International travel and health Risks

Monday, December 8, 2014

It goes without saying that traveling is riskier than staying at home. However, it’s also super fun and those risks can be easily managed with some preparation and the right mindset. Traveling risks can be divided to two main types; physical risks that vary from location to location, and emotional risks. Keep the following in mind:
  • Theft. Travelling involves carrying all your belongings with you, or leaving them in temporary location that you don’t know well, which increases  the chances of theft.The best advice to mitigate risk is to be minimalist, and take only what you need with you. Every valuable you carry that is not needed brings pressure and attachment – you’ll always be thinking of how to secure it instead of just going to the beach and taking a swim. Not to mention that travelling light is also fun. Granted, digital nomads need some valuables they can’t do without (laptop, camera, passport, etc.) and safeguarding those things is necessary. Find the right balance between not being paranoid and not being careless and over-trusting.This balance also depends on where you are since the level of risk changes in each country. Try gaining information on the level of risk and most common theft/scam methods where you are, prepare yourself accordingly.

  • Violent crime. This is more severe and rarer than theft, and happens more in developing countries (developed countries are more prone to petty theft). The best advice  if you are unlucky enough to be in a situation of violent crime is to understand that your life is worth a lot more than what you carry with you, so don’t resist unless it’s your only way out. Reduce risk by avoiding problematic locations (gain info beforehand on where is safe). Also, don’t look clueless – signal that know where you’re going, tourists (especially drunk ones) are considered easy and lucrative targets. It is also important not to flaunt your valuables, and use them only when necessary in safe locations. The most important advice here would be to trust your intuition. If a place doesn’t feel good, spend money on taxi or new environment and get out. As the saying goes, “if you’re looking for trouble, trouble will find you”.

  • Health risk. Usually we’re only aware of our health when it deteriorates, and health issues away from home are more challenging since you are alone out of your comfort zone. Firstly, before traveling (especially if you’re going to developing countries) visit your doctor, ask about your destination’s specific health risks and get some emergency medicine for common scenarios. Developing countries often lack quality medications or circulate counterfeited medicine you don’t want to use. Also, getting travel insurance will cover your treatment financially until you get to your country. It’s inexpensive and worth the trouble, but be sure to read the small print to see that it covers most scenarios. When problems start, and if your health deteriorates, get some info about the best hospitals and clinics where you are. Some hospitals countries can be of poor quality, so if you are covered with travel insurance, it’s always worth choosing the best place.

  • Transportation. Using transportation exposes us to the risk of accidents, especially in developing countries. If you’re in a place with heightened risk (Peru, for an example, is known to have many deadly bus accidents), I recommend spending a bit more on a good bus company or airline. When the ride is long and risky, I try to sit in the middle of the bus on an aisle seat in the right side since those seats are proven to be the safest in case of an accident. Additionally, using motorcycles is a notorious risk; try to avoid them in places that have a lot of traffic.

  • Border controls and visa issues. First,an aside about problematic possessions and drugs. If you ever have them, don’t carry them while crossing a border. But even if you stay clear of problems, some border control can prove to be quite frustrating (I have had two incidents in Hungary and Bolivia that ended with deportation and long delay). If incidents happen, keep cool and don’t lose your temper since this will only make things worse. It is important to check the visa laws applicable to your country before traveling, so invest time in research to avoid problems. Keep your passport safe and in good shape since neglected passport screams fake and a lost passport is truly a hassle that you want to avoid.

  • Problems at home. There can be problems with family’s health, bureaucracy and so on that are difficult to deal with when you are far away. Mitigate those risks by creating open channels of communication with home to make sure that if something happens, you’ll get the news as soon as possible. It is also recommended to jump back to your homebase every now and then to sort your stuff out, before moving to the next destination.

  • Losing your sanity. There are cases of people traveling for a long time that get disconnected from themselves and society. This usually happens when you change places not for the right reasons, killing time instead of exploring new places, or running away from something (or from yourself, which doesn’t really work). Older travelers are more prone to this since they find it harder to meet and connect with other travelers and locals. My advice would be, don’t disconnect. Investing time in meeting and interacting with people in addition to having clear goals to accomplish while travelling keeps you happy and sane.
Now, hit the road!

Best Way to Find a Free Local Travel Guide

Sunday, December 7, 2014

I’ve heard of many creative ways to get a local to be your travel guide but my favorite is by a friend who had a yearning to go to Iceland. She is the inspiration for this post. Her unconventional way to get a free travel guide demands a write-up.

Lavalife. Yup, that online dating service is what she used to find a local to chat with and learn about Iceland long before she ever went there.

She went online and searched specifically for a fellow in Iceland and found a guy from Spain who had been living there for five years. They exchanged emails online for another four years before time and money synchronized (the fall in the economy certainly helped) and she went.

