When you go on holiday, you just want to get away from the quotidian1 responsibilities of life back home - jobs, house maintenance, kids. You don't want to have to think, you just want to relax, for everything to run nice and smoothly. But for this to happen, you've got to plan a few things in advance before you go. You've got to have a little think about what essential items to take with you. Here's a few tips to be getting on with.
It's probably not wise to take a significant quantity of money abroad - in most places, you can find a hole-in-the-wall that takes Visa and most debit cards, which allow for commission-free withdrawals. The rate of exchange isn't great - but when you compare it to the trials of taking too much money, too little money, and the risk getting robbed of a few hundred pounds right at the start of your hols, it all starts to make sense. So, take just enough to last you until you find a cash machine - perhaps £50 - and then take £50 out of the wall whenever you find yourself running short. To keep track of how much your spending, keep all the receipts next to the card. It's also worth pointing out that the interest on cash withdrawals from credit cards is excruciatingly high - so pay off your card as soon as possible.
However, the personal experience of one Researcher suggests that ATMs are not completely trustworthy. It's probably best to take a little cash and then combine cash withdrawals from ATMs with traveller's cheques:
After a nasty experience I had in Australia I would always recommend keeping some travellers cheques on hand. I stayed in Sydney for 6 months and opened an ANZA bank account. I routinely took money out of my Canadian bank account and deposited it to my ANZA account then used the ANZA card for purchases and withdrawals so I didn't get zapped $2 for every transaction. It was a wonderful system until one day my ANZA debit card was de-magnetized. No problem - I went in and they replaced it the same day. A couple of days later I found my Royal Bank debit card was de-magnetized. BIG problem! They would not courier me a replacement card, my ANZA account was running low and I was stuck 10,000 miles from home with no money and two months left before I was due to go home. Phone banking to the rescue - I called Canada, transferred money to my VISA, then did a cash withdrawal from that. When I got home I asked the bank to issue me a new debit card and a spare, in case this happened again but apparently they won't do that. You get one card - that's it! I left shortly after that for three months in England and I was a little more careful about having cash and traveller's cheques on hand. I no longer trust ATMs to take care of me.
Oh, by the way, the culprit that de-magnetized my cards was the electronic security key for the elevator in my building. I put my keys in the same pocket as my bank cards when I went for a walk. That's what killed them. Something to keep in mind if you stay at an apartment or hotel with electronic passes.
There must be many things that are cheap and freely available in the West that can be used in other countries, where maybe Western disposable goods still have a novelty factor, and are thus considered desirable (one thinks of Levi jeans selling for untold sums in old Soviet Russia). The following Researcher discovered a novel money substitute on his travels:
While travelling through some of the more rural areas of Tanzania and Kenya I found that biros are a superb bargaining tool. Normal Bic biros like you get in packs of 50 can be used to great effect haggling the price of anything. I was also offered a giant giraffe wood carving for my baseball cap.
And for three pairs of black socks I got a carved Hippo, a henna tattoo and a coconut drink. Having done this, I did feel incredibly guilty - after all, the socks cost me next to nothing and the stuff I got in return was most probably worth more than my crusty socks...
Also, alcohol is a universal currency. For example, If you're on a sailboat with lots of beer, and you come across a ship from a fishing fleet, you can probably get some nice nautical souvenirs in trade for your grog. If you're going to Jamaica bring a cowboy hat or two, Levi jeans, and cartons of Marlboro cigarettes. There's a limit to how much of this you can bring into the country, of course. You also have to be good at bartering, but they are extremely popular with many of the locals.
When in Jamaica
And continuing the Jamaican theme, do not buy marijuana from anybody at the Kingston port or airport. Here's what happens: a Jamaican will offer to sell you some pot. You purchase the pot. Then the Jamaican alerts the officer of the law (who just happens to be standing nearby). The Jamaican gets a reward for turning you in, plus the money you paid him for the pot. Then he gets the bag of pot back! Buying pot is as illegal in Jamaica as anywhere else, so if you decide to break the law, you do so at your own risk. So, what this little anecdote highlights is that it's essential that you bring your common sense with you.
When in Mexico
When in Mexico, drink the cerveza (beer), not the water. A street vendor will sell you bottled water, but it's likely that he filled it up at the tap in back, instead of purchasing it sealed from a bottled water company. If you must have water, look for one of the major brands, and purchase it from a grocery store.
Asprin, Antacids and Other Medicines
If you are going to Russia in the summer it is absolutely essential to take the heaviest duty mosquito spray you can find (they aren't malarial, just damn annoying). You can even consider taking electric mozzie-blasters, mozzie coils, mozzie spray. Apparently one can even buy sonic mozzie deterrents that make an ultrasonic 'WHEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE' noise thus deterring the mozzies.
Another tip for Russia, this time in winter, is to take a pair of rubber-soled boots - the soles on these are plastic and you'll fall over every five seconds.
Always bring aspirin or some other sort of pain relief medication (paracetamol-based medication if you're allergic to aspirin) just in case you get a terrible hangover or some other pain that needs relieving. There's nothing worse than suffering through the natural course of a headache with no pain killers. Same thing with applies with antacids. Heart-burn can be very uncomfortable and it's best to keep a few antacids with you just in case you get an upset/acid stomach.
