I meet a lot of people who say they’d like to travel as I do, but think they couldn’t manage it, couldn’t plan it, couldn’t do it alone or independently. But it’s not so hard! Yes, travel takes a lot of planning, very time-consuming planning at that, but now that there’s so much information online, it’s much easier than it was thirty years ago (and more). I’ve always planned my own trips since a couple of cheap package tours with friends in the 1980s (Venezuela, Mexico).
So, for those who are starting DIY travel planning, I want to share some basic travel tips.
When you’re booking your flights, always check the official airport site for official airport transportation information. What sorts of taxi services are there, are they of just one kind or are there different categories? Fixed airport prices or metered? What public transportation exists? Are there shared shuttle services like our old SuperShuttle or BlueVan services? After that, you can do a web search for transportation services if you’re considering something other than public transportation.
In the US, we’ve been used to no public transportation to airports, but to the existence of SuperShuttle shared rides, and in some cities, licensed airport bus services from central city locations. After the Covid lockdown, some of those bus services have disappeared – like in NYC, where Carey is a thing of the past. And in some cities there are no longer shared shuttles: I find none for STL and found none for IAH. We drive ourselves and pay airport (or nearby motel) parking, get rides from friends, take taxis or look for Uber/Lyft/Bolt and other taxi alternatives.
In Europe, it’s more common to find train service either directly to an airport, or to a nearby station where you’ll transfer to a shuttle bus for a few minutes’ ride to the terminals. You may also find commercial bus services and very cheap public bus routes. Perhaps it’s because there are these economical alternatives that airport taxis, generally metered, are so pricey. The official airport site should give you all the links you need to find the trains and buses.
In Cancun, I’ve been surprised at how many people didn’t check for airport transportation before arriving, counted on airport taxis, and paid prices they never anticipated. Taxis have to have a special, expensive, airport license, to serve arriving passengers, and they charge exorbitant rates, $60-70-even $100 are prices I’ve heard. Uber and other ride services have struggled to operate in the region, and they won’t be an option at the airport. But there are many tour and transportation companies that offer very reasonable services: US$10-12 or at most $15 will get you a shared van ride to downtown Cancun, the Zona Hotelera, or even Puerto Morelos. (I’ve booked many times with Best Day, and once with Viator, and a few times with others I can’t even remember!) I can’t promise prices to remain the same, but expect $25 to get you a private ride. The alternative is a cheap ADO (official regional transportation company) bus to downtown Cancun and then either a taxi (overpriced at the bus station’s taxi stand, as they are at every taxi stand) or another bus. ADO also has buses to Playa del Carmen – with a stop at Puerto Morelos – but you need to see if they are running from the airport or if you must go to downtown Cancun first. Things change. It used to be that you went straight to the bus and paid the fare to the dispatcher there, but now you must buy your ticket first from a little office on the parking plaza just outside the terminal. Note, ADO is also the bus you take from Cancun to Tulum. There are minivan alternatives, found next to the ADO station; not the same safety level (regarding the driving and the condition of the vehicle), but cheap and always available.
Check online reviews – and the reviewers
Take time to read a number of reviews – but look at how many reviews the writer has posted! If someone has written only the one review you’re reading, or perhaps just two or three, it’s a good chance that’s some friend of the business plugging it as a favor. Of course every business has to get a start, but know you’re taking your chances when you go with something that has few to no reviews, whether on Google maps, TripAdvisor or booking sites.
Make sure you’re looking at an authoritative site. How do you know? The URL will tell you, but you need to know how they work.
A url starts with https:// – almost always, now, but you may find sites with no security certificate, so no S, just http:// – which is just the protocol indication – telling a requester (your browser) how to interpret the data stream it receives.
At the end, you have the type of domain: used to be just dot com, net, edu, org, but now there are many …. and you may have a two-letter country code: for instance, in the UK, you might have a dot com, but you might have a dot co dot uk. In any case, the final unit or final two units will consist of only two, three or four letters.
It’s the middle part you need to examine. Do you have www dot then the company name and that’s all, before the endings mentioned in the previous paragraph here? Or no www, just one section with the company name? Good! Go there!
But, if you have, say a hotel name, then something else, then the domain type – you might think that the hotel name in the URL makes it an authentic site – and you can be fooled. The real domain – that is, registered website – is the name just before the type and/or country ending. Here’s an example. Say you want to know about O! The Urban Oasis in Cancun, see how its rates compare to what booking.com or expedia.com or any other site is offering and verify its facilities and policies. You do a search and find https://ohcancuntheurbanoasis.reservationstays.com/
Looks like what you want? But no: this “reservationstays” website is not the owner of the hotel property. It’s just a company trying to snag tourists and divert business to their services. ANYTHING can be in the first section of a URL: it’s nothing more than a directory structure of a website, and the actual site name is there in the part just before the dot com.
