Category Archives: Travel Advice

Traveling During the Government Shutdown

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Photo taken during the 2013 government shutdown / Scott Kirkwood/NPCA

The impact of current U.S. Government Shutdown is far reaching – and travel is among the sectors being hit.

As of now, museums belonging to the Smithsonian and monuments, historic sites and national parks overseen by the divisions of the federal government are closed. Not only are certain federal employees related to these sites unable to go work and collect a salary, the ones connected to the travel sector that have to – mainly TSA agents and air traffic controllers – are mandated to be on the job but they’re not getting a paycheck while doing so.

Regardless of where you stand on the issues surrounding the shutdown, and not to make this post be a political one, those that work in the tourism sector are feeling its weight.

And so are we who rely on them in getting to and from and even see places. While we all are seeing what happens, and how those impacted financially by it having to make their own choices, I wanted to come up with some ideas of how one can adapt when traveling is impacted by the government shutdown. Here they are:

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Creative Commons photo / whity

For Air Travel

Arrive earlier. I’ve seen news reports of waiting times at TSA security lines at airports reporting to be longer due to a shortage of TSA agents. There are agents who are not coming to work or calling out sick, so of course, less staff means more checking of passengers and test of patience. While the standard arrival time is usually two hours for a domestic flight, and three for international, try to go even earlier than day. True, it stinks to have to have hurry to and wait at the airport, but lines are anticipated to involve more waiting than we might assume. And you don’t want to increase your risk of being late to your gate.

Download the TSA app. There’s an app for just about everything, including one for the TSA that lists wait times at the security screening line. If you’re flying any time soon, you might want to download the TSA app. It will show you the wait times for the TSA lines in your airport. For example, in one news story, TSA lines at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport are being reported at 120-plus minutes.

Put your stuff in order. Even as we wait, why not use that spare time to sort and pull out any items that we might fumble with getting out of our pockets or onto the x-ray belt. If you can hold something in or more so with your hands, try putting loose change in a clear plastic bag or place your cellphone within easy reach from your pocket, or making your laptop or 3-1-1 rule bag of toiletries easier to remove from your carry-on bag. A major timesuck at security checkpoints is being disorganized, so even before you leave home get your stuff in check. If you might not need it, don’t bring it.

Thank a TSA agent. Granted, we can have mixed feelings about TSA officials when going through security security  – even I’ve been bummed about having to toss something I’ve forgotten to remove or being embarrassingly corrected – but these times are different. Remember, they’re still coming to work but not getting a dime for it. So, be kind to them; they’re human too. Put yourself in their shoes before yours have to come off.

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Creative Commons photo / Ken

Getting to and from

Read up on the news but verify directly. With transportation, I’m not sure how far reaching the shutdown is in terms of other government-funded departments overseeing transportation such as Amtrak. As of yet, rail travel is still happening. Or seeing if new aircraft can roll out due delays in FAA certification, such as what Delta Air Lines might be finding with their anticipated new Airbus A220 planes. For peace of mind, check in with customer service departments; they might be fielding these questions already.

See if there’s more than one way to get there. If your destination doesn’t involve more than a day’s worth of transportation or one solid method, look at other options. Maybe take a bus, car-share or rental or go by train. If flying is a must, try to go with times where it’s not too busy or involving connections where you might have to hurry along to get to your next gate.

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Creative Commons photo / Sue Waters

Visiting Places

Learn who’s in charge of running the place. It’s probably knowledge now that the U.S. National Parks are either officially closed down or still keeping their gates open but not being staffed by rangers and other personnel. While national parks may be open or not, state parks are mostly like still operational as they are state funded. And some popular landmarks are not under the control of the federal government. For starters, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, two of NYC’s major attractions, are still open.

Be mindful of what you do while you’re there.  While checking on whether or the national park you want to visit is still open to the public, I also strongly recommend on being smart if you’re going ahead. While you can enter some parks, you’re going to be on your own in some sense. Don’t hike or venture to trails or areas without being fully equipped or aware of your surroundings. Chances are, if you get lost or hurt, help might take a while due to not having available park rangers on hand.

Don’t be a jerk either. One heartbreaking bit of news involves permanent damage done to trees in Joshua National Park, because RVers cut them down to create roads that they weren’t supposed to do in the first place! Another problems involve over-flowing garbage cans and over-used toilets, because of a lack of resources to keep up with its removal. Practice a leave only footprints behind manta by taking your trash with you (especially in parks where bears are in habitat; news reports quote rangers saying that accessible trash will give them the impression of seeking out food). If you gotta, um, go, find out what you can do onsite or read up on this great post from REI on the topic.

