Category Archives: Travel Skills

How to Avoid Getting Ripped Off

Ripoffs in Armenia are like mullets: business up front, party in the back. That is, they’ll either try to hit you up for a large amount before the transaction or ask you for more just before you’re done. If up front they’ll walk away from the deal if you say no. If on the back-end they’ll back down and play by the agreement. And this is a pretty standard tactic around the world – I’ve written about the back end ripoff in India.

Armenia in General

Now I want to make myself clear up front – I think Armenians are generally a very honest bunch. But it’s hard making a living here. There’s nearly no room for profit and what you do get is usually eaten up by some random thing that comes up like official bribes, injury or having your flower shop run over. So I don’t blame Armenians – or any honest business scammer for that matter – from trying to make an easy Dram or Drachma. But that doesn’t mean I have to just give it up. I refuse to be a stereotypical sucker.

Business Up Front

For a certain segment of the ripoff artists out there, they’re willing to risk a low profit for a huge one. Some taxi drivers, for example, when they see you with bags in a touristy part of town will refuse you the standard fare and will only quote you an exorbitant one. Even if they know there’s only a 50% chance you’ll go with them. If they can make in 30 minutes what they’d normally make in 5 hours they’ll take the chance.

And when you stand up for yourself and refuse to pay that, the up front ripoffs tend to dissolve. They’ll usually let you walk away but will back down and pay your price. If they pay your price then you’re probably still getting ripped off, just not as bad.

There’s a large segment of the population who calculate how much to charge by adding a percentage to the cost. That’s what Marx and Engels argued was the true value of anything. It’s easy to see why they felt that way. But there are several faulty assumptions there, such as assuming no value for time not worked (ie. either infinite time or full time employment), taking risks (ie. someone might pay more for a car than a horse-drawn carriage) and other factors. Thus is the folly of supply-side economics.

Party in the Back

The other typical ripoff is when someone asks you for more just before you’re done. The reason given is usually something like you used more resources than you were supposed to, it took extra long or somehow otherwise you owe extra. Sometimes they will argue about what you agreed on or just simply say they want more. In taxis they might make the excuse that you had bags to put in the trunk, or it is night, or the airport cost is more, or they may just drive around in circles hoping you’ll think it was a long way away. At restaurants they may add extra items to your bill or round up when giving you change.

Not all of these tactics are outright fraud, many are just the custom. If your bill is 10.78 and there are no pennies in the country it may be expected that you’ll pay 10.80 instead. And in some countries there is a higher fare for taxis at night. But these are the exceptions. And if you’ve already negotiated a price, or if the meter is running just pay what you should.

Avoiding Ripoffs

When negotiating up front, don’t feel like you have to buy from a particular vendor. If you don’t know the price of something it’s OK to just ask casually and walk away. Odds are there’s a nicer one of whatever you’re eyeing at a shop a couple of doors down. If you get to the point of negotiating without knowing some relative costs you’re already at a disadvantage. Also know what you’ll pay up front, don’t let them decide that for you. That’s true for services as well as for products.

Don’t back down when asked for more at the end. Agree on a price and stick to it. Show the price written down on your phone’s calculator or similar. Some of these people are just bullies – if you stand up to them they quickly shrink away, but if you let them take advantage of you they’ll keep doing it. And don’t feel like you have to stay engaged, sometimes just walking away will make them stop asking. That’s especially true for taxis where, once you’ve paid the fair fare there isn’t any need to stick around. The taxi driver might call after you a time or two but he’s not going to follow you.

And keep in mind that some people will try both approaches. They’ll beat you up on the front end and at the end they’ll ask for more at the end. I’ve found that typically if you compromise on your price up front they’ll more frequently try to get money at the end. But if you stick to your price they’ll judge you as unlikely to pay.

