Practical Stuff

The following are some of the practical matters that may help you while you are on your trip:

Money — I would recommend bringing 1 or 2 credit cards, a debit card that can access an ATM, and some local currency.  In many countries in Europe, particularly in self-served kiosks in train stations, only the chip-and-pin credit cards are accepted.  A debit card is handy because ATMs are ubiquitous even in remote places.  Although most banks will charge a transaction fee,  you get a slightly better exchange rate. Don’t just rely on your credit or debit card.  You should have some cash just in case.  The best place to exchange money is usually a bank and the worst place is usually an airport.

Use a money belt to keep most of your cash.  If you are out for an evening stroll, just take a small amount with you.  If your room has a safe, use it.  Make a copy of all your travel documents, credit and debit cards.  In the unfortunate event that you lose any of them, a copy will speed up its replacement process. I usually just take a photo with my phone and email it to myself.

Safety — Employ the usual standard precautions when it come to safety. Read the guidebooks to learn about the standard scams.  For example, if a stranger invited you for a drink, he or she might disappear just before the arrival of a hefty bill. If you don’t feel safe about a place, leave.

Before going out for a walk, check with the hotel staff or the locals. Beware of deserted alleys or streets, especially late at night.  Beware of your electronic gadgets; they worth a lot more money in some countries.  If possible, try to blend in with the locals.

On my first night in Dublin earlier this year,  I’d my wallet pick-pocketed. I had a money belt that I didn’t use and I left all my ids in my wallet.  Both things that an experienced traveller would never do.  I chalked it up to over confidence and jet-lag.

Local Transportation — Most major cities offer 1-day or multi-days travel pass. Do some number crunching to decide if you should buy a pass.  Although it may be more expensive than pay-as-you-go, having a travel pass affords you more flexibility.  An alternative to a daily pass is a stored-value card.  For example, in London, England, you can purchase an Oyster Card and in Hong Kong an Octopus Card.  These stored-value cards are convenient because you don’t have to deal with various fares and exact change.   Some cities, e.g. Portland, OR; Buffalo, NY; or Calgary, Alta, offer free transit in the downtown core.  Use them.

One of the best ways to discover a city is via a local bus.  I once took a bus from lower Manhattan to Upper Harlem in New York City.  The $1.00 (at the time) fare allowed me to ‘see’ a number of different neighbourhoods in an imposed leisurely fashion.  If you don’t want to get lost, stick with subways or trams.  If you know the name of a station, you can’t really get lost.  For a big city like Paris, London or Hong Kong, equip yourself with a compass to find the best exit.  Exits could be blocks apart and a compass will save you time and energy.

If you are travelling to Europe, check if it is worthwhile for you to purchase a EuroRail pass.  I believe the rule that you must purchase a first-class pass if you are older than 26 still holds.  Do some research before you pay the money.

Uber — I have used Uber extensively in my trip to Poland to Romania (Summer 2015).  What I like about Uber is that I don’t have to struggle with the pronunciation of a foreign language, dealing with local cash, and being ripped off by dishonest drivers.  All the transactions are done over an app and all the trips are recorded.  If I think the driver is ripping me off, it’s very easy to complain.  My experiences with dealing with taxis in foreign countries have been poor.  Uber took the hassles away. 

Car Rental I don’t usually rent a vehicle when I am travelling in Asia or Europe.  In North America, I have rented cars in a number of cities without any issues.  I do try to rely on public transportation but sometimes you need a car to get around to more remote places.   The cost of renting a car is actually reasonable but the extras may end up costing you a bundle more.  Check with your own auto insurance to see if your policy covers your rental vehicle.  Most major credit cards also offer insurance coverage.  Call them before you book so you know.  

Personally, I do not purchase additional insurance from the rental company. 

Phone —  For me, the one single device that has changed the way I travel is my smartphone.  In addition to using it as a phone, you can download useful local information such as maps and travel guides.  With a smart photo, you are only one phone call away from getting help.  With a translation app, you don’t even have to speak the local language.

