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.

Weekending: Sofia


Since moving to Istanbul, I’ve gotten the chance to travel to a lot of interesting destinations, from Beirut to Bosnia, that are much easier and cheaper to access from Turkey than America. For my first long (more than a weekend) trip, I went to Bulgaria for a week over US Labor Day and Turkish bayram (end of Ramadan holidays). Over the week, I traveled from the capital city Sofia to medieval hill town Veliko Tarnovo to Black Sea coastal Varna, and will explore the different flavors of each region in future posts.

The place: Sofia, Bulgaria
Travel writer (and Bulgaria fan) Robert Reid notes in his Lonely Planet Bulgaria guide that visitors to Sofia should not expect the “new Prague.” While Sofia may never compare to the Czech Republic capital in terms of the sheer number of historic buildings and monuments, you may discover a taste of Old Europe with the modern nightlife and budget prices that made Prague so popular in the past two decades. After the fall of Communism 21 years ago, Bulgaria developed steadily enough to join the European Union in 2007 (albeit as its poorest country), and hopes to join the Schengen visa zone next year. It’s now being touted as a destination for adventure and budget travelers with a small but growing amount of foreign visitors discovering its many pleasures.

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  • One of the major pluses for Sofia (and even more so in more rural parts of Bulgaria) is the price tag. Dinner for two can be had with a nice bottle of local wine for less than $20. High-end hotels that would cost hundreds of dollars in other European cities rarely top 100 Euros and many comfortable options can be found around 50 to 60 Euros (a Rick Steves tour group was staying at my hotel, the lovely but reasonable Arena di Serdica). Many of Sofia’s best sights are free, including the landmark Aleksander Nevski church (check out this link for photos of the beautiful interior, as cameras aren’t allowed inside and the postcard selection is lacking) and the daily markets are great to browse – try Aleksander Nevski Plaza for antiques of questionable province, Zhenski Pazar for Chernobyl-sized produce, and Slaveykov Square for books in various languages. Bulgarian beers and wine are generally 2-4 leva (under $3) and a generously-poured cocktail is only a few leva more.
  • Along with cheap drinks comes a fun, creative nightlife scene. While sipping wine in the candlelit converted barn bar Hambara, I wondered why New York doesn’t have cool spaces like that (answer: probably breaking a lot of building codes). Apartment (just down the road from Hambera on Neofit Rilski) is another well-known spot for travelers, expats, and locals, set in an old house with different rooms for different vibes. If you’re looking for something a bit more glam, Planet Bar de Luxe is delightfully over-the-top with purple tutu-clad waitresses and a gift-shop in the bathroom (and I thought Sarajevo had the best bar bathroom). Soviet-era dormitories have been converted into a hotbed of nightclubs and bars. Creativity isn’t just limited to the nighttime – great collections of art are housed in the National Gallery and the well-curated Sofia City Gallery, along with interesting graffiti and small galleries around town.

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  • Sofia’s vices and nightlife may not be for everyone. After five months in a country where alcohol is heavily taxed, low-priced and tasty wine is a big thrill for me, but not everyone has “cheap alcohol” on their vacation must-have list. Vegetarians may soon grow bored with pizzas (practically one of Bulgaria’s national foods, eaten with ketchup and mayo by locals – try at your own risk) and salads in Bulgaria include meat and cheese almost as a rule. Like in much of Eastern Europe, smoking is legal in most public places and quite widespread; a recent ban was overturned and replaced with a law barring underage from bars.
  • While the city center is easy to explore with plenty to do, it is small and once you leave the center, the abundance of Communist-era architecture may be less than charming. You can choose to embrace it and marvel at the seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-a-time Soviet monuments like the poorly-covered up Monument to the Bulgarian State or the huge National Palace of Culture (NDK) eyesore. If you’ve had enough urban adventure, Mount Vitosha towers over the city with outdoor activities year round.

Getting there

Small but serviceable Sofia Airport is served by flights all over Europe, including low-cost carriers Wizz Air and easyJet. Bulgaria also has excellent bus connections throughout the Balkans and Eastern Europe, with a clean and convenient bus station not far from the city center. Read on below for other destination ideas in Bulgaria.

Make it a week

There are multiple day and side trip opportunities near Sofia including Rila Monastery, one of Bulgaria’s best and most famous monasteries; the tiny wine town Melnik; and ancient Plovdiv. You can also hop a bus to venture into the Central Balkans or out to the Black Sea for beach time, as I did. Stay tuned for more on Bulgaria travel.

Read my previous Weekending trips from Istanbul here.

Rick Steves’ New Travel Mag

Just in time for you to change your summer travel plans, the Smithsonian and Rick Steves just launched their special summer edition magazine, Smithsonian Presents “TRAVELS with Rick Steves”. (In case you forgot, a magazine is a bundle of glossy paper printed with pretty colored pictures and some words, then bound with staples and placed within arm’s reach of the toilet in case you lose your iPad and need something to read.)

