Travel tips from an amateur “school of hard knocks”-graduate …

First up, some quick notes about me:

– As with most people, I too like to maximize the “enjoyment output” I get from the money I spent.

– Though I can afford it (Or can I? 🙂 Not sure …), I am not a big fan of spending 500$+ for a night’s stay in a place with “all the amenities” (which one will probably never use during that particular night’s stay). If at all we do try to use the amenities, then we have to cut down on the time we spent in exploring the city/town/village. If that is the case, why make the trip at all? Just book a room at the nearest Ritz and stay there for the night. In my humble opinion, such a stay makes sense only if you are there mainly for relaxation (i.e. you will spend majority of the time in the Hotel and the surrounding complex itself). Else, my strategy is “get a good night’s sleep, wake up early and get the hell out of the Hotel …”!

– I have made trips with only my wife, with my family (tagging along two small kids), with my extended family (i.e. parents included) and finally, just me.

– By now, everyone must be an expert in using the Internet for the best packages/deals etc. and also in researching places/people/cuisine. So, I will refrain from this aspect of travel.

Some suggestions/tips:

(01) Plan, but do not micro-plan: What I mean by this is that one should have a general outline of what will be done during a particular day (of the vacation). But it should ideally not be planned to each 30-minute slot (for e.g.). For e.g. 10.30AM at XYZ Museum. The trouble with micro-planning is that each time you miss a deadline, there is the tendency to get upset (or even worse, panic!). Just go with a general outline (e.g. AM – XYZ Museum, PM – ZYX Museum etc.). One might ask, then why plan at all? Well, each of us have specific interests w.r.t. a place. We must sift through all the available options and come up with a handful of items which the travelling group would enjoy. Then, it has to be spread out (logically) through the days/weeks/months/(years?) one intends to stay in that place. Now, this is the part I enjoy the most. It is like a logistical puzzle waiting to be solved and with the added advantage of learning about a new place.

(02) Always consider the kids’ comfort and enjoyment: If you are travelling with small kids, consider bringing one/two of their favorite items so that they have some emotional support during the rapidly changing experiences they go through during a major trip. Obviously, with kids, you cannot have an intense/hectic travel schedule. If you have kids who are over 5 years old, consider bringing a journal book for them to jot down their experiences. Trust me, such a journal is a lot of fun to read, later on … Side note: Items like diapers are best purchased at the destination, rather then loading up your bag with it (unless of course, you are going to a place where you get “What???!!” in response to “Do you sell diapers?”).

(03) Pack as lightly as possible: One advantage is that you have a much easier time lugging the baggage through various airports. When we travel as a whole family, guess who gets the “enjoyment” of dragging 2 big suitcases and various carryons? You got it, its ME! My wife will be busy with herding the kids while I look like a “pile of baggage” that seems to be moving on its own! Trust me, it is no fun to be stared at by prim and proper business travellers, with their small wheeler bags and a cup of coffee, while the self-propelled “pile of baggage” is inching along. When I travel alone, I just have a backpack. Its so much easier. No baggage checkin queues, no waiting for baggage claim etc. I always insist on carrying just 3-4 changes of clothes and I expect to be able to do laundry during the trip. I would suggest to really review the list of things you are carrying and carry only those items which are essential or which cannot be obtained at the destination.

(04) Have a backup camera: I had a sticky situation when my Casio camera conked out during a trip (it was less than a year old). By the by, no offense to Casio. It is a great company and I am sure I am the 1-in-a-billion guy who happened to have his Casio camera conk out in less than a year. Luckily, I had my faithful Canon camera as a backup. As you can note, I like to record my experiences and it is a disaster for me to be without a camera. One might wonder, what is the worst that could happen if one has no backup camera? Ever try buying relatively expensive electronic items in touristy places like Niagara Falls Vistor Center? Well, I guess shelling out 300$ for a 100$ camera is also a kind of experience. Not for me, though … I prefer the detailed researching-the-web-review-store-price routine … Also, even if one has a backup camera, it can also be lost, right? Very right. If so, my friend, you should also check out some blogs about “how to hang on to your own stuff” … 🙂

(05) Expect the unexpected: I remember when we went to Niagara Falls (Buffalo), our return flight to Chicago was cancelled at the last minute (after we had checked in our baggage and were waiting at the gate!). It was a harrowing experience, involving angry exchanges with the airline, mad scramble for a Hotel at 11PM, mad scramble back to the airport at 5AM (after 4 hour sleep), 1st day at Chicago being spoiled etc. Looking back, my mistake was in never even thinking about the remote possibility of something upsetting my plan. In the travel world, unlike in our High-Tech work world, “having backup plans” does not make a lot of sense. For e.g. would you book a “backup flight” just in case your primary flight gets cancelled? 🙂 A better strategy is to quickly adjust to the new crisis, take a deep breath, spend a solid 5 minutes (or more, based on preference) cursing the airlines (for e.g.), and moving on. You lose a valuable day of your vacation? Well, s**t happens … Dont let it spoil the rest of your vacation.

