Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Top 20 Middle East travel tips

Having trekked from Riyadh to Amman, Jordan to Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt to Beirut to Istanbul and thence to London, Chicago and Phoenix in the past few months, there are few things I've learned that you may find helpful.

Of course these are nothing compared to significant world travelers like my sister or niece so I've cadged a few items from them.

1. Most people planning a vacation like to book a direct flight to their destination. But I found that by accepting a hefty layover in a desirable city, you can actually double your adventure. In fact, if you plan it right and are careful not to miss your flights, it's almost like the airline is saying "How'd you like a free trip to Beirut as long as you're heading toward Istanbul?" The trick is to give yourself at least 6 or 7 hours, quiz some locals about the distance and typical cab fares into the city, get a transit visa (if necessary) and then simply let your spirit take you where it will. Caution: a lot of airports won't have storage lockers so you may have to haul your carry ons with you.

2. Beirut is a wonderful trilingual, cosmopolitan city full of history and abounding in outdoor cafes, some with watermelon hubbly-bubblies.

Imagine a place where you can find a Roman ruin, a Christian church and a mosque literally side by side. (photo below)

3. The most expensive instant coffee in the universe is in the Beirut airport near Gates 1-8. Avoid that cafe. Get your coffee before you head to the gates.

4. Obviously traveling light is the desideratum, but remember that carry ons don't have a weight limit, just a size limit (the size of the overhead bin). So if you're also checking bags, feel free to load up your heaviest items in your carry ons. If you can manage to heft it onboard you may be able to avoid overweight charges on your checked bag. On the other hand, if you're doing the layover adventure thing, it's best not to load up your carry ons because they'll get mighty heavy the longer you're out and about.

5. Airport Internet access is about as reliable as, well, airline departures, so don't count on it. Interestingly, you can sometimes find hidden WiFi hotspots by wandering around, if you're really desperate for an e-mail fix.

6. Pack the charging devices for your key electronics along with one or two multipurpose outlet adaptors in your carry on, not in your checked bag.

7. If you're ever in Amman, I highly recommend the museum on the big hill at the Temple of Hercules.

The museum covers the entire gamut of civilizations that have occupied the region from the stone age to the present and has some very nice original specimens of the actual Dead Sea Scrolls.

8. Always check on the typical cab fare to your destination. In some cases, fares are regulated but in most Middle East locales, the rate is highly negotiable and the locals will definitely take advantage of you, possibly charging twice as much as the going rate. For example, in Riyadh, the fare from King Khalid Airport to the Radisson or Al Yamama Hotel should be about 70 riyals, but the freelance drivers will insist that it should be 125 or even 150 riyals.

How to check? Make some instant friends in the duty-free store, tourist info booth or coffee shop and sort of average out their estimates.

9. Make your best estimate about how much money you'll need to exchange at the airport into local currency and then make sure you have plenty of small bills. You're going to need this when you negotiate with your cabbie. One method that works pretty well: Having determined what seems to be a fair average price for a ride to your destination, say, 20,000 Lebanese pounds, get that exact denomination and put it separately into one of your pockets...with nothing else in the pocket. When the freelance cabbies start approaching you, reach into your pocket and dramatically flourish your 20,000 pound note and say "downtown, 20,000." As with any haggling situation, you have to be prepared to walk away briskly. Holding out the note and suggesting that this is the only currency you have helps to sell the proposition. Make sure you have another note of the same denomination for your ride back where the flourish is even more effective. A lot of arguments can be avoided by having the exact change. If you've negotiated a $20 ride and all you have is a $50 you've put yourself in a weak bargaining position.

10. Count the metallic junk in your pockets and then remember that magic number for when you're going through metal detectors at airports. Example: belt, pen with metal clip, money clip, USB device , cell phone = 5. When you go to collect your junk, don't leave until you've counted 5 items.

11. When you pack your carry ons, try to pack consistently so that you're always keeping the same stuff in the same pockets or compartments.

12. For longer trips with few plane changes, unless you're an actual fashion model, wear your heaviest clothing, including your heaviest shoes onto the airplane to avoid having to pack them in your checked luggage and possibly face a hefty overweight charge. There's no charge for simply being heavy as long as you don't take up an extra seat. Budget-conscious students manage to wear multiple outfits including numerous heavy sweaters and would probably wear multiple shoes if they could figure out how to do that.