In some places there are certain signals to make or avoid making. For example in Armenia the travelers who are ethnically Armenian but from a wealthy country tend to speak a different dialect. Locals pick up on that and will try to take advantage of their long-lost cousins. At markets in China the sellers and buyers use hand signals to signify quantity – if you know the hand signals you’re saying that you’ve done this all before and won’t be fooled. And negotiation has its rule of thumb in different places. In some you cut the price in half and offer that; in others you drop a zero or two from the asking price. And it’s always important to know how to check the authenticity of what you’re buying as compared to the knock-offs. For example, silk threads will burn separately, whereas the imitation synthetic materials melt together. You can search for how to spot a fake on the Internet and you’ll be informed when you buy. Often when you show this knowledge the shop keeper will go into the back or reach under the counter for the real stuff, smile at you and treat you with more respect.

Getting ripped off is a part of traveling. When you find out you’ve been rooked, laugh about it. It probably wasn’t for very much and use it as a chance to learn a lesson for next time. Applaud the savvy shopkeeper who can spot a sucker who has more money than sense…even if sometimes that sucker is you.

Tips for Traveling with Technology

There was a Twitter conversation with Martin McKeay and Jerry Gamblin today talking about how geeks handle traveling with all our technology. Jerry suggested that Martin write a blog post, but I decided to beat him to the punch. 😉 This is part of an upcoming series of posts under the heading of Traveling Skills: The Art of Packing. In this post I’ll describe how and what I pack as a geek who travels with technology, as well as why.

My Travel Kit

These are the pieces of technology I pack with me wherever I go. Basically it’s my laptop, phone, camera, earbuds and a few cables and accessories.

  • Apple Macbook Pro, with charger
  • iPhone and USB cable
  • 16 or 32 GB USB thumb drive
  • 8 or 16 GB SD card (can double as a thumb drive in a pinch)
  • SD to USB adapter
  • Mophie Juice Pack and USB cable (iPhone battery/case)
  • Dual USB wall adapter
  • Mini dual USB car adapter
  • 3-foot 3.5mm male to male audio cable (for car Aux input)
  • Nikon prosumer DSLR with Nikkor 18-200mm VR lens (usually, but not always)
  • Shure E2c (old mid-grade) earbuds with Comply Tx-100 foam tips
  • Fenix E05 flashlight and one non-rechargeable alkaline AAA battery (these last way longer in storage than the rechargeable ones do)
  • iPad (usually, but not always)
  • Special mention: 3G Internet card (I used to travel with one of these and they’re great, but I don’t anymore)

I like to keep it simple. I keep all the cables and accessories in a clear ziplock bag so I never have to dig too far for things. The earbuds I usually keep in an exterior pocket of my bag or in my pants pocket.

My Support Kit

There are a variety of things I keep at home to support my travel kit. Most importantly are my chargers. The Nikon rarely runs out of juice, so I don’t have to worry about that. I also have extras of the cables and accessories, in case I lose one on the road I’m not without it on my next trip. I also have a battery charger and use rechargeables. They’re a bit more expensive, but worth it in the long run. All these things would be nice to have, but I really don’t use them often enough to justify bringing them along.

That brings me to my first philosophical rule of traveling with technology…

When in Doubt, Leave it Out

Equally as important as what I bring is what I don’t bring all the time. These are things that are either too heavy, or used too infrequently to justify bringing. If I know the job will call for something special then I’ll bring it, but normally I try to leave as much as possible at home.

Most people want to be prepared for whatever situation they may find themselves in. For geeks that means a lot of technical equipment. Phones, laptops, tablets, portable hard drives, external speakers, adapters, cables, chargers, batteries, antennas, and potentially dozens of other “can’t do without” items. And that doesn’t even include clothing, shoes, bags, books, and everything else. But all this stuff gets heavy and odds are you won’t end up using most of it. Here’s what I always ditch.

