Five things (most) women should pack when traveling to a foreign country

women's pack listI’m not one to whine about the hardships faced by solo female travelers. Sure, some things are frustrating, but in general, I much prefer to travel alone, and the more challenging the destination, the better. I don’t go out of my way to attract trouble or visit sketchy places, but I’ve had my share of close calls and situations that set off alarm bells.

For the most part, however, I’ve been treated with generosity and kindness while traveling alone, and had my most rewarding travel experiences. That said, there’s a few things most women should bring on trips to foreign lands, solo or no. Guys, you got it easy.

1. Appropriate attire
More than just practicality, wearing the right clothes is important from both a cultural/religious respect and personal safety standpoint. Showing too much skin or your hair is definitely not cool in much of the Middle East or Muslim world, and skimpy attire or sunbathing topless is just plain disrespectful, not to mention dangerous, in many countries.

Remember that we’re incredibly liberal here in the U.S. (too much, in my opinion) when it comes to public dress code…or lack thereof. Don’t make yourself a target for crime or unwanted solicitation. You don’t have to go all Victorian, but use good judgement.

2. Tampons
It may come as a shock, but to most of the world–including much of Europe–tampons are a foreign concept or a luxury/exorbitantly expensive. If you’ve ever tried to find tampons in Latin America, you know what I mean. Whether the reasons are cultural, religious, or geographical doesn’t matter. If you’re not down with wearing the equivalent of a diaper, BYOT.

[Photo credit: Flickr user fisserman]

Solo Travel Tips For Womenwomen's pack list3. Prescriptions for UTI’s, yeast infections, morning-after pill, etc.
There’s no better teacher than life. Let’s just say that enduring 14 hours of rutted highway on a janky Mexican bus while suffering a raging bladder infection is not an experience I care to repeat. These days, I travel with a full-on portable pharmacy, but at the very least, bring these basic Rx’s.

As for the morning-after pill, better safe than sorry. Don’t assume you can get an Rx filled overseas, so bring the actual dosage in its original packaging, and scan and email yourself copies of all prescriptions. And speaking of the morning after…

4. Condoms
You never know when you might need them, and purchasing them from a vending machine in a bar in a developing nation (not that this happened to me) because they’re not available elsewhere is just asking for trouble. Don’t trust foreign condoms–they’re not subjected to the same FDA testing and safety standards as American brands manufactured domestically. And please: if you’re having a foreign (or any other) fling, no glove, no love.
women's pack list
5. Hard and email copies of important documents and contact information
Email yourself, family members, and a close friend your itinerary, contact numbers (if applicable), emergency contact numbers (including bank and credit card companies), and copies of your passport and medical (and travel, if applicable) insurance card. If you’re going somewhere prone to natural disasters, civil unrest, or general sketchiness, it’s not a bad idea to register with the U.S. Department of State’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP).

Oh, and one more thing you should always bring with you:Common sense.
Don’t be lulled into complacency: always walk with a sense of purpose, and keep your wits about you. Same goes for partying: the only one responsible for your personal safety is you, so go easy on the beer or local libation. If you’re going to hook up, better to go back to your accommodation, and make sure an employee sees the two of you together or openly text a friend of your whereabouts and who you’re with. And please, don’t be tempted to use or buy illegal drugs: besides the stiff penalties for getting caught (life in a Thai prison or death isn’t a good way to end a holiday), you may also find yourself the unwitting victim of a set-up. Just say no.

[Photo credits: pills, Flickr user michaelll; luau, Laurel Miller]

Does your passport photo still look like you?

My boyfriend got his current passport on his 17th birthday. Now on the verge of his 27th year, the picture inside barely resembles him. He changed and grew as stamps were added, but his passport photo remained the same. His shaggy, teenage hair has morphed into a more clean cut look, and these days his face is looking a little less tan and a little more grown up. But somehow, customs agents are able to look underneath his current five o’clock shadow to recognize he is still the same person he was nearly ten years ago.

Do you still look like the “former you” in your passport? Do you ever get nervous in security lines wondering if the agent will question whether or not your documents are the real deal? A joint photo project called Passport and Reality by Suren Manvelyan and Biayna Mahari that was brought to our attention by Flavorwire is collecting passport photos and comparing them to current looks. Some of the photos are simply bad mug shots, while others show just how much people change over the years. Click through the gallery below to see what I mean: passport photos are on the left, while present-day portraits are on the right.

