Everything I Know About Travel I Learned the Hard Way

I’ve not traveled as much as I would have liked, but I have flown to Europe three times now, most recently Italy for Slow Food’s Terra Madre conference. Four months earlier a friend invited me to Hawaii.

My  return trip to Italy resulted in four missed flights in 96 hours. Each missed flight, each night that I slept unexpectedly in airports or hotels (two extra nights in Turin, Italy, and one in San Francisco)  gave me lots of time to ponder what I’d learned. I’ve jotted down some of my revelations. I welcome you to share your ideas, too.

• Get travel insurance, unless you have money to burn and don’t care about losing thousands on a trip that goes wrong. Remember that travel insurance isn’t just to cover you on your trip, but it can be a great help if something dire happens to a loved one back home, and you need to cut your trip short. As it is, because I got travel insurance for my Italy trip, I am submitting a claim to cover the hotels, meals, taxis and even phone expenses incurred because of the cancelled flights. (I became the travel insurance ambassador after my medical emergency on my Hawaiian trip. My friend’s travel insurance covered the entire tab, which was more than $10,000.)

• If you can manage to pack light enough, do bring a carry-on bag, and skip checking a bag. It can help lessen headaches if your luggage is lost, and it can save time if you are stuck waiting for your luggage. But if you do have to check a bag, then make sure you have enough travel staples inside your carry-on to get you through unexpected hotel stays without your checked bag. For example, when I had to spend an unexpected night in San Francisco I was so happy that my toiletries were in my carry-on bag. I do wish that my carry-on included a change of clothes and a nightgown, though.

• Big suitcases are great because they hold a lot, but that’s also their downfall. Think beyond the plane. Think of hauling around that big-ass suitcase onto trains and in cabs and over cobblestones and up staircases, as my sister and I did in Paris when we stayed with a friend who lived up multiple flights of narrow stairs. Also, most airlines have a 50-pound weight limit per bag, and you’ll be fined if you exceed it.

• Pack as light as possible, and leave room for stuff you buy on your trip. My recurring travel issue is I tend to bring too many clothes and shoes. (I brought a dozen pair of shoes on a honeymoon. I’m happy to say I’ve come a long way, baby, and for this last trip just brought two pair. I should have brought just one.) For some reason, I always imagine I will dress differently when I travel, but the truth is, I do just like at home: I tend to wear the same things – my go-to comfort clothes – all the time. And let’s say you do end up wearing the same thing every day? So what? Who cares? Nobody will report you to the travel fashion police. My packing role models are my son Joe and his wife Marie of the Czech Republic, who travel the world and manage to fit everything they need in one tiny suitcase each. Amazing.

• Bring pre-addressed labels for postcards. And send yourself a postcard, too, just so you have one as a memory of the trip.

• If you are going to bring a cell phone outside the United States, check with your provider to ensure your phone is global capable. If it’s not, then you can get a “loaner” phone for about $30. But if you go this route, give yourself lots of time – a few weeks at least – to get the phone and activate it. Once outside the U.S., you can’t activate the phone, which renders it useless, which is exactly what happened to me in Italy. My solution was to buy a cheap little phone that would only work in Italy, for about $30, not counting the cost of adding phone credits onto the phone at “Vodafone” stops, often found in tabacco shops. And if you do get a loaner phone, read the paperwork and mark that magic date on your calendar (usually about 30 days) when the phone needs to be mailed back to the company. Otherwise, you could pay hundreds of dollars in fines.

• Yes, I know that many people around the world speak English (lucky, ignorant us), but even so, if you are going to a foreign country, start practicing the language and learn enough basic words to at least show that you give a squirt about the people and heritage of the place you are visiting. I call them the “Mr. Rogers” words, like yes, no, please, thank you and excuse me. Bonus words might include wine, police and yes, I’m single and no squid ink on my pasta, please.

• Before you leave on your trip, photocopy the contents of your wallet, including your passport and credit cards – front and back – just in case you – God forbid – lose them. Hide this information some place for safe-keeping, both in your suitcase as well as back at home in a secure file. This way, you have the numbers necessary to contact your banks to report the loss(es).

• Ask someone you trust about tipping. You may find that many restuarants, for example, already include the gratuity with the bill. It took me a while to figure this out, but in the meantime, the places I was eating just loved me, as I was basically double tipping.  In Italy, where I had lots of time at the airport during missed flights, I learned during a conversation with some guys at the information counter that it’s not necessary to tip  for taxis or for an espresso at a bar (coffee bar), unless you feel the service was exemplary. “Americans tip too much,” one man told me, “But Italians love it.”

• Have a travel agent back home you can contact in case things go sideways. In my case, the first leg of my return trip was cancelled because of Hurricane Sandy. I could not reach a United Airlines human being on my little toy Italian phone, and the UA call centers were getting flooded with calls from thousands of stranded passengers. Having a travel agent in Redding (thank you, Meredith Fisher!) to work on my behalf was a Godsend.

