Cheers from London! I get dozens of emails, Facebook messages and Twitter pings each week asking travel questions – what to pack, how to look fabulous, electronics advice — so I decided to answer some of the most frequently asked ones in a post. Practical travel tips can be found all over the web, so I’ll attempt to provide my take without regurgitating ones that you can find elsewhere.
Underwater housing for Canon G12 – best electronics purchase of the year!
Candid cameras. You don’t have to spend thousands of dollars on equipment to take gorgeous pictures, but you DO need to read your camera’s manual before you travel. And you know how they say if you want to be a good writer, you should read other good writers? The same applies to photography. Take a look at the travel photos you most admire and attempt to emulate them. I developed my style after a summer in Paris where I learned the techniques of great French photographers Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Doisneau.
For some modern-day inspiration, check out Kristin, Ken, Kirsten and Steve. After a while, you’ll develop your own style and be on your way to capturing priceless memories that your Facebook friends will drool over.
People ask all the time what camera I use, so here it is: the Canon G12 - only $399 on Amazon. I also invested in the underwater housing for that model so I can scuba dive, whitewater raft or just get up close and personal with great white sharks – all with the same amazing camera.
iPhone love. I had a conversation a few days ago with a friend who’s planning to leave the digital camera behind in favor of just his iPhone. iPhoneography is legit, and with apps like Instagram, PhotoStudio and Diptic to jazz up your snaps, the iPhone (or even just the Apple iTouch) is an indispensable travel tool. There are even detachable lenses - which I’m ordering as soon as I get back to the US. Check out Aviators & A Camera for tips on shooting like a pro with your iPhone.
Diligent note-taking. Boy, that sounds glamorous, doesn’t it? Obviously you can do this on any number of smart phones, but I use my iPhone religiously for taking notes. I have details for every single day of my travels over the past year and a half, from big events to tiny details like the conversations I had with strangers on the bus or funny people-watching incidents. I’ve never regretted taking the time to jot down the day’s events. Many folks use Evernote, but the Notes function works fine for me so I’m sticking with it.
More than just a bookworm. I don’t leave home without my Kindle 3G but it’s not just my Jane Austen obsession fueling the attachment. This particular model comes with a lifetime WiFi connection, so you can check emails, Facebook or Twitter from the Kindle without paying a monthly service fee. Admittedly, the connection is slow and the functionality is not great, but it’s the perfect way to touch base when other network options aren’t going to work. For example, while floating up the Nile on a felucca very, very far from WiFi, I was able to respond to freaked out family back home who’d heard about riots in Cairo.
Coming soon? I met a guy at a hostel in Ljubljana who had a handheld SPOT Satellite GPS. This would’ve been the perfect addition to my RTW packing list, as all it takes is the push of a button to alert a preprogrammed email list of your whereabouts. WiFi isn’t needed since it’s satellite-powered, so no matter where you go, you can push out a notification letting everyone know you’re safe. Each time you send a notification, it records your coordinates so you could feasibly have a detailed map of every track and trail you’ve wandered over the course of your trip. There’s also an emergency button so you can alert help from anywhere in the world. Really wish I’d had this!
Booking. I use a variety of online resources to research flights and hotels, but if I’m in a hurry I usually stick with Kayak.com and TripAdvisor. I know – that’s hardly a groundbreaking tip! But those are my go-to staples. I’m planning a more detailed post in the future with all my cheap flight-finding resources and travel hacking tips… so stay tuned.
Planning. I used to dedicate countless hours to researching destinations prior to a trip, but I’m time-poor these days so often I rock up to a city and know absolutely nothing about it. On one hand, that’s great because the adventure unfolds in its own way without too much forethought. If I do have a bit of time before departure, I’ll pull up dozens of windows on my computer with information from Wikipedia, Fodor’s, Frommer’s and friends’ blogs to read on the plane or train. It’s easier than carrying a guidebook and reading up just before arrival helps me to hit the ground running.
The three questions I always ask at check-in. When arriving at a hotel or hostel, ask the concierge these questions:
1. What time is sunrise/sunset and where can I find the best view of each?
2. Where is the highest spot in town? (See below)
3. What is this area/town/country most famous for?
Get high ASAP. It’s not what you’re thinking! My first stop when visiting a new place is the highest possible viewpoint – a skyscraper, bell tower or mountaintop. It helps me get a sense of the place, to map out where else I want to go and to take pictures from a bird’s eye view.
Prague from the Astronomical Clock Tower – the best view in town, no?
Ditch the money belt. These things need to go the way of the dinosaurs – straight toward extinction. I carried a money belt around in my suitcase for 9 months before finally ditching it. On top of the clunky awkwardness of the device, I often wear dresses and you just can’t get to that money without flashing your underpants to the cashier, you know what I mean? Instead of the money belt, now I use a wallet with a chain to attach to my purse or bag to prevent pickpockets from dipping in. I use a cute Vera Bradley Carry It All Wristlet and it’s served me well.
