Whenever I talk about my vacations and travel (which is quite often), I get a lot of questions about whether I use an agent and how I get information. Whenever I say that I do all the work myself, I am asked if I have ever had any bad experiences. Except for some very minor inconveniences, we have never had a really bad experience while we have been travelling. There are many reasons for our lack of mishaps, but there are two main reasons. First, I do a lot of preparation and planning. I do not like to leave a lot to chance. I believe the more planning you do in advance, the greater the opportunity to have a stress-free holiday. And second, my husband believes that since we are on vacation, there is no use in getting upset as everything can be fixed (or ignored).
This year’s travel column offers tips about planning and preparation as well as some things I have learned from traveling. Another (and much longer) article about my husband’s take on this will have to wait for another time.
We start thinking about our next vacation as soon as we have completed the details about the current vacation. Since we already have 2011 pretty much set, we are already thinking about 2012. For us, this is part of the fun. Since we never travel to the same location twice, there are so many places to consider.
Tips and Lessons
- Do your homework. Planning is just as important for traveling/vacationing as it is for running your practice.
- We always rent apartments when traveling, whether domestically or internationally. We find them much more relaxing than hotels. We have never had a problem, but it does take much more time to find the right apartment than it does to find a hotel.
Before starting to look for an apartment, you must first decide the best and safest location. I do this by Googling “best neighborhoods in _________.” If your vacation encompasses a larger area, sometimes an old-fashioned map works best. Decide which town is most centrally located to many of your activities and look in that location. Once you decide on the best location, you can start to look for apartments.
Some of the most reliable sites for apartments are Vacation Rentals by Owner (www.vrbo.com), Home Away (www.homeaway.com), FlipKey (www.flipkey.com) or even Craigslist. These sites are excellent. The listings include many pictures for the apartments, their proximity to public transportation, photos of the neighborhood and other information. However, you need to ask many questions to be certain you are getting what you require. For example, a good question to ask is who to contact in case there is a problem with the apartment.
The forums on Fodor’s (www.fodors.com) and Trip Advisor (www.tripadvisor.com) are also helpful. You can read reviews of location and activities. Some of these reviews can vary widely, so you should regard them as one of many tools for your preparation.
- Print everything that you will need even if you have everything on your smartphone or laptop. I put everything into a binder which I keep near our computers. This is just a backup in case our gadgets go down. Both my husband and I put everything in this binder, which we also take with us on the plane.
In addition, one of my favorite apps is TripIt (www.tripit.com). It keeps track of everything. I even use it when I go to a conference and put my schedule in it. I love this app and highly recommend it (in addition to the binder).
- Learn something about the culture, customs, food and history of your destination. This holds just as true for traveling in the United States as it does for international destinations. We have been quite surprised by many customs and lifestyles in different parts of the country. Learning about other cultures is even more critical if you are traveling abroad.
- When traveling to a country where you do not speak the language, learning a few words/phrases (such as “Where is the lavatory?”, “How much does this cost?” and “Call a doctor!”) is critical. If the language is extremely difficult (Hungarian, for example) or you are visiting more than one country, make flash cards representing certain words/expressions that you can show at restaurants and other sites. I did this in Budapest and Prague, and although I may have seemed a little goofy, it saved a lot of miscommunication. Many people found it very thoughtful and went out of their way to help.
A number of websites and apps will not only translate words and phrases but repeat them so you know how to pronounce them correctly. The WordLens app for the iPhone will actually translate a sign or text it sees. It does have some bugs, but for menu items and signs it could be helpful. Google Translate for both the iPhone and Android features 50 languages and can translate phrases using your microphone. Again, there are some drawbacks (such as requiring an Internet connection, which can be problematic abroad) but you can use it before you leave. Google Translate will also translate websites, which can be extremely helpful. Another site that will translate websites (should you want to opt out of the Google-sphere) is BabelFish (www.babelfish.yahoo.com).
- Let’s face it, no matter how much we plan, life happens and you may need some type of medical or dental services. If you take any prescription medication, take a prescription with you and always carry medication in your carry-on luggage. Also, health care in Europe is completely different than in the US. Not worse by any means, but different. Know the procedure for any country you visit. It is also a good idea to find an English-speaking doctor or dentist, especially if you have any medical conditions.
Carefully read your own policy to see what will and will not be covered or reimbursed. For example, most insurance companies will not pay to have you airlifted out of the Grand Canyon by helicopter, and you will have to pay personally. The National Park Service will not pick up the $6,000 cost.
- I do not “pack everything into the carry-on” for long vacations. If I need an extra pair of shoes for long walking, I will take it. I know people complain about having to pay an extra $20-$25 for a second bag, but when you consider how much you may have to spend to purchase something you left behind, it may not seem like such a large amount. Having said that be realistic about what to take. The best advice I heard was “When preparing to travel, lay out all your clothes and all your money. Then take half the clothes and twice the money.”
- Finally, unless you are trying to catch a train or plane, do not hurry. That is the advantage of being on vacation. You do not have to hurry. It has taken me years to come to this conclusion since I am always rushing somewhere, but slow can be better on vacation.
Do not try to cram too many activities into a trip. I have found that part of the joy of travel is just walking around getting a feel for a location. Accept the fact that you cannot see everything.
Enjoy your trip!