Travel can be a great deal of fun. It can offer new experiences, a break from the stress and strain of daily life, and can help you appreciate both the wonders that exist in the world and the magic that exists at home. I was told recently that 70% of the things we learn in life come from our experiences, and my experience is that travel can be one of the most exciting and interesting learning opportunities available to us.
I have also experienced the fact that travel can be a dangerous, trying, and stressful time if you are not prepared … and sometimes even when you are! The good news is fortunately, we can transform at least some of the dangers and stresses of travel with the proper preparation, meaning planning for potential challenges and having both the physical preparedness and the mental attitude to deal with them.
Here are some personal stories from my travel and lessons learned, lessons that I hope will give you some insight into preparing for the risks and excitement of travel. I am sure the list is not complete: I invite you to email me with some rules you travel by that could help out others and we can share those in a later newsletter.
Be prepared and bring your documentation with you.
Know how to call home from a foreign country: the dialling codes, differences between mobile and landlines, etc
Carry a credit card with a high enough limit and then some to get you home in an emergency
Stay calm and polite rather than rude and obnoxious; polite persistence almost always wins over righteous indignation when it comes to travel
Be cautious of strangers but trusting enough to ask for help when you need it - and to offer it when you can
How to get along in a foreign country: try to speak their language and try their food
Active travel: expect injuries and be prepared. Make sure someone always knows where you are and carry basic first aid supplies
Pay attention to local information: road closures, weather reports, things that might affect the route you choose to travel
Being on vacation does not suddenly turn you into a superhuman, so try not to act like one
When the unexpected happens: stay calm and think through your options
Remember it is a vacation and there is not a “right” way to do it other than doing what is right for you and your family at that moment. Pay attention to your own energy and interest levels and adjust your plans to match. Better to do less and have a happy memory than to do more and wish you could forget it.
I was bitten with the travel bug at an early age. In fact, maybe I even inherited it: all my ancestors seem to have travelled about, and they lived in the days when travelling really was a great deal of work. My father’s work took him to Argentina, Uruguay, Mexico, the UK, Germany and places I cannot recall, and our entire family moved to Bermuda for six months while my father completed an assignment there. I grew up hearing stories of his early travels: his trips to England and the Middle East during World War II, meeting my mother (the neighbour across the street) and emigrating to Canada on a steam ship: my father, mother, sister, and an Irish Setter. My mother’s travel stories were slightly less exotic but no less interesting: growing up in Saint John and contracting polio, moving to Africa back to my grandmother’s hometown, meeting my father and finally returning to Canada with stops in Montréal, Nova Scotia, and Northern Ontario before finally settling into Southern Ontario. My grandparents also came with travel stories: my paternal grandparents’ sojourn from England and Ireland to southern Africa, building railways and raising children en route. My maternal grandmother’s lifelong adventures: from her childhood in Africa to attending school in Scotland; from meeting a Canadian soldier in World War I to following him to Canada a few years later; from her trips back and forth to Africa over the years to her later trips across North America.
Despite the travel of my ancestors – or perhaps because of it – our family vacations tended to be closer to home: Expo ‘67, my cousin’s cottage on Lac Brompton, and my other cousins in the Annapolis valley. Despite my heart-felt longing to explore the world, I did not leave North America until I was 39 years-old. Which does not mean I did not travel: by the time I was 30 I had visited every major city in the ten provinces (the territories have eluded me to this day) and a great number of smaller communities. Hawaii and Florida had been checked off, and I was slowly working my way through the northeast United States.
Eventually, I found myself in a work role that required me to travel to Zürich, and I managed to squeeze in Paris on the same trip. That seemed to be the catalyst that saw me travel more in the next 15 years than I ever imagined , from the Atacama Desert and Andes mountains to the Tuscan hills and Dolomite Mountains, from the reefs of Belize to the glaciers of Iceland. So much of the world still to see, however I consider myself fortunate to have seen so many different places and enjoyed so many different experiences. Much of my early travel was for business; my more recent travel has been increasingly for pleasure. From the poshest of 7-star hotels to the rockiest of mountainside ledges, I have experienced a wide range of conditions.
So much left to explore still...