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Creative Commons photo / Damian Bariexca

Passports

Still apply for your passport. According to their website, the State Department is still processing applications for new passports or renewals. Go online to make an appointment or look for the nearest processing facility near you.

Have your travel plans been affected by the shutdown? Let me know in the comments below.

Last Minute Holiday Gift Ideas for Travelers

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Creative Commons Photo / Phil Roeder

Are you doing some last-minute Christmas shopping? If you have a traveler or two or more on your list, there’s still time to find a present for them at the store or online. Here are some general gift ideas of items that are available through multiple vendors and can range from fun ideas to practical usage.

Scratch Off Map (or Just a Regular Wall Map and a Container of Pins)

Know someone who travels a lot? A map is a great way for them to remember and mark off where they been, and see where else they have to check off their list. Scratch off maps can be fun in coming across a different color when rubbing off the top foil layer to show their progress. Or go another way with a standard full-sized wall map with a pack of pins that get a bit extra work involved in marking their destinations.

Portable Battery Chargers

Cellphones are more for talking; who really uses it for conversation anymore. Our Android or iPhone acts as a messaging device, a directional guide, a camera, an app service and a portable office. And all of this can get up a lot of your battery, leaving someone you know in a search for an outlet. A portable battery charger can save them in a pinch; all they have to do is fully charge it ahead of time and they’re good to go.

Pickpocket Proof Clothing

Travelers always have to keep their valuables in check; there’s clothing that can help with that. For men and women, there are scarves and pants with hidden compartments that can help hide extra cash or passports. Granted, it’s best to know what your traveler’s sizes are. Not sure? These companies offer the option of a gift card; suggested vendors include Clothing Arts, which centers on pants, or Clever Travel Companion, which extends to tops and bottoms.

Personal Safety Devices

As another concern about personal safety, there are various pocket alarms and devices that travelers can take with them. There are wearable alarms that produce a noticeable sound when activated through the pull of a pin or pressing of a button. One that I suggest is Robocopp, which works by having its pin get pulled out and then letting off a bird chirping sound. Another is Revolar, which is described as being activated with a click. Or consider GE’s Personal Security Window or Door Alarm Kit, which encompasses a key chain, door stopper and window/door alarm.

Wall Plug Adapters

Outlets in hotel rooms or just about every public building outside of the U.S. incorporates the local wattage, wall plug adapters, or also known as convertors, are a good idea. I’ve had a set by Travel Smart for a few years now, where I take the one(s) I need for my destination; the only downside is that I can only plug in one item at a time per adapter I’ve got. There are also all-in-one adapters that can be adjusted to plug in more than one device at one (usually up to three).

Luggage Tags

Even the littlest thing can mean a big deal as a present. And one of them can be a secured bag tag. You can have some fun with selecting one for someone that can be monogramed or engraved, or have a fun pattern. I would say to look for one that has a good strap that can be firmly secured onto the bag’s handle. I bought a faulty one that fell off somewhere in my checked in bag’s journey.

Packing Cubes

As another item that is best for a suitcase, these cubes make packing much stuff in a small bag easier. They’re designed to compartmentalize items or compress clothing for better optimum usage of space. They’re a self-storage necessity and work great for carry-ons. Try brands like Eagle Creek or Flight 001, known for their packing cube sets.

Subscription Box Services

These themed monthly services can bring the world to your doorstep through foods or other items sourced from all over the globe. Each month, Try the World boxes up a culinary journey tied to a specific country with two different subscriptions involving snacks or food staples. For interior design fans, GlobeIn searches for and sources from artisan craftspeople.

What would you buy a traveler as a holiday gift? Let me know in the comments section.

Taking a Different Look at Travel

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I’ve gotten bad about posting on my blog. But here’s my reason, or excuse. I’ve been on the road from May through June nonstop. This summer, I’ve been resting.

When I told friends and colleagues that I wanted to stay around much of summer (except for maybe quick trips), I explained that I wished to make these months about catching up on life in general. My bedroom floor is littered with papers, tote bags and souvenirs. Along with much needed housekeeping, I haven’t seen the people I love or I’m close to in a while. I missed them; I hope they’ve missed me too. And there are work assignments.

I’ve also tried digging my toes back into dating. One nice man asked me to re-connect with him when I got home from a work trip to South Africa, but he chose not to respond to my texts and calls. Another guy caught my attention, but it didn’t work out either.

