Our plans for today were derailed, literally, by a massive rail strike in Germany. We got to the rail station a few minutes before our train was due to depart and saw an alarming amount of multi hour delays popping up on the boards. What the heck?
A nice civil engineer who was also hoping to travel explained. “It’s the strike” she said. “It will end at 9 am but the trains, especially the international ones will be all snarled up till tomorrow.” She thought our local train to Cologne (Köln) might run somewhat on schedule so we waited awhile. But soon it became clear that we weren’t going anywhere today. It also explained why last night’s train was stuffed to overflowing. Germans knew the strike was likely, and were rushing to their destinations early.
It could possibly also explained the preponderance of extremely lackadaisical conductors on that train. They probably weren’t interested in conducting but merely being sure to get home before the strike started. It was only a four hour strike but affected such key personnel that the railways were totally immobilized.
So, we went to pull Euros from the ATM, and it didn’t work either. It had been locked when we used it the night before. Since it was Sunday in the states, we couldn’t call to straighten it out till the next day. I had U.S. dollars in cash, so we went to the bank. No account, no money exchange. So we asked the hotel if they exchanged money. No, but she arranged to go with us to her bank which would do the exchange through her account. We opted to try one more thing before making her leave her post to help us. We used another ATM card and withdrew enough Euros for the rest of the trip as we hadn’t called this bank to let them know we were traveling so it would probably be locked after one use.
So we aren’t going to go hungry and it’s another rainy day in Koblenz. So we had a nice hot lunch with beer and wandered around the Christmas market.
Sometimes, our travel “disasters” are really memorable, at least when they’re over. What are yours?
Boston has a wonderful metro system so if you’re heading to downtown from the airport, and want to save big bucks, take the metro. There are shuttles for the blue line (shuttle number 22), the red line, and the silver line. The red line shuttle was free. I suspect the others are too. Although the #22 shuttle was only labeled on the outside as the bus for other terminals and rental cars, it definitely stopped at the airport metro station–before going to the rental car sites. At the metro, it cost us a whole $5.50 for two of us to get within a couple of blocks of our hotel.
One caveat. If you buy 2 tickets together at the machine, it’ll spit out a receipt and one pass. Both people need to use the single pass to go through the turnstile. The receipt is only for your records.
At your subway stop, let Google maps take over.
If you can’t walk a few blocks or have heavy luggage, Lyft is another affordable option. Reddit users claim it’s much more affordable than taxis.
But if you are able to walk a few blocks, the Boston metro can get you anyplace you might want to go in Boston, affordably and quickly.
By the way, Boston, including our hotel, is all dressed up for the holidays. And the Omni Parker House is the birthplace of Boston Cream Pie and Parker House rolls. Want to try them?
By the way, if you’re planning an Omni hotel stay, sign up for Omni select so you don’t get charged a big (about $10/day) internet fee.
The Google project fi network makes finding maps for foreign locations, subway train schedules, and other minutia of travel a breeze. Because the network works in 170 countries without additional fees, a happy traveler doesn’t need to search out Wi-Fi hot spots, buy sim cards, or rent a mobile phone to stay connected.
Seriously, if you’re a frequent international traveler, switching to the go network may be the smartest move you could make. Going to Japan and don’t speak Japanese? Google translate and google navigate to the rescue.
While most countries are open to Google, China is the notable exception. Also, a few countries have restricted access to some Google services (YouTube, Gmail, Blogger, Maps). Those countries include: Crimea, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Syria. In those rare cases, you’ll want to use these travel tips.
Also, although the excellent Google pixl phones are the best known equipment that can be used on the project fi network, there are a host of other unlocked phones that work. And right now, Google is offering deals on it’s latest pixl models.
The project fi pricing scheme is great for either heavy data users like me or lighter users like my husband. Plus, the coverage is great. Ray almost always has better coverage with project fi than my t-mobile phone, and t-mobile has good coverage.
So are you ready to make the switch? As we’re anticipating more foreign travel, I’m making the changeover.
After years of traveling to destinations where drinking tap water was unsafe, it was a luxury to be in Japan where the tap water is safe to drink, use to brush your teeth, and wash your fruits and vegetables. Even the water in park fountains was considered safe to drink. Amazing!
Now that I’m heading to Germany, I was pleased to see that many European destinations also have safe tap water for tourists. Since a few still don’t, check this infographic to be sure.