The emails were platonic. The crime rate in Iceland is practically non-existent. And my friend is smart. She went with accommodation booked. The results were wonderful. She was greeted in Reykjavik by a friend.

Here’s her summation of the experience, how he helped her plan and his hospitality:

“He was able to comment on the economic crash the country recently experienced and how it might affect my trip. His first hand information was a bit different than the media’s spin on the situation. As someone who was living and working in Reykjavik, someone completely immersed in the culture, he was able to tell me everything I needed to know to plan my trip. He was an excellent guide and host while I was there. Through him, I met many locals who were equally helpful.”

Now, I wouldn’t recommend Lavalife for all destinations but it certainly worked in this case.

More ways to find a free local guide.

As a solo traveler, it’s helpful to have a local to take you around. It helps you slip into the scene and gives you a companion for a few hours or a day. This service can be booked through most hotels for a fee but not everyone has that budget. Plus, there is something special about people who show you their city, not because they’re being paid, just because they love it. Here are a few more ways, other than Lavalife, to help you find a free local guide.

Greeter Programs

I thoroughly enjoyed the free Greeter Program in Chicago. I asked for a cyclist and we covered a lot of the city in five hours. It was fabulous. Check to see if the city you’re going to has a Greeter program through their tourism office or on the Global Greeter Network site.

Meet-ups through

Are you into rock climbing, raw food, Harley Davidsons practicing French, social media…? There is a meetup on just about anything that interests anybody. Check out the meetups to be held while you’re at your destination for a great way to meet locals who share your interests. If it’s a group on the move, like walkers or cyclists, you’ll probably get a unique tour of the city as well.

Tweet-ups through Twitter
Are you on Twitter? If so you likely have friends all over the world. If you’re not following tweeple in your destination city, search for them on Twitter and communicate with them for a while. Contact them when you’re getting ready to go to find out if there will (or could) be a local tweet-up when you’re in town. Great for Women Traveling Solo is an email-based, international directory of women travelers. It allows any woman anywhere in the world to connect at this site with other females who love to travel.

Free Walking Tours – lots of options.
From Berlin to San Francisco to Tel Aviv and Tokyo, there are free walking tours everywhere. Google “free walking tours” or go to sites like Sandemans.

5W – Women Welcoming Women World Wide
With about 2500 members in over 80 countries, 5W helps women connect with others around the world, make friendships and have a contact when they travel. Accommodation is often on offer but it is best to keep the first visit short. This is a non-profit membership site so there is a membership fee.

The Expat Community and your University Alumni
There are numerous expat website, communities and clubs all around the world. A search on Google will help you narrow down the field to your geography of interest.

How to manage travel expenses

Managing your travel expenses is a key way to cut your company's costs. But for business travelers, managing those expenses well is also important in ensuring that you get reimbursed fully and promptly.

Although many road warriors may know how to book travel frugally, you'd be surprised how many don't know their way around an expense report. It's just as easy to commit expense report mistakes that will cost you big money as it is to do your report correctly.

Here are twenty tips that might help keep you on the straight and narrow when it comes to managing your travel expenses:

