Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Hints on Driving, Directions, Parking


  • In the big cities (e.g., Paris, London) cars are far more trouble than they are worth. Park them once you are close enough to use the subway systems. Don't even think about it for China, Japan, Taiwan.

  • If you reach a section where the road narrows to one lane (e.g. over a bridge), look for a sign. If it is red, that means you must yield the right of way if someone is coming the other way.

  • Normally with roundabouts the cars on the circle have the right of way, you must yield to them. Roundabouts are very convenient if you need to make a U-turn or if you need to buy some time while your navigator frantically looks for city names on the map. You can circle around until they find it, or until you all get car sick...

  • In Italy things are a bit crazy, but I have driven there multiple times without problems. The main thing to remember is that in Italy you are only responsible for what is forward from your side view mirrors. Everything behind that is someone else's responsibility.

  • Driving on the left side of the road is not as hard as you might imagine. Don't start in a city, pick some sparsely populated area to begin. The key for me is continually reminding myself to "KEEP LEFT". If in doubt "KEEP LEFT". For example, you enter roundabouts on the left and go clockwise, not counterclockwise like the USA. The slow lane in the freeway is on the left side, when turning left, turn into left-most lane. Be extra careful when you start in the morning, or after a long break. Exiting out of parking lots on the left side is one of the hardest things to remember.

  • Maps are a must--doing without to save money is a massive false economy. You have spent a lot of money getting to your destination and paying for accomodations. Being lost is a pain. Maps are commonly available at airports, gas stations, etc. They don't need to be in English, you are primarily looking for cities and streets which don't translate anyway.

  • Maps in Europe tend to come in three levels: country level, region level, and “detailed”.
    * The country level are useful for an overall perspective and covering large distances via freeway/toll roads
    * The regional ones are good for finding hotels, sight seeing locations, and non-freeway driving
    * The detailed ones will typically show every street, subway stops, etc., and are very helpful when sightseeing in a city. In Venice for example, you will miss most of the charm of the city, and be lost most of the time if you do not have a detailed map.

  • If we are going to be in a specific region for a while I will buy the map for that area. The level of detail you get will often be a great help you navigate through cities, find important sites, etc.

  • Signs are typically marked with destinations & cities, typically not compass directions, occasionally route numbers. Finding the cities they reference can be a real pain because they are often major ones that are a long ways away. On your map trace the major roads until they reach a major city, or the last medium city before crossing the border into the next country--this is often the one they refer too. When you are on small local roads usually the next town on the road is the one they mention.

  • Try to plan your route before you start. Just driving, and trying to figure out what to do is pretty tough. Sometimes I will look over the route and write down the steps--it lowers the stress level a lot. Because Europe is much denser than the USA you will need to make decisions much more often than you are used to. If I am navigating I keep a finger on the map where we are approximately, so that I don't have to re-find where we are each time we come to a decision point.

  • Asking directions when there is a language barrier is hard and unreliable, but don't hesitate to try if you are stuck. If you can have any information you have written down (I carry a small notebook & pen), this is much easier for them than trying to understand your attempts at pronunciation

  • If you miss a turn, backtrack; don't try to just take the next exit. It is rare outside the USA to have roads laid out in a grid fashion, taking the next exit and then trying to backtrack is usually a quick way to get lost

  • Try to get comfortable with being lost, it's inevitable, and you get to see more of the place you're visiting. We've stumbled onto some pretty neat things this way. If you’re stuck in a big city and recognize that you are getting nowhere, follow someone--unlike you, they probably aren't going in circles

  • When coming into a big city, they will usually have "center" or "zentrum" signs to the old town center.

  • Throughout Europe they use a green or blue sign that looks like a bridge to indicate freeway. Follow those signs and you will get to the closest freeway.

  • Moderate to large hotels usually have someone that can speak English at the reception, they are usually very helpful with directions.

  • Don't be afraid to get off the beaten path. It is hard to get seriously lost in the countryside (assuming you have a map) --big cities are harder .


  • In Euorpean parking garages you usually have to take the ticket you received at entry to a nearby kiosk when you are ready to leave. There you put in your ticket and pay the indicated amount. The kiosk encodes that information on your ticket and spits it back out. You then have a few minutes (no big rush) to put that ticket into the machine at the exit gate. Sometimes the machine doesn’t return the ticket, so be ready to go when the gate goes up.

