Driving in a Foreign Country: What You Need to Know (Part 1 of 3)

Getting from Point A to Point B in a foreign land is a fundamental part of traveling – and should be one of the more enjoyable aspects of exploring a new country. New and seasoned travelers alike take their choice of transportation – whether on vacation or a business or family trip – very seriously. The experiences you’ve had on prior trips with trains, buses, taxi drivers, and short-distance air travel may inspire your desire for independence and solitude, and for many of us, the sense of the familiar: a car. Rental car companies exist in almost every nation of the world. So what do you need to know before you get behind the wheel for the ultimate private tour?

There’s a lot you need to understand before you make the commitment of booking a car in another country and becoming a part of that country’s “driver culture.” With peak holiday season coming up, this is a good time to go over the ups, downs, and roundabouts of driving abroad. Yes, there are lots of potential headaches that can come with exotic road trips – but the allure never grows dull. So take a few minutes to start this three-part series on what you need to know about traffic, roads, laws, and plenty of smaller details that won’t quite fit in your glove compartment. If you keep yourself steering in the right direction, you’ll slowly leave behind the anxiety that comes with those pesky train timetables, obnoxious cabbies, overcrowded tour buses, and terminally late hotel shuttles.

1. International driving permit

Before you start dreaming of your foreign road trip, take a good hard look at the license in your own wallet, because you’ll need it. There are some misconceptions about international driving permits (IDPs). An IDP is a document that translates your license into different languages; it is not a laminated free-for-all to drive all over the globe. Since the permit is not a license to drive in itself, you will need to carry your own, domestic driver’s license wherever you go. Not all rental car companies will ask for your IDP, but you should never be caught on a foreign road without it since you in the event that something goes wrong, you will need to present it to police, others involved in an accident, or when filing an insurance claim.

Your driver’s license may not be valid in all other foreign countries. Since different countries make up different rules about this important issue and sometimes change rules without notice, check your country’s embassy webpage for up-to-date information. Whether you are allowed to drive with your own country’s driver’s license may also depend on your visa status. Certain countries may allow you to drive there for up to 30 days, but after that require you to apply for a local license.

2. Insurance coverage

Most countries have compulsory auto insurance laws of some type. There are generally three types of insurance:

  • That which covers your liability to the rental car company in the event their vehicle is damaged while in your possession
  • Insurance that covers injury to yourself and other occupants of your vehicle
  • Insurance that covers your liability toward other drivers if you are at fault in an accident (including damage to that party’s vehicle and injury to its occupants)

None of this will come as much of a surprise, but it can be difficult to assess whether your domestic auto insurance will actually cover you abroad. Many auto insurance companies in North America claim to “have you covered” overseas, but there are plenty of loopholes in the coverage policies. If possible, have a meeting with your insurance agent before going on your trip, and ask him or her to exchange emails with your rental car agency abroad regarding the type of coverage you’re expected to have in the foreign country.

If you don’t fully trust either your domestic auto insurer or your rental car agency, go to your embassy webpage as they may have useful and unbiased information on what is required to drive in a specific country.

 3. Automatic vs. standard transmission

Automatic transmission is something that many in North America (and increasingly, beyond) take for granted. In many countries around the world, though, renting a vehicle with automatic transmission is difficult, or sometimes impossible – and if you can find it, it can be much more expensive.

In North America, it’s estimated that only about 20% of all drivers know how to drive manual transmission (“stick shift”). If you want or need to drive somewhere that only offers rental cars with stick shift, try calling your AAA or department of motor vehicles for classes you can take on driving stick shift. If you’re going to be driving stick shift in a country that drives on the other side of the road, you may opt for a simulator since any practice you get with right-hand stick-shift will be “backwards” when you step into your rental vehicle.

4. Cultural influence on driving habits

Cultural values, such as attitudes about gender, value for human life, and value for animal life can impact how people drive around the world. In some countries, women rarely get behind the wheel; if you’re a woman renting a car in one of these countries (particularly in the Middle East) expect to be stared at, honked at, and have your right of way repeatedly robbed by aggressive macho men and other gents that are just plain outraged that you’re exercising your freedom to roll down the street on your own.

In places where overpopulation and endless crowds have left a negative impact on individual psyche, drivers may regard others with all the respect and patience of ants littering their path. Well, no, it’s not quite that bad, but you can generally expect less courteous driving in places where personal space is at a minimum.

You, the sensitive Western driver, may swerve to avoid hitting small animals such as rats, squirrels, and even cats skittering across the road, while other drivers make no such adjustment and could care less about what poor four-legged creature they hit. Your swerving and braking may take them by surprise and lead to prolonged horn-blasting, shouting, etc.

Drivers in more materialistic countries may be more careful on the road – i.e., make a little more effort not to ram right into you and cost thousands of dollars of damage. In places where the average car looks like it’s older than you are, expect others to take less care in coming within a few inches of your polished, rented fenders.

5. Right-side vs. left-side driving

I have great respect and admiration for Aussie, Kiwi, British, and Irish drivers who come to North America and handily take to the wheel on the opposite side that they’re used to. I don’t have that kind of dexterity, and I don’t think I’m alone in acknowledging that I’d probably crash into a tree if all of a sudden I had to drive on the left.

