Thursday, October 27, 2016

(Foreign) Travel Best Practices

Below, I share a few observations and insights about the do's and don'ts of travelling, particularly travelling to other countries.

I start with a few disclaimers. One, I don't want to pass even a covert message that I am some kind of a professional globe-trotter who has hordes of knowledge about what works and what doesn't when you are travelling. Two, this post is not meant to be a compendium of travelling tips. These are a few of the observations very specific from my experience. Three, what I say below applies to people who are travelling for business or tourism; but may be not to those who are emigrating. Four, this is aligned to Indians travelling abroad, but may apply well to others.

Avoiding Goof-ups

One of the things which can mar a travel like nothing else are moments of anxiety. Delays, missed flights, lost luggage, passport, documents, money, getting stranded in an unknown/strange/dangerous place ... these are all best avoided. What can we do to avoid them.
Prepare/plan early. Preparing a foreign travel is very complex. Arranging funds, tickets, visa are the most important aspects of this preparation. Air tickets are much cheaper if purchased early. Finding out about the visa application process for the country of visit will help save last moment trepidations. It's always good to get in touch with someone in the circle who has either travelled or has stayed in the concerned country. Several finer details like the best way to travel inland, best hotels, places to visit etc. are best got from a person who has gone through the whole thing, rather than just browsing the Internet. Early bookings save money, but come with committing to a plan. Beyond a point, too fine grained a plan could backfire in several ways. First, it definitely rules out certain possibilities. Second, it may suffer over-fitting problem, in the sense that too much detailing makes it brittle. Such over-fitted plans may crumble if one of the components of it fails. As an example, there was a delay in our Bangalore-Heathrow flight. My colleagues had booked their onward train tickets for a train leaving within 3 hours of the original landing time of the flight. Obviously, they missed their train. In the process, they lost several hundred pounds.

Hence, it's more a matter of trade-off. Save money and last minute anxiety by planning early. But keep it sufficiently flexible for the novelty and fault-tolerance aspect. To be precise, I would say, it would be a good idea to make all the major bookings (e.g. long haul flights, and multi-night hotel bookings) early, and leave out the finer details (e.g. how will I spend my weekend in XYZ?) to later research.
Be connected. While travelling to a new place, it's good to know someone who stays there. Have their contact details with yourself, and share yours with them. Let's also accept that travelling abroad is expensive, and if we are to book hotels for every night we stay there, it would drill a hole in our pockets. Staying for a night or two at a friend's place is not merely a trick to save money. It provides a much needed window to catch up. And yes, don't forget to ask them clearly about their convenience and willingness to host you. Try and not be a burden.
Have backup plans. Identifying components of a plan which can fail, and providing backup options, is also a part of good planning. For example, if a flight/train gets cancelled, and you get stranded in a city, it would be good if there's someone in the city who would be ready to give shelter for the night, or you have enough foreign currency with you to be able to rent a hotel room.
Single-process. In airports, railway stations, buses, etc. it's best to avoid haste. Getting hassled and hasty is a very effective preparation to drop something (e.g. money, passport, credit card), or forget something (hotel room key inside your hotel room). I typically go very slow, and take my time to satisfy myself that I am done with doing one thing, before proceeding to the next. For example, if I decide to take coffee at the airport, I sit and have it in peace, and then proceed to security checking. Similarly, at the ticket counters, ATMs etc., I handle my things in a completely single threaded manner: tickets, travel card, cash, luggage. Remembering the 5S principle (of 'a place for everything and everything in its place') is a great idea. Of course, this means that I slow things down, and have to make up for the time by starting earlier than others. This, to me, never seems like a bad idea. I also am conscious that this sometimes comes across as clumsy and irritates bystanders. I consciously avoid feeling agitated by annoyed stares from strangers in such situations.

Your Attitude

Meeting with foreigners outside one's own country is sometimes a source of anxiety. How should we behave with foreigners, particularly when we aren't in the safety of our own country whose methods and means are well-known to us? I have found the following very helpful.

Pride. Wear your cultural pride on your sleeves. We know of many problems in our country. There's no harm talking about them. But there's a thin line between being critical, and being downright disparaging. Being reasonably knowledgeable about one's own country and culture earns you respect. People seem to find India particularly interesting. So, it's nice to be able to help others with interesting bits of information. But there's no need to fake knowledge. On a related note, don't accept outright racist or discriminatory behaviour. But, don't raise hell if you merely suspect discrimination. Be forgiving to involuntary mistakes.