  • In some areas you park and then go to a nearby machine to buy a parking permit. You put in enough money for the time you want and then tell it to print out the permit—which shows when your time is up. You then put this ticket on your dashboard.

Hints on Passports

  • They will be required later this year for flying into Mexico and Canada (they had to delay this because the passport office couldn't handle the load)
  • Carry a copy of your passport photo page with you. It is also a good idea to scan in those same two pages, attach it to an email and mail it to yourself. This assumes you have a email provider that allows easy web based access to your email. Gmail (Google's email), Yahoo, Hotmail are all examples of email services that provide this service. I prefer Gmail. With this email approach you can always retrieve this information anywhere you can get internet access.
  • I typically carry my passport with me at all times. Sometimes stores will ask for it when you charge something. For business trips you are often asked to produce this if you visit a customer or vendor. Many countries require you to carry ID. Your state drivers license will not be acceptable.
  • Hotels in Europe, Japan, China, etc. will often ask for you passport when you register. Occasionally they will want to hold it for a while, but it seems like this is becoming uncommon.
  • Visas -- for US citizens a visa is often not required or can be easily obtained at the border if you are just being a tourist, or a short business trip. However you should always check before hand. China for example does require a Visa and this can take weeks to get. If you are studying for multiple months or plan to work then a Visa is usually mandatory. Work visas are hard to get.

  • Passport expiration dates can be a nasty surprise--I know people that have been turned away at the departing airport because of this. Some countries require that your passport be valid for the entire time you can legally stay in their country. A typically country might allow you to enter a country and stay for up to 30 days under a "Tourist Visa" that is automatically granted. However if your passport is going to expire 25 days from when you enter then you might have a problem -- even if you intend to be back in the USA well before your passport has expired. Your passport will be generally be carefully checked before you leave the country, so if you have this problem you might not be allowed to board the plane. Check the expiration date on your passport and if it is less than 60 days I would check the rules very carefully before assuming you are ok. Better yet, renew it!

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Hints on what to do, tipping, restaurants, safety

What to do

v Once you get to a city you want to explore find the information center and get maps, tour ideas, etc. There is usually a place called the "I" that has free maps and advice. The staff is usually very helpful.

v Libraries and the Internet are very good sources of information that you can gather before your trip. We usually take the best two guidebooks that we found with us (e.g., one best for lodging, the other best for sightseeing)

v We like to plan some variety, don’t plan one type of thing all day (e.g., cathedrals, castles, museums). Other things that are fun are zoos, parks, artist's homes, shopping districts, cemeteries, caves, ruins, and amusement parks.


v In Europe the tip is almost always added in for restaurants--they will usually make it clear if that is not the case. Rounding up the final tab (e.g.. from 23.50 to 25) is customary if you feel you received good service

v In Japan or most restaurants in China you don’t need to tip, it is included in the stated price


v In most European countries you have to ask for the bill when you are ready to leave. They don’t want you to feel rushed. If you are in a hurry you sometimes have to track down your waiter and ask for the bill. If everyone in the dinner party leaves except for the bill payer the waiter usually gets the idea.


  • In countries where they drive on the left side be extra careful when crossing streets on foot. Our tendency is to look the wrong way (left) for traffic as we step off the curb. You can step directly into on-coming traff ic if you don't learn this. I recommend that you always look both ways, regardless where you are to avoid this hazard.
  • In China pedestrians definitely do not have the right of way, even if the walk lights are on and you are in the crosswalk. The right-on-red people will run you over!
  • We've never had any significant trouble wherever we been. In general European cities are much safer than big US cities and Japan feels very safe. We recently visited a very seasoned traveler now living in Shanghai, China and she said it's the safest feeling place she has ever lived.
  • It's common sense to keep your wallet in your front pocket, and keep your purse in front. I'm much more alert and careful when we are in crowds. In riskier areas (e.g., Paris, Italy, Spain) I wear a money belt for the more valuable stuff. Instead of a money "belt", I have a wallet sort of thing that has a strong cord that goes over your neck. I think this is more comfortable. Even when you use a money belt I carry a wallet with nothing in it but some cash. It is much more convenient--and safer to use it for most transactions than to be continually dragging out your money belt.
  • Take only the credit cards you need
  • If there is any sort of commotion (e.g., fight, person running into another) be extra careful, these can be distractions that the thieves create to cover their moves. For example, two people might appear to get in a fight and while you are looking in that direction an accomplice will grab your purse or backpack behind you.
  • Gypsy kids used to be a problem in Europe, where a gang of kids, oftentimes with the oldest carrying a baby would swarm people. They would sometimes flap pieces of cardboard at you to increase the distraction factor while the younger ones rifled your pockets. I had been warned about this, so the one time this happened to us I yelled when they started to approach me and they backed off.

