The Business Rusch: International Travel Tips Part One
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Initially, I thought of doing this topic as a separate post, part of the travel writing I did while in Germany. But then I realized that I left travel out of the Freelancer’s Guide (more or less), and I figured I needed to spend some time here, particularly after receiving a donation from a reader who is leaving for an overseas trip later this week. (Thanks and have a great trip!)
I used to travel a lot for business, mostly within the United States. In the mid-1990s, my husband Dean Wesley Smith and I spent traveled 26 weeks out of 52, which is just plain excessive. Travel has changed a lot since then—particularly airline travel—and I’m not going to call on those experiences to write this column.
I also don’t travel overseas as much as a lot of business travelers. Shortly after I had arrived at the San Francisco International Airport last Tuesday, I overheard the guy behind me on his cell phone. He said,
“I’m already in San Francisco. If you need me to go to Asia for a few days, then it’s not big deal from here.”
Okay. To me, Asia for a few days is a big deal. And it’s not a short trip from San Francisco, unless you’re a major traveler like this guy clearly was.
This column—and next week’s—are not for guys like that.
Instead, this is for people who haven’t traveled a lot overseas, or who plan to spend a lot of time in one place. I tend to do immersion travel, meaning I like to be part of the culture, if only for a brief moment of time, so I don’t have a guide, although I usually have a destination. Some of this has to do with my writing—I write better about places after having visited them, seen them, and thought about them. A lot of it is just me, however, and the fact that I prefer to see things on my own rather than have someone yammer at me about the “historical significance” of what I’m seeing.
So, some of this column will be how to travel like me. Even if you don’t want to do it my way, however, scroll through, and look for some of the other tips, things your guidebook might not tell you or you don’t know unless you’ve done this kind of travel a few times.
Before You Leave
I think you make some of the most crucial decisions about your trip long before you ever leave the comfort of your home. You pick your destinations, you book your flights, you figure out how you want to travel. If you join a tour group or go on a cruise ship, a lot of this early stuff will be sent to you in the form of a list. Pay attention to that list! It’s critical, because if you miss items, your trip will be cut short or it won’t happen at all.
The Day You Decide To Take The Trip:
When you know you’re going on the trip for certain, do these things:
1. Check Your Passport. Find it. Make sure it hasn’t expired. If you don’t have a passport, go to the U.S. Government website, travel.state.gov, and look at the information for ordering a passport. Getting a passport can take weeks, sometimes months. You’ll pay extra to expedite a passport, and sometimes that won’t come through before you leave. So do this critical step now.
2. While You’re On That Website…check to make sure there are no restrictions for the country you’re traveling to. Because we live in a dangerous world, there are always warnings about places being unsafe for Americans. Heed those warnings. If the government put it on the website, that means that Americans have run into trouble there. Make sure you’re not one of them.
3. Look Up The Health Regulations. It may be a small world, but you might not have been exposed to certain diseases because they don’t live in this country any more (like malaria) or they never have made it over here. To go to certain countries in the world, you’ll need immunization. Some of the shots take weeks to be effective, so look up this information now.
Also, look up the health insurance information. Some countries do not honor American health insurance. You must pay cash for treatment. Or you need special travel medical insurance. Your insurance company will reimburse you, even if you don’t have the travel medical insurance, but you don’t want to put out $40-50K for an emergency procedure because you’re in another country. If you need special insurance, order it now.
4. Buy Reputable Guidebooks—and Read Them. Don’t just rely on online sites. I have found a lot of misinformation about places I’m going to visit online. Fodors and Frommers have a reputation to maintain, so they vet their guidebooks. In each book is information about the country: weather, currency, the emergency telephone number (it’s not 911 in other countries), where you can get an aspirin, and what hours you can buy beer. This is valuable stuff.
Most guidebooks shy away from unpleasant information—they want you to travel to the country, not stay away from it—so if unpleasant information is in the guidebook, then there’s a significant problem.
For example, all of the guidebooks I purchased on Rome warned about pickpockets. Theft—and particularly pickpockets—are problems in every country if you end up in the wrong neighborhood (including in the U.S.), but the problem is particularly acute in Rome, so bad that the guidebooks not only mention pickpockets but how to avoid them.
I went into Rome with extra precautions—a small purse that’s tough to cut off my shoulder, a hidden pocket for my passport, an extra credit card, and some cash (I did not wear the one that they give you for around the neck—again, easy to cut off), and lots of real pockets on my clothes, where I would stash some extra Euros.
I did get pick-pocketed on that trip—not in Rome, but in Paris—and the robber got away with…crumpled up Kleenex from the outside pockets of my sweater. That, and a very sore belly because I felt her brush against me from behind more than once, and I always slam my elbow as hard as I can backwards into anyone who pushes up against me without apologizing. (That’s from a women’s self-defense course I took in the 1970s. It prevents sexual assault—and stops pickpockets. I learned in that course—and it’s proven true throughout my lifetime—if you’re a difficult mark, criminals move from you to an easier target.)
