Here is a random list of tips that really don’t fit into any other category.
This is possibly the area where a traveler feels most vulnerable and for good reason. Taxi services are notorious for ripping-off foreigners and we tend to grab a taxi when we are tired, needing to get to and from airports, bus and train stations, or in a downpour.
In many cities there are now zones with regulated fares. In these cases you purchase a taxi voucher prior to getting in a taxi.
Always ask the owner of the place you are staying, or a local how much you should expect to pay to get from A to B.
Always ask the taxi driver how much he will charge to take you where you want to go before loading your luggage into the boot (sorry that would be trunk) or getting into the taxi.
If you call for a taxi to pick you up at a particular location, be prepared to pay a surcharge for this service. It is always cheaper to hail a taxi on a busy street.
In some places, I am thinking of Bangkok, taxis will turn down you down if they are not going to make enough money from the fare, or, if they don’t think they will find another fare at your destination. This is nothing personal so don’t feel offended.
Bargaining – You have to do this however uncomfortable it may seem.
Markets, bazaars, sidewalk stalls, and stores lures us with their exotic wares when we are traveling and they are also the places where we pick up personal essentials. Bartering, the art of reaching an agreeable price for an object, has existed across the world from time memorial, however people in developed countries have lost this art. To barter is to have a social exchange as much as it is to purchase an object so in some places don’t be surprised to be offered a seat, a beverage and perhaps a treat. This is an invitation for social exchange but does not constitute an obligation to buy something, although of course this is the owner’s ultimate motive.
Take a day or so to visit markets, bazaars, stores and galleries – window shop to see what is available and how prices vary in different locations.
Prices are generally higher the closer you get to tourist areas. It is also in these areas that you will constantly be asked “where are you from”. The vendors will base their prices on your answer (Japan, Northern European countries and North America command the highest prices). I always answer Mexico because that is where I was born and then we usually get into a discussion about soccer and boxing. Hey it’s a great way to start a social exchange and I usually get a great price.
A good rule of thumb is to start bartering at a third of the asking price and go from there. Just remember you can’t drop below your initial offer. However if you have seen similar items elsewhere for a much lower price, start your price accordingly. Mark-ups of 10 ten times the value of the item are not uncommon.
Vendors around tourist areas can also be quite aggressive at times – just remember you can always walk away with a polite thanks and a smile.
Early mornings and late evenings are the times when the prices are highest. You’ll hear phrases like “my best morning price”, “my good-luck price” and “my best evening price”. Just start bartering and never feel pressured to buy anything you don’t want.
When you are ready to make your purchase make sure you have the correct bills and coins in the local currency. I have seem countless tourists barter successfully only to hand the vendor a large bill that requires change. Most vendors don’t have cash registers or much change on hand and you are putting them in an awkward position in so-much as they have to leave their stall and find someone to break that large bill.
The art of bartering is fun so always keep a smile on your face and a light tone to your voice.
In many parts of the world begging is now illegal although this may not seem evident as you look around you. Studies have found that beggars often make much more money on a daily basis than citizens who work and there are many stories around the world of finding hoards of cash and or large bank accounts after a beggar dies. An old lady in Mesoamerica had over $85,000 USD on her body when the authorities found her one night, in this case the money went to local charities.
It is generally not the beggar who will be arrested but the person offering money. It would be a good idea to find out the laws on begging in the countries you are going to visit, or ask locals when you arrive.
There are many street artists and buskers who add a wonderful thread to the fabric of cities and towns all over the world. I do keep loose change to throw in their upturned hats and music cases, maybe because this was the way we funded our travels in Europe back in the 1970s. I don’t see this as begging although others may beg to differ.
My last evening in Oaxaca, Mexico a couple of years ago, I gave my loose change to a scruffy little boy who was probably around 6 or 7. I couldn’t tell if he was from one of the many indigenous groups living in the state, or whether he was from Guatemala. Anyway, after I put the coins in his grubby hand, his face lit up as he scrounged coins from his pant pocket, carefully counted out his haul and ran to the nearest internet café. I peeked through the window to see him logging on to one of the computers so he could play his favorite game. I’d seen this child many times and knew he wasn’t in school, but if I had known he was begging so he could hang out at the internet café I would have given him enough for a 30 minute session every day.