The cheapest way to use a smartphone is to purchase a local SIM card.  However, your phone must be unlocked.  Unlocking a Blackberry and Android phone is fairly cheap.  Unlocking an iPhone will cost you quite a bit more.  When I was in Poland (August, 2015), I purchased a SIM card for about $3 that gave me 2G of data was good for a week.  SIM card in Budapest (July, 2014) turned out to cost me more because I purchased one with unlimited calls (I have nobody to call) but limited data by mistake.

Do shop around.  In San Francisco (Dec. 2015), I was able to purchase a SIM card from T-Mobile for $50 with plenty of data for the month. With that plan, I got a free locked phone that listed at $45. So, the card costed was $5.

Remember, even with a locked phone, you can still access free WiFi.  Get to know your phone so that you know you are using WiFi and not data.

If you are going to use your phone without a local SIM card while you travel aboard, including the USA, make certain you turn off the roaming feature.  The really, really expensive charge is data roaming.  Making an occasional phone call home may cost you a few dollars but, depending on your plan, 10 minutes of roaming may run your bill to hundreds of dollars.  It is a good idea to call your provider to see what options you have before you travel.  For example, for a nominal fee, most providers have a plan allowing you to access your emails but not data.

My SIM Cards Shuffle game [added on August 2016] 

I spent eights weeks (55 days) in multiple countries in Europe this summer and purchasing a local SIM card became trickier.  Pay-as-you-go SIM cards typically only last 30 days but, in Europe, they do cover multiple countries.  So, I purchased a Vodafone SIM card when I was in Amsterdam where I started my trip.  For 20 Euros, I have 4 GB of data, 1000 texts and I think 100 minutes of local calls for 30 days and it covered all the countries (Holland, Belgium, England, France, Spain, and Portugal) where I would be going.  So I was set for the first 30 days.  After explaining to the clerk at the Vodafone that I needed more than 30 days, she offered to sell me 20 Euros of credit that I could use to top after 30 days.  I thought it was a good idea and purchased the voucher to be used after 30 days.  I was told 20 Euros would give me another 2GB.  The process to top up seemed to be more complicated than it should be but  I took careful notes of her instructions.  

Things worked splendidly, in Holland, then in Belgium and then in England for first several days I was there.  Then suddenly, without warning, it just stopped working and my iPhone kept saying I couldn’t connect to the network. I knew there was plenty of data left because I could text and find out but it stopped connecting to the local ISP.  It was frustrating because it had been working and it just seemed to stop randomly.  So, I visited a Vodafone store and spoke with a young man about the issue.  Well, I was using an iPhone 6 from Canada, a Dutch SIM card and trying to access a British ISP’s network.  Vodafone England is not the same company as Vodafone Holland so I am stuck with a SIM card that wouldn’t work in the early part of my trip.  I ended up given up on my Dutch Vodafone SIM card and purchased a 10-pound British Vodafone SIM card.  I was back online in England and all was well.  Until, somehow, I managed to use up the 1GB data my second SIM card while I was still in England.   I popped my Dutch SIM card in my phone hoping it would work again but no dice. While I was pondering what to do next, I chanced upon a Three store.  I have used a Three SIM card before when I was in Hong Kong a few years ago and  was very happy with it.  After speaking with a very knowledgeable young agent at the Three store, I walked away 20 pounds poorer but with a SIM card that has 12GB of data, 1,000 texts, 200 minutes or some incredible amount that I would never able to use within 30 days. There was only one catch. The Three SIM card would work in all the countries that I would be visiting except Portugal. I figured I would take my chance with my voucher with my Dutch SIM card when I get to Portugal.

The Three SIM card worked really well and I practically stopped using any free WiFi because there was no way I would reach 12GB of data in 30 days.  The next challenge was when I arrived in Portugal.  I could still use the Three card but I would have to pay for data roaming.  I couldn’t do that even if I wanted to because it was a pay-as-you-go card and I had no credit on it.  

