Planning for Travel
For many, planning for a trip itself is exciting (I enjoy researching beforehand) but many others dread planning as not to end up in messy situations.
May sound cliché but a very important tip – Research about a place including the places to stay, safety, activities – popular sites for research – Wikipedia, wikivoyage, tripadvisor, frommers , www.seat61.com,www.travelfish.org for SE Asia(the gold standard for travel information for SE Asia). For my backpacking trip to Indochina, it took me few months charting out itinerary, travel options, accommodation etc and it was worth the research as I ended up spending $2500 (of which, multicity airfare from New York to Saigon and return from Bangkok to New York cost $1400) roughly for a 18 day trip to Vietnam, Cambodia and Bangkok from New York.
All-inclusive travel is very popular in US and Canada especially for families as the prices are very predictable and most of the expenses are covered. All-inclusive options offered in many Caribbean islands and Mexico include mostly roundtrip flights,resort room (normally quoted for couples), food and drinks (including alcoholic beverages & cocktails) while kids under 12 eat and stay for free, which makes it very economical and predictable for budget couples. The only additional cost would be the airport pickup/dropoffs and the tips given to the hotel staff. The hotels would say no tips are necessary but I know that the tips what we provide to the hotel staff go a long way in augmenting their earnings as many Caribbean islands are still developing nations. So Hema and I make it a point to get $1 bundle for $100 from nearby bank just for tipping. It is also our way of paying forward in a small way, as we ourselves had grown up from similar economic background. The resorts are mostly on the beachfront and many have isolated beaches catering to just the guests of the resorts. They normally have a minimum of 3 restaurants serving international cuisines, not including the buffet if one do not want to reserve for dinners at these restaurants. They have atleast couple of large swimming pools and bars with swimup bars as well. And in the evenings, they have entertainments.
For All-inclusive travel plans to Caribbean Islands, Mexico and Central America, explore the two popular sites offering all-inclusive packages to Caribbean and compare the prices for the dates and the hotel. I had booked several other all-inclusive trips through these sites and I never had an issue at any point. The two sites are www.cheapcaribbean.com and www.bookit.com. I tried Expedia.com, which is one of my favorite travel sites, but they were lagging in all-inclusive options compared to these sites. From my experience booking with these sites, I see prices go up when you try booking in the weekends and prices come down when you book during weekdays for the same dates/hotel/flights. I would advice that one should watch the prices for a week before booking as the prices fluctuate wildly.
For all-inclusive option, arrange for an airport pick up drop off through the same site you are booking the package.
Passport, Visa, Special permits & restrictions
Check for the validity of the passports. Most countries would need passports with atleast 6 months remaining for expiry.
Check for visa regulations including transit visa regulations if you are having a stopover in an airport before making a booking for the flight. The best place to start with is Wikipedia. For example, for Indians –http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Visa_requirements_for_Indian_citizens and for U.S citizens –http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Visa_requirements_for_United_States_citizens
But ultimately check directly in the embassy/consulate sites of respective countries traveling to. Some countries might need longer durations to process the visa.
Do note certain countries like India need special permissions like Protected Area Permit(PAP) or Restricted Area Permit(RAP) for foreigners if one want to venture to certain places like Andaman and Nicobar islands or North East India, which one might need to arrange in advance from the embassies/consulates of those countries. Also they might have special travel requirements like going through authorized travel agencies etc for those areas.
US travelers – make use of the passport cards offered as you can carry it during the local trips in the country you are traveling to instead of carrying the bulky passport book, which you can safely leave it in the safebox at the hotel. Warning – Do note that the card itself is a valid travel document only in certain situations.
Certain countries require you to demonstrate the financial ability to spend before allowing you in the port of entry. For example, Thailand requires $500 worth of cash to be carried by each passenger.
I use flights.google.com, www.kayak.com, www.expedia.com for international traveling and www.alanita.com,www.makemytrip.com for India travel. In addition, I go to the respective airlines site directly and check for prices.
When comparing airline prices, check for additional fees like baggage fees etc – nowadays airlines charge even for carry-on baggages like Spirit airlines.This would ultimately weigh in your net airline ticket fees. Also note that paying online for the bags you carry would be much lower than paying at the counter at airport and would be even more expensive at the gate. Check for the maximum allowed baggage weight limit in the airlines site. Always pack items which you can throw away and purchase it later for a pittance in a separate bag and leave in inside your check-in baggage. Comes in handy when you are over the limit and not end up paying lot more or going through the tension trying to decide what items items to remove (items like shampoo, conditioners can be purchased later for a few dollars than ending up paying lot more for extra weight)
Do remember most of the domestic flights do not offer meals nowadays and food at airport restaurants can be very expensive. I ended up paying $58 for a burger and a slice of pizza with 2 cups of coffees at Liberia airport, Costa Rica. I would advise carrying your own food as it ends up cheaper on top of being healthy as well.
