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Advice for the Wannabe (International) Road Warrior

By: on November 13, 2013 in Advice, Travel

It is no secret I spend a large amount of time on the road. That means lots of hotels, airplanes, trains, taxis, and rental cars – not to mention where I wind up having to eat (more on that in a bit). A friend asked for general advice about travel internationally, but I figured what I have to say may help others, so here goes. I’m sure I missed one or two things, and I’ll indicate if I update this post.

Hope this helps some of you! I would love to hear your tips or things you think I missed … or you may not agree with.

Watch what you pack.

This goes both domestically and internationally – and covers all modes of transportation. Remember that you’re going to have to schlep whatever it is you bring. Granted, longer trips sometimes get challenging (see: Melbourne/Brisbane/Canberra/Tokyo in 2012 when I was gone for 30 days). I had two large suitcases, a smaller one inside one of those suitcases in the event I needed it later (which I did … Tokyo is always bad for my wallet), a carry on duffel bag, and the bag that had my laptop and such. But outside of being gone for a month, take only what you need. You’re only going away for a little bit; you don’t need your household. Over the years I tend to try to take less if possible. Sometimes I can, sometimes I can’t. The one thing I do miss is playing bass, but for me, it’s just not worth schlepping something around even if it is travel friendly.

Also, the more you carry, the heavier things are. One of the reasons my back hurt years ago and I switched to lighter laptops (even with rolling cases – they didn’t solve the issue since you need to still lift it at points) was a weight issue. I have had nary a back issue due to weight in 10+ years now. I’ve done other stupid things to cause back issues, but what I carry around hasn’t been the cause.

I do recommend having comfortable shoes. You may be doing a lot of walking. I also would suggest having a pair to switch off to as well, but it’s not 100% necessary.

I do know some people that cannot live without their home pillow or whatever. That’s your prerogative to carry it around the world. I don’t need to. Other things are essential to me that others may find silly.

Do not assume where you are going has what you need if you forget something.

A key example here is toiletries. Different countries have different brands. So if you need/like/require brand ABC for your toothpaste, you may be disappointed if you forgot it. Also, if you have prescription drugs (and knock on wood, I don’t take any) or drugs you need of any kind (stomach medicines, cold pills, etc.), you may want to take some with you. For prescriptions, I would take them in the original bottle and possibly – if necessary – get a doctor’s signed note on official paper. You never know. I don’t think you need to go to that length, but how anal are you?

Redundancy. It’s not just for high availability and disaster recovery.

I’m a mission critical/high availability/disaster recovery guy. To a large degree, my spiel revolves around some bit of redundancy. The reality is that $!&% happens. Just see my recent blog post. As my demos grow (both in the sheer number of configurations as well as complexity), I’m finding that I need to have some bit of redundancy in my on the road setup. This to some degree – and unfortunately – goes against my usual “keep it light” policy. The good thing is that what it takes to be redundant today is much lighter and I can still be pretty light. For example, my new main laptop is just about 3lbs and can be an all-in-one. For Australia, I had a different setup (Vaio Pro 13 using Remote Desktop into a Foxconn AT-7700 configured with a 1TB SSD internal and 1TB SSD external along with 16GB of memory running Windows Server 2012 R2 with Hyper-V and had all my demos). That setup was just over 4lbs total. I put the Foxconn in my carry on, not in my messenger bag (but did when going onsite and didn’t have other crap in there like headphones). I can always see carrying the Foxconn around or even going slightly smaller and getting the newer generation Gigabyte Brix i7 (really I could use an i5 or i3 … i7 gives me more headroom). The main difference is that the Foxconn can use a 2.5″ drive. The Brix is mSATA; they do make one that takes 2.5″ drives but it’s only SATA II (blech).

With a setup like that as long as I have my slides on a USB stick, the small form factor PC (under 2lbs) can have all of my demos and all I need is to connect into it … or switch to it since it has HDMI/VGA/DVI out. Lightweight, portable, powerful, and redundant. Done.

Layers. It’s where it’s at.

Unless you’re going somewhere that truly has cold weather (and even then …), I recommend you think in layers and not pack a lot of bulky clothes. Bulky stuff may look nice, but it takes up a lot of room and can be heavy. When I did the big jaunt mentioned above last year, Australia was hot and Japan was not. I had to pack for basically summer as well as fall/possible early winter. If you pack things that can be worn as layers, you can shed or put on as needed. Many companies sell lightweight jackets that are warm, can zip out lining, etc. They are worth the investment. Also bring things that mix and match. If you’re only going for work, take outfits that go with a pair of shoes and you don’t need more than one pair (for example: needing both brown and black shoes if you’re a guy).

