Travel Tips

Travel Tips

by B. Brent Black

You may find some of these useful. Or not.
They are short and light hearted. Like me.

A porter carries a heavy bag on her head in Nairobi

Tip 1: Buy Post Cards Before You Go

Next time you go on vacation, or head off for an away-from-home adventure, stock up on post cards from your local area before you leave.

Just as you are interested in meeting the people and seeing the sights in your intended destination, the people there often will be curious about you and where you live. It’s a great way to start a conversation and share some of yourself with the people you meet. You may even find that your personal show-and-tell sometimes produces unexpected and pleasant surprises.

Once in Otavalo, Ecuador, I was bargaining with an Otavaleno shopkeeper for a hand-crafted wall hanging. We had gone back and forth for a few minutes, drawing closer to each other’s hoped-for price, then we got stuck.

Instead of trying to close the deal, I pulled out my post cards from home to show the shopkeeper. While he looked through them, I told him about where I live. I also showed him some family photos and explained that I was buying the wall hanging for my young daughter.

We chatted about our respective homes and families for awhile. Then, without further prompting, the shopkeeper said, “Okay. You can have it for your price. For your daughter.”

I was no longer just another transaction. Now I was a friend. And friends often get better prices, better treatment, and bigger smiles. Next time you travel, become someone’s friend.

Tip 2: Things That Go “Pop” On The Plane

Airplane cabins are pressurized. You knew that. But even so, there is much less pressure in the cabin than when you’re on the ground. I didn’t know that.

Clue #1. You know those inflatable airplane pillows that surround your neck, so your head can loll to one side without waking you up? I would get up to cruising altitude, blow up my pillow, and pretend I was going to be able to sleep. At the end of the flight, my pillow had lost most of its air. Must have a hole. I bought a new one. After several new pillows with “holes,” I realized that as we descended the pressure increased back to normal and “deflated” my pillows.

Clue #2. Airlines often serve meals that contain items with peel-off lids. Orange juice and salad dressings are common examples. Maybe you’ve noticed that the lids are often puffed up tighter than the proverbial drum. I once opened an airline salad dressing, and it “spit” all over my shirt. The containers are packed on the ground. The reduced pressure inflight causes the pressure inside the container to exceed the pressure outside the container. Pop. When you open a peel-off lid on a plane, turn it away from yourself and peel back toward yourself. That way if it “spits” it will spit on the seat back in front of you, instead of on you.

Clue #3. Ever unpack your bag upon arrival to discover that your shampoo or skin lotion had escaped its container and goo-ed your silk shirt or dress? I hate that. Two suggestions. Put creams and liquids in plastic containers with screw caps. Before screwing on the lid, squeeze out the air (no air, no air pressure problem). You might also put the plastic bottles inside zip lock bags for extra insurance. And put them somewhere away from the silk clothes.

Tip 3: The Smug Joy of Clean Underwear

Let’s suppose you’re on a flight from Houston, Texas, to Lima, Peru. The schedule says it’s about a nine-hour flight. No big deal. You’ve done it several times before.

But this time, the plane develops a mechanical problem about an hour after take-off. The pilot announces that you will be making an unexpected stop in Cancun. Okay. You like margaritas.

In Cancun, you learn two things. (1) You’ll be spending the night in a hotel in Cancun. (2) Your luggage will be spending the night in the airplane.

At six a.m. the next morning, on the airline van heading back to the Cancun airport, your fellow passengers are complaining about the crummy little toiletries kits handed out by the airline and about having to wear the same clothes again.

You, however, savvy traveler that you are, are not complaining. Because you had the good sense to pack your essential toiletries and a change of clothes in your carry-on bag. Ah, but the adventure continues.

The airline decides to let you enjoy an entire day at the airport in Panama City before announcing another unexpected treat: a night in Panama City. Still without your bags.

Okay, so you didn’t think to pack two changes of clothes in your carry-on. But you did pack two changes of underwear. What the heck—clean underwear is small and light. And such a treat to have when making unscheduled visits to foreign countries.

