In at least one way, travel advice is like marital advice: everyone’s an expert. Here are some purportedly helpful tips worthy of a dubious, raised eyebrow.
“Buy your train tickets before you leave home.”
You have to remember that traveling an hour or two between cities is as commonplace for commuters in other countries as it is for those of us who ride NJ Transit. It isn’t necessary to book early, and doing so can even become a detriment. Yes, you should be familiar with the train schedule, but wait until you’re in the country to purchase tickets. Otherwise, if you miss your train, you’ll lose the value of the fare, or find that your “wisely” pre-purchased ticket for a train departing three hours from now requires a change fee that costs as much as a brand-new ticket. (Thanks, Dad: those idle hours in the Milan train station were awesome.)
“If you loved the hotel, make sure you book for next season.”
Hotels bank on the fact that the high of a great experience will prompt guests to open up their wallets for next year’s trip. Do so only if you don’t mind going through the whole process again (plus the cancellation), because hotel rates are often at their peak during high season—even for the following year. The old rule about getting a good rate when you book early is so 1990; rates fluctuate throughout the year based on many factors, so the best advice is to keep checking until you see a reasonable rate, and then pounce.
“Book your air as soon as possible.”
This is the most pernicious advice left over from last century. Like hotel rates, airfare changes constantly, and booking six, eight or 12 months in advance can get you some of the most obscene prices. Of course, if you wait till the last minute, you’ll get gouged. Find a happy medium: for international trips, two months for the well–traveled, three or four for the skittish. (For domestic fares, I’ve done well booking just a week or two prior.) We all know that a good rate to Europe is around a grand, so if you’re seeing $1,600 eight months in advance, walk away. It will probably go down. And in general, mid-January is a slow time for airfare sales, which results in lower prices.
Travelers have to have a come-to-Jesus moment and really know themselves and their abilities. Do you take regular long walks? Do you go to the gym? Do you speak a foreign language? Do you live in a city? If the answer to all of the above is no, a guide or tour group might be the way to go.
“Bring lots of greenbacks.”
Yes, we all know it’s the world’s default currency despite our recent political troubles, and I’m a big proponent of U.S. dollars. But really, just bring enough to get you out of a jam—in case your ATM and every single one of your credit cards fails (unlikely). In Grand Cayman last month, my brother was robbed to the tune of $1,000; I was incredulous that he brought so much cash to a place that is so Americanized that a Tony Soprano-style wad is hardly necessary. Use an all-of-the-above strategy: ATM card, credit cards, enough local currency to get you through a day, and ditto for U.S. dollars.
There’s something about being in a new place that makes time disappear in a way it just doesn’t seem to do at home. If you see something you love at a fair price, buy it. You may or may not find its replica down the street, or the next day. And the plan to sprint back to that adorable little shop on the day you have to make your return flight? It will never happen.
There are great deals to be had in the summer and fall, hurricanes strong enough to disrupt your trip are rare, and you should have plenty of notice to cancel in the event of a hurricane (buy travel insurance if you’re really nervous). If you want to be extra safe, choose a southerly island outside the traditional hurricane zone—say Aruba or Barbados.
“Don’t go to ______ because of the pickpockets.”
Here’s some better advice than missing out on a cool destination: don’t carry anything for the pickpocket to pick. The money belt tucked into your underwear is overkill for me, but whatever works. In any event, nothing valuable should ever be in your back pockets, and you should divide money and credit cards between your front pockets. If a stranger has his hands in both of your front pockets, you have bigger problems than losing some cash. Or maybe not a problem at all.