My first real travel with my kids – not counting a quick trip to Disney World when my oldest child was only 20 months old (and they are really easy to travel with at that point) was to visit my brother in Paris, France. He was working there for a few years – with his wife and very young daughter – in a furnished apartment in the 16e arrondissement. We planned a trip to include Paris, Disneyland Paris, Bretagne, and London. My daughters were 9 and 12 at the time.
The flight there was a blur: all I remember is that we were suddenly in Paris and my brother was there to meet us. The first challenge was getting all of us and all of our luggage into his car: European station wagons are smaller than North American ones. The elevator was the next challenge: one person and one suitcase at a time. Then we were finally up into the apartment, quite large by Paris standards … meaning very tiny for four adults and three children. We survived Paris – even if it did mean having to take the two youngest kids to McDonald’s to ensure they did not starve – and then we were off on the train to Disneyland Paris. This was going to be the highlight of the trip. My two daughters had bought books on Disneyland Paris and had planned our route, knowing which rides to hit in which order to minimize waiting time (this was in the days before all the express passes). We had booked at the Disney Hotel right at the main gates, so we could come and go from the hotel easily. As it turned out, it was pouring rain on the day we traveled there and, a bit to our surprise, the walk to the hotel from the train station was about 10 minutes: just long enough to make sure we were really good and wet. This was the early days of online booking, and I had printed out the email we had received from the hotel with our confirmation number. There was quite a line to get to the registration desk, but finally we made it. My father had taught me at a young age that if you want to get along somewhere, all you really need to do is try to speak their language and try to eat their food. Determined to follow this advice (it has been about the best travel advice I have ever been given), I launched into my very best French with the young lady at the hotel desk. (I should probably mention that my very best French barely got me out of grade eight in Ontario and likely would not have succeeded in grade four back when I lived in Montréal.) I explained who I was, that we had a reservation, and handed her my printed email. My French was clearly not working very well, because I was almost positive she was telling me I did not have a room booked. I tried again, first in French, then in English. It turns out that English was actually her first language and, even in English, she was quite adamant that I did not have a room. I was cold, wet, tired, and getting grumpy. My family – standing just over there watching me – felt pretty much the same way. I paused. I thought. I waved the email in her face. I repeated my story, only louder … because we know how well it works when you start yelling at people. She seemed quite determined that I did not have a reservation. And, to make sure I understood, she added in the fact that they had no empty rooms I could book. This was not going well.
I then did what was, in retrospect, a very smart but not very typical action for me at the time: I stepped back, I looked at my cute little girls, I breathed deeply, and then I gently leaned forward. Quietly I said, “I don’t understand, we have an email confirming our room, and my girls are very excited about staying here. You must have some room somewhere. Can I speak to your manager?” To make a long story short, we ended up with a room on the ground floor with a giant terrace, high ceilings, really bouncy beds (my daughters and niece checked this out), and great access to the park. Polite persistence got me further than righteous yelling, and, just a hunch, polite, cute young children onside didn’t hurt.
The rest of the trip was amazing: it rained on and off for three days so the park was not too busy and we went on every ride we wanted. (One of our first purchases was Disney rain ponchos.) My daughters and niece were thrilled! We were off to Bretagne, staying in Quimper, and we visited beaches (my first swim in the European side of the Atlantic) explored museums, and climbed on rocks. London was probably one stop too many but we adjusted our plans and instead of walking around the city we discovered the wisdom and efficiency of a river cruise followed by a 24-hour pass on the Hop-On, Hop-Off bus. What a great way of seeing a big city in a short period of time. We experienced the city, we rested, we somehow still had enough energy for shopping at Harrod’s, and most of all we had fun.
Over the next few years, our family visited Disney World, Disneyland California, Hawaii, Amsterdam, Bruges, Ypres, Nova Scotia, Virginia, and various cottages and beaches on Lakes Huron and Erie. Every trip had its moments of joy and panic, of utter exhaustion and of pure energy and excitement. The lessons I learned on that first family trip to Paris paid off for me every time:
Be prepared and bring your documentation with you (it is so much easier these days). My travel companions think I am a bit obsessed with confirming my accommodations when I travel; I just think back to standing at the Disneyland Paris hotel and know I never want that feeling again
If you are travelling with your kids and not accompanied by your child’s other parent, make sure you carry a letter of permission from the other parent. Really
Stay calm and polite rather than what may be perceived as rude and arrogant: polite persistence almost always wins over righteous indignation when it comes to travel. And even if you “win” with righteous indignation, expect the levels of service you will receive to reflect their feelings towards you
Above all, remember it is a vacation and there are no mandatory activities beyond doing what you choose to do. Odds are good there will be things you miss that others will insist you have to see, and you will see things none of your friends have ever done. Do what is right for you and your family at that moment. Pay attention to your own energy and interest levels and adjust your plans to match. Better to do less and have a happy memory than to do more and wish you could forget it
…polite persistence almost always wins over righteous indignation when it comes to travel.