  • Small portable speakers. I have a couple of great pairs, but I don’t use them often, they’re heavy and whenever I go to use them I find the batteries have already died.
  • Extra laptop battery. I have replaced the battery once and it may be time to do it again. But I’d rather spend a little extra to have a fresh battery than lug an extra one around for months without needing it.
  • Lots of camera lenses. I just use the one. It was more expensive than going with several lenses, but it’s a way more portable option. Plus, I treat my DSLR as a point-and-shoot anyway – I just want to whip it out and start snapping, not mess with lenses and such.
  • Battery chargers. I only have one thing that requires a battery and I carry a spare. My DSLR has never run out of juice on me while I was on the road. Even on multi-week trips with hundreds of photos!
  • Bigger flashlight or headlamp. I chose this one because it fits on my keychain, is bright and runs on a standard size battery. I don’t use it often and so it’s a compromise as compared with a headlamp or a big maglite or something.
  • External hard drive. Do I really need access to 1TB of movies, songs, funny videos, or whatever? No. Do I need to backup everything over the course of a week? No. (See below for backing up on the road.) These things are bulky, require special cables, heavy and hardly ever get used.
  • Extra laptop. Even when I was traveling for work and forbidden from doing personal things on my work laptop, I never brought a second one. I found that if my phone and iPad weren’t enough then it could usually wait until I got home. (See the next section for ways around that.)

Here’s a tip from my article on adopting a minimalist packing philosophy: Start packing with absolutely nothing, then ask. If the answer to 3/4 is “yes” then bring it. If not, leave it.

  • Do I know it will be difficult, expensive or impossible to buy there?
  • Am I positive that I’ll use it as much as I think?
  • If I don’t bring it, will my trip be substantially worse?
  • Do I use this every day at home?

Consolidate, Standardize and Compromise

Standardize on batteries and cables. Use interchangeable plugs and cables (for example, I have this dual USB adapter) to charge your devices, rather than a specialty one for each device. To the degree you can, get devices that run on standard size batteries so you can just buy new ones rather than having to lug a charger. That also helps in case your proprietary battery dies. And use the same size batteries across devices if you can so you can simplify things.

Ditch point-and-shoot cameras. Annie Leibovitz recommends the iPhone to a point-and-shoot. So do I. They’re way simpler and more portable, and you can share the photos right away. If you don’t like an iPhone, the one you’ve got will probably do just fine. And if not, I’m revoking your geek card. 😉 If you’re a serious photographer there may be no getting around a DSLR, but these days I often leave it at home unless I know I’ll be going somewhere photogenic.

Use the Cloud for everything you can. Yes, cloud security is an issue, but you can find ways around that. Crash Plan or Jungle Disk can replace your portable hard drive for incremental backups. Tablets and smart phones can replace a lot of what you’d need a full size computer for. Google Docs works fairly well for simple editing, and CloudOn is a full-blown Microsoft Office instance accessible through an app. If you ever find yourself seriously in need of a computer, the iPad has apps for that too. Consider LogMeIn to remotely connect back to your desktop at home. Or OnLive Desktop will provide you with a virtual Windows desktop.

International Tips

Get multiple power adapters, rather than one universal one. They’re usually smaller and easier to pack, plus you don’t have to carry them all if you’re not going everywhere. I bring 2 of these small European plug adapters and one of these multi-plug European plug adapters, as well as a 220/240v power converter (make sure you read up on how to use it) for devices that won’t handle that much voltage.

Your Tips

Have I missed something that you always take with you? Is there a good idea that you want to expand on? Let me know what you think.

Dan Pink’s Travel Tips

Dan Pink is an author and speaker. His books include Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future (a great read on Audible), and The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You’ll Ever Need.   One of my favorite talks of all time is one he gave on motivation that was animated by RSAnimate, embedded below.

Dan has travel tips on his blog. Here they are, shamelessly stolen from boingboing where I found them.

