I love to travel. And I love airports.
I usually arrive crazy early (far ahead of the TSA time recommendations) just so I can hang out, do some shopping, eat, and have a drink or two.
It’s calming for me, and as a lifelong nervous flyer, this early arrival allows me some mental space to chill, perhaps find a new book, and build a little beer buzz before embarking on my journey.
And while my love for a good airport is devout, they can also be incredibly stressful places. Especially if you allow the little inconveniences of travel to hijack the sanity of your well earned time away.
Since 9/11, air travel has become a mostly torturous slog:
Unpacking most everything you just packed.
Being forced to strip your clothes off.
All before being presented with the glorious option of getting gamma rays blasted into your body from the X-ray machines or an aggressive pat-down from a surly TSA agent (crotch grab included).
Not most people’s idea of a pleasant experience.
Unless you’re a TSA agent.
But once the plane has lifted off and your journey has begun in earnest, there are five super-simple things you can do to make your eventual arrival in that new country a smooth experience.
Because, after all, who wants to begin their vacation or business trip stressed out?
The first thing I recommend to have on you at all times when traveling is a cheap ballpoint pen (don’t bring your Mont Blanc, it’ll just get lost or stolen).
I know this seems like a tiny detail, but I’ve been shocked at how useful a simple pen can be while traveling — especially if you are entering a foreign country.
When you touch down in a country not your own, lots of these places require you to fill out an arrival card.
It’s usually a very straightforward form, just a few details about you, your place of residence, your intended location while visiting, your flight info, and a signature.
The flight attendants will usually pass these forms out at the beginning of the flight or right before landing, which is super helpful, except they rarely have pens!
(Even though I always bring a pen with me, I don’t usually fill the arrival card out on the plane. I always stow my bags in the overheads, and I typically get window seats, so I don’t want to crawl over people simply to grab a pen).
So, once I disembark, and before I get to customs checks and immigration, I step to the side and find the pen.
There are usually desks with extra arrival cards if you forgot yours back on the plane, so don’t worry. But I’ve found that although there are additional forms, there are seldom any pens!
Or, if pens are there, they’re attached to the table by steel cables, and 100% dry of ink.
The only airport I’ve found working pens was in Singapore.
Way to go Changi Airport!
So having a pen in your backpack will significantly smooth your entry into a foreign country.
And as an added bonus, you can be a hero and give away your cheap pen to other travelers who haven’t yet had the good fortune to read this post.
Just remember to get a new one before you head back to the airport!
BUY A SIM CARD AT THE AIRPORT
The second thing I recommend doing once through customs and you have your bags is to buy a local SIM card.
I know you will probably pay double at the airport compared to what you could spend once you arrive in town, but in my experience, numerous frustrations can happen between the airport and the hotel.
Nowadays, staying connected is incredibly important to most of our lives. And not just to check our Instagram and twitter feeds.
Businesses run (or don’t) by being in nearly constant communication.
Of course, I’ve been in the workforce long enough to remember when email wasn’t a thing. I worked for a Fortune 500 company, with locations spanning the entire United States, and it operated without any sort of electronic communication, other than phone calls.
We had to attend a day-long training to learn how to use the new email mail intranet application once they finally caved to modernity and funded the company-wide upgrade.
Seems crazy, right?
But in today’s age, being down for even an hour or two could damage your company’s revenue, momentum, reputation, or the ability to avert a crisis or respond to an unfolding emergency.
For some of you, this may not be that big of a deal, but even while I’ve been on holiday, completely unplugged from my job, getting the SIM card in the airport has saved me multiple headaches.
I’ve been able to browse maps — up my locale geography knowledge — so I can call the taxi driver out when he begins driving me in circles, milking that meter.
(Yes, this happens).
I can also let my loved ones and coworkers know I’ve arrived, or inform the Airbnb host on my estimated arrival time.
Don’t pay the expensive international rate plan from your service provider back home.
Let your family and clients know how to reach you through email, and then. give them this new number for emergencies.
BRING A SIM CARD EJECTOR
The third tip is closely related to the second tip: bring a SIM card ejector with you in your backpack or your wallet.
Yes, yes, I know…
The company who just sold you the SIM card in the airport will have dozens of said ejectors to swap out your usual card for the new one.
That’s not what it’s for.
It’s for when, one week later, you want to swap out the local SIM back to your home SIM, to place an urgent call on that international calling plan that I told you not to buy.
(Couldn’t help yourself, I get it).
You would be amazed how few items are made thin enough to fit in that little hole on the side of your phone.
I’ve been on the beach in Thailand, realized I needed to make an urgent call back to the US, but I couldn’t find anything to get that damn SIM tray out of the phone.
I literally had to walk into the small town and ask at a 7/11 if I could borrow a paperclip.
I know this sounds like an incredibly small detail.
But if staying connected to the people and the businesses in your life are mission-critical, then you will need to remove any barrier that might get in the way of allowing this to happen.