The real thing? https://oasishoteles.com/
Whether or not there’s “www.” before the company name is immaterial. It used to be standard, it just stands for worldwide web, it denotes the directory structure as said before, and it’s no longer required, so many webmasters prefer to drop it (as I do).
I can’t believe how many money changers draw people in with their “No-fee currency exchange!” banners. Oh, please. Check the official rates – easy web search – and do the math. There is quite a fee built into the exchange rates offered, frequently ten percent, even twelve. It used to be that travelers often had no choice but to change a bit of cash at the airport, and accept that single provider’s terms. But things have changed enormously! So here, I have two points to make.
The best exchange rate you’ll get is by using a debit card at a bank ATM. Yes, usually there are ATM fees, although not always; the postal service’s bank may charge none, for instance. Don’t be impatient at the airport. I’ve made the mistake of thinking that the machines in the luggage area were going to be my only option, expecting nothing more to the airport after customs. Learned last year. Airports are now as much like shopping malls after customs as they are on your way to the gate when departing. And good bank ATMs have been available before the exit to the street.
Moreover, you may not need cash for a while (or ever?). Credit cards are now preferred over cash in many countries. For everything! In many cities in Europe, and in the UK, you can use a credit or debit card to pay bus and subway fares, so you don’t need to buy a ticket beforehand. Not true everywhere: yet. Search for public transportation in the city you’re headed for, and read about tickets. I’ve found taxis accept cards as often as not. Many stores no longer have a minimum purchase for using a card: in Carrefour, for example, you can pay for a bottle of water with a card. That won’t be true at many mom-and-pop stores, where the card fees are more of a concern than handling cash is. If you’re going somewhere where tipping is expected, you will want cash – but until you get some, a US dollar bill is likely fine. (Not coins!) Do your research on that point. If you’re in a country for just a couple of days, you may not need local currency at all.
What you should do when preparing for a trip of any length is to make sure of your credit and debit cards’ terms. Make sure you have cards with no foreign transaction fees. If all your cards have fees, see about changing one! It can be as simple as calling the card issuer and asking what other cards are available to you and what would be involved in changing. It’s usually quick and painless. As to your debit card, ideally you will have one from an issuer who will reimburse out-of-network ATM fees. Hmm, not likely from institutions such as Citibank, with offices all over that they prefer you to use. But brokerage houses can be very good about this: Schwab is quite well known for reimbursing ATM fees worldwide, and Fidelity is very good as well. See what your accounts offer, and look into it in good time so you can have the most useful cards in hand.
I have friends who just pay Verizon – or whichever provider they have – to use their usual service when abroad. That used to cost about $10 a day – ridiculous for a month – but I know that offers are more competitive now. So if you already have quite a comprehensive family plan, you may not care for anything else. I try to keep phone costs to a minimum, no plan, monthly prepaid service from alternative providers. I find buying local SIMs to be a cheap and generally satisfying way to make local calls and to get internet as I explore new neighborhoods. With the SIM, I’ll pay for a data and calling plan, say about US $20 for 20 GB, good for 3 or 4 weeks. Of course prices vary country-to-country, but anywhere from $5 to $20 is likely to get the service you need for up to a month – and after that, you can pay for a top-up at the level you want. SIMs are often available at airports, from representatives of national providers, and there’s no reason to avoid the airport vendors as they sell the same packages at the same prices you would find in town. Let the vendor install the sim card and set up your calling, texting and internet – they all do it, fast and free, so you won’t need to worry about it being properly configured. You can test it with a call while you’re there.
Do not fall for online buy-your-international-sim-in-advance offers. Unnecessary and overpriced. Even the new eSIMs will be best bought at your destination.
Things vary between countries, of course. I want to hang onto a French number, and it seems I only need to do a minimal top-up once in six months. On the other hand, Turkiye won’t let tourists use a number for more than 90 days, because the standard phone tax has not been paid on their mobiles. For a longer stay – you can pay the tax (not all that easy to do online, but someone will help you!) or you can buy a phone in Turkiye. In the UK, some shops will sell SIMs for 10 pounds, maybe 5, but others will give them away, so do not pay for one! Just find a shop that will let you take the card package, and will sell you the top-up you need to get started. Five or ten pounds will do it! You will have to handle the configuration yourself, but the instructions are in English, so no trick. I’ll just take a new SIM each visit to England and not worry about keeping a number.
In Europe, you should be able to use the same SIM everywhere, but the provider can charge different rates for calls initiated outside the home country, and may not give you mobile data at all. So I usually change SIMs.