13. As obvious as this sounds, check your plane tickets, passport and visa a week before you're ready to leave. Put them somewhere so insultingly obvious that you won't forget them on departure day. Tape a note to your front door that says: A friend of mine attending a trade show in Las Vegas booked her hotel a month in advance, had her customer meetings all lined up and hotel reservation confirmed and then realized the night before that she forgot to book the actual flight. Another friend tells of planning a wonderful dream vacation to Italy with her pilot boyfriend only to find -- at the check in counter -- that he didn't have a passport.

14. Traveling with a favorite companion can be a wonderful experience but the best adventures happen when you go solo. Also the most boring. Also the most exciting.

15. Sometimes planning well ahead isn't always the best strategy . . . as long as you don't wait till the day before. During the Iceland volcano catastrophe this spring, travelers who had booked their trips months or weeks ahead found themselves either completely unable to leave for European destinations or stranded en route. In the meantime, a few people who had arranged trips just a few days prior had the benefit of the most recent information and easily traveled to non-volcano destinations. However, once you have determined your destination and dates, don't delay actually booking your flight and hotel since rates during holiday periods can double in just a few hours.

16. If you ever find yourself here . . . . . . Alexandria International Airport (ALY) -- run away, run away. The ambiance resembles what I imagine Cold War-era Berlin must have been like on the dumpy side of town. There is not an electrical outlet of any kind to be found (though I sweet-talked the coffee concessionaire into letting me plug my cell phone under the counter) and obviously no Internet. The restrooms have no paper products of any kind...and no hand dryer either.

17. Most Middle East cities have a form of cheap shuttle bus service -- sort of a hop on/hop off deal where you simply flag down the mini-bus and yell "stop" when you want to get off. This is a great form of transportation but you need to be very careful about not getting ripped off for the fare, depending on where you are. Sometimes the fare schedule is posted on the bus (e.g., Istanbul). Other places (Egypt) you just have to know the going rate, which varies according to who you ask. Still others have a fixed rate, but it's not posted...again, you just have to ask someone. In Riyadh, the shuttle is dirt cheap (2 riyals, about 50 cents US), but it's a dirt cheap, ramshackle ride where every turn is an adventure in weight and balance.

In Egypt, you really need to ask some trustworthy locals because the driver and his cronies will simply cite whatever fare they think you'll pay.

Typically, you get on the shuttle and sometime during the course of your ride you simply pass your fare up to the driver. If change is called for, he passes it back through the intervening passengers. This is always done on the fly since the essence of the shared-fare taxis or mini-buses is speed and efficiency.

18. As clever as it seems to wear flip flops or easy slip on/off shoes to the airport, it's usually better to wear your most comfortable shoes and socks (again, assuming you're not a supermodel) because it's more important to be able to walk long distances than to worry about the extra 10-15 seconds tying your shoelaces. By the way, I carry a very small plastic shoehorn in the outer pouch of my carry on.

19. Since all luggage seems to be either black, gray, gray/green or black/gray, some folks like to tie colorful ribbons to the handles for quicker identification at the luggage carousel. But those ribbons or yarn can get caught in the revolving contraptions so it's better to use colorful tape.

20. Never pass up a chance to use a restroom.

[all photos copyright by the author; all rights reserved; inquire within]

Hitting 60

I'm pleased to say that the Veeds of Arabia blog has just notched its 60th country: Jordan.

In the larger scheme of things, it really doesn't matter how many different countries the blog is being accessed from. In fact, I suspect that a lot of visitors simply landed here by accident looking for something else.

I do try to keep my keywords and tags fairly accurate and specific so as not to mislead readers who may be keen to learn THE SECRET OF THE UNIVERSE, for example, or HOW TO CURE DIABETES, or WHO WILL WIN THE BASEBALL WORLD SERIES, or even the BIG SECRET THE KARDASHIAN SISTERS DON'T WANT YOU TO KNOW.

Obviously you won't find any of that here. (Well maybe the stuff about the soon as I figure out what they're famous for.)

However, I am a little surprised at how long it took to hit the magic siteen. Countries were piling up like cars during a Phoenix rush hour for a while and new national flags for about a month.

In case anyone's wondering, the blog is now at its summer headquarters in the aforementioned Arizona sun where the owner is busy sipping adult beverages, playing tennis and watching cable TV.

But that doesn't mean we don't have our thinking shemagh on.

And right now I think I'll have another beverage.

Next time: some things I learned while traveling.