Hints on Accomodations, Money


  • Our favorite way to find accommodations is through vacation rentals by owners http://www.vrbo.com/. We have had great places in the United States, Costa Rica, Argentina, Hawaii, Beijing, and New Zealand this way. They typically cost about what a hotel room at a nice hotel would cost, with way more room.
  • Try not to change places to stay every night.The amount of work to pack, check out, find the new place, and check in subtracts considerably from the time you have available to sightsee. Find a centrally located site and then take day trips. Other countries tend to be far more compressed than the US. For example, most of Northern Italy (e.g. Florence, Sienna, Venice, Milan) is an hour or two train ride away from Bologna.
  • Lower your standards. You probably aren't going to spend much time in your room--so save a lot of money and skip the pool and the fancy lobby. Less expensive hotels are often more centrally located and hence more convenient for getting around or they are out of the city in rural areas that have a charm of their own.
  • We like to book accommodations ahead. It is usually pretty easy to just find them once you are in an area, but we find it is not worth the stress of not knowing where you will be staying. Travel agents, the Internet, etc., are good resources.
  • When language is a barrier it is usually better to write stuff down (e.g. email or fax) rather than try and do things verbally


  • Use charge cards whenever you can--you get the best rate that way. Hotels give you the worst rates for changing money.
  • Before you leave the USA call your credit card companies and tell them where you plan to be. If you don't you will likely find your attempted charge will be declined. You will then have to figure out how to call your credit card company from a foreign country to fix this, which can be a non-trivial task.
  • It is usually easy to exchange some money at the airport when you arrive, the rates are not that bad and you often do need money immediately for things like taxis. Don't forget you have already spent a lot on the vacation, another $10 or $20 in exchange fees to get a fast start on the day is well worth it.
  • It is even better to use the ATM machines with a credit/debit card and a PIN code. Look at the machine to see if there is some hope that English is supported before putting your card in.
  • In a pinch you can get a cash advance with your credit card at a bank.
  • Cities have lots of currency exchange places and many banks provide service too
  • Exchange significantly more than you think you will need, it is much better to pay the small (e.g. 5%) cost of converting into the next currency you need rather than to deal with the stress of not having enough cash and having to finding a place to exchange money or an ATM machine. The Euro makes this a lot easier in Europe.
  • Places that take charge cards are common (at least in Europe and Japan), but many smaller hotels and restaurants do not accept them.
  • Keep it simple with exchange rates. For calculating what something costs in dollars come up with a simple approximation. For example the Chinese RMB is 7.75 to the US dollar right now. Round this up to 8, and just divide the cost in RMB by 8 to get the dollar amount. If there are 1.3 US dollars to the Euro, make the multiply factor 1.5 and just recognize you are overestimating a bit.
  • I have stopped carrying traveler's checks. They cost money, many places don't take them, and the exchange rate for them if they are not in the local currency is usually not very good. I bring cash as an emergency fund if I have trouble with debit / credit cards and stash it in my luggage somewhere.
  • We haven't quite figured it out, but in many countries people seem to really hate break big bills when you buy something. Even a bill that is equivalent to $15 to $20 will generate some consternation. It could be that their managers always leave them chronically short of change. Since an ATM will typically only give you big bills you need to be on the lookout for good places to get change. Places that handle a lot of cash or a lot of tourist like museums, shopping markets, or big hotels are good choices. When I put bills into my wallet I try to sort them by size so I can find the small bills when I need themm (I know, engineers are weird). If you can pay a bill for an odd amount (e.g. 23.11) exactly in cash and coins it often results in a smile, or even laughter on their part. They probably appreciate that you have taken the time to figure out their system.
  • In poorer countries dollars are often welcome and sometimes can be used to negotiate a significant discount over the standard exchange rate. Tips in dollar bills are fine in these situations too.

