There are a lot of misperceptions about Kazakhstan, a large, landlocked country in Central Asia. Most people hear “-stan” at the end of the name and figure it’s an extension of one of those countries that you wouldn’t be caught dead in, much less choose for a vacation destination. Wrong… Kazakhstan is a delight, a place worth the verrry long plane ride and the few words of Russian you’ll need to make your way around the city. Love peace and quiet? Hate tourist crowds? Want good value for your travel money, and to meet wonderful locals who are some of the nicest hosts in the world? Want to discover a place after Europe, East Asia, and the tropics are getting their “been there, done that” feeling? Try Kazakhstan. Yes, it is cold, as I found out in the snow flurries of early October, and there’s no Hop-on Hop-off bus service (yet) — all the more reason to gear up and stay warm by taking a brisk walking tour. Just don’t be like me and take 500+ photos in one day. But, do enjoy this virtual tour.
Many of us don’t like to think about the holidays the week after Halloween — there are still some leaves on the trees, after all, and summer is still vivid in our minds, and we have so much to do… and in a few weeks everything will be happening so fast. There are plenty of sources of anxiety as the year slowly winds down: concerns about violent weather and flu season wreaking havoc on your plans; worries about not being able to afford the gifts this year that loved ones are hoping for; having to visit a relative you don’t necessarily like; seasonal depression (either your own or affecting someone you love); or bad memories of past holidays. Don’t let worries about 16-hour flight delays, lost luggage, exorbitant hotel costs, and other holiday travel headaches get you down faster than your clock falls backward. This is a great time to think about making the most of your holiday air travel — especially if you’re still finalizing your plans. Here are some recommendations.
Expect a delay at (or before) the security checkpoint. Thanks to the tragic shooting of a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) official yesterday at LAX, we can expect screening delays at American airports of anywhere between 10-30 minutes for the foreseeable future. It’s too early to tell if U.S. airports will start to implement screening stations just to get into the airport (think Ataturk Int’l in Istanbul or Sheremetyevo in Moscow), which would be a huge expense and probably be met with a lot of public resistance. At any rate, if you’re traveling within or from the U.S. this season, don’t expect TSA agents to be full of yuletide cheer… and don’t be surprised if there are more random personal checks before you even line up near the conveyor belts.
Lay over in fair-weathered cities, even if it takes you out of your way. Does it sound ridiculous to lay over in Houston or Atlanta when you’re traveling from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine? It won’t if you avoid a storm that shuts down Chicago, Denver, or Detroit for 12+ hours. If you’re going somewhere that doesn’t have much direct flight service, choose a layover city that’s unlikely to be affected by weather delays (and remember, going a bit out of your way will add nicely to your frequent flyer miles).
Shop for gifts at your destination. These days, it’s become popular to mail holiday gifts to your destination ahead of you rather than pack them in checked luggage (with airlines charging upwards of $75 per extra checked bag) with risk of items being damaged or stolen (mainly by airline baggage handlers). But mailing big boxes to your destination can be time-consuming before you leave, and can cause some confusion if you’re sending to a hotel rather than the home of a family member or friend. A great alternative? Do your holiday shopping once you arrive at your destination. It gives you something very practical to do to escape 1) the claustrophobic environment at an in-law’s or sibling’s home, or 2) the temptation to sit around the house for six hours straight (with people you actually do like) and eat or drink way too much.
You might be worried that “all the good stuff will be gone” from the stores if you wait to shop until a couple days before a major holiday. Keep in mind that with so many people buying online these days, stores run out of stock less frequently than they used to. Also, the holiday season is very short this year, since Thanksgiving is so late in November, so you’ll be in good company milling around malls at the time that Santa is starting to go hoarse.
Stay at a business hotel. Hotels in major cities often cut their rates around the holidays just because there aren’t as many people traveling for work (does your company send you to Minneapolis or Toronto to meet with new clients on 12/23 or 12/31?). Yes, business hotels aren’t as festive or homey as the places down the street with wisps of mistletoe between the chandeliers, but if you’re on a budget, you’ll certainly appreciate not paying $200 per night — and there’s probably some decent eggnog down in the bar next to the conference center.
