Paul and Myrna's Travels Tips
A work in Progress.....

Throughout our years of travel, we have learned many things and we can probably claim to be experienced travellers. This page will try to pass on some helpful travel  tips that we have accumulated over the years. If you have anything to share, please feel free to contact me and I will be happy to include your tips in this page. The tips don't appear in any order of importance since they are often added after an experience on a trip or during the research for a trip.

Travelling Light

The only thing that would prevent us from claiming an experienced traveller badge is that we haven't mastered the art of travelling light. This sometimes pays off when the expected weather for an area is not what is expected. A perfect example was on our trip to Vietnam which finished with a week on Japan. We left Ho Chi Min city (formerly Saigon) in 38C weather and landed in Tokyo at an unseasonal 2C. No matter what you packed, these extremes are hard to plan for in clothing. For me, as a man, I should be able to travel lighter than my better half, however what I reduce in shoes and fancy clothes, I make up for in electronics and wires to keep everything charged. Then, of course, the odd time I travel with my golf bag makes travelling light impossible.
Travelling light can also be a cost saving venture. A lot of people are are frustrated by airlines charging for checked luggage. This has become the norm and airlines are making billions of dollars in profits doing it. There are some airlines even charging for carry-on. The check baggage fees are making some people carry-on tons of stuff to avoid fees and in turn they fill overhead bins and under seats to capacity. In one case for us, we paid extra to have priority boarding so that we would have room in overhead storage for our carry-on before the onslaught of 'regular' passengers.

Travel Agents, Group tours or book your own.

We have travelled using all the methods above. For our Australia-New Zealand-Tahiti vacation, we let the travel agency handle everything. The problem is you have to find the right one. For Australia and New Zealand, we found Goway Travel. They were experts in the area and after many hours on the phone (with an affiliate in Toronto). The itinerary was made and everything was taken care of. Not knowing the destination would have made it impossible to plan. I also think we saved a lot of money and we only had to pay one LARGE amount but other than meals we didn't have to worry about anything else. When they gave me the final agenda, I went to tripadvisor.com and checked out all the accommodations to make sure that none were that bad. My general rule of thumb about looking at reviews and ratings on tripadvisor is that the hotel should rate in the top 25% of the reviews. In other words when the listing says #30 of 60 hotels in a certain town, I would generally try to stay in the top 15 hotels rated. In Booking.com, I usually look for ratings of 8.3 and above.

Group tours are great for real foreign places where language could be an issue. In China for example, we only found a handful of North American people that were venturing on their own. Group tours are a worry free way to travel and other than paying the bill there's not much else to do. We have been lucky on our Asian group tours. Our guides were great in both China and Vietnam so that makes a big difference in how you will enjoy the trip. Another instance where you might be more comfortable with a group tour is when the driving in on the opposite side of the road. Also, in Europe you will probably get a car with a manual transmission which you might not feel great about. Driving a stick + driving on the 'wrong' side = Bad things. Just ask a Canadian we met in Ireland whose both side view mirrors were dangling by wires from the car. In the British Isles, the beautiful hedges lining some streets and highways are concealing old stone walls that will hunt your mirrors down.

One thing we did once, in Italy, was to book a short group tour within our vacation. We were staying in Rome but we wanted to see Pompey, Sorrento and the Isle of Capri. So we looked for a pre-arranged tour. Transportation, hotels, meals, and admission to sites was included. The 3 day/2 night side trip from Rome was fantastic and probably cost less than had we done it ourselves, and someone did all the driving. Not all tours are created equal though, so you have to get a reputable tour company otherwise surprises may be in order. For example, on this particular trip, our boat to Capri that was included in our package was twice as fast as all the other boats. We got to be on Capri a long time before the other boats came in which gave us time to see the Blue Grotto which people on other tours didn't get to see. In tours, it's often you get what you pay for. Again, Tripadvisor may be your friend here too.