"Book in advance" is perhaps the most obvious and yet most commonly ignored piece of advice anyone can give you about how to manage your travel costs intelligently.One caveat: If you think you may need to make last-minute changes to your flight, buy a ticket that allows you to re-book without paying a higher airfare and/or change fee penalties.Think about where you're going as well as the time of year you're going. Mull the impact of leisure vacation patterns and how they could disrupt your own travel plans, connections, and costs.If you have the choice, you may be able to cut costs by using the "less obvious" airport. For example, in Chicago try Midway vs. O'Hare when booking a low-fare carrier. Just remember that the airfare isn't your trip's only major cost. So, if you're thinking of opting for a secondary airport you'll want to factor in the cost of that rental car or taxi before you book.On the other hand, weigh the options of time vs. dollars. if I were leaving out of Boston and in a hurry to get to my destination, I might not worry about saving $100 by flying out of Manchester, N.H. Then again, if I wasn't in a hurry, maybe I'd also consider the fares out of Providence or some other regional airport.Engage the services of a travel agent, whether through your company or on your own. I find that travel professionals are the best way for me to find the best deals with the least hassle. They're also invaluable when flight disruption push comes to shove.If you have flexibility in your flight planning, consider websites that use "predictive modeling." For example, tracks up and down patterns of certain airfares. It predicts when certain airfare deals will emerge and then try to plan your business travel accordingly.Consider the length of your trip. Does it make sense to rent a car, take a cab, or hire a car service? If your schedule is not too pressing, you can save by taking an airport-to-hotel shuttle or even a sharing a taxi.At the hotel, keep in mind a few basic rules: (1) Steer clear of the minibar; (2) use room service sparingly; and (3) be mindful of the hotel restaurant, which sometimes can be as pricey as the first two.If you are a frequent user of hotel Internet services (both DSL and wireless), consider investing in a broadband card, available through your wireless provider. This will enable you to access the Internet from anywhere you have a cellular signal. You'll save money in the long run and be far more productive. Hotel loyalty programs sometimes also offer free Internet access to their members. Eating while en route is more of a wildcard than ever before, in terms of convenience, cost, and quality. It is best to bring your own snacks. Always grab a bottle of water after you clear security. Consider buying two—the second bottle will become indispensable if your flight gets marooned on the tarmac.Don't forget to save your receipts from the subway or bus, taxi, or shuttle, tolls, or parking lot. This will save you time and hassles with your accounting department.Being organized helps. Create a folder to hold every important document, including flight itinerary, directions to the hotel, and business meeting agenda. Into this trip folder can also go key items that will accumulate during your trip, including those all-important receipts. Consider a clear plastic envelope with a string wrap closure so you can see what's inside and the contents won't spill out.Another tip: Write on each receipt what it was for ("Business breakfast on Aug. 10; guest John Doe, ABC Company, w/M. Valkevich," for example). Don't take for granted that you will remember the details. After the trip, I sift the receipts into piles that are organized by date and function.Do your expense report within three days—repeat: three
If you follow these tips, you'll be well on your way to making the travel expenses process as invisible and painless as possible.
days—otherwise you'll invariably get backlogged and end up losing money. (Think about organizing your receipts and even doing your expense report on the plane, train, etc.)If you can keep all of your receipts, boarding passes, and other paperwork organized during your trip, you'll find that doing your expense report will be a breeze when you sit at your computer.It's essential to know what your company's reimbursement policy is before you spend the money. Some employers will not reimburse employees for expenses from their house to their home airport, some not for expenses at the home airport. Some won't reimburse for any expenses incurred after you land. Know before your fly so your expense report will zip through the approval process.Often I get reimbursed well before my credit card bill is due. Avoid past-due fees or digging into your own bank account. The minute I get my expense check I put it into my checking account. Then I write a check to my corporate credit card to pay the bill. Better yet, see if your company offers a direct deposit option for expense reimbursement.To keep your finances organized, you might consider separate accounts for business vs. personal expenses. Many road warriors set up separate ATM cards representing their separate business and personal checking accounts, and of course separate business vs. personal credit cards.

Know Your Seasons for the Best Travel Bargains

Shoestring travelers go to great lengths to stick to their budget: finding inexpensive lodging, getting cut-rate airfares, and taking the cheapest local transportation. One often-overlooked variable, however, is the time of year they visit a particular destination.
In any area that attracts a lot of tourists, high season is expensive. In some cases, downright outrageous. High season can be as long as summer, or as short as New Year's Eve weekend, depending on the location. In any case you are sure to pay top dollar. Whether it's a Thai party beach during the full moon, Goa around the Christmas break, or Europe in the summer, this is the time when prices shoot up and you'll find little to no room for negotiation.
Low season is often low for a good reason, however. Prices are cheap, but they often deserve to be. Hurricanes are blowing around the Caribbean and Florida, Egypt feels like the inside of an oven, the Andes are obscured by clouds. Many beach towns all over the world are literally boarded up in the off-season. It can be a good time to work on a novel or to meditate, but many find the lonely streets and bad weather during low season to be a downer.

The Joy of Shoulder Season

Shoulder season offers the chance to score a bargain while the getting is still good. This period between high and low season is when prices drop, but the travel experience is still good. Rates on everything from lodging to adventure trips often drop for reasons that are based on demand, not intrinsic value. Europe is still quite nice in the fall, but all the college kids and family vacationers have returned home. The Caribbean and Mexico still have great weather in the late spring, but prices go down because U.S. tourists have stopped thinking about escaping the cold back home.
Most guidebooks and country-specific websites have a "when to go" section that describes the ideal time to visit an area, as well as the worst time. In between those two extremes is when you would ideally want to visit. You're not jostling with hundreds of other people to get a room and see the sights, but you're also not arriving when there is not another soul around and you can't find a place to get dinner.
If there is a specific time of year when you it is best to go hiking (such as October through December in Nepal), try to arrive at the beginning or end of that window. I once rented a nice little guesthouse room in Kathmandu for $2 per night in early October before I went to Pokhara to start my trek. When I returned three weeks later, at the height of the tourist season, the owner wanted $4.50 for the same room. One room we rented in Turkey was $5 per night; the owner told us it routinely went for $15 a month before we arrived. This same scenario plays out all over the world, with the intrinsic laws of supply and demand driving prices up or down.
Following are a few specific recommendations for predictable shoulder seasons around the world, divided by season.

