When I was first starting to travel for business I got really excited about my first business trips. While I still like to explore, more of the practical comes to mind before bouncing off to wherever. There’s a lot of stuff I would have liked if someone had told me way back when. For any seasoned business travelers who come across this, chances are you’ll either just nod your head or maybe have a couple of changes or things to add. But if you’re early in your career and end up headed for wherever, maybe some of this can help. My motivation for doing this? Just yet another trip with some excess time to kill. My experience? Years ago, spent a couple of years on a plane at least every few weeks. Then add a couple of gigs involving weeks long stays overseas. Anyway… this will be a three part series… Getting Ready, En Route and Being there. Here we go…
This is too obvious perhaps, but it should be at the top of any such list. Copies of your passport, plus copies in some online service. Personally, I bring my passport card as well as my passport. It’s technically not valid for use in crossing for many places, but as ID it’s fine for the most part and this way I can leave my passport in my room safe. (Which maybe can’t be wholly trusted, but better than in my pocket all the time.) Note, however, there are some countries where foreigners are required to have their passports with them.
Get Your Cellphone Ready
- Carefully analyze available International roaming plans.
- Perhaps obviously, make sure your phone will even work at your destination.
- Even if you’re on a good plan, limit your accidental data usage. Turn off data access for apps that really don’t need it. Consider turning off cellular data except when you know you really need it. Wifi will still work fine if available.
- It’s a pain sometimes, but consider going through EVERY app’s settings and adjusting them. This way, if you do have to turn on Cellular Data while roaming internationally for one critical app, they all don’t just start spewing or sucking down data. Even if you’ve got or can afford the bandwidth, you’re in transit and the more work your device is doing the faster your battery is draining.
- Other good options are:
- Forget about your own phone…
- At your destination, buy a SIM card. If it’s maybe $10 or $20 for the amount of time and data you’d need to cover your trip, that might be less than an international roaming plan. Note that you have to have an unlocked phone to do this. Which means – for iPhone at least – you probably have to pay extra for that. Unless you’re fairly technical, you don’t want to just jailbreak your iPhone as there are risks.
- Just buy a cheap phone when you get to your location.
Get Your Credit Cards Ready
- Call or get online with any credit card companies whose cards you might use on your trip.
- Let them know you’re traveling and where so they’re less likely to decline charges as fraudulent. If doing this via phone, modern systems may use so-called Artificially Intelligent Chat Bots. When asked for a phrase or topic, try “International Travel” and you’ll likely be asked the appropriate questions to get you set up.
- Check to find out what any foreign transfer or other fees might be beyond exchange rates.
Electronics in General
- Do you need just an adapter, or a converter? Make sure to get the right gear for your target destination and consider if you need additional plugs for any layover countries. I personally like this one from Skross. It’s an adapter, not a converter. For my Mac gear, this is all I need as Mac gear will run fine on voltages from US to Europe to wherever. For non-mac gear, (of which I actual have very little at this point), if it can be charged via USB, then I can just plug that gear into the Mac or my other charger.
- Consider whether it’s wise to charge your gear at public charging stations. It’s possible some could infect your gear with viruses via USB connections. If you must, use only well branded “probably sensible to trust” charging stations.
- Make sure to check any restrictions on battery transport if you have gear for which you’re carrying spare batteries.
- Make sure your gear is charged for the times you’re going to pass through security as they may require you to turn it on. If you can’t, you could end up with a big delay problem.
- There are many Translation Apps out there these days. Spend the extra money and get one where you can download one or more language pack(s) so you can use when offline.
- The best ones like Google Translate or iTranslate let you and another speak into a device and you can easily switch in which direction the translation should happen. As well, the ability to ‘read’ street signs, food packages, whatever, is another key feature. This form of augmented reality is incredibly useful.
- Travel insurance. Get it if you think you need it. This is a personal choice and risk assessment so not much to say here.
- Consider using Evernote or file sharing services like SugarSync or Dropbox for passport copies and other critical info.
- Try to fly at times when – if you miss a connection – there are more flight options available to get you to your final destination.
