Category Archives: Travel Advice

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.

 

My 5 Travel Goals for 2017

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Credit: Michael Mueller/Creative Commons

 

Happy New Year! I don’t really create New Year’s resolutions, but more and more I’m trying to set some goals to complete over the course of the year. Now with travel being an important facet of my life, I’ve been thinking about what goals I would want to accomplish during 2017. So far I’ve got two that I’ve decided on, and three in the works, so here are my 5 main travel goals for 2017.

  1. Try staying in an AirBNB or other kind of apartment rental. Except for spending a weekend at a hostel, I haven’t stayed a reservation in non-hotel accommodation yet. Maybe it’s due to slight worries about staying in a rental place (P.S. don’t read these types of horror stories) or just figured that a hotel lets me avoid dealing with any serious concerns. Yet for a conference I’m attending this summer in D.C., I decided to give AirBNB a shot due to the location of the property being super close to the conference center and being half the cost of a week stay in a conference-sponsored hotel. So fingers crossed and probably many email Qs sent to the apartment holder.
  2. Better budgeting/spending. Those who know me well get that I like to buy items while traveling – souvenirs, mementos, neat finds, even gifts for family and good friends. Yet, due to a budget that keeps changing, it’s best that I stop doing so (okay, maybe just one thing). I’m pretty good about trying to buy local, in terms of checking where a product is made from or shopping from markets or direct manufacturers. My biggest issue is when my heart gets set on something, and my head tells me it might be better to buy it and bring it home than not to and wonder about it later (hence my wishful thinking on regretting to buy a kimono in Japan last year). So instead of shelling out cash – and definitely avoiding pulling out plastic – I’m going to either set a stricter limit of what I buy or discipline myself in realizing that what I spend will have to come out of something else (eek, meals or attractions).
  3. Getting more comfortable with adventure travel. As a kid who was often picked last for teams in gym class, playing sports has never been my forte. Sometimes my work assignments have me scheduled to do more adventure-style travel, too. I’ve had to pass up on water activities because I’m not a strong swimmer, and I’ve (probably unnecessarily) freaked out over doing ziplining and even rappelling (both of which involve experts leading us through every step and checking our equipment). In hindsight, I’m glad that I did ones that brought me out of my comfort zone, and I also realize that I’m probably holding myself back from trying new things. Even if I suck at them, at least I know that I tried.
  4. Experimenting more with photo and video. 2017 will mark the 20th anniversary of starting out my career in writing/media (wow!) but a lot has changed in my field that time. Even with travel, good writing is still appreciated but nowadays the game of storytelling keeps changing. A video segment of a destination totally provides a different perspective that the written, even spoken, word. And photography also has much to tell. A while ago, I won a GoPro Hero in a raffle and have to get on using it. I also want to invest in a good camera that permits good pics and video taking (if you have a recommendation, I would love to hear it), because it’s fun to learn and can provide some extra work.
  5. De-cluttering big time. This goal doesn’t seem like it fits on a travel list, but probably for the past 10-15 years I’ve accumulated a lot of stuff (from apartment living, clothing bought for special occasions/office work, a hobby of attending book signings, a revitalized interest in reading, and that damn site called eBay) that cost me not just money but also space, time, and, in some cases, emotions. To help me save on future expenses, I’ve been trying to reshop my closet for clothes I can reuse and perhaps give to charity like tag sales or libraries or maybe sell some items for a few bucks.

 

So, tell me what your goals are for 2017.

 

My 2016 Travel Year in Review

2016 was a year of twists and turns, yet the milestones were just as great. I had a lot of firsts this year: new states, new countries, and new bylines. I had some setbacks – changes in relationships, work scenarios, and just time beginning to creep up on me – but thankfully nothing major going wrong. Here is my three best moments from this year.

What I accomplished:

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Taking my first cruise. While I’m sad to learn that Fathom Travel will be ceasing its cruises, I’m also grateful that I was able to go on one of their social impact cruises to the Dominican Republic in May. I hung out with travel influencers and other passengers (who I still keep in touch with). Excursions brought us into communities where we got to learn about micro-businesses and help out with their projects. I also purchased products such as notecards made from re-purposed scrap paper and chocolate bars from a women-owned cooperative.

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Checking off new cities. I’ll probably still keep using this example, but it’s still a valid one. 2016 had me on the road a lot; I estimate on and off over 10 months. That’s a record. I’ve been lucky to visit five new states – Ohio, New Mexico, South Dakota, Utah, and Minnesota – and four new countries – Dominican Republic, Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. Also I got to revisit six states I’ve already been to (New Hampshire, Texas, Rhode Island, California, Virginia, and Pennsylvania) plus two countries (Mexico and Jamaica). In each location, I got to try new foods, witness amazing festivals and events, and just wander around different neighborhoods and attractions.