Always, always, always pack your essential toiletries, medications, and a change of underwear, or two, in your carry-on. You just never know when you might be spending the night in Cancun.

Tip 4: Pack Heavy

We’ve heard it and read it a thousand times. It has become a sacred mantra of travel: pack light, pack light, pack light.

And I have. Somewhat obsessive by nature, I learned to be a world class ounce shaver. I’ve cut two inches off the handles of toothbrushes. I’ve printed my itinerary in type so small I could barely read it, and cut the paper to within an eighth of an inch of the tiny type. I’ve even pulled the cardboard tube out of the center of my don’t-leave-home-without-it roll of toilet paper. I’ve done just about everything but shave off my eyebrows.

I’m sick of it. I’ve had enough. No more. Or perhaps I should say no less. From now on, I pack heavy.

I’m going to bring that extra shirt. And that other pair of pants. And the whole toothbrush.

Never again will I limit myself to two changes of clothes. I want to have choices. Not just: clean or dirty. Real choices. Like light blue or dark blue shirt. This sweater or that sweater, not just sweater or no sweater.

I don’t backpack. I don’t travel by bicycle. I drive to the airport and generally rent a car or take a cab at the other end. There are rentable baggage carts at the airport. And skycaps. There are bellboys at the hotel (a lot of the time). And most suitcases these days have wheels on them. Even if you’re headed for a Third World destination, there’s almost always someone around hoping you’ll pay them a little something to help with your bags.

So pack another dress. And another pair of shoes. Give yourself more choices. Bring things that make you more comfortable, things you will enjoy having. Don’t shave ounces and make sacrifices. Pack it. Take it. Enjoy it.

And pay someone else to carry the bag.

Tip 5: How To Haggle

Even armchair travelers know that the fixed-price, take-it-or-leave-it retailing that’s the norm in the U.S. is not the way it’s done in many (most?) other countries. Instead, the marked or quoted price is a suggestion, a beginning point, a conversation starter.

But if you’ve never shopped like this, you may not be sure how to begin. I always felt awkward and embarrassed before I learned the dance.

  1. Be nice. It’s a negotiation, not an argument.
  2. A simple comment is usually enough to get things started.

    Something like, “It’s very nice, but that’s more than I wanted to pay.” Now it’s the merchant’s turn. S/he’ll usually come back with something like, “How much do you want to pay?” You might also begin by asking if there’s a discount for paying cash, or a discount for Americans, or a discount for curly-headed left-handers born on Tuesday. Doesn’t matter. Just ask. Nicely.
  3. Don’t try to steal it. To counter-offer one-tenth the asking price tells the merchant you think s/he’s an idiot or a rip-off artist. Try about one-third under the asking price. That usually begins the back-and-forth process where each comes closer to the other’s price until an accord is reached.
  4. Don’t insult or belittle the merchandise. During your negotiations, resist any temptation to disparage the object of your attentions. If it’s junk, or horribly flawed, or whatever, then why do you want it? Are you so stupid you knowingly shop for bad quality? Besides, if you were selling, would you lower your price for someone who insulted your merchandise, or someone who fell in love with it?
  5. If you get your price, you have to buy. Enjoy yourself, but don’t just play. Don’t start the bargaining process if you don’t want the whatever-it-is. Selling stuff is how the merchant feeds his/her family. Once s/he agrees to your price you’re honor bound to buy it. That’s the rule.

Next column, I’ll share the time I haggled too hard. And the consequences.

Tip 6: The Big Haggle

No Third World sharpie was going to get the better of me. No way. I’d read the guidebooks. I knew I wasn’t supposed to pay full sticker price for anything. Not in Mexico.

We were in Mérida, capital of Yucatan, a lovely city with an impressive colonial heritage. But we were not admiring wide boulevards, old mansions, or the beautiful zócalo (central plaza).

We were in the mercado, or public market. It was great. Well, it was an experience. Lots of new sights and sounds. And smells.