It’s one thing to get used to driving on the other side of the road; it’s another to have to suddenly change from one side to the other. Several bordering countries around the world drive on opposite sides, requiring you, the driver, to switch sides once you cross the border. For example, Hong Kong drives on the left while mainland China drives on the right. Thailand drives on the left while all of its neighbors drive on the right. The southern countries of Africa drive on the left, while the remainder of Africa drives on the right. And of course, as we know, Britain drives on the left, while just a short ferry ride away, Belgium and The Netherlands drive, you know, on the wrong side (I mean, on the right side).

If you’re on a multi-country trip in any of these regions, ask yourself how quickly you can adjust to driving on the opposite of the road. It may be wise to make your border crossing when you’re most refreshed (i.e., after a nice relaxing stay at a border hotel) and muscle memory doesn’t steer you to the wrong side of the road.

6. Traffic citations

As most of us know, traffic laws are generally enforced by either live police officers who have the authority to stop vehicles and issue citations, or by cameras (or videocameras) that film violations, followed by a citation and fine being mailed to the vehicle’s owner. The latter is becoming increasingly common, even in developing countries.

A traffic ticket isn’t something you can “hide” from once you leave a country. Many nations have different laws regarding the handling of traffic violations committed by foreigners. Some countries will demand payment of an on-the-spot fine; others won’t allow you to depart until the matter is settled (and this can be quite an embarrassing thing to learn when you’re in the customs line at the airport). If your vehicle is cited by camera, your car rental company will be billed, and the company will in turn tack the charge onto your bill. If for some reason the rental car company can’t do this, they may pursue civil action (think a collection agency, or even a lawsuit). And if the agency operates in your own country, they may be able to take this action in your country’s court system – and they’ll probably charge interest on your fine.

Try to address any traffic citation as quickly and proactively as possible.   You might be cited for something that is unfair or nitpicky, but chalk it up to a lesson learned and get on with your trip. Opt for paying an on-the-spot fine where possible, since in some countries, even the smallest amount of debt is regarded as a criminal matter, allowing such debt to be pursued in the criminal justice system if the powers-that-be so wish. This may lead to your arrest if you ever step foot (or drive) in that country in the future.

Fortunately, most road signs around the world are decipherable to the average English speaker (but, it helps to know some Arabic if you happen to be cruising around Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei)

Fortunately, most road signs around the world are decipherable to the average English speaker (but, it helps to know some Arabic if you happen to be cruising around Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei)

22 Things to Pack for a Trip to a Developing Country

There are lots of great travel packing lists out there — and with plenty of us fleeing for warm-weather countries this month for a break from the snow and rain, we can definitely use some recommendations.  I haven’t seen a list yet for  what to pack if you’re destined for a place where it’s easier to buy a goat than a bottle of Purell, or where the locals think that “Samsonite” is the name of an American airline, so here are my recommendations.  Believe me, there will be no room in the suitcase for your anxiety once you stuff all this in.

I. Bring to stay healthy:

  • A bedbug trap, since your place of lodging is probably unable to do anything in the case of bedbugs, or can move you to a bedbug-free room. Amazon carries a decent one: http://www.amazon.com/ClimbUp%C2%AE-Interceptors-pack-passive-traps/dp/B0028Z0LDQ/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1388938697&sr=8-2&keywords=bed+bug+detector
  • Vitamins. Don’t underestimate how many nutrients you may lose by eating non-fortified foods in developing countries.  Vitamins also help replenish your system after any bouts of diarrhea or vomiting
  • Granola bars, protein bars or trail mix.  Protein bars are my pick since it can become nearly impossible to get enough protein from safe sources abroad.
  • Water purification tablets, or a water filter
  • Condoms: these can be nearly impossible to find, depending on the religious and cultural swaying of wherever you’re visiting

II. Bring to stay clean:

  • Toilet paper: as much as you have room for.  I will never forget finding only bright pink TP in Morocco that practically disintegrated as soon as I touched it
  • Paper towels, in case your hotel or hostel towels (if provided) are dirty
  • A sheet, since the cheaper hotels, and many hostels, do not provide clean bedding
  • Laundry detergent, and a few feet of rope to use as a clothesline (among other things)
  • Enough hand sanitizer to sterilize a small village
  • A universal rubber plug, for use in tubs and sinks. Just remember to hide it after use each day or your host could accuse you of trying to flood his or her establishment.

