Not everyone travels the same way. I loathe tour groups, fly economy, and travel light. If you would like to make holiday planning a stress-free experience, this list will show you how.
1: Find out what’s there.
Nothing brings a downer to an excellent holiday like finding out afterwards that there was somewhere really awesome that you could’ve gone if only you’d known about it. Google your destination. Flick through some guide books. Ask Facebook, Twitter, forum, or real-life friends if they’ve been there themselves and whether they have recommendations. See if there are some bloggers based at your destination of choice who blog in English about the place they’re living in. Be sure to make note of opening hours and days of closure for attractions you intend to visit.
I’m not one for highly detailed itineraries. Instead I’ll print out one page per “must-see” and pop it in the suitcase, including maps or directions. Once I’ve visited that location, the sheet heads for the nearest recycling bin.
2: Make a packing list.
I’m a very lazy packer. I’ll pack on the morning of the flight if it’s not until the afternoon. This is made possible by the packing list.
A week or two before you travel, start writing a packing list. Every time you think of something you might need, add it to the list. Before you pack, pick through the list to ensure there are no duplicates and nothing unnecessary. Then pack every single thing on the list, and tick it off once it’s in your baggage.
Your packing list may vary by destination, or you may feel more comfortable with a standardised list. Ensure everything on the list goes in the bag.
3: Check your luggage restrictions.
You can save yourself a lot of stress and heartache by familiarising yourself with your chosen airline’s luggage restrictions for your ticket. Long haul carriers can vary by a few kilos in Economy, and when you’re limited like that, thinking you’ve got 23kg to play with when you only have 20kg can hit you with a nasty fee. It shouldn’t be a problem on the outbound flight, but if you’re as mad a shopper as I am, you may regret buying those heavy glass ornaments when it comes to fly home again.
Be sure that your hand luggage meets restrictions, too. While other passengers seem able to get away with teddy bears the size of a teenager, you can bet that your bag will get consigned to the hold if it’s two inches too large.
Finally if any of the airports you’ll be passing through have restrictions on the contents of your luggage, pay attention to them. It’s no use griping that you really need 150ml of moisturiser if airport security will only allow 100ml of fluid in a single container. All you’ll do is stress yourself out and get embarrassed. Pre-journey checking can save you the hassle: airport websites give you this information, so check for each airport you will pass through.
4: Learn the essential words.
You should (really, you should. Nothing’s stopping you) learn a handful of words in the language of your destination. It’s rude not to, and you’ll find that most people are flattered that you’ve tried. As a minimum, I would suggest: “yes”; “no”; “please”; “thank you”. You can achieve a lot in any country with these four words or phrases. Many countries with Western tourists have a lot of English-speakers, but you can’t rely on this.
In addition to the big four, I’d also suggest a few phrases such as “excuse me”, “sorry”, and “where is the toilet?”
If you have any known medical conditions which may cause problems during your holiday, do learn a phrase or two associated with it or – at the very least – find some kind soul to translate it for you and write it down / print it out on a piece of card that you can show someone in an emergency. Asthma, IBS, migraines, allergies… Whatever your poison, be sure that you can convey to a local the nature of the problem and whether or not you need medical attention.
5: Check ahead for cultural potholes.
Not everywhere is like your home country. Check to see if there are etiquette rules at your destination which may not seem obvious to you. Find out if any of the hand gestures or body language you’d normally use will cause great offence where you’re going. Gestures are also extremely useful for when you don’t have a common verbal language – if there’s a known gesture for “please may I get past?” it may be far easier to learn than the phrase itself.
If you are advised not to do something, don’t do it. It’ll either be an etiquette pointer or, worse, against the law. What kind of thing could land you in hot water? Blasphemy carries the death penalty in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other countries, but can also lead to hefty fines in Ireland, prison in Brazil and Israel, or both in Jordan. Public eating and smoking in the day during Ramadan in Abu Dhabi is illegal, regardless of your own religion. Homosexuality can lead to years in jail across the entire United Arab Emirates.
If – heaven forfend – you are arrested for anything, request Consular assistance immediately.
6: Get travel insurance.
Nobody wants to have an accident on holiday. And nobody wants to pay for travel insurance then not need it.
But absolutely nobody wants to have an accident on holiday then find the medical bill easily comes in at tens of thousands of pounds and regret not punting thirty on insurance, especially as you can get a year’s global travel cover for just a few pounds more than two weeks’ cover costs.
Don’t skimp on the insurance. Better to have it and not need it than the other way around.
7: Baggage clever.
If you don’t travel alone, and you’re able to travel light, consider packing additional luggage into your suitcase on the outbound flight to allow you to expand your capacity on the return flight without buying luggage at your destination.
Example: I usually travel with my partner. Outbound, we have one suitcase between us, and one backpack. In the suitcase is a canvas holdall and a second backpack. On our return journey, squishable items such as dirty clothing go into the holdall (sometimes wrapped around a heavy item to protect it in the hold). Items we don’t wish to have damaged in transit come back in our two backpacks, both of which are below the carry-on luggage size restrictions.
Whether you choose a holdall or a second, smaller suitcase nested inside the first, it saves a lot of headaches when you buy things which didn’t seem that big in the shop.
8: When you check in, stock up.
Flying long-haul in Economy is draining. Once you’re in the duty-free area, buy bottled water – at least a litre each, perhaps two if you’re flying more than 12 hours. Yes, you will get water on board the plane. Yes, most flights even have a water dispenser near the galley for you to refresh yourself. But due to the air recycling, the air on board is dry, and will suck hydration out of you almost as neatly as packing you in salt. If you want to arrive fairly fresh and headache-free, take additional water with you that you can help yourself to without having to wait for an air hostess to give you one little cup, and without having to go queue for the dispenser.
To assist with hydration you’ll also need salts. Airlines will provide salty snacks, but these are frequently bags of nuts. If you have a nut allergy, grab something salty to snack on before you fly, such as crisps, and eat them approximately halfway through the flight.
This is also a good opportunity to hit the chemist. A diarrhoea medicine is very handy, particularly ones which dissolve on the tongue. It isn’t unusual to have a little tummy upset at some point on a long-haul holiday, so don’t suffer with it. Fruit juice is also useful to break the monotony of water on the flight. And if you have long hair, forgot to bring a scrunchie, and don’t want to look like a poodle in 13 hours’ time, you can grab some those too.
9: Arrive early for your flights.
Nobody buys “I’ve been stuck in traffic for four hours”. We all know you were too rushed to leave early.
If your airline recommends that you arrive three hours before your flight is due to depart, do so. Most airports have something for you to do while you wait and, if not, take a book.
The airline will not hold a flight for you. Don’t expect them to. All you’ll do is get stressed and shout at some poor check-in assistant who is trying to do their job.
10: It’s your holiday. Enjoy it!
If you like sitting on a beach for a week, do it. If you love scrambling over ancient ruins, do it. If what you really want is to head to specialist shops and buy lots of geeky merchandise, do it.
Don’t allow other people’s ideas of what a holiday should be force you away from having the holiday that you want. You’re paying for it. You know what you enjoy. You have your holiday, and let the colleagues in the office whinge about what they would’ve done instead if they want to.
Sometimes there’s joy to be had in responding to “Did you go up the Statue of Liberty?” with “No, I went around the USS Intrepid and bought a toy helicopter.”