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COVID RETURN TEST FORWARD PLANNING: When you get to your destination, plan to figure when, where, and which tests you need even before you start exploring (especially on shorter stays). That way you are not panicking and potentially ruining your travel experience. Ask your hotel or locals where to get tests. For example on a trip to Dominica, we realized we needed to get an Antigen test before we could go back to the U.S. So we went to Rousseau to look for a hospital/clinic/lab. The only one that provided the tests we needed was closed when we got there and apparently no other spots could do it until Monday 9AM (our flight was Monday at 815AM)! Rookie mistake! Thankfully, the hotel staff was able to arrange a doctor to visit our hotel and test us on a Sunday…pheeeew!
USING COVID TEST TWICE: One of the trickiest parts of traveling during COVID, is finding where and when to get tested so the test is valid on arrival in your final destination. For example, when I got into Togo I had to take a PCR test in the airport. Knowing that I was technically leaving just under 48 hours later, I decided to use that test to go back into Ghana. Now you have to make sure the test results are date stamped so they know the date and time it was administered and should have all the stamps and letterhead to make sure it is seen and recognized as a legitimate test. Technically the same scenario came up in Dominica but there I was cutting it close (stayed 65 hours and it had to be valid for 72 hours) so I decided to get another test.
GETTING COVID TESTS IN AIRPORTS: Sometimes the best place to get tested is in the airport, since they know the importance of a quick turnaround and you can always ask the airline at the airport which test you need and when. On a recent trip to South Africa, I got tested before I arrived. But the next day instead of trying to find a location to get a test in Lesotho (my next destination) where there are a lot of unknowns, I just went back to the airport in South Africa and got a test there so that I could have a back up from a reputable location that I could use on the next leg of my trip. Also there is almost always testing facilities at every major airport open every day of the week, which is not always the case in every major city.
WIKIPEDIA/BLOGS: Now here is something else I have been doing for years to become more educated before embarking on a trip. I read the Wikipedia page of the country I am visiting, focusing on history, economics, culture, music, food that are all nicely laid out on the country’s wikipedia page. And in terms of sightseeing, I cross reference advice on places to see, with several blogs, local websites, youtube accounts, and when possible old school guide books! While I like to be spontaneous on my travels, I still tend to over-research and prepare so I avoid missing and regretting later. I then mark everything in a note on my phone as a checklist and make amends as events play out on the ground.
FAST TRACK (Tolls): Make sure you sign up to fast track with your rental car company so you have the ability to take the toll roads if applicable (i.e. in Europe). Some toll operators may not be in the booth and then you can get fined!
CAR RENTAL: Renting a car internationally, especially in places where its hard or too expensive to get a car+driver or the roads are easy to navigate, is a great option! This came in huge when we were in the Yucatan driving to remote beaches, cultural sites etc without wanting to be tied to a guide or spend a fortune on a car and driver. Now make sure to research car rental companies in advance or on orbitz (my got to) then cross reference with blogs for price and quality. If you are stuck, find the telephone number of a local taxi company (check on google), whatsapp them to price shop for how much it is between destinations. You can also use the taxi drivers to find car rental companies as well, especially in small destinations where everyone will know each other. Then make sure you can pick-up/drop-off the car at the airport.
AIRPORT CABS: Here is some tips on get a cab when you land: (1) Ask the Information Desk (or tourist office) at the airport the typical cost of a cab to your location, (2) Investigate or ask if there is a reliable ride share app (I did this in Trinidad), and if so download it and set it up. If there is no one at the desk, then ask the taxi coordinator outside and if that person is not there then ask a few cabs to get an idea of prices, (3) Try to get on wifi and log into Google Maps so you can see the actual distance and track where you are going so they don’t take you in circles (or download the maps in advance, see below).
HIRING DAY DRIVER: If you don’t rent a car, and the public transportation has you confused or worried, then your next best (but expensive) option is hiring a driver for the day. This person can take you around for let’s say 6-8 hours to a number of different locations. It’s far safer, far more efficient and you get the benefit of a locals perspective on POIs (make sure to ask your hotel for someone so you don’t end up in a bad situation). I try to keep this cost to about $80-$100 a day, which of course depends on your destination.
