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Travel tips to read before take-off

Monday 13th January 2014

When you read this, I will be in Mexico, maybe wearing a flower crown*, definitely day drunk, and well past the half-way mark of my four-week holiday in Central America.

But right now, I’m sitting at my desk, looking out on an office tower from another office tower on a gloomy day three weeks from my departure date, which cannot come soon enough.

It was tempting, when I bought my tickets in May, to post a picture of them to Instagram, kick off the countdown and leave it at that. This is probably startlingly naïve of me, but as it turns out, when it comes to international travel, buying the tickets is just the first step in a series of steps you have to take before you’re ready to go, most of which are very expensive.

There are bound to be some things I haven’t thought of that will trip me up down the beaten track, but hopefully, they don’t have what I once heard described as “preservation of life” purposes.

Here’s what I have thought of ahead of time – plus whatever I’ve hastily emailed back to The Wireless team over Starbucks wifi (“SEND MONEY”).

Paperwork

Before I teach you how to suck eggs, check your passport is current and undamaged, and doesn’t expire within six months of your arrival date. It also needs to have empty pages, but unless you are exceptionally well-travelled, this is unlikely to be an issue. (If it is, I hope you’ve got good mileage out of that humblebrag.)

I had to renew my passport for this trip. Again, call me naïve, but it was much easier than I remembered it being. My boyfriend took a picture of me looking surly with my back to a wall; I embellished my height by two centimetres on the online form (will I be arrested for admitting this? Too bad, I’m already in bloody Mexico City); and three to five business days later, I had a new passport. Too easy.

Even if you’re not overwhelmed by day-to-day realities, as I seem to be, travel insurance is probably a good idea, especially if you intend to take part in ‘high-risk’ activities like horse-riding or scuba diving. Familiarise yourself with the intricacies of your policy; it’s good to have a sense of what you are and aren’t covered for before you need to know, but take all the details away with you, too.

Research

With a dedicated Google document, calendar and associated tasks list, I might have gone overboard on this front. My friend Hilary – who I am travelling with, and who has borne the brunt of my frequent meeting requests – will probably agree.

But who cares? I’d rather know that the last bus from Havana to Trinidad leaves at 1pm now, rather than 1.30pm on New Year’s Day, when I plan to be hungover and irritable. (Pray for Hilary.)

I’m all for researching the hell out of your destination. Forewarned is forearmed, in my opinion, and with thousands of reviews for every eatery, hostel and day trip on TripAdvisor, you can get a good handle on the What, Why, Where, Who, and How Not To Get Robbed before you leave home.

For this trip, I managed to book accommodation for at least the first couple of nights in every destination over email, sans deposits, as many as three months in advance. Doubtless this forward planning will come back to bite me when the proprietors deny all knowledge of our correspondence earlier in the year, but what can I say – I don’t like not having a destination to go to upon arrival. Your mileage may vary.

My advice? Find the biggest, most impersonal book shop in your immediate area; sit down in the aisle; and take mental notes (or iPhone pictures) ... There’s no shame in it, if you have no shame.

Of course, one person’s five-star experience is responsible for another’s ongoing post-traumatic stress disorder, and this is where travel blogs and sites like TripAdvisor, though both invaluable resources, fall down. There’s something to be said for the thoughtful curation of print media, though not the associated $45-odd price tag of a recent edition of Lonely Planet. (Lonely Planet, for example, often carries info sections for women travelling alone and the lowdown of the most recent “scam du jour”, which is useful stuff to know before you go.)

My advice? Find the biggest, most impersonal book shop in your immediate area; sit down in the aisle; and take mental notes (or iPhone pictures) from the chapters most relevant to you. There’s no shame in it, if you have no shame.

Money

Individual accommodation, eateries, and to-do lists aside, it’s most important to get a handle on how much money you’re going to need (spoiler: lots, probably) so you can set yourself a savings goal. Budget more per day than you think you’ll need so you have a buffer.

Check your credit card works overseas, and let your bank know your travel plans so they don’t assume a charge of hundreds of dollars in Nicaragua is rogue activity and cancel your card. While you’re there, get some cash in local currency so you can hit the ground running.

When you’ve arrived, keep track of your expenditure (with receipts, if possible), and check your bank statement at least once a week to make sure there have been no charges to your credit card that you can’t account for.

Vaccinations

These are important (“preservation of life” purposes, remember). What do you need? How much will they cost? Which are non-negotiable – and as much as we of The Wireless don’t advocate cutting corners on your health and wellbeing – where can you cut corners?

Start packing too late, or too early, and you’re bound to forget something – though, let’s be honest, you’re bound to forget something, full stop.

What you need will depend on your destination, but don’t be surprised if it ends up being at least a couple of hundred dollars. For cholera, diphtheria, typhoid, tetanus and Hep A, I spent $400. As rabies would have been a further $300 or so, I decided giving dogs, rats and bats a wide berth was a small price to pay for hedging my bets.

If you’re a student, you can minimise costs by going to your education provider’s health services, but for those of us out here toiling in the real world, you’re faced with a choice of either your GP or a doctor who specialises in travel immunisations.

By all means, do your research online as to what jabs might likely be required so you can resist any attempts to upsell, but be prepared to defer to the knowledge of an actual medical professional.

The most important thing is to get this ball rolling at least eight weeks before your departure date. Proper immunisation against rabies, for example, requires a course of three vaccinations about four weeks apart. Some vaccines don’t take full effect until after a couple of weeks.

Packing

Even Ms Meeting Request will acknowledge there is such a thing as being over-prepared. Start packing too late, or too early, and you’re bound to forget something – though, let’s be honest, you’re bound to forget something, full stop.

My biggest fear – which came to border on an obsession in the lead-up to my departure as I struggled to reconcile the facts that I a) find physical exertion distasteful, and b) was about to spend four weeks lugging a 60-litre pack in 85 to 100 per cent humidity – was that I would over-pack.

I started a very “cool”, “hip” TextEdit document a couple of weeks out from my departure date to plan what I’d take. As dorky as it was to have a list headed with “7 pairs of underwear (one in carry-on)” open on my desktop all the time, it allowed me to hone the contents of my pack to (I hope) the bare necessities, as well as pinpoint those little items (plug adaptors; travel-size cosmetics; blister plasters; baby wipes) I’m sure I otherwise wouldn’t have thought of.

What I really haven’t thought of will have become apparent by now, but I’m hopeful that any crises will be able to be alleviated by time, money, or some strategic tears ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

* lol j/k