The last time I looked carefully at the loads that typical travelers are hauling around, I shuddered. It seems to me that - unscientific observer of this that I am - as air travel has become increasingly onerous each year for the past 20 years or more, so too are travelers not getting the message as clearly as they should be getting it. Travel light, travel easy, travel smart and stay humble.
Travel Light. Whether you're on an organized tour, a private exploration, a safari, a walkabout in the heart of some European cities, a shopping blitz in New York, an historical romp through London, a slowly unfolding sojourn in Venice or wherever, travel with a single, carry-on rolling suitcase and a single personal shoulder bag. Any more than that and you're just asking for trouble, fatigue, long lines at check-in counters, lost luggage, delayed luggage.
It gets worse. Travel smart. All those documents that are recommended are actually required.
A U.S. citizen on vacation walks up to a British Customs counter at Heathrow. Customs agent ask, "Purpose of your visit?" The tourist says, "Holiday in London." Customs agent looks at the guy's U.S. passport and says, "Not this trip, mate. Your passport expires at the end of this month. This gentlemen over here will escort you to a holding area for a time, after which you'll be sent back to the U.S. on the next available flight unless your Consulate can renew your passport immediately."
A French national heading to New York for some sightseeing, Broadway shows, shopping and you-name-it is held up in Newark because he's carrying over $10,000 in undeclared U.S. cash. He refuses to admit that he intends to spend most of the money at Aaron Faber Gallery on an exotic wristwatch. Did I mention that he packed the cash in his checked bag? Did I mention that it's not a crime to carry over $10K in cash, but it is a crime not to declare it.
Dumb and dumber, for the most part. But it gets worse. Travel light and travel smart.
An 58 year old amateur photographer was near collapse at Orly airport near Paris a couple of months ago. He was reportedly and allegedly out of shape, carrying a backpack containing something near 10 kilos (22 lbs.) of camera gear, and had been walking the terminal and standing in line for a couple of hours. When asked why he was carrying such a heavy load, his response was, "You never know what you might run into to photograph." To which an airport security officer replied, "Then why not carry a big telescope lashed to your backpack in case the night sky is beautiful too?"
Unlike most cities in Canada and the northern U.S., the beginning of April is a time when gardens are starting, trees are leafing out and temperatures are temperate in London. Don't tell that to the travelers who each packed a large checked bag with, among other things, heavy winter coats, long underwear, insulated mitts, toques and warm scarves. When queried by friends who visited their hotel room about the needless load of winter gear, they responded as though they were traveling to another cold part of Canada in early April rather than a salubriously agreeable part of the UK.
There are travel budgets (healthy and wealthy), travel budgets (moderate and healthy) and there are travel budgets (lean and meagre), admittedly. In no case should any sort of budget include the acquisition and transport of all sorts of needless clothing, photography gear, multiple laptops and tablets and smartphones.
Amateur photographers are often the worst sorts of travelers, with large backpacks or large shoulder bags packed with every lens they own, multiple camera bodies, a laptop loaded with their preferred photo editing software, a tablet for solo photo viewing, a smartphone with a data roaming plan, cables and individual battery chargers for each device, lens filters, spare batteries, a dry camera sensor cleaning kit, a wet camera sensor cleaning kit, and sometimes also a tripod and head. On top of that, they're dragging another personal carry-on bag and a larger suitcase that they check in. I get tired just thinking about hauling around all that weight, waiting patiently while security agents paw through everything and untangle the maze of cables and battery chargers to make sure some middle-aged, overweight non-profilable 'terrorist' isn't trying to sneak on board with the dumbest disguise ever conceived. No wonder TSA and so many other security agents around the world are cranky - they have to wade through far too much useless crap far too often just to get to the same conclusion yet again, i.e., that yet another dummy overpacked. I also get tired just thinking about hauling all that weight and bulk up and down streets and sidewalks, in and out of taxis or train platforms, up and down hotel steps and so on.
Is your scheduled return date at least six months before the expiration of your passport? If so, you're good to go. If not, renew your passport today; you know - before you go away.
Like to pick your teeth, pick your nose, pick your zits and do you generally have lousy hand-washing habits? Hmmm - scratch that. Better to ask if you're just traveling to any place in which you don't personally control how food is prepared, which basically means everywhere. Get your Twinrix vaccinations against Hepatitis A and B now. Get at least one booster shot before you go away. Hep A or Hep B can be nasty. Especially when traveling, wash your hands thoroughly before every meal, wash your hands after handling a lot of public door handles and spending time sightseeing, wash your hands before sorting out a cup of coffee at a local boite.
