Hello. Just so you know, I’m not pretending to be an authority on travel, and some of my tips below may be so obvious they go without saying. If so, then I hope your own travels have run as smoothly as mine have done (give or take the odd wobble) as a result.
A travel essential
If you have flown anywhere in Europe over the past few years with only hand luggage accompanying you onto the plane, then you will know all about the dilemma of trying to stuff as many 100ml toiletry bottles into a freezer bag (more about that in a moment). Resealable freezer bags are one of the best travelling essentials you can have in your suitcase. Bring as many of them with you as you can, in as many sizes as you can. Use them for carrying nibbles in when sight-seeing, put yesterday’s underwear into them to prevent soiling your suitcase, or put your damp bikini into one if it’s time to repack and return home. They are immensely versatile, take up very little room in your hand bag, and are relatively cheap to buy.
Packing that freezer bag
I rarely check luggage in, so all the toiletries and cosmetics I need have to go into that tiny 20 cm x 20 cm freezer bag for inspection at the airport. It is undoubtedly the most difficult thing to pack, so when I return from a trip I always refill the bottles and repack the bag ready to go for the next trip.
If you are flying from any of the major London airports and wish not to check anything in, then only pack your more expensive and absolutely essential toiletries/cosmetics into that little resealable bag. Leave the deodorant, toothpaste and even the sun-tan lotion behind, because as soon as you have been scanned and x-rayed by airport security, you are free to buy any liquid-based product available in the departure lounge, in whatever size bottle you can find (there’s a handy Boots at Gatwick, Luton, Stansted and Heathrow). They may cost a little more than from the high street, but if you’re going to a sun-kissed destination you will need much more than a 100ml bottle of sun-block. Of course, you could buy whatever you need when you get to your destination, but it’s simply more convenient if you already have everything you need when you get there (and an unknown brand abroad may not be as effective as a known, tried and tested brand from home). Smaller airports may only have Duty Free shops in their departure lounges, but most airports have their own websites now detailing their services and shops so you can always check beforehand if there is a branch of Boots or equivalent to stock up in.
On your way home, don’t forget to throw away anything you haven’t used up otherwise airport security will do it for you only after rumaging through your perfectly packed suitcase. There may only be a few drops of toner left at the bottom of the bottle, but if that vessel is more than 100ml in size, it will be taken from you and further checks through your luggage may be made.
Other essentials to have when travelling around
- A light cardigan, pashmina shawl or scarf that can easily be carried in your handbag for covering over your shoulders if you plan to explore places of worship. Catholic strongholds like Italy and Spain will not allow women into their churches with bare shoulders on show (shorts can sometimes be a no-no as well). I once saw a woman with spaghetti straps have a tantrum on the steps of St Peter’s at the Vatican when turned away after queuing up for the best part of an hour to get inside. At St Mark’s Basilica in Venice, you can always pay €1 for a horrid blue paper poncho which will certainly not win you any fashion contests, but will give you access across the Divine threshold.
- A small pack of travel tissues, preferably wet wipes. I was once visiting a flower garden half way up a mountain along the shores of stunning Lake Maggiore in Italy when the call of nature whispered in my ear. I followed the signs to the public loo, only to find a corrugated composting hut with literally a hole dug into the ground and wooden planks along either side of it with footprint marks painted on them indicating how I should ‘position’ myself. There was no sink in there either so I’ll leave it to your imagination on how useful those wet wipes were on that occasion.
- A second form of ID other than your passport. Bring your driving licence/ID card with you in your bag at all times, and leave your passport in your hotel room safe. You may need ID to gain access to certain public places or to buy alcohol if you’re lucky enough to still look youthful (alas, those days are gone for me now). In some countries it is a requirement to carry a form of ID with you at all times. If you’re unlucky enough to lose your driving licence, or your bag is snatched with it inside, at least you will still be able to get home, and a driving licence is much cheaper and easier to replace than a passport (in 2012 it cost £20 to replace a driving licence in the UK, but at least £75 – and laborious forms to fill in and get counter-signed – to replace a passport).
- A plastic bag or foldaway bag for any food purchases you may make. Mainland Europe is streets ahead of Britain when it comes to recycling and preserving the planet’s resources, and plastic bags are not usually dished out as freely as they are in the UK. Most European supermarkets will offer you one and charge a few pence per bag, but others may not offer a bag at all. I was once told off in a supermarket in Ireland for not having brought my own bag with me. If you do take one with you make sure it is not branded with a typically British name like “Morrisons” or “M&S” so you don’t stand out like a sore thumb … or rather, like a tourist … amongst the locals.
