Facebook Timeline For Travel Industry

Facebook timeline of the travel industryThe World Travel and Tourism Council has introduced a fun element to their Facebook page: rather than a timeline of their own milestones, they’ve designed a timeline highlighting all of the events in the travel industry. Starting in 1400 with the first passport, and ending with the 1,000,000,000 international tourist arrival in December 2012, it puts the whole development of tourism in context. The first airport dates to 1909 in College Park, Maryland, and there are now over 44,000 airfields and airports all over the world. Hilton pioneered the hotel chain concept in 1943, and now has properties in 78 countries on six continents. Expedia has been around for 17 years, and TripAdvisor just celebrated their 13th anniversary.

Check out all the travel industry milestones on WTTC’s Timeline, and be sure to click through all the years.

[Photo credit: WTTC Facebook]

A Conversation With Rick Steves

Rick StevesRick Steves doesn’t want you to go to Orlando. For more than thirty years, Steves has been trying to sell Americans on leaving the country in his work as a tour guide, author and host of the PBS Series “Rick Steves’ Europe.” These days, Steves thinks that it’s more important than ever for Americans to travel overseas, both to broaden their own horizons and to serve as citizen diplomats who can help overcome stereotypes about America.

Steves, 57, still spends nearly four months each year researching his guidebooks on the ground in Europe, and says he’s not likely to retire anytime soon. His highly successful brand grew out of a love of travel that he inherited from his parents but evolved from his own wanderings after he graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in European History and Business.

After graduation, he returned to the university’s Experimental College to teach a class on budget travel in Europe, and in 1979, he self published the first edition of his now famous “Europe Through the Back Door” series. By the early ’80s, he was leading small minibus tours in Europe. Combining his two passions, he opened a piano teaching studio that gradually morphed into his travel business in Edmonds, Washington, his hometown.

Today, his company employs 80 people and thousands of his devotees swear by his guidebooks and tours. Steves is also an outspoken advocate for drug policy reform, (he’s a co-sponsor of Initiative 502, which will legalize, tax and regulate marijuana in Washington State if victorious in the upcoming election) and thinks that Americans need to take more time off, even though he admits that he works all the time. We talked to him about Iran, unrest in the Middle East, his passion for Europe, and the importance of travel as a political act.

As we speak, there are protests all around the Muslim World over a film that denigrates Islam. Just as Americans don’t understand them, they can’t understand that this film doesn’t represent us, right?

It’s so clear. That’s why I’m on a mission. If I’m going to be able to contribute anything, it’s enabling and inspiring Americans to travel so that makes it tougher for other governments to demonize us, and it makes it harder for our government to demonize them. When you travel, it works both ways.

After someone has met an American in person, it might be a little easier for him or her to put a ridiculous video they saw on YouTube in context?

They’ll have a better understanding of who we are and they’ll be less likely to think our whole country is blaspheming their prophet. Christians have a little more of a sense of humor with these things but I believe we have to respect people’s sensitivities and cut them a little slack. It’s much, much deeper than them being angry about a video though. They don’t want their culture to be hijacked by aggressive Western values.

A woman in Iran came up to me and said, ‘We’re united, we’re strong and we just don’t want our little girls to be raised like Brittney Spears.”

This woman is scared to death that we’ll take over their country – to protect Israel or get access to their oil or whatever – and then we’d impose on them our values. If we all traveled, they’d have more understanding of us and we’d have more understanding of them.

Rick Steves in IranWas there any backlash for visiting Iran, a country that many Americans still regard as an enemy?

I thought I would get more but of all the edgy projects I’ve done it’s been one of the most positively received. We worked hard to do it without an agenda. There’s a small element in our country that says, ‘when you humanize them, you make our enemy more likeable, therefore you are evil.’ But I can’t consider the objections of people like that.

Do you think that you’ve have contributed to informing Americans that Iranians don’t hate America?

I feel it’s been one of the most productive things I’ve done. I’m just one person though and we’re just one small production company. I feel like we were ahead of the curve – our timing was right. The State Department gave me the Citizen Diplomat of the Year Award after that and I got a Lutheran Activist of the Year Award too. The show aired in every market in the U.S. many times, so for me that was very exciting.

If I produced a show on Iran and only people who are progressive and want to understand Iranians and appreciate their culture watched it, I wouldn’t have accomplished much. I wanted to produce a show that people who were predisposed to be angry with Iran and not want to better understand the people who put Ahmadinejad in power would watch so they would understand that it’s a more complicated reality than what they’d learned watching the Hostage Crisis on Nightline with Ted Koppel.

