zen habits : breathe

13 Ways to Simplify International Travel

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Chris Guillebeau of The Art of Nonconformity, the author of the Unconventional Guide to Discount Airfare.

I’m writing from my hotel balcony in Giza City, Egypt – just outside Cairo, and the site of the historic Pyramids. The sun is coming up right now, and the view is great. There’s only one problem:

A lot of other visitors here are unhappy.

They’re on vacation, far away from home, but they’re not enjoying themselves. Between the heat and the hassles, something has gone wrong… and unfortunately, the problem is not unique to Egypt.

From departure lounges all over the world to nice hotels on every continent, I see the same thing no matter where I go: some people are having the time of their lives, and others, well, would rather be at home.

There are probably several reasons for this phenomenon of unhappy tourists, but one of them is that international travel can be overly stressful and unnecessarily complicated. If travel becomes too complicated, you can end up defeating yourself before any external pressures even arrive.

To counter the stress, here are 5 “big-picture” strategies and 8 specific, practical tips you can use to simplify your next big trip. Some of them will help you save time and money – both worthy goals – but all will help you cut out some of the stress.

5 Big-Picture Strategies

Create Your Own Travel Philosophy – Prioritize what’s important to you, and plan your trip according to that. A lot of people have expectations or ideas about travel that they have received from others. I think it’s better to decide for yourself what you value about travel as well as how you like to travel.

As for me, I like to do it all. I go between nice hotels like the one I’m at in Egypt and $10 hostels… or even sleeping on the floor of airports from Dallas to Singapore. Yes, I know it’s crazy, but that’s the point – I travel on my own terms. Why not discover what you enjoy and do that?

Become comfortable with some amounts of stress – I don’t think it’s possible to travel completely stress-free; I’m more interested in finding a low-stress solution. You might be able to avoid any stress at all by escaping reality on a deserted island, but that kind of trip is rarely gratifying in the end. Focus instead on reducing stress by making simple choices.

Goal-Setting and Vacations – It sounds strange to some, but I suspect many Zen Habits readers will “get it” – I recommend setting a few personal goals for every trip, even a vacation. My goals may be as simple as running a few miles every day or writing two pages in my journal every morning, or they may be more detailed like completing a writing project I’ve been working on. If you have daily habits of productivity and goal-setting, you don’t need to completely set them aside just because you’re away from home.

Forgive yourself for mistakes – I’ve been to 94 countries so far in my quest to visit every country in the world, and I’ve probably made every mistake you can think of. A couple of months ago in between visits to Iraq and Eastern Europe, I even double-booked myself on two completely non-refundable flights home to Seattle. Yes, I assure you – if a travel mistake is possible, I have most likely made it. Along the way, I’ve learned that whenever I do something stupid, I have to let it go at some point.

Travel Zen – Even if you didn’t make the mistake, lots of disruptions and challenges can easily set you back while you’re in a distant land. Here’s where I invoke the Travel Zen mantra: “Life is an adventure.” If I wanted routine, I could have stayed home.

8 Practical Tips

Most tickets are changeable, no matter what is written on them. If you run into trouble, don’t give up – the airlines can make exceptions under the right circumstances. It doesn’t always work, but good things often come to those who are persistent. In an emergency, you may have better luck showing up at the airport to plead your case instead of calling customer service on the phone.

Courier and consolidator deals are long-gone, but there are other alternatives. Sadly, most of the old “Fly Anywhere as an Airline Courier” opportunities are now travel legends, thanks to the perfect storm of high fuel prices, globalization, and the post-9/11 travel environment. What should you do instead? Think budget airlines (more on that below), flexible travel dates, and buses or trains for trips of shorter distances.

Avoid overcrowded hubs to lower stress and save on taxes. Traveling through Heathrow airport (LHR) in London and Charles de Gaulle (CDG) airport in Paris is typically far more stressful than other airports. If you can skip them and choose a different routing, do. Also, these hubs (especially Heathrow) have the highest taxes in all of Europe. If you’re wondering why your flight to England costs so much, it’s because an average of $400 in taxes is added to the base ticket price. Good alternatives, in terms of less stress and lower taxes, include Frankfurt (FRA), Amsterdam (AMS), and my personal favorite – Vienna (VIE).

In Europe and Asia, budget airlines flourish more than in North America. The great site Attitude Travel includes a directory of every budget airline on both continents. Most of these airlines don’t show up when you look for flights on travel search engines, so it pays to check on all your options before booking a more expensive flight or train ride.

Creative lodging opportunities can completely alter how you travel. Hostels are not always the noisy, youth-only dorm rooms that many people think of – many of them have private rooms with bathrooms included, and they almost always cost less than hotels. Homestays are also getting more popular, allowing you a chance to save money and easily meet new people. Again, this kind of thinking goes back to the travel philosophy idea – figure out how you like to travel, and find a way to make that happen.

Create a strategy for your mileage earning. Never pass up an opportunity to earn Frequent Flyer miles, even if you don’t expect to fly that airline again. I’ve used miles for countless trips across the Atlantic, in addition to flights to Africa, Mongolia, and others. With a careful strategy for earning miles over time, you can do the same thing. If necessary, you can avoid expiration dates for your miles by buying a small amount of miles for less than $20 every year – or just make sure there is some kind of activity on the account.

If possible, consider regional arbitrage. I save a great deal of money by beginning most of my Round-the-World trips from Southeast Asia. Even simple round-trip tickets are usually less expensive when purchased outside of North American and Europe, so even when traveling to or from the U.S., I make sure to buy the ticket elsewhere.

(For me, this helps me simplify, but if you don’t travel that much, it might make your life more complicated… so as they say, your mileage may vary.)

Fly three places for the price of one – With a regional pass such as the Circle Pacific fare or the South America Visitor Pass, you can often get multiple flights for just slightly more (sometimes even less, ironically) than a single, round-trip ticket. One tip: because these products don’t usually pay commission, most travel agents won’t help with them. You’ll need to learn more about different kinds of passes and then contact the airline directly to book when you’re ready.


Your Perspective

If you’re willing to be creative, you can still get some great deals out there, simplifying your travel while lowering costs at the same time. I do so all the time, regardless of oil prices, bankrupt airlines, and a weakening economy.

Lastly, remember to be grateful. In my last post over here, I introduced the Zen Habits community to a gratefulness challenge. Many of you took up the mantle and wrote about what you were grateful for. Although it’s easy to forget, choosing to be grateful has helped me through a lot of difficult travel situations.

Now it’s your turn to simplify. How do you like to travel? What would you add to this post? Feel free to share your own ideas in the comments section.

World traveler Chris Guillebeau writes at The Art of Nonconformity. From 2002-2006 he worked as an aid worker in West Africa, and over the next five years he will be visiting every country in the world. His ebook, the Unconventional Guide to Discount Airfare, provides 29-pages of additional travel tips and strategies.

If you liked this article, please share it on del.icio.us, StumbleUpon or Digg. I’d appreciate it. :)

Join a million+ breath-taking readers: rss | email | twitter