As part of my career I have had the privilege of traveling to 96 countries on six continents, many of them several times. Whenever I talk with people they ask if I have any tips on traveling, which is something I have given a great deal of thought to, based on experiences over the past 43 years. Many are a result of 'learning the hard way'.
First of all here are things that need to be done before leaving home. Passports are a must, anywhere you go, including the US and most countries impose a six month rule, which means your passport must be valid for six months from the time you enter the country. It is also very important to make a photocopy of the information page and put it somewhere in the bottom of your suitcase. This will come in handy if you lose your passport. With the photocopy you can go to any Canadian consulate or embassy and have a replacement issued (usually) within 24 hours. Without your passport it will be difficult to prove who you are and the process can take days.
Another important tool to get is Nexus. It’s a handy little card that makes travelling much easier. With the Nexus card you bypass passport and immigration lineups and they even fast-track you through security. It is now accepted in 40 countries, including Canada and the US – both at airports and border crossings.
It is equally important to carry two extra passport photos. I recall a trip from Argentina to Brazil when visa requirements for Canadians were introduced the day before I arrived at the border. Not only did I have to spend $80 for a visa, I had to have a photo taken by the only photographer in the area at a cost of $30 per photo.
Once you are on the road there are several rules, which have to be adhered to. I think we all know not to drink tap water in strange places, but it is important to note that water, anywhere outside of North America is treated different and may disagree with you. I never drink anything other than bottled water when I'm off this continent, even to brush my teeth, and when in a restaurant I ask them not to open it.
I make a habit of never ordering salad or fruit which has been peeled. No ice cubes in drinks, which may seem extreme, but I have never been sick travelling, including my busiest year, several years ago when I made 46 trips.
I was in a small restaurant on the outskirts of Beijing enjoying a meal and when I went to the restroom I accidentally stepped behind a building. There I saw a man washing lettuce in a large bucket, which was also filled with clothes. I watched him wring out a shirt and hang it on a clothes line and then stared in awe as he took the lettuce from the same bucket and began to chop it on a cutting board.
Hotels seem to have their own set of rules. If they ask for your passport do not leave it with them overnight (a common practice in smaller European hotels). Instead ask them to make a copy or offer the copy you already have. Unless you need two copies of your key only take one. The less opportunity of losing keys the better you will be. There are many opinions on the personal information stored on the card keys. Most hotels will claim they do not store data (so why the magnetic strip?), while others state they delete the information upon checkout. I never return the cards, as I do not want to take any chances. When I'm paying $200 a night to sleep, the 15 cent plastic card key becomes a nice souvenir, which I can shred at my convenience.
When you step from the elevator onto your floor make sure no one else gets off with you. If someone does and they are behind you, do not walk to your room. The last thing you need is for someone else to know exactly where you are staying.
The first thing I do when I enter my room is check the bathroom and the shower. I remember a friend from Atlanta who was on a trip to Sydney and upon entering his hotel room he was attacked by someone who was hiding in the shower. Next, I always take my hotel key, passport and wallet and place them on the bottom right corner of the desk in the room. I do this in the event of fire or evacuation (and there have been many). No matter what room I am in or how dark it is I am always able to find the most important things I have before I leave the room. (Of course I add my camera to that pile as well).
Carry a plastic bag with you and insert the television remote control in it. That way you can operate the device without getting germs (remotes are known to carry more microorganisms than anything else). While you’re at it you may as well check the mattress for bedbugs. They tend to gravitate around the perimeter where the piping is sewn.
Let's talk about one of my favourite place: airports. Normally I am not good with rules, but at airports, especially since 9-11, I obey every one. Most people understand security issues, and obvious statements about terrorism, guns, bombs, etc. should never be made, even in jest. Security officers have a job to do and believe it or not it is not to make your trip miserable. Their sole task is to ensure your flight is as safe as possible. In Canada we have it pretty easy. Seldom are we patted down (full body frisking) and in most cases we do not even have to remove our belts, but jackets have to come off and usually shoes do as well. I always chuckle at people who decide not to wear socks and then grimace when they walk barefooted across filthy floors. Laptops, cell phones, iPads and the like have to come out and be placed in bins. Make sure these devices are fully charged, because it is common to be asked to turn them on. If they do not power up you may lose them. This applies to cameras as well. They do not need to be removed, but if asked to turn the power on it had better work.
Any liquids exceeding 100ml. have to be thrown away. This includes highly flammable items such as nail polish. X ray machines do not harm digital cameras, but they knock the heck out of film. You have the right to have your belongings searched manually and although security officials may not like it they have to do it if you insist.
Airlines are becoming stricter on what you can and cannot bring onto a plane. Many airlines are now charging for luggage, blankets, pillows and headsets. Pack your suitcases wisely and make sure you weigh them. I recently paid $70 because I was ten pounds over the limit. If you use multiple carriers check their limitations. You may satisfy Air Canada, only to find that Qantas has a different limitation on luggage weight. I have also found that many airlines are weighing carry on luggage. Check the limit before hand and abide by it to avoid unnecessary stress at airports. Limit your carry on to one pice plus a personal item (purse) and carry all your medications with you. Luggage gets lost - not often, but it does and you do not want your life saving meds traveling to Cleveland when you are en route to Hawaii.
If you have a choice of aircraft go with 767's. They have more aisle seats than any other plane. Air Canada, as well as other carriers is now charging extra for bulkhead and in some cases aisle seats. To me that is money well spent. It is much more practical to sit near the front of a plane, as the turbulence is minimized and the de-planing time is greatly reduced. If you have a tight connection tell the flight attendant and they will fast track you. Flying can be stressful at best, so make sure you arrive in plenty of time - three hours early for international and 90 minutes for domestic. I can almost guarantee if you are early the line moves quickly but if you are late it seems to drag for eternity.
The busiest time to travel to the US is the American Thanksgiving weekend. If at all possible, avoid flying during that holiday. March break is another madhouse at terminals in North America. Do not let the challenges of travelling deter you from going places. Obey the rules, use common sense, get all your shots and enjoy yourself. There are few things better than a trip to an exotic locale.
Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel TV show can be watched on RogersTV and YouTube. To follow Jonathan’s travel adventures visit photosNtravel.com