[Photos courtesy Passport and Reality / Behance Network]

Passport Day is coming! Do you have one?

Passport Day

Saturday April 9th is Passport Day. U.S. Passport agencies and participating passport acceptance facilities will be open to serve you. Savvy travelers know a passport is required for entrance in to the United States. No big news there. What some travelers don’t know though is how easy it can be to get a passport and the benefits of having one.

Right now is a great time for to apply for a first-time passport or renewal. The U.S. Department of State estimates processing times of 4 to 6 weeks. I recently had my passport renewed, sending the paperwork off on January 16th and had a new passport in my hand three weeks later. Look for processing times to increase as we get closer to the busy summer travel season.
The cost of your U.S. passport will depend on the type of passport you request and how quickly you need it. Adults will pay $110 for a passport plus a $25 execution fee for first-timers. Renewals pay the $110 passport charge only. The passport people recommend paying an additional fee for overnight delivery which allows tracking of your passport once produced. I did that and the total came to $124.96 for my renewal.

Passport Services recommends that those with family living or traveling abroad, thinking about a vacation abroad, or those with a job that could require international travel maintain valid U.S. passports.

U.S. Citizen cruise travelers sailing on itineraries that begin and end in the United States can get away with not having a passport. This is not always a good idea though and those people could end up kicking themselves for not going ahead and getting a passport.

Yes, you can board the ship, get off at the ports and get off the ship upon return to the United States with an original birth certificate and photo ID. But if you should have to fly back in to the country for some reason, you would be in trouble.

When heavy fog kept ships at sea, unable the dock at the Port of Galveston last month, passengers on the next sailing were mad. While safety-first is an admirable quality the cruise lines all share, it is of little consolation to those (literally) waiting for their ship to come in. In the case of some Carnival Cruise Line passengers, they could have taken advantage of Carnival’s exclusive Vacation Guarantee:

“Simply book your cruise vacation and sail away on a “Fun Ship.” If you are not completely satisfied with your cruise vacation experience, all you need to do is notify us before arrival at the first port of call and you must debark at your ship’s first non-U.S. port of call. Carnival will refund the unused portion of your cruise fare and pay your flight back.

These people, rightfully or not, were very upset but had used birth certificates to board the ship and could not take advantage of the cruise line’s generous offer because without a passport they could not board a plane outside of the United States for their free ride home.

That’s a pretty good benefit of having a passport.

Passport Cards are another matter altogether. They can get you into territories in the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which includes Canada, Bermuda, Mexico and the Caribbean, but by land and sea only. Passport Cards cannot be used to gain entry into countries if you’re flying internationally. The lower price ($55 for first-timers, $30 for renewals) is attractive but Passport Cards are not good for much. Bite the bullet and get a book, then you know you are covered for any travel, anytime, anywhere.

Flickr photo by Dyobmit

Related Stories

Five ways to get more European stamps in your passport

european passport stamps
Lake Ohrid, Macedonia.

Yesterday, I wrote about the fact that European passport stamps have become harder and harder to get. The expansion of the Schengen zone has reduced the number of times tourists are compelled to show their passports to immigration officials. For most Americans on multi-country European itineraries, a passport will be stamped just twice: upon arrival and upon departure.

Where’s the fun in that?

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying your passport’s stamps. They’re souvenirs. So ignore the haters and treasure them. You won’t be the first to sit at your desk alone, lovingly fingering your stamps while daydreaming of your next adventure. You won’t be the last, either.

And if you are a passport stamp lover with a penchant for European travel, don’t despair. There are plenty of places in Europe where visitors have to submit their travel documents to officials to receive stamps. Some countries, in fact, even require Americans to purchase full-page visas in advance.

The Western Balkans remain almost entirely outside of Schengen. Russia, Belarus, Armenia, and Azerbaijan all require visas for Americans, while Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia do not. Immigration officers at the borders of all of these countries, however, will stamp your passport when you enter and when you leave. Turkey provides visas on arrival. These cost €15. Among EU countries, the UK, Ireland, and Cyprus remain outside of Schengen for the time being, while Romania and Bulgaria will soon join it.
european passport stamps
Pristina, Kosovo.

