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Travel tips

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Travel tips

If life is a journey...

...it shouldn't have to happen in a middle seat in coach. This page is about how to travel safely and well. No matter how much anyone travels, there are some basic things that separate the men from the boys, the savvy women from the giggling girlies.

Some important thoughts right upfront: Travel is hard. It is often exhausting - both physically and mentally. Stuff can and will go wrong. Travel only if you are willing to take the hits and then pull yourself back up and push forward. If you are enjoying the comfortable and easy life that you have built, don't travel, because it is neither of those things. Travel is a very individual preference. The rewards of travel have to worth the hard work for you.

Get an unlocked backup GSM phone: Some US wireless carriers charge a small fortune for international roaming. Before you leave, check out your carrier's foreign plans to use for the duration of your trip. If you buy an unlocked GSM phone you can pop in a local SIM card in almost any country and use international minutes that will cost a tenth of what your US carrier charges. An 'unlocked' GSM phone is one that is not provided by your carrier. If you get your phone at a discount with a service contract from your carrier, they add software that prevents you from using any other carrier's SIM card. My backup cell phone is a cheap, unlocked Samsung A14 that I load with only essential apps and information. Why a backup cell phone? Two reasons: 1) It would cost me a lot of time and money to replace my regular cell phone if it broke the minute that I land in a foreign country, and 2) If I am in a crowded or dangerous area, I don't want to pull out my primary cell phone that has my whole life and finances in it just to use a map or make a call. Google Maps offline works well for pre-planning destinations like hotels or restaurants.

Get a separate GPS: A handheld GPS frees up my cell phones for other uses. It can be a time saver of enormous proportions when I have to get somewhere on my own in an unfamiliar place. For driving, I use a Garmin Nuvi which is about the size and weight of a wallet. It has both North America and Europe maps built in. For hiking, I use a Garmin eTrex Vista, which is about the size and weight of a small cell phone. GPS's have a street level look-up capability and very comprehensive street maps included. They also include points of interest, hotels, restaurants and gas stations. Exotic country maps can be bought and loaded via the microSD card.

Learn to pack: There is no excuse to check luggage - ever. Why is carry-on important? It never gets lost, is never delayed and allows you flexibility with tight connections and changing flights at the last minute. I have done 22 days to Europe in a 22 inch wheelie and backpack without having to wash clothes. Even the most restrictive European carriers allow this size in carry-on as long as it isn't too heavy. Vacuum packs reduce size, but not weight, so I use them where I know weight won't be measured. It is often a challenge to dodge the "carry-on weight police". Not lining up too early for boarding seems to work best.

If it doesn't fit in a carry-on, don't take it. A basic foundation for this is to have your allowed toiletries and essentials in a small pack that can fit in any of your bags. If they don't allow liquids or gels, buy your toothpaste and other essentials in powder form. Get folding packs in each small size for formal clothes that might wrinkle. Buy as many high quality lightweight wrinkle-free shirts and pants as practical. Don't pack coats, sweaters or sweatshirts as they always fit in an overhead bin, even if it is full of luggage.

If you buy a lot of stuff at your destination, mail your worn clothes home to make room in your luggage. Even better (this originated with my wife Mary Lou), wear all your oldest clothes for your non-contact days and throw them away or donate them to a local church before you come home. I keep a section in my home closet for "just one more wear" travel clothes.

Use luggage that works. I have found Tumi to be the best from a design and durability perspective, but it is pricey. Discontinued Tumi models go for half price at luggage outlets. One step down in quality, but a lot cheaper is TravelPro - discounted everywhere. A good basic combo is a 22" wheelie and a medium sized backpack or computer case. If you buy basic black suitcases, get a loudly colored strap or handle cover for it so that no one inadvertently grabs it off a shuttle bus or from a hotel luggage storage area.

