Ask Gadling: What to do when you have to fly coach

Sad lemur flies coach.It could be worse. Whether it’s lack of funds or lack of availability in your usual class, almost everyone flies in Economy Class (charmingly called “Fiesta Class” by Philippine Airlines) now and then. Heck, some of us fly coach all the time.

Flying is an enormous privilege many of us have come to take for granted. Consider the miraculous nature of it: you get on a big metal tube with wings, speed up really fast and suddenly start flying through the air for thousands of miles, sometimes to continents far away — lands previous generations would have had to travel for weeks or months to see. We’ve lost our awe for air travel. It’s not our fault; it’s the times. In all fairness, we lost our awe for the wheel millennia ago.

And just as many of us are loathe to ride in the back of a bus, we hate to fly coach. You may recognize some of these descriptors: cramped, rushed, dirty, packed, uncomfortable, bad wine, worse food, no blankets, stinky restrooms, too many people too close together. Economy class can be trying, but if you plan ahead, it doesn’t have to be horrible.

You can request an exit row at check in, but if there isn’t a seat available, you’re kind of out of luck as far as space. There’s not much you can do. Lose a few pounds? I kid, I kid — but make the most of your space. Be sure to take your coat off and store it overhead. Dress properly: lightweight or stretchy materials can help you feel more comfortable than jeans on a long haul. Bring airplane slippers and take off your shoes. If you’re traveling with your spouse or significant other, pull up the armrest and snuggle.

Next, think of a perk you really love about your class of choice. Is it the champagne? The eyeshades?

View more Ask Gadling: Travel Advice from an Expert or send your question to ask [at] gadling [dot] com.

These are things you can bring yourself … albeit the former will have to be brought in teeny, tiny bottles — yeah, maybe forget the champagne, but you can always bring teeny, tiny shots of your favorite spirit to mix in your complimentary soda (as suggested by Bruce from Gadling’s Travel Talk). Bring a blanket that folds up small and a pillow if that will help you sleep. As much as everyone loves the service in first class, all that attention can sometimes be a pain anyway. Try to think of the anonymity of coach as refreshing; a kind of privacy.

Give yourself something to look forward to. This idea comes from the road trips I used to take with my family as a kid: we’d get a sticker or activity book we couldn’t open until the car hit the bottom of the driveway — it really took the focus off of the long ride ahead. Get yourself a little present you can’t open until the flight. A book works well. That way, your mind will be occupied from the start and less prone to jump straight to complaining.

If none of that helps and you’re still just dreading the very thought of boarding the plane? Do what many would have done in first class anyway: pop a couple of sleeping pills and say goodnight.

[Photo by lovely lemur via Flickr.]

Ask Gadling: How not to act like a tourist in a foreign country

Merriam-Webster defines a tourist as, “one who makes a tour for pleasure or culture.” I would stretch that definition to include business travelers, assuming they have a bit of leisure time.

Here at Gadling, our goal is to encourage travel and exploration, even if it’s in your hometown. For the purposes of this article, however, I’m referring to non-domestic travel. And no matter how hard you try, even if you live in a foreign country and speak the language fluently, natives always know you’re a tourist or not one of them.

I believe that being a tourist generally entails asking a lot of questions out of curiousity or general inquiry, and making the occasional cultural gaffe. But there are many compelling reasons why you should squelch the urge to behave like the stereotypical tourist: the Ugly American, say, or a culturally clueless wanderer. Without getting into semantics or the murky, pretentious waters of “traveler” versus “tourist.” I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not always the ideal traveler. There are times when I’m frustrated, pissed off, or discombobulated. But one of the reasons I travel is that I like to challenge myself, and get out of my comfort zone. Once I remind myself of that, I’m able to relax, and usually, find the humor in a situation.

Advantages to not acting like a tourist

Safety. Just like at home, if you look like you know where you’re going–even if you don’t–you’re less likely to become a target for crime or harassment. We’ve all had to whip out a map or guidebook, no matter how surreptitiously. There’s nothing wrong with that: just don’t flaunt it. Most people are genuinely helpful, but if I need assistance, I prefer to choose my source if the circumstances are remotely sketchy.

A more rewarding cultural experience. This isn’t to say an incredible trip is impossible for aloha-wear-clad package tourists who never leave the confines of their hotel property, or independent travelers who consult Generic Guidebook at every step. But straying from the beaten path, being culturally aware, and allowing things to happen serendipitously are a lot easier when you have low-key dress and demeanor, and an open mind.