And no, I don’t do laundry. I take enough with me … in all respects.

Carry on or check?

This is always the debate with frequent fliers. If I’m traveling abroad, it’s usually for more than a week, and I may also be doing some sightseeing/buying some tchotchkes, so chances are I’m going to check a bag. When you go overseas, most airlines give even non-frequent flier passengers at least one – if not two – bags to check for free. That is a good thing. However, pay strict attention to their weight limits. The airline you fly going out may have different limits than the ones you fly overseas, and I can tell you from experience, the ones here in the US are more lenient if you are a little bit over. Overseas? Good luck trying to argue that 1 or 2 kg isn’t a big deal. I recommend buying a small travel scale (such as this; there are many others) to see where you are at. Some airlines will have higher weight allowances depending on your status.

Also be mindful of luggage size. If you are the carry on type, a lot of international overheads are smaller, so what works here in the US may not work overseas. Plus, I find the attendants before you get on the flight will scrutinize your bag size even more than in the US – especially if you are in coach. Many companies sell carry ons specifically rated to work for international flights. You may need to look into them. Size matters in other ways – as in total dimensions. If they think your bag is too big, they will measure linear dimensions and if too big, be prepared to pay (much like weight). It may be better both from size and weight (and portability) to take two smaller suitcases than one large one.

In some cases, it may be easier to ship some stuff home (this is true even domestically). For example, both Disney resorts here in the US will send your trinkets home. It’s not free, but if you bought something valuable or large (such as a picture), it may be better to take advantage of that.

Domestically, I try to do carry on especially if I’m going to be gone for a short period of time. Assuming I’m flying my preferred airline (or their affiliates), I can board earlier and I know I will get overhead bin space. However, if you are in Zone 6, don’t assume your bag is getting on the plane and get all huffy when you’re told you need to check it.

Be considerate when flying.

There are few things I hate more than the boarding process in the USA. Each airline is different which is part of the problem. But you see all kinds of rudeness and inconsiderate people. I usually sit in an aisle seat, and the amount of people who whack me in the head with nary an apology (or even fake concern) appalls me. Same goes for putting things in the overhead and reaching over me, dropping things on my head, grabbing your luggage on the way out and whacking me … you get the idea.

A little soap and water goes a long way. I’ve sat next to that person who, shall we say, had less than stellar personal hygiene. It’s really bad when it’s a loooooooooooong flight. Enough said. Similarly, don’t douse yourself in perfume or cologne. That is just as bad.

Unless you are in business or first, space is a premium. I understand for people of larger stature (mainly height), things are not all sunshine and roses in economy. But I also need my modicum of personal space, too. I’m not Mr. Big, but I’m not invisible, either. If you are invading mine (such as a 6’3″ guy whose arms go well over the armrest), it’s not fair. I feel for you – I really do – but realize it’s not all about you. We’re both trapped in the same tin can for hours so let’s make the best of it.

As kids we learned about indoor voices. Put that to use. The last thing I want to hear for six hours on a plane is you babbling at the top of your lungs. If it’s a night flight and they’ve dimmed the cabin lights – get the hint. People are probably trying to sleep.

Be comfortable, but not a schlump.

I’ve stopped counting the number of times I see people getting on planes like they just rolled out of bed and are basically in pajamas. Stop it. On a 15 hour flight, I get needing to be comfortable. I’m not saying go spend stupid money on a nice outfit, but you don’t need to be THAT lazy and roll up out of bed.

Airline clubs and showers rule.

Whether you get membership or access as part of a credit card (such as American Express), buy it, or just purchase a day pass, an airline’s club can be a nice respite from the hustle and bustle of a crowded terminal – especially if you have a long layover or time before you fly out. Most clubs have showers. I have used them on occasion and I can tell you it helps. For example, before flying out to Australia, I freshened up before 15 hours on the plane. I had been in LA all day and if I didn’t do that, it would have been nearly 40+ hours without any kind of feeling clean. And when flying back through, after the 15h flight back but before getting on the plane to Boston, I freshened up at the Admiral’s Club to get rid of the flying funk (as I like to call it). Don’t underestimate the ability to clean up and feel human.

To SIM or not to SIM … that is the question.

