I don’t profess to be an expert traveler; in fact, I’m probably the opposite of that. But I’ve learned a few things—often by trial and error …
If you have time, check out some library books before you travel. Read up on the history of the place you’ll visit, for example. You’ll also enjoy travelogues about the area. I like to read novels written by natives or about the country I’m visiting.
Did you know weather.com is international? Oh, yes, it is. Tell it you want the ten-day forecast for Dublin, Ireland, and it promptly provides ten days’ worth of rainy prognostications, in Celsius or Fahrenheit, your choice. Handy!
Air travel is … well, not fun. Prices are fairly reasonable but now most airlines make us pay to check even one bag and bringing a second runs anywhere from sixty to a hundred dollars more. This forces us to carry things we’d rather not. Which is why the airport looks like a refugee camp, and the overhead luggage racks are scenes of intense territorial warfare. From the full body scans to the shrinking leg room and the recycled but unfiltered air that simply assures every germ on the plane is shared with every person on the plane, it’s no wonder we’re all cranky about flying. So I’d like to propose a few rules of conduct:
• Be polite, for heaven’s sake. Be friendly. Make eye contact. Smile. We’re all in this miserable experience together.
• Don’t be so stinkin’ demanding. This means you, middle-aged Irish lady, moving back into the plane against outbound traffic trying to retrieve a carryon stowed a dozen rows behind your seat, loudly demanding we move out of your way. Just wait until the aisle has cleared; it’s the polite thing to do.
• Be kind. We’d all like to get where we’re going, so don’t think your rush is more important than my rush.
• Be humble. You may be a Master of the Universe in your Wall Street world but to me you just look like an arrogant jerk in a suit if you’re not polite, kind, and humble. And would you mind obeying the rules about the amount of carryon?
• Must you recline your seat during “dinner”? You are tempting me to rub mayonnaise on the top of your head.
• Be considerate. No matter how slim you are, if you’re in the window seat, you’re going to make two people get up and stand in the aisle when you decide to go to the loo. We will do this more cheerfully if you’ve been nice to us (as opposed to grumpy and resentful) and if you do it, say, right after dinner and before they’ve turned the lights out on our overnight flight. You know you’re going to have to go, right? Don’t wait until we’ve finally managed to doze off a couple hours after lights out; that only makes us despise you. I, for one, will not be held accountable for the look on my face.
Airplane air is notoriously dry, so it’s important to stay hydrated. Keep your bottled water close, since public water fountains are getting harder and harder to find. I also buy “face mist” from the Body Shop. I love their Vitamin E Face Mist, which contains “panthenol to soften and rosewater to refresh.” It has a gentle rose scent. On my most recent trip I tried the Vitamin C Energizing Face Spritz, which contains “rich Amazonian camu camu and … aloe vera” and has a pleasing orange scent. At the end of a long flight, face mist is a perfect pick-me-up; I spray it on hands and arms too. Don’t leave home without one or the other.
If you catch a cold or otherwise get sick, the most ethical thing to do is not travel. But if you simply must, wear a face mask, for God’s sake. Keep your germs to yourself.
When flying into New York City from most places east of the Mississippi, domestic carriers will land at LaGuardia; however, most international flights depart from JFK. Who knew? Not me: I’d never crossed the Atlantic. There’s a solution, though: the Port Authority has a shuttle service, designed to get you from one terminal to the other for a small fee and 45 minutes of your time. Just collect your baggage and get it out to the curb; the vans come by every thirty minutes. (In 2000 the fee was $11/pp. It’s not much more than that now, in 2012.)
I recently learned something about overbooking on the airlines. When they’re asking someone to voluntarily give up their seat, the offer (a rescheduled flight and a voucher for credit on another flight) will get better and better over the next few minutes. If you’re inclined to take the deal, you gamble on the reward going up or people taking the offer ahead of you. Look sharp!
Be sure your travel briefcase is easy to get in and out of and doesn’t bury the computer too deep, as your laptop will need to be removed from it at every security point and sent through the machine on its own. (You’ll need to remove your coat, scarf, probably your shoes too.)
If you’re driving in London—or any large city, for that matter—you must remember it’s not like your town back home. It’s unlikely the parking lots will be convenient. Be prepared to park and walk. And walk. Since you will, by now, have discovered the delights of English teatime, with its clotted cream, scones, and other baked goodies, walking is not a bad thing. (When I die, I want to be buried in clotted cream.) Even in smallish Irish towns, there might be a car park on the edge of town; you’ll have to walk into the shopping district. We Americans are used to pulling up and parking right outside the store, but that’s not always the case in other countries.
