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What You Need to Know Before You Go

Planning a new trip? Here's advice, updates, warnings and a touch of humor to help get you through the thicket of airport security rules, visa and vaccinations requirements, currency exchange rates, technology factors and travel scams.

Terrorism, War, Civil Unrest: How to Avoid World Hot Spots

The best sites for obtaining breaking news on what's happening in popular and lesser-known travel destinations.

When planning an international trip, how do you know ahead of time what's going on thousands of miles away? A mistake can not only risk life and limb, but might also cost you some cash: Many travel insurance policies include a disclaimer that covers the companies when bullets start flying.
 
265px-Taj_Mahal_Palace_Hotel_at_night.jpg[Night view of the Taj Mahal Palace hotel before the recent terrorists attacks.]
(Photo: PlaneMad/Wikimedia)


Here's a list of news and information sites to visit before you buy any plane tickets.

U.S. Government Sites
These pages are part of the U.S. State Department's travel site.

Travel Warnings
The Feds issue warnings when "long-term, protracted conditions" make a country dangerous. Other warnings are issued when the Feds' ability to help American citizens is limited because the U.S. embassy or consulate has been closed or has had a staff reduction. Nigeria was added to this list on Dec. 2. Other countries on the list include: Haiti, Nepal, Kenya, Colombia, and the Philippines.

state_dept.jpg Travel Alerts
These tend to be short-term conditions and can include everything from natural disasters and anniversaries of terrorist events to demonstrations and high-profile events like regional sports matches. Countries currently on this list include India, Mexico and Thailand, which should settle down now that protesters are no longer blockading the airports.

Other Sites
As much as we love our government, sometimes officials' objectivity is a little suspect. Moreover, some countries receiving a lot of bad press may present great deals, or even opportunities for more adventurous travelers. The following sites provide information from international news organizations, expats living overseas, or recent world travelers:
  • International Herald Tribune -- The "Global Edition of the New York Times," the Trib lets you browse the latest news by international region. 
  • BBC News -- Similar to the Herald Tribune -- full of information and easy to navigate. 
  • Thorn Tree Travel Forum -- Part of the Lonely Planet site and allows you to post questons. 
  • Oriental Expat -- Bills itself as the "expatriate portal for all things Asian." Recent postings included topics ranging from prostitution in Asia to tourism in Thailand to the cost of living in Hong Kong. Geared toward expatriates, it has lots of up-to-date information. Not for those with weak stomachs. 
  • Bluenity -- This social networking site is designed for travelers and provides buzz on travel destinations. Bluenity claims that you can also use it to meet other members at the airport, on the plane, or at your destination.

Experience At-a-Glance

News and forum sites to keep you out of trouble.

For more on planning a big trip:

Estimate the Cost of a Long Trip

These tools and sites will help you develop a travel budget before you plunk down any money.

If you're planning a long trip in today's economy, chances are you've got less room for error than you used to. Returning home with big surprises on your credit card isn't an option anymore. This post will help you develop a rough idea of what your trip is going to cost -- and if you can afford it -- before you fork over any cash.

Bluff_signpost.jpgIn addition, I've created an easy-to-use calculation spreadsheet to simplify the process even further. Two of the biggest factors that will affect the cost of your trip are your choices in destinations and accommodations. For airfare, we'll use estimates based on currently available fares. (We'll discuss airfares more in a future post.)

Destinations
Travel in the developing world is substantially cheaper than the Western world. A week in Hanoi, Vietnam, in a hostel dorm room, with food and drink can run you as little as $140 a week. That's about $10 a night for the room and about $10 a day for a couple of meals and drinks from street vendors.

An inexpensive room in Melbourne, Australia, plus food can run three times as much. Europe, Canada, South Africa, the U.K., New Zealand -- they're all pricey. But if heading West is your goal, all is not lost. Be sure to check the currency exchange rates. The dollar has strengthened significantly against many currencies, notably the New Zealand dollar and the South African rand. These Western countries may be worth a second look, if this trend continues.
 
low-end budget.jpg
[A budget for a low-cost trip to the developing world. Note that accommodations are in dorm rooms, which aren't for everyone.]

