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.

Is the U.S. Forest Service spying on visitors?

Our country’s national parks and forests are intended as sanctuaries, zones of peace and quiet where visitors can get away from the give and take of modern life. But don’t expect to have it all to yourself: these days you might be joined by hidden cameras, placed by the U.S. Forest Service. Don’t break out the tinfoil hat just yet; this “conspiracy theory” may have some truth to it. According to a South Carolina newspaper, the agency has been placing hidden cameras in forest areas for some time.

Visitor Herman Jacob was camping and looking for firewood in South Carolina’s Francis Marion National Forest last month when he stumbled across a wire. The wire took him to a video camera and a remote antenna sitting in the middle of the woods. Perplexed, Jacob took the camera home with him and contacted the local police, who explained it had been set up to monitor “illicit activities” and demanded its return. Further investigation by the Island Packet, the newspaper that researched the story, confirmed that the Forest Service has used the cameras as a tool of law enforcement for “numerous years.” A Forest Service spokesperson quoted in the article indicated that images taken of those not targeted by an investigation are not kept.

In light of the fact drug cartels have been growing marijuana on federal land for some time, this type of surveillance makes more sense. And, legally, the cameras are on public land – surveillance is permissible. But is a policy that allows this type of monitoring, particularly in a quiet forest, a violation of our trust? Or is it a necessary evil, preventing misuse of public land? Leave us your thoughts in the comments.

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Research before you photograph – International travel tip

You’re planning a trip to a foreign country. Of course, you’re going to pack your camera to capture the people and places that make the country special. But before you go, do a little research.

In some countries, it’s illegal to photograph certain places. For example, in Britain a terror law makes it illegal to photograph police. Alternatively, it may be culturally or religiously offensive to photograph certain people or locations.For example, photography in Tibetan monasteries and Muslim mosques is forbidden without permission. Photographing local women in some Muslim countries is taboo.

Do your research, ask permission and, above all, be respectful.

Travel to Cuba legally with New York art museum package

Travel to Cuba is still illegal for most Americans, but if you don’t want to challenge the law or take your chances sneaking there and back, you can still arrange a visit. The Katonah Museum of Art, in Katonah, New York, has been authorized to lead a tour group to Cuba.

Participants on the trip, which is scheduled for January 17-23 of next year, will visit Havana and learn about Cuban culture through visits to museums, holy sites, and the homes and studios of 14 Cuban artists. The package costs $4,400 per person for double occupancy($4,600 for singles) and participants must also pay a $700 tax-deductible membership fee to the Katonah Art Museum. The price includes airfare from Miami to Havana, five nights at a five-star hotel in Havana, ground transportation, daily breakfasts and lunches, several dinners, all group activities and sightseeing, and insurance, taxes and visa fees.

Reservations for the trip must be made by October 19 and the Museum does expect the tour to sell out.

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[via Matador Pulse]

Argentina court ruling may legalize personal use of marijuana

On Tuesday, the Argentina Supreme Court ruled that punishing an adult for personal use of marijuana, so long as that use doesn’t harm anyone else, is unconstitutional. It’s a major step towards decriminalizing the possession and use of pot in the country, and comes on the heels of Mexico’s passage of a similar law that made it legal for adults to carry small amounts of pot, cocaine, heroin, LSD, and methamphetamine. Earlier this year, a Brazilian appeals court also ruled that possession of small amounts of pot was not illegal in that country.

It’s a new approach to the war on drugs – one that focuses more on reducing harm to drug users and society than on prosecuting recreational users – and one that seems to be forming a trend in Latin and South America. Only time will tell if that trend extends to the United States, but many members of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy hope so. Back in May, Mexico’s former President Vicente Fox was quoted by CNN as saying, “I believe it’s time to open the debate over legalizing drugs. It must be done in conjunction with the United States, but it is time to open the debate.”

I stick to the booze, but I won’t begrudge someone the right of recreational use of a naturally-growing plant. And while I won’t jump on the bandwagon for legalizing all drugs, I would support the passage of a law that allows adults to possess small amounts of pot. I just don’t believe it’ll happen in the United States any time soon. Until then, tokers can use this guide to get their smoke on in several other countries around the world where pot is legal or more publicly tolerated.

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