That was when I put my Dutch SIM card back in my iPhone.  After I turned off data roaming as I was instructed, I reset my phone and texted a long string of numbers to activate my voucher, and resetting my phone again as instructed, and I did this a few time because it did not work!  Vodafone was quick to text me back, probably with some excellent instructions, except there were in Dutch.  I finally figured out I was to call in the string of numbers and not text them.  Happily, I was back in the cyberspace with a voucher I purchased almost seven weeks ago.  Except I was not told because I was using an already activated SIM card, the 20 Euros would have given me 2GB of new data, but just not all at once.  So, each day, 1 Euro would come off from my credit and I would be given 100MB for the 24 hours.  If I used more than 100MB within the 24-hour span, additional amount, I couldn’t remember how much, came off from my credit.  At that point, I didn’t really care since I was only in Portugal for four days.

So, all in all, there were a few bumps along the way but I must say I was extremely pleased that I had plenty of data when I was in Europe.  Smart phone has made travelling some much easier.  I was able to use Google Map to find out the options and best way to get from point A to point B, WhatsApp to coordinate last-minute meeting times and places with friends, look up the official websites of potential sites to find out opening hours, read reviews of restaurants I just came across, Skyped a hotel to confirm a booking, etc, etc.

I just wish my home provider doesn’t charge the ridiculous amount of money for data roaming and I didn’t have to play the SIM cards shuffle game.  Just in case you need to know how much I would have to pay Bell Canada if I purchased their travel plan.  For 300 MB, I would have to pay about 50 Euros.  That is 300 MB.  I think I used between 6 to 8 GB for my trip.  Even if I reduce my use to say just 3 GB, that would be 50 x 10 = 500 Euros.   Instead, I spend about 70 Euros and probably would have been less if my Dutch SIM card worked in England smoothly.  

Packing listTravel light will make your trip more enjoyable.  Don’t forget your luggage will probably be heavier on your return trip.  Also, if you are going to use any discount airlines, a checked bag may negate all your saving.  

It is good to have a packing list.  If your trip is longer than a week, visiting a laundry mart could be part of your experience.  I once spent a couple splendid hours at a laundry mart watching a glorious sunset in Woody Point, Newfoundland.

With cell phone, tablets, digital camera, computer, you may need more than one adapter.  Try to find a universal adapter that have a couple of USB ports for charging your devices.  An adapter is not the same as a converter. Adapter allows you to ‘change’ the plug to fit into local outlets while a converter changes the voltage.  Most modern devices can handle both 110 or 220 Volts.  However, make sure you check.  For example, I know some older hair dryers can only handle 110V.  You don’t want to start a fire in a foreign country, or anywhere.  If you must have that hair curler, it may be cheaper to buy one locally.

Handy Apps — I use several apps while I travel:

  • From Rome to Rio — a quick way to compare different ways you can get from A to B.  The fare provided by this website is not always accurate since it doesn’t list all the possible discounts.
  • TripIt — this is a must have for a regular traveller.  In summer 2013, I took a 5-week trip to Asia that included a stopover in Vancouver for 4 days, 1 week in Hong Kong, 3 days in Kuala Lumpur, 2 days in Panang, 3 days in Singapore, back to Hong Kong for 1 week, then off to Bangkok for 6 days before returning to Toronto with a layover in Japan.  With TripIt, every time I made a reservation, this app would update my trip chronically for me.  It kept track of all my confirmation numbers, booking sites, departure and arrival times at different airports, and maps and directions to get from the airports to the hotels.
  • City Maps 2 Go — the lite version for this app is free but for a few dollars you can have the pro version which let you download hundred of city maps to be used off-line.
  • Skype —  When you are in an emergency, you will need to call someone and Skype is indispensable.  For mere a few pennies a minute, you can call any land line in the world. Calling to other Skype users are free anywhere in the world.  When I lost my wallet in Dublin (March, 2014), I called my family using Skype to have some money wired to me.  By the way, even though the America Express’ TV commercial says a new card could be sent to you in 24 hours, it certainly was not true for me.  I was told 72 hours minimum.  Your family is still your best support system.
  • Google Map — if this app doesn’t work on your device, use the web version.  Google map is a very versatile service.  If Street View is available, I use Google Map to check out the surrounding before I arrive at a hotel.  Even without Street View, I use Google Map to familiarize myself with my destination before my trip.  I also use Google Map to find out how to get to point A to point B.  Click on the bus icon and it will show you the bus stop, the route and the cost.  

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