The Visa Collector

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A checklist for a newbie international traveler


A relative is going on a two-stage trip to the US sometime between October and December and sought advice about how to prepare for it. It was going to be her first trip outside the Philippines, and at 25 hours would be the longest she’s ever been on an airplane . She was understandably apprehensive.

Her itinerary was going to to take her to New Jersey, where she was going to stay with my brother for a few weeks. Then it was off to San Francisco to visit my family for the rest of her vacation. Therefore she didn’t only need to prepare for the flight, but also for two different climates both of which were very different from the typical Filipino experience.

Here is what my wife and I put together her. We’re sharing the list here for the benefit of other first-time travelers who may be looking for similar information. Male travelers should adjust clothing recommendations accordingly.


Before the flight

There are a number of things that you need to take care of before starting the trip.

Accounts, credit cards, and cash If you plan to use your Philippine debit account or credit card, notify your bank prior to your trip so that they grant you international access. This is not enabled for all accounts by default. Verify how much that international access will cost you. They typically charge per transaction. Note that credit cards offer fraud protection that debit cards don’t. So consider using your credit card for most transactions.Credit cards will work for pretty much everything on your trip. Keeping $40 dollars handy will be more than enough for the duration of the trip. Besides . . . the hospitality of your hosts should cover most things.
Prepare your phone If are thinking of using your smart phone periodically during the trip, remember to turn “data roaming” off. Otherwise you will receive a pretty nasty — expensive — surprise on your phone bill when you get back. Some applications connect to the Internet automatically, and unless you reconfigure each individually to turn this off, the easiest solution is to simply deny these applications access to the network.
Travel insurance Travel insurance covers all manner of unforeseen events from unexpected travel cancellations to medical emergencies. Insurance minimizes the budgetary impact of such situations, and I would seriously consider getting it.If you buy your ticket with a credit card, travel insurance my already be included. Best to verify with your credit card provider. If your card doesn’t have it, or you didn’t use a credit card for the ticket, then consider buying insurance directly from a provider. Make inquiries with your travel agent, or your preferred insurance provider.

For the flight (Estimated time: 22 to 25 hours)

What to bring

The following are items that you keep on your person when you board the aircraft. Put these in a small tote bag, hand bag, or very small knapsack that you can either insert into the pocket of the seat in front of you, or beneath it. Note that you will not be allowed to keep anything on your lap.

Passport You will be asked to identify yourself at different points in the boarding process and to fill out various immigration and customs forms before the plane lands. So you will always need to have your passport handy.
Ballpoint pen (preferably blue or black) Since you need to fill out forms . . . you’ll need something to fill it out with. I’ve seen the mad scramble for pens often enough to know that you don’t want that hassle. Not after countless hours sitting in one place
Headphones Airlines will issue you headphones to access the inflight entertainment system (e.g., movies, TV shows, music, even games on some flights). The vast majority provide this for free. Some domestic US carriers, however, will actually charge you. The quality of these headphones is understandably mediocre. If you want to block out noises, bring your own that fit your ears best.
Underwear As a first time traveller . . . it can’t hurt to be safe
Toiletries Some airlines will give you a toothbrush and toothpaste. Others won’t. So if you need to have that minty-fresh feeling when you wake up after extended sleep, keep these in a small ziplock bag. Other items to keep in that bag: lip balm, and facial moisturizers. Cabin air is very dry so you need to moisturize face and lips.Bring the travel-sized versions (1-2oz), which are the only ones allowed in by airport security. Here is a useful site for additional details about this restriction:
Entertainment options On the off-chance that the movie and music offerings in the in-flight entertainment system aren’t to your liking, bring a book or music on your smart phone or MP3 player. US domestic flights don’t always provide too many options.
Credit card This may be useful for the US-leg of your travel if you aren’t able to buy food at your lay-over airports. Unlike international flights, domestic travel in the US doesn’t offer substantial meals.

What to wear

Shoes Wear flat and relatively loose shoes that can be easily slipped on and off — preferably without having to tie shoelaces, eg., Crocs. This will make clearing security lines, where you will be asked to take your shoes off, much easier. Not too crazy about being barefoot on an airport floor where who-knows-what has gone over? Wear socks.Loose footwear will also help if you are one of those people whose feet swell when in the air (this is completely normal by-the-way).Note, however, when making your selection don’t choose footwear so loose that they’ll fall off if you ever need to go to a place in a hurry. Slippers or flip-flops . . . not advisable
Clothing Avoid clothes that are tight fitting. You’ll be sitting down for most of that 22 to 25-hour flight. We’re all getting older and we need to do all that we can to avoid impairing blood circulation anymore than our seats (and dietary choices) already do. Leggings, for example, are a popular choice for female travelers. Jogging pants work well for all genders. Airconditioning on the flight can get cold, but most airlines do provide blankets for these long haul flights.
Belts Avoid wearing them if you can. These have to be removed during pre-boarding inspection anyway and may be constricting on the flight. If you do need to use one, don’t wear it before clearing the security line. Put it on once in the pre-departure area.