Tip #1 — Never get sick again
Tip #2 — The magic of earplugs
Tip #3 — Four road food rules of thumb
Tip #4 — The rule of HAHU
Tip #5 — More hygiene!
Tip #6 — Staying connected
Tip #7 — Zipping through security lines
Tip #8 — One thing you should never do in a hotel room
Tip #9 — The secret(s) to beating jet lag
Tip #10 — The first thing you should buy
Tip #11 – The hidden benefits of Mickey D’s
Tip #12 – Never get sick again…again


What I’ve Learned About Business From Traveling

Relationships are everything. Without a relationship with those around you, a place is just a place; with a friend, it’s an experience. But know when it’s time to cut ties – maybe you don’t share the same philosophy or you’re just starting to get sick of each other. Don’t prolong it, move on and look back with a smile. Better to take a step back and maintain the relationship than to try and force something and end up destroying it. In business it’s the same way. You develop trust and share ideas which can add value to both of you.

You get a lot more out of everything with context. Without context, the scenery all looks the same. But if you know something about where you are, it can create or change the meaning. For example, in Athens I watched the sun rise over the Acropolis from a rocky outcropping. It was made much more meaningful by knowing that I was standing in the place where the Athenian Council used to meet on such matters as deciding the fate of Socrates. If you understand the context in relation to clients, you will then understand the culture, the problems, what will work and what won’t.

Recognize when it’s time to move on from a place. It’s perfectly alright to stay a while in one place. It’s perfectly alright to move on quickly. If you’re someplace that fits your style well, stay a bit longer than you planned. Every place has some reason to stay on longer – people, scenery, nighlife, solitude, etc. But if you find yourself not getting anything out of your time, leave early.

Know your goals; know your purpose. If you haven’t set out what you intend to do, you can’t possibly succeed at it. If you’re pursuing a goal that is undefined, you’re just wasting time and money going from place to place. Once you’ve established what you’re trying to do, your path becomes pretty clearly defined. But if you don’t have a goal yet, it’s alright to meander around as long as you know where you stand. Eventually you’ll find something that makes sense and meandering can lead you to it.

Don’t waste too much time planning, get out and start doing. Plans will always change so worrying over the smallest details before getting there is largely going to be wasting time. Most things can be figured out when you’ve arrived. Once you get to a place, don’t force reality to conform to your plans – this will always be a disaster. Any plans you do make should be able to adapt to changes.

Look around. Don’t miss out on something great because it’s not in the guidebook. Events are often more important than scenery, and events can change on a moment’s notice. Don’t miss out on an opportunity because you weren’t looking around.

Don’t be afraid to go alone. Sometimes you’ll find out you’re not alone and that many others have gone along the same path. Sometimes you’ll find something great that most people haven’t. But you’ll get more out of it if you have to discover things for yourself and learn your own lessons.

5 Phrases To Know In The Local Language

I’ve found that you can typically get around most countries just fine by knowing only a few words and phrases in the local language. That’s not to say that you’ll be free of problems and misunderstandings, but knowing at least a little bit of the language the locals grow up speaking is a great diplomatic move, if nothing else. It shows at least that you don’t disrespect their culture even if you’re not a connoisseur.

Thank you. You’ll use this one a lot. If you don’t, you’re not really traveling. This is the basis of politeness and appreciation. Knowing this one in the local language is and should be expected.
Where is…? This one is pretty critical for getting around. People will usually point and gesture so you don’t have to understand whatever they’re saying. You can use this when you know the name of the place you’re trying to go, when you’ve got a map, when you’re trying to get back to your hotel and, most importantly, to find the toilet. Toilet is nearly a universal word.
Hello. Some cultures have a formal and informal greeting. It’d be nice to know both, but if you can’t go for the formal one.
I’m sorry. Know this one for when you bump into someone or do something rude, etc. The person already probably thinks you’re a jerk, don’t insult him further by hurling foreign tongues his way.
Yes and No. I lumped these together as one because they go together. Sometimes these can be difficult. For example, in many Asian languages, there is not really a way to say these things. You’ll often use yes or no when someone who doesn’t speak much English asks you something in your native tongue. They’re making an effort, you can too. Also, sometimes the situation will tell you what someone is asking you, for example, if someone bends to pour tea and says something you don’t understand, they’re probably asking if you want some.