III. Bring to stay comfortable:

  • A small, battery-operated fan, both to serve its primary purpose of cooling you where there is no A/C, and to drown out street noise.  Don’t wait to buy a fan where you’re going, since it will almost always come with a cord and you’ll already be using what precious few socket(s) you have to charge your devices
  • A sewing kit, if you can actually thread a needle; if you can’t, go with a few tubes of Krazy Glue like I do

IV. Bring to stay out of trouble:

  • Plenty of Google map printouts, zoomed in enough to get both the English and native language script for street and place names

V. Bring for a variety of uses:

  • Ziploc and plastic bags for protecting your electronics and documents from the elements Swiss Army pocket knife (remember to put it back in your checked bag)
  • A waterproof container of matches, or a lighter (also to remain in your checked bag)
  • A small roll of duct tape.  It’s come through for me as both bag repair and medical tape in a developing country!
  • A luggage lock and coiling cable (preferably one for each of your bags)
  • Keychain flashlight
  • World Market crinkle curtain-in-a-pouch: http://www.worldmarket.com/product/porcelain-crinkle-voile-curtain.do?&from=fn.  Can be used as a beach blanket, rag, rope, souvenir packaging, modesty or sun scarf, or a privacy curtain in case your hotel window comes naked.  And if you lose just about everything on your trip, including your inhibitions, at least you’ll have one last thing to wrap yourself in!
Unfortunately, there is no mall behind this neighborhood.  Best to bring what you need!

Unfortunately, there is no mall (or even a drugstore) beyond this neighborhood. Best to bring what you need!

Touring without Stress: How to Leave Your Anxiety in the Baggage Compartment

Joining a Sea of Strangers on the Streets of a Foreign City: A Practical Approach 

There are dozens of books you can read on understanding the social norms and etiquette of a particular country you will visit. The amount of information can be overwhelming, and attempts to capture a culture can lead you to believe that millions of people behave similarly in all cultural and social interactions.  In reality, etiquette is more rooted in local ways of life, with differences across provinces, rural areas, counties, and even city neighborhoods.  Think about how you would answer an American culture question from a Dutchman taking a road trip from Harlem, New York to a small fishing town in Maryland, to New Orleans, and then back to New York City – this time to Manhattan.  Would you know where to start?

One of the goals of social norms is to establish standard behavior so that people know what to expect of each other, and can stop thinking so much about basic interactions.  While many cultures encourage freedom of expression, many have tolerance “blind spots” and hypocrisies that may have originated in conflicts between religious, social, and political beliefs.  Not understanding or respecting social norms, no matter how exasperating they sometimes may be, can lead to feelings of isolation, frustration, dejection, and significant stress.  Remember, your goal is to feel comfortable as quickly as possible in a place you’ve never been, so you can get your mind off “code of conduct” stress and enjoy your trip.

First arrival.  Sources of anxiety when arriving to the streets of a foreign city or town may include:

  • Not knowing what is appropriate street behavior (voice level, pointing, stopping to make a phone call, etc.);
  • Not wanting to offend people (e.g., violating taboos);
  • Smaller than normal personal space;
  • Level of formality expected or demanded; and
  • Fear of confrontation if making a mistake or upsetting someone.

A negative experience can amplify embarrassment into shame, with anger, distrust, and loss of confidence along for the ride.  Fortunately, negative experiences and encounters can be mitigated by a few key approaches.  These are:

  • Observation;
  • Self-awareness; and
  • Assimilation according to your own comfort level.

We’ll go over each of these below.

Observation.  Sit at a plaza café or a small park, alone or with your travel partner, and just watch people go by for an hour or so.  Notice things such as:

  • What are people doing that you find unusual or unnatural?
  • What are they not doing on the streets that you’re used to seeing?  This could include activities such as adjusting one’s clothes or hair, blowing one’s nose, or snacking at a pedestrian stoplight
  • How do other people react to someone who engages in generally anti-social behavior (such as letting a door slam in a stranger’s face, or corralling a taxi that someone else has hailed?)

Self-awareness.  Realize that you have two different street behaviors: one when you’re at home, in your accustomed environment, and one as a tourist or outsider.  At home you’re used to being part of the scene around you; as a tourist, you’re usually preoccupied with the scene, and stand apart from it. You may walk more slowly, stare, stop suddenly, and meander or change direction.  You may be more polite and more patient than normal, and you may be louder or quieter than normal. Your “tourist” behavior may or may not be more suited to the mannerisms of those around you.  Ask yourself:

  • How many of your unassuming street behaviors are going to draw unwelcome attention?
  • How good are you at controlling your first impulses and responses?
  • How much will this matter in your particular environment?

Comfortable assimilation.  Trying to blend in too much with the locals may take a lot of the enjoyment out of your travel.  Hurrying, looking down instead of around, and constantly restraining your interest and curiosity aren’t anyone’s idea of a nice tour.  Identify which two or three of your habits are the most disruptive or displeasing, and make a regular effort to tone them down.  Remember, the goal is to spare yourself embarrassment and anxiety – not make yourself uncomfortable.

This scene doesn't have to be intimidating.

This scene doesn’t have to be intimidating.

Tourist Scams: What You Need to Know (Part 3 of 3)

Here’s the final segment on what to keep a wary eye out for during your travels.  May you all have safe and scumbag-free journeys, wherever they may take you!

11. Driver or hotel claiming you damaged their property
I sat in the back of a taxi last fall in Morocco that had a large tear all the way down the middle of the opposite seat. I had my luggage over the seat for the whole ride, and when I paid the driver and got out, all of a sudden he started yelling that I had “ruined his seat” by destroying it with my bag wheels. He started swearing and demanding money, and people at the train station stared. A policeman came up and took my side, I think without even knowing what my psycho cabbie scammer was upset about, and the taxi driver quickly got out of there, so I got lucky (the policeman had dealt with this taxi driver before.)