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Being exposed to new scenarios. At times, my work trips can schedule situations that either I do or don’t (want to) do. I’m not an athletic person, so I tend to shy away from choosing or having to participate in certain adventure activities (such as being a poor swimmer). However, my trip to Utah’s Red Rock Country put me in a situation where I had to do it. During our trip to Goblin Valley State Park, we were led by our guide Chris from Get In the Wild to go rappelling down a 90-foot high section called Goblins Lair. I was seriously freaking out – bawling like a baby and probably stalling my drop by 10 minutes – but with some encouragement (as in, you have to do this), I made it down just fine. I wasn’t my best self during the experience, but I’m glad to have done it.

Now here’s what need I work on:

Blogging more. I’ve been behind on posting here more, and I don’t like it. I had been putting a lot of energy toward getting publishing, but I want to commit more time to posting about work trips, topics that are on my mind. I kick myself a bit because there were a lot of good moments this year, but hopefully I can still post about them. So expect a lot of catching up.

Getting fit. I had some health concerns this year (nothing serious/crucial, thankfully) but my goal for 2017 is to build up my stamina. One thing, among many, that travel has taught me is that you have to adapt to your surroundings – particularly with getting around. Going up stairs, to walking many blocks, to hopping up and off subways or buses. My pace might be getting slower, but there are still places I want to get to. So more exercise for me.

I’m sure more “must dos” will come up. But tell me what’s your travel goal for 2017?

8 Holiday Gift Ideas for Female Travelers

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Flickr Creative Commons photo / nathanmac87

Have a gal pal or relative who loves to travel on your holiday shopping list? Get her a gift that helps her along her journey.

While gift guides might feature items that seem out of your price range or too high tech or fancy, there are tried and true gifts that can suit any female traveler. They’re even safe bets if you don’t know where she’s heading next. As a help, I put together a number of gift ideas involving general products that can be bought through multiple vendors and easy to find in-store or online. Here are eight recommendations to get you started.

Portable battery chargers
A traveler’s phone is her personal assistant, her Gal Friday. It’s her go-to for getting directions, picture taking, private messaging, calendar scheduling, or acting an overall point of contact. And the more she uses her phone, the more the battery decreases. Plus, finding an accessible plug can sometimes be a journey in itself. So, it’s a godsend to have a readily charger on hand to plug in your phone and keep on going.

File hosting services/external hard drives
Back again to our phones, travelers often like to take photos, but eventually they run out of space. Or even the memory card on our digital camera has its limits. Thanks to online storage sites like Dropbox, users can file their pictures away and avoid having to delete them. Basic level accounts are free (I know so for Dropbox) but if you need more space, you have to pay. So having a paid subscription can be a load off your traveler’s mind. If your gift recipient is a bit tech savvy, an external hard drive is also a good way to have your friend’s back when she’s backing up her photos (forgive the bad humor).

Outlet adapters
Outside of the United States, electrical outlets take on a different meaning. Particularly in how they’re fitted. If you don’t know already, voltage overseas can vary. So, unless you/your traveling friend already knows this, plugs that can be easily fit into a wall socket here might not do so in Europe, Asia, or the South Pacific. The solution: outlet adapters. A decade ago, I bought a multi-pack of adapters from TravelSmart that still works well. I just take out which one(s) I would need for my destination.

Gift cards at major retailers
Yes, gift cards can seem kind of lame, but they are a big help in providing funds for  what a traveler needs or wants. And you’ll know it’s one gift that’s not going to waste. Outdoorsy girls might shop at REI or Patagonia, so perhaps she can get some new gear. If she’s always picking up a guidebook or loves reading travel memoirs, Barnes & Noble or Amazon is a sure thing. And if beauty buys are essential, Sephora has a nice selection of travel-sized products.

Magazine/newspaper subscriptions
Travelers like to keep up with what’s going on the world. So buy them a yearlong subscription to their favorite publication or perhaps one they might enjoy reading. While print has gotten some hard knocks, a number of travel magazines – AFAR, Lonely Planet, Conde Nast, Travel & Leisure, and Food & Wine – are still rolling off the presses. Publications are also building up their online presence, so a web subscription (think The New York Times or Boston Globe) could come in handy. Even periodicals like Food & Wine and Bon Appetit are delving more into travel-related topics.

Anti-theft devices
Of course, a traveler’s parents will worry about her safety. So give her a token that will give you – and her – piece of mind. In terms of availability and selection, the market in anti-theft products is definitely on the rise. For starters, you can find pickpocket proof clothing, security padlocks and bags that can be worn across your front. Ask her what might like most (you might find a money belt to be helpful; she may not) and then go with her decision. Try PacSafe for bags and Clothing Arts or The Clever Travel Companion for garments.

Her favorite (and TSA friendly) snacks
Buying food at the airport is expensive (we’re talking $4 for a yogurt). And now, we’re feeling additional wallet pain on board our flights, as included meals are changing over to ones we have to pay for! However, we can still bring a few pre-packaged snacks — even through airport security — to tie us over. If your friend is a fan of nutrition bars, perhaps get her a box or two of her faves to munch on. Candy is cool too. And a bag of specialty pretzels or chips will go quickly.