We finally found our way to the arts and crafts section. Maya hammocks. Weavings. Papier-mâché animals. Piñatas. Wood carvings. Stuffed, shellacked frogs playing musical instruments. Good stuff.

I got my gringo heart set on a couple of smallish, square wall hangings with Maya motifs. Hand-woven. Nice earth tones. Perfect for a hallway or bathroom niche.

I picked out my favorites and walked them over to the girl in charge. I asked how much. She quoted me a price. I sized her up and made a counter-offer. She paused to calculate and made a counter-counter-offer. Back and forth. Her price, my price, her price, my price. Always edging closer to each other.

Finally, I made a stand. I held my price. I reached in my pocket, took out my pesos, counted out the exact amount of my offer, and held it out to her. This was it. The decisive moment. She accepted. I got my price!

As I walked away with my treasures, triumphant, a magnificent specimen of First World savvy, my companion said, “Congratulations, you just spent fifteen minutes bargaining a twelve-year-old girl out of twenty-three cents.” I went back and gave the girl five dollars.

Don’t lose perspective.

Tip 7: Travel Gadgets

I love travel gadgets. I buy them by the bucketful. All in the name of saving space, cutting weight, and having miracles at my fingertips.

Of course, by the time I collect all my travel gadgets and array them for inspection and look at the bag I pulled out to pack for the trip, hmmmmm—uh-oh, either I get a separate bag for the travel gadgets or I ditch three-fourths of them. Minimum.

But then again—there is that “miracles at my fingertips” factor. The Dog Zapper sure saved my okole on Kauai [future column]. And my Swiss Army Knife is something I won’t leave home without. But there are so many potential miracle makers. And just the one suitcase.

The trick is to figure out exactly which sorts of miracles I will need on this particular trip. That, of course, is Neverknowable. Or, as the carnival barker says “Ya pays yer money, ya takes yer chances.” But, still, one must decide. Hierarchy. There must be a hierarchy.

Yes, there is.

Immodium. It starts with Immodium. This is something you don’t leave to chance. And always take a roll of toilet paper. Trust me on this one, you do not have to go to the Third World to get bad food. And after more than three consecutive encounters with airport toilet paper you will most certainly long for a kinder, gentler paper. Pack it.

The hierarchy is determined based on two primary criteria:

  1. How often am I likely to need/want this thing?
  2. How bad are the consequences of needing it and not having it?

My basic philosophy is simple: It’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.

Tip 8: The Dog Zapper

Here’s another travel gadget favorite of mine. It’s not the sort of thing I want to have a frequent need for. But the one time I really did need it, it worked as advertised and saved my daughter and me from a very bad experience.

I call it my “Dog Zapper.” It’s a handheld device that emits an ultrasonic signal to repel aggressive dogs. Really.

I originally bought it for Third World travel, as a safeguard against rabid, or just plain nasty, dogs that might run out to greet me in rural villages. I also carry it with me when I go hiking. I’m glad I do.

Several years ago, my nine-year-old daughter and I were hiking on Kauai, in Kokee State Park. It is not uncommon in wooded areas of Hawaii to encounter hunters. Usually, they are after the feral pigs that live in the islands. They almost always have dogs with them.

On this occasion, the hunt was over and the hunter was loading his dogs into the back of his pickup. One of the dogs spotted my daughter and me and charged us. Yikes.

It was a very large, very loud, very vicious-looking dog. And pretty fast on its feet, too. It’s owner shouted for it to come back. Yeah, right. That was about as persuasive as yelling “Stop, thief!” to someone who just mugged you.

I tried to stay calm, dumping my day pack to the ground, unzipping the pocket with the Dog Zapper, and getting it into my hand. I pointed it at the charging dog, now just a few yards away from a father-daughter banquet. I pushed the button and—wow, it actually worked! The dog stopped dead in its tracks, turned, and went back to its owner. At that grateful moment, the Dog Zapper was worth ten times its weight in gold.