(06) Keep in mind the vaguely followed “liquid rule”: Over the past few years, I have had to throw away everything from a Johnnie Walker Blue Label bottle (which my friend had asked to transport to India. I think I distinctly remember the security guy licking his lips in anticipation of the party he is going to host that night with this bottle) to my precious eye drops to this rule. Why? Because I forget this new air travel rule (for which we have to thank the extremists, I guess) when I pack. Different airports follow this rule diffferently. Safest strategy is to have only a few liquid items (drops, ointments, shaving cream etc.) and that too, in a ziploc in your cabin luggage. This will speed up the security check. Else you run the risk of having all the items in your bag being spread out neatly on a table (“Hey everybody, see what this guy has in his bag …!”) and as an added bonus, you might get to do some simple stretching exercises while being poked around with a gadget 🙂

(07) Dont visit the same place over and over again: I have a colleague who has visited Maui (Hawaii) 4-5 times. I know this is a personal preference, but my point is: There is so much of the world to see and why keep going to the same place over and over again. If you liked Hawaii so much, the next time, go to Caribbean or Florida or Bermuda etc. My point is, there are other places that offer very similar experiences to Hawaii and also, the cuisine is guaranteed to be different.

(08) Please do not eat McChicken at Bruges: I have not been to Bruges (yet). I just picked that town to stress my point, which is, while travelling eat the local cuisine as much as possible. We all have our favorite cuisine/food and we crave for that most of the time. A trip is an escape from our daily routine, is it not, and shouldnt this escape apply to food also? Please note that with kids (especially small ones), one WILL have to buy that McChicken (atleast for them). I remember, when we went to Oahu and I tried Poi, I could barely keep it down. But then, atleast I can claim that I know what Poi tastes like, isnt it? Go for broke, experiment with the cuisine, maximize the thrill factor of the trip …

(09) Carry a hard-copy of all the major bookings and also your travel documents: Yes, this is like saying “You should drink a lot of water”. Duh! 🙂 I know. But it is so important that I would suggest you take 2-3 sets of such printouts (staple them together) and keep 1 in each bag. It will come handy when you have to go to battle with the airlines or car rental company or hotel … Trust me, “going to battle” is almost guaranteed in any major trip, so much so that, you will come out feeling as if you just completed a Marines orientation course. The Few, The Proud … 🙂

(10) Classify the goal as either “relaxing” or “sight-seeing”: If it is the former (like our trip to Hawaii), you should have the mindset of (a) Getting up as late as you want (b) Having the luxury of dropping down and taking a nap any time you want, even on the beach (c) Lots of beach or spa time etc. If it is the latter, then (to me), it is all business. I mean, at the end of the trip, I will probably feel more tired than when I started! Why? Because I would have minimized my sleep, maximized my time “out in the streets” and experienced pretty much every sight I could. Now, some people/companies will claim you can have the best of both these worlds. Yes, you could, if you increase the vacation time (and spend much more $$$) and do a simple split of overall “relaxing” and “sight-seeing” times. For e.g. during our 2-week Hawaii trip (yes, 2 weeks, that too in the peak of peak season (2nd half of December), we did a decent mix of both! By the by, when we returned after that trip, my bank account was in a much “cleaner” state than what the world’s best hacker could have ever managed).

(11) Take “people’s advice” (including mine! heh heh!) with a pinch of salt (No, make it a dollop of salt): Cliche alert!!! Please do note that each invidual is different. What person X might find amusing/interesting, could be the pits for person Y, and vice-versa. So, when someone tells you “The dish XYZ is the worst!”, and you just dont even consider the dish XYZ or take alternate/2nd opinion on it, you might be missing out on something truly great. For e.g. take Huapia (Coconut Pudding) in Hawaii, which apparently you only get at a Luau. I loved it! Even went hunting for it, later. Amazingly I could never buy it in a store. I tried in all 4 of the bigger Hawaiian Islands and even went through the extreme embarassment of trying to repeatedly pronounce it to the locals 🙂 My point is, if I had strictly listened to the advice of some of the well-meaning (I am sure) notes/tips I had heard/read, I could have missed out on it.

Wise words from a very great man (i.e. Me :-)): “Hear, read and learn as much as you can. But use the information, carefully, after filtering it through your own personal “filter” ….”

Happy Travels …

Note: I will try and add to this post, with more items, as I come across more and more. Please note that the above list is “off the top of my head” … Next time, let me sit down, dwell on it more, and see what I can come up with.

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