For the rest of the trip

The coldest part of this vacation will be the New Jersey leg. Accuweather predicts October temperatures there this year to range from 17 to 22 Celsius. Pretty cold by Philippine standards, and things will only get colder from there. Gloves shouldn’t be necessary initially, but a scarf will keep you nice and toasty whenever the wind picks up. Northern California can still go down to 0 Celsuis in December, but hasn’t snowed at ground-level in decades.

Tops “Layering” is the key to staying warm. So while it’s a good idea to bring sweaters and the like, you have to bear in mind that most places you will go to will be heated. So you have to be able to take your warm clothing off while your in there. Otherwise you will sweat, and then when you go back outside, you will be both cold and wet. Bring a combination of sweaters and your normal tropical clothing. This will allow you to add layers as it gets cold, and remove them as your surroundings heat up.
Pants Most of your regular tropical jeans, slacks, etc. will be fine. However, bring ones that are loose enough to accommodate thermal underwear. We don’t really notice it much back home, but wind can permeate jeans.
Shoes Bring comfortable walking shoes that are closed, don’t let the wind in (e.g., rubber shoes with fabric covers that actually let you see your socks), are preferably water-resistant, and are loose enough to accommodate thermal socks. Favor shoes that cover your ankles (e.g. high-cut boots) because they will keep your toes nice and toasty. Otherwise, you will need those thermal socks sooner than later.
Filed under Road warrior tips
Sep 25, 2013

Need flexibility? Get your name on two flights


I had always thought that the standby list was primarily for folks who didn’t hear their alarm clocks in the morning and missed their flights. A symptom of travel plans gone terribly wrong. That was, apparently, an unfairly dismissive generalization.

On a recent trip to Dallas TX, I booked my return flight to San Francisco via United Airlines (UA) flight 6220 which was set to depart at 7:13 pm. It was my first time teaching a particular class format for my new company. So erring on the side of caution, I booked an evening flight to make sure there was enough time to get everything done.

However by 10:30 am that day, the work day was over. So I hustled to the airport and sought an earlier flight. There was a 30-day old baby waiting for me back home and an SR-71 Blackbird travelling at Mach 3 couldn’t me get out of there fast enough.

Walking to the bag drop-off counter, I braced my self for a hefty cancellation fee and fare-difference charge. To my surprise, the UA attendant at the counter informed me that flight cancellation wasn’t necessary.

She instead advised me to sign up to be a standby passenger on an earlier flight. If a seat became available, I would be accommodated. If none were to be had, my confirmed seat on my original flight would still be available. There was still a $75 charge, but only if I actually managed to get a flight. My misconceptions about the list were obliterated completely.

Getting on the list was easy. It’s part of the normal bag drop / check-in process and could be initiated from any self-service kiosk. By the time I was done, this is what the kiosk screen looked like, and the kiosk issued me a boarding pass with the word “Standby” lieu of a seat assignment.

kiosk  pass-stdby

The first available flight was UA 6291, which was due to depart on 1:39 pm. PERFECT!!!!

I had been the first to sign up for the San Francisco standby list, so the first slot was mine.


For privacy reasons, passenger names aren’t completely displayed on the list. So for example, if your name were “Cornelius Manswolfenstein”, you will appear on the list as “Man C”.

UA 6291, however, was a disappointment. All passengers made it to the door on time. The fact that they asked for volunteers to take a later flight should have given me a clue about my chances. But I tried staying optimistic . . . to no avail. The ramp door closed and it was “goodbye plane”.

By then, I vaguely recalled that the attendant at the bag drop-off had said that my standby status would be automatically carried over to next flight. That sounded waaay too convenient so I stayed on my toes and kept an eye on my check-in status on my United mobile app on my phone. Most gate attendants had left by the time the plane was pulling away from the gate, and the lone remaining attendant was escorted a passenger with an issue to his alternate gate. But with my trusty app . . . what could go wrong? Right? By the time the 1:39 flight was out of sight, both flight records disappeared from the app!!! Not only was I no longer on the flight that had just left, there was no record of my original flight either. Cue claxons.

By then there was nobody at the gate. Air travel in the US was so routine, the airlines seem to assume that everybody knew how everything — like the standby list — worked, right? Umm . . . no.

