691st post: How to prepare to travel abroad

Having travel abroad myself, I have went through the trouble of preparing for my travels. I have seen and heard of people who don’t travel just because of the fear of the unknown, or not understanding the situation behind horror stories they may have heard, or while they are just about to travel, they have forgotten something important at the last minute. This guide assumes that you are not using an agent to help you or have anything that requires your attention while you are away that can’t be done while travelling.

This list is sorted according to how important you need to get things done, with the most important first.

  1. Get a passport
    1. This is the most important document you would need to travel. Some countries have agreements to let citizens of one country into another with just an ID, but you will need a passport for all others.
    2. If you already have a passport, make sure it isn’t expired, or a few months close to the expiry date. The exact number of months varies by country, but it is generally 6 months at most.
      1. If you are getting a visa (see below) for the long-term, like work or study, you might also want to take note if they require your passport’s validity covers the length of the visa that can be in years.
  2. Determine your destination
    1. You might also want to check if the weather or political situation there is suitable too.
  3. Check if your destination requires a visa
    1. Some countries requires citizens of certain countries to obtain a visa before entering the country, including a tourist visa. Even with that, which port of entry you would enter with may have different rules, or particular visas that could only be obtained there, or even the total amount of visa-free period you would be given.
      1. China, for example, have separate immigration laws for Macau, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, and China itself only allows a handful number of citizens of countries in visa-free. If you are transiting through China to another country, take note that transit visa would only be given at the Shanghai airports (Hongqiao and Pudong).
      2. Visa-free periods varies from 14 days to 6 months, and some have the additional requirement of not having spent more than more than a certain number of days in a year.
    2. For those entering for reasons besides short-term visit, you might also need to prepare additional paperwork to give to the customs officer.
  4. Check if you can take leave from work, and for how long.
    1. This would determine how long the trip would be and, indirectly, the flight you would book.
    2. You might want to reserve some days off should there be something.
    3. To maximise the amount of total days of your trip while using little of your leave days, take days off at on the work days before and/or after your days off. (I say “days off” instead of public holidays or weekends as it wouldn’t be correct for people who work on those days.)
  5. Reserve flight
    1. Book flights before booking the hotel (or check both without booking) as some airlines do not fly every day, or are fully booked. For the budget concious, different flights on different times/days to the same destination may have different flight fares, even within the same airline.
    2. To avoid disappointment of encountering full flights or not being able to sit together with your travel companion, make sure you book your flight months in advance.
    3. Flights with stopovers are likely to cost less than a direct flight, but waiting times between flights add up to your total travelling time.
    4. You might want to take note of the local time of departing and arrival locations. The airport may have public transport, but if your flight arrives after hours (or too close to the last train), or departs at a time that is practically impossible for you to catch, that would mean spending hours at the airport. Do you want that?
      1. Ideally, you should plan to be able to reach the hotel within a few hours of when the check-in hours are (usually in the afternoon), even if they allow you to check in up until their offices close for the day.
      2. Depending on the flight, timezone and travelling time, you might not have an option to change this.
  6. Reserve Hotel
    1. You can book a hotel before the flight, but in my opinion, flights should be handled first as they are trickier get on, where availability and costs varies greatly. You would be limited to the flights available and may be forced to take the more expensive flights when the cheap ones are unavailable.
    2. Check the reviews from reliable sources, and beware of fake comments and ratings that artificially make a bad hotel look good when it is not. Some groups may use names of different hotels but use the same images.
      1. For places like Hong Kong, where property prices are expensive, they might do this to have rooms in other places that are likely to be different units within the same building.
    3. Some “hotel rooms” are actually a bed in a shared dormitory with a number of other people, and facilities shared with other people. If you are lucky, they may have enough facilities so you don’t have to wait for another person to get done with their turn. Unless otherwise mentioned, assume they are mixed-gender dorms, though female dorms are available. This is among the cheapest option to have a decent place to stay in.
    4. Some places are what it is called “bed & breakfast” (BNB), where it is basically like someone’s place to sleep at.
  7. Exchange money
    1. It may seem funny for me to list this after reserving flight and hotel, but chances are you would have paid for those via credit/debit card, where they would be converted automatically, or you would pay for the stay at the hotel itself.
    2. It is best if you would exchange money in your home country, and withdraw the cash to exchange for at where there aren’t suspicious people around. If the currency you want to change to isn’t offered by the money changer, change to the USD first and change again at that country.
      1. If, for whatever political reason the country has against the US, you might want to change to another currency like the Euro instead.
    3. While you can use your credit/debit or ATM card abroad, you would want to have some local currency on you, and in case there is a problem with your cards.
      1. While some shops and hotels accept your currency, the exchange rates may not be favourable, and you would possibly receive change in the local currency.
    4. If you are transiting through another country, it is recommended you change some money for the currency of there too, though there could be ATMs that you can use.
    5. Keep in mind that exchange rates at the airport money changer may not be favourable than elsewhere, though the ATMs there might offer the same rates as anywhere in the country, which may be better.
      1. Note that not all ATMs accept foreign cards. If they do accept it, the rates and fees by one bank might be less favourable than an other bank.
      2. If the bank you are with have branches at the country you are visiting, withdraw with that bank before using another bank as you should not be charged for withdrawal.
      3. In countries like Japan, most ATMs operate only during business hours, so make sure you have enough cash to last through the night and weekends. Foreign banks and those at Seven Eleven are the notable exceptions.
  8. Pack your bags
    1. Don’t pack too much, unnecessary things especially.
      1. If unsure, or if it is something that can be bought at the destination country that wouldn’t be needed while travelling, do not pack it in.
    2. Don’t pack what isn’t allowed through the airport or the country.
      1. This includes liquid-based toiletries above a certain total capacity.
    3. If staying for several days, just pack a few clothes and wash it at the hotel instead of bringing clothes that covers the whole period: it would make your bag heavy, and take up space.
  9. Check and recheck your flight info.
    1. Airports, airlines, or destination country require that you check-in 45 minutes to 2 hours before the departure time. Make sure you are already at the airport when they open if you don’t want to rush, which means that you should start departing a lot earlier than that.
  10. Bring your stuff along, and check-in on time
    1. You wouldn’t want to forget everything you have prepared and miss the flight, would you?