Now, after recharging, I’m getting ready to get back to traveling with a fresh perspective. Here’s what I’ve learned as a traveler while being home after being on the road for a while.

More Checking In with People

It’s funny; I was away for my May birthday and I didn’t get a call from family. The reason: They didn’t know where I was. When I was with them for Memorial Day Weekend, I was pretty much falling asleep around them. I wasn’t a good houseguest. Going forward, I’m going to be better about staying in touch via phone, Facebook, IM and Skype.

Taking Things Slower

Have you heard of the term “slow travel”? It hasn’t been used for a while but it usually means spending more time in a particular location than trying to rush to see everything. On my trips, I’m a go-go-go person. So much that I run here and here, eat this quick, drink that fast. For work, I try to get to as many places as I can but I’m going to take my time in doing so. And try to avoid bring over-scheduled.

But Still Taking More Chances

In May, I went on a work trip to South Africa that focused on the centenary of Nelson Mandela. It was not only my first time to South Africa, but also my first time on the continent itself. The experience made me want to pursue more “firsts” abroad or experiences I never thought about or wasn’t interested in before.

Bringing a Plus One

Now and then, I might have the chance to bring somebody along with me on a trip. I hope to do this more in the future. Although I have no qualms about exploring places on my own, I’m finding that I’d like to bring someone else along – a BFF, relative or anyone I know who’s up for going.

Have your views changed on travel overtime? Let me know.

How to Feel Comfortable Going Out Alone

 

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Creative Commons photo / Georgie Pauwels

 

For a while, I’ve been thinking about how to write a helpful post about being okay with traveling alone, particularly in mind for women.

Now it’s time to do so.

Recently, a trending hashtag called #metoo has highlighted how many women have been sexually harassed and/or assaulted at some point in their lives. While sadly as these incidents occur in common settings, from the workplace to any public venue, travel can also involve scenarios in which women might find themselves in uncomfortable situations involving unwanted advances from catcalling to sadly the unthinkable.

While my tips or advice might sound more general, I would like to think that they can at least ease your worries or assumptions about what others might think of you being by yourself. Whether it’s venturing out where you live or in another destination, here are some ways to help you feel more comfortable with being out alone.

Don’t make nice if it doesn’t feel right

In particular with women, there’s a common feeling that people have to maintain politeness even in circumstances we’re we might feel unease. While I’ve met some people who hesitate in being assertive or showing or speaking what they think, it’s a good reminder to remember that you don’t have to explain yourself, or be nice, to those who make you uncomfortable. If something doesn’t feel right, don’t hesitant to leave or excuse yourself in doing so.

Go to afternoon showings

If you’re itching to see an exhibit, movie or play, but don’t want to feel awkward about being out at night, consider going in the afternoon. Matinee showings often attract different and smaller audiences where it’s easy to get into your seat and focus on what you came to see –and not worry about who’s noticing you.

Sit at the bar

Granted you might get hungry while being out, and heading into a crowded restaurant alone may make you want to loose your appetite. So do this: find a bar stool. Sitting in this part of a restaurant doesn’t mean you have to have an alcoholic drink; rather it helps make you not feel weird about being at a table. So order a meal with your beverage, and use this space to relax and maybe have some small talk with your bartender or those seated around you.

Go on a tour

One of the best ways for feeling not alone in a new location is by having a guide to go around with. Consider signing up for a visitor’s tour that gets you familiar with your location by having you walk around a certain area (and focusing on something that interests you). Once the tour is over, a good guide will ask if you need directions for what place you’re heading back to.

Read up on locations

While you would look up addresses of where you’re going, maybe delve a bit more about how to get around. Looking to use public transportation? Read up on everything from what type of tickets you need or if schedules can change (for example, New York City’s subway system can operate differently on weekends and holidays) on the day you plan to go. And if you’re driving, learn what you can do about parking; give yourself extra time in the case you might have to drive around to find a spot.

What tips would you offer to help women feel easier about traveling solo?

First Time Tips for Staying at an AirBnb

 

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Flickr Creative Commons photo / SioW

 

I have to admit that, for a while, I’ve been dragging my feet about using AirBnb. But last month, I decided to give it a try. Or felt I probably needed to in order to make my trip work.

I signed up for a travel conference in Washington, D.C., and my budget at the time was pretty tight. It turned out to be too tight for conference hotel room rates.

I still wanted to go to this event, so I created an account with AirBnb and browsed through their Washington, D.C. area listings. I scrutinized their locations and rental reviews. I figured to take a chance and put in for a reservation at a private apartment. It was a 10-minute walk from the conference’s location, at a price that was about that was about $100 to $200 less than all of the special conference rate hotels I was looking at. And it continuously got a high ranking from previous renters.

