Who is this guy?

Most people don’t like their passport photo but mine is worse than yours, I guarantee it. It was taken a few years back when I weighed 30 pounds more than I do now, no doubt a result of my ongoing donut fetish. I had more hair but apparently it was combed with a garden rake. I displayed an odd, gleeful smile, like I was sitting on a massage chair that was set to full vibrate. It was also taken pre-facial hair and many chins ago. All in all, not a pretty picture: literally.

The good news is that I no longer look like this photo. This has become evident as I keep getting pulled out of immigration lines by suspicious customs officers. As we were trying to leave China I was sent to a separate area that I assume is normally reserved for suspected drug mules and arms smugglers.

A higher-ranking official was called over to make some sense out of the apparent disconnect between my passport picture and my actual face. Much discussion took place between the two officers as they focused on my eyebrows, the one feature that was apparently unchanged. I tried to replicate the weird grin in the photo but that only made me look demonic and heightened their sense of suspicion.

A phone call was made with many guttural comments back-and-forth. A third officer came over. All three started rapidly glancing from my passport to my face like spectators at a ping-pong match. The senior officer pantomimed to me to arch my eyebrows, at least that’s what I thought he meant, so I arched away. He took out a pencil and held it up to my eyebrows in an odd attempt to figure out if they were still crooked. (They are.) Trying to clarify the situation I pulled out my driver’s license but unfortunately that looks like a third person altogether.

Current visa photo, maybe not much of an improvement but at least it looks like me.

By now Larissa had gotten used to my immigration shenanigans and moved on to the boarding area, apparently “for better or for sticky customs situations” was not part of our marriage vows. She figured no use both of us spending time in a Chinese prison. The officials finally tired of the situation and let me go, satisfied that I wasn’t a Chinese national trying to leave the country illegally.

This problem has continued throughout the journey. When we enter a country Larissa goes ahead to get the luggage while I lag behind to deal with wary customs officials. Ironically, the only place we didn’t have any problem was in North Korea. They searched every bit of luggage to make sure we didn’t have banned items such as cell phones or newspapers. However, the official seemed satisfied as he carefully scrutinized me and gestured to move on.

My advice is if you don’t look like your passport anymore, get a new one. It will save you headaches down the road. By the way, Larissa has nothing to add to this discussion since she looks cute in her passport picture.

What are some of the worst pictures you’ve ever taken?

28581550060_131210d7e7_mLarissa and Michael are your typical middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive our free quarterly newsletter with updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.

Cheap travel is often a challenge, but how would you like to live in a land of 35 cent hoagies, $25 gourmet meals for two and beers for a buck? A place where the dollar stretches so far it could cover the entire country. That’s daily life for visitors to Southeast Asia. In expensive places like Europe it’s difficult to budget a vacation at a reasonable cost. In Southeast Asia it’s difficult not to.

We’ve learned that to travel cheaply, go where it’s cheap. That advice seems obvious but is often ignored. We picked it up from Tim Leffel in The World’s Cheapest Destinations. We read the book before embarking on our journey and were a bit skeptical about his stories of $25 hotel rooms and $5 restaurant meals. But we’ve been in this part of the world for three months now and have become true believers.

The picture below is of our $22 hotel room in Hue, Vietnam. The price included a buffet breakfast, Wifi and taxes. It also had a large flat-screen TV, comfortable bed and great shower. It was as nice as any Marriott Courtyard we’ve stayed. We were not giving up anything in the way of amenities that we would have at a Western hotel.

Vietnam hotel room

All yours for $22 per night, including breakfast and WiFi.

We polished off a delicious gourmet meal at Confetti, a high-end restaurant in Hue. Larissa had the full five-course spread, which included barbecued duck, while Michael settled on a mere three courses. Add in two glasses of wine and a bottle of water and we were stunned that the tab, including tax and tip, came to only $26. We were actually embarrassed.

But not as much as we were at lunchtime when we bought two Banh Mi, the Vietnamese equivalent of a hoagie, and paid 35 cents each. (As a point of comparison, in pricey Australia a packet of ketchup at a sandwich shop costs 50 cents.) A few weeks later Michael got a $1.50 haircut in Bangkok. He hasn’t paid so little since he was in short pants.

Vietnamese Banh Mi

Banh Mi, a Vietnamese hoagie on a French baguette, were only 35 cents each.

The biggest challenge  is finding out that others got a better deal. We were pretty smug about scoring a $35 room at a resort in Siem Reap, Cambodia; that is until our friends Doz and Amanda told us they were staying up the street for $16.

For cash-strapped Americans whose currency is weak, locales that value the dollar are great tourist destinations. There is one glitch though: getting there. But we looked up round-trip flights from New York to Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur (cheap hubs for travel throughout Asia) for April and found some for about $1,100; only a few hundred dollars more than flying to Paris. You’ll more than make up the difference once you get to Asia.