Both my daughters have become good friends with people who have moved away from our neighbourhood. My daughters have managed to stay in touch – even before social media and the internet made it so easy – and part of staying in touch has meant occasional visits to their friends. As a result, both my girls have been UMs – Unescorted Minors – on various airlines.
Letting your kids travel alone is hard. As a parent, I can honestly say I lived in a state of imminent terror the entire time my daughters have been away. I have done my very best to hide my anxiety, because I was very proud of their confidence and maturity in traveling alone, and also because I know they needed me to be strong and confident so that they could be strong and confident. But being strong and confident does not mean being blind to the dangers, and so I was always prepared:My daughters always traveled with their travel insurance information with them, usually with two or three copies in various parts of their luggage and carry-on bags. As I got smarter, I figured out that sending it to the parents of their friends in advance was a good thing to do as well
My daughters had a way to get in touch regardless of where they were. In the early days, this meant having Calling Cards that worked from anywhere in the world. Then it became making sure they had mobile phones with the appropriate calling capabilities (and instructions to use them only if they had to). In both cases, it meant writing out for them how to call home: the international country codes, extra digits to be added (or dropped), any differences between using a mobile phone and a landline. This preparation took work but allowed me to sleep while they were away
My daughters also traveled with a credit card. As soon as I could, I got a supplemental card for them and I made sure it had a credit limit sufficient to book a flight home if they had to. It’s also possible to preload a Visa or MasterCard if you are unable to get a credit card. Many bank debit cards can also be used worldwide and these are great options to reduce the amount of cash they need to carry. (I bet in all the years of travel, they used their supplemental cards less than a dozen times, almost always to buy a thank you gift for their host … but I benefitted so much from knowing they could always get home.)
Probably the most important preparation we did for our daughters when they were travelling was to instil in them an understanding that we would be there for them, that they should be both cautious of strangers and trusting enough to ask for help when they needed it and to offer it when they could, and that they should stay calm and think. Fortunately, this preparation was seldom put to the test, but when my one daughter was caught in the air flying back from Dallas on August 14th, 2003 – you may remember it as the night the lights went out in Ontario – she stayed calm. As adults around her panicked and worried (her mother and I included), she patiently waited to be processed in the dark through immigration and customs at Pearson Airport. While airline staff had no idea what to do and kept running off in different directions, she was sensible enough to stay at the gate exiting the luggage area. We found her there in the chaos of Pearson Airport and she gave us a hug, told us she enjoyed her trip, and asked what everyone was so worried about. Travel can be fun, it can be stressful, and it certainly is a learning experience … sometimes even for those not travelling. Stay calm and travel on.
I must confess to my personal bias: I do not like visas. I think they are silly and they are just a cash grab by the government asking for it. My second confession: my opinion does not matter. You still need one if the government says you do: they make the rules, not me.
Since I am not in control, it is smart to pay attention to the details around the visas. At some borders, you can buy a tourist visa in cash (often US dollars but sometimes they insist upon local currency) when you arrive at the border; some countries require you to apply for and receive a visa before you leave home. I have been to countries that need a new visa every time you cross the border, even if you only crossed the border for a better plane connection to get you back into the country. Some countries require visas for some lengths of stays and not others, or if you are entering from certain countries but not others; some countries care only about your citizenship and some care about where you were born regardless of your citizenship. Be careful if you have multiple citizenships that you are following all the rules for all your citizenships. I must admit that in “the old days” (a decade or so ago), multiple citizenships were only a problem if you mentioned it to the border people. Borders tend to be much more tightly controlled these days and the intelligence every country seems to be able to access is quite astonishing. My advice is to be smart and be prepared with the right visa information.
…be smart and be prepared with the right visa information.