(Image from Rosstravels.com)

Accommodations
Hostels aren't just for kids anymore. On a recent trip, I stayed at hostels in five different countries. This cut my accommodation costs buy at least half. Most hostels were decent. A few were stellar. A couple were barely bearable. Check out my review of hostels and guest houses.

I'm not big on staying in dorm rooms, so I always forked out for a single. In a Hanoi hostel that bumped my bill for room and board to about $200 a week, which is still much cheaper than Australia. Naturally, if you want to spend $500 a night, you can do that anywhere in the world -- even in a small beachside town in Vietnam.

Flights, Travel Insurance, and Contingency
The cheapest way to fly is to find a special on one of the sites that specializes in long-term travel, like Airtreks or Airbrokers. Often these outfits use lesser-known airlines, so get all this information upfront before you hand over a credit card.

If you've got more to spend or a travel agent you like, check out around-the-world fares on Oneworld or Star Alliance. Get estimates from a few of these companies and then play them against each other. For the purpose of this article, we'll assume airfare for a low-cost trip focusing on developing countries at about $3,000. We'll add another 15 percent for traveler's insurance, which will include medical insurance, trip interruption, and evacuation in case of emergency for four months of travel.

mid-range budget.jpg
[A budget for a mid-range trip to developing and developed countries. Note that some accommodations are in dorm rooms and some are single rooms.]
(Image from Rosstravels.com)

At this point, you should have a subtotal for room, board, flight and insurance. Then add another 20 percent for contingency (in-country travel, entertainment, and miscellaneous items). If this is your first time on an extended trip, you may need to purchase gear, such as a backpack, and other items that could add another $600. Then enter your numbers into this budget-estimation spreadsheet.

May the numbers be with you.

Experience At-a-Glance

Web Tools and sites in this article:

XE.com: Easy-to-use currency-converter lets you see latest rates of 85 different currencies.

Budget-calculation spreadsheet: Spreadsheet created by Rosstravels.com. It contains line items for room and board by region -- developing and developed countries -- plus airfare, travel insurance, gear, and contingency.

Review of Hostels and Guest Houses: The lastest prices and reviews for accommodations in Athens, Bangkok, South Africa, Vietnam, Cambodia, Melbourne, and Auckland. These are all places at which I've stayed.

Airtreks, Airbrokers, Oneworld, Star Alliance: Sites offering multi-stop international and around-the-world plane tickets. Get a few prices and then play them against each other.

Other links and resources:

Hostelworld.com: This site lets you price and prebook hostels, guest houses, and low-cost hotels around the world. You can even request to picked up at the airport.

The Backpack: Better Than a Suitcase: For a long-term trip, particularly if you're visiting less-developed countries, consider using backpack.

 

The Backpack: Better Than a Suitcase

If you're taking a long international trip, bag the suitcase and go with a backpack. They're not just for kids.

When planning a recent multi-stop trip, I decided to go with a backpack instead of a conventional suitcase, and I'm glad I did. The pack was easy to carry and it left my hands free to deal with tickets, passports and other hassles.

backpacks2.jpg[Standard backpack that could be used for travel]
(Photo: kwan kwan/flickr)

The only problem I had with the pack was buying it. Instead of researching price and features, I went straight to a local super-store that catered to outdoor enthusiasts. Inside, it was the size of a national park. The floor was a herringbone maze of aisles displaying gizmos with digital readouts and clothes with more pockets than a four-piece luggage set.

I tracked down a salesman who had just traveled through Southeast Asia. As he leaned against a rack of overpriced travel pants, he raved about the cheap massages in Bangkok. He raved about the cheap massages in Koh Samui. He raved about the cheap massages in Phuket. He seemed a little too knowledgeable about the subject, so I avoided shaking his hand.

I tried on a few packs and settled on a man's large. The clerk loaded it with 30 pounds of weight, and I took it for a 15-minute spin. I tried running as if being chased by South African street thugs. I tried moving my hands around as if I were fending off frisky Bangkok masseuses offering multi-visit specials. I tried balancing on one leg for no reason at all.