Booking your own vacation. Get ready for a lot of work. I recommend this approach to people with a lot of time on their hands. Depending on the destination, research is key here. I do most of my research on the internet. Travel books are good for attractions, but I find that hotels can change quite a bit so if you are using someone's 7 year old Frommer's guide book, what could have been a great hotel may have changed ownership and gone to the dogs. You will much more up to date information online. You can use the standard sites such as tripadvisor or just Google searches on certain subjects or destinations. One great source of information is wikitravel.org. It is the wikipedia of travel and is very up-to-date as people contribute to the content on a regular basis.

When booking your own vacation, you are left with many decisions. First, finding a reasonable flight to you destination. I use http://www.skyscanner.ca/ to get an idea of how much a flight will cost and if there are direct flights to destinations. Skyscanner is to flight what Trivago is to hotels.

Carry Money, Credit Cards or Travellers Cheques

One answer is very easy here, if they still exists, forget traveller's cheques. If you are under 30, you probably have never heard of them anyway. I had a leftover traveller cheque from a trip back in the last century and I had a hard time cashing it here at my bank. It stumped the teller and it will do the same in any other country. Before going to a foreign country, I do recommend carrying a few dollars in the local currency. I would say around $200-300 worth until you get the lay of the land and get acquainted to foreign bank machines.

ATM's are everywhere now. My bank plan includes 5 free international ATM transactions. Check your bank plan for you ATM usages fees for out-of-country transactions. In many parts of the world, banks have been forbidden to charge an extra fee to use another banks debit card. Canada should learn from this. That being said, I will only use ATM connected to an actual bank and, as much as possible, physically connected to a branch. I also look for the more 'popular' banks in each country. In the last 5 years, I don't remember ever having to pay a transaction fee. I NEVER use a standalone ATM as these almost always charge an ATM fee and some are dubious to start with. One I tried about 10 years ago wanted $5usd as a fee for a withdrawal. The only thing I withdrew was my card. also, if one of these ever kept your card for any reason you could be in trouble.

Credit cards (especially Visa and Master Card) are accepted everywhere so they are a must while travelling. I wouldn't use a credit card at a local market or any place that didn't require a PIN number. That being said I recommend bringing a backup credit card kept in the different place should something happen to your main card. We were at a rental car desk once and their machine couldn't read the magnetic strip of my card. Thankfully I had a backup otherwise we would not have gotten a car.

 

 

Still working on the rest of this document

 

 

 

Strange Locks In Hotel Rooms
The more the world goes 'global', the more we think things will work the same way in different countries.

 

Strange World - Strange Locks - It's a pretty lucky thing that we have not be robbed on this trip. I don't mean getting mugged on some of our late walks at night in questionable neighbourhoods. As a matter of fact, since it's still bright here even at midnight, you feel very safe as you feel no one would attack you in the middle of the day. That's probably why the crime rate is so low in the summer. They save all the naughty acts for when it gets dark at 4pm. (Just speculation since I know nothing about the crime rate except for restaurants charging $17 for a pint of draft beer). Getting back to why we should have been robbed. A lot of the keys for the rooms here are like back home. Credit card format that you put in a slot in the door. Where it differs from home is that, in many places, when leaving the room you have to insert the card behind you to lock the room. We only found this out in the 4th hotel that used this system. So for at least 5 days, we were leaving our rooms unlocked for anyone to walk in. Fortunately no one did and maybe the cleaning staff would lock up after their visit but beware of the locks in the room. If you see a card with a green and red arrow that is probably one of those locks. Actually, our current card does not look like the one above but works the same way. It would have helped had we read the warning on the card, but who reads instructions.

  

The lines below are a work in progress. since they are word for word excerpts from previous trips.

 
Getting there. My first Scandinavian travel tip regards flying to Scandinavia and which airport to choose.
We chose Copenhagen as we like the most direct flights possible when traveling. The other choices were Stockholm and Oslo. The Copenhagen flights are generally $100 cheaper than Oslo or Sweden but don't base your choice on the price. For one, you will be losing more than half of that savings by crossing the Oresund bridge (twice) at over $50 in tolls. We chose Copenhagen based on more than the price. It also ends up being cheaper to rent a car than Norway and we wanted to visit Copenhagen. The down side is that it will add over 1000kms to our driving since our main destination is Norway.

