Hello. Just for the record, I am not pretending to be an authority on travel, and some of my tips below may be so obvious they go without saying. But they have helped me greatly along the way, so here they are.
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, available from all major supermarkets, 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 (but only the 20cm x 20cm size can be used for carrying liquid-based products in hand luggage via Security). 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 on my trips abroad 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. As a result, I force myself to refill the bottles and repack the bag as soon as I return home from a trip so I don’t waste time nor get stressed packing it the night before my next one.
If you are flying from any of the major London airports with hand luggage, then only pack your most expensive, prescription and/or luxury toiletries/cosmetics into that little resealable bag in no more than 100ml bottles. Leave the cheap deodorant, supermarket toothpaste and even the sun-tan lotion behind. Don’t waste time and energy trying to find the latter products in 100ml bottles nor try filling 100ml bottles with them and then trying to cram them all into your already heaving freezer bag, because as soon as you have passed through airport security, you are free to buy any liquid-based product available in the departures lounge, in whatever size bottle you can find and take them on to the plane with you. There are small Boots the Chemist branches in the departures lounges at Gatwick, Luton, Stansted, London City and of course Heathrow selling the well known street brands in deodorants, creams and toothpastes. Smaller airports may only have Duty Free shops in their departures 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. The products may cost a little more in the departures lounge than from the high street, but I would argue it’s worth paying the price rather than trying to survive on a sun-kissed beach for a week on the 100ml of suntan lotion you got through Security.
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 to your destination, and an unknown brand abroad may not be as effective as a known, tried and tested brand from home.
Security will not allow you through with 100ml of a liquid-based product in a bottle that holds more than 100ml. Each bottle taken in the 20cm x 20cm freezer bag has to be 100ml or less.
Even if you only have one bottle of product in the freezer bag and nothing else, that bottle still has to be 100ml or less.
Toiletry bottles from The Body Shop are usually 100ml so always keep and reuse them for your trips. Otherwise, take the empty bottles of shampoo and shower gel most hotels leave in your bathroom home with you and reuse them on your next trip as they are usually around 50-100ml in volume.
The bottles don’t have to be transparent (I’ve always travelled with opaque bottles and I haven’t experienced any problems with them at Security).
Technically powder make-up like blusher and shine-control compacts do not have to go into the freezer bag and can stay in your luggage. I’ve often packed mine in my hand luggage and Security have not stopped me from doing so. You may have a problem with more oily based products like eye make-up though, so if in doubt either put it in the freezer bag or leave it at home.
Wet wipes do not have to go into the freezer bag. They can stay in your hand luggage.
I’m sure it goes without saying to leave the cotton buds, pads, make-up brushes, eyelash curlers etc. out of that freezer bag. Make every millimetre of that freezer bag count. Leave the tweezers, scissors and razors out of your hand luggage as these may be classed as weapons and will be confiscated at Security. If you really can’t be without them, you may be able to buy some disposable razors in the departures lounge.
Or you can always ditch the freezer bag, put everything you need in a suitcase in whatever size bottle you desire and simply check the suitcase in.
On your way home, don’t forget to throw away anything you haven’t used up that’s not in a 100ml bottle or less, 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.
More on these restrictions can be found on the Gov.uk website here.
Charge It Up!
Since July 2014 all battery-based electronic devices including cameras, travel irons and electrical shavers taken on board a flight must hold enough charge on arrival at Security to be able to be switched on and off for inspection, otherwise they could be confiscated and you may not even be allowed on the flight. So, pack your chargers and invest in an adaptor plug (electrical sockets in Great Britain and Ireland take three-prong plugs, whereas mainland Europe sockets take two-prong plugs). They only cost a few pounds and you can usually buy them in the departures lounge of any main airport. Otherwise try travel shops, high street pharmacies or department stores before you set off for the airport.
More information on this can be found on the Gov.uk website here.
Bringing food and drink on to the plane
There are no restrictions on taking food on to the plane with you (apart from durian fruit), so you are allowed to buy a snack in the departures lounge and take it on board. If you really want to save the pennies why not make a sandwich or two before you leave, throw a piece of fruit and/or a packet of crisps into your bag and take it all through Security rather than buying the overpriced (and arguably not very appetising) offerings on the plane.
Drinks however are more problematic. Even drinking water falls under the 100ml bottle limit and must be put in the freezer bag if taken through Security. But there is no reason why you can’t buy a larger bottle in the departures lounge beyond and take it on board. Although it will be a little more expensive than on the high street, it will probably still be much cheaper than buying a bottle on board.
Essentials to have with you at all times
– 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. Some of the major tourist places of worship now like St Mark’s Basilica in Venice, sell horrid blue paper ponchos to sleeveless visitors for around €1 a piece which will certainly not win any fashion contests, but will make you modest enough to cross 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 was extremely glad for having packed those wet wipes into my bag earlier that day.
- 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” on it 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.
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 tips 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 MP3v when on holiday, 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. Nowadays most do offer wi-fi, but surprisingly some still charge customers for the privilege. I am finding wi-fi more and more essential on every trip, so I wouldn’t even consider a hotel now that charges to use their wi-fi. During my last night in Madrid and unbeknownst to me until that last night, a country-wide general strike had been called the following day affecting all public transport and flights into and out of Spain (see Madrid and how to survive a Spanish General Strike). I was extremely grateful for the free and unlimited internet access my hotel offered me to find out how on earth I was going to get to the airport, and whether the airport would even be open.
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 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, German 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-aphobe) 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 are 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, German 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 and in a more simplistic order). He also modestly admits that when he tried to learn languages at school he didn’t even 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 to make up for it (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 the fare 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 arrival 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. 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 had 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 (and one small handbag) with you onto the aircraft. I once had a departure-lounge-purchased sandwich in a paper bag when I was standing in line to board a Ryanair flight (it was the only airline flying to the destination I wanted to go to). The flight assistant insisted that I couldn’t bring the paper bag and its contents onto the aeroplane unless I put it in my suitcase. Not wanting to put smelly food into my suitcase I asked her cheekily 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.
I hope what I have said above has helped in some way and contributes to you having a very pleasant, safe and enjoyable trip.