Family Vacation!

From finding cheap airfare to avoiding identity theft, here's what you need to know

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By Julie Rattey


It was a Saturday afternoon at the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. Mom was a little put out because, just as she had predicted, we had been selected for the honor of having our suitcases examined. Au revoir, Eiffel Tower; bonjour, security. I didn't really mind; we were going to have to sit around waiting anyway.

The guy next to us was having a much worse time of it. Apparently oblivious to a certain guideline regarding packages, this gentleman had about ten wrapped gifts in his suitcase. Resignedly he was taking them out, one by one, and unwrapping them for inspection.

 

How well you prepare for your vacation can have a big effect on how much you enjoy it. Here are a few ideas to help make your vacation a better one:

FOR PLANNING YOUR TRIP
Do some research. What sites of interest can you see on your driving trip? If you are traveling abroad, what health preparations and safety precautions should you make? (Visit http://www.travel.state.gov and www.who.int/ith/en.) Are there any local customs or taboos you should know? (Check your local library for books on the country you’re visiting.) Will there be a charge to use the restroom? (Yes, this is a fact in some places.)

Be money smart. Have you visited Web sites like Orbitz to find the cheapest hotel, flight, or car rental? Are you eligible for any airline discounts?

FOR INTERNATIONAL TRAVEL

Keep in contact. Leave any relevant contact information with a trusted friend or relative who can reach you in an emergency — the “Dad is in the hospital” kind, not the “I think I just killed your goldfish” kind.

Adjust to size. For an American used to king-size beds, super-sized meals, and hotel suites large enough to host a traveling circus, venturing outside our borders may feel like visiting Lilliput: “Now I know why Europeans are thin; how else would they fit into those tiny cars?” “Why is my shower the size of a shoebox?” Difficult as it may be, try to accept these adjustments graciously as part of the experience. If you can’t bear to part with American-style facilities, ask your favorite hotel if they have a branch in the country you will visit.

Register with the U.S. embassy or consulate. This will enable American consular officials to contact and assist you if there is an emergency. This is especially recommended if you are visiting for more than one month or are in a place that is politically or climactically volatile.

Prime your passport. Some countries will not accept a passport if it is nearly expired. If you need a new one or are getting one for the first time, apply early in order to avoid rush fees.

When in Rome…
If you want to blend in with Europeans, wear an artfully coiled scarf. Even if you are a man. Even if it is summer.

If you think 65 mph is fast, the German Autobahn is not for you.

If you are in France, your favorite wine is French. If you are in Italy, your favorite wine is Italian.

When the shuttle driver promises to pick you up at the airport in “five minutes,” what he really means is, “I’ll be there when I’m ready.”

FOR PACKING
Start early, and review what you’ve packed as you draw closer to the trip. Maybe you don’t need five sweaters for Hawaii.

Avoid wrinkles.
Take materials that are less likely to wrinkle and pack them tightly enough to avoid shifting. To help prevent creasing at fold lines, wrap clothing around rolled-up T-shirts or underwear.

Mix and match.
Instead of taking five suit jackets, take one that matches all your outfits.

Stick to the rules.
The time spent online reading each airport’s guidelines will be worth it to avoid the hassle of removing items at check-in. (“What do you mean I can’t bring nunchaku in my carry-on?”)

Make a travel list. Afraid you’ll forget something? Make a list of everything you usually take on a trip and save it on your computer. Refer to the list each time you travel.

Keep it small.
Going away for a weekend calls for the travel-size shampoo, not the supervalue bottle that doubles as a dumbbell. Also, don't forget that any liquids, gels, etc. in your carry-on must be in a container of 3.4 oz. or less and must be in a quart-sized plastic zip-top style baggie. (See this TSA website for more details - http://www.tsa.gov/311/index.shtm)

Make a contact info card. Write down all pertinent information (hotel contact information, car rental contact, airport phone number) on an index card and keep it in your wallet for handy reference.

Buy an adaptor for overseas travel. Once upon a time there was an unwitting pilgrim who hopped out of the hotel shower, pulled out the hair dryer, looked at the wall outlet and said “Huh?” Most department or electronic stores will sell adaptor kits that tell you which plug to use for which country, or you can buy individual ones online. For detailed info about adaptors, visit www.pcworld.com/howto/article/0,aid,103293,00.asp and http://kropla.com/electric.htm.

FOR THE AIRPORT
Do a trial run. The big board with all the letters, numbers, and arrows on it will look less like a cruel joke the second time around. If you’re too far from the airport to do this, find out as much as you can from its help line or Web site.

Keep yourself entertained. Some airports rent out portable DVD players and movies to help you pass the hours. Save "Alive" for another time.

For everyone’s safety, turn off electronic devices when told. Listening via cell phone to the tale of Aunt Tilda’s kidney operation may be gripping, but it can wait.

Keep valuables with you. “Honey, let’s put the Tiffany necklace in the checked baggage.” Honey, let’s not.

Keep the essentials handy. Consider investing in a passport and ticket holder that goes around your neck. This will save you the time and hassle of fishing in a purse or luggage bag.

Know where you’re going. Instead of lugging around a copy of In Flight, print out maps from airport Web sites.

Spend wisely. Don’t buy drinks and meals on board, but do spring for a rolling cart. By the time you reach terminal X, this cart will be your new best friend.

Oh, and one more thing: Leave gifts unwrapped.



To reduce your risk while traveling:
Carry only what you need. Leave checkbooks, extra credit cards, social security cards, and other unnecessary materials at home (but in a secure place). Carry any important materials with you at all times.

Take the right bag. A pouch worn under your clothes or a waist pouch generally is more secure than a pocketbook or backpack. If you must use a purse, strap it crosswise over your body. Do not leave bags unattended or hang them on restroom hooks.

Protect your valuables. Travel without them when possible; otherwise, use a hotel safe.

Hold your mail and put the house lights on a timer. A full mailbox, pile of newspapers, and dark windows are telltale signs that you’re away.

Managing Editor Julie Rattey

Julie Rattey is a Boston-based writer and editor. She is the author of If I Grew Up in Nazareth, available from 23rdPublications.com.