If you go beyond just those basics and learn some other pleasantries, you’ll get a lot more smiles. There are times when you’ll be sharing a few minutes with a local and may want to speak with them or you can see that they want to speak with you.

I like… …oranges. …your country. …this city. …blondes. …beer. The possibilities are endless.
I am from… …America. …the United States. …Georgia. …Atlanta. You’ll probably use this one a lot.
What is your name?/My name is… This one is pretty common as well. I lumped them together because usually you hear one and then the other. And you use one and then the other.
What do you do?/I am a… This is the same concept – small talk that people use. It’s more common to talk about your profession in the US than anywhere else but it can still be very useful as people try to figure out who you are.
How old are you?/I am… This one can come in handy too, as you try to chat up your new acquaintance.

Now for a bonus, the one phrase you shouldn’t use in the local language, even if you know it:
Do you speak English? There is a misconception that you need to learn this in the local language, if only to be polite. It seems counter intuitive until you consider that you’d only use that phrase if you know almost none of the local language and are speaking to a total stranger.

If the stranger speaks English, he’ll understand you anyway. If he doesn’t, you’ve gained nothing by asking in his language. Actually you’ve lost something. The stranger has no idea that you only know those four words and will probably assume that you know more of his language than he of yours. So it could silence someone who may otherwise engage you in a broken conversation – not the best of worlds, but better than you had before.

In fact, it seems that the only people who use this phrase the most are Americans. Most other English speakers – even if non-native – just launch into English and hope they’re understood. It seems rude, but it’s probably the best way to get your question answered fastest. If someone knows the answer, they’ll tell you. If they don’t, they won’t.

How To Save Time and Frustration in Airport Lines

Airport lines are the bane of travelers. You wait in the line for tickets, then you wait to wait in security lines, then you line up to get on the plane, to get to your seat, to get off the plane…. It feels like the better part of my life is spent lining up at the airport sometimes. But I’ve learned some secrets to the lines that have helped me and should help you, too.

Check in online. Most airlines now allow you to check in online the day of your flight or 24 hours beforehand. That reduces the cost to the airlines but more importantly it reduces your wait time. You won’t have to stand in line to do this at the airport and it’ll make your wait time for checking bags shorter. If you’ve just packed carry-on bags, you can go straight to the security lines which are sometimes in the opposite direction of the ticket counter which saves you more time walking. Time saved: 5-20 minutes.

Check your flight online. There are plenty of places to check your flight online and make sure it’s still on time. Most airline websites and airports also have this feature. The FAA even has a site where you can check delays across the flight system. While this isn’t a guarantee that your flight won’t take off on time, it can give you a heads up if your flight is canceled or if there are widespread problems that will probably delay your flight. I’ve actually seen it where somebody wasn’t even going to go to the airport until they saw that their flight had been delayed by 2 hours. They easily made it and saved the cost of a rebooking. Delays aren’t absolute though, and I’ve seen 90 minute delays become 30 minute delays, so don’t risk missing a flight. Time saved: 0-60 minutes.

Check airport facilities online. Many airports have implemented a feature where you can check the security lines and parking availability online. Some also allow you to sign up for alerts that will send you the approximate wait time on the day of your flight. The TSA’s site and others have similar features. Time saved: 0-20 minutes.

Cheat in the airport’s security line. A lot of people don’t realize this, but the security line you wait in is actually two lines. One is run by the airport, the other by the TSA. Why does this matter? Because the airport’s security line is, let’s just say, optional.

The airport’s security line is the one you wait in first. It extends from the last person in line up to the point where a TSA representative checks your ID. So why do I say they’re optional? Well, have you heard of the frequent flyer lines or the Fly Clear program? These allow you to get in a shortened line or skip the line altogether.