Weather and other factors
Check the weather in the country you are traveling to and other factors which might influence the prices. Hurricane season is between June and November for many Caribbean islands. I would try avoiding travel at that time or book for islands outside of the Hurricane belt like Aruba or even a central american country like Costa Rica. I happened to book the vacation for Bahamas without much research (the winter of 2010-2011 was very severe that I wanted to get away to warmer place and in an hour after deciding to go somewhere, I booked for Bahamas only to find out that you would need a thin jacket sitting in the beach). Who would want to sit in the beach with jacket when the whole fun is walking around in swim trunks? I cancelled my ticket and rebooked for Costa Rica after a loss of $200 from cancellation and rebooking. I traveled to Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic during the US universities’ spring break and ended up paying $150 or more for each all-inclusive package. Kerala in India is expensive in December and January as it is the season. A 2 bedroom houseboat would cost more than Rs 20,000 compared(or roughly $300 per night) to an offseason when you can get it for as low as $150 per night.
Money and Credit/Debit Cards
What kind of money to carry is a challenge and it varies from country to country. But I always carry some $2000 in cash – mostly in $100 bills as the exchange to the local currency carries much better exchange rate than $20 bills. And I carry a bundle of $1 notes for tipping and other small expenses. Also I carry 1 each of the popular Credit Cards (Visa, Master, Amex, Discover) just to be safe. Also I carry foreign transaction fees free credit cards. For example, Capital One does not apply foreign transaction fees for the transactions. Also carry two Debit cards from two different banks as many ATMs abroad can chew up the cards (mostly due to a faulty equipment). It happened to me once in Thailand. Also watch out for frauds when you try to exchange money in local currency. In Bali, I had that experience but knew about those frauds from my research and talking to other travelers upfront in Twitter. I was alert and was able to prevent the cheating. Always count the money and do not allow them to touch the money after you counted. I was exchanging $200 into Indonesian Rupiah(@ roughly $1 to 13000 rupiah) and when I counted I was able to count 26 100,000 Rupiah notes but they touched it and when I recounted there were atleast 10 notes missing. I refused the exchange and walked out. Go for a reputed money exchanger on the main street for a lower exchange rate than someone in a dark alley.
Items to Carry
What to carry? Here is the checklist of items I use everytime I needed for travel for your reference.
Carry important contact information including the nos to call your bank from outside the country in case you needed any help or lost your credit card/debit card.
Call your credit card/debit card banks and inform them of the travel to a country and remove the security restrictions. It is a good way to know if your bank allows the use of credit cards in those countries. I had come across the experience in Thailand, where my bank did not allow credit card/debit card usage and ended up borrowing money from my brother.
Carry $100 bills for cash as they provide better conversion rates, if you need to change to local currency, compared to $20 bills. Also carry a bundle of $1 notes as it is easy for tipping and other small expenses.
Carry your expired credit cards/debit cards in a separate wallet and leave it in the regular pockets of your trousers where you usually carry the wallet. If you are getting mugged or stolen, most probably these cards are the ones which you will lose or hand it over. But do not attempt to resist during mugging.
Buy a runners’ wallet to have your credit cards, cash, cellphone – I prefer wrist wallet along with the one going around the waist, as I feel very secure with it while snorkeling or diving. Search for the ‘runner’s wrist wallet’ in Amazon. For my backpack trips, I use 3 or 4 convertible trousers and Hema had stitched a pocket with zips on the innerside of my trousers in the area around the waist just enough to carry a passport, credit/debit cards and large currency bills and I would place them in ziplock bags and place it inside the pocket and zip it up and I felt much secure travelling than the waist wallet.
Carry bunch of ziplock bags and wrap your cash, cellphone & credit cards as it protects against rain.
Always carry electronic copies of passports/visa in a SD card or USB card. In addition, upload your passport copies and visas, license into google/amazon clouds.
Check for the driving requirements in the country you are traveling to if you intend to drive. The requirements might be International Driving Permit(IDP) . Do understand that the IDP without the driver license is not a valid document as it is only a document with translation of your driver license information in multiple languages. You need to carry your country’s driver license along with it.
Check for vehicle insurance if you intend to drive in the country you are travelling to. Many credit cards provide insurance coverage by default – like Visa platinum. American Express offers car rental loss and damage insurance for a fee of roughly $30 for the entire length of the car rental. Some restrictions might apply for certain countries, so do your homework.
If you are traveling to multiple countries and intend to drive, check with the popular rental companies for a package which might end up cheaper than booking for vehicles separately. I booked through Alamo for a package for my complete trip to Nicaragua & Costa Rica and it ended up being cheaper.
Understand the driving conditions and book the vehicle accordingly. The first time, I booked a Toyota Yaris in Costa Rica inspite of sagely advice from my manager at work to rent a SUV and ended up digging the wheel in a slushy mud pit of the road. Also carefully look for 4×4 vs 4×2 – SUV like Hyundai Tucson is a 4×2 which I failed to be aware of when travelling to Nicaragua.
Understand the driving laws and guidelines in the country. Check for Left hand driving vs right hand driving, automatic vs manual transmission for the cars.
Book for vehicles before travelling as it ends up cheaper than renting one at the airport without reservation
Understand the local signs and names of the traffic signs beforehand if the country has different language.
Also get to know the difference between the metric system vs US system.