However a location shouldn’t be judged only on price. The old adage that you get what you pay for is always ringing in the back of our heads. But that just hasn’t been the case here. Paying 1960s prices for 2012 amenities, beautiful countryside, dynamic cities and meeting gracious people seems like a winning combination. We highly recommend placing Southeast Asia on your “To Go” list.

We’ve been full-time global nomads since 2011 and have made our fair share of mistakes. Here are our favorite international travel tips that we’e learned along the way.

1) Get a day rate at an airport hotel upon arrival — We’re not talking about a hot sheets motel so this isn’t as frisky as it sounds. Overnight travelers usually arrive at their hotel early in the morning, bleary-eyed and exhausted, only to be told that the room won’t be ready for several hours. However, airport hotels usually offer day rates for international travelers to solve this problem. You can go from customs straight to a nearby hotel for a shower and a nap. The room is usually available for four hours. Sometimes you get there early enough to even have breakfast.

This tip is especially helpful if you have to travel some distance after you arrive. We rented a room at the Dublin airport that cost about $60, a small price to pay for starting the trip on a refreshing note, particularly since we had a four-hour drive ahead of us. Our tips for overcoming jet lag may also come in handy.

2) Identify some contacts in the place you are visiting — Check alumni clubs in the area; people you’ve met on social networking sites such as Facebook, Meetup, Twitter and LinkedIn; business contacts, and friends of friends. They are great sources for local insights that travel books won’t have and can be great in a pinch if you need help with something.

3) Check out the local library — If it’s a place where we speak the language, the local library is an invaluable resource. Even though we are just visitors we can usually get a library card to borrow books and DVDs. This helps cut down our entertainment expenses as we travel. We also read the local paper and get more of the flavor of a place that is not usually exposed to tourists. In the best case scenario the library offers free Wi-Fi, another cost saver over Internet cafes.

International travel tip local newspaper

4) Buy a local paper — If you speak the language this is a great way to catch up on local events that won’t be in tour guides. Often we’ll find that a favorite author or music group is in town. Even where you don’t speak the language carrying a copy of the paper around helps. It makes you look more like a local than a tourist so you’ll blend in more easily and won’t be bothered as much by people trying to sell you something. (Obviously this only works if you happen to look like the locals. Here’s Michael, trying to look French.)

5) Learn a few basics of the local language — “Please,”  “Thank you” and “Where’s the bathroom” are good places to start. Larissa is fortunate that she seems to pick up the local language in the short stroll from the plane to the baggage carousel while after fifty years Michael is still working on English. Knowing how to ask for a bathroom is essential although Michael has found that a pained expression accompanied by knees squeezing together and feverish pointing often works just as well. At least it does at home. Usually even a mangled attempt at speaking the language shows you are trying.

6) Buy a cheap contract fee local cell phone or SIM card — Many phones will either not work in other countries or will charge exorbitant fees. Unlock your phone before you go so you can buy a SIM card for it to make local calls, or buy a cheap local phone. If you want to call home use Skype.

7) Skip the hotel and rent an apartment — If you are going somewhere for more than a few days an apartment rental is usually more economical, particularly for families or couples traveling together. The nightly rate is cheaper and you also save money on meals. Click the link for more on the benefits of renting an apartment on vacation.

8) Split up on the airplane — While it’s nice to sit together, one of you, usually the shorter one, gets stuck with the dreaded middle seat while the taller one gets the benefit of the aisle. We each take aisle seats but get them across from each other. We’re still close enough but with a little more space. Related to this, on overnight flights over water don’t bother with the window seat. Hopefully you’ll be sleeping and if you’re not there’s nothing to see at night anyway.

9) Pack as lightly as possible — This one seems obvious, but judging by the Buick-sized suitcases we see on many baggage carousels it’s routinely ignored. Dress in layers with every garment matching so you have multiple outfits with multiple looks. Women can pack a few lightweight silk scarves to change their look and men can…well men don’t really care about such things so they don’t have to pack anything extra. Toiletries such as shampoo, conditioner, etc. can be purchased at your destination. And don’t get us started on travel irons. Here’s more on packing for long-term travel.

10) E-mail copies of important papers to yourself — These include your passport, driver’s license, tickets, etc. Guidebooks usually say to keep a photocopy with someone at home. That advice is out-of-date. Scan these documents and e-mail a copy to an Internet-based mail program such as Google. That way you can access them on-line from anyplace with an Internet connection.

11) Join AAA — Many hotels overseas will give you discounts for being a member of the American Automobile Assocaition, so just like at home, the membership essentially pays for itself. Due to reciprocal agreements we can walk into the auto club offices of other countries and get discounted, or free, maps and guidebooks.

12) Rent a car with an automatic transmission — If you are in a country where you will be driving on the opposite side of the road from what you are used to, this is essential. It’s tough enough to have cars whizzing from another direction, trying to shift with the other hand will make it that much harder. Spend the extra few bucks for this, your safety is worth it.