It was good spending the time because the bag jabbed me just about everywhere. The clerk recommended I try a medium that was available at another store. Between finding the clerk, listening to his tales, and realizing that this model didn't fit, I'd wasted nearly two hours and still didn't have a pack.

front_backpacks_sm.jpg[Backpack on the back and small daypack across the chest]
(Spare Change News)

I learned about backpacks the hard way, but you don't have to. Here's the world's shortest guide to buying a backpack for long-term travel.

What to Look For
  1. Price
    Expect to pay about $200. You may find an off-season deal or lower price on a store brand, but this is no place to skimp.
  2. Size
    Look for something 40 to 60 liters -- about 2,400 to 3,700 cubic inches -- the smaller the better. Smaller size means you'll bring less and be more comfortable lugging the bag around. If you're a 130-pound woman, a fully loaded 60-liter bag maybe more than you want to deal with. In hiking lingo, you are looking for a weekend pack, a two- to four-day pack, or rucksack. You don't want an expedition pack, which is fine for climbing Mount Everest but not for stuffing into the overhead bin of Boeing 747. Remember, if you're going on a long-term trip, you'll be best off bringing only a few days worth of clothes and washing them regularly. (Click here to read up on packing tips.)
  3. Limited Access 
    You don't want a lot of compartments that are easily accessible from the outside. In many countries, anyone with a backpack is a good target for petty theft. If someone can reach into your bag while you're wearing it, they will.
  4. Comfort
    A fully loaded pack can jab you in several places, most notably your lower back and inner shoulders. Lower back pain is a no-no. After trying on several packs, I got the back right, but still had some rubbing on my inner shoulders. I was able to live with it
  5. Style
    Avoid flashing colors and logos that imply, "I'm a rich tourist, please mug me." Also, the bag will likely include more straps than a strait-jacket. Fear not, these compression straps are relatively easy to figure out and serve to squish down all your belongings in the bag so they don't flop around while you're racing through an airport or bus terminal. 
The Shopping Process
  1. Go to a general purpose outdoor gear store like REI or Eastern Mountain Sports that carries multiple brands of packs.
  2. Find a salesperson who will put a couple of different packs on you. Sizes are not standard across brands, so you may need a medium in a Northface but a large in an Osprey.
  3. The salesperson should load the pack up with about 30 pounds of weight and let you tromp around the store.
  4. Ask about the return policy and, as always, pay with a credit card.
  5. Take the bag home and load it with your gear and walk around the neighborhood for an hour or so to see how if feels. On my trip, I knew I would be biking 10 miles with the pack, so I loaded it up and road around with it.
  6. If you don't already have some kind of large, puncture-resistent bag to cover the pack, buy a pack cover. They're a total rip off at $25 or so, but they will help keep your bag clean and dry.
What I Bought: Pros and Cons

I bought a 60-liter, 3,700 cubic inch Osprey Aether pack for $199 in a drab green.

Pros:

  • Indestructible
  • Relatively comfortable
  • I could cram a lot of stuff in and on it.

Cons:

  • Too big (because I went windsurfing on my recent trip, I had to bring bulky gear, such as a harness belt, rubber booties, rashguard shirt).
  • Some pinching in the shoulders.

Experience At-a-Glance

If you want more detail on backpacks, check out these links:
  • Goxplore -- Designed for hikers, this site includes useful information for normal travelers, such as how to pack your pack.
  • Outdoorhighadventure -- The information is provided by REI, which carries much of the same gear as EMS.
  • Wikipedia -- This article discusses terminology, history and other details.
  • Top 5 Packing Tips -- Make sure your belongings stay safe, secure and dry.
Other links and resources:

How To Pick Great Destinations

Finding great vacation spots is not as easy as it sounds. Try these tips and tools to get you going

After being laid off from my job a year ago, I decided to take a four-month, solo trip around the world that included stops in Venezuela, Greece, South Africa, Bangkok, Vietnam, Cambodia, Australia and New Zealand.

