by Judith Fein and Ellen Barone
If you are aware and prepared, travel is not only safe but good for body, mind and soul. Most destinations in the world are so dependent upon tourism for their economies that they go to great lengths to protect their visitors. So, if you feel that someone is watching out for you when you travel, you are probably right.
There are, however, scams and lousy customer services that prey on the good nature and open-heartedness of travelers and are in the business of bait-and-switch. There are also crooks at home and abroad, and we are confident that the karma wagon will roll over their toes when it makes its rounds.
Here are a few insider tips on how to protect yourselves, your belongings, your wallet and your sanity when you hit the road.
1. Eyes in the Back of you head
When you go through security at the airport, you are probably so busy taking off your shoes and tucking your lotions and liquids into zip-lock bags that you take your eyes off your personal belongings as they bump along the conveyor belt. Have your shoes and plastic bags prepared ahead of time, so you can watch your precious cargo when it leaves your hands. Sticky fingers can whisk away the things you need most – right under the noses of the TSA workers.
2. More eyes in the back of your head
See “Eyes in Back of Your head.” The same is true when you retrieve your checked luggage after your flight. Set down your carry-on bag, attaché case or small duffle in front of you, not behind you, as you wait for your luggage to arrive. It’s much too easy for The Nasties to grab and run, especially since many airports no longer have officials looking at your luggage claim receipts as you exit the baggage claim area.
3. It’s too good to be true
Howard Johnson is currently making an offer to travelers, and, in our opinion, it’s thumbs down all the way. If you are looking for a reasonably-priced place to stay and go to their website or call them, they offer to give you a free night’s stay if you can find a better price on the web. It’s not hard to do, and you’ll probably be eager to collect that free bed in a city of your choice. But what follows is a labyrinth of rules and regulations so that the offer is virtually worthless. No, no, Howard Johnson. You can do better than this.
4. Camera Blue
When you buy a digital camera, it’s important to find out if it is “all weather” or is weather sealed. If it is not, you may find that water, snow, humidity or even a loose hair can get into your camera. And then, when you try to take a picture, you find out that the camera is dead.
Canon’s expensive 5D is a wonderful instrument–provided you don’t spill coffee on it, get caught in the rain, or try to use it when it’s too muggy outside. You may be lucky and have no problema, or……your camera may be irreparable. And Canon does not stand behind it. You will have to shell out money for a new camera or a refurb, and that means thousands of dollars squandered.
So ask in advance: is it weather sealed?
5. Peace at any price
If you want to sleep soundly at night, buy trip interruption/cancellation insurance, and get insurance in case anything is lost or damaged on the road. If you try to collect on a claim, it helps to have original receipts to prove the cost of your expensive purchases. You will probably never get back the full price of your belongings, but you will get compensated if you can prove the items were lost and have kept receipts for their purchase.
6. It’s okay to tell the teacher
Remember when you were in school and it was a no-no to snitch on other kids? Do you have a lingering distaste for denouncing wrongdoers?
When you are traveling, it’s a MUST to report any yecchy behavior to authorities. Tell the hotel manager, the police, the airline representatives. If it involves theft, have them write down the incident and give you a copy (always report the incident to the police whenever possible; this will be helpful and sometimes mandatory for insurance claims). If it is a case of inappropriate behavior, report it. Travel is a service industry and professional are there to provide service. They will generally be sympathetic and helpful.
So there you are, in Tunis, walking out of your hotel, and a friendly guy comes up to you and addresses you in English. “Do you recognize me from your hotel?” he asks. You squint in the glorious sunlight, and can’t quite figure out if he’s one of the bellmen or waiters. “Sure,” you say open-heartedly. “There’s a great festival going on in the souks (market) today, and I’d love to take you there,” he offers. Wow. What luck. He leads you through the labyrinthine market for twenty minutes and finally ends up at a perfume stall. Where’s the festival? He smiles and says you just missed it, but this is the best perfume stall in the market. If you choose to buy perfume, he gets a cut. If you choose not to buy, he says you owe him money for being his guide. you hate a public scene and pay him off. But you feel really lousy afterwards. He does not work in your hotel. He is a tout.
Maybe you’re in Bangkok, and a young man approaches you and says he wants to practice English with you. You grin, and he falls into step beside you. You walk around the city, he points things out to you, and then he says he has to go and expects you to pay him for his guiding services. He, too, is a tout.
So how do you avoid being tout-ed?
First, make arrangements up front. Ask, “how much will this cost?” If you come to an agreement, fine. If he says it will cost you nothing, clarify by saying, “This is a lot of time for you to be spending with me. Are you sure there is no charge?” Or say, “I do not wish to pay for your services. Do you still want to accompany me?” If he agrees, and you have a pleasant time together, you will probably wish to tip him. If he agrees up front that there is no charge and then demands money, you do not owe him anything. If he makes a scene, you may want to ask a policeman or shopkeeper for help. If he leads you to a shop and waits as you make your purchase, you can be pretty certain he is getting a cut.
Trust your sniffer. If something feels odd, it probably is. If it feels sincere and above-board, you may make a new friend.
But no matter what the outcome, it’s rarely dangerous and the worst case scenario is that it may end up costing you money.
8. When the skies are gray
When you purchase electronic equipment from a dealer online or at an online auction site, always ask–in writing– if it is gray market. This is especially true if the price is lower than it would normally be. If it is a gray market product, it is being sold outside of normal distribution channels by companies which may have no relationship with the producer of the goods. What this means to you is that the warrantee and/or guarantee may not be valid in the U.S.A. Sometimes the product will be slightly different from the version normally sold in the U.S.A. If the price is great, you may decide to buy it anyway. But ask first whether it is gray market, so you have no unpleasant surprises later.
9. Unlocking the phone secret
When you travel abroad, your cell phone provider probably has you in a stranglehold. They may offer you an international calling plan, but it’s most certainly very expensive–like 2 dollars a minute for airtime. This means your phone is locked, and you can only use it with a plan offered by your provider. The big secret is that you do not have to be bound to your cell phone provider. You can buy an unlocked phone at a phone store or online or from another provider (as of this writing, Alltel sells them). You can take the unlocked phone abroad and buy a SIM card at the airport or in local stores (your hotel will be able to tell you the nearest place). Insert it into your unlocked phone, and you can make calls for pennies. You will be charged the local rate. If everyone starts doing this, maybe U.S. cell phone providers will be forced to sell unlocked phones. Before you buy your next cell phone from your provider, be sure to ask if they sell unlocked phones.
10. Better Safe Than Sorry
One of the greatest pleasures of travel is walking around the town or city you are in. When night falls, ask at your hotel if it’s safe to walk in the neighborhood. They will generally say yes, or tell you stay away from certain areas. They know the streets, and they can assure that your walk will be pleasant and without hassle.
The chances are that you will avoid most or all of these hassles if you are prepared and aware.
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Long time travel writers and savvy travelers themselves, Judith Fein and Ellen Barone write for various publications.