Last month, my wife and I returned from 9 days in Croatia, with a brief stopover in Munich. We took our nine year old daughter on her first real vacation. It was her first time flying, and her first time leaving the country. Needless to say, I think she (and we) have a great deal of new and lifelong memories, mainly from our daughter meeting her extended family for the first time.
Since I just got back, I’ve been thinking about the things we brought, and the things we didn’t. As usual, we traveled with one bag each (I’ll talk more about this below). This means that packing has to be light, both for weight’s sake, and not to draw the wrath of the airlines, who do everything they can to get extra fees from you.
When away from home for a good amount of time, the key is to balance necessity and comfort with the very real and very important notion that this is an opportunity to get away from the objects that fill our homes. Even if you are staying in a luxury hotel, 10 days away from home is a chance to restart your life in a new place in new circumstances. In our case, we rented, along with 3 other couples, a luxury villa. It had 4 bedrooms, 4 bathrooms, an in-ground pool, sauna, full kitchen, etc. Though this might sound expensive, when split amongst the guests, it was cheaper than staying in a hotel for the same amount of time. The only trade off is not having maid service or continental breakfasts, but the communal cooking and providing our own food also saved us a great deal of money.
Based on our experiences, here are some things you should bring on an overseas vacation.
One Reliable Mobile Phone-GSM Network
If you live a modern life, you need a mobile phone. Chances are you left a family behind that may need to contact you. When on the road, you will need a way to call for help should your rental car break down in the middle of nowhere. To serve this purpose, I brought my old iPhone 3G3, which was top of the line in 2009, but has long sat in our junk drawer. I’ve saved this phone specifically for this purpose, because as you can see in the heading for this section, the phone should be a GSM Band or Dual Band, meaning it has a removable SIM card. This allows you to purchase a cheap SIM card in your destination country, and have a local number and data access. CDMA network phones, like Verizon, may not be a good choice.
You will also notice that I said “reliable” – there’s a reason. It was not until I was lost by myself in the twisty Croatian city of Pula that I discovered my iPhone could not hold a charge. I had driven into Pula by myself with the specific mission of buying a phone card, and overestimated my familiarity with the city. Like a dumbass, I left my GPS and phone charger at our accommodation. After driving around for an hour, I went to a grocery story to buy a SIM card. The man, speaking no English, handed me a piece of paper after taking my money. I realized he had sold me a minutes-refill, and not the actual SIM card I needed. After finding an employee who spoke English, I then realized they did not sell the actual cards, and could not give me a refund. They did direct me to a news-stand that sold the cards. where I could buy one and use the paper/code to recharge it. After driving there, the lady (who also didn’t speak English) told me she had a SIM card, but did not accept credit card or Euros. In my haste in being lost and late to meet the car rental guy, I had forgot to withdraw some local Croatian Kuna from the grocery store.
Back I went to the grocery store for $20 in cash, then back to the news stand where the same woman proceeded to…sell me another paper recharge. Apparently she misunderstood me. In broken Croatian I asked her where I could get the “kartica” and she directed me to another news stand. They did have a card, but to add more tragedy to this story, I had no small pin with which to open my SIM card tray. After five minutes of futility, I found an old ball point pen in the rental car, and took it apart, MacGyver style. I straightened out the spring, and it worked! Of course, I poked it into my finger first, drawing blood.
Moral of the story: make sure your phone works ahead of time, and that you bring your charger.
This story makes a nice segue to…
In addition to this phone, we brought our Asus Tablet, which was preloaded with a cached-map GPS app for Croatia, meaning we could have turn-by-turn directions without the need for a Wi-Fi connection. I will recommend that you to bring a separate device to use for GPS, one that isn’t connected to a data network. This is because using GPS data can kill your minutes or cost you quite a bit of money in data fees. By preloading maps onto your device, they can be used without the need to be connected to a network. If you don’t have the ability to do this, I would suggest paying the extra money to a rent-a-car company. Ten dollars a day is worth the peace of mind, and it will probably save you a bunch of lost time that could be better spent enjoying your vacation.
One Bag Only
I’m not afraid to say that if you can’t go on vacation with just a carry on, there is something wrong with you. I’m not talking about a tiny handbag, but rather something like the eBags Weekender, specifically designed to maximize space while still complying with airline carryon restrictions. As I mentioned earlier, airlines are getting more stingy every day, and if they make you stick your bag in their sizer, they might get you. To make sure they don’t, check in online ahead of time or use a kiosk so you don’t have to talk to airline staff, and make sure your cinch straps are tight and shoulder straps are tucked away during boarding. It’s best to keep your bag out of their sight until the last possible moment.
By having one bag, things are less complicated, especially on an international trip. You are free to scope out standby options for different flights without worry that your already-checked bag will be lost. Also, you don’t have to spend an extra 45 minutes after the flight staring at a sleeping baggage carousel, wishing it would start spinning.
Every time I go overseas, I use less and less bag space. Even this time, I packed lighter than last time, and still didn’t wear everything. If you stay somewhere that has a laundry option, you can bring even fewer clothes. Vacation should be about spending as much time in your swim trunks as possible anyway, so who cares what you wear?
An Open Mind
The most important thing you can bring is an open mind, meaning that even the best laid plans will fail. This is what I tried to remind myself as I aimlessly drove the winding streets of Pula, lost in a country where most people don’t speak my language. As you can see from my experience, unless you make the journey part of the trip, rather than something standing in the way of your trip, you will become disappointed, especially traveling five or six thousand miles.
In this day and age, traveling somewhere with a language barrier, you can’t afford to be trapped with no information, unless you are traveling by yourself. In our case, I had visitors who were counting on me to guide them around and solve our logistical problems. Next time I do this, I will make damn sure I’ve got a better phone and link to immediate information, if only to maximize the time I can spend unplugged, next to the pool.