In 2018, I traveled from China to Dubai, to Portugal, to Spain, back to Portugal, back to Dunai, and then home to China, swapping SIMs along the way to stay connected.
And that little piece of metal, jangling around in my backpack’s coin purse, came in very handy.
TAKE A PICTURE OF IMPORTANT DOCUMENTS
The next tip I’ll give for your immediate arrival in a new city or country is to have the local address of where you will be staying saved as favorites in your phone’s camera roll.
Yup… Take a picture and save it in your favorites.
Yes, yes, I know… But you have everything in your email or in your Expedia app.
If for whatever reason, you bypassed the SIM card purchase I recommended above, you may not have access to the internet and the cloud service where your email is stored.
Make sure you save it to your actual camera roll, “physically” on your phone!
Another tip: make sure the address is in the local language as well (Trip Advisor has this feature on most of their entries). This will allow you to show the address to your taxi driver.
And this tip doesn’t just apply to the address of where you are staying.
Take pictures of your full itinerary, your passport or other government IDs, credit card numbers, entry visas, medical insurance cards, travel insurance cards, etc.
Better to have a plan than to need one and not have one.
SKIP TAXI HELL
While I love airports, there’s nothing more satisfying than getting the hell out of one quickly once you’ve landed.
I don’t mind hanging out in an airport before a flight, but once I’m safely on the ground, I want to escape as fast as possible.
Part of acheiving this desired speed is to have an escape plan hatched before arrival.
And nothing can make this happen faster than lining up a transportation solution ahead of time.
If you can afford it — and I get some can’t — have a car waiting for you.
Most decent hotels offer a ride service. Most Airbnb hosts will have some sort of airport pick up for an additional fee.
I realize this is a bit of an indulgence, but if you can swing it financially, adding this to your travel budget is highly, highly recommended.
Having the peace of mind that someone will be waiting for you at the arrival hall, someone to cut through the crowds, grab your bags, and take you to an air-conditioned car is invaluable.
Some airports in certain countries are beyond chaos.
When my family landed in Ho Chi Minh City in early 2007, it was at night, and the place was literally overrun with thousands of people waiting for loved ones or business associates.
It was like a very polite and non-violent riot.
At that time, my wife had never been to Asia and to think she would need to navigate that crowd — that chaos — with a six-month-old (her father and stepmom also in tow), without me being there with our driver waiting, would’ve been a terrible experience for her.
As another example, even though I’ve been to Hong Kong numerous times, when I go, it’s usually to treat myself a weekend away from mainland China.
Hong Kong airport is great, has fast public transportation options, but for me, there’s nothing better than having that Mercedes from the Grand Hyatt waiting for me.
And I realize not everyone can do this.
But if you can, having a car and driver waiting at the airport can reduce your initial stress more than the other four tips above — combined!
Why not just take a taxi? They’re cheaper, right?
True, and I still use them when I forget this step in pre-trip planning or if the budget is tight.
But in most countries I’ve been to, there are licensed taxi drivers, and then there are unlicensed taxi drivers.
The taxi drivers who are officially approved to pick up customers are usually in the official taxi queue.
Yes, that really long line, just over there, stretching into eternity…
And then there are the unlicensed taxi dudes who greet you at the arrival hall and try to get you to go with them; hoping you will bypass the friction of the official taxi line (of which they explicitly point out to you, hoping you will see the mile-long queue and opt-in with them).
You would think that these guys would be cheaper, but in my experience, they are actually more expensive!
Not to mention un-regulated and sometimes very, very sketchy.
Do not go with these guys.
Have a friend, a coworker, or a hired car from your hotel or Airbnb waiting for you.
Go stand in that endless taxi line.
I recommend the line over the greasy guy at the arrival hall who promises a nice car and a fast exit.
I repeat, do not go with these guys.
A BONUS 6th TIP
The 5 tips above are shared to make your travel life easier. When I was first starting out traveling in Southeast Asia in the early 1990s I had to work and save to afford each trip. Sometimes this took multiple years. At the time, I wished there was a way I could make this trips happen at a faster pace.
Had I known about travel credit cards, I would’ve been able to more easily afford those earlier trips, some of the flights earned back through rewards.
But given the current state of travel in a Covid-19 world, you might be thinking this is a waste of time to apply for a card like this. Think again!
(I’ve linked a great article below).
Choosing Travel Credit Cards
Although some credit card companies are tightening their applications, now might still be a good time to look into travel credit cards. Despite not being able to immediately benefit from their awesome perks, you can start racking up points or miles to use in the future when travel restrictions are lifted.
STRESS-FREE ADVENTURE AWAITS!
So, there you have it!
While these are tiny, seemingly apparent tips, I’ve been surprised throughout my many travels, how often my friends, family, and acquaintances have never thought of these five super-simple travel hacks.
And because of this, they quite often start their new adventure frustrated, angry, or scared in the new country, when it could’ve been avoided with these five easy steps.