- Try to avoid connections, especially international, where you don’t have enough time to get to another gate or clear security again. Domestically, this usually isn’t an issue. But internationally, you may have to go through a security screening even though you’re already inside a terminal. There are sometimes different rules. Stricter rules. And if you get selected for special checking, (due to having some liquid – maybe a bottle of water you got on last flight and forgot about because you thought you’d already be in terminal – or something else that the new place is more strict about, then you’re in for a an extra 10, 20, 30 minutes of wait. Maybe more. And that could be enough to miss your flight. In this case, get to customer service asap and let them know, but you’d better be able to honestly tell them it wasn’t your screw up otherwise you might have to pay a lot for a ticket change.
- What’s your way out? Do you know where your embassy is? Does one of your credit card companies have international help; such as find a doctor or whatever? There are other mechanisms for international insurance of various sorts. Depending on where you travel and how frequently, some may make sense.
Hotel vs. Airbnb/Rentals by Owners
- Both have benefits. Usually Airbnb will be less expensive, sometimes by a lot. But you should probably know the area and the local language.
- Watch for Airbnb scams. If someone tries to get you to communicate or book ‘out of network’ for any reason; to save money, whatever, it could very well be a scam. The property might not even exist. Airbnb tries to combat this, but it’s up to you as well. Think about it. A renter trying to go around the broker is already being dishonest. Is that someone you want to trust?
- Hotels are probably best if you’re going someplace beyond just unfamiliar, but potentially foreign to you in some ways. (Even if it’s domestic.) Certainly for international travel, hotels may offer better security and services than unknown entities, even if it can be more interesting to kind of live like a local. It might make sense to do your first trip to such venues via hotel and then once you’ve got the lay of the land, go with Airbnb or other rentals by owner.
Know the Money
Understand what the denominations of the currency are where you’re going; bills and coins. With online tools, you should know what they all look like. Learn where it’s best to exchange and if they take your local currency, (like dollars), anyway. For some places, it may be challenging or expensive to change money in the U.S. prior to travel. At your destination, the airport exchanges may have high rates as well. If you can get by with dollars, (or nothing at all), until you can get to city center and use an ATM, that might be your best bet. Find out what the exchange rates will be with your bank or credit/debit cards and make sure to use the most favorable. Even if you’re on a company expense account, you should be practicing some sensible good stewardship over travel funds.
It could be your usual bank card at ATM is best, though it might be better to use a credit card or some other method. Again, check the rates and any fees before you go.
Be aware that credit card technology is changing fast. Security methods such as chip cards may not work the same where you’re going as they do at home. In other words, don’t necessarily count on your credit cards working everywhere. While you don’t want to carry too much cash on you, make sure to have enough to cover dinner if you’re taking others out or make sure your card(s) work where you’re going first.
It’s going to cost you to change money back to dollars when you return. And again, for some currencies, you may not even be able to exchange it locally. Or perhaps, not for any sensible fees/rates. So try to get rid of local cash before coming home. You can splurge a bit on some travel snacks, (a personal favorite), or if it’s a lot of cash, maybe apply some of it to your hotel bill at check out. And of course, you can change it back into dollars while you’re still wherever you are. You may get stuck with a little local currency if you hang on to some for a snack before leaving. But usually, you can use dollars in a lot of places as well. Though you’ll likely get change in the local currency.
Even before you leave your house, have print outs of your target destinations. If you’ve converted them to English, print out a copy in the local language as well in case you need to show that to someone. Once you get there, an old trick is to grab some hotel business cards from the front desk and use those to tell taxi drivers how to get you home. But you no longer have to wait until you get there to have this info from the web. (Print it. Don’t depend on your phone being connected. Even if you have offline backups of things in Evernote, what if you’re out of power? Sometimes paper works just fine.)
Medications & First Aid & Water Safety
Maybe it’s because I’ve been a volunteer EMS person for a long time and am a little paranoid about being prepared, but I often have at least the following with me, unless I’m sure where I’m going the water is fine:
- Sawyer Mini purifier.
- Katadyn water purifier.
