GOING on a international vacations takes a lot of planning. Deciding on a destination is just the start. Visas, tickets, accommodation. These are just the basics that an oft travelled person on the beaten path knows has to tackle. But what about the first-time traveller? It is difficult just managing to have the passport made in Pakistan. So just imagine the shocks that await the first-time traveller from our end. So here is a mini-guide to what awaits you on your inaugural journey outside the country.
THE HOME FRONT: Before you even board a plane, you need to have all your documents in order. It all starts with the CNIC which is your basic identification card wherever you go. The information on that card is what is also reflected on your passport. Speaking of which, make sure your passport is valid for another six months for the duration of your travel. I know someone for whom getting a Turkish visa was a no-go as her passport had only six months left on it.
Then there is the ticket on which the name and the required information should be correct. Baggage information, time duration of the journey and meal (chicken or vegetarian) all should be checked and finally accepted. Also, ensure you have a valid visa – valid is the key word here. You know what they say about assumption being the mother of all …!
And then there is the matter of finances. Dollars, Euros or Pounds in cash. If you are going to any other country, some of the local currency is also good. But what is not good is the Pakistan Rupee. It’s not recognised and not accepted. So, a couple of thousand rupees for hiring a cab on the return leg is good enough. And, yes, the amount should not exceed the State Bank of Pakistan limit. There, then, you are set with your basic preparation.
Travelling abroad for the first time carries its own excitement, but the key lies in considering every step before taking it. Keep it simple and the fun is all there to be had.
PERSONAL EXPECTATIONS: Where and when you are headed dictates your travel wardrobe. Sometimes you need two sets of clothes to account for a radical change in weather. Days in Istanbul maybe pleasant during the winters, but at night, the weather really dips. Your medicine pouch should be enough to last you through the trip. Bathroom accessories too should be there. Remember, all these things can be gotten where you are going, but they will cost you in dollars.
Then there is the accommodation. Personal experience dictates that even if you have relatives in that particular place, always opt for paid accommodation. You don’t agree? Try and live with your brother-in-law and you will long cherish the dream of independence.
These can be hotels or AirBnB accommodation. Plenty of websites around to guide are there for you to make a planned judgement. Hotels are cheapest and best in the East. Europe is so expensive that AirBnB is the best option. The US and Canada too have places for budget accommodation.
Hotels in the southeast Asian region are not only cheaper but spacious as well. As they go about developing their tourist economy, the standard of affordable living for visitors just keeps getting better. In Europe, hotels are a luxury. That is why you will find families renting out their guest-rooms. There are even university dormitories, hostels, convents renting out places that work equally better.
Language maybe a barrier at certain places but you can surpass that with the help of Google translator. You won’t find mint chocolates on the pillows at these places, but personalised service in terms of where to go and what to visit is forthcoming. Travel sites are quick to post about four- and five-star accommodation, leading you to believe that that is the only option. That is not the case.
OPTIONS: If you are a good planner, there is an interesting alternative at least in Europe that is unbelievably light on the pocket; the trains. Suppose you are travelling from Spain to Italy or even Greece, get bunked accommodation on the train, start the journey late in the night and arrive at your destination by the next morning. Sure it requires a lot of planning, and the choice is between admiring the German industrial heartland and sleeping, but this sort of budgeting helps and is, indeed, fun. And the European trains are great accommodation too. We are accustomed to travelling in Pakistani trains and falling asleep with their rickety raking. So the super smooth European trains shouldn’t be an issue.
EN GUARD: Contrary to what you may have heard or read, my travel experience has told me Pakistanis are some of the nicest people on the planet. When we see a foreigner, we just roll out the king’s carpet for them. Our hospitality knows no bounds. Which is why we expect the same, and in most cases don’t get it. Even worse, we are ignored or, in extreme cases, robbed!
Stories of Pakistani travellers losing their belongings to unscrupulous elements are too common. So why take a chance? Passport is your most precious commodity, followed by the money. Don’t keep them both in one place. The passport should be in the front pocket and nowhere else. Money, some in the front pocket, some in the socks, in the jeans pocket. But never in the bag or any other luggage. Tales of anguished Pakistani travellers continue to remind us of our fears.
ALL ABOARD: Where to go and when to leave. These are default questions. The destination is a personal preference thing, you may have read about a place or saw it in a movie. It all depends on which kind of weather you want to enjoy. Usually it is anything but the winters. Also, maybe you want to avoid the crowds and avail discounts, so you opt for the off-season, that is when there are no festivals happening abroad and schools are closed at home. These could be between the spring summer season, or the summer autumn. New Year and Christmas are the most packed festivals.
GREAT EXPECTATIONS: For the first-time traveller it is always a hard choice when it comes to money. You think you have enough only to find out the food costs more than you estimated, and that doesn’t take much dampening your spirits. If not that, then the shopping breaks your back. Food is expensive in Europe. You even have to pay for the ketchup at an international food chain. Towards the East, it is the shopping that pulls in your bucks.
It is never too early to plan. Remember this is Pakistan where overnight rules change and the money supply goes abrupt. So it is good to start buying your foreign exchange well in advance. The major currencies are always good buy; Dollar, Euro and Pound. Then go for the currency of the country you plan on travelling to; the Malaysian Ringgit, the Turkish Lira and so on. Just enough to start off the vacations with. Make sure you also have a valid credit card to go with. Not necessarily to charge it, but just as a backup for unseen emergencies.
A note of caution here, your credit card has been issued against the Pakistani rupee but when you spend it abroad you get charged much more. So when you spend it, say in Turkey, the Rupee is converted into Liras, converted into dollars and then converted back into Rupees. And then, there are bank charges to knock your socks off. So, credit card is for emergency and nothing more.
HUNGER PANGS: Halal food is an issue when travelling to places that aren’t Muslim-majority. And during a vacation that can create an issue. In the major cities, that is not an issue. London is replete with Muslim cuisine. So is Paris and Amsterdam. You can also go for Jewish cuisine, their Kosher meals. However, where there is difficulty in choosing to look for meals or exploring the city, you can also learn to live off the French fries or sea food, or even bread and butter. Thankfully, the water we drink is the same!
BEWARE: Don’t take anything that can create trouble for you. Cooked food, for one. In fact, in Malaysia, you cannot bring in mangoes. Limit yourself to only 20 packets of cigarettes if you happen to be a smoker. Paan is a definitely no-no.
Remember, you are travelling to another country and another culture. Abide by the law. Don’t be too adventurous. If you get caught, you have had it. No chacha or mamoo is coming to your help. Smoking in confined areas; hotel rooms, cabs and public spaces is not allowed. Singapore has unbending rules to that end. They don’t even allow chewing gum! This basically means one should make sure of every step before taking it. Keep it simple and the fun is all yours.