Deal with a cancellation or delay using every means possible. In instances where your flight is canceled and you’re told by the airline to “wait” for instructions or further information, I strongly advise taking a triple-tiered approach if you’re desperate to get where you need to go. Get in the nearest ticketing line to find out more about your predicament and options — and at the same time, phone up the airline’s customer service and use your handheld device to go on their website as well. Sound aggressive or redundant? I’ve done it several times throughout my travels and avoided getting stranded in Dublin, Zurich, and Buenos Aires. (And if you’re curious — in Dublin the airline website approach worked, in Zurich the airline phone hotline attendant solved my travel woes, and in Buenos Aires the handsome porteño at kiosk 5 had me successfully on my way.)
Be prepared for the unexpected: standing out on the tarmac in the rain or snow. Why is it that, more and more often, we’re checking in at gates where we’re bussed off to our plane sitting 75 feet from the runway? This seems to be a particular problem in Southern Europe and North Africa, and means you can get stuck in the rain or snow outside the terminal if there’s a delay. In Rome early last month I stood out on the tarmac next to the plane for almost a half hour — at the tail-end of a thunderstorm — because the guy driving the bus from the gate didn’t get good instructions on when the plane was ready to board. Some of us (including me) were sorry that we’d shoved our jackets and hats into our checked luggage so we could have more space for our duty-free purchases in the cozy airport. Learn from us, and be prepared for a “runway rendezvous” in the cold, just in case.
Keep your warm clothes on hand in case of unplanned delays in unexpected places, and you won’t be as bitter as last year’s fruitcake by the time you land
On a flight home, have you ever sat near a couple of people who clearly went on a trip together, and had a major falling out? They might be arguing about what they didn’t get to see or do on their vacation, or who was to blame for cheaping out and choosing the Pickpocket Express bus to the Colosseum instead of taking a taxi. You might get to hear every painful detail about who left whom sitting outside the Acropolis after dark, or how good-for-nothing Travel Partner A having a little too much to drink resulted in Mr./Ms. Perfect Travel Partner B having half their luggage stolen. Have you ever tried to watch an in-flight movie while these people are going at it? It’s usually impossible — and depressing, especially after one of them swears the other one off, grabs their travel pillow, and marches back to that empty seat right next to the lavatory. Thud. That’s the sound of Travelocity’s little Roaming Gnome falling to his knees over a fatally failed travelationship.
Since many people are wrapping up their vacations for the summer, and about half of us aren’t traveling with a spouse or on our own, but with 1) a good friend, 2) a significant other, or 3) a relative, now might be a great time to look at how to have a heart-to-heart with your touring mate. There’s no doubt that travel can be a stressful and emotional experience and can strain even the most solid relationship. Furthermore, you can be surprised, overwhelmed, and disappointed by what you learn about your companion in a different setting, and while doing different things — and your disappointment and frustration can come to the surface when the challenges of travel start to wear you down.
While all trips must come to an end at some point, the last thing you usually want is for your relationship to end with it. Think about how challenging it is to find someone who has the time, resources, and interest to go where you want to go, and it becomes clear that even though you might have had a major negative “episode” with someone on a trip, you should put aside your frustration (and your jet lag) to get to the root of the issues. Here are some specific things you might talk to your companion about.
When you worried about each other. Many of us may sound angry and accusatory when really we were fearful about our companion’s safety. Did your travel partner not come home until 6 am a night or two in Stockholm? Did you freak them out by going to the apartment of someone you just met in Copenhagen? The last thing you want to say (or hear) is, Don’t ever do that again! No one wants to feel like they’re on vacation with their mother. You might try saying, we were alone together in a foreign country, and I couldn’t reach you. Could you send me a text message the next time so I know you’re okay? Still think they’ll feel micromanaged? Next time, ask the person they’re partying with to text you. Chances are they’ll do it — if only so you won’t spoil their fun by trying to track them down.
