Saturday, February 19, 2011

AU & NZ travel tips

Before I leave the blogging of Australia and New Zealand completely, some people have mentioned it's the trip they want to take as well so I thought I'd share some travel tips in case you do decide to go.  Some of these are specific to the countries I visited and the tour I was on but others can be generalized to travel in general.

If you're going on a tour, choose the right itinerary - it's better to go from roughing it to being pampered, not the other way around.  When you start the tour, you'll be much fresher and more willing and able to put up with tougher conditions than at the end of several weeks away from home.  I thought our itinerary was perfect as we did the Outback in the first week then went on to the cities.  I don't think I could've dealt with it the other way: enjoy the beauty of New Zealand, the comfort of Sydney and Melbourne then deal with the heat and the flies of the Outback.  Uh-uh.

Factor in the cost of internet, food and excursions - I underestimated how expensive Australia was going to be, especially against a weaker US dollar.  If you're doing a tour, book your excursions in advance.  The tour company charges an extra $10 per person per additional excursion if you wait until the tour to decide.  It might be nice to have the flexibility by not booking in advance but be prepared to pay extra for that flexibility.  I also spent more than I thought I would on internet access, mostly to keep up with email, facebook and my blog but that was a personal choice.  In some of the cities you can get internet access fairly cheaply at internet cafes.  The hotels are the most convenient but also the most expensive.

Bring cash - limit credit card and ATM usage to avoid extra fees.  Before the trip, we were advised to bring a combination of cash, credit cards and ATM cards.  I only brought cash and 2 credit cards.  I like to use my American Express wherever possible but not everyone takes Amex so I also brought a Visa card.  I didn't bring my ATM card but I did bring as much cash as I wanted to spend.  Bringing the ATM card would've meant more cash at my disposal but also more bank fees.  I'm not a believer in paying bank fees so I'd rather take the risk of bringing more cash than not.  But that's a personal choice and I was very careful to distribute my money so I wasn't carrying it all at once on me and the rest was locked up.  I didn't use my credit card except for buying the rings in Christchurch and the plane ride back to Queenstown from Milford Sound.  Otherwise I paid for everything with the cash I brought with me.  The advantage of that is complete control over what I'm spending plus also control over what I'm buying.  It's very, very easy to buy stuff on the tour/when you're traveling but I'm willing to bet much of it I'd regret later and not know what to do with once I got home (like the Indiana Jones hat I wanted to buy in the Outback, lol).  Also, cash is king - travelers checks seem obsolete and I'm glad I didn't bring any.

Plenty of currency exchange places - don't change money at the airport if they don't have competitive rates; change at places that don't charge a fee or minimizes future fees.  Change whatever amount you think you're going to reasonably spend in the country and avoid changing too many times since you may be charged the commission fee every time you change money.

Bring a water bottle; you can drink tap water in AU and NZ - you can save yourself a lot of money by bringing a water bottle or hanging onto the first one you buy.  The tap water in the hotels we stayed at was drinkable and I just kept replenishing my water bottles as we went.  If you like cold water, it's better to bring 2 medium or small-sized water bottles than 1 giant one as those are likely to fit better in the mini fridge in the hotel rooms.

Borrow transformer from the hotels - prior to my trip I kept agonizing whether to bring my laptop and a transformer.  I could've saved myself the agony had I known how easy it was to borrow a transformer at the hotels.  It allowed me to use my laptop more often than I thought I would, upload my pictures and keep fairly current on my blog without completely draining my battery.  The only time I couldn't borrow a transformer was in Auckland as they had run out of the ones suitable for US plugs.  I did bring my own adapter/converter but used that mainly to charge my camera batteries, kindle, ipod and electric toothbrush.  Ironically the one time I used the hotel's transformer to charge my electric toothbrush instead of my own adapter is when it seemed to short my toothbrush and now it's all wacky on me when I got home.  But that was the only mishap.

Don't buy the biggest suitcases - too big, too heavy.  I can't emphasize this enough, especially when you're making multiple stops on your travels.  Since most airlines charge per suitcase, many people think they should buy the largest suitcase available so that they only have to bring one.  Don't bother.  Airlines also restrict you by weight and the larger suitcases are also heavy even before you pack them so you risk an overweight fee.  I bought a medium size suitcase for this trip as my large suitcase seemed too large.  Best decision I ever made.  I packed it only 2/3 full and was able to carry it myself all along the way, even as I bought presents to bring home.  Pretty handy when you want to porter your own bag and you have to pack and re-pack it every 1-3 days.  If you can't lift your own suitcase, it's either too big or too heavy.  Don't bring it.

Take half of what you think you need and just do laundry at the hotels.  I was 90% successful at this.  I packed for 2/3 of the trip and did laundry halfway through the trip.  I probably could've brought even less but I was pretty happy with how things turned out since I only had to worry about laundry once and I wore almost everything I brought.  Don't take more than 3 pairs of shoes: tennis shoes, comfortable walking shoes you can wear for hours and a pair of dressier shoes for shorter walks.  You can get away with less but don't bring more.  You won't need it and there's nothing more frustrating than lugging stuff with you that you don't use or need.

Above all else, go with the mindset prepared to have a good time.  It sounds obvious to say this but all travelers should be reminded you're traveling for various reasons, not the least of which is I hope to enjoy a different place than home.  Don't make unfavorable comparisons to home - if you like home, stay there.  Otherwise be open to new things when you travel.  At the beginning of this trip, I thought I'd hold a koala (which I did) but I hadn't imagined I would ride (or eat) a camel, go on a hot air balloon ride, or ride in a tiny, tiny plane to flightsee in New Zealand.  Beyond that, be flexible.  No amount of careful planning will anticipate every contingency.  Sometimes the weather sucks, sometimes you get seasick, sometimes the bus driver hits a wallaby (ugh), sometimes another bus driver doesn't know what he's doing and leaves you to fend for yourself which is a waste of your time and money.  Yeah, that can get annoying but roll with it.  Nothing will ruin your vacation unless you let it.  Don't let it.  I had a marvelous time and am so glad I finally went on this trip.  I've learned much and the world felt just a little bit smaller as I saw more of it.  And that's a good thing.

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