Fifty Travel Tips for your Next Photo Safari

By Joe Van Os on Oct 18, 2011

There are numerous guidebooks and websites for travelers to find weather, cultural and geopolitical information, as well as general travel tips to make your journeys more comfortable, efficient and enjoyable.

Here is a list of 50 travel tips that I—and many other many professional photographers—use to make life easier on the road.  Although many of these tips seem like “no brainers,” it is amazing how often people forget to bring alarm clocks and other personal items, or fail to read details about climate when determining their clothing and equipment needs on the road.

Many seasoned travelers can quote the number one travel tip found in most guidebooks and on travel websites—“pack light!”  Heeding that tip has lots of merit.  Yet you don’t want to go on a far-flung trip and regret not bringing a useful piece of equipment or a warmer jacket. Just be sure you can carry it!

Wherever your travels take you, no one in their right mind should try to accomplish all of these tips or pack all of this stuff in preparation for their photo travels.  Pick and choose the strategies that are important to where and when you are traveling, as well as your personal style on the road.  Remember, travel is never any fun if you have to agonize over all the details.

Tips for Personal Gear and Packing It

 

1.    Pack light! (What did I tell you?)  There are two types of travelers—those who pack light and those who wish they did!   Laundry services for clothing worn daily are available at many locations—so cutting back on the number of shirts and slacks you bring is a good place to start.  Remember, when traveling on a trip using small charter airplanes, the weight limit is a safety issue—and paring down your gear may be a real necessity.

2.    Don’t skimp on critical gear!  If you are really going to need a variety of cold weather gear (for a trip to Antarctica, for example), why set off on an expensive once-in-a-lifetime trip and leave behind a waterproof jacket, rain pants, extra storage hard drives, a better pair of waterproof boots, your tripod and maybe a lens or two to save comparatively little money?  Pay excess baggage charges and don’t worry about missing something you “should have packed.”

3.    A good quality Gore-Tex jacket doubles as both rain gear and a lightweight warm and wind-resistant jacket.  The best place to pack it is on top of all your other clothing to be able to access it quickly when you arrive at a cool or stormy destination.

4.    Pack your shampoo, conditioner or other liquids that could leak in your checked luggage in doubled, freezer-strength Ziploc bags to contain any possible leakage.  Shampoo-soaked jackets and slacks are a genuine hassle.  Remember liquids, gels and aerosols must be in 3.4 ounce (100ml) or smaller containers when transported in carry-on luggage and must fit into a quart-sized Ziploc bag.

5.    Keep your medications, prescriptions, extra eyeglasses, contact lenses and any important documents in your carry-on bag.  Never place them in your checked luggage, which could be delayed.  Keep medicine in original containers, if possible, with legible prescriptions.

6.    Place a lightweight empty duffel bag within your checked baggage to be able to carry souvenirs you purchase on your trip or isolate dirty laundry from your clean items.  Make sure it is sturdy enough to use as checked baggage if the necessity arises.

7.    When heading out from home on the first leg of an international trip, pack one set of underwear and socks in your camera pack or place it in a coat pocket—just in case your luggage does not arrive when you get there.  This allows a partial fresh change of clothes after a long flight and the ability to wash one set while the other is being worn.  A short baggage delay will become a little more tolerable with a fresh set of underwear!

8.    Place a photocopy of the front pages of your passport in your luggage and camera bag.  The passport photocopy will come in very handy if your passport is lost/stolen and must be replaced at your county’s embassy during your travels.  Leave a copy with a family member or friend who could fax you the photo copy in case your passport and photo copies are lost.

9.    Place your credit card numbers and issuing bank phone numbers on a USB flash drive or use a free email account such as hotmail.com to access them from a stored email from anywhere in the world.  If your wallet is lost or stolen, you will know exactly which cards you have lost and you will have all the telephone numbers to call to cancel credit cards.  Because there is a potential security risk to this method from hacking, encrypt the data or rearrange the numbers slightly to make their use more difficult for identity thieves.  Some smartphone apps also allow encrypted storage of this information in your cell phone.

10.    Add your email address to your baggage tag information.  If your bag is delayed in transit, email may be the quickest way to communicate with your airline.  If you are carrying your cell phone with you, place your phone number on the luggage tag, clearly marked as your cell.

11.    Sunglasses and sunscreen are valuable on virtually every photography trip.  Since most photo trips spend the majority of the day outside, a hat with a wide brim or a baseball cap will protect your face and eyes from the sun.

12.    Make sure to bring a travel alarm clock and wristwatch with alarms loud enough to wake you (especially if you use sleep aids like melatonin or Ambien). Clocks with multiple time zone capabilities allow you to see what time it is back home so you can call there at a reasonable hour.  Don’t rely on hotel wake-up calls!

13.    When traveling abroad by plane always take a ballpoint pen with you.  Put one in your camera bag.  During the flight you will need to fill in customs forms before landing.  It’s amazing how many people seem not to have a pen when they need one.