 

City Cards - Most cities in Europe and many in the USA offer a City Card or City Pass. So far we have bought a Copenhagen Card, a Stockholm Card and just today an Oslo Pass. They included public transportation and are good for either 24, 48, 72 or 96 hours. They will get you into places (usually for free) without having to keep getting your credit card out. Yesterday, we used our Stockholm Card in 6 different places and used the Metro and the streetcar. If kind of forces you to do things, especially when you only get the 24 hour card. (Update - The Bergen Card is really inferior to the big city cards. don't bother with this one).

 

 

 

TRAVEL TIP - When using hotel loyalty points instead of using them for a free night, try the points and cash approach. Here is the Club Carlson example. We had 23,000 points to start. A free stay costs you at least 15,000 points while using the Points and Cash option, you get almost $100 off a night. So instead of your points getting you a $150 room, they actually have saved us almost $300 AND you accumulate points on the cash portion. Warning, you have to try both options online and it doesn't seem to be as profitable with Priority Club Points (Holiday Inn).

 

TRAVEL TIP - While I am at it, I will give you another travel tip that everyone can use even when visiting friends. On our way out of the Heat Hotel in Lake Havasu, the chamber maid asked if we had left anything behind like a phone charger. She said that chargers are the #1 thing left behind in hotel rooms. I told her to give those guest this tip. If you are plugging in your phone or anything else anywhere (even a friends house), run you car key's chain through the wire. You can't leave without your car keys so if they are attached to the charger, voila. You can do this for other things like your gloves if you are one of those people who always leave their gloves at people's houses. You're welcome.
 

Travel Tip 1 - China has a 240 volt electric system, so make sure all your adapters say 110v - 240v on them. Most chargers and computer power supplies will work here but check before. Also you may need an adapter, however in this hotel the receptacles have 2 sets of holes, one for the Australasian plugs and an extra one That will accept a 2 prong North America plug. Your computer power supply is probably 3 prong, so it will need an adapter. I will eventually include pictures to illustrate this better.

Travel Tip particular to this hotel, hopefully. Although the controls for the room air conditioners seem to be working, the hotel turns off the room air conditioners after September, so basically you are only moving air around without any conditioning. Opening the windows, seemed to work as the temperature is going down to 10 at night right now, however, mosquitoes are not limited to the Laurentians. A little nipper woke me up from a good sleep around midnight and one is buzzing around me as I am typing this at 1:30 in the morning. I don't believe it's carrying malaria but it's a little noisy as it enters your ear canal. Update to mosquito situation. When we arrived at our hotel after the day's sightseeing, the windows in our room were open. Low and behold there were screens over the windows. When we opened the windows yesterday we had not noticed that the screens roll down like a blind. Live and learn, Tonight a cool room and no nippers.

Travel Tip 2 - Bring locks for your luggage for all the internal flights within China. This was recommended by our guide because when travelling in a group, your luggage passes many hands and therefore it would be hard to track down any losses. It's a question of stealing from a locked car or an unlocked car, the easier prey is unlocked luggage.

 

Travel Tip 4 - If you really can't stand the smell of cigarette smoke, make sure you mention it. Most hotels have non smoking floors but if you don't mention it, you may end up in a smoky room. On this trip, I am not sure if you specify that ahead of time but your guide should be able to help as she picks up all the keys.

Travel Tip 5 - Bring your favourite cold remedies with you. Because of the close quarters of the buses and planes, if one person catches a cold, chances are that many people in the group will get something. It has happened on this trip. They don't call it the common cold for nothing.

Travel Tip 6 - Don't forget to pack some small binoculars as some of the sights here are far away including the elusive Reese's Monkeys of the Lesser Gorge. They were taking a vacation when we went by so we had to settle for wild goats.

