Women's Adventure Magazine
Traveling on a budget can be the best way to experience a country. Many will agree, however, that the scariest part of traveling on a shoestring is not knowing what you're getting yourself into and not anticipating the curve balls that might be thrown your way. But if you learn to expect the unexpected and be prepared for disasters of any size and shape, the next time you flash your passport you'll do so with the finesse of a seasoned veteran.
RIDING PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION
— Renting a car while traveling often means reading signs in foreign languages and sometimes driving on the opposite side of the road, among other things. In many cases taking public transportation not only is safer and more cost-effective but can be a cultural experience in itself.
— Buses in Latin America. Old school buses go to Latin America to die. While the locals may think of them simply as public transport, most American travelers affectionately refer to them as “chicken buses” because you are almost as likely to share a seat with a chicken as with a person. When getting on, tuck all your belongings neatly into your luggage, as it will be heaved up top and anything not tied down is fair game. You will be packed in like sardines, so know when your stop is coming up so you can begin making your way to the front of the bus to avoid missing it. “Traveling by chicken bus in Guatemala is a cramped but rewarding experience, as country women get on and dump their infants onto your lap in full expectation that you'll take care of them for the duration of the ride,” says Tom Thumb, marketing manager of www.roadjunky.com.
— Big-city subways. To avoid having to whip out your “I am a tourist” map in the middle of a crowded station, ask for help with directions in advance at your hotel or a visitor center. It's also a good idea to find out how much the subway costs so that you can be prepared with the exact change. Most subway systems are color coded, so if you have a hard time finding the number or the name of the line you want, use the colors to guide you.
— Be sure your train is not an express train, meaning it will skip many of the stops on its route. “In countries where pickpocketing is a problem, never go around with an expensive watch, sunglasses, or a camera around your neck,” advises Thumb. “Never carry your passport and money in a handbag; buy a thin money belt to go around the waist and under the trousers or skirt instead. Only keep day-to-day cash in easily accessible pockets or bags.”
— Taxis. Because there is little regulation for taxis (theoretically anyone could pick you up and take you somewhere for money), you have to be extravigilant when getting in one. Look for airport or city taxis that sport official seals. “That way there will be a documented record of your journey,” says Thumb. Check your guidebook to see if there are official taxis, or ask at a hotel or airport information desk. Tell the driver to start the meter so he doesn't just charge some crazy amount when the ride is over, or agree in advance what the charge will be to get you to your destination. If a driver seems sketchy or unwilling to cooperate, get out and find another taxi. When in doubt, ask other travelers or hotel personnel for recommendations on reputable cab companies.
REPLACING A LOST OR STOLEN PASSPORT
The U.S. State Department stresses the importance of making photocopies of your passport before you leave home. Ideally, you should copy the whole thing, but at least copy the page that contains your passport number and photo. Stash one copy in your luggage separate from your passport, give a second copy to your traveling companion, and leave a third copy at home with a friend. Having a copy will speed up the replacement process and will serve as identification.
— Report it. If you become separated from your passport, report it immediately to the local police and then contact the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate. You can ask around to locate it, or before you leave home go to www.usembassy.gov to find the locations and contact info for the embassies closest to where you are planning to be.
— Replace it. Thanks to modern technology, passports have gotten more high tech and therefore can take some time to replace. Once you go to the consular office, you will need to fill out a new passport application, take a photo, and show other ID. They will electronically submit the information back to the passport office in Washington, … which will then send the new passport to you via courier. This can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. “If you're broke, we can still get you home,” says Douglas Koneff, director of American Citizens Services at the U.S. State Department. “Usual application fees apply if you have to replace your passport; however, if your money has also been stolen, no fee will be charged and we can issue you a limited-validity passport to get you home safely.”
—If emergency strikes… The U.S. State Department claims that if there is a true emergency and you have to leave the country immediately, for $100 you can get a temporary passport issued, provided you have all of the necessary identification. This document is good for one year and is at the discretion of the embassy. You can get a temporary passport almost instantly when the situation permits.
DEALING WITH ILLNESS OR INJURY
— Plan ahead. If you take regular medication, “it is important to manage your chronic health conditions while traveling,” says Shelly Diaz, public affairs specialist at the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta. “You should plan to take a sufficient supply of medications in original containers.” Make sure you have at least enough to get you through the duration of your trip, plus an extra week's worth in case you lose some or miss a flight.