I always buy a GPS map of that country. For example, Costa Rica map will cost around $40 from Garmin which came in handy in the 2 trips to that country. If you have an idea of your future travel plans, go for a bundle of multiple countries, though you might pay more upfront, you will save a lot later.
Unlock your cellphones before going as you can have different sim cards of countries you are traveling. Most cellphone vendors nowadays provide you unlocked cellphones but if not, you can contact them.
Find out the SIM card compatibility with your cellphone vs the SIM cards sold in those countries before hand. I found this experience in Nicaragua where the SIM cards were micro SIM cards while my cellphone had only Nano SIM card slot. If so, try getting a SIM card cutter.
Call your cellphone company and find out about the international travel plan and enable it though you need not buy a package. It will come in handy in emergency situations.
Health and Safety
Contact your primary care physician to check with him about vaccines necessary or if you need carry something like malarial or typhoid medicines. At a minimum check www.cdc.gov and check under travelers’ health tab for information related to that country.
For safety or travel warnings, check travel.state.gov. I highly recommend enrolling in Smart Traveler Enrollment Program – https://step.state.gov/step/ though I am in violation of this recommendation myself.
Check for the dress code guidelines in those countries. In Bangkok, Hema and I were wearing shorts and found out, in order to enter the King’s palace, men needed long pants and women skirts or dresses which will cover the ankle. Many religious places in different countries would require that. Always err on the side of dressing modestly in case of doubt.
Language could be a huge factor in a particular country and a small amount of preparation can go a long way to make your stay comfortable. I always look up for the basics online on pronunciation. For example, in Spanish, ‘J’ is silent and so Jesus is pronounced as ‘Esus’. I try to remember about 50 phrases in a language and counting of numbers and carry with me, printouts of about 300 phrases. I tried Franklin electronic dictionary once but was not helpful. If I have internet access in my cellphone, I use google translator or if you feel it apt, invest in a translator application which works offline.
For US travelers, arrange for USPS mail holding if you are traveling for more than a week.
Understand what voltage system the country uses and buy a travel voltage conversion kit, if needed.
For backpackers, additional tips
Buy a nice pair of walking shoes a month in advance and get comfortable with it – I got a Merrell moab ventilator which I found pretty comfortable and still wear it.
Get a nice backpack to fit the torso. Measure your torso or stores like REI will measure it for you.
Plan on the capacity of the backpack you need to buy. The sizes are expressed in litres or cubic inches. I got a 55 liter Marmoth online which was a good backpack but felt could have gone in for bigger one as I could not buy exotic things and bring home.
Get breathable backpacks as it can get really sweaty in the back carrying the backpack in hot tropical countries. I was walking in Hanoi for almost a mile from where the bus from the airport dropped me off to the French Quarters and found it very helpful.
Check for Internal vs External frame backpacks. I prefer Internal frame with breathable option as it is helpful for general travel
Research for hostels, places to stay beforehand and have options in case you do not like a particular place to stay. Will not recommend booking in advance personally as I like options to choose from when I am there at the place. But always had a list of preferred places to stay in each city during my SE Asia backpack travel.
www.seat61.com is an important site to refer to for travel arrangements.
http://www.ixigo.com/ (compare the best fares across 100+ travel sites)
chat SIM –
Youth Hostels Association of India ( (Member of Hostelling International(HI))
(As a member of any of the organisations that are a part of Hostelling International(HI) in any country, you get a member discount whenever you stay at a hostel in any country which is part of HI)
Hostels Worldwide which are member of Hostelling International(HI)
Reg International Driving License(IDL)
Full name in the International Driving license or permit should match with Full Name in the passport.
Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) with GPS (406Mhz)
Carrying Satellite phones to India :
Satphones being brought in baggage/hand baggage are liable to confiscation/detention in the absence of a license/NOC from the Department of Telecom, India
The use of any telegraph services/ devices including wireless is regulated by the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885.
As per existing guidelines issued by Department of Telecommunications (DoT), INMARSAT Satphonesexcluding BGAN system can be used by Individuals, travelers, members of Mountaineering Expedition and other such categories with prior permission from DoT.
Anyone using satphone without prior permission of DoT violates the Indian Telegraph Act and can be penalized under that Act.
In case of import as cargo, a declaration should to be given by the person importing the goods about the details of the goods/systems being imported.
All intending visitors are advised to make a declaration to Indian Customs to this effect at the first port of entry.
The No Objection Certificate (NOC) for carrying satphone into India is issued by the DoT on a case by case basis. Details of the procedure can be obtained from DoT website www.dot.gov.in.
The only authorized provider of INMARSAT services in India is Tata Communications Limited, which provides such services after a No Objection Certificate (NOC) for carrying satellite phones into India is issued by DoT on a case by case basis.
Travel Insurance (will be dealt with in detail later)
Travel insurance are of various types. It can be for any interruption in your travel due to medical sickness, hurricane/cyclone interruption, car insurance, baggage loss or optional medical coverage.
I would recommend at a minimum Medevac insurance (Medical Evacuation Insurance) as it allows for evacuation from remote places to a good hospital in case someone has medical emergency.