October 01, 2016

Planning a Vacation? 6 Tips to Help You Avoid Pitfalls

By Elizabeth Avery

I’ve been a solo woman traveler since my college days, and I’ve traveled to all 50 states and 66 countries. I’ve arrived at a destination to discover a surprise cholera epidemic, fought off muggers in broad daylight with some limited success, navigated solo a low-grade civil war, and just missed being dinner for leering crocodiles.

I’ve personally and through others’ experiences accumulated a knowledge bank of travel tips that anybody planning a major vacation should keep in mind so they end up with fond memories instead of frustrating challenges. Here are six I think are particularly important.

1. Pay attention to ever-changing passport and visa requirements. Don’t get left at the airport because you failed to comply precisely with your destination’s passport and visa requirements. These constantly change and follow no set pattern.

Visas and passports have largely gone electronic, and regulations have become more technical. One such requirement, for example, in India, is that the passport must have two remaining pages specifically for visas, not just blank pages. If they’re not available, you’ll have to follow precise procedures to still meet local requirements. In most cases, you must give up your passport to your destination’s officials to have a visa added. Bear this in mind if you’re visiting several countries, and consider the delays involved.

In addition, remember that a 10-year passport may not be valid for 10 years. While Switzerland requires inbound travelers to have only three months remaining on their passports, other countries require that up to six months be left. If you’re even one day short, you’re likely to be refused boarding your flight to those countries.

Oh, and flying through a second country en route to a third may require a visa even if you never leave the airport.

2. Plan carefully to avoid unnecessary airline fees. Don’t inadvertently take actions that can cause your existing airline charge to double. The cheapest price may not be a non-refundable ticket. They typically prohibit most changes after purchase. Some restricted tickets can be modified for a penalty.

However, these rules get tricky. I just discovered this on a $1,000 economy airline ticket. There was “only” a $300 penalty to change the ticket. The real expense, though, was having to also pay the new fare of an extra $699. Suddenly, my $1,000 flight became $1,999. Because it was a rebooking, lower Internet fares were no longer possible for me to secure.

Also pay attention to new add-on fees when you plan your travel budget. Some carriers charge $29 per connecting flight for reserving a standard seat online. The result for my summer vacation? I ended up paying $116 to the airlines although it wasn’t for an upgrade. However, it was worth not having to risk 22 hours each way stuffed in the middle seat.

Don’t be tempted to book a really cheap flight before your plans are finalized. If you’re going on a tour, you may be able to book air travel directly through that tour operator. If you choose to get your own flights, wait for the tour’s final date confirmation before buying your airline tickets.

For insurance purposes, a travel date change isn’t the same generally as an actual cancellation. Read your current trip insurance carefully to know what’s covered. Also, aside from pre-departure issues, you should carry an electronic copy of your travel insurance with you. For example, even a healthy millennial can break a leg skiing. Some policies reimburse only medical assistance provided in a specified facility, for example, one defined as a hospital.

Also, don’t assume a last-minute airline deal will be available during the holidays. When I waited overnight for a better deal on a Christmas flight to Southeast Asia, my chosen departure went up by $500 while I was sleeping. Worse yet, even though I was traveling months later, I was barely able to find a remaining flight at any price.

3. Pick the right destination if you’re on a budget. You’ll miss out and bust your budget choosing only destinations that are trending. If you’re looking for castles, culture, and great cuisine, but Paris or London is beyond your budget, consider alternates like Spain and Eastern Europe. Similarly, I was priced out of Tahiti as a young attorney. Instead, I selected a terrific substitution for a Pacific holiday: Rarotonga and Aitutaki. I’ve dined out on those stories for years.

4. Prepare your plastic. Some travelers get a shock if they’ve failed to find out the extra fees that will be tacked on when they use their credit card or ATMs abroad. This can easily add another $100 to your monthly tab. You should also always notify your bank or credit card provider that you’ll be abroad. Forgetting this step can result in having your card frozen while you’re overseas.

5. Pack wisely and for local customs. The challenge for current travel is that permitted carry-on bags continue to shrink. Airlines such as China Air have a maximum of 11 pounds. With even small bags taking up some of that weight, little space remains especially for travel to colder climates.

Here are a few factors to consider:

  • Even in warm, tropical climates, you may need to cover up to comply with local customs. In Southeast Asia, men must cover their knees and women their legs to enter temples and royal palaces. Some locations have loaner cover-ups you can borrow. Other requirements apply in the Middle East at mosques and globally at certain cathedrals.
  • Consider packing socks even in the tropics. I quickly longed for a pair when traversing barefoot across a blazing-hot entrance to a Buddhist temple. In the Amazon rainforest filled with brambles, socks are key.
  • Pack a pashmina or light sweater to combat arctic air conditioning in restaurants in hot climates.
  • If you do check a bag, be sure to carry on essentials that last two to three days if you don’t meet your suitcase again until you both happen to return home the same day.

6. Always identify an emergency contact before you leave home. Especially traveling in today’s challenging times, establish a contact in case of emergency depending upon what type of help you might need.

When I was traveling in Asia alone, it was in the midst of the swine flu epidemic. China was quarantining in-bound passengers if those around them on their flight had an elevated temperature. Before leaving home, I called my tour group to ask what to do if I were selected for quarantine. They suggested calling an 800-telephone number to reach the United States.

That was little help. I had visions of being left standing on the streets of Beijing as my tour group embarked on their river cruise, leaving me on my own traveling Asia trying to find them. Luckily, I wasn’t quarantined. Still, I recommend that you check before you go whether your travel insurance has a local emergency number.

Another kind of emergency to consider is needing money to be wired from home. On a flight back from abroad, I met a well-traveled gentleman who’d been robbed in broad daylight en route to church. He tried to obtain a replacement passport on a Sunday afternoon to avoid missing his flight. He was informed that for a modest fee of $67 or so, he could get the passport expedited.

The only problem? Having been robbed, he had no cash and no credit cards. He dutifully began calling friends and family, only to reach voicemails all over America. Finally, he reached someone and had money wired. As I heard his story, I had a vision of enterprising muggers congregating outside Western Union waiting to rob their prior victims for a second time as they received wires from home.

One solution is a prepaid credit card you can immediately cancel and contact for a new card or new credit if you’ve arranged that option prior to leaving home.

The last likely emergency is an injury or illness. A simple ski or moped accident can easily run up a large bill. The solution? Check your health insurance and trip insurance policies before you leave home to know what’s covered, what requirements you must meet to secure coverage, and whether there are any phone numbers you should keep with your travel documents.

Elizabeth Avery

Washington, D.C.

Elizabeth Avery is a securities lawyer in Washington, D.C., and founder of Solo Trekker 4 U, a free travel community that connects solo travelers, couples, families, and groups with well-priced four-to five-star services.