When traveling abroad, unlike days of yore when you used a calling card or called collect back home, as long as your cellular phone has the right bands, chances are it will work in nearly every country you visit. Always check the bands your phone has versus where you are going. For example, if you have an AT&T phone without the 3G 2100 band, it probably won’t work in Japan. Going abroad you have two main options: get a SIM card and a plan there, or use yours from your home country. That is an it depends.

First, you’re going to need a GSM-based phone that takes a SIM card. As I already mentioned, check its bands. You may even want to get a dual SIM phone to keep your existing SIM card in and you just stick in that country’s SIM card in at the same time, and you can use the one you need. Most dual SIM phones are dual standby, meaning one SIM card is active at a time. others are dual active, meaning both SIM cards can be used at the same time. Know what you have if you get a dual SIM phone. I recently picked up the Samsung Galaxy S4 mini GT-i9192 which is dual active (uses micro SIM) shortly before I went to Australia. It works great. I do not use it for data, just incase you are wondering. It’s just a phone to me.

I’m not even going to cover data because I don’t use it on my phone, but needless to say, I’m sure it’s not cheap if you try to use your domestic (wherever that is for you) cel plan abroad and you are roaming. If you need cellular data, look into plans overseas for the country you are going (such as a hotspot rental)

Prepare to be shocked at the cost of Internet in hotels.

Luckily, I have status at Marriott hotels. Fortunately (or unfortunately depending on how you look at it), I am close to hitting lifetime Platinum, and have hit Platinum as a regular status for as long as I can remember at this point. Worldwide I get free internet. Most hotel chains do that for upper tier folks with status. However, when I stay in a non-Marriott property where I don’t have status – especially overseas – I’m always floored at the prices. It has not been uncommon for me to see hourly pricing or capped plans (i.e. the amount of data you can send or receive). The worst in recent memory was in Canberra, Australia in 2012 – I think I spent something like $150 for a week on crappy bandwidth and capped data.  Consider this a warning to you data addicts.

Choose your headphones wisely.

It’s no secret I am a music guy. I still use a dedicated device (a Sony Walkman – the modern kind – from Japan and am eying a new one). I care about sound quality (SQ), but I also realize on the road that to some degree it’s a compromise between SQ and portability. That is a blog post unto itself. For years I went small and light with in ear headphones (not buds) also known as in ear monitors (or IEMs – think what musicians and singers wear on stage). I’ve even had custom molded IEMs. The truth is while good IEMs can give you awesome (and passive) isolation with a great seal, on longer plane rides they are insanely uncomfortable. About two years ago now I made the decision to switch back to more regular, over the ear type headphones and it’s been a quest for the right balance of portability (which includes size and weight) to sound quality tradeoffs.

When it comes to regular headphones there are two kinds of isolation/noise cancelling: active and passive (yes, I get the irony here …). Active noise cancelling uses electronics to help remove ambient sounds such as airplane engines, while passive noise cancelling relies on fit and seal to give you that isolation and reduction in sound. Active affects sound quality, while passive may not block enough sound so you need to crank the volume – which can lead to hearing problems. I like my hearing intact, so I try to listen at lower volumes. I’ve heard most of the active noise cancelling headphones (as well as quite a few of the passive ones). I have a whole thread here on head-fi.org about my thoughts. Too much to say that I couldn’t fit here and have the space there. I’m still updating that thread … more stuff after my trip next week 🙂

Splurge for Global Entry if you live in the USA and fly internationally fairly frequently.

If you are a US Citizen and plan on traveling abroad, I highly recommend you sign up for the Global Entry program. It speeds your time coming back through customs immensely. Some credit cards will even reimburse you for the sign up fee. Ask anyone who has it – you won’t regret it. Plus, it helps out with whether or not you get selected for TSA Pre Check on some airlines.

Find a credit card that supports chip & signature (or chip & pin) as well as no foreign transaction fees if you will frequently travel abroad from the USA.

This is one area the US is backwards. Quite frankly, our domestic credit card companies suck. In the rest of the world, they usually have a form of chip & pin, which means you insert your CC into a machine, enter a code (not unlike an ATM), and you’re done. There’s a variant called chip & signature (no pin, but you sign instead). In the rest of the world, swiping credit cards has largely become outdated and some places won’t even take credit cards without chip & pin. Try using your US credit card in a French train ticket machine. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Most countries and places do accept swipe-able credit cards, so don’t worry. But if you have an option here in the US of getting a chip & signature card (some of the companies offer it on certain ones – like American Express Platinum) as well as getting one with no foreign transaction fees (meaning every time you use it outside your home country, you won’t get whacked with a monetary conversion fee which can be a percentage of the sale or some flat rate – understand what you will be charged) may be beneficial. I used my American Express with chip & signature for the first time when I was in Australia and it worked most of the time. Rarely did I need to swipe and it made things SO much easier.