Girlie products
We ladies know that during certain times of month we have to prepare for a special visitor. Our choice of products in this area has become quite “advanced,” so to speak. They’re definitely beyond what you’ll find in the drugstore aisle. Aside from traditional pads and tampon packs, what’s trending (and working) are menstrual cups and period-centered undergarments like THINK and PantyProp. Though I have to admit that this kind of gift is probably best exchanged between serious BFs.

Let us know what you’re giving to the travelers in your life.

What I’m Thankful For as A Traveler

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Creative Commons photo / credit cea+

Recently, for an assignment, I compiled a list on what travelers should be thankful for, and it got me thinking more about the subject. And with Thanksgiving right around the corner, I wanted to take some time to reflect on what as a traveler I feel most grateful about.

Here are my five examples.

  1. Ride sharing services. I was skeptical of using Uber for a long while, and didn’t sign up for it until this summer. Mainly it was because while I’m in New York City, my transportation options are plenty. In other places, it’s a different story. Two assignments this year took me to cities where spotting a cab was a challenge or not even possible. Plus what I like about Uber is that I can see who’s coming to pick me up (I’ve had drivers pulling over, claiming to be my ride, when they weren’t) and get an estimated rate.
  2. Free or discounted museum admission. I love visiting museums – even planning time for them in my trips – but after a while their price of admission can eat through my budget. So I appreciate museums and other public attractions that don’t cost a thing to see, or even have pay as you wish options. There are also ones that offer free days or evenings to state residents (like ones in Chicago such as the Field Museum) or extend these offerings to everyone (my favorite is NYC’s Museum of Modern Art’s free Friday nights.)
  3. Third-party search engines. Flying can get expensive, but we’re got some outside options. Thanks to sites like Google Flights, Travelocity, Orbitz, and Expedia, we can search for rates on flights and most likely get a price break on costs. For example, this summer, I used one site for booking my return flight from Stockholm back to New York and got a good deal ($598). At the airport, I discovered that I was able to check in my two bags at no additional charge. (I didn’t know they were included in the fare). What a good surprise. Also consider sites like Secret Flying, which publish flight deals and error fares (computer glitches resulting in our price favor).
  4. Hospitality workers. Flight attendants, housekeeping, and front desk clerks have probably encountered just about every type of traveler out there – good and bad. But they keep us going. I’ve made it a habit to not just say thanks but to show it. I always acknowledge good customer service, via Twitter or in person. At hotels, I always make sure to tip too, leaving a few bills on my nightstand. People I know who work in hospitality tell me that this simple gesture can make a staffer’s day, so let’s show all these hardworking people some love.
  5. More voices in travel communities. As a travel writer, nothing makes me happier to see more content being published by experts in various niches. From women travelers, to accessible travelers and budget travelers, to even baby boomers and LGBT, these sources are showing that travel is not restrictive. Our styles vary, and these writers, bloggers and vloggers get it and are giving solid advice on making our dreams of seeing the world happen.

Let me know what you would give thanks for.

When Is It the Best Time to Book Holiday Travel?

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With holiday travel plans, I tend to jump on booking flights and hotels quickly (such as with a planned post-Christmas trip to Atlanta this year). Yet my method is probably not full proof. In dipping into my e-mail bag, last week I got this press release from Skyscanner about the debate over best time to book predictions for this year.

Apparently, being last minute pays off.

Based on data compiled from more than 50 million users’ booking habits during the 2015 holiday season, Skyscanner’s findings apparently show that the highest savings are available no more than four weeks prior to Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s, with potential savings even available to those booking flights the very same week.    

 In breaking down the results, Skyscanner listed the best time to book travel for possible savings, around each of the major holidays coming up this year.

  • Thanksgiving: Skyscanner found that October has the best opportunities for savings, with the week of October 17 offering savings of 5.10 percent and a mere four weeks out, the week of October 31, offering the highest potential savings of 7.7 percent. Last minute bookers will also be in luck and could find 1.98 percent in savings the week of Thanksgiving.
  • Christmas: Historical data indicates that Thanksgiving week (November 21) will be a prime time for the best deals, offerings possible savings of 6.41 percent, as well as the week of December 5 with savings of 4.93 percent. After Thanksgiving will also be a peak window for booking, with savings of 2.17 percent the week of November 28.
  • New Year’s: While travelers could score the highest savings of 10.57 percent the week of December 5, the holiday looks to favor last minute decision-makers with 6.72 percent of savings one week before and 6.67 percent of savings two weeks out.

 Skyscanner also did a Twitter survey, which found that 44 percent of respondents shared that their plans are made six months to one year in advance; 17 percent between three to five months out; and 39 percent said they prefer to book their travel four to six weeks ahead.

So tell me, when do you book holiday travel? Do you think Skyscanner’s study is right or not?