Europe trip: Day 17

Places visited:
Venice Marco Polo airport, London Bridge station, Vauxhall station, Westminster palace
(Note: this was written on day 29, so details might not be in detail until i have image reference. Day 11, and days 14 through 16, are currently skipped)
The last day in Venice, and also the first day (second if you count as transit to Paris) in London. Having a morning flight means that my time in Venice that day is just limited to travelling to the airport. The streets were empty, though as we got closer to the bus terminal (Plaza Roma), there are people walking around to get to work. Not clear which direction as Venice itself is a maze: even narrow passageways can be a major route with many possible routes, and random dead ends.
The Venice airport took quite a number of minutes to get to from the main city area. The interior looks like the kind I would expect of an European airport actually.
As Italy is part of the Schengen zone, flights to other European countries that are in that same zone would not need a passport (the UK is not part of that zone). It is not correct to say that Schengen is the same as Eurozone as not all EU countries are a part of it, and some non-EU countries are, including Switzerland. Immigration for flights to destinations outside that zone has a separate area. There’s no shops inside that zone, so don’t step into there until you are about to depart: there are no shops there.
The flight was about 3 hours long. People around me had that British accent. People whined when the pilot mentioned that the outside temperature was 13℃ on landing at London Gatwick airport, because it was 27℃ at Venice.
There were no underground trains from Gatwick, but there are National Rail trains from there to the middle of London. There are, however, many different options at different prices.
There’s the (heavily advertised) Gatwick express, First Connect (formerly British Railways), and Network SouthEast. The last one was the cheapest. So, even among Network SouthEast, it terminates at different stations in London at (significantly different) prices: one at £14, another at £8. If you are coming from countries where the currency is weaker or on a tight budget, even £1 can mean a big difference to you. Which platform, carriage, and seat, are printed on the ticket. In this case, it’s of any “standard” seat of any carriage.

Although the carriage are considered “standard” class, it feels like it’s higher than that what I was expecting. Probably better that the Eurostar train.

An hour later, I arrived at London Bridge station. The station looked like it’s in the middle of reconstruction as a section near the platform where the train I was on stopped at looked quite old, but at the same time looked as if it’s in the middle of being demolished.