Three years later, though, there’s still a lot of sabre rattling and talk of bombing Iran. But once you’ve traveled to a country and made friends with people there, it’s a lot harder to talk about dropping bombs on them isn’t it?

Of course it is. A lot of Americans are angry at Libya for killing our Ambassador. Well, Libya didn’t kill our Ambassador – a bunch of loose cannons did. A traveler has a more sophisticated understanding of these things. It saddens me to see angry and destructive rhetoric coming out of Iran, and there are times when I consider that and think, ‘well, why did I help those people?’ But I know that Iranian people are in a difficult situation and they’re generally good people and there are complicated forces at work there that might make less sophisticated Americans think of them as our enemy.

I just thought that if more people would travel there, that would be really constructive. Unfortunately, not many Americans will travel there, but I can give them the vicarious travel experience.

Can you recommend Iran to Americans?

It’s like traveling in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. They want tourism – it brings in money. They think it helps people understand them better, but they don’t want people running around unescorted, so in order to get a visa you have to have a guide and your hotels arranged.

Given that, it’s wide open for tourism and it’s not that dicey. A lot of Europeans really enjoy going there; it’s a wonderful destination, as far as the culture, the food and the people go.

iran What’s the best payoff about visiting Iran?

If you’ve been to Iran, then every time you see it on TV, you know what’s not in the frame of the camera. It’s very easy from the news broadcaster’s point of view to zoom in on the intense stuff. If it bleeds, it leads, and if they’re shaking their fists at us on TV, it seems like the whole country is shaking their fists at us.

You’ve written in the past about trying to understand the grievances of terrorists and other evildoers. Some regard that as treason, right?

If your big motivation is national security and your approach is ‘shoot first, ask questions later, it’s my way or the highway,’ and unilateralism and exceptionalism and all that stuff, (not understanding the enemy) is the worst thing you could do for national security.

I really think it’s a pragmatic thing to try to understand what motivates people. That’s not justifying or excusing what they did, that’s just trying to make sure it doesn’t happen again. There are a billion Muslims in the world and a billion Christians. One thousand angry Muslims have breeched our consulates. OK, let’s figure that out, but it doesn’t mean we have to lose hope and all go crazy.

What other countries that we don’t have diplomatic relations with would you like to visit? Perhaps North Korea?

No, I don’t want to go to North Korea. My personal challenge would be to go to Palestine. I floated the idea of trying to do a show where we give Americans a better understanding of the roots of the Palestinian situation, but I think it would be even more of a challenge than doing the Iran show.

Why?

I think many Americans actually don’t want to learn more about the roots of the Israeli-Palestinian problem because it might threaten their deep-seeded feelings and beliefs about it. I think it would be very complicated to do a show that gives people a better empathy for the struggles of the Palestinian people without pissing off a lot of people at the same time.

I wrote an article proposing that the best thing we could do for Israel’s national security is to give Palestine more dignity and fairness and people were really, really upset with that. I’m sympathetic to the situation Israel is in, but if we could help Palestine, we’d be giving Israel more security. It seems so obvious. But people just don’t want to go there. It would be a fun challenge to try making a ‘let’s humanize Palestine’ TV documentary though and I think I probably will in the next few years.

Your name is synonymous with Europe, but it seems as though you also want to turn people on to other destinations around the globe?

My favorite country is India but I’ve decided that my beat is Europe. I see Europe as the wading pool for world exploration for Americans. If I can just help inspire and equip Americans to go to Portugal rather than Orlando again, to Morocco rather than Vegas again, to go to Turkey and suck on a hookah, and come home with a broader perspective, that’s a huge accomplishment. And that’s my mission.

Europe is a gateway to the rest of the world for Americans?

Right, then it’s, ‘let’s go to Thailand or Sri Lanka.’ Europe is the (first) big challenge. It’s amazing how many Americans are afraid to go to France because they don’t like us, or Portugal because it’s dirty, or Spain, because there are gypsies. Then you get there and realize, ‘hey, I had a great time and it didn’t cost that much and the world’s a big place, let’s go to Colombia.’

Our country is becoming less and less European and these days being called “Eurocentric” is a real insult. Is there anything wrong with being a Europhile?

I am proudly a Europhile and think anyone who is “anti-European” is driven by ethnocentrism and fear and naivety. You certainly don’t need to embrace European ideas or lifestyle, but to be anti-European is like being anti-culture or anti-broccoli.

istanbul in black and whiteI’ve heard you say that you like Bulgaria. What are some other under-the-radar spots you recommend in Europe?