Focus on one airline, hotel chain, etc.: If you want to be treated well, you have to build clout. I am currently at lifetime levels on American and United Airlines and in Marriott's loyalty programs. I rarely buy a first class seat or a suite at a hotel, but I almost always sit in first class and often stay in suites. There are many additional perks associated with clout. It's good to be king.

Even if you only fly 10,000 miles a year, make sure all the miles are on one airline. Watch the airline & hotel websites to catch special deals that elevate your status at an accelerated pace. Once you get to any level on one airline or hotel, write an email to another and ask them to match that level. Even at the lowest airline status levels you can pre-board flights, upgrade inexpensively on cheap tickets, and get bonus miles.

Learn the unwritten rules: Many important small things are not written down anywhere. For example, American Airlines does meal selections from the front of the plane traveling east (even numbered flights) and from the back traveling west (odd numbered flights). If you want to choose from the rubber chicken, overcooked fish or soggy pasta versus only getting the soggy pasta, choose your seats accordingly. Bigger planes have bigger galleys and correspondingly better food, along with more experienced pilots.

Pilots have a tendency to leave the seatbelt sign on way beyond its actual need. That's to allow the cabin crew to do their service in uncrowded aisles. If you want to gauge whether there is any turbulence to be concerned about, listen for when the captain tells the flight attendants to be seated. If they are strapped in, you should be. If you are up when the seatbelt sign is on, the cabin crew is required to advise you to be seated, but they will not require you to do so.

787s have a composite shell that allows them to pressurize to a higher level - closer to regular ground atmosphere. To arrive feeling my best, especially on long flights, I try to find a 787 flying my route. Many planes have unique seating arrangements that allow single seats in business (United 767s - 10A, 10F, 11F) or pairs (versus 3) in coach. Some plane layouts have unique open areas (American 757s seats 10A & 10F in coach have no seat in front of them - giving about 6 feet of legroom). Exit rows are the best seats in coach because the seat in front of them does not recline. Stuck in coach on a United 757? Get seat 8E. It may be a middle seat normally, but on that plane it's an exit row with no seat on its right side. Ask the counter agents what alternatives are available in seats. The agents also have incredible latitude if your travel is disrupted. Always ask how you might be upgraded. American Airlines allows its coach frequent fliers to sit in business class seats on its 777s for LAX-DFW flights at no additional cost.

Bring your own entertainment: This can be anything from music to books to work. Just have a smooth way to break away from chatty Kathy who is trying single-handedly to empty the galley's bar or from the overbearing salesman who can't stop explaining his fascinating products or amazing female conquests.

Security: Security remains a joke at all US airports. Every frequent flier knows this. To minimize your delays in these stupid, inconsistent and ineffective systems, prepare ahead. Learn how to walk through the metal detectors (quickly and through the middle), and what sets them off. Get anything that sets them off into your carry-on bag ahead of time. You will minimize your security delay as well as help those in line behind you. Sign up for Global Entry. For $100 for 5 years, it whisks you past customs and immigration lines that can cost you hours in the US entry points and automatically gets you TSA Pre-check domestically. Renew Global Entry one year before it expires. It takes that long for the DHS to do a simple renewal.

On a personal security note, while I have never been robbed or pick pocketed, I know people who have. I use two or three small wallets in separate pockets whenever I travel. Any one wallet can get me through the trip. I also wear a real money belt - the kind that looks like a normal belt - with a 20 dollar and 20 Euro bill and copies of my passport, drivers license and medical insurance ID folded inside of it. You can find real money belts on the internet at beltoutlet.com.

I use GeoBlue for international travel health insurance on every foreign trip. It is relatively cheap ($40 for 10 days), and solves the problem of what to hand to a medical professional if injured in a foreign country. It is primary insurance, so they know they will get paid.

Prepare to be surprised: Don't freak out at the airport, rental car counter, or hotel check-in. If you do, people in a position to help you will be motivated to help someone else - like me. Travel is adventure and the most colorful stories happen because of problems.

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