Travel Time and Sanity Savers

View from airplane

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.

Phone solution

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.

For other places, like Japan, Google maps/navigator is a good bet. These tips will help you get more out of Google maps. And if you’re driving, you might check whether the Waze app has good coverage in your area. The social media input can be invaluable in a strange city.

Photos and social media

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.

Travel light

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!

Sneaky vest

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.)

Surprise Amemities

We were a bit surprised by the amenity mix in Japanese hotels. There was no hand lotion anywhere, but the hotels provided some things that our hotels don’t.

Typically, shampoo, conditioner, body wash, and foamy bath wash (for a total of four years bottles) came in big containers with pumps.

One hotel provided the little bottles we’re accustomed to in the states, but they were cute little glass bottles.

One hotel provided washing net balls. It’s hard to tell from this picture but the bathtub wall is about a goot higher than we’re used to.

Along with the fancy toilets came toothbrushes and toothpaste, plastic hairbrushes, shower caps, hair scrunchies, and razors.

So pack lotion and skip the rest!

Awesome amenities

One of the most appealing things about travel is noticing little details that are different from one country to the next. Bathrooms and hotel amenities fall into that category in Japan.

Most Americans and Europeans fear the hole in the floor toilets seen occasionally at restaurants and department stores, simply because we’re unsure of how to use them. But the Japanese also have some of the most high tech plumbing on the planet, as is shown by this toilet menu from our hotel.

Also at the airport, I went into the bathroom marked “women” and immediately panicked when I saw all the infograms of a male figure using the various types of toilets. No need to fear, they are just there to indicate the type of toilet inside each cubicle. And unlike our toilet stalls, Japanese cubicles do not–at least so far– have spaces where the door closes that one could look into. They are very discreet.

Other fun amenities from our hotel include a tea pot (instead of a coffee pot), an earthquake torch (flashlight), and hooks and hangers on the wall to minimize space use. And of course, slippers and free toothbrushes and hairbrushes. And for those who are wondering about my toothpaste tablet experiment (from Lush). You chew the tablets a little bit and then brush. They taste a bit like a minty, baking soda, charcoal mix. Not bad and less for the TSA bag.

My favorite amenity at this hotel is a pre charged, preloaded cell phone that you can use to get around town with. It was a joy when we went off by ourselves.

The robes were a nice touch too. Well off to bed again to see if a can get a little more sleep. I slept 6 hours at my first stretch so the jet lag hasn’t been awful.

One other surprising aspect of. Japanese bathrooms is that all the toilet paper is one-ply, without perforations. It works fine but somehow the Japanese are able to tear it off in a perfect line. Mine looks like my dog Owen has been chewing on it.

Some of the Japanese bathrooms have music playing so others don’t hear your process. Itoya’s bathroom had nature sounds music. It was lovely. And one held one’s hand up to a wall panel to flush. Really slick. The hand dryers actually work perfectly here, and the bathroom stall locks are an engineering marvel. They swing smoothly into place to lock the door securely.

Japan bound

Our airport parking lot, On Time Airport Parking at Gibson and Yale has a Ghostbusters car much like this one at the entrance. They also have a slew of beautiful vintage cars under covered parking. If you have extra time and love cool old cars, take a few minutes to wander around the lot.

Once at the airport, we managed to sleepwalk our way through the airport and get on the correct flight. Note to international fliers: American airlines now has you present your passport a second time when boarding. So keep your passport handy till you are in your seat in each flight.

At Dallas/Fort Worth, we got to walk through this cool castle to get to our gate. We had a quick turnaround, especially as we had to gate check our carryon bags, so we hopped on the sky train to get to our gate more quickly. I certainly didn’t want to miss my flight to Tokyo.

The airplane itself had fun high tech goodies, especially if you were in first class or business class, which unfortunately, I wasn’t. (They got super cool sleeping pods!) Still, there were some great features even at our economy level. I loved being able to plug in two devices at my seat. They also offered between seat chat messaging, which would be a fun way to distract the kids. And of course, they offered a ton of movies with free earpods. I always find the background noise of the jet makes the movie hard to hear at safe levels. If you like to watch movies, you might want to bring your own noise cancelling headphones for the best experience.

The food at lunch was pretty decent for an airline but not spectacular. It was an Americanized version of a Japanese main dish, some fun edamane treats and a churro cookie that bore no similarity to New Mexico churto. Later snacks were good enough and a welcome break from the monotony of sitting on a plane for hours on end (our two flights totalled 16 hours). They did serve free wine as a beverage choice, which while not recommended if trying to avoid jet lag, was quite tasty. A later salted caramel ice cream was another welcome break.

The view out the window was lovely but usually we were told to keep the shades down so a window seat wasn’t much of a plus on this flight. Ray and I had adjoining aisle seats, which felt less crowded, especially as we got lucky and each had an empty seat next to us.

 

 

Ray always loves the flight map and our seats had a personalized version with all sorts of cool options including a preview of the flight track. One really cool thing that I hadn’t encountered before was the “sunrise” lighting, which went from dark, to a dusk- light blue to pinks and then to brighter yellow and orange tones. It did make an easier transition than just going from dark to light.

