Vacation time! Your flights are booked and you’re ready to go. You’ve invested a lot of time and money into your trip, and you want to make it amazing. Check out the following tips to avoid six common travel mistakes and make the most of your vacation.
1) Don’t let your passport expire or wait too long to get your passport.
Be aware of passport restrictions! Requirements vary from country to country, so make sure to check the details for your destination country in advance.
- Even if your passport hasn’t expired yet, many countries require that your passport must be valid for at least three or six months from the time you enter the country, regardless of how long you plan to stay. Before you travel, check the expiration date on your passport and make sure that it meets the requirements of the country you’re visiting.
- Don’t assume your child’s passport is still valid just because yours is. While adult passports are valid for 10 years, passports for children under 16 are only valid for 5 years. Also, if you are taking your children overseas without the other parent, you may need to provide signed and notarized proof that you have the other parent’s permission to take the children out of the country.
- Make sure that you have blank pages left in your passport. This is a requirement for entry into some countries. If you are lucky enough to have a full passport, you can order additional pages for your existing passport.
- If you apply for a new passport or request a renewal for a passport, make sure to do it well ahead of time. Routine processing time for a passport is 4-6 weeks. However, you should plan as far in advance as possible. I had a passport crisis when I applied for an updated passport after I got married and changed my last name. I filled out one of the forms incorrectly and put my maiden and married names in the wrong boxes. (Hey, it was a confusing form! What can I say?) The passport agency returned my application two weeks before my belated honeymoon trip to Costa Rica — and kept my old passport with my maiden name. So, with less than two weeks until my honeymoon, I didn’t have an old passport or a new passport. Getting it fixed turned into a small nightmare. Fortunately, I live close to a passport office and was able to make an appointment and have it issued there, but not without taking a day off of work to visit the passport office (twice!), paying hefty fees for an expedited passport, and almost bursting into tears during my second trip to the passport office on the day before I was supposed to leave. (Also, be aware that there are only 28 of these types of offices in the United States, so don’t count on there being one close to you. Plan ahead!)
2) Don’t take Ambien unless you have eight hours to devote to sleep.
Some people like to take some sort of a sleeping aid on long flights. If this sounds like a good idea to you, make sure that you have enough time to dedicate to sleep. Most sleep aids, such as Ambien, recommend that you have at least eight hours to dedicate to sleep after taking them. Anything less may result in grogginess and even memory loss until the medicine wears off. My husband (who was still my boyfriend at the time) took Ambien on our first international flight, going from New York to Madrid. However, he only ended up with about five hours to sleep instead of eight. As a result, he was completely out of it in the Madrid airport and on our connecting flight to Barcelona, and he has almost no memory of going through immigration or customs in Spain. He was also very grouchy and argumentative until it wore off — just what you want in a travel partner! I didn’t realize what the problem was until later, so at the time I was just angry and refused to sit next to him in the taxi from the airport to the place we were staying. Fortunately, it did wear off and the rest of our trip was amazing (including a marriage proposal!). But he doesn’t take Ambien anymore.
When you calculate how much time you have to sleep, remember that there will be time at the beginning of the flight when you may not sleep, and the flight attendants often start to wake people up an hour or two before landing for another meal and to acclimate them to a local time schedule. So, just because your flight is eight hours long, that doesn’t mean that you have eight hours to sleep.
And, of course, don’t take anything on the plane if you haven’t tried it before. If you’re going to have an allergic reaction or some other problem with it, the place to find that out is not 30,000 feet over the ocean.
3) Don’t forget to wear sunscreen.
This is one case where I really, really need to learn to take my own advice. Having been the foolish recipient of several vacation sunburns, I can attest to the importance of sunscreen. When I was in the Corcovado area of Costa Rica, I didn’t apply sunscreen often enough when we were out hiking and on our 45-minute boat trips, and I ended up with a sunburn so bad that I turned bright red, my skin puffed up, and I felt like I was cooking if sunlight even touched my skin directly. It was so bad that we ended up cutting that portion of trip short and came back to San Jose two days early.
Sunscreen is especially important if you are near the water, on a boat, at high altitudes, and/or the closer you get to the equator. Water reflects sunlight toward you. At higher altitudes, the air is thinner and therefore provides less protection from the sun. And the closer you are to the equator, the more direct the sun’s rays are. All of those mean that you are more likely to sunburn and to do so more quickly than you would otherwise. Reapply sunscreen every few hours, and make sure to reapply immediately after you get out of the water if you’re swimming.
4) Don’t ignore suggestions about using insect repellant.
If you’re in an area that has a lot of insects, make sure to use some sort of insect repellant. You can use a store-bought insect repellant, or you can use something more natural. For small insects, such as no-see-ums, you make be able to use a coconut or lemon oil mixture. Ask the people in the area what they use. They’ll help you out. Apply it liberally and often. I went to an island in the Bocas del Toro, Panama earlier this year, and I was warned there were a lot of “chitras” (also known as no-see-ums, sand flies, sand fleas, etc.) in that particular area, but I didn’t really make insect repellant a priority. Worst mistake of the trip, by far. (Yes, that’s me in the photo.) My legs were covered in bites from my knees down and all over my upper arms. The bites didn’t start to itch for two days, so I didn’t realize how bad it was until it was too late. They itched for over two weeks, and there was very little that relieved it. And the spots didn’t completely clear up for over two months.
Not only are insect bites uncomfortable, but they can cause illness and even death. Malaria, Lyme disease, dengue fever, and myriad other illnesses are spread by insects, so be diligent about protecting yourself.
5) Don’t put anything really important or irreplaceable in your checked luggage.
If you have something that is super-important, expensive, or fragile, don’t put it in your checked luggage when you travel. This includes things like your passport, ID, credit cards, and medication. It also includes your electronics, such as your phone, laptop, and camera, all of which are fragile and full of important (and possibly irreplaceable) information. Your checked luggage will almost always make it back to you without incident, but use common sense, because luggage does get lost, damaged, and stolen occasionally. If you can’t live without something for a few days or would be completely devastated if it was lost or broken, don’t put it in your checked luggage.
6) Don’t forget your earplugs.
At some point in your travels, you will be really, really grateful for earplugs. Cheap little foam ones will do just fine, and they take up almost zero room in your toiletry bag. Earplugs are great for light sleepers, but they can also be a godsend in other situations, such as if you are staying in a dorm room in a hostel, in a noisy city, or staying in a party area such as a resort. My husband is a light sleeper and uses them whenever we travel. I didn’t properly appreciate earplugs until I spent an almost sleepless night sharing a hotel room with my mother, who snored all.night.long. Earplugs can make all the difference in getting a good night’s sleep. And a well-rested traveler is a happy traveler!
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