13) Make sure you can stand each other — Traveling together for months at a time will be different from living at home. Often you will be the only ones speaking your language and will be each other’s only daily companion. This is fine for Michael but tougher for Larissa who is stuck with him for the duration.

Bonus tip

14) Expect the unexpected — Just like life not everything will go as planned, even more so when you are on vacation and perhaps dealing with an unfamiliar language and customs. After all the word travel comes from “travail.”

Hopefully these are of some help. What favorite tips can you share?

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28581550060_131210d7e7_mLarissa and Michael are your typical middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive our free quarterly newsletter with updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.

A question we are frequently asked by friends and family is how we will handle the language barrier in other countries, particularly in places like China where we won’t even be able to read the street signs. Will we try to learn the language before we go?

In the past we’ve tried practicing a new language with the Rosetta Stone and were not impressed by it. We’re a little dubious of a learning package that is so aggressively marketed to the point that you find it at mall kiosks right beside customized coffee mugs and the latest stuffed animal craze.

Since we will be traveling around the world and encountering so many languages (even within China there is a different dialect between Beijing and Shanghai) it would be impossible to learn the language of every destination.

It turns out that Michael is not very good at languages anyway, heck, he’s still working on English, while Larissa seems to absorb up enough of the local dialect on the short hike from the airplane to the baggage carousel. She also has a pitch perfect ear for picking up accents while Michael is basically tone-deaf.

Michael took four years of Spanish in high school but the extent of his knowledge pretty much prepared him for understanding the emergency exit signs on the New York City subway system; and even that was several decades ago.

Learning some aspects of the local language is more important for Larissa since she is allergic to many different types of shellfish. Whenever we have traveled throughout Europe she has written the words for what she can’t eat. This will be much more difficult with the characters of Asian languages.

What we will do is make sure we understand some basic phrases for each country before we arrive. Saying “please” and “thank you” go a long way. We also learn how to say, ‘Excuse me but I don’t speak your language.” The ability to pantomime helps so being a former Charades champion would be a definite plus.

In Mandarin the language consists of four different tones, so the word for “mom,” said slightly differently, could mean rope, horse or scold. No phrase book in the world will help the visitor decipher those subtle variations. Last week we asked a waitress in a Beijing restaurant how to say “please,” she walked us through it phonetically and made sure we had the right tone, in this case a rising inflection.

Whenever we ask people how to speak their language properly we always get a positive response. Just showing that you are making an effort to learn goes a long way toward breaking down barriers.

The best way to learn a language is to live in the country where it is spoken, even during the course of a week-long visit you will pick up enough words and key phrases to get by. Our impromptu language lesson from the Beijing waitress shows there is no substitute for on-the-spot learning from a local.

Upon arriving after an overnight flight the departing passengers often look like a casting call for the latest zombie movie. We trudge wearily off the plane hoping to make it through the day. Usually I want to fall asleep on a nice soft sofa at the airport.

But too much sleep at that time of day can mess up your recovery from jet lag. A short nap of an hour or less usually works best. Any longer and you fall into a deeper sleep that is harder to wake up from. Your goal is to get enough sleep to make it through the day so you can fall asleep at a reasonable hour that evening.

On my first trip to Europe with a friend we showed up at our hotel in London around noon and immediately went to sleep. We woke up at 9 but were so disoriented that we thought it was 9 AM and immediately got up and went down to breakfast. Imagine our surprise, and those of the innkeepers, when we were rooting around for bacon, eggs and cereal at 9 PM. Of the day we arrived.

Needless to say this totally messed up our body clocks as we now had a full night’s sleep and were raring to go. This led to several days of waking up at 4 AM while it was still dark as coal outside.

Now that I am a more experienced traveler I‘ve got my jet-lag tricks down pat. I’ve narrowed them down to the five “Ss”: sex, sleep, shower, stroll and supper.

When you get to the hotel the immediate urge is to fall asleep. I am usually too wired from the excitement of the trip to just lay my head down. This is where the sex part comes. It helps to have a willing traveling companion for this but it still works if you are traveling solo though, like the act itself, just not as well.

Afterwards take a nap of no more than an hour. This is why having a travel alarm clock comes in handy. The problem on that trip to London is that I didn’t have an alarm clock so my body took the entire eight hours of sleep it missed and now craved. You need the alarm to force yourself to get up.

Afterwards a shower helps to wash off the flight grime and wake you up. Some people prefer this before the sex step so it’s really a matter of personal preference and your partner’s individual hygiene standards.

After the shower force yourself to take a stroll outside. Get out and explore so you can get that second wind that will get you through a really tiring day. Go out for a light supper and try to stay up as late as reasonably close to your normal bedtime as you can so you start the next day well rested.

After 25 years of international travel the five “Ss” have usually come through for me. And even if they don’t work, well, at least you still had the sex part so it can’t be all that bad.