• Try to leave lots of time between connecting flights, just in case one flight is delayed, so you don’t miss that connecting flight. I like at least two hours. Even so, sometimes, such as with my recent trip, what began as an eight-hour lay-over in San Francisco ended up just one hour long by the time I was done with the series of flight delays.

• Bring electrical adaptors and connectors so your Yankee electronics will work in Europe.

• Bring a tiny pharmacy along, but keep your pills in the original containers just in case the folks at customs have questions. Bring things like triple antibiotic cream and a first-aid kit and allergy medication and anything you can think of that you might need. Many European pharmacies keep almost everything behind the counter, rather than out front where customers can select things. Trying to explain exactly what you need, or what ails you, can be difficult. Which leads me to my next point …

• I always hated the game Charades as a kid. But traveling taught me to get in touch with my pantomiming side. This skill comes in real handy when words fail. Some gestures, like holding your stomach and making a sour face, are the universal signs for I feel like crap.

• Bring walking shoes that have already been broken in. And if you bring new clothes, make sure you’ve tried them on before you pack them. I brought two new pair of tights for the Italy trip in a brand I’d never used before, but discovered while traveling that the tights were made for someone about 6 inches shorter than I am.  Totally useless.

• Ask for advice from other travelers. Eventually, you’ll be ready for anything that comes your way on your trip.

Readers, what are your favorite travel tips?

 Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Prior to 2007 Chamberlain was an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, CA.

Doni Chamberlain
Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain is an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, California.
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21 Responses

  1. Joe Domke Joe Domke says:

    Great tips!

    My mantra before a trip and before leaving a hotel or any place you've stayed long enough to settle in is "Passport? Credit card? Cash?". Sure, it's annoying to lose or forget something, but as long you have your passport to get home and money to replace anything you need you'll be fine.

    • Ah, yes, I can hear your mantra "passport, credit cards, cash?" ringing in my ears throughout our Italy trip. That, and your belief that it's best not to learn how to say "Do you speak English?" in the foreign language, because the reply is often rapidly in that language with the assumption you can speak more fluently than you really can.

      Thank you, Joe. You and Marie are wonderful travel companions. 🙂

      • Avatar Heather Hennessey says:

        Great blog, Doni! As you may recall, I take a small group to Europe each year and I've developed a list of "Heather's Hints" plus a packing list that allows for two weeks in a 22" suitcase. I'd be happy to send these two to anyone who asks. You can contact me at First Christian Church through this email: office@fccredding.org.

        My next guided trip will be to London and the Lake District in May or September of 2014. Let me know if you'd like more information.

        Rev. Heather Hennessey

  2. I just got back from a couple weeks in Germany and found a few things that made the LONG plane flights a little easier. I downloaded a lot of podcasts for my IPod, got some good earbuds, and purchased a couple of bottles of (ridiculously expensive) water once I got through security. And those little airline-sized bottles of alcohol? You can pack them in your ziploc bag with other dangerous liquids like mouthwash and shampoo. :-).

    Lastly — even though this made me feel like a little old lady — I kept a supply of individually wrapped antiseptic wipes in my purse and used them often and managed to NOT get sick on my last couple of trips.

  3. Avatar LJ says:

    Traveling is always an adventure! What I've learned, is to pack half my things in my husbands suitcase and he packs half his in mine. That way, if one of the suitcases is lost, at least we both have something to wear. Yes, we learned this the hard way… My husband's s/case was lost foe 3 days while on a cruise. Our insurance allowed $90 for necessities. But at the prizes on the ship, he managed a t-shirt, a pair of shorts and 2 pair of underwear. The lost suitcase did show up finally.

    • I've been lucky to never (knock on wood) lose my suitcase. That's a really smart idea to split up your packing between a couple's suitcase. (That's another reason to not travel solo.)

      And you are right that traveling is an adventure, and if we can maintain that attitude and a sense of humor, it will help a lot. I know that the up side of all my delays was that I met a lot of really nice, helpful, interesting people, and formed bonds with passengers from all over the world.

      • Avatar Carol Cunningham says:

        On a dive trip to Roatan, the airlines sent both my suitcase AND my dive bag to Brazil. They arrived the day I flew home. In the meanwhile, I rented regulator and jacket and other gear, dove in shorts and a tee and lived in one pair of jeans and another tee. It's amazing how simple and great that trip was! And how generous friends were.


  4. Avatar shelly shively says:

    When I was returning from Norway a few summers ago, it looked like I was going to miss my connecting flight due to the long lines @ customs, but a forgotten Norwegian apple in my purse sent me to an empty "agriculture" line, and got me on my way to my flight. Thanks, Norwegian apple! Obscure tip, but perhaps worth filing away. 🙂

  5. Avatar `AJacoby says:

    So many of us have learned just those very lessons. . . . the hard way!!!

