A few years ago our kids went to study in the US, leaving us with an empty
A few years ago our kids went to study in the US, leaving us with an emptynest. Since then an annual 4-6 week visit to the US and elsewhere has become a regular feature. Our travels have been engaging experiences and I thought of sharing a few tips on planning long vacations. So here goes.
The world offers a surfeit of things to see and do but we are all limited by constraints of time and money. In order to maximise your travel experiences, decide on what you want out of a holiday and plan accordingly.
Some of the themes could be: 1. A particular region: say, Scandinavian countries or South America 2. History of Christianity: Israel/Italy, Greece. 3. Islamic culture: Cairo, Istanbul, Jerusalem 4. Wildlife: Brazil, Kenya/Tanzania, Zambia/South Africa, Botswana, India 5. Wine tours: California, France, Italy, New Zealand, Australia. And so many more. Read up before you go, especially if it’s history you’re interested in. Like the poet said, “Every stone reveals a story”, but you must ferret it out.
The Indian passport is not one that opens doors to many countries visa-free. Having a 10-year US and a 5-year UK visa has helped us a lot. When one is visiting multiple countries, it’s good to budget at least 10 days to obtain each visa. Some countries, like Cambodia, have an online visa system that gets you a visa in a couple of days. The Schengen visa usually takes the longest but also allows one unhindered access through most of Europe. The application for most visas demands the same documents; keep multiple copies of these ready: Bank statements for the last six months; I-T returns for three years; recent passport-size photos; flight itinerary; hotel reservations; travel insurance; letter of employment. Using a travel agent to handle the visa work eases things considerably.
We book tickets online and pay by credit card. Use sites like Expedia.com, Skyscanner.com, Cleartrip.com, etc to compare fares but always book on the airlines’ own websites. It’s easier to deal directly with the airline in case of a problem. The airlines’ own portals also make it more convenient to choose seats and book excess baggage.
A bad hotel can mar a holiday. We do our research to pick the right hotel, choosing one near the main sights. Hotels close to Times Square in New York, Leicester Square in London or Stephansplatz in Vienna may be more pricey with smaller rooms but nothing beats being in the thick of it all. One can return late without bothering about transportation. We save on transport too, especially in a city like London.
Hotels that offer a king-size bed, free breakfast, free WiFi and a flexible cancellation policy get our vote. The Best Westerns in the US are invariably good. Other mid-priced chains that we like are Novotel, Swissotel, Thistle (in the UK) and Thon (in Norway).
To get the best prices, compare rates on travel portals but reserve on the hotel’s website. Hotels tend to treat direct customers better. And sign up for loyalty programmes; they are free and usually come with benefits like a late check-out or a discounted rate. Check with the hotel (email them) the mode of travel from the airport/railway station to the hotel: many provide a free shuttle service.
A good alternative to hotels is Airbnb. On Airbnb, hosts let out their homes to guests, either the whole house or individual rooms. We have had very good experiences: In Florence (notorious for tiny, expensive rooms), we got a one-bedroom flat in a historic building overlooking the Piazza della Signoria and the Palazzo Vecchio at ¤200 a day.
It’s difficult to travel light on a long vacation. One needs to be prepared for different kinds of weather and diverse activities like hiking, sightseeing, a swim and visits to semi-formal places like a fine dining restaurant. Pack accordingly, especially footwear. Men should take a blazer or a coat and women a formal dress.
Almost all airlines allow one carry-on bag of 7kg and one check-in bag of 23kg. My wife and I each have a small strolley as our carry-on and a large strolley (all with four wheels). This allows us to handle our luggage independently. Our carry-on contains a copy of travel documentation, spare clothes, a wind-cheater with rain cap, electronics, emergency medicines and basic toiletries—essentials for a couple of days in case our main baggage gets misplaced. Packing cubes are helpful to organise one’s clothes.
Given the extortionate roaming charges, WiFi is a god-send. Most coffee shops and restaurants offer free WiFi and so do hotels. Calls can be made over WiFi using WhatsApp or Facetime. If staying in a country for a week or more, a local sim is a reasonably priced option and can usually be bought at the airport.
Hotel laundry is expensive. Some hotels have a self-use laundromat. Else, search Google Maps for a laundromat, where for a few dollars one can launder a bag full of clothes. We usually do our laundry once a week when we have a stay of a few days. Our clothes are non-iron and quick-dry; jeans are an exception—despite their weight, they are the best travel clothes. They keep you warm, hide dirt and hence don’t need washing often, and don’t need to be ironed. If the occasion demands, throw a jacket over a full shirt and jeans and you’re ready for the Queen’s ball!
A self-drive holiday gives one the ultimate flexibility in travel, unconstrained by the schedules of airlines and trains. You can book hotels on the fly, stay at cheaper hotels further from the city centre or in places off the tourist track with great views.
Driving in the US, Europe or Australia/New Zealand is a pleasure given the excellent roads, en-route facilities for travellers and the disciplined road behaviour. All that is required to rent a car is your passport, credit card and driving licence. An international driving permit is not required unless your licence is in a language that’s not English. Book online in advance to ensure that you get a car of your choice. The GPS provided at extra cost is expensive and superfluous. Use Google Maps on your phone with a local sim instead. Insurance is a must.
Many guidebooks advise tourists to dress and behave like locals to deflect unwanted attention from thieves and conmen. There’s no way you’re going to do that with a camera hanging around your neck and a map in your hand amidst the suited bankers in The City (of London). Might as well revel in your tourist identity; there are lots of friendly locals who may want to strike up a conversation. Just be careful with your money and camera—I find that a multi-pocket safari jacket works best.
Carrying a complete medical kit is absolutely essential. Most countries will not sell antibiotics and cough syrups over the counter without a doctor’s prescription. Pack all medicines with you (antibiotics, cough/cold relievers, paracetamol, tummy meds, etc) along with a doctor’s prescription.
Cash & Card
Currency, pre-loaded cards and credit cards are the most popular payment modes. We have found pre-loaded cards the most convenient. Depending on the countries we plan to visit, we buy pre-loaded cards issued by HDFC Bank. These can be used for vendor payments like a debit card, to withdraw cash from an ATM and can be topped up online from your bank account. We also carry some amount of currency (predominantly USD). Credit cards are the last option because of the high conversion fee and the service charges. Nonetheless they are useful to have.
Before You Leave
A month or more is a long time to be away from home. Make sure your domestic systems are not affected while you’re away. Pay electricity/society/telephone/cable bills in advance. Likewise with other payments like rent, club fees, etc. Have a friend/neighbour take your car for a drive once a week. And be prepared for your driver and maid to be poached while you’re away