Lesson learned? When taking a ride or accepting services from unscrupulous-looking individuals, avoid contact with all signs of physical damage as much as you can, because you can be blamed for them. Of course, shoddy hotels are also known for claiming that unsuspecting patrons have damaged the room. In general, when staying for several days at a place, you should clean up any cigarette butts, broken glass, or anything else potentially damaging before the maid comes in, or the hotel can get ideas about charging you for old burn marks, tile scratches, etc.  Also, remember to report any existing damage to the room as soon as possible after you check in, or you could be blamed for it.

12. The tap water is “unsafe to drink”
Hotels in foreign countries (especially in Eastern Europe) will post “helpful” warning signs around your bathroom and/or kitchenette warning you that the tap water is not potable, and that drinking water must be purchased from the front desk (or worse, from the minibar). In many of these countries, water is perfectly safe to consume, but the hotel wants to sell you bottled water. In some cases, they’ll give you bottled water, implying that they’re free, but then add it on as a hidden charge later; this happened to me in a hostel in Australia a few years ago (and I actually believed that the tap water in Canberra was unsafe to drink…).

To know whether or not the tap water is safe to drink somewhere, do your own research on the internet (preferably your country’s embassy guide), or ask a local. If you’re unsure one way or the other, then buy bottled water — at the nearest supermarket or mini-mart, not from the hotel.

13. Accommodation recommendations
Your tour guide or taxi driver will tell you that the hotel you’ve booked is closed, “no good,” or too pricy, and that he knows somewhere nicer. While this might be true, the “nicer” place is giving him a commission for his referrals, and if you say yes and let yourself be taken somewhere you weren’t planning, you make yourself vulnerable to more unexpected costs and detours. Furthermore, a stranger who is friends with your hotel owner now knows where you’re staying.

What can you do? Stick with your planned hotel. An unfamiliar, flashy hotel that your scammer has just pulled you up to is always going to look more glamorous than your reserved hotel did when you saw the tiny pictures online; don’t fall for it, and trust your original arrangements. If it’s a “reputable” tour guide who’s telling you to change all your plans at the last minute, you might consider ditching them altogether.

14. Help with buying the metro ticket
Do you love being self-sufficient by buying your own metro ticket in Paris, Rome, or other large cities — but get tired of locals huffing and sighing behind you as you stumble around on the screen to choose the right train or fare? Local opportunists will gladly appear out of nowhere to help you purchase your ticket — and demand a “little something” for their help. You should be very careful since at this point you probably still have your wallet out and you’ve just stepped away from the machine and no longer have the attention of the people in line who might actually intervene if your “helper” very discreetly mugs you.

In general, be leery of non-service person who goes out of their way to help you without asking you if you need them. If you’re “stuck” as to how to purchase a ticket, remember that the person waiting behind you has an obvious interest in you getting what you want and moving on. Try asking them rather than waiting for someone to approach you in your moment of ineptitude.

15. “I’ve just been robbed!”
A clearly distressed person (often a woman, but can also be a man) posing as a fellow tourist will approach you and ask you if you know where the nearest police station is. They’ll tell you they’ve just been mugged or robbed and don’t have enough money to get back to their hotel, much less get back to their own city or country. When you suggest they talk to the police, they will tell you that the police “couldn’t be found” or that there was a language barrier. The person will continue to be emotional (but not overly aggressive) until you break down and give them some money. Even if you don’t give them much, these people can make a lot of money in one day playing the same dirty trick over and over.

16. Forgetting your change
A friendly ticket seller at a tourist site takes your cash, then takes a long time processing your ticket(s) all the while chatting up their colleagues, asking for your ID, and perhaps answering the phone on top of it. While you’re busy looking around and waiting, your large bill has gone into the till and nothing has come out yet. A few minutes later the seller gives you a bright smile, some instructions, and says “bye!” so you’ll leave. Once you step through the gate you remember about your change, but have no way of getting it — or if you do, it’s the ticket seller’s word against yours.

To avoid being a victim of this scam, try vocalizing your transaction, such as saying “I’m getting 30 back in change, right?“ as you’re handing over your money. Don’t let your eyes and attention wander until after you’ve gotten your money. The scammer will notice you’re on the ball and find a more distracted person to shortchange.

One final note: beware of outright robbery committed by motorcycling bag-snatchers out there (not that these cool Bangkok locals would even think of it)

One final note: beware of outright robbery committed by motorcycling bag-snatchers out there (not that these cool Bangkok locals would even think of it)

 

 

Tourist Scams: What You Need to Know (Part 2 of 3)

Calling all travelers, explorers, vacationers, and wanderlusts who don’t want to be taken advantage of abroad:  here’s the continuation of last week’s series on scams you need to be aware of in cities around the world.

7. Forced Upgrade at a Hotel
You book and pay for your hotel online through Expedia, Hotels.com, Priceline, or another well-known vendor. When you arrive at the hotel, you’re told that there was a “mistake” with the online booking, that it’s all the online vendor’s fault, and that your room is not available and you have to pay for a higher-priced room if you want to stay. You either have to pay for the more expensive room or find another hotel, which is often impractical unless you know the area well.