Both of these are typically used for hiking, but they work great for plain ole’ travel when you’re someplace that might have a dicey water supply. They won’t fix VOCs or metals or whatever, but will take care of most waterborne bacteria and viruses of most concern to people. Just be sure you don’t go to the effort of purifying drinking water and then ingesting water when you brush teeth in the shower or eat cold salad or vegetables washed in bad water.
For water safety, this very much depends on where you’re going. But besides the usual suggestions to use bottled water, there’s several relatively small and light options you can bring along with you for your own water purification.
For medications, obviously, bring what you need. But consider not consolidating into one pill bottle. Or if you’ve already got consolidated pills if you’re using a pill pack service, make sure to bring your prescription list with you. The idea here is that anywhere along your journey – with an overzealous, inexperienced or just jerky law enforcement person – they might question what all these pills are. And maybe claim they’re illegal unless you can show otherwise to a reasonably sensible degree of certainty. Probably never a hassle, but why risk it?
Standard Meds: I always have some basic aspirin, some Benadryl, some anti-diarrheal like Immodium, motion sickness tablets, (though I generally don’t get this I have them just in case), some band-aids, and of course anything prescription if I happen to be on anything. I’m lucky in that I don’t personally generally need prescription meds, but if you do, you have to just assume you’ll have trouble getting more in some countries. Of course, in other places what you need a prescription for at home can be bought over the counter. Know beforehand.
Security & Fitting In
You may be far from home. And depending on just how far, your supply lines and support system may be pretty thin. I’m talking really about business travel here, not some wild off track hiking. While most decent sized cities of the world are like any other; nice areas, poor areas, people generally helpful, etc., there are obvious some challenges.
- I like to know some things before I go. Such as a general map of the area. And where the U.S. Embassy is in relation to where I’m staying and working.
- How do I dial my phone? What are the country codes for home and local calls? With many roaming plans you’re on a local network where you can just dial a local number without the country code. For home, at least U.S., you probably need to dial the plus (+) symbol and a one (1) before the area code. (Usually, just holding down the zero (0) key will give you the plus sign.) Other options are just getting a local phone for your trip or buying a SIM card for voice and maybe data once you’re local. (SIM is subscriber identification module.) Maybe check your manual or search online to make sure you know how to replace your SIM card before you land someplace.
- What’s going on locally? Are there online forums where you can get a sense of the place? Google Translate can give you a good idea of what’s being said if you can’t read the language.
- Can you see pictures of the place and the people? What are they wearing? You don’t necessarily have to fit in, but if you want to, dressing appropriately would help. There’s not much you can do in terms of standing out if your skin color is very different than 99.9% of the population where you’re going. Or if you’re a woman in some countries, you may be treated quite differently than what you’re used to in most Western countries. In some places, people may be generally much shorter. Or taller. Or blonder. But if all else is the same, look at the jackets, the shoes, etc. There’s a couple of places in Eastern Europe, just as one odd example, where hardly anyone wears sunglasses, even when it’s really bright out. It’s odd, but… there it is. And in some cultures, a wedding ring is worn on the right hand and not the left. All of these things are giveaways that you’re an outsider. Maybe not important. But it depends on where you are and what you’re trying to accomplish. Of course, the moment you open your mouth – unless you’ve somehow got the language down like a native – your cover is blown.
- Why bother fitting in at all? Mostly it doesn’t matter. But… there are times walking from office to hotel or apartment at night it makes sense to avoid seeming to be an obvious target. A “rich” foreigner might be perceived as likely to be carrying a large amount of currency. And other than just yelling in general, may be challenged in getting help. The good news – if you can call it that – is it’s fairly common to see people with their heads buried in their cell phones everywhere. So if you’re checking your map app, not a big deal. But be aware of what’s around you and hang on to your phone so it doesn’t get snatched from you while you’re focused on navigation.
- Perhaps obviously, culturally you’ll want to get along with your business associates. If possible, read up on local customs. Some folks shake hands every day when they meet. Others on first meeting only. Unwritten rules/guidelines about personal space distances may differ. Etc. etc.