So this station has the Northern Line and the Jubilee Line at the Underground station, but the station I’m headed to is Vauxhall on the Victoria Line.

On reaching, I kind of went around in circles looking for the place. Luckily, I have the offline cache of the map on my phone, though finding that street while offline is not easy since I can’t search offline. (I can’t use mobile data while overseas! It’s too expensive!) Since there is only one hour difference between Venice and London, and having been already in Europe for 2 weeks, there is no real jet-lag.

After check-in to the hotel, I walked westward along a large river nearby and I notice a building that has strangely high security around it, and a lot of the England and Union Jack flags on the opposite side.

What did I see when I looked up? It’s the Big Ben! What did I see when I looked to the left? The London Eye!

I don’t know if it’s because I had already been there during the random encounter, but I never went anywhere near the Big Ben again during the rest of my London trip. Since it was after nightfall when I saw it, I never saw it during the day up close. Does look nice at night though.

I visited some large 4/5 star hotel expecting to get a better view form what I could see from the outside, but I can’t seem to find a way there. It’s not everyday I enter a fancy hotel, so I hung around there for a while longer before walking back along the river, where I saw the Big Ben again, but on the other side of the river it is next to.

Europe trip: Day 12 & 13 (Paris Day 11 + Venice Day 1)

Places visited (Day 12):
Château de Vincennes, Gare de Lyon (via Vallorbe, Switzerland)

Places visited (Day 13):
Santa Lucia (Northern Venice)

(Note: this was written on day 27)
Day 12

The last day in Paris, and also where I would make my way to Venice. Because I was so cheap on expenses, the owner told me that I had to clean the room, or pay €20. Knowing how strong European European currency is, that is quite an amount in my home currency.

So where do I go between check out and boarding the train? Well, there is this place I always walk past, but never went in, to a place called Château de Vincennes. (Pronounced as sha-tou-deh-varn-sen) It’s an old castle, but I didn’t know the significance of it until I read that some well known authors were imprisoned there. Spent about 3 hours there.
Where to next? Well, there is this big library near one of the station I went past days earlier (don’t remember the name, but it interchanges with RER C and Métro line 14). The library was partially closed as it was a Sunday. Didn’t go in though. The buildings around the library seemed quite new.

I had already ran out of the tickets from the “book of 10 tickets” that I had already bought twice, but it would be impractical to buy another set. Single ticket it is then.

The train to Venice from Paris is at Gare de Lyon. We were several hours early, but many shops were closed and, among ones that are opened, cost quite an amount. (Plenty of restaurants, but no fast food restaurants.) I don’t know why.

The cabin I took is shared with other people: two Italian men that don’t seem to know each other, and a Chinese couple from China somewhere (based on there accent) that brought along too many things (the lady kept wanting to do makeup / moisturizer during the journey, which I find it to be an overkill).
The conductor came in to check on the tickets, but more surprising is that they took the passports from everyone (saw the bag full of it) “for their own reference”.
Day 13

Everyone is asleep, it’s still dark outside, but the train isn’t moving. The station stopped at has an unfamiliar name (Vallorbe) that, as far as I could see, appears small and quiet. My phone detects Switzerland networks. It seemed like a long time before the train started moving again.

I make my way around the trains to search for the carriage that sells food and drinks, but they were costly. Travelling between carriage is kind of strange with heavy sliding doors and the train shaking around violently. The water in the toilet was not drinkable.
The train stopped at about 4 stations (including Milan) before reaching Venice. By then, I had the cabin all to myself (well, and my older sibling).
The Venice saint Luca was the end of the line, and our destination. Before arriving, there was this long stretch of bridge that connects Venice to the mainland that looks beautiful.
I’m not that good with talking pictures from a moving vehicle or with a glass panel in between. Not sure if I took any, or looking good if I did.
From the moment I step out of the station I arrived at, I am already seeing a postcard-perfect scenery of Venice. It was that nice.

In Venice, there are mostly no roads at all, and only waterways and pedestrian footpaths. In addition to that, the streets themselves are like a maze, and, being how low the streets are from sea level, I need to climb steps to get over the canals that boats passes through. It is seriously a lot of walking if you are visiting Venice, because boats are the only quick way of getting around, and there is no room for buses, trains, or subways.
Like Paris, I saw a lot of restaurants, but, except for one lone McDonald’s in the whole of Venice, there are no fast food and more expensive restaurants. There are however, cheaper side stalls and supermarkets. (I wonder about the logistics of bring the goods there since there are no roads.)