What can you do to avoid this scam?  If you’re staying at an independent hotel that isn’t highly rated (and that you‘re unfamiliar with), try emailing them a week or two before your trip with a question, concern, or any other excuse that involves forwarding your confirmation email right along to them. Bring a printout of your correspondence with you when you check in. It will be a lot harder for them to claim that they don’t know about your existing reservation.

8. “Free Tour”
You are approached by a cab driver or tout outside your hotel and offered a free tour of a historical district or exclusive area a considerable distance away. You take them up on it after getting a nod or a shrug from the man or woman behind the reception desk. You’re then driven to a store or restaurant (owned by the cab driver’s or tout’s friend) where you’re pressured to buy expensive, inferior-quality items. When you ask about your “tour,” your scammer says it’s coming, but there are a few places he’d love for you to see first. Meanwhile you have no idea where you are and are wasting your money and time.

It’s tempting to think that in the most beautiful, least expensive countries in the world (where this scam often takes place) you can truly get “something for nothing.” Nope, nothing’s free in life, not even in these places, so stick with your planned tour and don’t let anyone “take you for a ride.”

9. “Amenity Fees”
Unscrupulous hotels will charge you an additional fee just for the use of certain things in your room, such as the safe, the microwave, the iron and ironing board, or the refrigerator. Some will charge only if these items have been used; others will charge even if you haven’t touched them. You’ll see the “fees” on the final bill and be given a bewildered look by the receptionist when asked why the use of your “amenities” don’t come with the price of the room.

If you’ve prepaid for your room through Priceline, Expedia, etc. it becomes a little harder for the hotel to assess the fees. Beware though that they might disguise the charges under a “city tax” in a city where there is no such thing. Online booking websites will usually warn you when there will a city tax to be collected at the end of your stay. At any rate, the best way to fight “amenity fees” is to print out a receipt of your reservation including all the amenities right above your room charge — or find out about and stay away from nickel-and-diming hotels by reading reviews on TripAdvisor or Hotels.com.

10. Distraction Opportunists
Lots of us are pleasantly distracted when we’re touring. We want to be unexpectedly delighted or drawn in by something new and different. Unfortunately, scammers and thieves thrive on our distraction. These scheisters often work in pairs or small groups: one person will distract you, while the other will rob you while you’re distracted.

If you’re traveling alone, you might be approached by a very attractive member of the opposite sex and offered advice, help, or the privilege of their company. While spellbound by Ms. or Mr. Hottie, another person slips something out your bag or pocket.

Scams that employ children are becoming more and more common as poverty and desperation make thievery a family affair. A smiling kid will come up to talk, sing, or “perform” for you until an adult (who may or may not be the kid’s real parent) comes up to apologize for the bother. While the parent is sweetly engaging you in their apology, the kid is robbing something out of your bag.

Another common distraction scam features scammers pretending to be hit by bicyclists, or starting to drown in the hotel pool, or otherwise the victim of some major trauma that makes everyone, including you, stop and stare — and possibly step away from your belongings. The “victim’s” friend may rush by you on their way to the scene, making a big swipe for your valuables in the process.

It's easy to get distracted on city streets in other countries.  Self-awareness, and knowledge of the most typical scams, go a long way towards keeping you safe.

It’s easy to get distracted on city streets in other countries. Self-awareness, and knowledge of the most typical scams, go a long way towards keeping you safe.

Tourist Scams: What You Need to Know (Part 1 of 3)

Few things are going to cause you stress on a trip abroad like getting cheated, duped, taken advantage of, or just plain screwed over.  When we travel, we often let our guard down, because we’re curious about people in our host country, we want to be liked, and we want to believe that we’ll be treated fairly; however, there are plenty of scammers, schemers, and slimy scheisters looking to cash in on our trust and optimism.  And when we go someplace we’re not familiar with, we’re vulnerable: we often don’t know our way around, may not be in charge of our transportation, may have very limited language skills, and may not know where to go for help.  One of the best ways to defend ourselves against scammers is to know what their tricks are, and how to avoid them — then you can go back to actually enjoying your vacation.  This special series covers 18 of the most common universal scams. 

1. Currency Swap
Many seasoned travelers keep a wary eye out for crooked cashiers and clerks around the world who give back the wrong change in bills (e.g., a 10 bill instead of a 20) in shops large and small. A less common, but more effective, scam is to give you back a 20 bill — but it’s the wrong currency. For example, a clerk in Beijing may give you back a 20 ruble note instead of a 20 yuan note. Since you see “20,” you think all is good, and don’t even notice the different currency — but the clerk has just given you something worth 1/3 of what you’re owed (and hey, who wants to visit Russia these days anyway?).

With so many countries using different size notes and distinct colors for currency (a notable exception being the U.S.) you may think it’s hard to get confused — except when you’re country-hopping, outside the Eurozone, or just in too much of a hurry to see if that somber guy drawn on your bill is from the country you’re actually in.