Surprisingly, even though German water is safe for residents and tourists alike, most Germans drink bottled water. But it is nice to not worry when I brush my teeth that I’ll need the Imodium in my emergency travel pharmacy.
As more countries improve their water infrastructure, bottled water may eventually become a travel story from history. But until then, always check, as many tourist destinations like China, Mexico, Morocco, and Thailand, still recommend bottled water for tourists. And remember. If tap water is unsafe, use bottled water to brush your teeth, don’t eat salads or street food, and avoid fruits that can’t be peeled.
One of the more challenging aspects of travel is finding appropriate souvenirs for all the friends, family, pets, friends of family, and others back home. On my most recent trip to Japan, I spent over $100 just on postcards alone. Granted, Japanese postcards are some of the most beautiful cards on the planet, but some of my friends wanted more. What’s a budget constrained traveler to do?
One option is to buy a pack of something and break it up into smaller gifts. In this case, I found sets of Japanese magnets, and separated them into little packages wrapped in origami paper containing one magnet each. After all, everyone’s fridge is covered in magnets. Your friend probably doesn’t need 10 more, but one is a nice memento.
This divide and conquer tactic works with lots of things–decorative chopsticks often come in sets of 10, local candies often come in sets of bars, and so on. One souvenir we didn’t get but wished we had was Japanese Kit Kat bars. They come in flavors unique to Japan: green tea, wasabi, chocolate banana, grape, sweet corn and more. If you’re still in Japan, Don Quijote, a super discount store probably has the most impressive selection of Japanese Kit Kats as well as lots of other fun souvenir ideas. (Printed dish towels are another favorite item for some of my more culinary friends. )If you’re back in the states and leaving a Japanese Kit Kat, try Amazon, Ebay, or one of the many Japanese candy subscription boxes available.
If you’re traveling somewhere where cute postcards are few and far between, try Touchnote, an app that allows you to turn your smartphone pics into postcards, greeting cards, and other cool stuff.
I used this cute picture below for several postcards. The app let me write a message, choosing a font for my message. I then addressed the postcards and Touchnote let me know when the had been mailed.
The app is most affordable if you buy a bunch of credits so you can send 20 or more postcards. Each can be a different picture and message or you can mass produce them if you have a bad case of jet lag. Another option is to get their professional membership which gives you one credit per month and lets you even customise the stamp.
So what is your favorite souvenir to give or receive? Have you ever received a totally off the wall souvenir. Or had a strange reaction to a souvenir?
For example. Our daughter taught English in China. She brought me back the Mao Zedong picture that most residents there hung on their rear view mirror. So I hung it on mine. Several weeks later, a lady races after me in a parking lot, pounding on my car hood for me to stop. “How dare you display that in your car. He’s a communist.” True. And a dead communist at that. But I had it in my car because it was a gift from my daughter, and every time I looked at it, I thought of her bravely conquering challenges in a land so foreign that our demons were their heroes.
“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends” – Maya Angelougav
When working in Cleveland during a summer break from college, I purchased milk and sundries from a nearby Lawson’s convenience store. Lawson stores are no longer found in the continental US, but to my surprise, they abound in Japan. Nowadays, 7-Eleven stores in the US are owned by a Japanese company, and, along with Family Mart, compete with Lawsons.
All told, there are more than 50,000 convenience stores in Japan. And they are convenient, abounding on commercial streets and in railroad stations and offering an ever changing array of snacks, sandwiches, ice cream, fruit and soda beverages, cigarettes, cold beer, candy, and international ATMs. Many ATMs throughout Japan won’t work with foreign ATM cards. Fortunately, this is an area where Japanese 7-11 stores shine. Google maps or a 7-11 finder app can help you find the 7-11 nearest you.
While ATMs at Family Mart, Lawson, and others may not support international cards, they offer many of the same useful services for foreigners as 7-11 stores including: currency exchange, free Wi-Fi, and ability to use credit cards for purchases.
I love to travel but I also get tired and cranky about the details from time to time. So these are some tips and apps that really help.
Often on foreign soil
If you do a lot of international travel, the Global entry program is definitely worth the money. For $100 for 5 years, a bit of paperwork, and a personal interview, you can breeze through US customs, and simplify security at lots of airports. You also have the option of expanding your pass. U.S. Citizens enrolled in Global Entry may use the Smartgate system when entering Australia without registration. With a little more work, U.S. Citizens may apply for the Dutch FLUX program, the Korean SES program, Panama’s Global Pass or the Mexican Viajero Confiable program for expedited entry into those countries. Additional fees and enrollment interviews will apply.
