When you have flown four million miles on United and visited more than 100 countries, for business and for pleasure, you do learn a few things. Either that or you should just stay home. Here are some of the key pieces of advice that I use myself to stay productive and well and safe.
- Drink the beer, not the water. It is still true many places—if you drink the tap water, you’ll get sick. It will probably be only mild “traveler’s diarrhea” which isn’t much different from “stay at home person’s diarrhea” except that it will beset you at only two times: 1. in the middle of important meetings when you suddenly have to jump out of your chair and ask discretely where the bathroom is [Note: it is impossible to do this discretely]; or 2. travelling in a vehicle, probably a cab where the driver speaks no English, and where the chances of an Exxon filling station with a clean restroom suddenly appearing are zero. And as you might imagine, suddenly having to run to the bathroom does tend to reduce your negotiating strength, or the credibility of your sales pitch. I have been in both these situations, and it’s not fun. So be careful, and only drink carbonated beverages, hence beer or club soda. And don’t drink anything with ice cubes in it. Club soda is fine, club soda with ice is not. Where do you think they get the water to make the ice? The problem is that too frequently non-carbonated drinks, especially water, are just empty bottles filled from the tap and re-capped. Yes, even in the best hotels, it doesn’t matter.
- Imodium is the answer. The medical profession will suggest to you that once you have diarrhea, you should drink lots of water and let the disturbance run its course—after all it ONLY takes 24 to 48 hours. Among the panoply of stupid medical advice in the world, this is near the top. Most such advice then goes on to add that one shouldn’t take drugs like Imodium as all it does is “Plug you up.” Hello, that’s just what I want to happen. And I want it to happen fast. I always take a couple of Imodium tablets in their original plastic sleeves with me in my pocket when I travel. Handy when needed, a reminder not to drink the water when not, and perhaps a talisman against the disease. And yes, if you’re smart you will practice this precaution even in Europe and even in big cities. And for sure in other venues.
- The cure for jet lag! There is none, sorry. It takes one day per every two to three hours of time change to get even close to adjustment of your sleeping patterns. So, six hours time zone difference in Europe versus the east coast and you adjust over two to three days. The only good advice is the following: do not go to bed when you arrive, instead go ahead with whatever you planned to do, whether it is business or vacationing. Stay up as late as normal in the time zone, then go to bed. The first night you’ll be very likely to sleep through as you’ll be really tired and you will feel like someone put sand in your eyes. But the second night is always a problem. Take an over the counter sleeping pill with active ingredient doxylamine succinate; the alternate is just a histamine. After that, just hang in there. You’ll get acclimated just in time to go back to the States.
- Bring your blankie and your bottle. It is wise to carry a blanket and a large bottle of water on the plane. This is especially true if you are not in business class. Most planes are colder than one would like, and a cheap fleece blanket is a real luxury. You can usually get these for $10 at the drugstore, they roll up and fit nicely in a backpack, and when you get home you just throw them in the washing machine. And even if they give you one, how often do you think the airlines wash their blankets? The water is a necessity, because staying hydrated is really important on planes, and they won’t bring you enough water, no matter where you sit. It’s too bad you have to buy it at the airport after security, but so it goes. You will feel substantially better when you get off the plane if you drink your entire bottle of water. You’ll also feel better if you don’t have anything alcoholic to drink on the plane, but that may be a bridge too far.
- Don’t take or wear good jewelry. Nothing says “Rob me” like expensive jewelry. If you’re lucky enough to have a gold Rolex, you sport you, then you should be smart enough to leave it at home. Wear a Timex. The same for good quality female jewelry, unless you’re having tea with the Queen in which case we’ll make an exception. You just don’t want to look rich in a city where you don’t even know which are the bad neighborhoods. And it is also likely that your homeowners insurance will not cover your jewelry when you’re out of the country unless you purchase a special rider.
- Medications go with you on the plane. Take at least a three days’ supply. At some point on your travels, the airline will lose your luggage. If they don’t, consider yourself lucky, as lugging an extra jar of pills is hardly back breaking. And once luggage is lost, it can stay lost abroad for longer than in the US. Plus you may be traveling from place to place, and this makes it hard for your luggage to catch up. And if your most recent destination’s airport does not have a desk for whatever airline initially lost your luggage, then the problem is compounded. You can probably buy enough clothes on the local economy to get by, but getting prescriptions filled (you don’t carry an extra prescription scrip with you, do you? I don’t) will be very challenging.
- Disfigure your luggage. The next time you’re standing at a baggage carousel, endlessly watching the circulation of bags that are not yours, do a little survey of how many black roll-aboard’s there are. It will be at least 80% of all the luggage. So how do you spot yours? I have taken someone’s else’s luggage and not realized it until I got to the hotel. I have had my luggage taken by someone else several times, which was annoying indeed. To mark your bag uniquely, don’t just add some discrete tangle of ribbon on the handles. Those get caught and ripped off, as do colorful luggage tags. Instead buy some colored tape and place generous strips of it on all six sides of your bags, and wrap a strip around the handle or handles. This is not the time for subtlety, nor for fashion. You want the bozo who grabs your bag to stop and think, “Uh, I don’t remember putting purple tape all over my bag.” Bags are utilitarian items, not fashion items, and losing them to a careless fellow traveler is not utilitarian. Don’t use yellow tape, that’s what I use.
- Take extra electric outlets and converters. I always carry a two round plug converter and a UK converter in my backpack. These are the cheap plugs that mean, once suitably converted, you can plug your US electric cord, say for your computer, into any plug in the UK and Europe, and actually most other countries of the world. You should of course check before you leave on what the plug type is for where you’re going, but these two handle 75% of all non US destinations. But they don’t handle the fact that we all carry not just a laptop but a tablet and a smart phone and a camera whose battery needs charging and a portable vacuum for all I know. No hotel room that I have ever seen has enough outlets for two persons so encumbered. So take not only more converters, but also a device sold widely which is a very short extension cord, whose plug needs a converter but whose customer end has four or five US outlets, and a couple of USB ports. Cheap, handy, lightweight and prevents arguments between travelling companions about who gets to charge their devices first.
- No one uses travelers checks any more. Well maybe your Dad still does, but no one else. And the reason is that almost no place you go will cash them. This is especially true the less developed the country. Take good old US money with you. Twenty dollar bills are probably best, but in many parts of the world these must be new and crisp, not at all used. I have had what I thought were perfectly good bills rejected in Western China. However, all was not lost as the hotel, despite the stern warning of my travel agent, did take credit cards. Nonetheless, having some greenbacks to fall back on is good policy, just be careful to keep them safe and not flaunted. See “jewelry” above.
- Take along a lot of dollars. The one dollar bill, that is. This is in addition to and for a different reason than having the twenties. At some point in your travels, perhaps at many points, you will arrive late in the evening, check in to a hotel, accompany the bellman up to your room, and realize that you have forgotten to change any money so how do you tip him? Case two, you have changed money, and what you got back is the equivalent of $100 dollar bills in the local currency. Case three, you changed money but you have no idea what any of the mixture of bills you have received is worth. Solution: good old US dollars. Everyone takes them, and they may well be worth more than the equivalent in bazingas or whatever currency is currently in favor wherever you are. An added benefit—you don’t have to change it back when you get back to the US.
For more from R.F. Hemphill, enjoy his new book, Stories from the Middle Seat: The Four-Million-Mile Journey to Building a Billion Dollar International Business.