2. “Non-Exportable” Gifts and Souvenirs
If you’ve fallen in love with (and immediately purchased) a unique handicraft made out of natural materials such as preserved plant products or small amounts of animal skin, feathers, or fur, beware of these items being confiscated by border police — not because it’s prohibited to take such items out of the country, but because corrupt cops want to sell them back to the tourist shops (who peddle them to other unsuspecting travelers). This is a particular problem in Southeast Asia and parts of Africa.

What should you do? Only buy natural product/”heritage” items from larger stores that provide information (such as in a product insert) about where the product came from. A good bet is to buy such items from government-operated museums, zoos, aquariums, or the like. At the other end of this scam, remember that legitimate border police should be able to produce written regulations stating what natural product items cannot be exported.

3. The “Red-Light Bag Grab”
Think your bags are safe beside you when you’re sitting in your taxi at a red light? Not always so. In Southeast Asia, South America, and South Africa, thieves on motorbikes (or even on foot) may simply open the unlocked door across from you and grab your carry-on, briefcase, or purse. What’s worse, your innocent-looking cab driver might be in on the scam.

To reduce the risk of this scam, make sure your taxi door and the one across from you is locked — and by all means, try to avoid taxis with roof-top luggage racks which make the temptation even greater for crooks.

4. Dual Menus
A bar or restaurant can scam you by providing a menu with inexpensive prices, then taking the menu once you’ve ordered. Later you get a bill with double or triple the prices, and once you make a fuss, the manager produces a menu with the higher prices on it. This scam is most common in China and parts of Southern Europe.

A fairly straightforward way to avoid this is to simply hold onto the menu until you’re ready to pay — or better yet, stay out of bars or restaurants with too-good-to-be-true specials, and that clearly cater to tourists. Your hotel will probably be happy to tell you which restaurants in the neighborhood may give you indigestion in more ways than one.

5. “Per Person” Taxi Charge
Before you get into an unmetered taxi — especially an independently-operated taxi in a country not known for treating tourists well — ask the driver if the quoted price for you and your partner/friends is for the ride, or per person. Nothing is going to sour you and your (possibly) drunken group more than being told at your destination that you owe three or four times what you thought you did. Of course, you can always give the driver the price he gave you when you hired him, and walk away — but it’s inadvisable as you could be harassed, followed, or worse.

6. Your Passport as Security for Equipment Rental or Debt
The news that two passengers aboard Malaysian Air Flight MH370 traveled with stolen passports has generated a flurry of reports on how many passports are stolen every year — and how easily people make themselves vulnerable to such scams. It’s remarkable how many people will hand over their passport to people behind a counter in a foreign country — even for things like kayak or motorbike rental. If a clerk in a beachside or roadside establishment demands your passport — in addition to your credit card information — in exchange for equipment rental, beware. Pay cash wherever possible, demand a receipt (even handwritten) and hand over some other form of identity (such as your work badge) instead.

Next week: lodging scams, “free tours,” forced upgrades, and other things that will make you fume, rage, and rant unless you wise up.  Stay safe out there, and stay smart!

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Relaxation Opportunities in the World’s Airports

As many of us can attest to, dozens of modern international airports are like mini-cities, complete with malls, chapels, huge kid’s play areas, two-story food plazas, and sometimes even golf courses and movie theaters.  As travel services have evolved into an art, more and more airports have focused on offering the weary, anxious, or downright cranky traveler the chance to de-stress — to the point that some of us might even forget we’re in an airport.  Spas?  Art galleries?  Gardens?  They’re in many of the world’s largest and most popular hubs — maybe even in the one you call your own.

You don’t have to belong to an airline’s VIP club to access most of these relaxing amenities; you just have to find the right terminal.  So, if you have a choice of where to spend a long layover on your next trip, I offer these observations about some of the best airports out there where you can settle your frazzled nerves instead of dreading the next bout of altitude.  I’m sure you can think of a few other airports where you wouldn’t mind killing some time at all.

Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Malaysia

  • Rainforest
  • Reflexology and massage center

Narita International Airport, Tokyo

  • Silence room
  • Reflexology center
  • Oxygen bar

Dubai International Airport, United Arab Emirates

  • Two indoor Zen gardens, located on either end of the concourse

San Francisco International Airport

  • Yoga room
  • Library
  • Aquarium
  • Art galleries

Schiphol International, Amsterdam

  • Library
  • Museum

(No offense to Schiphol, but besides the library and museum, this has to be one of the noisiest, most hectic airports on earth… and this is after they ditched the one-terminal concept!)

Beijing International Airport

  • Temples and pond

Chicago O’Hare International Airport

  • The “Backrub Hub,” offering neck and back massages

Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport

  • Self-service yoga studio

Incheon International Airport, South Korea

  • Spa
  • Indoor gardens
  • Museum
  • Private sleeping rooms

Heathrow, London

  • Art Gallery
  • Be Relax Spa

Taiwan International Airport

  • Library featuring e-books, regular books, and magazines and newspapers

Charles de Gaulle, Paris

  • Be Relax Spa
  • Movie theater

Changi Airport, Singapore

  • Five themed gardens, one of them home to more than a thousand butterflies
  • Free calf-massage stations
  • Designated napping facilities

Vancouver International Airport

  • Sleep pods, complete with noise-canceling earphones

I can think of some airports I’d put on a different list for being the loudest, most irritating, panic attack-inducing places on earth, but alas, one of the best ways to manage stress is to keep things positive.  So, I’ll leave you with this image — wherever you may be right now.

