Monday, March 28, 2011

Remembering the Basics in Travel

Sometimes it feels like the advice I’m giving is so old hat, it doesn’t even need to be voiced. But after spending a fortnight on the road on a tour of Sicily (held for the listeners to my radio show), I’ve come to realize, once again, that what I take to be very basic travel strategies are totally unknown to many vacationers. (Just as the basics of orthodontia, or quail shooting, would be totally foreign to me, though I’ve tasted quail, perhaps when I was wearing braces.)

(photo by Jasleen Kaur)
I’m a bit punch drunk (as you can likely tell from that last sentence) having arisen at 2:30 am to catch the plane back from Catania, but thought I’d pound out these few thoughts on the puzzling choices some of the folks on the tour made.

Packing: Massive bags were the norm. Most participants brought a wheeled suitcase onto the plane, and then another bag twice its size to check in. Sure, porterage was included at the hotel, but I can’t imagine it was convenient to be traveling with that amount of stuff (particularly because many of the rooms were on the smaller side.)

Inevitably, some of the luggage was delayed getting to Palermo for the first stop of the tour, and as luck would have it, the owners of two of these bags had packed their prescription drugs in them. The last bag finally arrived after three-nights in transit.

Money exchange: Lugging along wads of cash! That was the bizarre strategy many in our group adopted, and it was a disaster, making them prisoners of the clock. Since they didn’t want to exchange their money at travel agencies or Bureaus du Change (rightly so, due to the high fees and punitive rates), they often had to duck off to the bank during prime sightseeing time; in Sicily, still land of the afternoon off, many museums and other sights, kept only morning and late afternoon hours, a schedule nearly identical to that of the banks (and stores). There were days we’d be gazing at one of the most intact Greek temples in the world, or a church literally glowing with gold-leaf backed mosaics, and I’d hear mutterings behind me about the distance to the bank.

My fellow vacationers had wrongly heard that they wouldn’t be able to use their ATM cards abroad, and so hadn’t brought them along, thus depriving themselves of the ability to access cash any time and at a very competitive rate.  Some even tried to use credit cards in ATM machines, a big no-no as these transactions are counted as loans and incur ugly interest rates. I’m hoping on their next trips, the first item they pack is that ATM card (though some may need to change their PIN number to one of only four digits so that it will work in a large range of machines).

Street safety: On the second day of the trip, a member of our group was robbed. A man on a moped ripped her purse off her shoulder and drove off. She lost her big wad of cash (the main reason one should NEVER travel with huge sums of money—it can’t be replaced) as well as all of her credit cards. Thankfully, she’d left her passport in the hotel safe.

That same day, two other members of our group left the hotel for lunch and wandered, chatting, through Palermo’s twisty alleys, only realizing after lunch, that they had no idea where they were, or even more worryingly the name or address of the hotel. They were lost and scared for several hours, until they happened to stumble back upon the lodging.

No place is Disneyworld…not even Disneyworld! All three of these lovely ladies succumbed to what I call “vacation head”. They abandoned their usual precautions in the interests of having fun, somehow assuming that because they were on a guided tour, they’d be cared for (even though the guide was nowhere to be seen).

I can’t blame the victim for her robbery, of course. But on the first day of the tour, our guide Linda lectured the group on the necessity of divvying up valuables. Her advice, which I endorse: carry a little money in a pocket (or bra, as I do), one credit card in a purse, and leave the rest in the hotel safe. Alas, the robbed lady didn’t strategize her safety, and paid for it the rest of the trip, spending hours on the phone with her home bank and various credit card companies. (If she’d lost her passport, too, she’d have had to miss several days of the tour to hop on a flight to Naples, the nearest consulate).

Water, TV, Electricity and Tips
Its funny how a half-remembered idea can cause panic (or at least anxiety). One member of our group worried that the water in Italy wasn’t drinkable, and so she bought big jugs of bottled water to use for brushing her teeth. When she finally asked my advice on the matter, I was quite surprised that someone would assume that any of the water in Western Europe would be problematic.

Another tourer worried that turning on the TV would incur fees (there were fees for pay-per-view movies, but they required a lot of button pushing and couldn’t be accessed accidentally).  A third fretted that the chambermaid had felt her tip wasn’t good enough, and so had left it on the bureau (she’d neglected to write “grazie” making it clear it was a tip; likely the maid hadn’t wanted to risk her job grabbing small change). And the double usage of room keys for both entry to the room and to turn on the power in the room was new to almost all of the group members, leaving some of them in the dark (quite literally).

All in all, I probably learned as much on this tour as the participants. Not so much about Sicily, but about what type of advice helps. We’ll see how it informs this blog, and my articles from here on in.


  1. For me, the most complicated part about going overseas was the money exchange situation. I had heard horror stories of people bringing their debit cards only for them to be deactivated somewhere along the line in the airport. My family's suggestion was to bring half and half... half cash and keep the other half on my card in case I needed it. Worked for me.

  2. I've never heard of cards being deactivated at the airport. My guess is that was a fluke occurrence. I'm glad your method worked for you. I'm even more glad that you didn't get robbed. Unfortunately, pickpockets often target tourists because they know they're more likely to be carrying a lot of cash.

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