Close calls. There may be scenarios that you replay in your mind because they almost led to a major problem, such as nearly getting separated from your companion while boarding a flight, or being followed by someone until the two of you reached your hotel. You should talk about what led up to these events, and recognize that there’s usually no one to blame; one or both of you was simply distracted. In fact, most travel “mistakes” can be attributed to distractions. What could the two of you done differently to avoid getting distracted?
Who was more comfortable doing what — and who didn’t do much of anything to help. A frequent battle between travel partners revolves around who feels like they’re doing all the “dirty” work on the trip — watching bags, checking out, dealing with obnoxious bellhops, etc. If you’re the one who feels like you did all the grunt work throughout the trip, you should understand that your partner probably didn’t even notice. They may have been so preoccupied just making sure they had all their things, and that their pants weren’t tucked into their socks, etc. that they didn’t even notice your efforts, or your growing resentment. If your companion is generally considerate, don’t think they’ve turned into a travel snob who just wants you to wait on them. They probably just got overwhelmed. If you have a partner who suffers from some social anxiety, ask them next time if they can start packing your things while you straighten out the minibar bill with the cranky manager downstairs. You’ll make it clear that there’s work to be done on both sides, while not getting them upset by asking them to do something they definitely won’t want to do.
Major differences in energy levels. Even if you’ve known your travel partner for years and understand whether they are a morning person or a night owl, or who’s often a little slower to react than whom, people’s energy levels can be significantly different on a trip. Jet lag, environmental factors, excitement, and stress can make someone hyperactive, or slow them down to sloth mode. You weren’t having fun on your trip if you could barely get your partner out of bed when you were ready to go for hours (or vice versa). Don’t resort to saying, you were slowing me down the whole damn trip or you were running around like a crazy person for half our vacation. Instead, see what you could have done to better match energy levels. Could you have gone out on your own tour in the morning, or hit the exercise room or your blog while your partner was trying to wake up? Again, try not to blame each other. We’re all victims of our circadian rhythms and our hormones.
Major differences in personal space needs. Did you feel overwhelmed and claustrophobic after eight hours of crowds in the Forbidden City, while your partner thrived on all the activity and had a hard time leaving? You probably didn’t get along very well in your hotel room that night. You may be used to spending one or two hours a day with your friend/significant other/relative — not ten or twelve. No one says you have to arrive or leave places at the same time. Even if it will cost you an extra taxi ride, talk about how the two of you could have planned a little differently so that you were both happy — and not sick of each other (or your trip).
After discussing these things with your travel companion, the two of you might decide not to travel together again — and if so, at least you’ll have made the decision with understanding, not anger, and you won’t leave a stain on the places you visited together. And chances are, the next time you go abroad, your companion will not only still be talking to you; they’ll be glued to your travel blog the whole time. Who knows, in a few years the two of you could travel together again — this time as part of a larger group.
Did you have a wonderful time with your travel partner? Or did you often think about leaving them far, far behind — especially towards the end of your trip?
You should talk together about the challenges — or your relationship might end along with the vacation.
Here’s a quick quiz. What is a snowbird?
a) a relative of the blue robin that only breeds in cold weather
b) a female hockey player
c) a fan of Edward Snowden
d) someone from a cold or overcast climate who travels (or rather, flees) to a warm climate when winter starts to hack its ugly phlegm
Yep, if you guessed d), then you’re not so affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) to no longer be thinking straight. The fact is, a lot of people start to feel depressed this time of year, and they can’t explain why. They blame it on summer vacation being long gone; on dreading the holidays for whatever reason (having to see relatives they don’t like, or being reminded of a deceased, beloved family member) or on whatever is most obviously dysfunctional in their lives (crummy job, marital problems, weight issues, etc.). All those excuses… when really it’s about the weather. Our environment. Yes, our surroundings have a huge impact on us, no matter how used to them we are. If your scenery looks as bleak and lifeless as death on a popsicle, then you’re just not going to feel as good as you normally would.