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Too bad more of us don’t find laying over in Tallinn, Estonia convenient.  The international airport, Lennart Meri Tallinn, has passenger relaxation at every gate down to an art.

How to Find a Quiet Place to Relax in a Crowded Foreign City

Do you often come back from a trip and feel like you need a “vacation to recover from your vacation?”  You’re not alone.

Many people feel this way because they didn’t let themselves decompress at any time while they were away.  Given the greater emotional and physical energy exerted during a trip, it’s easy to feel drained or overstimulated during and after travel.   Finding a tranquil place to relax and regroup during your trip is one of the most obvious ways to prevent mental or emotional burnout — and keep every day of your vacation feeling (almost) like the first day you arrived.

Unfortunately, traditional “quiet” places may turn into anything but if everyone else decides to go there for their own relaxation.  Think of oceanside cafés that get so loud you can’t hear the waves washing up; well-known churches that sound like malls inside; and parks that put you in the path of an impromptu tag game – hardly anyone’s idea of peace.  Don’t think you have to return to your hotel room mid-day, or wander into an isolated (and potentially dangerous) area in order to “get away from it all.”  Here are a few universal, but often overlooked, places to unwind.

Botanical gardens.  These can sound like a bore to those not interested in plants, but botanical gardens have all of the relaxing characteristics of parks, but because of the (usually) small entrance fee, attract a different crowd; your chances of encountering skateboarding teenagers, drunks, or soccer practice are slim to none.   There is usually no shortage of places to sit down, and you can generally stay as long as you want after paying the day’s admission.

Universities.  Many universities have the look and feel of self-sustaining villages, and you’d have a hard time finding one without some green areas and benches (and often a pond and some wildlife).  Frat and sorority houses are less common outside North America, and while there’s obviously going to be plenty of activity on the main thoroughfares on weekdays, the overall atmosphere – especially on weekends – is subdued.  Another plus is that many universities are easily accessed within metropolitan areas, and even the grounds of most private universities are open to anyone.

Zoos.  You’d be hard pressed to find a zoo without an attractive, natural setting – and interacting with (or just watching) animals can quickly pull you out of your head and back into the moment.  About half of all major world cities have a zoo within three miles of tourist areas.  Try visiting on a weekday evening, or mid-afternoon after school groups have cleared out.

Embassy areas. These neighborhoods are particularly prominent in capital cities, and are often in easily accessible areas.  Although there aren’t many places to sit down, they are certainly a great place for a quiet stroll.  Embassy neighborhoods are rarely crowded, aesthetically pleasing, and you can let your guard down because security is second to none.

Stationed trains.  Particularly in European cities, long-distance trains pull into a station well before departure – by an hour, and sometimes more (especially if your city is the route terminus).  A parked train can be a very peaceful alternative to trying to rest your mind and feet in the chaotic main station hallway.  I’ve done it many times and not been bothered by attendants or conductors (unlike airplanes, which are usually swept and cleaned after every flight, the usual train is only serviced at the end of the day).

Obviously, you need to make sure the train doesn’t roll away taking you someplace you don’t want to go, but the chances of this happening are minimal as you’ll notice people start trickling in about ten minutes before departure.

Off-hours and hideaways in hotels.  After the maids have come through, and before the next round of guests check in, is an ideal time to get some peace in your hotel room, especially if it’s anything but tranquil in the evening and early morning. The ideal time window is usually between noon and three p.m.

If you’ve already checked out of a hotel, don’t feel bad about relaxing in the lobby a few hours after giving up your key.  It’s unlikely that any hotel employee will ask you to leave just because you’re done and paid for; after all, they want you to come back on your next trip, and write a nice online review about your stay.

Finally, a surprising number of hotels – particularly in Europe – have rooftop terraces.  These are often underutilized, because 1) guests aren’t aware of them, or 2) they simply forget to head up there.  The terrace can be a great escape when everyone else on your floor seems to be checking in, or coming in and out of their rooms, at the same time.  An added benefit is that you get to see the city from a bird’s-eye view, which can make it look less intimidating and give you a better perspective of where you are.

Airport quiet spots.  For some peace and space, many people know to head to the waiting area of a deserted gate.  Less commonly sought, but equally quiet places include interdenominational chapels (many international airports have one, and you don’t have to pray in order to use the room), and the lobbies of pre-check-in areas.  Most people automatically rush to the check-in counter and through security when they arrive at the airport, passing by many empty waiting areas adjacent to the airline ticket counters.

It's not always practical to find a place like this to unwind, but there are still plenty of places to relax if you know where to look. ( Pictured: Suomenlinna, Helsinki, Finland.)

It’s not always realistic to find a place like this to unwind, but there are still plenty of places to relax out there — if you know where to look. (Pictured: Suomenlinna, Helsinki, Finland.)