We made it to Narita airport! Customs was a smooth, high tech process. The only glitches were caused by me filling out my form with a dark reddish purple ink. Only blue or black are permitted so I had to redo the form. They scan both index fingers for fingerprints and do a retinal scan. Both Ray and I took our fingers off the scanner when it went beep. Wrong! One must wait for the staff person to give you permission to remove your fingers.

Narita airport isn’t as crowded and overwhelming as I expected.

For my anime loving friends, there is a separate anime tourism business here.

Airline Survival Tips

aircraft airplane blue cargo
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Airplanes- how we love to hate them.  Tight spaces, miserable food in those rare instances when it’s served at all, and the fun of sharing space for hours with a load of strangers.   At times, serendipity places you by a fascinating person but other times you get the toddler kicking your seat, the arguing couple slinging insults, or someone who insists on discussing politics.

airplane silhouette on air during sunset
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While those are certainly nightmare situations, most of my airplane trips have been bearable at  least, and many more were delightful. It helps to reframe the situations. On my first flight to Greece, a bunch of folks at the back of the plane were literally having a party.  Needless to say, I couldn’t sleep so I wandered back to use the restroom and perhaps ask them to tone it down a bit. I encountered several Greek families heading home for a family wedding. They were brimming over with happiness.  Despite my abysmal, nonexistent Greek language skills, they pulled me into the family group and by the flight’s end I had invitations to several homes in Greece. (I didn’t go, mainly because I was traveling with my teenage son and our plans were already set.)  But despite a sleepless night, it was a memorable flight with memories that I wouldn’t trade for anything.

Airplane Survival Pack

Assuming you’re an adult traveling by yourself or with other adults, there are a few things you can pack that will make your flight easier.  Parents of small children will need a much larger emergency pack tailored to their children’s needs.

Earplugs.  I never travel without them.  They muffle all sorts of unpleasantness.

Tiger balm.  It can be used on the temples for headaches, under the nose for sinus congestion, and on complaining joints or muscles for pain relief.  And the jar is small enough for your tiny tsa bag.

black hat beside pair of black pointed toe pumps
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A lightly scented scarf or handkerchief.  You don’t want to give your seat mates headaches with a 90s style power perfume, but a light scent that you can bring near your nose if the stale airplane odors start to make you queasy can be a lifesaver.  Vanilla or lavender scents are especially soothing.

Eyeshade.  This is especially good for long flights when the lights are often on when you should be catching shut eye.

Melatonin.  For international multi- time zone flights, I take a pill at bedtime in the new zone.  Does it help? Maybe. But I’m up for trying everything to minimize jet lag.

Ebooks.  As an avid (and speed) reader, I love ebooks!  I used to have to buy 5 or 6 books at the airport to get through my flight and give them away as I left the plane.  Ebooks are much lighter.

Swimsuit.  No, one cannot usually swim on the plane, but a quick dip in the hot tub at my destination can unkink my sore body.

red and black usb cable
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Plugs for electronics. Many planes now have plug ins at each seat. This is especially wonderful for long flights.

A pre-charged no-plug charger for my electronics.  If your plane does not have plug-ins, this will ensure you aren’t left hanging in that thriller you’re reading.

A small selection of any medications you might need while on the plane.  It is much easier to get items out of your purse or daypack than your wheelie that is crammed into the overhead bin. So plan ahead.

A sense of humor.  Things will still go wrong. If a tired toddler is kicking your seat (and the parents are asleep), try pretending that he’s giving you a vigorous massage.

Food Truths

While the food on airplanes is often minimalistic, you have options.  And international flights still offer full meals.

For domestic flights, I generally find appetizing options in the concourse that are tastier than meals purchased from the airline.  If I have time, I eat my meal before my flight and just have juice or water on the plane. And trail mix, jerky (there are even vegan versions), and fruit are good carry on snacks.

ebi tempura bento on brown wooden table
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For international flights, a lot depends on the carrier.  One of the best meals I had aloft, was the Korean option on Korean airlines–some sort of spicy bulkogi. So here are some tips:

Special needs meals.  If you need these, don’t forget to pre-order them.  If you don’t need them, they’re still sometimes worth pre-ordering, as the options are often more interesting, especially for the vegetarian meal. One downside, you may have to wait longer for your meal.

If you’re adventurous, choose the cuisine of the country flying the plane when the flight attendants offer a choice.  It will almost always be better than the “American” choice.

Think food when booking. If you have a choice of carrier, Korean airlines, Singapore airlines, and Japan airlines are known for having especially good meals. Obviously, one wouldn’t pay a huge amount more just for the food, but if you have a choice between these carriers and others with less-tasty food reputations at about the same price, choose these.

Exercise

This is critical in a long haul.  Do stretching exercises at your seat, get up and go to the restroom more than absolutely necessary, and stand at your seat whenever you’re awake.  Thrombosis would ruin your vacation, so exercise.

When all else fails, close your eyes and imagine all the fun you’ll be having at your destination in just a few short hours.  Happy flying.