Pre-planning

Travel Zen

Travel is not stress free. Period.

The key to Travel Zen is to be flexible and not stress on things outside your control.  For example, you are on a flight that has been delayed and you may miss your connection.  You could stress and take it out on the flight attendant fellow passengers or the gate agent.  Note this will accomplish absolutely nothing other than stressing you out. Just relax and when you land deal with it.  Stressing does nothing to resolve the issue.

Remember travel is an adventure!

Planning to Fail

I like to book my own travel as I have gotten tired of travel agents trying to get me between two points with the least amount of a layover.  Many times they will set up a connection that is less than an hour, or even only 30 minutes and say it’s legal.  Yes, it’s legal in airline connection rules.  But I call this planning to fail.

Anyone who has traveled knows the likelihood of arriving at your gate on time or early is rare.  Yes, the airlines pad flight times to help make it on time.  However there are many items that will cause delays beyond the airlines control:

  • Air traffic control
  • Weather
  • The ramp being blocked by another plane pushing back
  • Your gate is not available as the prior plane has not pushed back
  • Ground crew is not at the gate

If you miss a connection, your day goes from difficult to a downright mess.  Sometimes you are lucky and there will be another flight not so far away.  Other times it’s a 5-8 hour wait and only center seats available.

If your travel requires a connecting flight, do you best to allow a safety cushion.  I like a 1.5 hour connection.   Remember boarding starts 30 minutes prior to the flight, so the 1.5 hour connection is really 1 hour.  Perfect!

Traveling is tough – don’t make it worse by creating a plan that has a high degree to go wrong.

Airlines and Schedules

When planning your trip you will look at various flight itineraries and choose the one that best meets your schedule.  But did you know that airlines don’t guarantee these schedules? Look at your airlines terms of contract.  They have so much wiggle room, they could arrive anytime or anyplace and still fulfill their end.  While the legal mumbo jumbo gives them lots of leeway, airlines do try their best to stay on time as well as get you to where you plan.  But things do come up that are far outside of an airlines control.

When things don’t go according to plan, be polite but ask questions and look for other ideas.  Don’t be the pesky squeaky wheel, but do try and ask for help to find a new itinerary that will better match your needs.  For example, if you are overnighted, do you really want the 6AM flight?  For me, I would prefer the 9Am departure.  And if an upgrade is available, I will take any time slot.

Direct and Non-stop Flights

Most people use the two terms interchangeably.  But they are very, very different terms.

A nonstop flight is one take off and one landing with no planned intermediate stop-over points.  There are some exceptions to this on some of the long haul flights where they sometimes need to stop for fuel when the winds are not in favor.

A Direct flight is a game by the airlines.  It’s any flight between two points with no change in flight numbers.  The wording here is key.  There is no mention of how many stops or how many aircrafts.

For example an airline could have a flight going from Boston to Minneapolis to Tokyo and then to Beijing all with the same flight number and be sold as a Direct flight from Boston to Beijing.  In fact there are 3 flight segments, changes of flight crew and changes of aircraft.

Measure Twice and Cut Once

This is age old advice of a carpenter.  When planning travel double check all your plans as it’s easy to make a mistake especially with “simple” and fast online booking services.

Some things that could go wrong include:

  • Booking travel on the wrong dates:  it happens to the best of us.  You think you are booked on 3 April and instead you are booked on 4 March.  In North America we are most familiar in seeing a date displayed as Month / Date / Year.  3/4/10 would be March 4, 2010.  However in the most of the rest of the world, they would read 3/4/10 as 3 Aril 2010 as they look at dates as Day / Month / Year.  It can be very confusing.  To avoid this, always spell out the date and double check all dates.
  • Overlapping trips:  My travel schedule can get busy and when booking things in advance, it’s possible to double book yourself.  Fortunately my travel agent caught this and I was able to realign my travels.
  • Time confusion: when communicating by e-mail with others say for an airport pickup, be careful of how you give the time.  Many places will use a 24 hour clock so 7PM is 1900.  Double check to make sure they are meeting you at the right time.
  • Date of Arrival / Departure: When traveling internationally it’s not uncommon to depart on one day and then arrive on the next.  Most itineraries will indicate this by showing the date change or with an asterisk.  Some of my trips out of India depart at 12:50 AM.  I have to be careful about hotel check out times as well as making sure I have proper time to get to the airport if I have ground transportation the day prior.
  • It’s all in a name:  There is a very big difference in booking a flight to Manchester, New Hampshire and Manchester, United Kingdom.  It’s also easy to get confused by city names that have different spellings in languages or undergone name changes for political or other reasons..  For example:
    • Cologne /Köln
    • Calcutta / Kolkata
    • Mumbai / Bombay
    • Chennai  / Madras
    • Yangon / Rangoon
    • Warszawa / Warsaw
    • Kraków / Cracow
    • Moskva / Moscow
    • Puson / Busan
    • Turin / Torino
    • Napoli / Naples
    • The Hague / Den Haag
    • Praha / Prague
    • Munich / München
    • Vienna / Wien
    • Florence / Firenze

Hotel Star Rating

A big misconception in travel planning is trusting the number of stars and thinking they equate to a regulated quality scale.

In some countries hotel star rating is based only on an objective checklist.   This checklist approach uses such things as elevator, front desk staffed 24 hours, room service, pool and so forth.   If the property has enough checks, it earns stars.  There is no measurement for how good each of the checklist items are, they just need to have them.

Sadly there is no international standard for how stars are given.   In Europe star ratings vary from country to country.  In the USA star ratings will vary between travel sites such as Expedia, Hotwire, AAA, Mobile and such.  Each organization uses its own formula for assigning stars.

So be careful in relying solely on the number of stars.