If a guidebook warns you about trouble, expect and plan for that trouble. But don’t cancel your trip. Anywhere you go—even down the street to your neighborhood grocery—can be dangerous. Just make sure you’ve thought the situation through before you travel, so you’re prepared.
Before You Book Your Plane Flight
1. Research. Don’t just research the plane flight. Figure out where you want to travel to.
For example, when I got invited to the convention in Leipzig, I knew I wanted to spend some time seeing Germany. I also knew that my travel time was limited.
I have several writing projects that I want to write about Germany. Two (maybe more) are set in Berlin. Three books are set in Munich. Then there’s the Nuremberg project. I hadn’t given Leipzig any thought—that was just where I was going for the convention itself. (Now there will be books/stories inspired by that.)
Because I’ve traveled in Europe before, I knew I wanted to take a train to my second city. So that was a given. But which city?
Logically, you’d think I’d chose Berlin. It was close—about 1.5 hours by rail—and it had a lot of things to see. Too many. I was restricted to three days in that second city, maybe four if I could manage it, and that included travel time. There was simply too much to see in Berlin for such a short trip—things I needed to see for my research.
Plus, Berlin is the most expensive city in Germany. Hotels cost twice the price of everywhere else for a comparable room. Public transportation, which exists in all European cities, looked like it would eat up a lot of my time as well.
I couldn’t do the research I wanted in the time allowed. I would end up frustrated, and I would need a second trip to finish the research.
So I ruled out Berlin.
Munich seemed more manageable, but again, time factored in. This time, it was the train ride. Munich was a six-hour train ride from Leipzig, if everything went as planned. That was nearly two full days on the train, which I simply did not have. I wouldn’t have been able to see everything I wanted, and I didn’t need to spend that much time on the train. I could have flown there, I suppose, but that left me in the hands of the airlines. (And we know how well that turned out.)
Besides, I was traveling near the beginning of Oktoberfest, and Munich is a prime destination for it. Tourists—the obnoxious kind—would have been everywhere.
A festival started in Nuremberg on the Thursday of my travel week, but there were still hotel rooms available, and at good prices. The train ride, on the express, was only three hours, which allowed me time to sightsee even on the days I traveled. Besides, I had a shorter list of things I needed to see in Nuremberg than in any of the other cities.
It got me out of Leipzig for a few days, got me on a train (yay!), and allowed me to see another part of Germany without frustrating me. I still wanted to see more after being there, and I missed some major things, but I didn’t feel like I had just started when it came time to leave.
In short, I researched the places I considered going to see if they were what I wanted. I also researched hotels and prices, as well as timing. I could have rented a car, I suppose, but driving on the Autobahn scares the crap out of me, so I didn’t even consider that option.
Don’t assume that just because you can drive you should drive. Remember the road signs will be in another language, and the customs are different. There are no speed limits in Germany—anywhere, or so they tell me—but certainly not on the Autobahn. My hair is significantly whiter than it was before I left just because of my one trip on that freeway. I can’t imagine trying to drive on it.
2. Investigate deals. The timing of my trip was dictated by the science fiction convention. Yours might be dictated by other business. But if it isn’t, then look for hotel/travel packages or the off-season. Do remember the off-season is an off-season for a reason, probably weather, which might be bad. So keep that in mind.
3. Look at more than one plane flight. People never do this, and I don’t understand it. Or they go by price.
I go by number of connections. The more connections, the greater chance of not getting to my destination.
Because I booked during the volcano crisis of the spring (again, dictated by convention timing), most of the flights over the pole were canceled, even in faraway September. So I had to connect from the East Coast. Normally, I would have spent the night on the East Coast before going to Germany—and would have, if I could have found a good connection through New York, where I could have done business. But I kept getting sent to Philadelphia (even if I flew out of New York), and I figured that I might as well go all the way through in one long day of travel. It worked out okay, even with the unexpected layover on the way home, but it wasn’t the best choice on my part.
I have no idea why I left myself with a two-hour layover in Philly on the way home. I know better. It might have been my only option, and I know that on the return trip, I’m hankering for home.
I won’t do that again.
How to Book Your Plane Flight
Price is not your only consideration. It should be a consideration, but it’s of less importance than these things, which will add to both your stress and the cost of your trip if you don’t plan for them:
1. Enough time to make your connections. Do not have an hour between flights. In the modern era, that’s just plain unrealistic. Chances are you will miss that connection, and then you’ll be stranded somewhere. (This goes for domestic flights as well as international ones.)