Keep multiple stashes in case of emergency. When I was pick-pocketed in Athens, I didn’t even cry. Yes, I was out $400 in cash and a couple of credit cards (and my student ID – dang!) were gone forever, but in another bag I had a bit of cash and cards for backup accounts – not the ones in my stolen wallet – so I never missed a beat and never was without money while awaiting my new cards and ID to come in.
I also have electronic scans in my email of the front and back of each credit card and form of identification, which came in very handy when I needed to contact each bank company to report theft.
Beware the sexy accent. All that ciao and Cheerio and spot-of-tea business is charming but dangerous. Someday I’m going to market Sexy Foreign Accent Repellant®but until I get around to it, just take my word for it.
Diversify accounts. I have a semi-complex cash flow system set up with checking accounts, credit cards and savings accounts at different banks for different reasons. When I travel, I carry my Capital One Visa card which allows me to make purchases abroad without charging an international transaction fee; I have a Fidelity account which I use to make fee-free ATM withdrawals, a PayPal Mastercard for quick access to profits there, and I have a Delta SkyMiles card for SkyTeam flight purchases (not that I ever seem to make any these days!).
Having several banks also helps if one card is lost or stolen or if the bank decides to freeze your account for whatever reason. (Sometimes it doesn’t matter if you alert them that you’re traveling, when a charge from Laos pops up, they stop all activity. Not cool if you’re trying to book a bus ticket!)
Having a variety of accounts gives me access to a variety of benefits of course, but it can get complicated remembering which accounts are connected, so I made a flow chart that I keep along with the scans of each card. (By the way, I’m a little OCD when it comes to list-making in case you hadn’t figured it out.)
Hats are my thing
Wrinkle-free for free. Before my big trip, I used to breeze past the Duty Free section at the airport, but now you’ll find me there before every flight slathering on the most expensive face creams and luxurious hand lotions I can find. Think about it: if you’re taking a red-eye, why not put on a hearty sample of that $100-an-ounce regenerating serum and get some spa benefits while zooming over the sea in the middle of the night? It’s easy, it’s free and you look like you’ve had a facelift on arrival while the rest of the passengers look like puffy-eyed zombies.
Accessorize. I get asked all the time how I look so fabulous while traveling. First, thanks! I appreciate that! (What these folks don’t know is that the “fab” clothes I’m wearing probably haven’t been washed in two weeks… so it feels good to know I’m fooling everyone! Mwahahahaha!)
Generally, I choose a simple color scheme for clothes and then accessorize around it. I pack a mix of black, khaki and solid-colored separates and then a couple of inexpensive hats, sunglasses, scarves, earrings and bright necklaces to jazz everything up. When I get tired of the accessories, I just trade them out for cheap new ones and it’s like having a whole new wardrobe.
On Packing & Luggage
I’ve written about What I Could Have Left Behind and What I’m Glad I Brought before, so I won’t go too much into specifics, other than to say now I have even less in my bag than ever before. You can buy everything you need on the road, so there’s really no reason to bring everything and the kitchen sink. (If you’re very, very particular about using a certain brand of shampoo, eyeliner, mascara, contact solution — then you may want to bring it.)
It’s true what they say: pack half the clothes you think you’ll need and twice the money.
Shoes. OMG. Shoes. Shoes (especially awesome ones) take up a lot of space, but aren’t really worth it because A. they rarely show up in pictures and B. comfort is paramount when traveling. I have a serious shoe rule: only 3 pairs allowed. (Four if there’s a gun to my head or a formal ball to attend.) I have Tom’s, sandals and tennis shoes most of the time. In Egypt, I decided to leave my tennis shoes at home and then was convinced by a sexy accent to hike Mt. Sinai — so I’ve added sneakers back into my shoe repertoire. If something comes up and you MUST have heels, you can always buy some – and then you’ve got a great souvenir to take back home.
Carry-on necessities. In my carry-on I have a little bag with essentials: a sleep mask, earplugs, extra headphones, Advil, a travel toothbrush, lip gloss and tiny moisturizer. I never unpack it, that way I never leave home without it.
Skip the backpack. I tried to be a backpacker, I really did. It lasted about 15 minutes and then I gave up and went back to just being myself – someone who likes a wheeled suitcase! I wish I could get by with just my Diane von Furstenberg rolling duffel, but it’s a bit too small and would take too much of a beating going around the world a few times, so I wound up with the Eagle Creek Twist – 65L. It’s a great size and very durable, however I have not once used the backpack straps. I think for a taller person, it might be more manageable, but from a short girl’s perspective, it just doesn’t fly.
Packing cubes for President. I swear by Eagle Creek packing cubes. As much as I still hate packing, with these babies I know where every single item of my bag needs to go and can be ready to rock-and-roll out in about 15 minutes.
That’s all the time we have for today, but I plan to add to this list as I remember more tips. If they’ve been helpful, let me know and if you have tips to share with me, please do so in the comments. I’m always looking for ways to be a more efficient traveler!
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