I love Eastern Turkey, or anywhere in Turkey. Americans go to Istanbul, but they only see 5 percent of the city. Just take a bus to a far fringe of the city and spend a half-day wandering around.

I was just in Hamburg, Germany, and there are no Americans there. It’s really fun to go to cities that aren’t exotic but that Americans aren’t that interested in.

We were in the Greek isles this summer and there are lots of Americans in Santorini but essentially none in Syros, Samos, Patmos, Kos, and a host of other terrific Greek islands. How do we all end up in the same places, is it our guidebooks?

To me, Greece is the most touristed but least explored country. In Greece, some islands are touristy and they have lots of Europeans and multi-language menus and fun, fruity drinks and discos and others are pretty rustic and have just enough commerce to get you a Greek salad and some calamari, and the few tourists around at night are hanging out playing backgammon with the locals.

That really is a very rewarding slice of an otherwise touristy country. It’s not that tough – almost anywhere as a traveler – to make a left turn instead of going right as the guidebooks tell you and have a real experience.

So how do you encourage your readers to take your advice but also do their own thing?

In the introductory chapter to my guidebook “Europe Through the Back Door,” where I share my 40 favorite discoveries, I make the point that these are examples – don’t just march to these places, but let these places inspire you to find your own.

Having said that, Americans like to be spoon-fed, so that’s why a lot of people take the book and go exactly where I recommend, and that’s not all bad. But I always weave into my writing encouragement for people to go on their own cultural scavenger hunt. I’m not going to tell you to turn left at the fountain.

Travelers are gravitating away from guidebooks and toward user generated travel advice from Trip Advisor and a host of other sites. Has this dynamic changed the travel industry?

If you’re a restaurant or a hotel it’s dramatic. They’re brutalized by the power of sites like Trip Advisor. As a guidebook writer, I’m not threatened by this stuff. There are more than enough people out there who want information designed by a real traveler that has no agenda.

Internet sites that gather and share other peoples’ experiences are a real power though; there are a lot of people that design their whole trip around Trip Advisor. I had never visited Trip Advisor until about three months ago. It’s an impressive pile of information but I’ve been sifting through reader feedback for twenty years, so, while some of it is excellent and really helpful, I know how worthless most of it can be.

Rick Steves in SalzburgWhat’s your travel schedule like?

For the last twenty years I’ve been in a simple, clear rut. I spend four months in Europe – April and May in the Mediterranean, and then I go home in June. Then I go back for July and August north of the Alps. For 25 years, I was a tour guide but for the last ten years or so, I haven’t been leading tours. I dedicate my time to researching guidebooks and producing TV shows. This year I went to Leipzig, Wittenberg, Erfurt, and Hamburg for the first time and revisited lots of other places I’ve been writing about for decades. I spend two-thirds of my time researching guidebooks and one-third producing TV shows.

For me, the challenge is, do I want to find new frontiers for tourism or do I want to make sure that the places where most of the travelers go are well covered? It’s a tough call, because I’d like to go to the Ukraine, I’d like to go to Eastern Europe or do more in Northern Europe.

I can write a great self-guided tour for Paris or Florence or Vienna, and piles of people will use that. Or I can work really hard to get great information on the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrim’s trail across Northern Spain, but almost no one will use it. So I’m in a quandary. I’m supposed to be Mr. Back Door, going to places that are less popular, but where I can contribute the most is in places like Rome, Munich or Salzburg.

Are you too American to want to live in Europe full time, but too European to be content in the U.S. all year?

I would only live in the U.S.A. I really feel at home here. I am much more American than European even though I enjoy my work/mission of sharing a European perspective with Americans.

I understand that your son, Andy, is following in your footsteps with his own travel company?

While we took him to Europe every year of his life, I didn’t think he was destined to get into tour guiding and travel teaching. Travel didn’t seem to turn him on. But after he graduated from Notre Dame, he started his own tour business designing wonderful €200 three-day weekends for young Americans studying abroad. Now, through his company, Weekend Student Adventures, Andy’s taking hundreds of students on great tours in Europe’s top six cities.

He’s 25, promotes his business by giving free talks to universities anywhere he can and his tours are filled mostly with adventurous young women. He loves his work – just like me when I was that age. So the answer is yes. He’s over there now as I speak and I am really proud of him.

Where do you travel strictly for pleasure?

I like my work so much I don’t really need a vacation. I love to travel. I can work for 50 12-hour days in a row in Europe, and come home feeling younger and more energized than when I left.