- Tipping: This is old news and you should look at other travel sites to see what is standard for your destination. In many places, tipping isn’t common. In others, it’s very rude if you don’t tip. In many places, most people don’t tip, but Americans do. My typical response is to tip like most Americans. And in places like your hotel, do so as early as possible. Such as, get a drink at the bar your first night and leave a fair tip. It’ll be known among staff. It’s not like you might need any special services, but whatever you do need, you’ll have more “friends” this way. And also, remember where you are. If you’re in someplace with an unfavorable exchange rate, then ok, be careful and conserve your own cash and that of your employer. But if you’re in a nation where one U.S. dollar gets you 10,000 of whatever the local currency is, why not be a little more generous? Don’t be a fool or a sucker, but don’t be so cheap when a GOOD tip amounts to just one dollar or similar. One time, while traveling with others, we had been ripped off a bit on one country. Not badly, maybe $20 extra for something. Then we went someplace else and took a cab ride. The driver wanted X dollars or whatever. One of my colleagues got into this big thing with him. Loud. Which was pointless due to the language barrier. We were in a bit of a sketchy area. Or at least it felt like it. I did the conversion and said, “Hey… um… John… listen… you’re going nuts here over 75 cents, you realize that, right?” So maybe there was a principle involved. But sometimes you have to put things in perspective and move on. Other times you have to stand your ground. But know the difference.
Bring Gear / Tools
While you can supposedly carry small bladed knives on planes again, it’s probably a good idea to not bother to avoid anything being confiscated. Chances are if traveling long haul, you’re checking a bag. I have a small gear bag I put in my big bag. Here’s what I put in there:
- Multitool. Something with a knife and bottle opener and pliers and… whatever. Personally, I don’t understand how anyone functions without a utility knife on them at all times. Perhaps it’s a function of lifestyle, but I’m always finding I need a cutting tool. You never know when you need basic tools. As I write this, my room service has arrived. I’m staying at a reasonably nice place. My coca-cola is in a bottle. But no bottle opener. (And no, I’m not talking about the twist off bottle in the pic below. Different bottle.) Yes, I could call the guy back for this. But I don’t have to use some stupid means to try to open the bottle. I’ve got an opener on my tool. Sometimes something has a screw loose. Sometimes you have to… whatever.
- Collapsible bowl and Lexan utensil set. Sometimes I just want to be left alone to have a “normal” meal. I’ve eaten with my colleagues. I’ve met new folks to go out with. I’ve dined alone in the hotel. I’ve had room service. But sometimes I’d just prefer to get some stuff at a local supermarket and manage on my own with some fresher, not over prepared food. Some basics. To do that, it’s useful to have a little mini setup all of your own. For quick trips, I don’t bother with this. But if going someplace for a week or more, I find it useful.
- Some cordage. Can be paracord or whatever. Why? Things break. In a pinch you can tie up luggage, create a handle, fix a piece of clothing perhaps, and so on. And you can rig up a small clothes line if you have to wash something in your sink and need a place to dry it.
- Mini carabiners (2): Same as above. You can fix stuff, rig a clothes line, all manner of things.
- A couple of nights ago I went shopping at a small market to get some snacks to keep in my hotel room. Yes, there’s room service, but the menu is limited. And I wanted some real food, like oranges, an apple, some cheese, etc. just to have around. Yes, I can go out. And most meals are with co-workers, etc. But the thing is, a lot of places where I happen to be now – most actually – have minimal to no English. With translation apps, I can manage, but sometimes it’s a challenge. Anyway, my purchases went in a small plastic bag. I kept the bag. I didn’t throw it out later. Why? Because I didn’t know how or when or if, but maybe I would need the bag. It turns out my breakfast came with a lot more bread than I would eat with breakfast. Well, the bread went in the bag and now it’s snacks for the day. I avoid wasting food. And I have snacks in a place where I don’t always know what I’m gong to have access to during the day in a place not real close to options. It’s not like I can’t get something if I’m hungry and need to order something. But… there’s just a bit more self-sufficiency here this way and I’m not wasting stuff. And it’s not like I’m a purist when it comes to Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, but if I can up or down cycle something and if I can avoid casually wasting food, I prefer to do so.
I’m sure there’s tons more, but this is more than enough for now. Hopefully even if you knew most of this there was something new and useful in here for you. If not, you probably didn’t get to this last paragraph anyway! Enjoy your trip.