Travel Tip 7 - Read this one if you are planning to use the Internet on your trip. If you decide to use the business centres in the hotels to make your internet connections, note that many centres in the hotels are only opened during the day. The itinerary of the Sinorama tours is so busy that you will seldom be in your hotel during these hours. Some people have not been able to contact their families or are asking others to send e-mails for them. The boat internet is 20 Yuan for 30 minutes and 30 for an hour but you must use their equipment which runs something called Windows 2004, obviously a 'copy' of a Microsoft Operating System. Many people have tried in vain to access their e-mails. It works sporadically.

Travel Tip 9 - Airport prices for coffee. If you are doing this trip you will have lots of time in airports. The prices vary here more than anywhere else. We have paid as little as 15 Yuan for coffee and 18 for cappuccino. In Guilin airport, Myrna ordered a cappuccino and was told it would be 68 Yuan which is over $11. She didn't have that much in her pockets, so she told the girl all she had was 42. Since it was made the girl took 40 and left Myrna the 2 Yuan. 7 bucks for a Cap is still a lot. Also in some of the smaller airports, their prices are not listed. Ask how much before you order and you will be safe. The other lesson is that you can bargain for anything here.

Travel Tip - Here's is a travel tip that could be of help next time you fly. This will prevent from get a surprise when you get your seat assignment. The web site seatguru.com has all plane configurations for most airlines. For example, on the Airbus 319 that we are taking to LAX, we know that there will be a power outlet in the seat. This means not having to be on battery power to watch movies on the netbook. It rates each seat in the plane and reason why they are rated. It even tells you the angle your seat will recline to. You will also know whether you will have your own TV or an overhead one. We know that the 16 hour flight from LAX to Melbourne will not have power and will have to rely on in seat entertainment when the 9 hour net book battery dies out


I learned a couple of valuable lessons when booking this trip and one of them could save you a lot of money. Our original plan was to land in Atlanta and drive to Nashville or Chattanooga almost immediately. That was changed when I tried to book a car for the 2 weeks of our trip. My first attempt at renting a car at the Atlanta airport was with Hertz. Since through work I am a Hertz Gold member, I like the special pickup service and treatment you get renting there. Anyway, when reserving the car, a regular Mazda 6 or equivalent car, the total estimate came out to $878USD with or without my corporate discount. When I looked at the detailed breakdown of the estimate, I noticed 2 extra fees of around $70 each, one for an airport concession recovery fee and another for a customer facility charge. Just for fun, I did the exact same search but renting from downtown Atlanta to see how much the bill would go down without the airport concession recovery fee. This is where I almost fell on the floor. The estimated cost had gone down from $878usd to the low $400's. Not only were the 2 above fees gone, but the weekly rate had dropped from $325 a week to $188 a week. In the end, with a small CAA discount, the cost of renting downtown instead of the airport was $387 rather than $878. That's a savings of almost $500us for the exact same car. This is what made us decide to actually stay in downtown Atlanta overnight on both ends of the trip. It will be basically paid for by the money saved in the car rental. I have already seen Atlanta just before the 1996 Olympics but Myrna hasn't and there are interesting sites there and on the Sunday afternoon before returning home early Monday morning, we might try to catch the Braves game against Houston at Turner Field.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As in previous voyages, I will pass on some travel tips when you see the icon to the left.
Getting there. My first Scandinavian travel tip regards flying to Scandinavia and which airport to choose.
We chose Copenhagen as we like the most direct flights possible when traveling. The other choices were Stockholm and Oslo. The Copenhagen flights are generally $100 cheaper than Oslo or Sweden but don't base your choice on the price. For one, you will be losing more than half of that savings by crossing the Oresund bridge (twice) at over $50 in tolls. We chose Copenhagen based on more than the price. It also ends up being cheaper to rent a car then Norway and we wanted to visit Copenhagen. The down side is that it will add over 1000kms to our driving since our main destination is Norway.