2. Plan for Trouble at Passport Control or in Customs. I haven’t had a problem going into the European Union, but on the way into Canada once, Dean joked with the passport guy and got us sent to Canadian Hell. We were in some bureaucratic nightmare with some poor other guy for two hours while we waited for an employee just to show up. And we were locked in. If we had had a connecting flight, we would have missed it. Fortunately, we were at our destination. We just couldn’t escape the bureaucracy until some little bureaucrat showed up, asked a few questions, rolled his eyes at the guy in Passport Control, and stamped our passports, setting us free.
3. Give Yourself at least Three Hours Between Flights When Returning to the U.S. or Going into Canada. Here’s what you have to do in the U.S. and Canada. You get off the plane. You go to passport control, answer some questions (and only those questions. Do not volunteer, do not make some polite or jokey comment like Dean did).
Then you go to baggage claim and wait for your bags to arrive. You all know how long that can take. Plus you need to assume that your bags did not get onto the plane, and you’ll need time to deal with both customs and the baggage people if that happens. You don’t want to miss your flight.
In Philly baggage claim was fairly efficient. I got my bags twenty minutes after the flight landed. The last time I went through Chicago, it took an hour. So plan for that.
Then you must haul your bags to customs and stand in yet another line. The customs official might just rubberstamp you and send you through, like he did with me in Philly.
He might want to search your carry-on. He might want to search your other bags. This will take time. At Heathrow once, I watched the officials search a very handsome man traveling with a U.S. passport. The customs officials searched his bags—all of them—and then made him take off his jacket, his shirt, and his shoes. I have no idea what they were looking for; they eventually let him get dressed, and left him alone to repack, which looked like a hell of a chore. Assume something like this will happen to you for some unknown reason, and plan the time.
After you go through customs, you drop off the checked bags at a designated site. Then you must go through security again. That means all the stuff you normally do before getting on a plane these days—let them look through your carry-on, taking off your shoes, walking through the metal detector—all of that will happen again. And if the security line is slow, like mine was in Philly (ten minutes from the moment I put my laptop in the bucket to be x-rayed, not counting the twenty minutes in the actual line), you’re screwed if you have a short connection.
The fact that I managed—even with the President delaying our flight an hour—to arrive four minutes after the gate closed was pure luck. I had no trouble at any of those spots, just the normal delays.
But if my bags hadn’t arrived or if I had to strip for the customs agent or if I got sent to some other part of Passport Control, I would have missed my flight as well.
Three hours should see you through, even with other problems. Add that in.
4. Do What You Can To Make Your Flights Comfortable. Business Class or First Class if you can afford it. Seriously. You’ll be on that plane for hours. The more comfortable you can make yourself, the better.
I am small enough to fit comfortably in coach most of the time. What gets me on the long flights isn’t the seats, it’s the confinement. So I insist on aisle seats. I can get up and walk around a lot, which I do. I double-check those aisle seats when the tickets get issued, and then in the week before the trip. That’s important to me. If I get squeezed against a window, I’ll be in hell. I even take a middle before I take window.
Know what you need and then book it right away. Don’t assume you can do it at the airport.
5. Check the airline regulations. My airline changed all the rules on me over the summer. They reserved the right to take away carry-ons, if you boarded the plane last. (You could have one small carry-on under the seat.) They charged even more for checked luggage than they had when I booked the flight. They canceled the meal on the domestic flight, but offered food for sale with a credit or debit card only. None of this was in existence when I booked the flight. But I checked the week before, and was prepared, if unhappy about it.
5. Build in time for travel trouble. If you need to be at a conference on Friday, like I did, make sure you arrive on Thursday at the latest. If you miss one connection, you’ll miss the reason for the entire trip.
Right now, airline travel is so arduous and so terrible that you have to assume you will miss connections and that your flights will be late. You must have enough money so that you can survive in the airport for a day or two. You also need to be flexible. I spent $50 to fly standby on my last flight home (San Francisco to Portland) because the flights were all running late at SFO, and I figured my 5 p.m. flight might not make it to Portland. When I arrived in Portland, at 4 in the afternoon, the arrival time for my former flight was 9 p.m., instead of the 6:30 that I had hoped for. This on a sunny day with no bad weather anywhere in the nation. That $50 was well spent.
There’s still more to do before you leave, and I’ll get to that next week. Some of it is common sense, some learned through hard experience.
If you’ve got tips to share about the above topics, please do. I know many of you who read this blog have traveled more than I have, and have either good tips (or horror stories) to add. So feel free.
I’ve added the donate button below. If this series on travel or on the discussion of business helps you in any way, please put a small tip in my donate jar. I’ll keep doing the blog as long as I get paid for it. Donations on this new blog have been uneven—a bunch at the beginning and only a few on the last few posts. So if you’d like me to continue, please add a few dollars to the jar.
“The Business Rusch: International Travel Tips Part One” copyright 2010 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.