14.    A small flashlight or headlamp is useful for so many things from seeing camera controls when shooting at the first and last light of day to maneuvering around your hotel room during a power failure—or when the generator has been switched off at a remote jungle camp and nature calls.  Keep it where you can easily find it!

15.    Take older clothes that can be left behind towards the end of your trip.  In many Third World countries the local people are pleased to receive these donations.  In remote areas, laundry done on the rocks of a river with strong lye soaps and bleach can easily ruin good clothing.  Eliminating old clothes from your luggage allows much more room for bringing home souvenirs.

16.    Although you can’t lock your luggage when flying to, from and within the US—unless locks are TSA-approved—take a lock and/or the keys to your bag/suitcase and keep it locked for security in your hotel or camp.  Place a suitcase strap around your luggage to keep baggage from opening while traveling.  Never leave cash, credit cards or your passport in your hotel room—even in a locked suitcase!

17.    A couple of plastic coat hangers come in handy for drying clothing when there is no convenient shower curtain rod or insufficient hangers in the hotel closet.

18.    If you (really) care that your clothes get a bit wrinkled from being packed in a duffel bag, here is an easy way to put them back in shape:  Place your clothes on a hanger.  Travel with a small spray bottle and fill it with water.  Lightly spray the clothing and let hang dry for a while.  This usually eliminates most of the wrinkles.

19.    Lightweight synthetic slacks dry much faster than blue jeans or cotton slacks.  They are extremely useful in camps and lodges that do laundry by hand and dry it in the sun, especially if you need your laundry returned in a short period of time.

20.    It’s helpful to pack and repack your suitcase, computer briefcase and camera bag in the same order or place and return each object to the same location every time you use it.  During short stays, you’ll then be able to reach into your bags and find what you want without unpacking completely.  Putting things back in the same place makes them easier to find and avoids a number of frantic searches during your trip.  This is especially true for your keys, wallet and passport.

21.    If you are traveling with a spouse or significant other, pack half of your clothes in his/her bag, and carry half of his/her clothing in your luggage.  If one bag gets lost in transit, you each have at least half of your things.

Tips on Miscellaneous Camera Gear and Equipment

 

22.    After packing your camera bag, carry it around a block or two and see how it feels.  You may want to reevaluate the amount of gear you’re taking with you.  Make shoulder strap adjustments as needed.

23.    Alcohol wipes, normally used to sterilize skin before administering injections, can be obtained from any pharmacy and make outstanding camera cleaning swabs (not for cleaning lens glass).  They are also useful for cleansing cuts and minor abrasions.

24.    Save the free shower caps from hotel rooms to use as camera covers during light rain or drizzle.  The shower caps can also be placed over dirty shoes packed in your suitcase to keep the rest of your clothing clean as you travel from place to place.

25.    A small Polaroid camera (yes, Polaroid still makes an instant camera—but the image is small!) can enhance your photo trip by allowing you to be able to give instant photos to the local people you may be photographing in remote areas.  Too many photographers, despite their good intentions, often fail to follow through with promised photographs once they get home.  Showing the image on the back of your digital camera is a good second choice but does not leave a lasting hard-copy gift.

26.    For international travel, make sure your battery, computer, iPod and cell phone chargers are compatible with an AC 110 volt power source as well as convertible with a 220 volt power source or vice versa.  Remember to check the shape of the plugs available at your destination and bring appropriate adapters to fit them.  Many hotel rooms in remote areas have only one electrical outlet—occupied by the lamp.  Hardware stores in larger cities may sell cheap three-way plug adapters that let you keep the lamp on and your camera battery and cell phone charged.

27.    Place your tripod and other heavy objects at the bottom of the suitcase where the hinges are.  They will stay in place and not shift and damage clothing or other packed items due to their weight.

Health and Safety Tips

 

28.    Take a minute to study the fire instructions posted in your hotel room.  Keep your room key, wallet and a flashlight on a bedside table so you can find them in the dark.  In case of fire, take them with you when you leave.  If smoke is coming into the room, touch the door, frame and knob.  If they are cool, slowly open the door.  Take a wet towel to cover your face.  If your door is hot, do not open it, but remain in the room.  Run water in the tub, soak towels, and use them to block the crack under the door.  Do not use elevators.

29.    When leaving a hotel on a tour, always take a hotel business card, matchbook or stationery with the hotel name and address on it.  Just show one to your cab driver and there won’t be any mistake as to where you are staying, especially in foreign lands where your language skills may be limited.

30.    Hotel glasses and ceramic coffee cups are sometimes just rinsed out in the bathroom sink during room cleaning and simply dried (possibly with a dirty towel) for the next room occupants to use.  If possible, use the hygienic plastic-wrapped disposable cups or boil water in the room’s coffee pot to sanitize glasses and coffee cups before using them.

31.    Know your blood type and include it with your passport, wallet and other travel documents.

32.    Toilet tissue can be at a premium in some primitive areas.  Before leaving home, save the remaining half of three rolls from your bathroom.  To pack them efficiently, remove the center cardboard tube and press them flat.