Ok then. How to maximize the number of stamps in your passport during a European jaunt? Here are five ideas.

1. Fly into the UK or Ireland and then travel from either of these countries to a Schengen zone country. You’ll obtain an arrival stamp in the UK or Ireland and then be processed when entering and leaving the Schengen zone.

2. Plan an itinerary through the former Yugoslavia plus Albania by car, bus, or train. Slovenia is part of the Schengen zone but the rest of the former country is not. Traveling across the borders of Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Albania will yield all sorts of passport stamp action.

3. Visit the following eastern European countries: Turkey, Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, Georgia, Armenia, and/or Azerbaijan. Unavoidable passport stamp madness will transpire.

4. Visit San Marino and pay the tourist office for a passport stamp. The miniscule republic charges €5 to stamp passports. The bus fare from Rimini on Italy’s Adriatic coast is worth it for the bragging rights alone.

5. Visit the EU’s three Schengen stragglers, Cyprus, Romania, and Bulgaria. In the case of the latter two, visit soon.

Schengen and the disappearance of European passport stamps

schengen passport
Creative new use for border crossing posts at German/Austrian border.

In the late 1980s, an American spending a summer traveling across Europe with a Eurailpass would see his or her passport stamped possibly dozens of times. With a few exceptions, every time a border was crossed, an immigration agent would pop his or her head into a train compartment, look at everyone’s passports, in most cases stamp them, and move on. Every Eastern Bloc country required visas, some of which could be obtained at the border and others of which had to be applied for in advance.

Today, an American can enter the Schengen zone in Helsinki, fly to Oslo and then on to Amsterdam, proceed by train through Belgium, France, Italy, Slovenia, Austria, Hungary, Slovakia and Poland, then by bus to Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, and then by ferry back to Helsinki before catching a flight to Athens and landing in Greece without once needing to submit a passport to a border guard’s scrutiny.

The development of the Schengen agreement across Europe has altered the geopolitical map of the continent in many ways. For tourists, the development of the Schengen zone has simplified travel by drastically reducing the number of times a passport can be checked and stamped as national borders are crossed.

The Schengen Agreement is named after the town of Schengen in Luxembourg. It was here in 1985 that five countries-Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands, West Germany, and France-signed an agreement to essentially create borderless travel between them. A model for this agreement had been created years before by the Benelux countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg), which eliminated border controls back in 1948. The Nordic countries also did away with internal border posts, in 1958.

In 1995, the five original Schengen countries plus Portugal and Spain inaugurated the zone. In 1997, Austria and Italy joined. Greece followed in 2000 and the five Nordic countries joined in 2001. In late 2007, nine more countries joined the Schengen zone; most recently, Switzerland signed up in 2008.

schengen passport
Abandoned border crossing between Slovakia and Hungary.

Today, 22 European countries are part of Schengen. Every European Union country (save the UK, Ireland, Bulgaria, Romania, and Cyprus) belongs. Other members include EU holdouts Iceland, Norway, and Switzerland. The European microstates present a few complications. Monaco’s borders are administered by France, which makes the tiny principality a part of Schengen, while Liechtenstein’s accession, approved by the European Parliament in February, is pending. San Marino and the Vatican are de facto versus official members, while mountainous, landlocked Andorra remains outside of the zone altogether.

There are five EU countries not currently part of the Schengen zone. The UK and Ireland (as well as the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands) operate a Schengen-like agreement called the Common Travel Area. Neither country is obligated to join the zone.

Romania, Bulgaria, and Cyprus, however, are all bound by treaty to eventually join. Romania has fulfilled all the criteria for joining Schengen and Bulgaria is close to fulfillment as well. These two countries will accede together, likely later this year. Cyprus presents a more complicated situation given the division of the island between the Republic of Cyprus in the south and the largely unrecognized Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in the north.

With the coming accession of the Western Balkans to the European Union, the Schengen zone will almost definitely continue to grow. Might it one day cover the entire landmass of Europe? Check back in two decades.

[Images: top image Flickr | Mike Knell; middle image Flickr | jczart]