Diarrhoea can also be a major pain in the butt. If you're visiting another culture for the first time, you'll be amazed at some of the things that end up on your plate when you think you're ordering something simple, like steak, or fish. Go to Italy and order a pizza - if you're American, you won't recognise it. Foreign food in a foreign country can do crazy things to your digestive tract, if you're not well prepared. So bring something to help calm your unstable intestines, if you ever want to leave the hotel.
If you're bringing a number of different prescribed medications, do not mix them up in one bottle. All medications must be clearly marked and in their prescription bottle. The powers that be probably won't throw you in jail, but it'll be a hassle if it's discovered.
Also recommended are the basic supplies that you'd have around the house anyway - antacids, aspirin (as previously mentioned), stomach medication,plasters, rubbing alcohol and antibiotic cream, etc. It may seem like over-packing, but think of it as insurance. In many cases, if you bring it, you won't need it. Oh, and take some condoms while you're at it (if you pardon the expression).
Spread your luggage...
Whatever you decide to take, make sure you have a change of clothes in each bag if you're taking more than one. That way you won't be completely forced to buy a whole new wardrobe when you get to New York and your luggage goes to Prague.
If you are going on a very long trip and changing planes, pack a change of underwear in your hand luggage. It can be very uncomfortable arriving in Orlando at 11pm after 13 hours travelling, and discovering all your luggage is in Atlanta. However, if your luggage doesn't turn up quickly, you'll have the opportunity to buy some new clothes and reclaim the expense from your travel insurance company.
When returning from holiday, pack as much of the gifts and the like in your hand baggage. That way when Atlantic, say, choose to lose your hold baggage they won't lose the magical little wooden walking hedgehog toy that can only be found in Macau and offer you a complimentary biro to fill in your insurance claim with instead. Grrr!
Swiss Army Knife
One Researcher was very enthusiastic indeed about the usefulness of the Swiss Army knife:
I cannot stress the sheer utility of a good Swiss Army knife (or any multi-function pocketknife of comparable quality.) There are about 15 things it's 'meant' to be used for, but the beauty is in the versatility; one of the beauties of a SA knife is its stimulation of the human imagination. Don't care where you're going, take this baby with you.
The best place in the whole world to get these little wonders, is obviously Switzerland. But many local official retailers will more than likely stock a huge range from which you can find your ideal one. You can get any knife/multi-tool for any eventuality, but if you want to carry it with you on the streets of towns or cities, make sure you know the laws about these things. For example, in England the maximum length a knife can be before it is classed as an offensive weapon, is 3 inches (you see, size does matter to the Brits).
Take a bath plug! It sounds daft, but you often find you really need one. You see, if you travel to places like Eastern Russia, parts of Kenya and Tanzania, many of the hotels are lacking bath plugs. And, after a long hike, climb and then more hiking, when you really need a hot bath, to find no bath plug can be a huge disappointment. So, for these and all other destinations take a universal plug. They are shaped like a large flat disc and sit on top of any sized plug hole. Then you can bath or wash in perfect comfort.
When going out of town, make sure to bring your own towel, along with soap, shampoo, toothbrush, toothpaste, and floss. Listen to this...
I'm usually more comfortable knowing that the only person who's ever rubbed that particular piece of cloth on his private parts is me. With towels borrowed from whomever you might be staying with, you never know who's used it before you, or if they've washed it in the meantime. Same goes with the five other pieces of personal hygiene products I just mentioned.
On the other hand, my grandmother doesn't have the same reservations on using other peoples' stuff that I do. She's even considerate enough to save us the trouble of informing us when she does use our stuff. So when that happens, I'm not quite sure that I'm always the last person before me to have used my towel and toothbrush. Ewwww...
Spare Pair of Glasses
Nothing can be worse than being on holiday and losing your glasses. Squinting at the sights is never a good thing...
A few years ago I was whitewater rafting near Pittsburgh and was wearing sunglasses because the reflection off the water was intense. Of course, our raft overturned and my regular glasses, which I thought were secure in my swimming trunks, disappeared as I was bounced about in the rapids.
Luckily, I had a spare pair of glasses in my car or I would have been wearing sunglasses day and night for the rest of my holiday.
If you wear glasses, be prepared. An extra set of glasses doesn't take up much space in a car or suitcase, and they're a lifesaver if something bad happens to your primary pair.
Bring an extra pair of shoes with you. You will most certainly appreciate this if the ones you're wearing start to really hurt your feet, or if they have gotten soaking wet.
Prepare for All Types of Weather
Unless you need all the space you have in your suitcase for the clothes and accessories you need, make sure to bring a coat or jacket (even for warm places) and shorts or skirts (for cold places). The weather is unpredictable (extreme weather conditions can also occur), and you never know when a few days of cold rain or hot sun will occur, no matter where you are. Unless you're going to Antartica; in which case, there is absolutely no need for shorts.
Patience. By far the most important single item to take with you... is patience. Spend a week before you leave building it up, and hold it in reserve for those frequent times when nothing is going your way.