Two independent services that have been reviewing at rating hotels for decades are AAA and Forbes.  The ratings they give can be trusted.

One note about AAA, they use a Diamond measuring system to avoid being confused with stars.

I use stars as just one data point.  My go to guide is TripAdvisor.  This site relies on users to submit travel reviews for hotels they stay in.  Again, use this as a data point, not as the only data.  There have been reports of hotels posting their own glowing reviews as well as disgruntled staff posting negative reviews.  So read multiple reviews to get an overall picture of the property.

Good news for EU bound travelers, Europe’s Hotelstars Union launched with the goal of establishing common classification criteria across the EU.  Hooray!

Tools of the Trade

There are some tools I use to help keep me organized.  My current favorites are:

  • Packing Checklist: This may sound silly, but based on my own experience it’s easy to forget things.  I am not a checklist nut, but I do have the basics down:

Pre Departure
Double checking my reservations, printing out itineraries, arranging taxis, remove excess items from my wallet, charge my gear

Leaving Home
Simple items like turn down the heat, make sure the stove is off, all doors / windows locked, note for the mailperson that I am away, toothbrush, shaver packed (these are easy to forget if you pack ahead and then shower before you depart), passport, turn down the water heater

  • TripIt: This is an incredible website that makes organizing even the most complicated itineraries a breeze.  They have a free and paid version.  I have opted for the paid version so I get SMS notifications about my flights and travel reminders.

Hang Up & Call Again

It’s amazing how one airline / hotel / car agent can be so helpful while another is a mess.  When things are not going as I had planned in the conversation, I make an excuse and say thank you and goodbye.  Wait a tad, and then call back.  99% of the time you will get another agent and your luck will improve.

Agents come with different levels of experience, some are more willing to look a little harder and some will do almost anything to make you happy.  Then there are those who could care less and it shows.  Rather than argue or try to educate them about their job, just say good bye and spin the wheel and hope for a better agent.

Do as the Romans

While away from home remember things will be different. If you want everything to be exactly as they are at home, then stay there.

Different is not necessarily bad. Take time to understand culture differences and the way things are done in the location you are visiting. I am sure you will be surprised to find that the way we do things in America is not always the best.

Be flexible and enjoy the experience of another culture.

Pick your Battles

While traveling there will be problems or things are just not right.  If you complain about everything, you will have a miserable time and people will just see you as negative.

Smile and brush it off and go with the flow.  Being negative will only make you feel worse and will not help you to have an enjoyable trip.

I pick my battles in what is worth complaining about – many, many things I just let go and laugh internally.  It helps to keep me sane in a very crazy world.

Records

While planning for your trip, now is a great time to make a photo copy of your passport.  I keep a copy with me as well as storing one online.  While a photo copy will not work at a border crossing, it will help at an embassy should you lose your passport.

You should print out your itinerary (I use TripIt.com) that shows all your flights, hotels and other details.  Also ensure that you have contact numbers for all of those.

Your Friend Schengen

You may know you can travels cross a lot of Europe without border controls, but this freedom is not part of the European Union.  It’s the Schengen Area!

This is a 1995 agreement that allows for border free crossings.  The name comes from the location of where the treaty was signed, Schengen, Luxembourg.

As of 2013, it consists of 26 countries.

Here is a map of the Schengen region: http://www.axa-schengen.com/en/schengen-countries

All EU countries are not part of the Schengen area and all Schengen area countries are not part of the EU.  For example, the UK is part of the EU, but is not part of the Schengen region.  So a border check is required.  Iceland is not part of the EU, but is part of the Schengen area.

Fast Pass into the USA

If you travel internationally a few times a year, invest (time and money) with Global Entry, the USA government’s trusted traveler program that provides expedited entry to the United States for pre-approved travelers.   Global Entry (globalentry.gov) has saved me many times at Immigration and Customs by skipping the paperwork and lines.

Unpredictability

While traveling abroad there are many times where you will say to yourself this would never happen back home.  Then there comes a point where you start to blend in with other cultures and go with the flow.

It’s the spice of other cultures and being in different cities that makes traveling so exciting.

Non-refundable Hotel Rates

These may look attractive, but book with extreme caution.  When they say non-refundable, they really do mean it and will leave you with little to no options should your plans change.

What happens if there is a flight interruption and you can’t arrive to the country where the hotel is?  You are out of luck – no refund.

What if days before your trip there is a medical emergency and you can’t travel?  You are out of luck – no refund.

The discounted hotel rates are very attractive and tempting.  But prior to booking these rates consider all that can go wrong and if the potential savings is worth the risk.

The Last Days 

The days before you depart are important and must not be overlooked. Five to three days prior to your trip you should:

  • Double check your flights and seats. Things change, be on top of the changes so you can lead rather than follow.
  • If going international dig out your passport, check to see if you have the proper visa for each country and it’s not expired.
  • Double check your hotel rates. Hotel rates change all the time – possibly a lower rate is available.
  • Review your travel checklist – you do have one right?
  • Notify your ATM bank and credit card of your travel plans so you can use your cards without trouble.
  • Check destination weather to see if you need to update what you planned to pack
  • Print out your itinerary and ensure it has all hotel addresses and phone numbers. Bonus points if you snap a picture of an online map that shows the area around the hotel Andy store on your iPad or phone. If lost, it’s easy to show someone and they can point you in the proper direction.

Make your travel experience less stressful by pre-planning and prior to leaving home double check your plans and what you are packing.

Numbers so Many Numbers

If you book with an online travel site such as Expedia, the primary confirmation number you see will be the Expedia confirmation. This is not a number the airline knows anything about.

Look carefully at the confirmation either what is sent to you or online and find the AIRLINE confirmation and ticket number. These are the numbers you will need when interacting with the airlines.