Got a condition? You know - a condition? Hypertension, heart condition, arthritis, etc., etc. Don't forget to renew your prescriptions and then pack at least as many pills, salves, ointments or whatever is needed for the duration of your trip, plus an extra week's worth in case of travel delays. You should have heard the panicky freak-outs at the front desk of my favourite hotel in London when Eyjafjallajokull erupted, spewed high altitude ash and grounded most European air travel as a result. "I need my meds and I've run out! AIYEEEE! What am I going to do!?" delayed departure guests demanded of the hotel front desk staff. To which staff replied, "Please use your emergency cash or an emergency credit card or your travel medical emergency insurance to pay for a visit to this doctor," as they handed over a couple of different local doctor's office cards. "But we don't have any of that!" a few of the hotel guests screeched. "You have to help us!" Hmmm. Not really.
Staying in a hotel (or several)? First make a quick stop at a local grocery store or supermarket and pick up several packages of cleaning wipes. As soon as you get into your hotel room, liberally use the cleaning wipes to clean the TV remote control, nightstands, sink, taps, toilet handle, toilet seat, shower handle, shower/tub floor, door handles and clothes hangers. It takes all of two minutes. Do not sit on or use the bedspreads - they're vile and probably haven't been steam cleaned or dry cleaned in over a year. Use flip-flips or slippers at all times - at all times. You and your wife are not Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie padding around barefoot on a movie set. Hotel rooms are filled with real life - the real life detritus of dozens of others who've used that same hotel room in previous weeks and months. No need to panic, but a sensible application of cleaning wipes to all surfaces that you're going to touch is perfectly reasonable. Funny though - a few days into the hotel stay, you'll still be feeling fine and fresh and not suffering from any mysterious travel 'bug'. Use a cleaning wipe after the hotel housekeeping service is done with your room each day - or whenever you return to the hotel later in the day, after housekeeping has done its thing. Think you don't have to bother with any of this in an upscale or luxury hotel? Think again.
The less you pack, the less you have to worry about. The less camera gear you travel with, the easier it will be to decide what camera and lens to carry. If you carry one camera body and one versatile, high quality zoom lens, then your daily decision will always be easy. If you also carry a high quality compact backup camera with a built-in lens, you'll be able to continue doing good photography even if your main rig fails. Travel light.
You purchased a data roaming plan from your mobile phone provider at home, but did you remember to activate it and actually set your phone to roam just before you left home for the airport? If not, you will get a nasty surprise when your mobile phone bill shows up the following month. Don't be a dummy. Note also that the average 10-14 year old boy or girl (e.g., your kids)can easily send ten or more photos per hour to as many as a dozen different friends back home - and do it for hours and hours on end. So the data roaming plan that you think will do just fine is probably going to collapse under the strain after the first two days of a fourteen day vacation. Get the right data roaming plan and be realistic about how your kids are going to beat it to a pulp.
Self-entitled nonsense is being tolerated far less sympathetically these days. The practice of digital photography by absolutely everyone with a smartphone, compact system camera or DSLR camera is now so pervasive in so many tourist destinations that a lot of regional and municipal governments are trying to stop or restrict photography in certain areas or at certain times in certain areas. It's called social overload - we all feel it from time to time these days, so when we're being tourist photographers it shouldn't surprise us that other people in the places we're visiting feel social overload too sometimes when we point our cameras at them. So-called photographers' rights be damned, for the most part, when you're a tourist trying to debate a photo refusal by a member of the local constabulary or a private security guard or a shopkeeper. Shut up, move on. You're a guest in the city and the country, so act like one and remember that doing so sometimes means cheerfully accepting whatever rules you're read even when you know they're legally wrong. The worst place to spend a few hours of your hard-won vacation is in a holding cell or an interrogation room at the local police station. No cleaning wipes there at all.
Great travel experiences begin with sensible preparation, packing the things you really need, including emergency provisions in your planning, traveling as light as possible, and traveling with a smile on your face and courtesy in your tone of voice. Do so and you'll have a blast.
My favourite carry-on rolling luggage: Briggs & Riley Baseline 20"
My favourite camera bag: Billingham f/Stop 1.4 Shoulder Bag
My favourite backup travel camera: Fujifilm X100S
My favourite travel and long distance walking shoes: Ecco Torre Semi Mid GTX
. . . and I could write a book about the quality, wearability, usefulness and packability of Tilley Endurables and ExOfficio travel clothing.