 

City Cards - Most cities in Europe and many in the USA offer a City Card or City Pass. So far we have bought a Copenhagen Card, a Stockholm Card and just today an Oslo Pass. They included public transportation and are good for either 24, 48, 72 or 96 hours. They will get you into places (usually for free) without having to keep getting your credit card out. Yesterday, we used our Stockholm Card in 6 different places and used the Metro and the streetcar. If kind of forces you to do things, especially when you only get the 24 hour card. (Update - The Bergen Card is really inferior to the big city cards. don't bother with this one)

 

Strange World - Strange Locks - It's a pretty lucky thing that we have not be robbed on this trip. I don't mean getting mugged on some of our late walks at night in questionable neighbourhoods. As a matter of fact, since it's still bright here even at midnight, you feel very safe as you feel no one would attack you in the middle of the day. That's probably why the crime rate is so low in the summer. They save all the naughty acts for when it gets dark at 4pm. (Just speculation since I know nothing about the crime rate except for restaurants charging $17 for a pint of draft beer). Getting back to why we should have been robbed. A lot of the keys for the rooms here are like back home. Credit card format that you put in a slot in the door. Where it differs from home is that, in many places, when leaving the room you have to insert the card behind you to lock the room. We only found this out in the 4th hotel that used this system. So for at least 5 days, we were leaving our rooms unlocked for anyone to walk in. Fortunately no one did and maybe the cleaning staff would lock up after their visit but beware of the locks in the room. If you see a card with a green and red arrow that is probably one of those locks. Actually, our current card does not look like the one above but works the same way. It would have helped had we read the warning on the card, but who reads instructions.

 

TRAVEL TIP - When using hotel loyalty points instead of using them for a free night, try the points and cash approach. Here is the Club Carlson example. We had 23,000 points to start. A free stay costs you at least 15,000 points while using the Points and Cash option, you get almost $100 off a night. So instead of your points getting you a $150 room, they actually have saved us almost $300 AND you accumulate points on the cash portion. Warning, you have to try both options online and it doesn't seem to be as profitable with Priority Club Points (Holiday Inn).

 

TRAVEL TIP - While I am at it, I will give you another travel tip that everyone can use even when visiting friends. On our way out of the Heat Hotel in Lake Havasu, the chamber maid asked if we had left anything behind like a phone charger. She said that chargers are the #1 thing left behind in hotel rooms. I told her to give those guest this tip. If you are plugging in your phone or anything else anywhere (even a friends house), run you car key's chain through the wire. You can't leave without your car keys so if they are attached to the charger, voila. You can do this for other things like your gloves if you are one of those people who always leave their gloves at people's houses. You're welcome.
 

Travel Tip 1 - China has a 240 volt electric system, so make sure all your adapters say 110v - 240v on them. Most chargers and computer power supplies will work here but check before. Also you may need an adapter, however in this hotel the receptacles have 2 sets of holes, one for the Australasian plugs and an extra one That will accept a 2 prong North America plug. Your computer power supply is probably 3 prong, so it will need an adapter. I will eventually include pictures to illustrate this better.

Travel Tip particular to this hotel, hopefully. Although the controls for the room air conditioners seem to be working, the hotel turns off the room air conditioners after September, so basically you are only moving air around without any conditioning. Opening the windows, seemed to work as the temperature is going down to 10 at night right now, however, mosquitoes are not limited to the Laurentians. A little nipper woke me up from a good sleep around midnight and one is buzzing around me as I am typing this at 1:30 in the morning. I don't believe it's carrying malaria but it's a little noisy as it enters your ear canal. Update to mosquito situation. When we arrived at our hotel after the day's sightseeing, the windows in our room were open. Low and behold there were screens over the windows. When we opened the windows yesterday we had not noticed that the screens roll down like a blind. Live and learn, Tonight a cool room and no nippers.

Travel Tip 2 - Bring locks for your luggage for all the internal flights within China. This was recommended by our guide because when travelling in a group, your luggage passes many hands and therefore it would be hard to track down any losses. It's a question of stealing from a locked car or an unlocked car, the easier prey is unlocked luggage.