You’ll enjoy yourself more. Intense cultural experiences aren’t always pleasant (the time I was the only butt-naked Westerner in a very local’s-only Moroccan hammam was, shall we say, awkward). But as a rule, being open to such experiences allows you to feel less like an outsider, and provides a window into how other people live, eat, socialize, fall in love, celebrate, and mourn. There’s a fine line between being a participant and a cultural voyeur, however, and doing a bit of pre-trip research will go far in helping you avoid crossing it.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Todd Mecklem]

Things you can do to lessen your “touristiness”

Learn a few key phrases. No one expects you to speak the local language, but it’s helpful to learn basics like “hello,” “thank you,” “please,” and “where’s the bathroom?” It also endears you to most natives (save the French, who generally–and stereotypically– aren’t charmed when you butcher their mother tongue). Many of the wonderful invitations and experiences I’ve had came from my willingness to respect the local culture, no matter how idiotic I sounded at the time. Even pointing to sentences in a phrasebook is more polite than Speaking.English.Loudly.and.Slowly. to someone who obviously doesn’t understand you. I never head to a non-English-speaking country without a Lonely Planet Phrasebook.

Learn a bit about your destination. You don’t need to memorize the entire history of, say, Portugal, but it’s helpful to read up on the country, its people, and customs. It will help you to understand certain quirks, the cuisine, religious practices, etc. It also helps prevent you from committing irritating, inadvertently offensive acts like insistently speaking Spanish to a Portuguese bus driver (I’m talking to you, Mr. Clueless Backpacker on the Faro-to-Seville route). That’s a relatively innocuous crime, but things like touching a person on the head or pointing your foot at them (Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia), making the “OK” symbol (Brazil), or exposing bare shoulders if you’re a female visiting a mosque are decidedly not cool, and can have unpleasant repercussions. Don’t be that person. Behave Yourself: The Essential Guide to International Etiquette is a great–and funny–crash course on global customs.

View more Ask Gadling: Travel Advice from an Expert or send your question to ask [at] gadling [dot] com.

Use your indoor voice. As Americans, we’re known for our friendliness, enthusiasm, and eagerness to express our opinions. Not bad traits. But in a foreign country, these things, combined with our notoriously high decibel level, can be misconstrued or just plain obnoxious. Along the same lines, curb the American tendency to boast, and know when to let certain comments or behaviors slide–sometimes, you need to bite your lip, and remember that you’re the visitor. It’s never worth compromising your personal safety (or that of another) to voice an opinion, but by all means, do stand up for yourself if you’re at risk.

Dress appropriately. This generally applies more to women than men, but in general, why would you want to draw unwanted attention to yourself? Leave the frat shirts, booty shorts, and low-cut tank tops at home. While this is a basic personal safety issue, it’s also about cultural respect. It’s tacky and offensive for a Western woman to sunbathe topless in Southern Thailand (which has a sizeable Muslim population), but it can be seriously problematic for her to show too much skin or not wear a headscarf in certain rural areas of the Middle East.

Lend a hand. While some might see this as uber-touristy (if not outright patronizing), I often bring useful items with me to certain countries. Whether it’s colored pencils or clothing for kids, basic medical necessities, or fresh produce, the fact is, isolated and impoverished people are often grateful for assistance. I won’t bring or distribute items without doing a bit of research to see if it’s acceptable/what communities are in need of.

Eat as the locals do, or at least pretend. For me, street food and dining in a private home are the greatest joys of travel. But not everyone feels that way, and sometimes, even I find myself confronted by a glass or plate of something so repulsive/high-risk, I can’t bring myself to partake. To refuse an offering can often cause disgrace or mortal offense to your host, so if at all possible, fake it. That banana chicha, fermented by a heaping dose of my (likely tubercular) host’s saliva? Yeah, I didn’t really drink that.

Wear your poker face. I’ve often been told I have an expressive face (usually not as a compliment). When I’m traveling abroad, I have to work overtime to not show emotions when confronted with a cultural foible or other situation that amuses or offends my American sensibilities. And while losing your temper can occasionally work in your favor, remember that in many parts of the world–most notably, Asia–it’s seen as a major character flaw. Take a deep breath, simmer down, and please don’t unleash the “But I’m an American!” card.

Rules to follow as a tourist

Be humble and gracious. You may find the local diet, standard of living, and treatment of women appalling, but you needn’t need show it.

Be respectful. You’re the foreigner speaking a crazy language.

Don’t be a victim. Use common sense, and don’t go looking for trouble. If it finds you anyway, try resolve the situation in a non-confrontational way, or do what you need to do to protect yourself. In a worst case scenario, call your nearest embassy or consulate.

Be prepared. Always have a Plan B, whether it’s money, copies of your passport and medical insurance, or taking out travel insurance. Email yourself and family or a friend copies of all important documents, including lists of emergency contacts, doctors, and collect numbers for banks and credit card companies.