DOWNLOADING GOOGLE MAPS: If you don’t have a data plan in a country you are visiting then a great back up is downloading the Google map in advance of where you are going. So when you have wifi/service, search a location, then you zoom out of the location so you have a larger map of the area on your phone screen. You can then scroll to the top and next to the share option are the three dot option menu. Click that then select ‘download offline map’ and download the map on your phone. You will then get turn-by-turn directions (minus traffic updates) of anywhere you want to go. Simply a game changer since GPS/maps is one of the most important reasons for having data abroad! All that said, don’t rely solely on Google Maps, especially for harder to reach destinations. Be prepared to ask locals to make sure you get to the right place. This was especially the case when we were in Dominica and Google kept sending us down the wrong streets and parts of town.
AUDIO BOOKS ON LONG DRIVES: On long drives download an audio book. If you listen to the right one, the audio book will be later inextricably tied by memory to the travel destination and can certainly enhance the experience overall. I remember how this was very much the case when I listened to Shantaram on Audible while driving all over the southwest of the U.S. or the Forty Rules of Love while driving into the deserts of Namibia.
LEVERAGE YOUR HOTEL FOR HELP: When you stay in a good hotel you can get the staff to do a lot for you. Reservations, advice, and even when s**t happens, like dropping your watch behind a toilet in your hotel bathroom (see Lisbon blog). Now when you get to know the staff, they will give you even better rates at the hotel then Hotels.com (my usual go to). So make sure you are great with the hotel staff and it will pay off in dividends.
GET A SHORT-TERM RENTAL: Don’t just rely on hotels if you are in an area that has really cool Airbnbs or the equivalent in the country, especially if you want a truly alternative experience. For example I stayed 4 weeks in Tulum and ended up getting six airbnbs over the time I was there so I could experience jungle, city, resort, island, and beach. They are fairly affordable and really well designed. Of course you have to look out for many things to make sure you don’t get catfished. Good habits include: the owner has reviews (and good ones), you are not sharing an accommodation (especially if they say you have the place entirely for yourself), and ALWAYS make sure you are looking at the TOTAL price, not the advertised price since there are so many hidden fees that the renter will use to excite you then slam you with a crazy final bill (cleaning costs are notorious).
LEVERAGING HOTELS FOR PLANNING: Let’s say you are in a city and need to some help with places to see or advice on things to avoid etc, then even if you are not staying at the hotel, you can always stop by the concierge desk and ask for help. I have had hotels (especially nice ones) plan all kinds of activities for me. Annnd if nature calls, swanky hotel bathrooms are usually open to the public so you can sneak in and use their facilities 🙂
INT’L PHONE/DATA PLAN: Make sure you sign up for an international phone/data plan so you have recourse in case anything happens, especially for emergencies. I use T-Mobile Global plan and it has come in SUPER handy from coordinating with friends, guides, hotels, to making emergency calls to car companies to navigating on Google Maps etc. WORTH IT!!
INCLEMENT WEATHER: Especially on Caribbean islands, be prepared to have change of clothes and plan B and C in case it really starts to come down hard!
SHOP FOR FOOD: Often times, going to restaurants can get pricey. So if you are in a location for a little while and have an accommodation with a basic kitchen (especially a fridge) then go shopping and get food you trust and know well. For example in Tulum, there are some incredible restaurants but they get pricey. So we found lots of markets there including Chedraui, a large supermarket. Not only will you save a ton in cost but the produce is great so you can make some awesome meals at home. Also on long drives in more remote areas you may not have a chance to buy food so its good to have dry (non-perishable) food with you alongside bottles of water. This can easily be placed in a portable, foldable cooler (like a cooler bag) where you can store the food and keep it cool for the majority of the day.