You can check two pieces of luggage, so do so. Let’s face it—you’re going to do some shopping, and with the new lower weight limits, you’ll need the space. And if you’re traveling on a budget, kids, you don’t want to have to pay that overweight penalty—that extra hundred bucks can ruin a vacation before it even gets started. UPDATE: Since the 2008 recession, you can still check two pieces of luggage, but you will have to pay extra for the second bag. In many cases, you must pay a nominal fee to check the first bag. I would feel better if they just added that $25 to the cost of my ticket and said, See? Now your first bag is free! It seems like it would be better PR, which is something the airlines could surely use.
You don’t have to fill up those two bags you just checked. Did I make that plain, earlier? I can hear the Irishman snorting at the notion that I—I-just-want-to-have-a-choice Jamie—can have anything to say about traveling light. But I learned something important on this trip: unless you’re really going hillwalking, you probably don’t need those hiking boots. Think about how much space they take up! And traveling light means you’ll have room to pack a souvenir or two.
When Gerry first started shopping here in the States, he used to be astonished to be charged, say, $11 for something when the posted price was $10. Ooooh: sales tax. You see, in the EU, if a widget is advertised at 10 euro, that’s what you’ll pay. But you’re still paying a tax; it’s called VAT (Value Added Tax). (I should add, as noted in this post, there’s no VAT on books or children’s clothes in Ireland. Probably other things, so you might research it.) And as a non-EU resident, you can get a VAT refund on some goods. To do this, there’s some paperwork, so you must decide where your limit is—mine is 20 euro; anything below that I don’t bother. You must also remember to ask for the VAT form at the time of purchase. Each receipt must be paired with a VAT form, and you’re going to have to fill it out (name, address, passport number) at the end of the day or the end of your trip. At the airport, you find the VAT kiosk, turn in your pile of receipts, and get your refund in cash or as a credit to your credit card.
VAT UPDATE: Ireland (and perhaps elsewhere) was just going to an electronic method when we were there in late 2012. With the new method, you are never charged VAT at all. Instead, you are issued a card (by any retailer on the system), and it’s scanned every time you make a purchase. You register the card online at some point during your trip. However, you still must visit the Horizon electronic kiosk at the airport to “check out.” If you leave the country without emptying your card, all the VAT you avoided will suddenly appear on your credit card bill. Ooops!
I don’t know if you encountered this the last time you were in the Eurozone, but in 2012 we often had the option, when we proffered our credit cards, to pay in dollars or euros. I always chose dollars, having been advised to do so, and I thought I was saving conversion fees. But then I read the fine print and learned I was being charged 3.5 percent if I took it in dollars! Today I just went over my credit card bill and I think I got a better deal in the places where I paid in euro; the conversion fee I paid to my credit card company was very small. Next time I think I will pay in euro and take my chances. 🙂
I get asked a lot about driving on the left side. Is it hard? Is it scary? No, it’s not hard at all—because everyone else is driving on the left too. It’s easy to just follow the crowd. You adjust very quickly, I’ve found. Here’s a post that will cover some of the basics.
Definitely rent a car with a GPS or bring yours from home—which could cheaper. If you bought a GPS in the States, you’ll only have maps for the States, so you’ll need to go online and purchase and download the maps for Europe. I have a Garmin and the European map was $99.99 when I checked; the UK map was $69.99. In 2012 the built-in GPS was an additional ten euro per day in Ireland, so you can see how quickly that adds up. On a two-week trip, you’d add 140 euro to your rental car bill, which at this writing is about $183. Do the math!
I don’t think I saw a single public water fountain in Ireland. So don’t leave your lodging without a small bottle of water. At some point you’ll be glad you had it.
As an American, you simply must be prepared to be out of your comfort zone when you leave the country. We are very spoiled here: we heat water in our homes constantly, for example, while in Ireland it’s generally heated as it’s needed (for a shower, washing dishes, etc.). Less convenient, but less expensive. Similarly, you’ll find most B&Bs have wall heaters—no such thing as central heating—on timers. This means you might be a little chilly sometimes (say early morning or late afternoon), so just put on a sweater. The size of bathrooms can come as a shock to some Yanks too. So just take a chill pill and know on the front end you’re going to be out of your comfort zone—and you’ll have more fun. 🙂
There will be more Tips! Stick around!