Be grateful. No matter what kind of amazing adventures I have, and no matter how much my nationality/government/deeply ingrained personal and cultural shortcomings may embarrass me, I’m profoundly appreciative that being an American grants me the quality of life and civil liberties I possess.

[Photo credits: NY, Flickr user Baptiste Pons; Las Vegas, Flickr user geoperdis; Mona Lisa, Flickr user Gregory Bastien]

Ask Gadling: Your name/nationality/religion/race makes the locals hostile

In a perfect world, every place would be friendly and welcoming to foreigners, no matter their background or lifestyle. However, history, politics, religion, and just plain ignorance means some countries can be hostile to certain travelers based on race, faith, nationality, sexual orientation, or gender. While careful consideration should be given before traveling to potentially hostile countries, you may be limiting yourself if you choose not to visit a place for fear of being unwelcome.

Travel is a key part of increasing tolerance and understanding and can make the world a smaller place. Don’t let stereotypes, rumors, or the past color your opinions without getting every side of the story and researching the reality of a place. Laws may be loosely enforced, popular sentiment may only reflect a vocal minority, and individual people can always surprise you with kindness.

View more Ask Gadling: Travel Advice from an Expert or send your question to ask [at] gadling [dot] com.

Just because a country doesn’t roll out the red carpet to greet you, doesn’t mean you won’t be welcome and comfortable. My husband is an American citizen born in Russia, and his passport lists place of birth (his old passport read Leningrad, USSR). While he hasn’t set foot in his homeland in over 30 years, just the name on his passport can cause issues with countries with complicated relationships with Russia. On a recent trip to Bosnia, we were detained for several nerve-wracking minutes at Passport Control while they scrutinized his documents and asked questions about our purpose in Sarajevo. The same thing happened in Bulgaria, where they spoke to him only in Russian while he answered in English. Both times, we were eventually let into the country with some semblance of a smile, but any apprehension was soon overcome by the hospitality of the locals proud to show off their cities.

If you plan on visiting a potentially hostile country, there are a few precautions you should take to ensure you are safe and at ease.Be informed
Before making travel plans, get a basic historical and cultural perspective by checking out country profiles on the State Department’s website, Wikipedia and Wikitravel, and travel guidebooks. Local English-language newspaper websites and blogs can provide more current intel on the political and social environment. Read a few different viewpoints if possible to understand multiple sides of an issue. The more you know about how events have fed into opinion, and how foreigners are treated in real-life scenarios, the better equipped you can be to handle it and make decisions about your trip. Know what topics are considered taboo or contentious so you know what to avoid talking about with locals.

Find a safe haven
While we travel to get to know unfamiliar places, it can be comforting to have a safe and accepting place at the end of the day. Seek out a woman-owned hotel in Morocco, or a gay-friendly guesthouse in Beirut. Some travelers may want to consider an group tour for additional security and convenience, organized by locals and experts who understand the customs and attitudes of the country and how best to navigate them. When you arrive, register yourself with the U.S. Department of State and share your plans with friends and family at home.

Stay under the radar
While in the country, respect the local culture and behave accordingly. While I may not wish to wear a hijab or headscarf, visiting a conservative Muslim country is not the time to protest or start debates about women’s liberation. If you are gay, public displays of affection should be discreet or totally avoided, particularly in countries where homosexuality is frowned upon or illegal. If you are a different race than the majority, you may be an object of curiosity or sometimes harassment, but racism towards travelers is generally fairly mild. Keep your passport and travel documents on you at all times and be patient and forthcoming if questioned by any authorities.

Have you traveled to a country where you felt unwelcome? Have you been surprised with the open-mindedness of strangers? Leave us your story in the comments.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Ivy Dawned]

Ask Gadling: What to do when you can’t fit everything into your luggage

The closing of the suitcase.

In this day and age, when we have to pack so carefully — in smaller suitcases — to avoid checking our luggage, it’s just not fair when we get to the end of a trip and the dang suitcase won’t close. Are we supposed to bring a huge suitcase packed halfway and pay for checking baggage twice? Robbery.

There are a couple of options you have when you find yourself in this quandary. You can ship the extra gear, which can be costly. Or, you can bring (or buy) a collapsible bag (like a duffel) in your suitcase and check it, filled with your dirty clothes and shoes, on the way home. If you have a lot more stuff than you can pack, these may be your only options.

Still, there are other ways of getting what you want: all your stuff on the airplane with you, free of charge.

View more Ask Gadling: Travel Advice from an Expert or send your question to ask [at] gadling [dot] com.