 

Travel Tip 4 - If you really can't stand the smell of cigarette smoke, make sure you mention it. Most hotels have non smoking floors but if you don't mention it, you may end up in a smoky room. On this trip, I am not sure if you specify that ahead of time but your guide should be able to help as she picks up all the keys.

Travel Tip 5 - Bring your favourite cold remedies with you. Because of the close quarters of the buses and planes, if one person catches a cold, chances are that many people in the group will get something. It has happened on this trip. They don't call it the common cold for nothing.

Travel Tip 6 - Don't forget to pack some small binoculars as some of the sights here are far away including the elusive Reese's Monkeys of the Lesser Gorge. They were taking a vacation when we went by so we had to settle for wild goats.

Travel Tip 7 - Read this one if you are planning to use the Internet on your trip. If you decide to use the business centres in the hotels to make your internet connections, note that many centres in the hotels are only opened during the day. The itinerary of the Sinorama tours is so busy that you will seldom be in your hotel during these hours. Some people have not been able to contact their families or are asking others to send e-mails for them. The boat internet is 20 Yuan for 30 minutes and 30 for an hour but you must use their equipment which runs something called Windows 2004, obviously a 'copy' of a Microsoft Operating System. Many people have tried in vain to access their e-mails. It works sporadically.

Travel Tip 9 - Airport prices for coffee. If you are doing this trip you will have lots of time in airports. The prices vary here more than anywhere else. We have paid as little as 15 Yuan for coffee and 18 for cappuccino. In Guilin airport, Myrna ordered a cappuccino and was told it would be 68 Yuan which is over $11. She didn't have that much in her pockets, so she told the girl all she had was 42. Since it was made the girl took 40 and left Myrna the 2 Yuan. 7 bucks for a Cap is still a lot. Also in some of the smaller airports, their prices are not listed. Ask how much before you order and you will be safe. The other lesson is that you can bargain for anything here.

Travel Tip - Here's is a travel tip that could be of help next time you fly. This will prevent from get a surprise when you get your seat assignment. The web site seatguru.com has all plane configurations for most airlines. For example, on the Airbus 319 that we are taking to LAX, we know that there will be a power outlet in the seat. This means not having to be on battery power to watch movies on the netbook. It rates each seat in the plane and reason why they are rated. It even tells you the angle your seat will recline to. You will also know whether you will have your own TV or an overhead one. We know that the 16 hour flight from LAX to Melbourne will not have power and will have to rely on in seat entertainment when the 9 hour net book battery dies out


I learned a couple of valuable lessons when booking this trip and one of them could save you a lot of money. Our original plan was to land in Atlanta and drive to Nashville or Chattanooga almost immediately. That was changed when I tried to book a car for the 2 weeks of our trip. My first attempt at renting a car at the Atlanta airport was with Hertz. Since through work I am a Hertz Gold member, I like the special pickup service and treatment you get renting there. Anyway, when reserving the car, a regular Mazda 6 or equivalent car, the total estimate came out to $878USD with or without my corporate discount. When I looked at the detailed breakdown of the estimate, I noticed 2 extra fees of around $70 each, one for an airport concession recovery fee and another for a customer facility charge. Just for fun, I did the exact same search but renting from downtown Atlanta to see how much the bill would go down without the airport concession recovery fee. This is where I almost fell on the floor. The estimated cost had gone down from $878usd to the low $400's. Not only were the 2 above fees gone, but the weekly rate had dropped from $325 a week to $188 a week. In the end, with a small CAA discount, the cost of renting downtown instead of the airport was $387 rather than $878. That's a savings of almost $500us for the exact same car. This is what made us decide to actually stay in downtown Atlanta overnight on both ends of the trip. It will be basically paid for by the money saved in the car rental. I have already seen Atlanta just before the 1996 Olympics but Myrna hasn't and there are interesting sites there and on the Sunday afternoon before returning home early Monday morning, we might try to catch the Braves game against Houston at Turner Field.