Ten things to know about your destination before you go

So 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.

How to travel Japan without once paying for a hotel

I love hotels, especially nice ones. It’s great to know that you have a comfortable place to come home to after a full day of adventure in a foreign city. However, in Japan hotels are expensive, and if you’ve got a limited budget you can get more bang for your buck spending your money elsewhere.

I had this idea a week ago, and have been dying to write about it. But first I had to test it out firsthand to make sure that it actually works and is practical.

The one prerequisite is that you get a JR rail pass. If you come to Japan, this is an absolutely essential purchase. Basically you pay a fixed fee (just under $300 for a week or up to $570 for three weeks) for unlimited travel on all Japan Railways trains. This will take you all the way from Hokkaido in the north (where I am right now) to Fukuoka in the South. Everywhere.

The JR pass is good for travel on all of the JR trains except for sleeper trains and the fastest bullet trains, which is no big deal since the second fastest are almost as good.

However, I have found a loophole in the sleeper train rule. Certain sleeper trains have beds which are classified as seats, and can thus be used with the rail pass.

The first type is called “Nobi Nobi Carpet Cars.” They are trains full of little bunkbeds made out of wood with carpet on top, and a blanket and pillow are provided. Your taste may vary, but I’ve found sleeping in these cars very comfortable.

The second type is called “Goron to Shito.” I don’t know exactly what that means, but basically you get a bunkbed with a mattress, but no pillow or blanket. These are a bit more comfortable that the Nobi Nobi.

There are also overnight trains without beds. These aren’t nearly as comfortable as the bunk beds, but the seats usually recline way back. I’ve slept in one for the past two nights and have had no problems getting a solid night’s sleep.

One important point, which I’ve learned the hard way, is that the beds-classified-as-seats can fill up quickly, so it’s best to book them as far in advance as possible. During peak season that can be a few days. In the off season you can get them hours before they leave.

These sleeper trains are very slow, which means that where they end up is almost irrelevant. You can take a Shinkansen bullet train back to wherever you want to go that day.

Whether or not the train has a shower seems to be random, but they all have bathrooms and sink areas to brush your teeth. If yours does have a shower, use it. They’re really cool and it’s fun to shower in a moving train.

If not, look for an onsen. These are public baths fed by natural hot springs. You’ll never feel more clean or relaxed after visiting one, and they’re a great part of Japanese culture to enjoy. They range in cost from a few dollars for a small one tub onsen to more that twenty dollars for a more elaborate one.

Japan-Guide has a great overview of the night trains which is a pretty complete list of the loophole cars. I found at least one not listed that was also a nobi nobi.