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Travel can be intimidating, but like most things, the more you do it, the more you develop the systems and sense to make it go as smoothly as possible and the sense of humor to appreciate it when your luggage spends two weeks trying to catch up to you. Of course, some things are never humorous and should be avoided at all costs – yellow fever, malaria, and a dearth of duct tape are easily preventable, but can be catastrophic if not taken seriously. Here are a few tips and resources to help you prepare for your next adventure.

Traveling Light

Traveling without check-in luggage means bypassing bag drop lines, getting to customs quicker, and getting to sleep a little later on early departure mornings. At this point, unless I’m traveling with a fully loaded camera bag that swallows my carryon allotment, there is no reason for me to check anything in, even on cold weather trips.

The simplest tip for traveling lighter is to take half of what you think you need. It may take a bit to convince yourself that you really don’t need eight pairs of pants and four pairs of shoes for a 10-day trip, not to mention an extra sets of gloves, two hats, and 12 pairs of socks, but you don’t.

For a trip of 10 days or more to a mild weather destination I generally take three tops and three bottoms in a complementary color palette to make nine different outfits — more than enough for most trips of any duration. I also travel with a small bottle of Wilderness Wash to wash my clothes if necessary. Travel-size detergents are available, but I like that I can also use Wilderness Wash to wash just about anything, including myself.

Compression bags (the kind with the one-way valves) are the greatest thing since sliced bread and can be helpful in simplifying the jigsaw puzzle that is packing. The key, however, is selecting a sturdy carryon-size bag for your belongings that  maximizes volume and is also easy and comfortable to carry. Roller suitcases are great and decrease the load on your shoulders when you’re running through the airport to catch a connection, but I prefer a backpack.

The Eagle Creek Load Hauler Travel Pack is my current bag of choice. It is on the pricier side, but I can consistently fit what I need inside without compression bags and still have room if I decide to buy something while traveling. It converts from a duffel bag to a backpack that is surprisingly comfortable and, to date, I have had no problems carrying it onto a plane. However, it could quickly cross into check-in territory if expanded or overstuffed.

Vaccinations and Prophylactics

Find a travel doctor or travel medicine clinic. A good travel doctor will be able to pinpoint exactly what vaccinations you must have before visiting a destination and will help you determine if there are others that might be a good idea. Cost can be a factor and many travel doctors do not take insurance. Discuss the prices of vaccines with your doctor. In addition, certain vaccines must be administered in a series over several months, so schedule your appointment well in advance and keep routine vaccinations up to date. These include:

  • MMR (measles, mumps, rubella)
  • Tetanus
  • Polio
  • Hepatitis A

If you are visiting a country where yellow fever is present, talk to your doctor about the yellow fever vaccine and carry your yellow card (a record of your vaccination) with you. Out of convenience, I keep my passport and yellow card together at all times.

There is a reason that the international community has made malaria prevention and treatment a priority and if you are currently reading this, chances are you live in a non-endemic area and therefore do not have immunity. At best, acquiring malaria will make you feel miserable for a while. At worst, it could lead to organ failure and kill you. Malaria mortality rates have declined significantly in the last decade and incidence rates are also declining, but it still occurs and travelers are particularly vulnerable. Not getting malaria is preferable to, you know, not dying from it, so take the prophylactic pills and use the bug spray.

Speaking of bug spray, science has shown DEET to be effective and safe if used properly. Citronella and other all-natural solutions have not fared as well in comparison. I always choose a DEET-based mosquito repellent, but am careful not to over-apply. Treating clothes with permethrin before departure can also be helpful. Both bug spray and permethrin can be purchased at your local sporting goods store.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides comprehensive and updated information for your destination. It’s a great resource. Visit http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/destinations/list and scroll down for a list of countries.

Passport Health Clinics are travel medicine clinics located in over 40 states throughout the U.S., as well as in Canada and in Mexico. I’ve used locations in California and Texas and have been happy with both. www.passporthealthusa.com

Medicine and First Aid

I absolutely loathe going to the doctor at home (sorry, Dad), so why on Earth would I ever want to visit one when I am traveling? That is the reasoning behind my travel medical kit. Admittedly, it’s a little ridiculous. That is the disadvantage of being the daughter of a doctor. The advantage, however, is that I am generally equipped to treat everything from a mild case of gastroenteritis to an outbreak of bubonic plague.