If you don’t want to go through the background checks and pay the costs of Fly Clear, you can become an instant frequent flyer. Most of the time nobody checks your ticket to see that you’re one of the elite. So you can just walk right on through. Time saved: 5-60 minutes.

Be prepared for the TSA line. Most people have gotten used to most of the rules, so things tend to progress fairly well. But every once in a while you get somebody will go through with belts, cellphones, keys, water bottles, etc. This delays them getting through, not to mention all the people behind them. Speed up your trip and ease frustration by doing it right the first time. Time saved: 5 minutes.

Be patient when boarding the plane. Some people get up and mob the front, though it doesn’t get them on the plane any sooner. In fact, it probably gets them even more stressed out. So just sit tight and relax. Down at the bottom of the ramp everybody stands in line again to get on the plane. Board later when most people have already boarded. You’ll be more relaxed and have a chance to walk around before you sit down. In effect, you’re gaining more personal time when you’re not sitting on the plane. Time saved: 10-15 minutes.

Relax and have a good attitude. This is the biggest thing you can do to ease your frustration. Have a good attitude and things will seem a lot easier, people friendlier and you can put your time to better use. Read, listen to music, walk around and explore, etc. Even the waiting can be made more bearable if you’ve got the right attitude and remember to relax. Frustration relieved: mucho.

Nine Tips For Flying

1. Exit rows are for overweight businessmen who haven’t got enough miles for first class.
2. Bring something to distract you from your neighbor in case you don’t feel like talking to them.
3. Ask at the gate for a seat change – you might find something better.
4. Stow your bag according to your priorities. Up top for comfort (a grocery bag for trip items) or under seat for quick deplaning.
5. Get out of the aisle quickly when boarding – step into the seat area while stowing your bag or getting some things out. This way the plane gets prepped and ready to go faster.
6. Seats in the front are quieter than those behind the wings.
7. If you don’t like to fly, the aisle might be better than the window because you won’t feel as boxed in.
8. If you’re afraid to fly, avoid the exit row which tend to remind people of the bad things that can happen on a plane.
9. If you have a special meal request you’ll be served first.

Cheap TSA Friendly Laptop Bags

The TSA recently allowed you to leave your laptop in your bag to go through screening. But not just any bag qualifies. Basically, the bag has to allow the screener to see through the material without any cables or other things over it. There are lots of custom bags out that will do this. But here’s what I’ve used a couple of times: a plain siliconized shopping bag that you may get from clothing stores.

You can carry the “laptop bag” with you up to the screening point, then stow it in one of your carryon bags if you want. Or if you just want to have easy access to the laptop in your bag, the silicon seems to be easier for me to grip when sliding it out. For me this is a better process than buying a new bag just for ease of use.

Very cool!

This is one of the coolest uses of technology I’ve seen. Thanks, Delta!

Picture is Worth 1,000 Words (In Any Language)

The language barrier is sometimes one of the hardest things to overcome when traveling. This is especially true if you are going to a region where you’ll experience many different languages and/or dialects. You can’t possibly learn each one. I have seen books before which are simply photographs of everyday things. The idea is that you point to something in it and can communicate that way. So if you want eggs for breakfast, you point to a photograph of eggs when you are ordering your meal.

But then there is the problem of how to prepare them, what side dishes you want, etc. So I figured it’d be a great idea to take a photo of every meal and build a small collection of foods you like. You can print out the pictures at an Internet café and carry them with you, or just show the person the picture on your camera.

It might even be possible to publish a book with local or regional foods, photos of the prepared dish, the name of it in the dialects of the areas where it is served, etc. You could probably have about a dozen that would cover 80-90 percent of the world. If anybody decides to do this, I’ll happily take some royalties or at least tag along for the research! You hear me, Anthony Bourdain?