SAD is the butt of many jokes, and it is also underdiagnosed — particularly (surprise!) in warmer climates. Why? Because even people in places like California and The South can be stricken at this time of year by the short days and relative lack of light. In other words, it doesn’t have to be 30 degrees out for you to have difficulty waking up in the morning, difficulty completing tasks, a sense of hopelessness, and lack of energy. And if you didn’t blow all your vacation time and money this summer, it can be very, very tempting to make like a snowbird and FLY as soon as possible to the nearest palm-tree studded destination closest to the equator. Should you feel bad or guilty over this? No way. Thousands of people are booking trips right now to the Caribbean, South America, South and Southeast Asia, and even Africa — and when it comes right down to it, they’ll admit: the weather made me do it.
So what if you can’t afford to get away as November and December loom depressingly near? Well, there are some practical changes you can make to your life to start feeling better.
Change rooms in your home. Step back for a moment and ask yourself if you’re relaxing or working in the darkest room in your house or apartment. Can you move to a place that has more southern exposure? I know someone who moves her desk from her bedroom to her dining room every fall to “follow the light.” It’s a lot easier to move some furniture around to improve your well-being than to see a shrink.
Divide your activities into indoor and outdoor. If you live somewhere that averages about three hours of sunlight this time of year, be prepared to seize those hours to do what you want to do outside. Pay your bills when it’s gray as sludge out — and be ready to pull your yoga mat onto the back deck when you see that glimmer of hope in the sky.
Go out at night. It will hardly matter if it looks depressing outside or not. The bright lights of your city (or even your small neighborhood) can be incredibly uplifting.
Use a light-box. Light therapy involves exposing yourself to a special incandescent lamp light-box which simulates the sun. They take up much less room than they used to and average about $50-$75.
I live in California where these light-boxes can be very difficult to find in stores. Thank goodness for Amazon — now I have the same buyer’s opportunity as all of you out there from Minnesota, Ontario, and the UK.
Stay as warm as possible since being cold or chilled will aggravate your intolerance for bad weather. Then get back to work — there’s still time to save up enough to go to Bermuda in February.
Crummy weather isn’t going to inspire you to hang presents from trees. Know when SAD is getting you down — and learn what to do about it.
Here’s a quick quiz. Which of the following do you do when you get back home from a spectacular trip abroad?
a) go to bed, even after you’ve recovered from jet lag
b) have a beer (or two or three) and ignore your pile of bills for a week
c) turn on the Travel Channel and leave it on (after you’ve gone back to bed)
d) look around your home with subtle disgust and distaste
e) two or more of the above
If you have a slight grimace on your face, keep reading.
Let’s be honest, if not dramatic: bringing your vacation to a close can be a rewarding, emotional, and draining experience. You may feel euphoric, proud, reborn, grateful, fulfilled, and like a different person. After you’ve seen, done, and been a part of many incredible things abroad, it can be hard to move on – and even more challenging not to slip into a major funk as you compare your vacation lifestyle with the realities waiting at home.
Here are some ideas for preventing post-trip doldrums from turning into a real bout of depression. While they’re not going to make you feel as great as you did while dining in London or Rome, you might find yourself feeling as good or even better than you did before you left for your trip — and with some energy left over to dream about your next getaway.
Manage your Restlessness. Traveling comes with a certain intensity and compression that can be difficult to unwind from. It also has the effect of “slowing” time, since you often do more different and eye-opening things in a single day than you might in a week at home. When you return, the restlessness you get from not doing something “new and different” can be downright unnerving. This restlessness usually goes away within three to six weeks of settling back into your everyday life. If you have the time, try taking smaller day trips in the weeks after your return to wear it off.
Become More Active. When you travel, you might realize that you’re not in the shape you thought you were, and as you gradually increase your fitness level during your trip, you may notice how much better you feel. This can inspire you to join a gym or take up a sport (including one you tried on your vacation) when you return. Becoming more active will not only make it easier to be in shape for the next trip; it can give any mounting depression a cheerful kick in the face. You may also conveniently lose some of the weight you gained at that last round of restaurants in Venice.