I feel that vaccinations are much less silly than visas but the importance of knowing the rules about them is much the same. Where you have traveled from or through is often relevant to the types of shots you need, and proof that you have had the vaccinations matters. As a Kenyan official explained to the gentleman next to me, who could not find his Yellow Fever vaccination certificate, “We will let you in but nobody is going to let you leave without that piece of paper.” As much as I liked Kenya, the thought of being stuck there (or having to be quarantined upon departure) made me happy I had my papers.
In-country medications are another consideration. Whether fending off malaria or helping you adapt to high altitudes, there are many available prescriptions you can bring with you. I must say that the advice available on which medications work (or do not work) with others is confusing and contradictory. Going to Mt Kilimanjaro I had both anti-malarial and high altitude drugs and I received professional advice ranging from taking them both to taking one (and the “one” varied by individual advice giver) but not the other. Locally, the advice and experience of fellow travellers was equally diverse (ranging from taking nothing to taking it all to alternating them) and I ended up using my own judgement and monitoring how my body felt. Having absolutely no medical training, I am not sure this was the best approach, but it was the only one that made sense to me in light of the confusing and conflicting advice offered. Buying prescriptions in-country can be equally eye-opening. It was a bit surprising to see the easy availability of drugs that would require a prescription in Canada. Small town Morocco seems to be a bit of a pharmaceutical free market: I have no idea of the quality (although the brand was well-known) but my friends tell me they worked for their infections. Personally, I was happy to stick with my North American medications.
If you are bringing your regular medication, keep them in the original bottle and carry the prescription
Carry a photocopy of your visas and passport with a back-up at home or online
Get your vaccinations with plenty of time to spare. You’d much rather be at home suffering from an adverse reaction, than on a plane or in a foreign land
Around me, chaos has swirled. A colleague in Italy went down on his bike at high-speed and required several hours of hand surgery and stitches … and spent the rest of the trip riding the support van. One my guides in Tanzania tripped over a rock and had to be taken off the mountain. I made a new English friend when I had to help carry her out from a river hike after suffering a knee injury while we were in Morocco.
Not all my travel is active, and yet I have managed to experience issues there as well. My only two food issues while travelling happened in an airport (I knew the samosa was bad as soon as I bit into it) and in a beachfront villa (less obviously bad but very similar outcome!). I have witnessed car accidents and people stumbling down stairs. A surfer died while I was walking down the beach in Hawaii, an audience member suffered the same fate while watching a live performance in a dark theatre. Planes have made emergency landings, trams have come off their tracks, I had my bus stuck in a hole in the road twice within a six-month period in two very different countries. I have visited fellow travelers in hospital sufferings from everything from heat stroke and dehydration to very serious internal ailments.
I suppose all these events could put me off travel, but they don’t: I know they could just as easily happen near home in Mississauga (and, in fact, they do). The point really is not that these events happen when you travel but that they do not stop happening just because you are traveling. So be prepared:
At the risk of repeating myself, have travel insurance and have the documentation accessible to you while you travel. Having the paper in my hotel room is not going to be very useful unless I can convince the ambulance to stop by the hotel on the way to hospital
I travel by myself a fair bit these days and my health is not perfect. I wear a Road ID™ bracelet when I travel (and when I do sports here at home) that links to a website that has my medical history, my current medications, my doctor’s name and contact information, my insurance information, etc. I really hope that the purchase of this bracelet and the annual fee I pay for the website is a waste of money, but I recognize that if I have an incident I might not be in the right state of mind (or even conscious) to provide all this information
I do not pay much attention to news at home when I travel but I do try to listen to local information: road closures, weather reports, things that might affect the route I choose to travel. Since my language skills are not great, this often requires me to ask people what is going on … not a bad way to meet people, in turns out
I pay attention when I travel and I try not to take risks I don’t think I can handle. Being on vacation does not suddenly turn me into a superhuman, so I try (usually) not to act like one
For all my risk aversion and risk management techniques, I also acknowledge that anything can happen at any time. Meteorites do fall from the sky, molten rock can pour from the ground, rains sweep away roads and valleys, and the ground does sometimes open up beneath your feet … but you can’t walk around fearfully staring upwards or clinging to a rope. Travel is an adventure. Have fun, try new experiences, and learn new things. Experience it, enjoy it … and prepare for it.