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My typical travel prep

Everyone has different ways of managing their travels, and so do I. I’d imagine a number of things I do are not too different from everyone else but if you are curious anyway, read on.

1. Hand luggage only (if possible): since I usually do short haul trips over a few days, I try not to pack more than what can be fit into hand luggage only. Not only that, if I can’t lift the bag over my head to fit into the overhead bin on the plane, then I’ve carried too much.

2. Electronic documentation: I have been quite good at scanning pages of travel documentations, including passport copy as well as identifications, credit/debit cards etc, and store them somewhere secure where I can retrieve them easily, as long as I have internet connection. I do normally carry my laptop when I travel, but I don’t save the scanned copies on it. The last thing I want is to lose my laptop and with it, various identification items. Think identity theft.

3. One travel drawer: I have that one place and one place only where I keep my passport, foreign currencies, paper or printed e-tickets, various confirmations, frequent flyer cards etc. This way, I never do last minute hunting for all necessary travel documents.

4. Ready-to-go toilettries bag: I am not a big fan of the liquid regulation, but frankly it did not affect the way I travel much. I’ve always have a bag where I store toilettries in miniatures, I just had to swap the bag for a slightly smaller one which is transparent to meet the regulation. I always refill the bag upon my return from a trip, so it’s good to go at any time, even on a very short notice. If I know I am staying in hotels which would provide personal care items, I would sometimes remove shampoo, shower gel etc from the bag so I carry less.

5. Shop around: I’ve been very very lucky that my job, up to now, have granted me a lot of freedom in choosing when I can travel, which allows me to look for best prices for flights and accommodations e.g. mid-week when tickets are at the cheapest, impromptu trip to avail of last-minute promotions. I count my blessings to have amazingly flexible bosses for most part of my working life. One who would even grant holiday time tacked the to end of working trips, so I can travel without feeling the pinch of paying for additional air tickets.

6. Open mind, different ideas: there are many reasons to change one’s mind. For one, at times, other destinations work out better budget-wise than my originally intended getaway. That’s not a problem. I can travel elsewhere first, and come back to the initial choice another time. Or, I could arrive somewhere and decide to expand the trip to include another city. Usually it’s just a matter of buying a train ticket in the morning and returning in the evening. Daytripping can be a nice break within a break. The rule is always the same – keep an open mind to other possibilities, pre-trip or during the trip itself.

7. Be selective: when I was young and new to travel, I read all sorts of must-do lists and then try to achieve the impossible of seeing them all within a very short period of time. I did manage to pull a few of them off (and yes, I was feeling really proud of myself back then) but I’ve come to realise the value of choosing those I am really interested in seeing and include them in my visit list. I also try to group the sights together so I’m not running across town to and fro, and instead need to only walk a short distance to my next point of visit within the area.

8. What’s good to eat: I love food and part of the fun of travelling is to try local cuisines and delicacies. I would always try to research on what would be considered delicious bites and keep an eye out for them. I don’t normally list down addresses though, just have some reasonable idea where the eateries may be. If I see anything else along the way, sure I’ll try them too. Good thing I usually walk a lot when I travel, otherwise I’m sure to be a few sizes bigger than I am right now!

9. Charge that battery (and the spare): camera, mobile phone, ipod. If in doubt, charge them up anyway. Case in point – I have a couple of spare batteries for my camera. I do at times wonder which is out of juice and which will get me a good couple of hundred shots. Often, I know exactly where I am with them, but the odd times that I don’t, they will all be charged up. Some people say this will kill the battery life. I’d rather that than having no juice in the cells and miss out on good photo opportunities.

10. Home-cobbled notes: it comes with the research part, usually containing relevant map(s), information on local transportation, weather condition, any cultural points. If I happen to be very busy prior to departure, then I make do with photocopies of the pages from guide books (I try not to carry guide books to make for a lighter bag) and/or printouts from the internet. Once in the city, the tourist office can usually offer free maps, brochures to attractions etc anyway. Or talk to someone, preferably locals. They usually give good tips.

Travel: what not to do

Between my friends and I, we’ve been through our fair share of travel blunders and on occasion, panics – luckily not too many – and hopefully, we are all wiser now, having learnt from these mistakes of our past.

1. Overpacking: common tale, especially for newbies. I remember the times when I brought things “just in case I need it” and boy did I ever need them? No. Since then, I bring only what I know I will use, and if something really does crop up and I need that something, chances are I could buy it on the road too.

2. Silly savings: I like taking direct flights, or one with as little connections as possible. I have friends who prefer doing connecting flights in order to save some money on the tickets. But in this day and age where often, time is at premium, does a saving of $50 justify spending an additional 5 hours at the airports? Does your time not worth more than $10 per hour?

3. Inconvenient arrival time: airlines are trying to fill flights at unpopular slots by offering them at a cheaper price. However, if you arrive, say, past midnight at a remote airport without option of public transport at that time, you may well end up (1) taking taxi which would often be expensive, or (2) sleep at the airport for the night – if it’s allowed to being with. Neither options appeal to me. And when I travel solo, trying to get to hotel in a city I’m not unfamiliar with late at night doesn’t seem like a smart thing to do either, safety wise.