Clean Your House. Sound like an odd suggestion? Besides being obviously practical, cleaning your house can help you clear your head and reconnect with your usual surroundings. Your own home can feel unfamiliar and even strange after you’ve been through four or five hotel rooms in a row. Doing some cleaning will also help you find physical (and emotional) space for everything you brought home so you’re not tripping over your half-unpacked suitcase every time you meander to the coffee table for your copy of Conde Nast Traveler. Finally, you may start to redecorate with small things you bought on your trip, such as placemats, pottery, and wall hangings, so that you’re spreading the joy of your vacation around you, literally.
Clean OUT Your House. Living out of a suitcase can make you realize just how little you need to lead a full life. A lot of people are inspired to unload a number of little-used items from their home after they return from vacation, and find it convenient to host a garage sale or sell items on eBay in order to make money for the next trip.
Having fewer possessions can also focus you more on your present life, and give you a far greater sense of freedom. And making a nice chunk of money to put towards Tokyo or Hong Kong is going to do wonders for your mood.
Start a New Hobby. During a trip you’re exposed to a myriad of new and different things – or the same things that you are used to, but in a different context. A common hobby you may take up after returning home is learning how to cook a certain ethnic food, or studying the language of a place you plan to revisit. Such things often need only a modest investment in time or money, and give you that exhilarating feel you get while on a trip — of doing something for the first time.
Make New Acquaintances and Friends. To relive positive memories, you may be unable to resist telling others a lot about your trip – even if you’ve never shared much of anything with anyone. Since people are generally curious to hear firsthand experiences of other places and cultures, your chances of being rebuffed are pretty minimal. To coworkers and people who don’t know you well, you become known as “the traveler,” which makes a great icebreaker every time you see someone that you didn’t feel comfortable talking to before.
And last but not least…
Keep Sharing! A lot of travel bloggers post almost every day while they are abroad, and then wind down their posts or even come to a dead stop when they return home. Don’t do this! Save some experiences and photos to share after you’ve started unpacking; not only will it “extend” your trip, but it can also take some of the pressure off your hectic touring schedule (let’s face it, blogging after a 10-hour day in Paris might not be something you can stay awake for). And let’s not forget what travel and blogging have in common: connecting you with the world. The more you connect, the less likely you are to get depressed.
Honey, can we empty these bags and go right back out again?
Oh wait, we live in the real world. And the real world isn’t bad; it’s what we make of it!
If you’ve ever had to visit an ER or doctor in another country, you know how critical it is to have an emergency medical card, and several supplemental documents, with you at all times (or at least in your hotel room). Some of this medical and personal information seems pointless to write down since you can reel it off the top of your head, but most of it isn’t — and you don’t want to be kicking yourself for not having the contact info you need when you’re ill or injured so far from home.
Your emergency medical card (or page, printout, etc.) and supplemental info should include your critical health and personal data, and definitely not be left to the last minute since it can take surprisingly long (as in, upwards of eight hours!) to gather and list all the information. Sound boring and tedious to put together? It is — but hopefully the following can help.
Your card should include the names, phone numbers, and addresses or email addresses for the following:
1. Family member or close contact remaining at home;
2. Your doctor at home, your pharmacy, and your health care provider;
3. Travel insurance (and any medevac insurance) information;
4. Place(s) of lodging at your destination;
5. The U.S. Embassy or consulate in your destination country;
6. A list of your medications, including generic and brand names, reason for taking each, dosage information, and how often taken;
7. All medical conditions or allergies you have; and
8. Documentation of any immunizations required by the country you’re visiting.
Items to attach or keep with this card include:
1. A copy of your medical insurance card (keep the original in your wallet);
2. At least one insurance claim form (note that you shouldn’t have to navigate through the member services department of your HMO to get insurance claim forms; the travel clinic should carry them);
3. A signed letter from your physician describing your general medical condition(s), and all current medications;
4. The list of urgent care services and doctors that you have researched in each country (or, more likely, had your physician or travel agent research for you); and, if you’re traveling off the beaten tourist track:
5. The name of any medication conditions, and medications, written in the local languages of the areas you plan to visit. For translation services, try asking your travel clinic first since your main care practitioner may not know where to send you within your HMO or PPO. Note that it’s unwise to use a free online translation service since the software may misunderstand (or not understand at all) complex medical and technical terms and any abbreviations.
