Friday, June 29, 2012

It’s in the Bag: 5 Packing Tips for Simpler Travel

Are you one of the masses heading out for summer vacation over Independence Day week? If you’re traveling by plane, train or another form of public transportation, you will be fighting for space to stow your bags and most likely carrying them a fair distance. These tips can help you keep your luggage safe and your sanity intact. 
  1. Reduce your baggage allowance. If you plan to get around by train or another form of public transportation, be sure to pack light. Instead of heavy jeans, ladies can pack lighter skirts or dresses along with tights for cooler weather. Remember, black goes with everything. Shoes are heavy and take up a lot of room, so limit yourself to two pairs. When it’s cool, I bring a pair of flat boots and a dressier pair with low heels, and they take me everywhere. In the warmer months, I wear a pair of black Mary Janes that take me from day into night along with sandals or flip flops for the beach or pool.Toiletries are also heavy, so pack travel-size bottles of shampoo, lotions and other products that your hotel won’t provide. To help prevent wrinkles and to make more room in my suitcase, I stuff small piles of clothes in clear vacuum-pack bags that flatten to remove the  air. If you can’t find them at Walmart, Target or Bed, Bath and Beyond, fold clear plastic shopping bags under for the same effect.
  2. Keep the weight on your back to take a load off your mind. Do you really need to be told to pack your camera, laptop, jewelry and other valuables in your hand luggage? Sure, it can get heavy, especially if your camera is as hefty as mine, but if you don’t carry it with you, just kiss it good-bye before boarding your flight. While you’re packing your carry-on, be sure to throw in any medication you will need for the entire trip, and add a little extra in case your return home is delayed.  Don’t forget aspirin and over-the counter drugs you may need, such as cold and allergy medicine because foreign pharmacies aren’t always easy to navigate.
  3. Bag it. The type of suitcase you use makes a big difference. Since I’m petite, and I usually take the train from place to place when I travel abroad, I have learned the hard way that a standard suitcase is not easy to load on and off a train and even more difficult to drag up the steps in the many metro and train stations that don’t have an elevator. Instead, I use a duffel bag on wheels. Not only is it lighter, but it’s not as deep, so you don’t have to lift it as high off the ground when you are climbing steps. Even better, mine has handles on each end, so I can use both arms to pick it up rather than lifting from the top.
  4. Stand out. After many hours of exhausting travel to your destination, you will look forward to reuniting with your suitcase. Make sure it stands out, especially if it looks a lot like everyone else’s bag. Colorful luggage tags and ribbons tied around the handle can help. I credit my dad, the cleverest person I’ve ever known, with the idea of painting distinctive marks on both sides of my bag. Any kind of wall paint will do. I’ve also used acrylic paint. While you’re making your bag easy to identify, be sure to write your name and the address of the place where you’re staying along with a phone number where you can be reached on a piece of paper and place it in the bag. I include my cell phone number, along with its country code, especially when I stay at a hotel. I always lock my bag with a TSA-approved lock, so I place the sheet in an outside pocket.
  5. Shoot it. Just before leaving on my trip, I use my cell phone to take a picture of my suitcase. That way, if the airline loses it – yes, it’s been known to happen – I can show someone exactly what it looks like. 
If you have any good packing tips, feel free to share.  

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Cash or Credit? You Need Both for Overseas Travel

It’s officially summer, and a lot of people I know are planning vacations that range from a budget-friendly week in their own town to a month in Europe. As a veteran of several overseas adventures, I know first-hand about the additional challenges that travelers encounter in foreign countries. One of the biggest concerns about overseas travel is money. By following these tips when preparing for your trip abroad, you can face a little less stress and save a lot of money when you’re on the road.

Take Credit. How are you going to pay for your hotel, meals, souvenirs and other expenses if the country doesn’t accept American dollars? Years ago, travelers’ checks were the only option, but many establishments no longer accept them, and there are exorbitant fees for exchanging them, so they really aren’t a viable option anymore. I know of some travelers who rely solely on a preloaded travel card that works like a credit card, but it’s not going to be of any use when you’re trying to buy a one-of-a-kind piece of art from a street vendor. In addition, a poor exchange rate and additional fees make this an expensive way to pay.  A credit card is still a necessity when traveling because it’s never a good idea to carry a large amount of cash. Most credit cards smack a foreign currency conversion fee onto each purchase, usually about three percent of the amount charged. Some can add an additional flat fee for each transaction. To avoid these costs, sign up for a card that doesn’t charge foreign currency conversion fees, like CapitalOne and certain Chase cards. Note that CapitalOne doesn’t charge an annual fee either.

Money talks. While credit cards come in handy, cash is sometimes the only option. Since many countries have an advanced smart chip feature, merchants may not know how to use the American cards with the magnetic strip, and some train stations do not accept these cards. It’s possible to get an American card with smart chip technology – Chase offers a few – but the annual fee is at least $95.

While many larger banks and AAA offer foreign currency, avoid the urge to buy it in the United States, even a small amount. Likewise, don’t buy it in change offices when you arrive at your destination. These places offer a terrible exchange rate and usually add additional fees. You most economical way to get cash is at an ATM. As long as you have a four-digit personal identification number that is all numbers, you should never have a problem. Note that the card usually has to be hooked up to your checking account rather than a money market or savings account. If your card is hooked up to more than one type of account, the money will come from your checking account, and you will not have the option to transfer money between accounts at a foreign ATM. You may be charged a fee for taking money from a foreign ATM, usually $5 to $7, so be sure to take as much as you feel comfortable with rather than using the ATM every day if you are trying to avoid fees. Check with your bank to determine your daily ATM limit and fees. Note that Bank of America customers are not subject to fees when using ATMs at its sister banks in foreign countries.

Before you leave, be sure to call your credit card company and your bank to let them know where and when you will be traveling. If you forget to do this, the company will put a freeze on your card the first time you use it in a foreign country. If that happens, you will have to call the company to straighten it out if you hope to use the card again. Save yourself the time and the cost of an expensive phone call and make arrangements before you leave. Be sure to take the international phone numbers to your bank when you travel just in case something happens.

Finally, do I really need to tell you to keep your cards and cash secure when you travel? Pickpockets can be clever, so think twice before you strap on a backpack that contains your wallet or stuffing your cash in your back pocket. You don’t want to treat a thief to a souvenir of your vacation.