Unpacking. Packing again, unpacking, and a final packing. This is not unusual. You may pack a bunch of extra clothing, random goodies, and then think again about what you need. Packing and unpacking is a process that will ultimately end in luggage that is lighter, more efficient and thoughtful, and that will serve you better abroad.
For me, I start packing weeks in advance. I start first with a short list for the check bag and for the carry on. Then I begin to set clothing and extras aside. I start the real packing at around 2-3 weeks before departure, giving myself enough time to keep using some of the items I will have to pack, and for rethinking my packing choices. Just talking with a close friend made me rethink the two pairs of jeans I packed for Mexico, and just to get a bit more room and limit how much I’m carrying, I nixed one pair. In unpacking the jeans, I realized that one of my goals is to discuss policy with someone in a government position, so I packed a pencil skirt and a dressier blouse, just in case. The skirt should be the only piece of clothing that is not worn weekly.
Finally, pack pieces that are either old, ready to be pitched or repurposed, or will give out after some travel wear and tear. Take a pair of shoes. If a pair is comfortable, but close to the end of its life, let it take up the space in your luggage, and pitch the pair before you leave. Clothing can also be donated to great causes, like at the agency I interned with, to open up more room in your luggage for other items.
- Plane ticket
I found a travel article that discovered that, when purchasing a plane ticket off of travel sites like Expedia, Hotwire, among others, the best time to purchase a cheap ticket is about 54-56 days prior to the departure date. This was true for me. I bought my one-way ticket to Mexico at about 54 days before I planned to leave on May 17th, and decreased my expected price by over $100. Plus, this allows me to wait to purchase my return ticket (given that I do not have a specific date in mind yet), and diminish my overall expenditure on plane tickets by over $200.
My advice is to also fly out of a bigger airport. Flying out of a small city airport, like Harrisburg, upped the price of a roundtrip ticket by $400. Flying out of a bigger airport, like Baltimore, slashed the roundtrip ticket price, and the one way price, by about 2/3.
Lastly, before you purchase your ticket from a travel site like Hotwire (my go-to site for cheap plane tickets), make sure of a few things:
– Who will be taking you to the airport for your flight, and/or picking up?
– How early/late must you get to the airport to have time for check-in and security, and/or what time will you arrive at the airport? Can your ride provide transportation to/from the airport safely?
– Is the day and time appropriate for you? For family, friends? Your airport chauffeur?
– What is the site’s cancellation or ticket changes policy? Hotwire has a 24 hours cancellation window after ticket purchase. Any change or cancellation after that 24 hour period does not provide a refund.
– After purchased, check on the airline website, and, using your confirmation code, find your boarding pass and flight information directly from the airline. This will ensure that you have received a valid ticket and all information is correct.
3. Airport travel
Some of my advice for airport travel references my comments above. Early morning flights are a preference for me, given that I would travel all morning, land in D.F., Mexico, and take a bus to Xalapa, arriving at a time that Edo can pick me up. Traveling by night is riskier in my opinion, and I feel safer during the daytime.
However, a 6am flight means I have to be in the airport by 4am for check-in and to pass through security. Baltimore is 1.5 hours from my house. Who wants to drive me to the airport at 2:30am? My resolution was to be dropped off later the night before, and just work in the airport until my flight. However, others felt that this was not safe, and are determined to drive me to Baltimore at 2:30am. Given the ridiculousness of this, other family members want me to stay in a hotel room that evening, and take the shuttle to the airport in the wee hours of the morning. While the hotel cost does not fit into my budget, the responsibility for getting me to the airport is a burden on my ride. If you do not have ready access to a public transit, ubers, or taxis, and must rely on family and friends to get you to the airport, be considerate of their schedules.
Lastly, getting to the airport early is better than getting there too late. Regardless, getting to the airport 3 hours early for a flight at 6am is ridiculous. Getting there early is to make sure you can get through the security check lines. There will be no line at 3am, 4am, or 5am. With good weather conditions, and good life conditions, I would shoot for about 1.5 hours for travel to the terminal, check-in, checking luggage, and the security check. Bigger airports may or may not require more time, but even this is debatable given that the Atlanta airport has a metro to get passengers from terminal to terminal.
4. In-country travel (upon arrival)
Once you land in the country, what do you do? How do you get to where you want to go? You can research some options online, but the best option is to talk with a country native. A good example is the Benito Juarez International Airport in Mexico City (MEX). I have had the pleasure of traveling by ADO bus from Xalapa to D.F., but have never had to purchase the tickets online, from the U.S., to travel from airport to Xalapa. Edo helped me to navigate the ADO terminals, avoiding the TAPO terminals for the one that I do not have to take a taxi to (the one housed within the airport), and for coordinating the timing of the bus departure to my plane arrival and immigration process, and traveling in the airport to the bus terminal.
If you are staying close to the airport, or in the same city, taxis are often cheap choices. However, research and/or ask airport personnel what taxis are certified or directly employed by the airport; these will be the safest and have the most stable charge rate.
If you are traveling outside of the main city, consider a bus. Outside of Mexico, I have no expertise in how to locate bus terminals. But my advice, from experience of feeling lost inside a terminal, trying to figure out what ticket to purchase, is to get to the counter and ask a teller for information.
5. Where are you going to live? (upon arrival)
Where you are planning to spend your nights will impact what you choose for in-country travel upon arrival. If you are staying in a generally reputable hotel or youth hostel, consider contacting them directly to ask for transportation recommendations. They may even be able to secure a reputable taxi to pick you up from the airport (who knows?).
6. What are you going to do there?
At least for the first few days, have an outline of the activities you plan to do. This could be skeletal, but having a few things you want to see in the area you are staying in upon arrival will get you out and into this new world. It should help you acclimate to the new culture and environment, and help you learn to navigate the transportation system, language, and geography.
Researching an area online for things to do can be a cumbersome task. Not only can it be difficult to find a comprehensive list of all the things a city/town has to offer, an unmanageable distance may not be discernible online, or a lack of transportation could become a relevant limitation once you arrive to the country. Visiting online websites that focus on specific towns can be the most valuable. For instance, instead of searching ‘things to do in Mexico’, search ‘things to do in Xalapa,’ or ‘things to do in Veracruz’. You are bound to get more activities that are within a reasonable distance or already have strong ties to the center city.
Example: A friend is preparing to travel to Germany later this summer. She has started thinking about packing early, especially since she will be packing for Germany and for a graduate school move, and is searching for ticket prices to compare. Although she could arrive by plane in the town where her host lives, the airport there is small and it is cheaper to fly into the bigger city airport of Frankfurt. This decision brings new complications for traveling upon arrival to where her host lives. Having this connection already knowledgeable about transportation has been useful in determining what train to take from the airport in order to arrive to where she plans to live, and how to purchase a ticket for the train. Furthermore, knowing that train transportation is extremely reliable and expansive in the region, my friend is planning some activities in Berlin, where she can travel to solo if necessary, and by train.
Words to the wise: You can never plan too much.
Merry travel preparations!