- … and of course, a bottle of water, a banana (or whatever fruit takes your fancy), and some nibbles. Walking along the Planet trail across the Uetliberg mountain in Zurich not only gave me a better understanding of the sheer scale of our solar system (each metre of the walk peppered with scaled models of the planets, corresponded to one million kilometres of Space), but also built up a huge thirst and a craving for sugar. With nothing but countryside between myself, the Sun and Pluto, I was glad of my self-made ham sandwich and Kit Kat up there.
- A favourite tune in your head. This may sound a little naff, but I’m a sentimentalist and I like to designate a pop tune to my travels, so everytime I hear that number after I return home it will instantly transport me back to that holiday and all the good memories associated with it. Most useful during a dull day at work.
Booking the hotel
I know it’s obvious but do your research. When picking a hotel there’s nothing like fellow travellers’ experiences and honest opinions to help you decide which is the best one to stay at. Tripadvisor is superb for this, and is my pre-travel bible (they have no idea I have said this and they have no idea who I am, so rest assured dear reader I am not gaining anything at your expense for sending you to their website).
As well as choosing the best hotel, again these may seem obvious but my advice especially to ladies travelling alone is to choose a hotel that:
- isn‘t near the main connection train station, especially in cities. It may seem convenient to be a stone’s throw away from your main transport connection to/from the airport, but larger city stations like e.g. King’s Cross in London, often attract the most unsavoury characters at night to say the least. Your chosen hotel may be the best in town but you don’t want to have to walk past drug dealers and pimps to get back to it at night.
- but is within walking distance of a metro stop/bus stop/tram stop so you don’t have to walk miles or pay out to taxis every time you need to leave and return to your hotel.
- is near a market/supermarket. I always carry nibbles with me during the day because, as I said earlier you don’t know where you might be when hunger and thirst strikes. You may be miles from a restaurant, or find yourself in the perfect spot for a nice picnic. Also, it saves money which helps if you’re on a budget, you have a fair idea on the quality of the food you have bought as you picked/prepared it yourself, and you have peace of mind knowing who exactly made that sandwich (unless of course you bought the supermarket’s own ready-made ones).
- offers rooms with a safe or access to a safety deposit box and put your passport into it! It’s unlucky to lose or have stolen your camera or MP3, but it will be an absolute nightmare if you lose your passport.
- offers rooms with a minibar. Unless money is no object, I wouldn’t recommend consuming anything within the minibar. Instead, go to the supermarket, buy what you fancy and keep them cool in the minibar fridge. Also, prepare your nibbles/packed lunch the night before and they will be fresh for your travels in the morning together with a nice cool bottle of water.
- offers free internet access. This isn’t essential, but very useful. When I found out during my last night in Madrid that a country-wide general strike had been called the next day affecting all public transport and flights in and out of Spain (see Madrid and how to survive a Spanish General Strike), I was extremely grateful for the free internet access my hotel offered its stranded guests. Also, if you’re feeling lonely it’s much cheaper to chat to loved ones online than on your mobile.
Know a few key words in the local language
Your accent and pronunciation may be terrible, but most locals will appreciate a ‘please’ and ‘thank-you’ in their own language, even if their English is as good as yours. Speaking very loudly and slowly in English is just patronising, so don’t be surprised if the customer service you receive from your addressee in response is not what you were hoping for.
Languages were not my strongest nor fondest subjects at school, but having travelled a fair bit across Europe over the past decade I have developed a real desire and determination to try again and learn some basic Italian, French and Spanish. Of course, as soon as I try to practice what I have learnt in real situations with real mainland European people, my mind goes blank or I’ll end up saying something ridiculous like “can I leave my bag here until yesterday?” As a result, I always finish my sentences with a sweet, self-deprecating smile which almost always wins my listeners over … before they reply back to me in perfect English.
Salutations, yes/no and please/thanks are usually very easy to learn, if not known already. I like to learn the additional words “I would like …” and “this” in other languages also as they are immensely useful in all kinds of situations when accompanied by a polite finger point to my desired produce.
If however you have the time and inclination to learn some more useful phrases like “where is the bus stop?” I have had some satisfying success with the Teach Yourself series by Elisabeth Smith (the link is to Amazon. I have never met Ms Smith in my life and I am not making any money from this recommendation, nor by sending anyone to Amazon – honest). The scenario of Elisabeth meeting Andy (a self-proclaimed foreign-language-a-phobe) on a plane and trying to teach him fifty useful words during the flight (usually 70 minutes) may leave the listener cringing at times, but it is amazing how quickly one can pick up these words and string them into useful sentences in such a short amount of time. (I’ve had to play the CD in stages over a period much longer than a day to truly feel confident I had learnt everything on the CD, but then everyone is different).