What do you find most gratifying about your job?

I’m like a lifelong student. I love to learn. I have a European history degree. I like to connect good people with good entrepreneurs, and mom and pop kind of places in Europe. To help little businesses in Europe that deserve to thrive. I like to challenge Americans to get out of their comfort zones.

I wrote a book, “Travel as a Political Act.” I have enjoyed a huge new dimension to my work since 9/11. I think the role of a travel writer is to be the medieval jester. To get out there and find out what’s going on outside the castle, and come home and tell people what it’s all about. If I can inspire and equip people to do that, that’ll help America fit more comfortably on this ever-smaller planet.

My first guidebook, “Europe Through the Back Door” is in its 32nd year now, and I’m doing essentially the same thing I did way back then. And I’m thankful I’m not burning out. With so many great workmates to collaborate with and so much new technology to amplify our teaching, it’s more fun than ever. As long as I’m physically able to do this, I can’t stop.

[Photos courtesy of Rick Steves, seier and seier and Atilla 1000 on Flickr]

How To Spot Deceptive Hotel Websites And Fraudulent Trip Advisor Reviews

ugly pool in naxos greeceI was seduced by a lovely brunette lounging in what looked like a gorgeous pool. But I was looking for a hotel in Naxos, not a date, and should have known better. The website of the Aeolis Hotel looked superb, the price was right, and when I read a review of the place on Trip Advisor, which claimed the hotel offered “5 stars rooms,” I was sold.

But when I showed up at this hotel with my family a couple weeks ago and saw the pool (see photo above), I immediately knew we were in for some surprises. It was a tiny little affair, completely surrounded by the building on three sides, with just a couple feet of walking space. Clearly the hotel had a very clever photographer who was able to mask how humble this little pool was.

Our “junior suite” was advertised on the website as a “spacious suite” with a Simmons mattress but was, in fact, cramped and featured a bizarre, broken bed canopy that was hanging by a thread, drooping into our faces (see photo below) and an old mattress about as comfortable as a bed of nails. Shortly after checking in, I logged back into Trip Advisor to read the “5 stars” review that had stuck in my head. The review, allegedly written by one David Lockett from Liverpool, England, is pasted here in its entirety:

“Excellent holidays in this hotel”
Reviewed March 20, 2010
it is an excellent hotel with comfortable 5 stars rooms and bathrooms. The breakfast was very good, and so was the service.The owener was very friendly and cooperative. My family and I are looking forward visiting again the hotel this summer!
false advertising hotelWhy hadn’t I noticed that this was the only review “David Lockett from Liverpool” had written on Trip Advisor? How had I not noticed the broken English? Clearly someone affiliated with the hotel wrote this review but I hadn’t caught the deception on first glance. After suffering through this hotel’s appalling breakfast for four mornings, I was 100 percent certain the review was false because no one in the their right mind would make a point of commending the Aeolis’s breakfast.

Trip Advisor claims that it monitors reviews and attempts to weed out bogus ones but they obviously miss some, including this one. Additionally, they refused to publish my review of this hotel because I referred to the bogus review from “Liverpool.” On the other end of the spectrum, they also cave in to business owners in removing negative reviews without justification.

Two years ago, I left a negative review for a truly awful Mexican restaurant in Big Fork, Montana. Trip Advisor published the review but days later it, and 3-4 other awful reviews from other diners were mysteriously all gone. If you look at this restaurant’s reviews on Trip Advisor now, they’re all 4 and 5 stars, apparently because the owner somehow intimidated TA into deleting the negative ones.

I complained at the Aeolis hotel in Naxos and was offered a 5-euro per night discount and, in fairness to this hotel, the place was adequate for the price we paid. It just wasn’t nearly as nice as the website and the bogus review I’d stumbled across suggested. I’ve been burned by deceptive websites and bogus reviews on many occasions. Here are a few tips to try to avoid a similar fate.

Don’t assume the hotel will be as nice as it looks on the website. Photographers know how to use wide-angle lenses to make things appear more spacious than they are. Be suspicious of hotels that show photos of just a fraction of their pool. Several years ago, my wife and I stayed at a place called Enchanted Waters on the island of Tobago, and were sucked in by a photo of a seemingly luxurious pool with a waterfall next to it.

The reality turned out to be a very small little pool with a non-functional waterfall that was situated right next to be a very busy road. Take website photos with a massive grain of salt and also be very suspicious of hotels that show photos of everything but their actual guest rooms.