So off I went to pester United gate attendants at two other gates, as well as the customer service desk, for information about how to make sure I was still in the running for the next seat on the next flight. It turns out that once you’re on the list you stay on the list. My standby status was automatically transferred to the next flight and stayed in the same spot on the queue.

As for the disappearing mobile app record. It re-appeared several minutes later. This time with the next flight appeared in place of the previous 1:39 flight. Apparently the app discards the entire old record before it displays the updated information.

app2 app1

The next opportunity was UA5591, set to depart at 3:28pm. It was the last flight before my original flight. So the wait for the final scheduled passenger to board the plane was nail biting. After the boarding line was exhausted, and a quick head count on the plane to ensure seat availability was completed, the gate attendant called me over and handed me my boarding pass. I was going home!!!


It wasn’t until I got to San Francisco that it occurred to me to ask “what about my checked-in bag?” Although I couldn’t get on to the 1:39 plane, my bag apparently did. Note the flight number on the baggage claim tag: UA 6291. It was waiting for me at the customer service desk at the baggage claim area, and I didn’t have to wait for it on the baggage carousel.

IMG_2927 IMG_2928

All in all, it was trouble-free experience. I got home 4-hours ahead of schedule . . . in time for the next diaper change.


Apr 27, 2013

Expedia and business travel don’t mix

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I recently joined a company that didn’t retain the services of a travel agency, and let their employees book their own travel. So long as our travel arrangements were within the company’s guidelines, we could setup our trips however we wanted.

Having gotten used to the structure of an agency, for my first two company trips I fell back to a familiar service that I had used for personal travel in the past: As I would later find, this wasn’t a particularly good idea.

The site, and presumably similar sites, were designed for vacationers whose travel plans were fixed. Travelers who knew where they wanted to go, and precisely how long they intended to stay. When you travel for work, however, you typically ONLY want to stay at your destination for as long as you need to. You give yourself extra time to cover all the tasks you need to do at your destination. But when you find yourself with a surplus of time, you scramble for the next available flight.

With a travel agency, changes were as easy as calling the travel agent. If you book your travel directly with vendors, just show up at the customer service desk and they’ll help you out. With a travel site like Expedia, you have to go through them . . . and then they have to deal with the airlines and the hotels.

Two weeks ago, I overestimated the amount of time needed for an engagement in Chicago. So I ended up leaving a day early. My first sign of trouble came when I called the airline to change my flight. Customer support notified me that normally I would have to go through Expedia to make a change. However in this particular case, since the first part of the round trip had already been taken (my inbound flight) they had wiggle room to help me out. They cancelled the rest of my Expedia booking and started from scratch.

Early check-out from the hotel, however, was little more complicated. Once you book a hotel via a travel site, the local hotel doesn’t actually know how much you paid for the room. You still have to provide the hotel a credit card when you check-in, but that’s just for incidental expenses. All billing goes through Expedia. So when you leave early, it sets off the following not-so-convenient process:

  1. Notify Expedia of intent to leave early, so they can re-calculate your bill
  2. Check-out from the hotel
  3. Expedia confirms check-out with the hotel front desk
  4. Expedia sends you an updated bill (subject to any charges the hotel may impose)

Eventually, the difference is returned to your credit card.

The additional steps above would have been enough to make me avoid Expedia from future trips. But the real kicker for me was the lack of transparency in charges when you book travel details as a package.

If you book a combined flight-hotel-car package, the receipt you receive will only show the package price. Good luck taking a receipt like that to your accounting department for reimbursement. I initially sent Expedia a request for a breakdown via email on their Website. The response took longer than I liked, so I gave them a call, an a customer support representative gave me an rough breakdown that sounded as though she just divided the total amount by the number of days. I received the response via email — showing the source of the information — and then used it in my reimbursement request.

A day later, I found out why it took Expedia so long to respond to my query . . . and why I’m not using them for business again. Here is an excerpt from their email.

Thank you for contacting us about obtaining an itemized summary of your flight, hotel and car reservation.

. . .

Expedia has negotiated with the major hotel chains, car rental agencies and vendors in order to offer our members incredible savings for packages. However, we will not be able to provide a detailed breakdown of rates and taxes applied to this type of reservation. Taxes and service fees are displayed together, to allow our partners to keep their net rates private. This means we can negotiate great rates with the hotels, and offer the savings to our customers.

. . .

We do apologize if we are unable to reply more in accordance to your wishes on this occasion.

From here on out, Expedia will only be for personal trips, as well as a means to compare prices. When I book my flights, I go straight to the airlines. Same goes to for my hotel and car arrangements.

Filed under Road warrior tips, US
Mar 30, 2013