The ST Guide To... 15 things to do before going on vacation

Passengers at the departure hall of Changi Airport Terminal 2.
Passengers at the departure hall of Changi Airport Terminal 2. PHOTO: ST FILE

Travel can be both the most invigorating and the most stressful of experiences.

As someone who travels frequently for leisure and for my work as The Straits Times' travel writer, I am always on the lookout for travel tips and tricks which will help me make the most of my time abroad.

Over the years, I have found that what makes the difference between fun and disaster is often a matter of organisation.

Knowing the destination, having the appropriate supplies and safeguards are things that have given me the solid foundation to be flexible in my travels and take a detour off the beaten path if I feel like it. 

Solid pre-trip planning allows me to make decisions on a whim so that I can see, do and explore whatever interesting opportunities come my way, and enjoy the sort of unique adventures which make a trip memorable.

Having an informed idea of where I’m headed helps me to acclimatise easier, especially if I’ve managed to pack the appropriate clothing.

There’s nothing worse than expecting a warm, Indian summer and arriving to an early winter unprepared. Shorts and sandals in 10 degree weather is not ideal. Having your wallet stolen with all of your ATM cards and your entire supply of local currency isn’t great either.

I’ve made these mistakes so you don’t have to. Here are 15 things to do before you leave, so you have the best foundation for a fantastic vacation.

1. Copies of passports

Scan and make copies of your passport and Identity Card. Upload the copies to your preferred cloud service, such as iCloud, Dropbox or Google Drive, for easy access no matter where you are. Also save copies of the documents to your phone so that you can look them up easily and without Wi-Fi. These copies could come in handy during emergencies.

2. Phone numbers

Programme important phone numbers, such as those of your airline, bank, credit card company and hotel, into your phone. Also write them down somewhere safe - such as your guide book - in case your phone is stolen.

3. Activate credit cards

Activate your ATM and credit cards for use overseas. This way, you can bring only as much cash as you need and can quickly access funds or make a large purchase in an emergency.

Keep some local currency safely hidden in your hotel room so you have a supply to tide you over if your wallet gets stolen. 

4. Visas

Apply for necessary visas and check the validity of your passport. Many countries require travellers to have passports with at least six months' validity before they are allowed to enter.

5. Travel insurance

Purchase travel insurance and make sure your current plan is up to date. Travel insurance will not only cover your overseas medical bills in case of an accident, but also reimburse you if you have to cancel your trip for reasons such as illness, injury or death of a family member or a terrorist attack at your destination.

It will also cover the cost of essential items you need to buy if your bags are delayed or missing, and reimburse you for your personal belongings in lost baggage.

Most travel insurance plans also provide a 24-7 hotline to contact in case of medical emergencies, lost passports or cancelled flights.

Travel insurance policies can be purchased on an annual or per-trip basis for as little as $15. But if you plan on tackling what insurance companies call "hazardous activities" such as scuba, skiing and mountain biking during your trip, make sure you enhance your coverage, as these activities are typically not covered in the average plan.

6. What's the weather like?

Check the weather at your destination a couple of days before your departure and pack accordingly. The weather can be unpredictable in temperate climates, particularly in spring and autumn, so it is a good idea to prepare for four seasons in a day.

An umbrella, a windproof jacket and waterproof shoes are always useful to have on hand.

7. Get your shots

Stay up to date with your vaccinations and check with your doctor to see if you need any boosters. Some vaccines, including the Yellow Fever vaccine for travel to South America and sub-Saharan Africa, are highly recommended or required for these destinations.

Otherwise, packing a small first aid kit with band aids, disinfectant, painkillers and antacids will get you through most maladies. Keeping a travel-sized bottle of disinfectant hand gel and a pack of tissues also comes in handy when you're faced with dismal public restrooms.

8. Driving permit

Consider getting an International Driving Permit if you plan on driving overseas. The permit - a small paper booklet which includes your picture and your driver's licence information - translates your licence into 10 languages and is recognised in more than 150 countries. It is used in conjunction with - not instead of - your valid driver's licence, and may prove useful if you are pulled over by police or need roadside assistance overseas.

The permit is valid for one year and can be obtained only in the country which issued your driving licence. In Singapore, it costs $20 and you can get it at Automobile Association of Singapore branches or online at the association's website (www.aas.com.sg).

9. Tickets to attractions

Book tickets to attractions and museums before you leave. This is often the best way to score discounts,  avoid wasting time in queues and to avoid disappointment. Tickets for some attractions, such as the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, are sold out months in advance, so book ahead.

Advance booking of transportation, particularly for buses and trains, is particularly important to secure the cheapest rates.

10. Register with embassy

Register with your local embassy or consulate so they can provide assistance during an emergency, such as a natural disaster, political unrest or attack.

Singaporeans can register online with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs here (eregister.mfa.gov.sg/). Active national servicemen must remember to apply for an Exit Permit (www.ns.sg).

11. Learn some phrases

Learn key phrases, such as "hello", "thank you", "check, please" and "excuse me" in the local language. Additional phrases such as "where is", "I am lost", "left" and "right", will help you find your way around.

Also learn some of the do's and don'ts of local culture, including what to wear and how to address people so that you avoid causing offence.

12. Juice up devices

Charge your electronic devices before you leave in case your transit from A to B takes longer than expected. Take along appropriate plug adapters, as it is much more difficult to find the appropriate converter for your plug once you are overseas.

13. Wi-Fi router

Stay connected on short trips by renting a portable Wi-Fi router. Changi Recommends' travel services have at least one 24-hour booth in every Changi Airport terminal, where travellers can pick up the pocket-size router for $5 to $20 a day, depending on the destination. They should be reserved online (www.changirecommends.com) at least three days in advance.

Travellers on longer trips can save money by purchasing a top-up SIM card from a local service provider. This is handy for easy access to online maps and researching your destination on the go. The ability to make restaurant reservations or phone calls in an emergency is also a boon.

14. Local apps

Research local apps which can help you get around or learn more about the destination. Many local transport companies and city tourism boards have their own apps to help you navigate on and offline.

Many restaurant rating and booking websites have also branched out into useful apps, as have travel websites like TripAdvisor, for recommendations in your area.

15. The day you arrive

Plan the first day of your visit before you arrive so that you know how to get to your hotel, what is in its vicinity and what you want to see there. This will minimise your chances of  getting lost, being confused and feeling tired at a time when all you want to do is get to your hotel room for a shower or a nap. It will help you hit the ground running  and start your exploring, instead of wasting time doing research in your hotel.