Look at the traveler photos on Trip Advisor for an unvarnished look at the hotel. Clicking through the traveler photos on TA can be tedious, as some people put up extraneous photos of themselves posing with iguanas and other nonsense that does nothing to inform one’s hotel selection decision. But you can also see the reality of what you’re getting into, unedited by hotel management. If we had looked at the traveler photos of Enchanted Waters on TA, we never would have booked there.

Ask if there are specific photos of the room you’ll be staying in. If you’re staying in a big chain hotel, chances are there isn’t much variation in rooms, but if you’re staying at a smaller, independent place, the differences between rooms can be very significant. Many hotels will just vaguely say, “Look at our website,” but try to pin them down more if you can.

halepa hotelLast week, I booked a “family room” at the Halepa Hotel in Hania, Crete, and was enticed by the photo you see on the right. But when we checked in, we were given two rather small, very ordinary looking connecting rooms that were nothing like the photos we saw that were labeled “family room.”

“We have lots of different family rooms,” the manager said.

When I pointed to the photo of the family room I saw on booking.com they said, “Oh, that’s a mistake, that is our executive VIP suite.” False advertising to be sure, but if I had to do it over again, I would have asked them if the photo I was looking at was indeed the suite I’d be getting.

Use Google Maps and Google Earth to pinpoint the location, not the hotel website. Almost every hotel claims to have a central location but in some cases, a place will claim they’re a ten minute walk from the center, when in fact, Usain Bolt couldn’t sprint there in ten minutes. Also, use Google Earth and user reviews of the place to determine if the area is pedestrian friendly and if the walk might be uphill or unpleasant in some other way.

Read the 1 and 2 star reviews of the place on Trip Advisor and disregard 5 star reviews from users with only 1 review. Let’s face it, some people are never satisfied and they trash nice hotels online for bizarre reasons. Read through the bad reviews and determine if their complaints are pertinent to you. If reviewers note that the place is not how it appears on the website, be very leery. Likewise, it’s probably safe to disregard glowing 5 star reviews from reviewers that haven’t reviewed anything else on Trip Advisor.

Suspicious About Hotel Reviews? You Are Not Alone

Hotel reviewsHotel reviews come from a variety of sources. Trusted travel experts, agents and professional organizations may have delivered in the past when travelers chose an unfamiliar hotel so, naturally, people continue to utilize the resources for their future decisions. Others might check in with TripAdvisor or online travel sellers Expedia, Priceline, Travelocity, Orbitz and Hotels.com. Whoever travelers are checking in with, it’s big business with mixed results.

As reported in the Wall Street Journal, the hotel review equation is difficult to navigate. “It’s hard to overstate how important customer reviews are [to hotel sales],” said Douglas Quinby, senior research director at PhoCusWright Inc., a travel-research firm.

Common complaints about online hotel reviews stem from their accuracy. What one guest experiences and reviews turns out to be an entirely different experience for someone else.

Reviews often highlight a stark difference between commonly rated factors like the “value received” and whether a hotel “exceeded expectations” from one stay to another.

Oh, and those reviews that jump off the page as being just too good? Reviews that sound like they were written by a hotel manager looking for business? They might very well be.

In a study of hotel-review websites last year, PhoCusWright decided to remove one small national brand of hotels because the data was suspicious. “The volume of reviews was off the charts and the [rating] scores were off the charts,” said Mr. Quinby. He declined to identify the hotel brand.

Which reviews should you trust? Probably not TripAdvisor.

In February, the United Kingdom Advertising Standards Authority ruled that TripAdvisor’s advertised claim of “trusted advice from real travelers” was misleading, because fake comments could be posted without verification.

TripAdvisor says it has technology to filter reviews, weeding out problems and that customers and hotels themselves are able to police the site for fake or inflated reviews.

But do they?

“When reviews don’t match up with reality, consumers return to the site to post reviews of their own experience,” said Adam Medros, vice president of global product for TripAdvisor in the Wall Street Journal report. Hotel owners sound the alarm either when another hotel is suspected of adding in fake reviews.

“It just works,” said Mr. Medros. “The site wouldn’t have grown as it has without users coming back and saying the information was useful.”

Experts disagree.

Travel-guidebook legend Arthur Frommer told the Journal that he began printing reader letters about hotels in the 60s. After a few years, he realized that hotels were writing him letters about themselves. “I was being gamed,” said Frommer. “Hotels are so dependent on reviews that of course they will generate their own. They would be crazy not to.”

Should You Trust Online Hotel Reviews

Flickr photo by notphilatall

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.