Travel planning 3: health and safety, border crossings and some final thoughts

So here’s my final instalment of travel tips. For information on planning, itineraries, packing, budget, money and accommodation see parts 1 and 2.

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Once you know you’re going somewhere, it’s natural for your ears to prick up whenever you hear it mentioned in the news. However, paying too much attention to all the reported accidents, crimes and natural disasters would mean you’d never go anywhere. This is a good thing to convince concerned relatives of too! On the flip side, it does pay to be aware of what’s happening; periodic checks of the Foreign Office’s website or following it on Twitter is helpful.

Common sense goes a long way to keeping you safe:

☆ Don’t take valuable items with you unless you need them. If you do, know exactly where they are at all times and think carefully before taking them out of your bag in public places.

☆ Padlock all your bags as a deterrent.

☆ Keep items near you on buses and touching or attached to you if you are going to fall asleep.

☆ Stay sober enough to be able to look after yourself.

☆ Split your money and cards between bags.

☆ Don’t pet or feed animals like monkeys or stray dogs.

☆ Although hiring a moped seems a cheap, fun means of transport, we met lots of people who had sustained injuries from them and/or lost a lot of money by damaging the bike as a consequence of inexperience or inebriation.

☆ Take copies of your passport and store them in your main luggage.

☆ There are almost never seatbelts and driving practices often leave a lot to be desired. If you don’t feel safe, ask to get out and find an alternative.

☆ If information you’re given sounds suspicious, take the time to ask a few other people the same question and compare answers.

☆ Make sure someone back home has a reasonable idea of where you are. Some countries record and submit your passport number every time you check in at a hotel or catch a bus but in others you can roam anonymously for weeks on end.

☆ Drink bottled water. Many hostels will have a free water dispenser or charge a small daily fee so that you don’t have to keep buying new bottles.

☆ Try to avoid arriving in new places late night. If it’s not possible, ensure you are very prepared with a hotel address and a rough idea of transport costs or foolproof walking directions.

☆ Research online and speak to others before taking journeys or visiting attractions – forewarned is forearmed.

☆ Trust your gut. If it doesn’t feel safe, assume it’s not.

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Crossing borders by air is usually pretty straightforward although you are likely be ambushed by unexpected airport fees from time to time. Land (or river) border crossings require a bit more concentration and vary wildly. The places to acquire your exit and entry stamps could be adjacent windows in the same room or they could be a bus ride or long walk apart. You may have to fill in multiple forms. You may have cause to pay bribes, fees, taxes or a combination of them on both sides of the border. Some forms of transport will wait for you, some will leave and expect you to wait for an alternative. The border control personnel may be in uniforms with huge guns or in jeans and a t-shirt with one eye on the TV screen in the corner. You may have your bag searched or scanned or it may just stay on the bus. It’s possible to pay to go on a tourist bus to cross the border and have the formalities dealt with for you but it’s also possible to do them completely on foot.

As you can see, there are no steadfast rules but here are a few tips we gathered along the way:

☆ Research the border you are using (specifically in relation to your nationality) in as much detail as you can using online information or by asking other travellers.

☆ Find out what fees to expect and what currencies you’re able to pay them in. One time we had to make a fake document showing that we had paid fees on entry (we had paid but hadn’t received the document proving it) so that we didn’t have to pay them again on exit. If at all possible, get a receipt for any money you hand over.

☆ There will almost certainly be money changers on the border. Don’t assume they offer a bad deal – we had very mixed experiences. Have an up to date conversion in your head (we normally counted our remaining currency, typed it into the xe app and kept the figure in mind before disembarking the bus). Even if it’s a bad rate, change some anyway as it’s potentially very problematic to enter a country without any of its currency.

☆ If in doubt about whether your transport will wait for you, take all your luggage with you. We were once the only tourists on a bus and were left filling out entry forms whilst the bus drove off with our bags, leaving us to walk at least a mile down the road with our fingers crossed we would find it (we did)!

☆ If you retain copies of an entry/exit form you’ve filled in at a border, keep hold of it until you’ve left the country as you may be expected to hand it in.

☆ Some borders (this goes for air too) will require you to show evidence that you are leaving the country within the required number of days. To leave the USA we had to book a flight we didn’t intend to take and then cancel it within 24 hours. Some will expect you to be able to prove you have a flight home.

☆ Most important of all: stay calm, even if you think you are being treated unfairly. Border battles are probably the best ones to choose to lose.

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☆ Know your motivation. What excites you? Sampling food, taking photographs, meeting people, submersion in nature, learning about history, adrenaline rushes? You won’t necessarily enjoy the same things as us, Lonely Planet authors or your fellow travellers; so make sure you do something that excites you or reignites your motivation every few days. If we’d not seen any nature or found anything we wanted to photograph for a few days, we tended to stop enjoying ourselves so much. Even if it requires a bit more effort or money, going out of your way to plan an activity which ticks this motivation box helps you remember why you embarked upon the adventure.

☆ There will be bad days. There will be all day bus days. There will be food poisoning days. There will be rainy days. There will be boring days. There will be grotty accommodation days. And there will be days when you are taken advantage of or cheated or ripped off. But expect them, accept them and then make up for them. For example, we would try to go out for an extra nice meal if we’d done nothing but sit on a bus all day. Or if rain stopped play, we’d buy junk food and stay in our hotel watching cartoons! I guarantee you’ll still have more extraordinary days than you would have if you’d stayed at home!

☆ Be open minded. Nowhere is quite the same as home so you will be required to be tolerant and accepting of plenty of different things: places where nothing runs on time, places where customer service is non-existent, people who are much more or less friendly than you are used to, places where the language is impenetrable, people who have beliefs or lifestyle choices you can’t comprehend. For us, at least, we soon became so laid back and used to such things that we just took it all in our stride.

☆ Enjoy the ride. Going from busy lives of jobs and responsibilities will inevitably require adjustment. I thought I’d be really bored, especially as I get travel sick so can’t keep myself occupied on buses. But believe it or not, by the end of the trip, journeys of six hours would almost fly by because I would be enjoying the view out of the window and the life inside the bus so much.

☆ Take time to stop and appreciate it all. You can’t get back the colours, the conversations, the sounds, the expressions, the smells, the stories, the feelings, the uniqueness, the magic. A fraction of it can be recorded by your camera or your pen and your memories will surely fade, so enjoy the moment while it’s there!

And that’s your lot. Hopefully someone somewhere will find something useful in there! Leave a message below if you have any questions and I’ll get back to you 🙂

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