The makers call it a Dazer, not a Dog Zapper. Printing on the thing says it’s made by K-II Enterprises in Camillus, NY. I don’t recall how much it cost, but if you ever need it you won’t care.

Tip 9: The Pig Stopper

I guess you could call this a travel gadget. And you might want one if you ever plan to go hiking in Hawaii. We have quite a few feral pigs here, introduced by early Polynesian colonists.

It’s very common to see evidence of the pigs when hiking. They use their tusks to churn the earth and root for…well…roots. From time to time, you may actually spot a live one. I’ve seen them on several occasions. Once I sighted three piglets snorting along through the woods. They were snorting, not I. I was quietly wondering where their mama might be.

Just in case I ever happen across a hungry pig with bad eyesight that thinks I look like a large ambulatory tuber, I carry what I call my Pig Stopper.

The Pig Stopper is one of those fold-up, all-purpose tools you can wear on your belt in a little leather holster. The most common is the Leatherman Tool. When unfolded in all its glory, it looks pretty much like a pair of needlenose pliers.

Here’s how it works. You’re in the woods in Hawaii. You hear an angry pig coming your way. You whip out your Pig Stopper and open it up. You want to open the pliers ends so that they are three-fourths of an inch apart. Now crouch down a little and hold the Pig Stopper eighteen inches above the ground. This is the height of a charging feral pig’s nostrils. Hold your position as the angry, four-hundred-pound pig charges, tusks bared and ready. Hold. Hold. Steady. Steady. Now! When it gets right up to you, suddenly shove the needlenose pliers ends into the pig’s nose—and squeeze as hard as you can. Pigs just hate that.

At least I think they would. I know I would. Of course, I’ve never really tested this idea. But it seems like it would work. Don’t you think?

Tip 10: I’m late! I’m late!

I was driving to the Honolulu Airport, racing the clock, and losing badly. It was 6 a.m. I am a night person. Don’t know why. But I do know I don’t function well early in the morning and I prefer to avoid it whenever possible. Sometimes those wee hours surrounding sunrise just can’t be avoided, due to flight schedules and other senseless atrocities. On these sad occasions, I am always shocked to discover how many people are not only awake at 6 a.m., but are actually out driving around in droves. No matter how many times I directly observe this unnatural phenomenon, it is always a complete and total surprise.

So, here I am again, totally blindsided by what millions take for granted—early morning traffic. I’m looking at the clock in the car, looking at the (to me) inexplicable bumper-to-bumper traffic, and calculating a strategy for getting from the parking lot to the gate in zero time. I remember my airline offers drive-through bag checking. Great. That’ll save time. Wrong. Turns out the service is only for inter-island passengers and I’m going to LA. So instead of saving time, I’m even later. No parking, no surprise. Now I’m running, glad the big bag has wheels, wishing I did too. One look at the check-in line tells me that if I go there I won’t be going to LA today.

Tires squeal as I do a U-turn with my bag, having decided that my only chance is to bypass check-in and go straight to the gate. The entire U.S. Army in camouflage outfits (actually kind of conspicuous in an airport) is lined up at the security x-ray checkpoint. Not a chance. I race to the next one. A miracle—almost empty. I hunt for the gate and wonder what law of the universe dictates that your gate is always at least a mile from the check-in counter. I finally arrive at the gate and—Hallelujah! Hallelujah!—they’re still boarding. No way my bag will fit in the overhead, but I remember having witnessed many instances of flight attendants at the gate intercepting moving-van-sized suitcases that brazenly self-absorbed passengers were trying to slide by as carry-on bags.

They checked me in, checked my bag, and blessed me with multiple alohas in the process.

So, if you’re hopelessly late, there’s still hope. Bypass check-in and go straight to the gate. But do not try this as a regular practice. The airline can, and will, reassign your selected seat if you’re not checked in thirty minutes before departure. And they can bump you from the flight if you’re still not there ten minutes before departure. So get up earlier. And don’t forget about all those looneys out driving about in the dawn’s early light.

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Text and photos © 1988-2022, B. Brent Black. All rights reserved.

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