Hints on Subways, Taxis, Rental Cars


v In the big cities it is almost mandatory to use these. We often don't bother with buses, but we have found subways to be incredibly handy. The key to understanding the subway directions is that they almost all use their last stop in each direction to indicate directions.
So the S1 might be marked with "Herrenberger" to show one direction and "Vaihingen" for the other. You have to figure out from the map if the stop you want is in the one direction or the other and then get on the train going in that direction. In the example below (Shanghai) the "Zhanglang High Technology Park" stop on the left is the last stop and all signs in various subway stations would use that stop or the last stop on the other end of the line to indicate what direction the subway was going.


v Not as expensive as you might imagine (in fact cheap in Argentina and China) , and can be a real convenience if you don't have the energy to figure out the local bus system. If you only need to go a few miles they are great. I've never had one deliberately lengthen a trip to increase the fare, but if you have a map handy you can double check that they are taking a reasonable route.

v In Europe tip about 10%, in Japan and China just pay the meter amount (unless it is just pocket change)

v My friend Roy's advice is that in Asia, “You are never lost--you are just in need of a taxi.” Your hotel will give you a location card you can show to the taxi driver (your key card also should work)--this is important! Don't assume that the taxi driver will be able to speak or read english. Have a map in the local language you can point at or have directions written out. The people in the hotels are usually very willing to help you with this.

Rental Cars

  • Most “premium” credit cards (some sort of metallic reference usually) will provide collision/theft insurance if you use their card to pay for the rental. This can save a lot of money, but be sure to check to see if your card carries this benefit. There also may limits on the length of rental that will be covered (Visa Signature limits it to a contract duration of 15 days or less). Your personal car insurance may offer coverage too, but it also will probably also have limits on the duration of the rental.
  • AARP and AAA (I think) memberships can save a lot of money on car rentals and sometimes provide additional insurance coverage. In Costa Rica this saved us at least a hundred dollars.
  • Don't assume you can drive your rental cars into other countries than where you rent it. In Europe there may be restrictions on going into Italy, Slovenia, etc. Check your contract first. This restriction varies sometimes on the type of car you rent. Driving a rental car from the USA into Mexico may not be allowed with your car or will require supplimental fees. In Europe there may be supplimental fees for entering a country that require you to purchase a sticker for your car. These requirements are usually fairly clearly stated in English near the border areas. Don't assume that just because there isn't a border station that you are home free.
  • I do not recommend trying to use a rental car in Japan, China, Taiwan or most 3rd world countries (e.g Turkey, any place in Africa). I don't think it is even legal in China. Check requirements on drivers licenses. We rented in Costa Rica and the Patigonia region of Argentina and in both of these cases it enabled us to do things that would have been impossible otherwise.

Hints on Trains


v Trains are oftentimes very useful and convenient.
Even if we have a rental car we some times use the train instead for day trips.

v Trains are lower stress. You don't have to worry about driving, getting lost, and parking.

v They enable all of you to see the sights instead of one person having to concentrate on the road, and the other person having to do navigation

v Cheaper than taxis or rental cars

v A rail pass is by far the easiest method of ticketing, but usually these have to be purchased before your trip. Tickets can often be purchased once you are on the train, and always at the train station. If there is a language barrier write out the "to from" path (e.g. Kyoto ----> Hiroshima), the train number (e.g. K101, and the departure time, what class you want (2nd class is usually fine, and smoking or non-smoking on a piece of paper.

v Once you are in the station with the ticket you need to find the right train. Look for signs that show your destination (or a major city that your train goes to or through), then for your particular train look for a track number (like the gate number for an airplane) and then
follow signs to that track.

v Just because a train is at your track doesn't mean it is your train. Sometimes other
trains will use that track and depart before your train pulls in. If there is doubt ask a conductor or wait until about 5 minutes before your train's departure time before you get on the train. Sometimes there will be signs by the track indicating the current train number and ultimate destination. This same advice applies to bus stops too--wait until near departure time before boarding if you are in doubt.

v A lot of luggage is a pain to drag around the train station and get on the train. It is usually possible to check baggage on a train, but in a foreign country that is a considerable challege to figure out. In general try to limit yourselves to what your group can comfortably carry or roll. Too much luggage can really detract from a vacation if you are moving a lot. It is much better to go light and buy something there if you really need it. You can wash out clothes in your hotel room and manage very well.

