How to be the world’s smartest traveler

In almost 30 years of international travel, I’ve really only been in trouble twice. Once was during a trip to Phnom Penh in the mid- 90s when it was something akin to the Wild West. A group of us were coming back from dinner at barely 9pm. As the last entered the gate, two hooligans zipped up from behind on a motorbike and pulled out guns. We were the victims of a home invasion. Thankfully, no one was hurt that night, just a few dollars lighter. Another time, I was traveling with friends to a country normally friendly to US citizens. It just so happened that for the Pope’s visit that month, they temporarily tightened immigration (something the embassy didn’t even know about when I checked prior to buying the tickets) and I flew all the way there just to immediately get back on the same plane while my Canadian friends waved good-bye. (A few months later, I was able to re-do the trip.)

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All that said, I feel pretty fortunate to have avoided any serious problems while traveling. Part of it is that I’m ultra-vigilant when I’m in a new environment. I don’t often check maps out in the open, I dress conservatively and I read up on the destination before I go, including checking out forums (which provide the most up-to-date information) and blogs.

Another thing I do is learn from others’ mistakes so I don’t have to repeat them. I keep up with consumer advocate sites, my favorite being Chris Elliott’s (www.elliott.org) hugely popular blog where he sheds light on common problems like checking  into a pre-booked hotel only to find that it’s nothing like what was advertised or avoiding phone cards that only give you 40 percent of what customers thought they were buying to over-the-top snafus like a flyer wanting compensation for a USD4,000 fiberglass fish lost in checked luggage and a bridezilla who spent three days of her honeymoon sobbing over rusted bathroom fixtures and dirty glasses. (Disclosure: I’m also a volunteer editor for Chris’ columns on his own site as well as in publications like The Washington Post and USA Today.)

In early 2014, Chris is coming out with another book, How to Be The World’s Smartest Traveler, and he’s sharing with Oi readers some of his best advice.

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On Cheap Airfares
Your airfare probably represents no more than a third of your trip expenses. You’ll save yourself lots of time and misery by taking a deep breath and following this advice: If you see an airfare you can afford, book it now, and don’t look back. You might be able to find a less expensive fare, but I can practically guarantee that you’ll waste hours trying to find it – hours that could be better spent doing something more productive.

Airlines have spent a small fortune on yield management technology, but foiling it by subscribing to every fare alert newsletter, reading every airfare blog, and using every tool at your disposal in order to save USD10 on your next flight is a meaningless victory. Ask yourself: Is your time really worth only a few dollars an hour? Probably not.

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Beware the Credit Card Scam
Beware of dynamic currency conversion (DCC), a practice that can allow an unscrupulous merchant to skim a little off the top of your purchase, at your expense. Here’s how it works: If you’re paying by credit card overseas, a merchant will sometimes ask if you want to make the purchase in dollars, “for your convenience.” If you agree, your money is converted from the native currency into greenbacks and sent to your credit card, but at an awful exchange rate. (Bizarrely, you may still have to pay your credit card a fee for a foreign transaction — so you basically convert the money twice.)

Keeping Your Money Safe While Traveling
Many travelers swear by a money belt, a fabric strap for holding your passport and cash. There are variations of this solution, including socks and neckwear with pouches for storing valuables, but they’re not the most elegant solution. Retrieving something from them means partially disrobing, which is a hassle, and thieves know to look for hidden pouches on tourists. However, a belt is better than nothing. Another option, one favored by security experts, is the dummy wallet or pocketbook – a decoy containing a small amount of cash and IDs. If you’re ever asked to hand over your valuables, give the robber the bogus wallet. It’s better than taking off your clothes, and handing over your money belt.

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The “Menu Trap”
Many restaurants offer at least two menus: One for lunch, the other for dinner. Pay attention to the entrees on each one; they’re often identical. What’s different? The price, usually. Just like movie theater tickets, you’re paying more because of the time of day. (To be fair, some restaurants do offer larger portions for dinner.) To avoid this pm premium, plan your “out” meal for lunch, and have a more modest dinner you prepare in your room, or buy in a grocery store. I personally use all of these tips when traveling, saving myself from potentially expensive mistakes. Travel wise!

Bio: Having visited nearly 60 countries as a travel writer and award-winning photographer, James Pham blogs about his adventures at www.flyicarusfly.com