Sneak a third bag onto the plane.

Well, not really. You may remember the SCOTTEVEST from my article How to sneak a third bag onto a plane. This is a great way to make the most of your allotted cabin space: put as much stuff as you can in your jacket. A SCOTTEVEST or other multiple-compartment jacket can allow you to empty your carry-on into your pockets and create much more space for your additional purchases. You’ll take the jacket off at security, so don’t worry about metals, and you can stow it in the overhead on the plane, so don’t worry about comfort. Jackets like these are handy for traveling anyway; it’s always more fun to explore with free hands.

Wear your problems.

Don’t want to invest in a new jacket? Understandable. Still, consider your wearables. Make sure you wear your very bulkiest items on the plane and stuff the pockets, creating more space in your luggage. Hiking boots, cowboy hat, snowpants, jeans, fleece, sweater, jacket and go (and if that ever really happens, where in heaven’s name were you?). Keep in mind that you can stow a couple of these things in the overhead compartment.

Go Old Testament.

Lastly, when you’ve got too much stuff to close the suitcase and you just can’t bear to pay to check an extra bag, consider making the ultimate sacrifice: throwing something away. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten home and thought, “Really? I paid to check this?” Edit your acquisitions — some of those free-with-the-tour gifts, in particular, are things for which you’d never have paid $25. Another possible chopping block contestant is your shoes. How worn out are they? If you’ve got shoes with less than a couple wears left in them before you admit they make you look like a vagrant, consider ditching them. Shoes take up a ton of space.

That’s about it! Keep in mind that if your purchases are liquid, you’re just going to have to check a bag or ship it.

[Photo by Don Fulano via Flickr.]

Ask Gadling: What do I do if my flight gets canceled?

We’ve all been there. Fourteen seconds after getting to the airport in a mindless blur you look up at the departure boards and see that dreaded word next to your flight: CANCELED. Your weekend appointment, your deeply important business meeting, your tickets to the Knicks game – everything is suddenly on the line thanks to the fault of one airline that was supposed to get you to your destination on time. And now you’re stuck at the airport.

Flight cancellations happen all the time and there’s little that can be done about their occurrence. Mechanical, weather and act-of-God delays happen all of the time, but the result of their action doesn’t have to ruin your day – in fact, in a few cases it might improve it.

The first thing to remember: don’t panic. Airlines are contractually required to get you from point A to point B, and most carriers have enough capacity to get you there in a reasonable amount of time – so you don’t have to worry about never making it to your destination. How and when you get there is another question.

After you’ve collected yourself, look at the departures board and see if there are any other identical flights on the same or different airline to your route listed. Something on your airline at a later time is the most ideal case, but make sure to take note of any other airlines operating on that route – it might come in handy later.

View more Ask Gadling: Travel Advice from an Expert or send your question to ask [at] gadling [dot] com.

Next, despite what the agent at your departure gate might suggest, don’t jump into line behind the 200 other people on your flight waiting to get rebooked. Each one of those people has precedence over you on the soonest departing flight, and the faster you can speak to someone the faster you can snatch up an available seat. Thus, to get ahead, do one of the following:

  1. Find a free agent at another gate or find a rebook station. Most major airline hubs have manned stations where rebooking and organization can take place. In fact, most gate agents have access to the booking system. If you find a (free) agent and calmly outline your situation, most of them would be willing to help you rebook.
  2. Call the airline. Even if you don’t have access to a fancy elite line, it’s often easier to speak to a phone agent to rebook your ticket. Look down at your boarding pass for your record locator and/or your ticket number to provide everything you need for the phone agent. As an added bonus, representatives on the phone will probably be less stressed out and thus better equipped to help out in your situation.

There’s also the issue of routing. It always helps to have potential flights or strategies in mind when you walk up to the agent for rebooking. Remember those flights on other carriers? Make sure you suggest those routes if the ticket agent wants to put you on a flight that you don’t want to take. If you had a connection earlier, you can also suggest to be put on a direct flight to your destination. Cutting out the extra flight (and layover) can actually save you time in the long run.

A great way to suggest alternate routing is to jump online and check the available outbound flights. Plugging your departure and arrival airports into a tool such as seatcounter.com or even into your airline’s website will usually give you all of the possible routes that can be flown in one day – thus, if you would rather fly through Dallas over Chicago on your way to New York you can politely suggest an alternate route and the ticket agent should have the ability to accommodate your request.

Finally, if your cancellation involves being stuck in a transit city overnight or for a long period, make sure to ask for hotel, food or transportation vouchers to compensate for your lost time. Most airlines are obligated to help out so you should take advantage!

[flickr image via Danny Mekic’]