If you a looking for a more advanced language course so you can feel confident in using pronouns, tenses, verbs etc., and you have a lot more time to reach your goal, then I can not recommend and praise enough (without any financial gain procured as a result) the 12-CD courses devised and taught by Paul Noble (again the link is to Amazon where his courses can be bought from, and I am not making any money from featuring this link here). These courses in Italian, French and Spanish, produced by Collins are the most effective language courses I have ever come across. In a separate DVD that accompanies the course, the endearing and very intelligent Mr Noble explains his unique method of teaching (to not get bogged down with grammatical rules but to teach language more naturally in a different, more simplistic order). He also modestly admits that when he tried to learn languages at school he didn’t know what a verb was.
You will be amazed how effective the method is and how your confidence will grow in speaking the language and constructing your own sentences using it.
Getting the best currency rates
Of course you will need some money with you in the currency of the country you are visiting, so if you need to change some cash, I would try and avoid using high-street banks, travel agents and the Post Office to do so, and certainly don’t wait until you reach the airport. Some banks for example, will profess to being commission-free, but they will probably give you a rate several Euros/Pounds/Dollars lower than the market rate (airport rates are horrendously low), making a nice profit for themselves at your expense.
My advice is to first go online and find out what the day’s market rate is for the currency you’re after. It’s actually very easy to find. So e.g. if you’re changing Sterling into Euros, simply type into Google Search ”pound euro exchange rate” and you should get the daily rate without even needing to click on any of the links Google offers you. Then shop around amongst the local independent Bureau de Changes (if you have any near you) for a rate close to this. If you find a place offering a rate that’s around e.g two Euros less than the daily rate – and it’s commission free! – then that’s a great deal.
If you don’t have any independent Bureau de Changes near you then the banks and the Post Office are your only options, but again shop around amongst them for the best deal. Don’t be afraid to even ask for a better rate if they do seem to be several Euros/Pounds lower than the daily rate (always worth a try).
If you haven’t got one already (and are not travelling for a least another five-six weeks) it’s worth shopping around for a credit card that offers a good rate and low charges for using it abroad. Don’t ever use a credit card to withdraw money abroad unless you are absolutely desperate, otherwise you will find you will be charged half as much again for the privilege. Use credit cards for purchases when cash is not a viable option.
Hotels may ask for a credit card to hold your reservation when you initially book a room with them, but don’t feel obliged to then settle your bill with the same credit card. Credit card details are only held as a guarantee by the hotel (should you not turn up) and they will not charge anything on your card unless you give them permission to (or you run off with one of their bath robes). You can pay with cash if you prefer to.
I have no problem using low cost airlines as long as they fly me to my desired destination within 40-45 minutes journey by train/bus to the city centre. Again, before you book just double check exactly where that airport is in relation to your final destination. Ryanair flies into the Swedish airport of Vasteras, which is also known as ‘Stockholm Vasteras’ even though it is over 100km from the Swedish Capital, and takes nearly an hour and a half by bus to get to from central Stockholm. What you may have saved on your low cost flight could all end up going on paying for your taxi from the airport to your hotel, so double check before you book.
Even if you desperately want to be one of the first off the aeroplane on landing, I think “Priority” booking is a complete waste of money (and a bit of a cheek by the airlines), especially if you’re travelling on your own. Save your pennies, and you will almost always find a single seat close to the front of the aeroplane regardless if you get on first or last. You could always risk going right to the back of the aircraft to get a seat near the back door, but depending on how busy/large the airport is that exit may not always be available on landing.
I always take the aisle seat. Seeing clouds close up out of the window is a wonderful sight indeed, but seeing the horizon bob up and down contributes to air sickness and I am prone to feeling a bit dizzy if I catch sight of the world outside during descent. Also, if you need the loo you don’t have to disturb the people sitting beside you to get by if you’re on the aisle seat. When I first flew to Rome, and was still fairly new to my solo travels I placed myself by the window only to have two rather large nuns come along and occupy the two seats beside me, and as soon as the flight took off they both fell asleep for the whole two hours of flight. I could barely walk off the aircraft once we landed my bladder was that full.
All London airports have plenty of eateries and sandwich bars in their departure lounges, so buy something to drink and eat as you head for the gate. It will be much cheaper and arguably more appetising than what you will purchase on the aircraft. Ryanair are sticklers when it comes to taking one bag with you onto the aircraft even if your second bag is Duty Free. I had a departure-lounge-purchased sandwich in a paper bag with me once when I was standing in line to board a Ryanair flight, when the flight assistant insisted that I couldn’t bring the paper bag onto the aeroplane unless I put it in my suitcase. Not wanting to put smelly food into my suitcase I asked her with tongue-in-cheek would it be acceptable if I just held the sandwich in my hand and threw the paper bag away, to which to my surprise she said it was, and that’s what I did.
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