Curiosity and respect for other cultures. Equally important is not to put up a jingoistic face. Some of the most engaging exchanges with foreigners happen when they compare notes about their countries and cultures in a pleasant and scholarly manner. There should be a sense of equality and mutual respect in conversations between people from different geographies and cultures.

Things which always work. There are certain attitudes which always work (at least in my knowledge), regardless of culture and geography. A happy and smiling demeanour is way more effective and impressive than immaculate dressing and stylish mannerisms. Politeness, helpfulness, honesty are culture neutral attitudes which will always earn you respect and acceptance. If you are a guest to someone, appreciating their hospitality is a very right thing to do. Good work ethics like punctuality, keeping of appointments, concern for quality are always good in any professional setting.

Trying to fit in. Trying to blindly imitate someone's dressing style, mannerism and accent is useless and disgraceful. A decent, clean dress is good enough for almost any place. It doesn't make sense to be overly concerned about appropriate dressing beyond a point. Of course, if the climate demands a particular way of dressing, by all means, you should be flexible to change your dressing style. Also, reasonable degree of cleanliness and personal hygiene is important. Avoiding smelly clothes, leaving the bathroom clean after use, are more of little gestures of courtesy to people around you than anything. Similarly, faking accent is a useless ploy. Instead, if you are a good and articulate communicator, you are going to be miles ahead of anyone who breaks his head in sounding like an American or a British. In short, while we all are humans and are fundamentally similar, we should celebrate our little variations and try not to be apologetic about being different from others at a surface level.

Things to avoid

Certain things which are less of a concern in our (and in one's own) country may be more seriously taken elsewhere. It's good to be careful and conservative on such things. Avoid giving frank opinions on religion, sex and politics until an environment of trust has been developed. Don't take photos of strangers if possible. Never post the photos of people, particularly when seen in a family setting, on social networks, unless with express permission. Be careful in your exhibition of affection to people. In India, touching a person of opposite sex affectionately still raises eyebrows, but doing so with a child is acceptable in general. Elsewhere (where women are an empowered lot, and children are more vulnerable), the scenario seems quite the opposite. A shake of hands -- whether it's a person of the opposite sex, a child, or an elder -- to express any form of warmth is quite safe in most cases. Going anyway beyond this should be done after sufficient evidence of its acceptability.

Staying out of the way of dangerous/illegal behaviour, e.g. getting excessively drunk, driving without license or training, drugs, visits to prostitutes, trying to carry illegal/prohibited substances through the ports etc. is definitely a good suggestion.


In my opinion, the most fascinating aspect of any place are its people and their lives. Ask yourself the question: what's unique about the place? Prior reading and conversation with locals gives you a true idea, and helps you shape in your mind what it is about that place that you would really like to learn and experience: its art forms, food, history, geography? Merely standing in front of a monument and clicking a photo is one of stupidest ways of wasting your time and money. Sorry, my personal opinion. In my recent visit to UK, I deliberately avoided London, though I passed twice through it. London is a major hub, and I anticipate several occasions in future to visit it. Instead, I chose to get up and close with the British countryside, its town-life and its history and culture. I had drives and walks in the wild fields and hills. I walked miles on the pavements of York. I spent time in the living rooms of British people, both recent immigrants and long-term settlers. I couldn't be any happier with my decision.

In summary, I would say that while travelling it's a good idea to try and maximise experience and enjoyment, staying within safe limits. A visit to a new place, whether within the country or outside, should be a source of personal enrichment, rather than a tick on a map, and matter of show-off. And this happens through taking a genuine interest in the place and its people, rather than posing for photographs before famous places.

1 comment:

Sambaran said...

Nice post Sujit. Some of my personal learnings for domestic as well as international trips.
1. Try your best to travel without a checkin baggage. It eliminates the probability of chaos caused by misplaced baggage.
2. To achieve bullet#1 try dry-fit clothing as just two sets are sufficient for indefinite stay.
3. Make a checklist for packing. Edit the checklist after trip to mark and eliminate the unused stuff. Re-use the list for next trip. The packing process gets remarkably efficient.
4. There may not be a uniform checklist for all the different kind of travels. For me there are 5 distinct lists
a. Staying at friend/relative's place, travel by train.
b. Staying at friend/relative's place, travel by plane.
c. Staying at hotel, travel by train.
d. Staying at hotel, travel by plane.
e. Business trip.