Just like Rick Steves the person, Rick Steves the magazine is dedicated to traveling in Europe. The 104-page Eurofest breaks down into 24 articles that describe Europe’s “Top 20 Destinations” which mixes up the obvious (Florence, Prague, Rome, Paris, and Venice) with the obscure (Denmark’s Aero Island, Bosnia’s Mostar, and the tiny Austrian village of Hallstatt). As an unapologetic advertorial, the magazines flips between a few scant full-page ads for Smithsonian Journeys and Rick Steves Tours. For a mere five bucks, you can buy a still-warm copy from the 100,000-strong print run at a newsstand near you.

Now honestly, I know nothing about Rick Steves other than he’s quite famous for helping regular Americans take tours of Europe. Also, many travelers who I respect swear by his travel guides, and once upon a time, a bunch of his fans mistook me for his assistant at a book signing. After reading his entire magazine cover to cover, I made the amazing discovery that the masthead lists only one writer. Yes, Rick Steves wrote the entire magazine all by himself, so… respect. The guy works hard and is way gutsy… gutsy enough to publish a print travel magazine in 2010.Love him or hate him, Rick Steves is a brand that’s infected America in much the same way as Target, Wranglers, and hip hop music sung by Caucasians. He’s everywhere and we all end up liking him, just like a lot of Americans enjoyed the movie “Chocolat” and a lot of Americans dream of carrying a baguette under one arm in France or clinking beer steins in Germany or sipping ouzo shots in Greece. This magazine is for them. For us pickier travel snobs, the gorgeous photo spreads and classy Smithsonian layout gives Rick the royal treatment and makes us all want to book a trip to Europe with our new best friend Rick.

Nevertheless, for someone whose entire identity involves leading America by the hand through Europe’s backdoor, it’s hard not to ignore Rick’s hearty embrace of cliché. His magazine’s titles highlight “Storybook” England, “Sound of Music” Austria, and “Heidi’s Switzerland” before trailing off into a slew of earth-shattering travel tips such as “David is a must-see visit in Florence”.

Now, if I wrote travel copy like that, my editors would shove it through a shredder. Twice. All you would have is a bunch of little squares of paper-like confetti thrown at a quaint Italian wedding that I just happened to run into as I was strolling down a cobblestone street under a buttery Tuscan sunset.

I much preferred Rick’s more honest and authentic articles like the “Best Little Street in Paris”–a candid Polaroid narrative about Rue Cler in the 7th Arrondissement–and his heartfelt discovery of Danish island life. I was also happy to see some of the Rick Steve love shine down on Blackpool–a northern British seaside resort that very few Americans ever visit.

If Rick Steves and Smithsonian want to feed our dreams of Europe, then mission accomplished. I want to go to all the places listed and now that I’ve read this sunny version of their Top 20 list, I’m so there. My only conjecture is that the “quaint folksiness” Rick so adamantly warns travelers against might also be the very product that he’s selling.

David Sedaris with Rick Steves: Funny travel incidents and observations like when flight attendants pass gas

Two of the things I remember from an interview I heard with David Sedaris on Travel with Rick Steves is that Business Class is known as ICU because passengers are in need of attention and flight attendants pass gas as they walk up the aisles because the sound covers the noise.

A flight attendant told Sedaris that. Not, Heather, our Gallery Gossip gal, someone else.

Here are two travel tips during the conversation that Sedaris passed on in his sardonic m wry wit sort of way.

  • When staying in a hotel, you don’t put your clothes in drawers because that’s how you lose things.
  • As a matter of fact, don’t let your belongings wander more than two feet from your suitcase.

And here’s a bit of irony that Sedaris has noticed when staying in high end hotels. He pointed out that these hotels have half-hearted attempts at going green. He points out that they may tout going green with missives like:

Save the earth. Don’t make us wash these towels, save the earth.

Then with the turn down service, they turn on the radio and the lights.

He also says that, “Sometimes, I turn on the radio and I think, “Who the hell was in this room?” . . .like if the music is heavy metal.

Both Sedaris and Steves talked up travel in Japan which our own Matthew Firestone who lives in Japan could verify.

About Japan, Rick Steves says, “People were so unbelievably kind. In Japan, ordering was terribly fun. Japanese are so gracious. Only country I’ve been in where people regularly stop me and ask, ‘You look lost, can I help you?'”

Living in Japan helped Sedaris quit smoking. He wanted to quit smoking because so many hotels don’t allow smoking anymore.

To listen to the Podcast between Steves and Sedaris, click here. What I’ve passed on are only tidbits of the wealth.

Rick Steves Talks Up Tijuana

In a recent syndicated column, European travel guru Rick Steves explains why Tijuana is a worthy travel destination. He admits that, at first, he was down on the border city because of its reputation, but had never visited until recently.

So what did the author and travel show host with the unlikely voice (“he sounds like my Grandmother” a friend once told me) think of life on the other side of the wire? Well, it is definitely not Tuscany: “Bars that feel like saloons come with cheap prostitutes wearing down their stiletto heels at the doors.”

But Steves notes that things were not as raw as he expected: “With this thriving economy comes a thriving culture: music, arts, and an impressive cultural center. The city, while architecturally dilapidated, is extremely clean. The streets were free of litter.” It seems that, despite the recent cartel shootouts, the local government seems to be delivering on its promise to spiff up Tijuana. Sure, the city has gained economically from rubbing against the US, but it is still on the outside looking over the fence. As Steves point out though, there is far more than cheap prescriptions and free flowing agave-based alcohol to this border town.