Travel Talk: Taking the Stress Out of Language Barriers

One of the first things someone might ask when you announce your trip to another country is, “Do you know the language?” Unless you’re visiting an ancestral homeland, are a language buff, or have learned foreign language(s) for your job or personal reasons, the answer will likely be no.  You may stress out over the thought of being unable to make your way around or communicate your needs during your trip.  The more this anxiety builds, the more pressure you could put on yourself to spend many hours learning a language – including nuances that you’re unlikely to need.
Unless you’re planning to spend an extended amount of time in a country, knowing the hundred or so “quick reference” words and phrases in a standard travel language book will usually be sufficient to get you around.  Focus on language concerning transportation, directions, obtaining assistance, and health and safety issues (such as the words for danger, caution, and hospital, as well as how to ask for an embassy or the police).  If this still doesn’t sound like enough, remember that there’s a reason that so many travel language books are sized to fit in your pocket.   You can look up phrases and words as you need them, without putting yourself through painful memorization exercises weeks before your trip.

 
Do You Speak English?     
This is an essential phrase to know in every language spoken in the places you’re visiting.  It manages your limited language skills while showing that you’re culturally sensitive enough to not just assume that someone speaks your language; it also helps break the ice.  If the person confirms that they speak English, then you’ve started off on the right foot; if they say no, then nod or apologize (think of how you feel when you dial the wrong phone number) and move on to someone else.  If you can’t move on to someone else, see how far you can get with numbers and gestures.  If you’re still struggling, then other employees or passersby are likely to notice, and chances are one of them will step in to help – if for no other reason than to show off their command of English.

A word of caution: if you have a rudimentary grasp of a foreign language and ask for directions or check into a hotel in that language, you need to be able to understand the person’s response.  The person might answer at a mile a minute, and you’ll either pretend to understand and move on, or ask for clarification in English – at which time the person will wonder (with some frustration) why you didn’t ask in English in the first place.  If you’re not proficient enough to go back and forth in conversation on a particular topic, then it’s usually best to ask Do you speak English? and go from there.

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Should I cross the street, or stay put and look out for the cute marshmallow doughboy? 

Most of us don’t get beyond learning a few written characters when touring places like Japan or China

Brunei: The Misunderstood Country You’ve Never Heard of

Many people have never heard of the tiny country of Brunei, a conservative Muslim state bordering Malaysia on the island of Borneo.  Brunei is beautiful, rich, unspoiled, and at the heart of a controversy. I was fortunate to be able to travel to Brunei this spring, only a couple of weeks before it made international headlines for its plans to implement shariah law in the country.  All of a sudden, the Sultanate of Brunei was not just an attractive vacation destination but one of only a handful of countries in the world to support such punishments as flogging, stoning, and amputation for crimes ranging from abortion, theft, adultery, and homosexuality.  Even the likes of Jay Leno and Ellen DeGeneres got in on the Brunei-bashing after the media learned that the Sultan of Brunei owns several large hotels around the world — one you may have even stayed in.

The Sultan of Brunei doesn’t care what the world thinks; he wants shariah law for his country, and he runs an absolute monarchy.  It’s ghastly for most of us to think of the kind of punishments his judges are ready to dole out to offenders.  But did I think about stoning, amputation, and flogging while I was wandering around Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei’s capital?  Nope.  I felt like I was in a fairy-tale land of gorgeous architecture, polite hosts, and peace and quiet.  Mind you, I’m not exactly the kind of person, or tourist, that Brunei (or Islam) may want to encourage: single, female, childless, wandering around on her own with a map and a credit card.  Yet (as long as I had the headscarf on) I was treated with respect, kindness, and asked how I liked the tiny country that no one in North America seems to have heard of.

Do I agree with shariah law?  No, but I respect Brunei’s decision to implement it; it’s their country.  I sincerely hope that it doesn’t scare away tourists, incite anger against Islam, or forever scar Brunei’s image as the “Gateway to Borneo.”  Hey, are you going to get an abortion, commit adultery with a Muslim, steal, or cross-dress on your week-long vacation to Borneo?  And, if so, do you really think those shariah laws are going to apply to you?  Answer to both questions: mmm, probably not.  So don’t forever cross Brunei off your list because of sociopolitical reasons.  Not only will you be missing out on Borneo, but you’ll never see some of the most stunning architecture in Southeast Asia.

The Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque

The vision-of-white Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque gleams in the sunlight

Celebrating its independence from Britain in 1984

Brunei only declared its independence as a country in 1984, which might have something to do with its continued struggle for identity

For better or worse, the sheer beauty of Islam's art and architecture distract me from its debates and growing pains

For better or worse, the sheer beauty of Islam’s art and architecture can distract you from its debates and growing pains

The Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque glows at dawn and dusk

The Omar Ali glows at dawn and dusk

I cannot fully imagine living somewhere where I could be handed a sentence of stoning or amputation.  Can you?

I cannot fully imagine living somewhere where I could be handed a sentence of stoning or amputation. Can you?

There are little signs of life at the Lagoon in downtown Bandar on a beautiful weekday afternoon.

There are little signs of life at the Lagoon in downtown Bandar on a beautiful weekday afternoon…

Life goes on for the 400,000 residents of Brunei, one-third of whom are not Muslim.

But, life goes on for the 400,000 residents of Brunei, one-third of whom are not Muslim.