 

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Staying in an AirBnB in Washington, D.C. was an interesting experience.

 

My request got approved, and so I went.

Now with my initial AirBnB stay complete, I did some thinking about my experience, which turned out to be fine. I came up with these suggested tips to share if you’re looking to do the same.

Think about what you comfortable with. Along with searching by location, searches for rentals on AirBnb can be broken down into subcategories such as type of setup. Rental types can go from homes and private apartments to rooms in the renter’s home and even untraditional lodging (like a poolhouse). While being in tune with what you can afford can be important, you also want to feel okay about where you’re staying. Although a room rental would have saved me about half of what I paid, I felt more secure about having my own place.

Fully read descriptions. Along with having photos of the property, AirBnb listers provide a description of what their rental looks like and what is being offered with it. Fully read and re-read this section, in order to make sure you know what you’re getting when booking a potential reservation. Make sure the listing has what you probably want or need. Is there Wi-Fi? Will bath towels be provided; do I need to bring toiletries? Does it have a kitchen area; it is stocked with housewares? Is a grocery store or public transportation nearby? Can you park a car there? Also, note your booking will include added on fees such as for cleaning and complying with local business tax laws.

 

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Having an AirBnb rental in a location with access to stores is helpful.

 

Learn about access. One query to keep in mind with an AirBnb rental is how you’ll be let inside. Again, that’s where asking questions –and fully going over the listing – comes into play (AirBnb listers can be messaged through AirBnb.com). Confirm how you will access your dwelling. Will you have a key or combination number, and do you have to do anything else? In my experience, my keys were to be left in a lockbox on the outside door. The combination was given in my instruction booklet, and I tested it sans keys to be sure. At first, I dreaded the thought of not having the keys in my possession, but I grew to be fine with the lockbox. It meant I didn’t have to worry about losing this only set while I was out.

Look after the place. When you’re used to a hotel’s creature comforts, an AirBnb can be different. As in, who’ll be keeping your room nice and tidy? It’s best to remember that, during your stay, you probably will be responsible for making your bed and hanging up bathroom towels. Also with your kitchen area, you’ll probably be responsible for buying and making your own meals (or having to go out to eat). Of course, this can leave the dishwashing duties up to you. And guess who might have to take out the garbage.

Stay in contact. An AirBnb property lister should provide a phone number to reach him/her – or his/her representative – that should lead to a reasonable response time. Naturally, if you have an issue upon arrival or while there, you want to text and/or call the owner right away. Save it to your phone before arriving; confirm if they take texts. Texts can serve as a communication log for any problems, asking on-site questions, and also clarifying any issues. Initially, my rental had a plumbing issue, so I texted the property owner’s assistant ASAP. I later used my saved texts to remind my lister about what we agreed to (a price break for the inconvenience).

Be an ideal house guest. Regardless of your setup, do remember that you’re a guest in someone else’s home. Follow the golden housekeeping rule: treat this place as though you’d like yours to be treated. Tidy up loose ends before leaving. Put away items you’ve taken out. Even neatly folding and placing your used bed sheets on top of the bed is a kind gesture. Also, AirBnb gives about 14 days to list a rental review, so remember to leave your comments (as they will leave feedback about you in turn).

 

Have you used AirBnb before? What would you suggest?

Applying for a Travel Visa

 

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Credit: Jon Rawlinson / Flickr Creative Commons

 

2017 marks a travel first for me: getting a visa. Up until now, I haven’t traveled to a country that requires one. My work trip to China is changing that. In order for me to attend an excursion to Suzhou, I had to apply for a visa. I had to fill out and mail in paperwork for review and then wait on getting an approval (which I succeeded).

Overall, a visa is a government document that temporarily gives you the permission to be in the country you’re visiting. It grants you entry for a certain period of time.

Depending on what country you’re a citizen of, and where you’re planning to visit, visa requirements can vary. For example, as of this writing, U.S. citizens have to obtain a visa in order to enter and exit destinations like India, China, Russia, Turkey, Australia, Brazil, Cuba, some Asian countries like Bhutan, and most African nations. Some visas can be acquired on arrival in the destination, others might be done ahead of time through an online processing system, and others require sending in documents like your passport to embassies. Yet they all can involve paying fees.

Don’t let the process scare you. With the right approach and application materials, a visa application can be completed easily and effectively. Here are five general tips to keep in mind when applying for a visa.

