source : http://www.nytimes.com/2001/07/15/travel/15PRAC.html ( via Rebecca Blood )
July 15, 2001
PRACTICAL TRAVELER Looking Back: 14 Years of Tips By BETSY WADE
WHEN Paul Grimes, the originator of the Practical Traveler column, turned it over to me 14 years ago, he said the most important task was to read the fine print on everything — tickets, insurance fliers, tour brochures, guarantees. In the big type, he said, everyone fibs. Typical is the "nine night" tour that the small type clearly shows includes one night in an airline seat.
It's a good first principle. And now that it is time for me to yield this space, I thought to compress into the allotted 1,200 words other nuggets I have derived from 613 weeks — I did take vacations — of sometimes furious research. So here goes.
The term "direct flight" is nonsense. It's a nonstop flight or it is not. I have been shifted to other airlines as well as other planes on trips labeled direct flights.
When you walk out into a foreign city, one where English is not the first language, snag a business card or a brochure from the desk of your hotel. It will save you from the terrors Jean Simmons suffered in "So Long at the Fair," when her hotel room apparently disappeared.
Taxes can destroy bargain rates. A car rented for $179.99 a week in Minneapolis will run $245.10 by the time the taxes and fees are piled on. A hotel room in New York City advertised at, say $129, will cost a somewhat less reasonable $148 a night after the taxes of 13.25 percent plus $2 are added. This could be a particularly unwelcome surprise. Ask about taxes when you call.
Don't let gloaters spoil your trip when they boast about the better exchange rate they got for their lire. Yes, keep your eye on the fees at places with names like KashPoynte?. But even if you pay too much once, don't agonize over $2 wasted on a $500 exchange. Honor is not at stake.
Don't pack anything you cannot bear to part with. I still remember seeing a gold charm bracelet at the Unclaimed Baggage store in Scottsboro, Ala. "I bet they cried when they lost that one," the clerk said.
Most travelers have to discover this for themselves, but perhaps one or two people can be spared the embarrassment: that string over the shower in the European hotel is not the light cord. It's an emergency bell. If you pull it, people will be along when you least want them.
If you are going to anything other than a tropical spot, pack gloves: hands can get cold on the most unexpected dates. And mittens are warmer than gloves, if less chic.
Take a map. Even if you've driven the route a hundred times, accidents and detours may dispatch you to Terra Incognita.
When flying for weddings, graduations and other unalterable major dates, go a day in advance. You can probably recover the day of used-up vacation, but not the event.
When checking a suitcase, put a card inside with your name, destination hotel and phone number.
Carrying extra film is a good idea. Carrying extra camera batteries is a great idea. Shopping for an obscure size or special film where you do not speak the language is hard.
If you didn't notice on checking in, you can tell it's an economy hotel by the thinness of the towels.
Check your passport expiration date now, not the day before you leave. If yours expires in the next few months, renew now by mail rather than play the costly game of beat the deadline later. Most photo developing shops now take proper passport pictures.
There is no fast lane in a traffic jam. Or an airline check-in line. So relax. Sing. Play a tape.
Get the name of the person who takes your hotel or tour reservation. If the computer system digests badly, that name will uphold your credibility and may even help another employee trace your record.
There is no more free lunch, but the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers does send a directory of English-speaking doctors overseas who agree to limit their fees for office and hotel calls. Write to the organization at 417 Center Street, Lewiston, N.Y. 14092, call (716) 754-4883, or see www.iamat.org. No surprise, the organization lives by contributions, and you will be asked.
What's a double room in another country? It may have one wide bed or two narrow ones. If it matters to you, ask. Similarly, a British hotel room described as having a private bath may indeed have a bath but not a toilet. Ask.
What to Take — and Leave
Carry two credit cards separately when you travel. If one is stolen, and the account is frozen, you have another way to feed and house yourself.
In an airport crisis, blowing up at the gate agent will not help. It can hurt. On an occasion of awful weather at La Guardia some years ago, the man in line in front of me lost it and called the gate agent an obscene word. She told him to step aside before she called the police. He became more objectionable. I told her that if she needed a witness, I would be available. Most of us who stuck it out got on the flight, when there finally was one. He was not aboard, and may have been in detention.
Don't pack brand new shoes. Take only those that are already broken in.
The little note pad with the name and phone number of the hotel in Florence is meant to be taken with you. I have a rack of hotel note pads more treasured than objects from lost arks. When these are given to friends who ask for a recommendation, the hotel will recoup its investment many times over.
Don't pack more than you can carry up two flights of stairs.
Arrive at a hotel with some singles in your pocket; save yourself from groping and embarrassment.
Computer systems get knocked out: At hotels, at airports, at car rental counters and even in the stock exchange and A.T.M. networks. Carry a few extra dollars; do not rely utterly on electronic lifelines. And if you have a faxed confirmation sheet, it may get you into a hotel room while the reservation system is brought back up.
It is a dark topic, but children who take airplane trips alone often experience many more difficulties than airlines, parents, safety advocates and airport managers want to acknowledge. Parents should do whatever is humanly possible to avoid sending a child alone by plane before the child is old enough to ride alone on public transportation in a city. Some children are ready at 14; some are still uncertain at 16.
Airline pillows do not get fresh cases after each flight. They may not even get fresh cases each day. If this bothers you, take your own pillow or case.
Your bank may sock you with a fee of as much as $5 for getting cash from your account through an A.T.M. abroad, but those machines installed at overseas banks do not hit you for the annoying $1.50 or $2 you pay at home for using another bank's machine.
Hotels in the United States are required to provide a card by the room phone stating the telephone charges. If it's not there, ask the front desk for one before you hook up your computer.
A journalism teacher from The Daily News admonished our class at Columbia University many years ago, in colorful language, to let it enter our heads once in a great while that we might be wrong. That's a good thought for coping while traveling.
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