When I reached the place, I just took my needed shower, and collapsed onto the bed.
What is the place like? To be honest, it looks like nobody has lived there in a long time. Design looks outdated (saw a 1994 calendar in one of the cupboards), toilet looks half renovated with the shower area lacking a shower screen or even the shower head itself. (There is an additional shower head by the bathtub nearby. It looks old too, but what to do?) The floor is kind of dusty, kitchen has (mismatched) chairs turned upside down on the table.
Well, what to do when you book the place as recent as while still in Paris? Venice is a major tourist destination, so rooms can become full easily, especially at the last minute.
I found out later that the famous Realto Bridge is nearby.

Europe trip: Day 10 (Paris Day 9)

Place visited: The Louve (again)
(Note: this was written on day 24. Some details might have been forgotten.)
Not being fully satisfied with the earlier visit (it was crowded), I decided to take another visit to the museum. This time, I had to pay the admission as it wasn’t the first Sunday of the month. On top of that, I am not eligible for the student/youth discount, which is reserved for EU citizens.
So, having there before, I kind of know where the other other entrance is, and what station to get off. The other entrance is not far from the subway station and then follow the underground shopping arcade that has an Apple store. There should be an inverted pyramid that lets light from outside in. (Guides and maps shows the entrance as the side of the nearby arch, visible from the glass pyramid main entrance, at ground level that goes below the ground.)
It was hard to take a picture of the inverted pyramid without someone posing in front of it.
Not much to say about what I saw: more of those paintings and sculpture that dates back to 19th century or earlier, which follows the tradition of what art is until recent times (Modernism art) where art in general looks radically different. A lot of unnecessary details on these old paintings that they kind of look alike, like a painting with so many people in it, or naked women, or whatever.
Art and more art… There’s just too much of it here!
If it weren’t for me having come with someone else and paid the admission fee, I would have left this place.
Oh, I also hung around to take a picture of the glass pyramid after sunset. Being early summer with daylight savings, that meant it happened at 9pm. Quite a nice sight.
Like Musée de Orsay, I went there without knowing that the specific day of the week that I went at has extended operating hours. What a coincidence.

Europe trip: Day 1 & 2 (London Day 1 + Paris Day 1)

So the day has finally arrived! The plane departed the airport at the night of the 29th.
To cut down the cost of the ticket, the flight had a stopover at Doha, Qatar. Quite a number of people don’t seem to know where this is: it’s in the Middle East. Surrounding countries include Saudi Arabia and Dubai (part of UAE).
About 7 hours later, we arrived in Doha. What I was not expecting was that there were shuttle buses to the terminal instead of walking to it or having a bridge. The colour of the ticket holder and luggage tag I was given determines if I were to head to the arrival hall, transfer hall, the premium terminal, or the satellite wing. It took a while to step out of the plane as the shuttle bus could not accommodate every one. Really, why this, and why are they all at different areas?
The terminal was crowded, and I could only find one toilet there that itself was full. When waiting, every seat was occupied. The sitting area after the collection of tickets to wait for the shuttle bus was small, with the bus itself not being able to accommodate everyone that was standing there. Heck, there isn’t even room to stand too.
Anyway, another 7 or so hours later, I reached into Heathrow airport. The queue into customs was long too. (Might be a good thing in terms of what immigration would look at.)
There was really nothing cheap eating place to look for there even as I made my way to an another terminal.
I bought my Oyster Card there for £5, plus £10 for the balance. It took a while for the train to reach St. Pancras, where the onward train to Paris is. It wasn’t until there where I had bought something to eat.
On reaching Gare du Nord in Paris, I headed straight for the metro for where the accommodation is. (Encountered touts along the way, and they are usually always of African decent.) I did not have any Euro coins, so I couldn’t use the ticket machine. However, the nearby customer service counter was not operating, so there was quite a number of walking and searching. (And more of those touts.)
What are the station platforms and trains like? The train frequency may be good, but the stations themselves doesn’t seem comfortable, and there are noticeable broken tiles and graffiti on them. Except for the newer trains, you had to pull a latch to open the doors individually, and there are no system announcement to say what station you are at, so you have to look out of the window to look out for the station sign, which are thankfully huge.
Another odd thing is how you get out of the paid area, which is just a one way automatic barrier that doesn’t require your ticket. (I have seen people entering though them from the opposite side.) There are, however, some stations that has a ticket barrier that is like the same as getting in, or ticket inspectors to check for fare evasion. The scale of people evading fares are mind boggling, and even done in front of me by jumping over the barrier.
From there on, it was just booking in and catching sleep. Total journey time from starting at home was more than 24 hours. Couldn’t get comfortable sleep since 12 hours prior to that, so it was a big relief.
Also done was to sort out the junk and mess accumulated along the way. Couldn’t really do that properly out in the public.