Winter Travel Bargains

While most of the U.S. is obsessed with shopping for presents, travelers can find great values at tropical beaches until Christmas week. Skiers heading to Europe can take advantage of the cheapest flights of the year from the U.S.
Flights to Asia generally go down in the winter due to waning demand. In Japan and Korea this can mean experiencing snow-covered temples and cozy rooms with heated floors, while in other parts of Asia it's a tropical paradise. Travelers who want to travel through Southeast Asia in particular should look for the best deal to anywhere in the region and then go overland from there.
Despite this being the summer in South Africa, the best flight prices and package deals are on offer January through April.

Spring Travel Bargains
Flights to Europe start rising when temperatures do, but rates are still far cheaper than during the summer months. This can be a good time to see the tulip fields of Holland or the green hills of Ireland. If you are studying or working in Europe, take advantage of any spring breaks to travel locally.
Starting in mid-April, hotel rates and flights to Mexican beaches and the Caribbean take a drastic drop. From Jamaica to Tulum to Tobago, the water is warm and the beaches are less crowded. Flights to Central and South America often drop in tandem -- except around Carnival and Easter.
It's autumn in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, with shoulder season rates on flights and lodging. March through May are great months to visit hot and dry countries such as Morocco, Egypt, or Jordan.

Summer Travel Bargains
Summer is the toughest time to find a bargain, mostly because demand is so high from North Americans, Europeans, and the Japanese. Add June weddings and honeymoons to the mix and there are a lot of people on the move.
However, in June and early July Caribbean and Mexican destinations are at their lowest shoulder season prices, before Europeans start filling resorts in August and rains start picking up. For budget travelers, less touristed destinations provide the best lodging and diving deals: Venezuela's Margarita Island, the Bay Islands of Honduras, or the islands scattered off the coasts of Belize, Panama, and Nicaragua.
June to September is shoulder season in Kenya and Tanzania, when the high season is over, but the weather is still cool and dry. This is an excellent time to go on a safari.
In Canada, there is a short shoulder season for national parks in the first two weeks of June and the last two weeks of August.
While it is summer in North America, it is winter in the southern hemisphere, but you will find beach weather without the summer humidity in Rio de Janeiro. Few Brazilians are on the move during this time, so rooms are plentiful.
If you can stand the heat, you will find flights and hotels only slightly higher than in the spring in Southeast Asia, including Hong Kong, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Fall Travel Bargains
Flights to Europe usually start going on sale in October. Lodging rates drop, and with a wider selection of rooms it is easier to be choosy. In southern European cities, the weather can still be pleasant until mid-November or early December.
The summer cruise ship crowds have mostly left the Greek Islands and Turkey, but the early fall weather is still sunny, the party kids have gone home, and hotels are open to bargaining.
Mid-October to mid-December marks the transition from the wet season to dry season in Costa Rica and Panama; plan lush jungle trips before the big crowds arrive.

Shoulder Season Travel Secrets

After the vacation crowds head home, you’ll find the smart traveler basking in good deals and wide open spaces.

Quick: What’s the best time of year to visit Thailand?If you’re looking for great bargains, slim crowds, and good weather, that time is June—after rains have cooled off the sweltering heat but before the tourist masses arrive in July (and prices go up). June in Thailand is the tiny, mystical window known as shoulder season.

Shoulder season is the Mama Bear of travel times: tucked between the high prices of peak season and the lousy weather of the low season, shoulder season is juuuuust right for many travelers. Schedule your vacation right before or immediately after high season and the only differences you’ll notice are lower costs, fewer crowds, and of course greater availability of hotel rooms and restaurant reservations.

You’ll notice a warmer welcome, too, when you travel off-peak. Locals, who may grow weary of crowds in peak season, have time to relax in shoulder season. For instance, an afternoon in early May is an ideal time to linger at an outdoor cafĂ© in Rome and people-watch, before the summer tourists descend.

Timing, of course, is everything. In March, for example, spring skiing in Whistler, British Columbia is still going full-throttle (with high prices to match). But hold off until April—when the powder’s usually just as good—and you’ll find that the crowds have melted. So not only will you get great first tracks without throwing elbows, you’ll also pay $189 less per night for a standard room at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler than you would in early February.

If you’re more of a warm-weather traveler, use hurricane season to your advantage. The Riviera Maya’s hurricane season peaks from August to October, but it’s long gone by mid-November. That’s when sun-worshippers with an eye on value can hit the beach and clean up on bargains before the holiday crowds arrive. Even if you opt for opulence at the Ritz-Carlton Cancun, the same guestroom that runs $489 over Easter weekend costs only $269 in mid-November.

So how do you pick the ideal time?Consult a calendar, of course. We’ve mapped out the eight key shoulder-season months, outlining destinations from Dubai (October) to Montana (September). Heading to Hawaii?Craving Costa Rica?If you’re a shoulder-season devotee, this is one calendar you don’t want to miss.

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