Travel surprises can be fun, unless your surprise comes days before you depart when you learn that your passport will soon expire or you don’t have the necessary immunizations. Help eliminate such unfortunate surprises with our essential travel planning checklist, created in collaboration with veteran travel guide Ken Lee:
Passport – This document should always be valid at least six months after your return travel date (some countries require this before you can even get in!). Also, make two copies of the information page and any visas. Put one copy in a hidden place in your luggage, and leave the other at home or with a family member. Having copies will make replacement and onward travel easier should the passport be lost, stolen or destroyed.
Vaccinations – Check with the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) in the United States (or your country’s equivalent) for current immunization needs for your destinations. Requirements vary widely in countries around the world. (HI Travel Tales suggests you start early since some immunizations require several rounds of shots that can take as long as three months before they are effective.)
Luggage – Soft or hard is a personal choice. However, I prefer soft because if its ability to adapt. Many bags look identical, so be sure to pick a more unique color, or add some markings or tags that you can quickly recognize on a luggage belt. You can use TSA-approved locks, but know that other countries mostly don’t accept them so they may end up cut off and gone. (HI Travel Tales uses plastic zip ties so opportunistic thieves cannot easily open luggage, but your bag is still easily accessible by security.)
Luggage identification – Use a P.O. box or other non-residential address on tags hanging outside bags. There are stories of baggage handlers passing home addresses on tags to thieves who then burglarize your home while you are on vacation. True or not, better safe than sorry. (HI Travel Tales suggests making a copy of your flight itinerary and placing it immediately visible inside your luggage. Also, write on it your cell phone, email and perhaps the address of your first stop so lost luggage or luggage agents can find you.)
Money – Cash is almost always best in most other countries outside of the United States. Credit cards can often be used in larger cities in other countries, but in more rural areas or in less Westernized countries they are useless. ATMs are becoming very common, so you can usually withdraw foreign currency on-site. In Asia, one of my specialty travel areas, I suggest having some U.S. cash from home, but with bills no larger than $20 and that are clean, crisp and with no marks. Some money machines are very picky about this. Only exchange into foreign currency at the airport for immediate needs, such as transport into town, since airports often have the worst exchange rates or charge additional exchange fees. When practical, carry only what you need when on the streets, and do not keep it in your (more easily snatched) pack or purse. Do not keep all your money in one place so if something happens you won’t lose everything. (For European destinations, HI Travel Tales suggests having enough cash [Euros] with you since many places there, even in larger cities, may not accept credit cards. Of course, all large hotels, most tourist sites and larger restaurants do. Either find a credit/debit card that does not charge currency exchange fees, or be careful about how many times you do exchanges to limit fees. For more tips on changing and using money in China, with many tips applicable to broader travel, see HI Travel Tales story, “Travel Guide to Managing Money in China.”)
Electrical adapters – Don’t forget to check what the electrical current will be and what adapters are necessary for the areas you will be traveling. Adapters can be found on location, but it is better if you bring them from home. (See HI Travel Tales story, “The Best Worldwide Travel Plug and Voltage Guide,” for more information on finding the right adapter.)
Cameras and accessories – Most of us use digital cameras these days, so be sure you have enough memory cards for the trip or a method to download (HI Travel Tales suggests always carrying a portable hard drive for safe backups on the road). A battery charger and/or extra batteries are essential. A small tripod may be useful, but it should collapse enough to fit in a daypack and be light enough to carry comfortably. There are several excellent travel-size tripods available.
Clothing – Clothing needs will vary widely for any trip. In general, pack as light as possible. Laundry services will usually be available, so no need to pack a different set of clothes for each day. (Take a look at HI Travel Tales’ stories, “Packing Light: Smart Load-Trimming Tips,” and “Packing Tips: Fight Wrinkles and Worry,” for packing tips. And DO bring some soap for hand washing, which you will likely do many times in a hotel sink!) Plan to dress in keeping with local standards where you are visiting. Most of the countries where I lead tours (China, Vietnam, etc.) are conservative and more traditional, so modesty is the rule. Long pants are best, but if shorts or capris can be worn if closer to knee length. Many countries I go will not look kindly on bare shoulders or even tank tops. For women, loose-fitting clothes will not only be more comfortable, but also more appropriate. Leave the bling at home, is what I tell my clients. There will be little use for jewelry during most trips, and you certainly do not want to attract the wrong attention or be insensitive to lower income locals.
Daypacks – A very lightweight daypack is nice when out walking around or taking a day tour. Use both shoulder straps if you are not sure of your surroundings or even wear the pack on the front of your body for security, as many in Asia do. When only one strap is used, it is easy for street people to grab and run. No need to be paranoid, just be careful. (HI Travel Tales suggests investing in security bags and luggage as explained in our story, “How to Blend In When Traveling,” and using RFID gear for passports, credit cards and other IDs.)
And one last word about beggars, which are often seen in the countries where I lead tours (or in others too): You will see beggars everywhere you travel, and the question you may always ask is, should I give to them? I suggest not. Although many are in definite need of assistance of some kind, the first problem is that if you give to one, there will be many more and you can’t help them all or you will end up taking your place among them. Locals usually donate, so no need for you to give. In addition, if tourists are seen as an easy mark, the beggars will congregate in tourist areas and some will not be in need at all, but will have found an easy way to make a living. At the end of the day, they will go home, shower, change clothes, and enjoy their families. The world is not perfect. Travelers should never be seen as mobile ATMs.
And one final thing for your travel planning checklist — Remember always, when you travel, YOU are the foreigner.