Ten things to know about your destination before you go

know before you go travel planningSo you’ve chosen your vacation destination – booked the tickets, agonized over TripAdvisor to find a hotel, and bought the guidebooks or downloaded the apps. Whether you like to plan your itinerary in advance or play it by ear, there are a few things you should research in advance to make your arrival – and your trip – go smoothly.

From airport taxis to local laws to transit passes, what should you know before you go?

  1. Best way from the airport to the city – This should be your first order of business – figuring out the most efficient and/or least expensive way to get to your hotel before you find yourself being hounded by taxi touts at baggage claim or standing in the rain waiting for a bus that comes every two hours. London’s Heathrow Express is a great compromise between an exorbitant taxi ride and a long Tube ride with transfers, but other cities may have cheap cab fares (find out approximately what you should pay before you get in the car) or excellent public transportation systems connecting with the airport. Check out any guidebook or the Getting In section of a Wikitravel article for the best info and check if your hotel offers pick up service for a good value.
  2. How much cash to start with and in what denominations – Now that you know how to get to your hotel, you’ll need cash to pay for your transfer. No matter what the exchange rate, you should find out how much money to withdraw from the ATM or exchange at the airport (note: most airports in the world have ATMs and will give you a better value than exchanging currency, but it never hurts to have some backup cash). Lonely Planet‘s Cost Index is great for determining about how much cash will cover a taxi ride, a meal or two, and other expenses for your first day or so. Some countries will give you large bills that are hard to break – try entering an odd amount like 130 to get some smaller bills or visit a newsstand to get change.
  3. What’s the tipping culture – So you’re in the taxi, cash in hand to pay the driver, do you tip? In many countries, like Turkey, people don’t generally tip taxi drivers, perhaps rounding up to the nearest lira or two, so a 38 TL fare would cost 40 TL (taxi drivers here are so loathe to give change they may eat the cost of a 52 TL fare and give you change for the 50). Likewise for restaurants and cafes, 10% is standard in many places outside of the US and often included in the bill. I’ll never forget leaving a 20% tip on top of an included 10% in a London bar – the waitress was thrilled but I felt like a fool. Figure out what’s appropriate and do as the locals do to avoid stiffing or overcompensating for service.
  4. A few key phrases in the local language – This is a necessity in some countries, and always a courtesy to know a few words of a foreign language. “Please” and “thank you” and “where is the bathroom?” will always be useful, and “two beers,” “another one” and “check” will usually result in good things.
  5. When to leave for the airport when you depart – It’s hard to think about going home when you’re enjoying vacation, but knowing how much time to allow for your departure can help you to maximize your last day. While your airline might tell you how far in advance to arrive, better to ask someone who really knows how long to budget, like your hotel concierge. A Lisbon hotel front desk clerk once saved me several hours waiting at the airport by letting me know the recommended three hours before check-in was overkill.
  6. What’s legal – Learning about the local laws can save you headaches and money. I just discovered that in Warsaw, jaywalking is illegal and punishable by a 50 zl fine, hence why all the residents wait patiently at crosswalks for the light to change. In some cities, it’s fine to bring a bottle of wine or beer into a park for a picnic, but in others, public drinking can get you fined. Knowing what’s legal can also help you avoid (or seek out, depending on your proclivities) potential danger areas such as red light districts. Wikitravel is good at listing info on local laws and dangers.
  7. What days museums are free or discounted – Visiting a museum on a free day might allow you to see something you’d otherwise miss due to the admission price, and free nights are often packed with locals and fun events. Find out what days you can get free to help plan your itinerary. Rick Steves’ guides always have a good summary of free (as well as closed) days.
  8. The real value of a transit or tourist pass – Many cities have a museum or tourist card that you can purchase to get free admission at many sites for a set time. But before you invest in a pass, check out if you really want to go to the included places (cheesy sights like wax musuems are invariably included) and if you’d have enough time to really enjoy visiting them all. Similarly, public transportation passes can be great in a city like New York, where a Metrocard can save you time and money, but if you prefer to walk or cab around town, you might skip it. The single best deal I’ve found is the Japan rail pass, which must be purchased in your home country, and gives free or discounted access to public transit and many of the country’s awesome bullet trains.
  9. Where to get help if you need it – I used to think registering with the U.S. Department of State when traveling abroad was a bit silly but a friend at the embassy in Istanbul stressed how important it is in case of a disaster in locating citizens, as well as to help Americans abroad in trouble. Leave your travel details with friends back home, carry the contact details for your embassy and credit cards and check your insurance policy for coverage away from home.
  10. Can’t-miss tips from locals and travelers – Here’s where social media can really help you have a great vacation – before departure, ask your travel-savvy friends on Facebook and Twitter what their don’t-miss recommendations are for what to see or where to eat. Even if they are well-known attractions, having a tip from someone who’s been there will help you prioritize. You can always ask us at Gadling, chances are one of us has been there and can provide recommendations – just post to our Facebook page or send us a tweet @Gadling.

Other tips you’ve found handy to know in advance? Leave us yours in the comments.

Gone to Cairo, learned to jaywalk

The best thing that I brought back from Egypt wasn’t a chintzy souvenir pyramid, photo in front of the Sphinx or bottle of scented oil. It was experience — or more specifically, experience in properly crossing the street.

This is mostly the result of the traffic situation in Cairo, Egypt’s largest and capital city. Cars swarm through the streets like termites into a mound, filling every square pavement with hard rubber and steel. Traffic lights have no meaning, and even if there was a crosswalk to follow it would always be blocked by vehicles.

In turn, the pedestrians adapt. With a never-ending stream of traffic ready to run any passer-by over, people quickly learn how to dive between cars, ducking between lanes and standing on curbs as death passes a mere inch or two away. It’s Frogger in real life — and to be honest, it’s almost fun. CNN’s Ben Wedeman sums up the experience pretty well below:

Crossing the Street in Vietnam

It was in Europe where I first discovered that people in the rest of the world don’t wait for green signals before they cross streets. There, people actually crossed streets if the light was red! I couldn’t believe these jaywalkers; so bold! so brazen! Weren’t they worried about getting a ticket? Then I realized that people are usually smarter than streetlights when it comes to crossing intersections, and I was soon gleefully rebelling against my rigid American upbringing by crossing streets against lights.

But when I was on a walking tour in Rome, our guide told us to just step into traffic. The drivers will adjust to you, he said. The first time I crossed that street I was bulging with adrenaline. Now I was a real rebel.

Then I went to Vietnam. There, the streets are clogged with motorbikes chugging through city streets. As in Rome, when crossing the street you don’t wait for a break in traffic — you just go. Drivers anticipate you, and the worst thing you could ever do is hesitate. Hesitation gets you hit, because traffic flows around you.

I knew this as I was walking back to my guesthouse after dinner one night. I’d been in the country only a day or two, and as I stepped off the curb and into the stream of traffic, I freaked. I paused, and knew with sudden certainty that I was a goner. Suddenly someone clutched my arm and practically pulled me across the street. When we were safely across, I looked down to see a tiny old woman, less than 5 feet tall and with none of her teeth left. She still had my right arm hooked in her left, and with her right hand she patted my forearm and murmured comfortingly although incomprehensibly.

She kept hold of my arm as we wove in and out of traffic, across streets and down bright alleys. After a couple of minutes we parted ways, but from then on I never hesitated.

Thanks to RawSun on Flickr for the photograph of a different woman, but who reminds me of the woman who helped me.