Check on your destination’s visitor status. Visa needed or not, always research and confirm what your country of interest requires for visitors. Oftentimes, if a visa is required, you’re the one required to obtain it. And you have to make sure it’s done right. Check what categories your visit falls under and what your length of stay will be permitted. In some cases, based on politics or other reasoning, there are additional requirements such as written proof of a hotel stay or vaccination records. Also, your visa application might ask for specifics like a certain category your visit falls under – tourist, business, etc. – so see what your type falls under.

Read and re-read your requirements. Little mistakes in your paperwork can cost you in many ways, so thoroughly go through documents and their directions. Along with obtaining the right form(s), scan them with your eyes very carefully, so that you understand everything from what size your headshot should be, to what additional documents you need to submit (most likely your passport). Print out more than one copy, so if you can “practice” filling out a test form and then have the other one as the final version. Or if it’s done online, carefully fill out forms or get a copy or get screenshots to refer to as a guide beforehand.

Give yourself extra time. Procrastinators, be forwarned. Usually, visas can take about a week or so for processing, but waiting until the last minute to submit an application could cause you some agita over getting approved in time. Plus, in the case your paperwork has errors or other problems come up like slow service, you want some buffer time to have these issues solved. And if you need your passport for something else in the meantime – like a pre-trip trip – then you’d definitely be hustling. Also, submitting your paperwork is often done by mail, so you don’t want to have to rush to extra expedite your envelope. Or, if possible, see about going to a consulate.

Invest in a quality headshot. While major drugstore chains offer passport/visa photo services, perhaps think about spending a little extra on getting your headshot. Headshots for China visas have a unique set of measurements, so I chose to go to a photography studio to get it right. And make sure you also understand the guidelines for your pic so you can explain them to your picture-taker, if needed. My first photographer decided to touch up my tired-looking face (A BIG NO NO!) so much that I went somewhere else for a retake (which was accepted despite my weary appearance).

Consider using a visa processing service. If filling out detailed forms sounds daunting, don’t be shy about getting, and paying for, help. Visa processing/application centers deal with these applications daily and can guide you through the process. For my China visa, I used CIBTvisas, which has offices in major U.S. cities like New York. For a processing fee, with additional options, I was able to speak to their customer service department have reps by phone, mail in my documents for review and submission, and then opt to have my visa picked up in person or mailed back to me.

Have you applied for a travel visa before? Tell me about your experience in the comments section.

Traveling in the Time of Uncertainty

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Creative Commons photo / ricardo

Let me start off by saying that I tend to avoid having political discussions on my site. However, I can see how news involving the recent travel ban executed by President Donald Trump is shaking up the travel sector. And for many reasons beyond, as well as in addition to, its confusing rollout. From protests at airports to public outcries, I’m concerned about this scenario will impact American travelers.

My point is not to discount those directly affected by this ban, or even sub sequential international relations. However, I do worry about those who are traveling from the U.S. overseas soon or over the course of the current presidential term. I worry about how others might perceive them, or even if they feel nervous about their travel plans as a result. I also wonder how other visitors will be inclined or not to still visit our nation.

As we have to see — and respond to — what the outcome of this presidential decision will be, we travelers can take some steps of our own for peace of mind. Here are my suggestions for how to approach travel during political uncertainty, particularly if you’re traveling soon.

Stay in tune with the news. While the news can seem depressing as of late, it’s good to follow what might be happening within your expected destination in relation to this recent ban. Can’t stand TV? Like Facebook pages of solid news sources or perhaps consider getting email alerts (like through Google) related to where you’re going.

Check on cancellation policies. Emergency or not, it’s good to know what your options are in the case you have to cancel your flight or overall trip. Read up on what your air carrier’s rules on cancellations or flight changes are, in relation to this current topic. If you get travel insurance, fully read the form and ask questions or clarifications in terms of what’s covered and what’s not.

Arrive at the airport earlier. With demonstrations taking place at major U.S. airports such as at JFK and SFO, plus still debate over how this policy is being delivered, it might be best to get to yours with extra time to spare.

Confirm your ride. Another thing: your method of getting there could also be impacted. Everything from protests to boycotts (there have been reports about an NYC taxi strike) can alter your transportation, so keep this factor in mind as well.

Keep to small talk. It’s possible to be asked, or perhaps questioned, about our leadership while abroad. If you would feel uncomfortable to discuss politics, consider being simple with your responses. Don’t feel you have to be defensive about where you’re from or what’s been happening. If need be, consider excusing yourself or changing the subject.