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 A News Cafe in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain holds a Bachelor's Degree in journalism from CSU, Chico. She's 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's been featured and quoted in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, L.A. Times, Slate. Bloomberg News and on CNN, KQED and KPFA. She lives in Redding, California.

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