    The last time my girlfriends and I made a month long trip to italy we swore we'd never do it again until we could afford a valet (o.k., we referred to them as a boy-toy) for each of us to handle the luggage. Also, never trust eyeballing a map. The famous line, "but it's just this far (fingers held a quarter of an inch apart) on the map!" is a sure way to find yourself hiking four miles in the noon day sun!!!

    The xeroxing of my passport/credit cards/drivers licensee front and back, proved invaluable when I had my purse stolen the night before flying home from Paris. I always leave a copy with someone at home and my traveling companions and I always carry each other's.

    Also, good info about travel insurance!!

  6. Avatar Robb says:

    Excellent article, Doni. I'm printing this one and posting it to the bulletin board I've got going for trip planning.

  7. Avatar name says:

    Take Airborne with you – I was with a group and we went through 4 or 5 international airports to get home, people started getting sick – I drank a bunch or Airborne and I was the only one that did not get sick…

  8. Avatar Kathryn says:

    Remember to plan for other people's travel mishaps. The person who was slated to pick me up at the airport in Siem Reap, Cambodia, did not arrive. I realized I could continue to stand there at the airport feeling hopeful, or I could devise a plan. I did not have my travel itinerary with me, since I was meeting my group at the hotel, and all I needed to do was catch a ride to the hotel. I hailed a cab, though I speak no Khmer, found a ride to an internet cafe, recaptured my emailed itinerary, and found the name of my hotel. I was then able to ask the cab driver to take me there. Instead of being bothered by the inconvenience, I learned a new resourcefulness. But it's impossible to count on everything going as planned, I discovered, so even something hard and fast like an airport pickup should come with a backup plan. (I had never seen dirt streets and huge billboards urging people to stay home because of Dengue Fever, the only words I could understand. No matter how much research you do, the reality is going to feel different, and the rules are different. I could have simply turned around and gotten back on the next flight home. Good thing I was too tired to do that.)

  9. Avatar RoamRight says:

    Sounds like you've learned quite a bit about traveling and travel insurance, Doni! As a trip cancellation and travel medical insurance provider, we hear stories like yours every day and we're glad to see that others appreciate the value of travel insurance as much as we do. Thanks for sharing your experiences!

    Safe travels,


  10. Avatar Matthew Grigsby says:

    Lots of great tips here! I've got a couple of my own. I always scan a copy of my passport and email it to myself. That way I can access it anywhere in the world if I need to(but I also carry a paper copy just in case). I also learned that I can carry an empty water bottle through all the security checkpoints and then fill it up when I find a water fountain on the other side. That way I'm not stuck spending 7 euro on water. And I will never, ever take a long flight without ambien.

    Also? If the banana gelato is gray, it's fresh. Yellow banana gelato comes from a factory.

  11. Avatar Saras says:

    I love Rick Steve's advice: Almost no one wishes they would have taken more stuff! Good travel advice, Doni, especially about the shoes.

  12. Avatar name says:

    This is common sense, but amazingly many people still are not aware.

    Do not exchange USD to the local currency at a hotel or definitely NOT in the airport. You will get hosed bad on the FX rates. Best place is to find a bank, or use ATM. But check with your bank 1st before leaving – most banks give a fairly good FX rate overseas (although there are some that charge extra for this). Be sure to check your credit card to see if it contains a smartchip or RFID. Many card payment systems in Europe are switching to this (not so in USA). Do not take USD $50 bills, as many foreign places do not/will not take them, as they are commonly counterfeited, especially in Latin/South American countries.

  13. Avatar Dave says:

    Travelers Health Insurance is certainly worth looking into. Many commercial insurance plans cover emergency care outside the US, but apparently Medicare does not, so a supplement may be a good idea. First, though, having regular health insurance is the most important thing. If you only have insurance while abroad it is kind of like wearing your seat belt only on long trips!

  14. Avatar RMV says:

    Thank goodness my traveling only involves getting to Redding!

    Ahhh, the simple life, that's me simple but Truthful!

    God Bless Northern California! Home Sweet Home.

    (boring life? NOT if you are TRULY Happy.)

  15. Avatar BB Walker says:

    Thanks for all these great travel tips.

    I travel to Italy with my cat, who is my hand luggage. This means I always have to check a suitcase, and can't carry much of anything extra onto the plane, plus have no leg room. For reading material I usually take a paperback book, read it, then leave it behind.

    Once I forgot my suitcase on the Metro in Paris and security blew it up. I had to run around Paris looking for the right police station, then get to the airport, and this was possible because I had enough cash in euros.

    If you take an i-phone to Europe you can just buy a sim card at any phone store and add 10 euros at a time for your calls — cheaper than buying another phone.