Europe Trip Preparation: Packing

With experience from my previous travels, I have learnt on what to pack, and what not to pack. What complicates this is what could (or rather not) be brought through the airport and customs. Another thing to consider is the type of bag to bring along, and, if it has wheels, the “retain” it would be brought through outside the airport.

You know those big fat bags with built in wheels and a handle that many people passing through the airport seem to be bringing along? You don’t need to have/buy those bags. If it weren’t for the handle, it would be difficult to carry, but what makes it difficult to carry in the first place? The shape of the bag, and, because of the bag’s capacity, you tend to fill it up and even exceed the allowed weight of check-in and have to pay more (not cheap) if you still insist on not lightening the load to drop to the limit. Don’t forget that the weight of the bag itself, including its handle and wheels, has its own weight. Also, those bags scream “I am a tourist” out loud to people around you. Not a good thing if you want to avoid being robbed.

If you have carried anything for long periods of time, no matter how light or heavy it may be, you would find that the item seem to get heavier even if it’s actual weight never changed that could turn out to be worse if it’s heavy. Don’t forget, every single thing, no matter how small or light, adds up to the total weight!

There are also things that you might think of bringing along, but you don’t actually need. There might also be essentials, but you could just buy it at your destination city instead of bringing it along. If it’s liquid based, you probably can’t bring it through the airport security anyway.

Here are some things that you do not need to bring for a holiday:

  • Toiletries
    • You can buy them later
  • Bags that uses the vacuum to make it air tight
    • It doesn’t reduce weight, and also, what are the chances of coming across a vacuum during the trip?
  • Laptops
    • Heavy, and you are likely to find a PC with internet or Wi-Fi hotspot at your hotel anyway
  • Several/Thick books
    • I know you want to kill time on the long flight, but these takes up precious space and weight
    • Use an e-book instead. Just one of these is far thinner and lighter than that physical copy of that Steve Jobs book you are so interested in. In fact, you can put in several hundreds of book content on to it and still not take up additional space.
  • Pillows
    • Hotels provide them, or you can use your clothes, or your bag (assuming that it’s not hard-shelled) as subsitute
    • You would be surprised how many people bring them along. Saw a lot of people while queuing at immigration at the Bangkok airport.

Now, excuse me while I figure out what to pack: departing at the night of the day after tomorrow… *looks at time while writing this section* I mean tomorrow night.

Europe trip preparation: Accomodation

One of the most important aspect of traveling far away from home is finding a place to stay, especially if there isn’t anyone in that area to stay with that I know of.

Not including my online friends that I have never met in real life, not many people I know of lived abroad. Heck, most of the people I know of hasn’t even been abroad. Basically, I have no one.
Due to the flight being booked less than a month prior to the departure day, that also naturally meant that hotels aren’t booked earlier since the exact dates aren’t known before booking the flight.
As Paris was the first destination in Europe, that naturally means that the accommodation dates are closer, which also translates to lesser odds of finding a room at a good hotel as other people had booked it, way earlier. Sure there may be vacancies, but of non-consecutive dates, or of an undesirable price. I ended up booking an apartment, which works out to be cheaper than the available hotels I came across by as much as half.
Have yet to book accommodation elsewhere due to uncertainty of balancing the days following that.
The clock is ticking, and with each passing moment, a room at a hotel is being booked, but that’s the problem with traveling with someone else who is too particular about things.