Keep the card and all supplemental documents somewhere where they won’t get wet or stolen (to be on the safe side, include one copy in your purse or smaller bag, and one in your checked luggage). Tell anyone traveling with you about the card and supplements, and their location(s).
While you’re busy compiling all this information, don’t forget to fill out the page inside your passport with the name, address, and telephone number of someone to be contacted in an emergency (you’d be amazed at how many people forget to do this).
Finally, before you go, be sure to register your destination countries, visit dates, and hotel addresses in your country’s traveler enrollment program. For Americans, this would be the U.S Embassy’s STEP (Smart Traveler Enrollment Program) system at https://step.state.gov/step/. If you do need urgent assistance from an embassy, STEP will already have your basic information on file.
Canadians should go to http://travel.gc.ca/travelling/registration, U.K. citizens should go to https://www.gov.uk/browse/abroad/travel-abroad, and Australians should go to https://www.orao.dfat.gov.au/orao/weborao.nsf/Homeform?Openform .
Prepare your card BEFORE your trip — and not while you’re killing time on the train!
Quite possibly. Very possibly. And why, you ask? Are you kidding?
Have you been to a major American or other Western airport on 9/11? The lines are shorter, but the screenings take longer, because they’re more thorough. There are fewer distractions. The music blaring from Duty-Free is turned down a bit; there isn’t the same raucous chatter from tour groups and families about to depart. Everyone is watching everyone else.
The pilots and flight attendants are more vigilant. Passengers don’t leave bags unattended for five seconds (much less a couple minutes) to recheck their boarding time on the screen. There’s a subtle, but depressing and deadened hush from gate to gate, from terminal to terminal. Planes are triple-checked instead of double-checked. Air traffic controllers watch every move on their monitors and across the sky as if their lives depended on it.
Which to me, at least, all suggests that 9/11 may in fact be the safest day of the entire year to get on an airplane — at least in the West, and at any number of other areas scarred by a terror attack.
But would you care to fly on 9/11? My guess is no.
As we approach the 12th anniversary of 9/11, it’s worth taking a brief look at what’s happened at airports and on airplanes, both in terms of safety and security. Besides a couple of terrifying near-misses involving a shoe bomb and liquid gels, there hasn’t been a major incident or threat. Newer security measures (which are now years old) border on knee-jerk reactions (no one had to remove their shoes before Richard Reid’s threat; no one had a problem with our jug of water until the scare with the bottles of chemicals onboard).
It’s impossible to say if terrorists want an encore of a certain tragedy to drive their message home. From what I’ve observed, they usually move on to some other tactic once they’re successful at a particular “mission.” Take the World Trade Center, for example: after some unsuccessful tries to bring it down, the jihadists accomplished their “mission” and moved on to… well, a variety of other things. Embassies will always remain vulnerable targets. Car bombings are smaller-scale, but accomplish the same basic “goal.”
To me, the people that seem most scared — and maybe rightfully so — are the ones with the Eurail or Amtrak passes. I need to glance through my own travel anxiety book every time I get on a train now. Of course I’m scared. Isn’t everyone?
Will I be flying on 9/11 this year? No, because it’s still a little too hot in Turkey during the first half of September. I’ve given myself a good reason (excuse?) to fly on the less auspicious date of 9/26 instead.
Will you be flying on 9/11 this year? Maybe not, since it’s coming up fast, you might have other plans, and it still holds that sickening power of imagination and dread over us. But would you consider doing so in the future? You might. From my look around during the last 9/11, it seems about as safe as you can get, and your courage — and indifference to the date — flies right in the face of what every jihadist most wants.
It’s 9/11. Am I all alone in here?