Hints on Planes, Airports, and Jet Lag


v If you have a lot of luggage you can drop everyone off at the departure gate curb and then drop off your car. Airports roads always have a circular layout that takes you back to parking or rental car return with a minimum of trouble. This reduces the amount of lugging of luggage, enables everyone else to get in line, etc. This works when you are picking up a rental car at an airport too (have everyone wait at the airport until one person picks up the car and brings it around). If the rental place is a long ways from the airport you should probably skip this idea and just drag your stuff onto the rental shuttle.

v For domestic flights aisle seats are more comfortable (more room to stretch, less hassle to get up and walk around), but you may be interrupted a lot by your seatmates. Window seats are definitely better if you want to take a nap. For international flights I definitely prefer window seats.

Jet lag

Ø What is it? It is the understandable desire of your body to continue existing in the time zone you were in, until you recently strapped yourself into a plane and flew east or west. In mild cases you feel sleepy and lethargic for a couple hours during the day (for me it usually between 2 and 4 in the afternoon, regardless where I am). In the bad cases your sleep patterns are totally disrupted, and you feel lousy when you are awake, and you can’t sleep at night. A fairly common pattern is for people to wake up around 2 AM and then not be able to get back to sleep for 3 to 4 hours. When you get up the next day you are not only tired but usually have an “fuzzy, out-of-sync” feeling.

Ø What seems to work well is to switch to local time as quickly as possible. This means avoiding long naps on the plane when going east until you are into the short “night”. When going east (e.g. US to Europe, China to US) it is very helpful to get a few hours sleep on the plane because you often arrive early in the day and need to stay up all day to sync up with the local time. Buy some ear plugs (I like the foam ones). I also use a blindfold to shut out light and a blow-up pillow that goes around my neck. My kids pretend they don’t know me. I take a mild, over-the-counter, sleep inducing medicine (Tylenol PM) about 20 minutes before I try to sleep. Every time I wonder if it will work, but I have always managed to get at least 3 or 4 hours of sleep. On trips to Europe you'll have to skip the movie and try and sleep, this typically comes around 3 to 4 hours into the flight. Skip caffeine and get plenty of liquids--it's very easy to get dehydrated. I try to bring a 1/2 liter plastic bottle of water along (I bring it empty to the airport and fill it up once I pass through security); it is much easier than asking the stewardesses or going to the bathroom to get water out of the tap.

Ø Plan a fairly busy day the first day to keep you awake and active. Plan to get an overview of the area, or go see one of the key sights. Do not hang around the hotel--you'll end up napping and getting off to a really bad start. If you weren’t able to sleep at all on the plane then a nap is pretty hard to avoid, but try to get it early in the day and limit it to no more than 2 hours. Set several alarms/wake up calls and if you can arrange it, go somewhere with someone. Stay up to your normal bedtime or later if possible and don’t get too much sleep that first night (maybe 10 hours or less). Unless you had a long nap in the daytime most people sleep fine that first night—it is that 2nd or 3rd that you have to worry about. Try not to get too much sleep the first couple of nights, at most 8
hours so that you are tired enough that your "old" sleep patterns don't reassert themselves. A long walk or some light exercise during the days really helps your sleep patterns too. I take Tylenol PM on the 2nd and 3rd nights—it isn’t overpowering, but I find it really helps me get back to sleep when I wake up.

Ø Kids present special challenges. When our kids were younger it seemed like at least one of them stayed awake the whole flight. An early nap is unavoidable in that case, but it works best to not let them sleep more than around 3 hours and then get them moving again. This isn’t easy. Getting them really tired physically is very important to them sleeping well those first few nights. If you don’t wear them out during the day they will be raring for action at 2:00 am.

Ø Going west you usually don't lose a night, so heavy-duty efforts to sleep on the plane are not needed. Nap if you feel like it and after arrival just go to bed close to your normal bedtime--after having a really long day. Again avoid getting too much sleep those first few nights. I tend to take a Tylenol PM on the 2nd, and 3rd nights.