ACTIONS IF DETAINED: On a trip to Ghana I got into some issues after unknowing flying a drone in a restricted area. Here are my main takeaways in case you get into a bind: (1) If your phone and electronics are confiscated make sure you ask that they review all the devices in front of you. You never know if someone decides to put images or content on your device (memory card or airdrop) that are not yours to frame you. (2) Read up on your rights in the country you are visiting just in case you run into trouble with the authorities. (3) Make sure you have the contact details of your embassy and if possible locals that can help in a bind. (4) Tell your family/friends when you travel abroad so they can track you and follow-up if they have not heard from you (in fact share your live location with someone in case you go MIA and they can pinpoint where you are).
BORROWING ATTIRE: If you need something like let’s say shorts or even hiking shoes just ask the hotel, guide, or anyone at your accommodation, rather then suck it up and go unprepared. Thankfully on a trip to Lesotho I asked the lodge if they could provide me with something that can withstand the mud and the boots, although oversized and cumbersome, were invaluable when dealing with the muddy terrain.VOIP CALLS: If you don’t have cellular data I would highly recommend that you download a VoIP service like MagicJack (about $3.99 per month) or Google Voice (free) so you can make toll free calls to the U.S. especially for logistical issues (you can also make paid calls but you should put credit on your VoIP provider). This helped me for example when I needed to call my insurance provider.
INFORM CREDIT CARD COMPANY: When you travel, really try to tell your credit card company that you may be making charges in the countries you plan to visit. Also its key to have the fraud number of your credit card company in case charges are declined and you can quickly resolve it. For example while booking my flight to Togo, I had 4 transactions declined (bank didn’t recognize charge) but I resolved it when I called the company.
MAKING PAYMENTS/CHARGES: When charging your credit card, make purchases in local currency and not your home residence currency (i.e. pay in Euros not dollars). Your credit card’s exchange rate is better than that provided by the shop owner.
CHECK RECEIPTS: Always ask for itemized receipts for car rentals, hotels, even restaurants in case you are overcharged. Also make sure to try to charge these expenses on your credit card so you have recourse to dispute charges later.
FOREX & ATMs: Go to an ATM in the airport, which tends to be more secure than in the city. Then withdraw cash so you have cash on hand to make payments to taxis for example when you are leaving the airport. If you don’t see an ATM or prefer to go to an exchange office, use the xe.com app to see the current rates and try to find an exchange office that is close to that exchange rate. Also another thing I do is I have a secondary bank (in my case, Capital One) where I have a free checking account. In that account, I put just enough cash before leaving so that when I use it on foreign ATMs and if it gets hacked, then they can’t access all my savings.
CASH ON HAND: When you get to a foreign country, it is always good to have cash on hand. Especially small change because you want to tip those who help as often as you can. Nothing major but something to show your thanks. And it can go a very long way. So make sure you pull out cash, and break it into coins and small notes. This came in handy when I had to change my tire in the middle of nowhere in South Africa, and later when I used a guide.
BEFRIEND LOCAL GUIDE(S): This can help with getting to know the terrain, the history, the best sites to see (and off trail options), bargain prices, localized food options etc. If you are traveling alone maybe ask the hotel if they know of a solid guide just to be on the safe side. Maybe even take your guide out to dinner to get to know them better and make that destination a life experience.
MAKING FRIENDS: I am now very proactive about finding someone on the ground through friends or friends of friends. For example, I was very fortunate to asked a close friend if he knew anyone in Togo and he referred me to his friend who connected me with a great Togolese guy in Lome (check out the Togo Vlog and Blog). I think this was one of the best decisions and experiences of the trip because I met his family, I visited areas way off the tourist path and got to know more about the country then had I traveled solo. So if you have a chance, make sure to ask friends if they know of anyone on the ground.
GETTING A GUIDE: If you have a chance to get a local guide and it is not expensive then do it! Why, because (1) they can show you things and take you to places/routes you would just not see on your own, helping you get their faster and safer, (2) you get the inside scoop on the country from a local, which can be invaluable and more authentic then just from online sources, (3) you help the local population by giving them funds or at least tips straight to them. This was definitely the case with the waterfalls in Lesotho and meeting Earnest, learning about the pulse on the politics of the country, the culture, and local customs!