4. Losing common sense: there’s having fun, and there’s having irresponsible fun. Being away doesn’t mean you stop thinking and applying common sense where warranted. Don’t drink too much, don’t leave drinks unattended, practice safe sex, store your belongings safely, don’t leave bags unattended, avoid dark alleys when alone, and the list goes on.

5. Visa mishap: I don’t take chances with visa requirements and so do my friends. Most embassy/consulate pages have the information you’re looking for. IATA website is also useful for the checks. Don’t just rely on travel agents, as they may be unfamiliar with the area or inexperienced. My friend was once given the wrong advice and she was at transit point when she was told she needed a visa for her destination. To her relief, she could apply for the visa online quickly, so she got it all sorted before boarding her flight. No every traveller got so lucky when visa issues crop up.

6. Weather blunder: particularly important for anyone travelling light, what one packs should be what one would use at destination. Weather forecast is helpful in identifying the clothing items to pack. Sure, they’re not 100% accurate, but it beats being unprepared and greeted by drenching rain at your tropical sun destination because you didn’t realise it’s the monsoon season.

7. Money matters: it is prudent not to arrive anywhere without some local currency (admittedly, some currencies are hard to come by outside the country itself) and without knowing the exchange rate. Knowing the rate is vital to the budgetting process. And oh, do yourself a favour – always store some emergency cash separately from your main purse/wallet/pouch. You’ll never know when it’ll come handy.

8. Total upfront payment: it may feel like a good thing to do, paying for everything upfront before departure. However, this leaves little leeway for changes of plan without losing those money. For example, there’s nothing pleasant about staying in an unhygienic hotel/hostel for a week because you’ve paid for it in full. Try to choose a place where only a small deposit is required, and if deemed unsuitable for longer stay, then there’s possibility of moving elsewhere and lose just that deposit. Another example, if you’ve allocated insufficient/too much time for a particular city. Not having paid in full means the schedule can be adjusted accordingly instead of moving on to the next part of the trip at the wrong time.

9. Low on contact infos: with the advent of international mobile usage and heavy social network presence, this is likely a small issue, plus as adults, we don’t always need to account what we do to everyone. However, I still believe in informing at least someone of the rough travel plan together with details of accommodations booked etc. I don’t wish to disappear without a trace…

10. Lack of research: no, I’m not advocating detailed planning for every waking moment of the trip, but to have basic knowledge of the destination reduces the likelihood of unpleasant surprises while still leaving room for new adventures. For example, knowing when there’s a festive celebration cues you in to an opportunity to participate in the event but also to prepare you for possible associated inflation in costs for transportation, food and accommodation.

11. Ignoring your instinct: if something doesn’t feel right instinctively, play it smart by listening to your inner voice. This is not about matters of confronting your fear which may also feel instinctively alien, but of things that leave you uneasy after your assessment of the situation. The world is dynamic and things change. What may once be a safe quarter could now be at peril from gangland troubles. What may once be a reputable budget hotel may now be a motel of choice for adult trades. And so forth. It’s not an issue of bravado to stay put. It’s about managing risk and safety away from home.

12. Overdoing it: it’s very very tempting to try to do everything and it is not always possible. Don’t rush through one site to another just because you want to use all the vouchers of your museum pass. Don’t pack in a tour of seven countries in ten days just because the tour company says you can. Pace it out and enjoy yourself by appreciation, not by number of things you managed to check list.

What other advice(s) do you have for travellers on what not to do on the road, if they’re not already in the list above?

Sharjah International Book Fair

Where there’s book, you’ll find me. To read about the Sharjah International Book Fair, that was exciting. Local and international publishers and sellers would be there, and there would be tons of books in Arabic and non-Arabic languages too!

Held at the Sharjah Expo Centre, which is not far from where I am, the massive book fair is well organised (kudos to the organisers) and seemingly very popular too, teeming with visitors when I snuck over at 6pm yesterday evening. This was at the time when half the population of Sharjah were still stuck in the traffic, en route home from Dubai. I can only imagine as the evening progresses, more and more visitors would be expected.

Since I don’t read Arabic (how I wish I have – I took lessons once upon a time when I was six but never continue beyond that) my target section would be that of non-Arabic, foreign books. Hall 4 is dedicated just for that.

As I strolled along rows after rows of stalls, I noticed the majority of titles in English are children’s books. This is something very positive, that children are encouraged to learn English and there are so much educational tool available to them. There were also a quite a number of stalls dedicated to academic and medical texts, making them prime source of text books for second/third level students.

However, in general, there’s a lack of stock of fictions and right now, that’s probably what I’d like to get my hands on the most. Some popular titles are available, but I would have already read them. Some are classics, which I know I could get much cheaper elsewhere. New releases are few and far in between, which is a pity. I would have love to go away with a few new purchases. (I ended up going to Borders at Sharjah City Centre and bought 3 books there instead.)

The Sharjah International Book Fair is running from 26 October to 6 November 2010 at the Sharjah Expo Centre.

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