You don’t have to be quite so well prepared, but it helps to have a basic kit that allows you to treat a variety of ailments and illnesses. Talk to your travel doctor. He or she will help you determine what you need based on the specifics of your trip and can talk about when it is appropriate to take certain medications.

These are my general must haves:

  • Basic supplies to treat any cut that doesn’t require stitches
  • Moleskin – blisters are stupid. They are one of travel’s greatest annoyances and I’d rather prevent them than deal with them.
  • 1-2 Z packs depending on the length of a trip.
  • Keflex
  • Tylenol
  • Imodium – Generally, I only use this if I’m having stomach trouble on a travel day when I won’t have easy access to a bathroom. Otherwise, I prefer to let whatever is upsetting my stomach run its course.
  • Oral rehydration salts
  • Water purification tablets
  • Duct tape – It usually gets shoved somewhere in my bag rather than in my actual first aid kit, but I’ll include it here. Don’t knock it. I once taped up my broken thumb for several weeks before I could get to a doctor. With duct tape, anything is possible.

A quick note: Consider antibiotics your superpower. With great power comes great responsibility. The overuse of antibiotics is problematic on both a micro and macro level. I consider my Z pack and Keflex to be last resorts and I cannot remember the last time I used either while traveling. In other words, suck it up.

Insurance

There are many companies that provide travel insurance. If you travel frequently, you might want to consider a yearly plan, but for one-off vacations and adventures, a single-trip plan should be sufficient.

Travel insurance can significantly diminish the financial risks of traveling by partially or completely offsetting the costs of flight cancelations, lost luggage, illness that prevents travel, medical treatment in foreign countries, emergency evacuation, and other events specified in your individual policy.

Companies such as Travel Guard, American Express, and Nationwide offer a variety of insurance plans for individual trips and annual coverage.

Money

If the first rule of packing is to take half of the clothes you think you need, the second is to take twice the amount of money. Talk to your bank and see if they can help you obtain the proper currency before you leave home. It will be relatively easy for certain currencies and more difficult for others, so give your bank plenty of notice. You will probably get a better exchange rate from your bank than you will on the ground in your destination and you can avoid the “My flight just landed in Lithuania at 3:00 AM, the currency exchange is closed, and I have to pay a cab driver to get me to my hotel” problem. Of course, by avoiding the problem, you forgo the story, but sometimes that’s okay.

Visas and Passports

Check the visa requirements for each of your destinations. If you are traveling under a U.S. or U.K. passport, consider yourself lucky: You have one of the two most powerful passports in the world. For many countries you do not need to obtain a visa prior to arrival, but don’t take that for granted.

U.S. citizens can check entry requirements by destination through the website of the State Department. Although I have yet to run into a discrepancy, I usually follow up by searching for information provided directly by my destination country.

Should you lose your passport, it is helpful to have a copy of it when going to a United States embassy for assistance.

  • Make several copies of the identification page and keep them with you, but separate from your actual passport and not in your checked luggage.
  • Leave a copy with someone at home who will be easy to reach. At various times, I’ve left a copy with everyone from my parents to my apartment manager.
  • Take a picture on your phone of the ID page of your passport.

As far in advance of your travel as possible, double check that your passport is valid for at least six months beyond the end of your trip and that you have plenty of blank visa pages.

Languages

Don’t let a language barrier keep you from visiting a country. Yes, there may be some momentarily embarrassing pantomiming when you forget the word for bathroom, but you’ll laugh about it later.

Learning a few key words and phrases can go a long way. In all of my travels, I have found it easiest to find an English speaker when I try to speak the local language of my destination. People appreciate the effort and if there is someone who can help bridge the language barrier, they often step up after briefly listening to me butcher their language. The more you know, the better, but at an absolute minimum learn to say the following:

  • Hello and goodbye
  • Please
  • Thank you
  • Where is ________?
  • How much does/will it cost?
  • Can you help me? (Throw in a please if you can) This might be the most important thing you learn to say. No matter where you are in the world, most people will not refuse a direct request for help.

Living Language provides free downloadable pocket phrase guides for travelers in several major languages. http://www.livinglanguage.com/products/additional#phrase-guide

If you have a severe food allergy, make a food allergy card to take with you. The card should include the substances to which you are allergic and should clearly communicate the severity of your allergy. You can also buy food allergy cards in various languages from several different providers, but if you know someone who speaks the language you need and you trust them with this important translation, save yourself a few dollars.