To prepare for the trip, I read chirpy guide books full of four-color photos. I visited government Web sites that listed so many exotic diseases that I was afraid to leave my apartment, never mind the country. Which sources could I trust?

As in real life, the truth was somewhere in the middle: I never got sick or had problems with crime. But many accommodations and modes of transport were sketchy. In the end, I found both the guide books and the government Web sites to be somewhat biased -- the former too rah-rah, the latter overly cautionary.

So in Tips&AdviceBeat, my goal is to help you save time, aggravation and money with balanced, real-world advice. Every couple of weeks I'll look a various tools, techniques and news updates that will help you plan a trip AND survive to happily tell the tale. To get you going, my first post explains how to select appropriate travel spots.

How to Pick Great Destinations
Finding great vacation spots is not as easy as it sounds. You've got a big world to choose from and a limited amount of time and resources. Try these tips and tools to get you going.

To narrow your focus, zero in on what you like to do at home and when you travel. Here's a list of common options and recommendations.

Sight-seeing:
Start with a list of World Heritage Sites. These are forests, mountains, lakes, deserts, monuments, buildings, etc. of exceptional cultural or natural importance, according to UNESCO. There are 878 such sites in the world. A word of caution, some of these spots are now overrun with tourists, so pick some alternatives or at least brace yourself for the crush.

Angkor_wat_temple.jpg[Angkor Wat temple]
(Photo: Andrew Lih/Wikimedia)

For example:
  • Angkor Wat, Cambodia: The temples are fascinating, but I became templed-out after one day. Passes are available for one day or three days and will cost more than a decent guest house. (I paid $40 for a three-day pass). Also, due to the crowds, I couldn't get a guide, which I'd recommend. Upshot: Once you've booked a room, ask the hotel to book you a guide.
  • Ha Long Bay, Vietnam: Mob scene, worse than a Red Sox game during pennant season. Still, it's worth a day or two.
2) Participatory Sports:

 
[Video of author bungy jumping in New Zealand] 

  • For wind and water sports in the Caribbean and South America, check out Vela Windsurf Resorts. As a beginner, I had good luck at the Margarita resort in Venezuela. For more exotic options, consider Club Mistral with some caveats. The company is based in Germany, and the salesman who responded to my e-mails had a marginal grasp of English. In addition, when I started asking too many questions, he simply stopped responding.
  • For extreme sports, like bungy jumping, white-water rafting, river boarding (white-water rafting with just a boogey board), you can't go wrong with New Zealand. But New Zealand isn't cheap. If you happen to be in South Africa, try bungy jumping at the Bloukrans Bridge, which costs less and is almost twice as high as the highest jump in New Zealand. Bungy jumping is available in other countries, including France, Bali, and Kuala Lumpur.
  • For more ideas, check out our SportsloversBeat.
Loveparade-girl-jpatokal.jpg
[Dancer in Berlin's Love Parade]
(Photo: jpatokal/Wikimedia)

3) Partying and Festivals:
Rough Guides has an interactive list of major parties and festivals around the world. You can sort the list a number of ways including by destination, theme or date range.
If you have any suggestions or questions you'd like me to answer in future posts, feel free to post a comment right here on Tips&AdviceBeat, or e-mail me at publisher@rosstravels.com.

Experience At-a-Glance

Great links to help you plan your itinerary.

  • World Heritage Sites -- UNESCO chooses 878 of the world's most wonderous natural sights, including forests, mountains, lakes, deserts, monuments, and buildings.
  • Bungy Jumping Sites -- AJ Hackett offers jumping in New Zealand, Macau, Bali, Germany, Kuala Lumpur, and other locations. There is no excuse not to go!
  • Best Parties and Festivals -- Whether you're looking for something civilized like an art or food festival, or something edgier like a full-moon rave or cannabis celebration, the Rough Guides site makes it easy to find.
Other resources:

The Author

Randy Ross

Randy Ross

Travel Adviser

Randy Ross, an award-winning magazine editor, is the publisher of RossTravels.com, which provides international news, advice and cautionary tales for people on the go. He's based in Boston.