of pants.
My mom was a teacher, and so she had the same long summers as my sister and I did—which means one thing: mega car trips. We drove everywhere; I’ve seen 43 of the 50 states, nearly all of them from the backseat of a maroon minivan. Death Valley on an overheating radiator and a low tank of a gas? Pshaw. Letting that Polish lady put an open container of milk in the trunk? That’s nothing. The summer we drove from Buffalo to Yellowstone, the van’s true nemesis was revealed: the car carrier, that shell you strap to the roof. That bastard. We should have known what we were getting into when, less than five miles from home, it sprung open and sent our sleeping bags bouncing down the highway. Midway through Indiana, it fell off the roof entirely. Outside the Mitchell, S.D., Corn Palace, the top flew off again—while the car was parked. While camped at Yellowstone, it harbored a nest for a small swarm of bees. Possibly worst of all, no bumper stickers would adhere to it. Now, the lesson isn’t that you shouldn’t use a car carrier—they’re useful space-savers, after all. The lesson is that you have to show ‘em who’s boss. I like to tell friends that around Minneapolis, my mom grew tired of the shell shenanigans, but all we know for sure is that we were looking for a parking spot and entered a low-clearance parking garage. I’ll always treasure the angry SCRAAAAAAAAAAAPE of plastic against concrete. The shell was almost completely flattened, but it gave us no trouble for the rest of the vacation.
If, when flying internationally, one of your checked bags is under its weight allotment, and one of your checked bags is over it, it is perfectly acceptable to open both suitcases and move items from the heavier bag to the lighter bag in order to make both of them acceptable for travel. Do make sure you are checking in at least two hours before boarding time, however. On the morning of departure, should you not speak the language of the country you’re traveling in, at least try to figure out the following: one, which airport terminal you’re flying out of; and two, which terminal your cab driver is leaving you at. Otherwise, you may find yourself without a boarding pass, trying to talk your way through to the “only passengers with boarding passes past this line” area so you can wait for a shuttle to take you to the proper terminal, where you will get turned around several times, accidentally try to walk into an “authorized personnel only” area, receive two scoldings from airline staff, only to make it to your gate as the final person to board.
Don’t assume there will be an ATM at the airport—bring some cash with you. After a 12-hour flight to France, the one-and-only ATM at CDG Terminal 2 was closed, so we had to trek all the way to another terminal with all of our luggage in order to get cash for a taxi ride.
There is a wild, wondrous world out there waiting to be explored, but don’t be surprised once you get there that it’s all just more buildings and food. You can spend thousands of dollars to fly halfway around the world, only to realize that it’s all the same everywhere you go. Then you take a couple pictures with the Instamatic and head home and wonder what the point of it all was. You could easily save money by downloading a copy of Google Earth. That is why I highly insist upon talking to the locals. It’s really the only identifiable difference between ugly American tourism and international cosmopolitanism. There are beautiful vistas that everyone should be required by law to see, but I get bored with vistas pretty quickly. I need something to engage myself, and talking with the locals is the best way to really imbibe a location. They can point you toward the out-of-the-way restaurant where they don’t charge you three times the price for reheated Spaghetti-Os, or they can color the locale with their own brand of crazy. I can barely remember most of what was in the Louvre, but I can describe in intimate detail the odd stench of that weird, shirtless Italian hobo outside of Florence. Ah, memories.
Harry Bastow, III
On a business trip years ago, a suitcase of mine made an unplanned, month-long ocean voyage, courtesy of a careless cruise line porter at the Miami airport’s checked baggage carousel. After waiting in vain for nearly an hour, I reluctantly reported my loss to the airline’s baggage claim office. Naturally, among the first things those folks wanted to know was the color of my missing bag. Unfortunately, I couldn’t give them a reliable answer. In broad daylight this particular bag appeared to be a very dark navy blue (the answer I gave them). Indoors under fluorescent lights or at night on darkened tarmacs, though, most people would have said that it didn’t look very blue at all. Weeks later, long after I had given up hope of ever seeing that bag again, an airline representative called to inform me that they had found my GREEN suitcase. Which brings me to my travel tip: If you’re checking a bag, make sure it has a color everybody can agree on, regardless of lighting conditions. Oh, and one more thing: If you like to travel with your business and tax records, never put them in your checked luggage, OK?
Never let a Bedouin drive your rental car. In hindsight, there are many things I would let a Bedouin do—sell me a scarf, marry my niece, recommend a good desert location for grazing my camels—but I would never let a Bedouin get behind the wheel of my rental car, ever again. One minute we were sitting around a fire in a bivouac at the edge of the Sahara, drinking mint tea (“Berber whiskey!”) and being lectured through a haze of hash smoke about the peaceful lives of the desert people. An instant later, one of our new Bedouin pals commandeered our vehicle and took us off-roading through the pitch black desert at 80 kilometers an hour. My wife and I held on for our lives as he blasted the CD player (guess he was an M. Ward fan), toggled the headlights, pounded the steering wheel, and shrieked hysterically. Turns out, there’s one thing the Bedouin people appreciate more than the profound stillness of the desert, and that’s a pristine automobile suspension system.