Have cash. Will travel.

Even in this day and age, many companies are still cash-based. Not everywhere takes credit cards, so wherever you go, plan on having some of the local currency with you. Major hotels and shops are usually no issue, but other places? Do not count on being able to use your card. This happened to me largely in places in Europe (Germany specifically) and parts of Japan. Some stores haggle, so cash may also get you a better discount on items in some cases.

ATMs and Foreign Countries

Most US banks (and foreign ones as well) have affiliations with banks in other countries so you can use your ATM card to get local funds when overseas. This may decrease your need to take cash to convert, but if your bank does not have an arrangement with where you draw money from, you can pay a fee. Understand what that will be. Some countries are easier than others to use ATMs. In Japan I can tell you it’s a bit harder but not impossible. One bit of advice: do not think you are super-smart and have a PIN for your ATM card that is more than four (4) numbers. I tried that once and I had major issues in the UK withdrawing money a few years back. Yes, it’s more secure but the world standard is four numbers. Keep yours four and you will not have any issues in places that accept your ATM card. Have more than four? You may find an ATM that works but it may take a bit of effort.

Inform your banks and credit card companies you are going overseas.

While some credit card companies say this is not necessary, it is. You don’t want to find the trinket of your dreams only to get declined because they earmark it as fraud. Heck, I’ve been flagged and I have called. I was at Tokyo Disneyland and got flagged (you’d think they’d know my spending habits by now, right?). I had another card on me (another tip: have a backup payment method). I called the card company after and it got cleared up, but it was annoying. And it cost me about $40 on my cel bill. Yay. Sometimes they will put you on the phone if they call it in, but this is also a case where having a cel phone can be handy.

Your bank and ATM card are more important here to deal with. I guarantee you they will most likely flag you if you try to use it overseas and have not told them.

Do your homework.

No matter where you are going, do a little bit of advance work and see what some of the local customs are – especially around things like tipping in restaurants. Knowing some local customs goes a long way. Also, do a bit of leg work to see how you are going to get around be it from the airport or where you are trying to go. Unlike a good deal of the US, most countries in Europe and in places like Japan have wonderful rail and subway systems. Some you can even buy passes before you go that make travel cheaper. For example, when going to Tokyo, I carry a book with maps of the area (this is my tried and true, but this isn’t bad and a bit more updated). If there’s someplace specific I’m trying to go I’ve never been to, I’ll print out the address in English and Japanese. The books have both so if I have to ask for help, I’ve made it easier for the person who may not speak English.

Also, know if where are you are traveling to requires you to have a visa. Get that sorted out BEFORE you leave.

DO NOT ASSUME PEOPLE SPEAK ENGLISH

This should go without saying, but I think I need to remind some people. I’ve been going to Japan since 2004 and outside of the hotel while more people are doing it, by and large people will not speak English to you. The same could be said for parts of Europe. Speaking slower or louder will NOT help the situation. Have a phrase book or a way to communicate (see: map idea) and all will be fine. If you act like a jerk, people will be less inclined to deal with you.

Be smart.

Don’t be a typical tourist or traveler in your home country or overseas. By doing things like homework, you can blend in as best as possible. Don’t walk with your passport out, just have it sitting in your back pocket, etc. Common sense rules here.

Don’t Change Your Routine

One summer, I learned the hard way on the road that it’s easy to pack on the pounds. Since then I got wise. You need to be active on the road and not indulge (too much). In the US and abroad, I try to have the same diet and not eat stupid portions (easier to do overseas where they generally don’t serve huge portions). It’s easy to let go on the road, but you will hurt if you do.


4 Responses

  1. Mark Stacey says:

    Have a second passport for applying for visas. If you’re only in your home country a couple days at a stretch and visas take 5….

    • Mark Stacey says:

      Second piece of advice:
      I travel with 3 phones, one of them dual SIM (to have the data everywhere). You’re probably not me.

      One of my SIMs is a WorldSIM – pricier than a SIM, but same price all over. Worth looking at

  2. […] Advice for the Wannabe (International) Road Warrior – Allan Hirt […]

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