Food and Eating
Ah, the horror stories and the fear of getting sick overseas is probably one of the things that keeps people from venturing across borders and firmly stuck in the armchair traveler mode. Although it is possible to become sick from eating overseas, just as it is at home, I have found a good dose of common sense is your best medicine. I am lucky to have an iron stomach and tend to eat anything, anywhere but I have developed some rules for myself. For remedies see the section on Health Tips under the Independent Traveler button.
Washing your hands before each meal is good practice and many places have a washbasin and soap in the main restaurant just for this purpose.
I don’t believe in all the hand sanitizers and anti-bacterial products, a good scrub with soap and water is just as effective.
Bottled water is available everywhere in the world now so use it exclusively, even for brushing your teeth. I don’t pack a water bottle anymore as I would just be transferring the water from one bottle to another. Plastic is recycled in most urban centers and increasingly in smaller towns so just find the right trash barrel to dispose of your bottle when you are done. Do not get your bottles refilled.
Eating at the markets and street stalls is probably one of the safer places to eat, despite what you have heard from the media, just make sure you pick the busiest stalls – they are constantly replenishing their supplies and the food is generally made for you on the spot. If the food looks like it has been sitting around for awhile just pass it by. Incidentally some of the best food I have ever eaten comes from markets and street stalls.
If you are a guest in someones’ house or are invited to a restaurant I want to give you a little tip from my school days in the UK. As a guest, or even the guest of honor, you may be presented with a dish that horrifies you, say sheep’s eyes floating in soup, a chicken head, eels, snails, unknown/uncommon protein sources, you get the picture. It would be highly ungracious to turn down this ‘treat’ and you will not only embarrass yourself but you will humiliate your hosts. So, bring a zip lock bag along with you and put it in a jacket pocket or somewhere else discreet, yet accessible. Bring the fork with the offending food up to your mouth but follow the fork with your napkin into which you will place the food. Once the napkin is back on your lap you can transfer the food to the zip-lock bag and hopefully no-one will be the wiser. Toss the bag into a garbage can on the street, never in the host’s home. You might want to practice this technique at home to get it down seamlessly, I had many years of practice getting rid of the awful, awful food they served us at school, and have had to use the zip-lock bag on a couple of occasions, most notably in China. I was a consultant to the government on some agricultural issues so we were gloriously wined and dined in the best restaurants. On one occasion the specialty was all things snail, large, small, miniscule and one delightful critter that we were warned would make us sick if we didn’t take 2 papaya pills before we ate it. Up to this point I had heartily tried everything that was put in front of me but this poisonous creature was something I was not willing to put anywhere near my lips……..
If you have food allergies I would recommend finding a place to stay that has a kitchen. Many people overseas do not understand food allergies and although they will try to accommodate you, it may be tricky if there is a language barrier.
Vegetarians are in luck in many parts of the world since meat is not a staple in the diet. However, if you find yourself in a restaurant that doesn’t have vegetarian dishes please leave and find another more suitable place. On more than one occasion I have seen waiters exasperated as a customer is quizzing them on all the ingredients in a particular dish and then requesting the kitchen prepare it a certain way. Most commercial kitchens are not equipped to do this, particularly if they are busy.
Vegans are not so lucky, dairy products and eggs are used extensively in the preparation of food overseas so your best bet would be the market and the use of a kitchen.
Food, for me is one of the most important parts of traveling – I hunt out good food, the unusual local dishes, the regional specialties and the amazing people who grow and prepare these foods for the rest of us. The smell of a bakery anywhere, fresh coffee, chile and chocolate for moles, the spice markets of the Maghreb, the barbeques worldwide, food is what brings us all together and you will be invited to share meals with the local people wherever you find yourself on this earth.