— Talk to your doctor. Before leaving home, you can ask your regular doctor to prescribe you some commonly used meds that might serve multiple purposes, such as antibiotics. You can also ask for prescriptions of any other drugs you get prescribed from time to time, like painkillers, allergy medication, or stuff for heartburn or yeast infections. If you tell your doctor you will be traveling abroad, he or she can usually give you a small supply of these to have on hand. This will save you a frantic trip to the pharmacy in the event that an old illness or injury pays you a surprise visit.
— Get help. If you do find yourself seriously sick or injured, contacting the local consular office will ensure that you are given the best possible care. They can help you get in touch with friends and family at home and will also assist you in getting to an accredited and reliable hospital.
— Home remedies. “Packing a health kit can help travelers manage minor ailments while abroad,” says Diaz. This should include things like over-the-counter painkillers, anti-diarrhea meds, topical antibiotics, and cortisone cream. If in the worst-case scenario you find yourself in need of medication from a pharmacist who doesn't speak a language you can understand, there is always the fallback universal language: charades.
— Be alert. To avoid theft, always keep one eye on your belongings and remember that distraction is a typical way for thieves to get the best of you. Wear hip packs or shoulder bags that stay close to your body in the front (as opposed to backpacks that someone could easily access). “It's important that your bag is not easy to get into in an instant and that you have something that is close to your body. You want to be able to feel the bag at all times (versus a purse with long straps that hangs),” says Katie Malley, travel agent for STA Travel. You may also want to avoid wearing T-shirts from American colleges and sports teams or expensive jewelry that can scream “rich American tourist,” even if you are not one.
— Alarms. It can be easy to set up your own alarm system in a hotel room, which can come in handy when staying in rooms with simple latch locks or doors that don't quite close. Things like the Door Guard (www.travelwithcare.com) serve as a portable deadbolt. It folds flat, can be carried in a purse, and provides an instant secure lock anywhere you need it. When all else fails, a simple bottle on your doorknob (to fall and break if someone tries to enter) can help you sleep a little more soundly.
— If emergency strikes… If you purchase travel insurance, it will come with a phone number that you can call collect anytime for help. “If you're ever in a sticky situation, you can call that number collect from anywhere in the world. Memorize it, put it in your e-mail, slip it in your wallet/passport/shoe — whatever,” Malley advises.
FINDING YOUR WAY
Sometimes the best way to explore a new city or country is simply to wander. Samantha Brown, travel expert and host of several Travel Channel television series, suggests that if you find yourself not knowing north from south and slums from resorts, with no English speakers around to guide you, use creative methods of communication that don't require words.
— Bring maps and drawings. “Usually, I have a map with my starting point circled so I can point to it and make a distressed grimace, which is universal for ‘I am lost' — no common language needed,” says Brown. She also suggests: “Keep a business card of the hotel you are staying at with you at all times. Make sure it's written in that country's language, not in English. Then you can just hand it to a taxi driver.” If you are staying at a hostel, campground, or home that does not have a business card, have someone write the address and phone number on a piece of paper in the local language before you leave to explore.
— Ask for help. Taxi drivers, police, and local shopkeepers are excellent resources and have plenty to gain by being friendly and helpful. If you don't have something indicating your home base, try to find a hotel — the bigger the better. Hotels used to housing international tourists may have English-speaking staff; if they don't, they will certainly have books and maps of the area, which you can scan for familiar neighborhoods or landmarks. Brown says small shops are great places to go for help. “The owners are part of the community and will have an interest in treating you hospitably as well as making sure you are safe.”
— Be bold. In the end, don't fear the natives. Chances are you aren't the first lost traveler who has wandered through the door. Samantha has found the locals of all continents to be friendly and willing to help out a traveler enjoying their country.
(For more on travel, fitness, sports and health, pick up the latest issue of Women's Adventure Magazine or visit www.womensadventuremagazine.com.)
© 2008, Women's Adventure (www.womensadventuremagazine.com)
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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PHOTO (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099). AMX-2008-09-10T15:01:00-04:00