Usually a domestic traveler
Run, don’t walk, to get TSA Precheck certification. For just $85 for 5 years, you will minimize your security line hassles and time. You will have to go to a local TSA office for fingerprinting, but if you fly even 1 or 2 times a year, it’s worth it for the much shorter and simpler TSA Pre lines. You whiz through security without taking off your shoes, removing electronics or liquids bags from suitcases. It’s heaven. I’m notoriously cheap and this is a service I will continue to renew for eternity.
One caveat. If you fly a lot, you may occasionally randomly be selected to go through regular security. You’ll know, as your boarding pass won’t say TSA Pre. It will remind you of why you want to stay in this program. Also, some airlines don’t participate in the program. I flew American Airlines/Japan airlines in a code share to and from Japan. Since American was a TSA partner, I had Precheck for my American Airlines flight to Tokyo but did not have it for my return flights on a Japan Airlines plane. This was annoying, as Dallas/Fort Worth airport makes you go through security again after exiting customs to take your domestic flight. No TSA Pre might mean you don’t make your connection. Fortunately, we had plenty of time but we had to go through an extensive check of the sake we had purchased at duty free.
Not quite enough for Global Entry
If you don’t travel enough internationally to justify applying for Global Entry, you’ll definitely want yo download the Mobile Passport app. It will whiz you through US customs faster than you thought possible. I still think you should just commit to traveling abroad more, and get Global Entry, but this is a good stopgap.
As you probably already know, most US carriers charge an arm, a leg, and more for coverage in most foreign countries. There are several options to bypass that. 1) if your card uses a SIM card, you can buy a prepaid SIM card for your destination 2) rent or buy a cheap burner phone with data for your destination (downside: your information won’t be on the new phone unless you use Google and log in on the new device) or 3) my personal favorite – rent a Wi-Fi to go option. In Japan, you could reserve a Pocket Wi-Fi to be picked up at your Japanese arrival airport and returned as you departed. The fees were reasonable and it gave you great coverage in rural areas. Combined with leaving your regular phone on airport mode but turning on free Wi-Fi in hotels, metros, etc. it was a reasonable solution. Use Wi-Fi calling for phone calls and you’re all set.
Maps and more
When it’s available and not in beta, citymapper is my favorite app for getting around big cities. Here are the covered cities, but they are always adding more. It does a superlative job of combining all forms of travel: bus, train, subway, on foot, taxi, rental bike, and ferry.
Usually, I carry a really good camera (a big bulky canon with several lenses.) This trip had such tight packing requirements that I opted to just use my smartphone (an LG G6 with really excellent camera optics.) I also opened up this blog, so I could share this adventure with friends and family who want to go to Japan but cant go right now. The smartphone was ideal for blogging on the way, and I was thrilled with the surprisingly good photos and videos it created.
When I want to play with the photos before posting, the Pixlr app is easy to use and has amazing options. Honestly, I didn’t use it as often as I should because we were always on the go and somewhat sleep deprived.
Another app, PicsArt, gives the option of creating collages with your photos. The few times I used this option, I really liked it.
Filmora Go was my video editing app of choice. And if you are starting a blog, WordPress is the blogger’s tool of choice for good reasons.
I hope these tips help. The other key tips will be covered in future posts. Always travel light, and take a mini pharmacy along especially for countries with unusual alphabets (Greece, China, Japan, Morocco, etc.) But more on that later. For now, Bon Voyage!
Ray and I aren’t fond of checking luggage so we tend to travel light. One way we manage, is travel vests. His is a very professional jacket with zip off sleeves fromScottevest. com. While it’s not the current model, it has lots of great design features and has held up well for years.
Mine is a photographer’s or fisherman’s vest from someplace like REI, Cabelas, etc. It is a more affordable if slightly less stylish option that has lasted twenty years or so of multi-use (travel and photography). It is finally starting to show it’s wear. Besides, I’m not as thin as I was when I bought it. So I’ll probably invest in a new vest soon.
But either option will make your packing easier. It doesn’t count as a bag, but lets you slip a lot of critical items close to your body for that long flight (prescriptions, e-readers, earpods, and so on.)