33.    Foam rubber ear plugs work great for flying in small and noisy commuter planes, help you cope with a snoring roommate, and aid in sleeping on a long-distance flight.  Opaque eye shades are also useful for sleeping on these flights.

34.    In many countries, feminine hygiene products are difficult to obtain or are very different from those used in North America and Europe.  Products are often difficult or potentially embarrassing to attempt to describe by sign language in foreign lands.  Women should make sure to have an ample supply before leaving home.

35.    Have a dental check up before you travel to lessen the potential need for emergency treatment while overseas.

36.    Get a flu shot before traveling in close quarters on an airplane or cruise ship during flu season.

37.    Wash your hands often, keep your fingernails clean, and avoid touching your face.  When traveling it is a good idea to carry an alcohol-based hand sanitizer (cleans and disinfects without water).  Purell Hand Sanitizer is a good brand and available throughout North America.  It kills bacteria but not viruses (like flu!).

38.    One of a traveler’s worst enemies can be a new pair of shoes or hiking boots.  Break in any new footwear well in advance of your trip to avoid blisters and other foot ailments.

Tips for Dealing with Airlines Delays

 

39.    If you are meeting a tour or cruise ship, consider flying to your departure point at least a day early.  Adding an extra day can alleviate some of the anxiety of flight delays and allows time for missing baggage to catch up with you before you head out on your scheduled trip.  This procedure also allows rest time to lessen jet lag and allocates a bit of local sightseeing and private time before meeting your group.

40.    Flight delays occur because of bad weather, “bunched” flights, union work-stop actions, limited airport capacity, an insufficient number of air traffic controllers, mechanical failure and undersold flights.  Airlines are under no obligation to get ticketed passengers to their destination at any scheduled time.  Neither are they obligated to compensate you for missed cruises, tours and connections.  If your flight is cancelled or seriously delayed and you have an emergency, such as a family illness or a tour or cruise ship departure, tell the airline’s counter representative.  Often they will attempt to prioritize and expedite your new schedule if they are aware of the situation.

41.    When a flight is cancelled or delayed for several hours, ask the airline to place you on the next available flight—regardless of carrier.  They may put you on a competitor’s flight if they have nothing scheduled in a reasonable time period.  Ask your airline to check other airlines’ schedules and endorse your ticket to the new carrier.  This is more likely to happen if you’ve purchased your ticket directly from the airline instead of from a discount website.  When delayed, stay calm and polite—getting upset never helps the situation.

42.    When you travel, stick with one airline as much as possible.  Travelers in an airline’s upper echelons of frequent flyer programs often get priority rescheduling when there are flight delays.  They also receive special toll free customer service numbers to call that alleviate standing in long counter lines when delays occur.

43.    Check with airline staff to find out what services they can provide if you’re delayed at an intermediate stop on a direct flight or during a plane change.  Ask about meals, hotels and phone calls.  Request a meal voucher if a delay extends through a mealtime.  Often they can provide you with a phone card as well.  If the delay extends past 1 AM, request a hotel voucher.  Airlines will not provide meal or hotel vouchers at your flight’s point of origin.  Airlines will probably not compensate you for anything due to weather delays.

44.    Avoid flying at peak traffic times.  When possible choose flight dates between noon Monday to noon Thursday, and noon Saturday to noon Sunday.

45.    Do you know the difference between non-stop and direct flights?  Non-stops fly directly to the destination.  Direct flights may stop several times but passengers do not need to change planes.  Knowing the difference between these and other connecting flights can save time and reduce the chance of lost luggage during transfers to other aircraft en route to your destination.

46.    Many travel insurance policies have a Trip Interruption clause which, if you are delayed, will pay for your expenses to catch up with a tour group—including additional transportation, meals and lodging.  They may also reimburse you for missed days on your tour.  Check your policy before you travel!  If possible, use your tour contact information to reach the trip leader for assistance in meeting the group on the road.

Customs Regulations

 

47.    Check the expiration date of your passport well in advance of your trip.  Make sure your passport is current.  Many countries will not permit you to enter or will decline to give you a visa if your passport’s remaining validity is less than 6 months from the dates of your trip.

48.    A wealth of travel information from the US State Department can be found on the web at http://travel.state.gov.  There are links for numerous sites within the government regarding travel warnings, customs regulations, services and information for travelers abroad, and a variety of other topics.  Canadian, Australian and European nationals, etc. can access similar information on their home country government websites.

49.    For Americans and Canadians traveling between Canada and the US, Canada requires proof of US citizenship—and vice versa.  Traveling by air, this necessitates the use of a passport.  By land, a passport or an Enhanced Drivers License ID card (currently issued by Michigan, New York, Vermont, Washington, British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec) is required.   A “normal” driver’s license, voter registration card or birth certificate is not a valid proof of citizenship for entry into either country.

50.    There are applications for smartphones that list the address and telephone numbers of every US embassy in the world.  Apps for Canadian and European embassies are also available.