plonkee money an english-er's thoughts on personal finance

July 22, 2009

7 travel items not to bother buying

Filed under: shopping — plonkee @ 9:17 pm

Againt on the theme of travel purchases – some things I’d suggest you don’t waste your money on.

1. Swiss Army Knife

Of all the items that exist on a Swiss Army knife (or Leatherman tool) I’ve only ever used knife blades, scissors, tweezers, bottle openers, corkscrews and nail files. On an actual penknife, the only ones I can use myself are tweezers, nail files and knife blades – and the tweezers suck.

All of those items except bottle openers will definitely be confiscated at Heathrow. Emery boards are cheap and light, I have a very cool bottle opener key ring, and when travelling I either drink wine in a restaurant or bar (where they open the bottle for you) or stick to beer. As I said, the tweezers on Swiss Army knives suck, so if I can, I’ll bring separate ones anyway.

That just leaves knife blades and scissors. In my regular day to day life I do occaisionally need one or the other of these items. However, a simple penknife costs only a few £/$ – a lot less than a complicated multitool – and a pair of scissors even less. If I’m checking a bag, or not flying, I’ll usually put in a pair of nail scissors – they do most jobs if they need to. If I’m doing carry on only, I do without and haven’t had a problem yet.

2. Sewing kit

This might just be a personal one. I rarely have buttons come off stuff disastrously, nor do I regularly rip my clothes. It takes me forever to mend things when I’m at home, so I’m not going to waste my holiday doing the same. At British airports sewing kits are sometimes confiscated, which kind of defeats the point, and if something becomes unwearable, I’m probably in a place where I can pay someone to fix it for me or get a replacement, or make do until I get somewhere where I can.

3. Compass and/or Whistle

One of the fundamental rules of travel should be that if you don’t use it at home, why on earth would you use it whilst travelling. Compasses and whistles are cases in point. Outside North America, many/most cities are not arranged on a regular grid pattern, and it’s just as easy to navigate with a map, particularly if you are not a regular compass user.

Similarly, whistles are only useful in a few tiny situations – if you’re mugged then you should just handover your cash, if you’re attacked then the whistle needs to be round your neck already, and preferably in your mouth. Which is just a recipe for falling over and knocking your teeth out, or swallowing it.

Naturally, if your trip is in a wilderness area, or you use these items in your day to day life, feel free to disregard my reasoning above. Otherwise, save your cash.

4. Inflatable travel pillow

I have a (short) list of things wrong with these:

  • the look stupid
  • they aren’t very comfortable
  • they get punctures
  • they are a pain to blow up
  • Overnight flights tend to have pillows available anyway. If you really need a pillow for a long bus or train journey, get a compressible one and then you can use it for an emergency regular pillow. Alternatively use clothes as a makeshift pillow – I appreciate that this doesn’t work quite as well if the air conditioning is so cold you need to wear every item of clothing you possess.
  • 5. Immersion heater

    Ok, I don’t have one because I only drink hot drinks from time to time (I’m not a proper Brit either – I don’t like tea). But in any case, pretty much anywhere you want to go there will be coffee on sale, most places can do hot tea, and if you can get coffee, you can get hot water.

    Otherwise if you take one, you’ll also need the right plug adaptors, and a mug that won’t break whilst you boil the water. Also a fire and electrical hazard.

    6. Travellers cheques

    Only worthwhile if you are going somewhere where you can’t rely on ATMs. And that people, is almost nowhere – Mongolia, Burma, some of the ‘stans’. Everywhere else, travellers cheques (or travelers checks) are more limiting.

    Outside the US, travellers cheques are not like regular cheques. You can’t normally use them in hotels, restaurants, etc. So, to use travellers cheques, you tend to need regular office hours. (Inside the US, just use ATMs like everyone else.)

    Travellers cheques are replaceable, but that is quite a hassle – there aren’t Amex / Thomas Cook offices on every street corner. Also, especially in places where the script does not use the Latin alphabet, your signature will need to match exactly in order to cash them. In Thailand, I once had to sign my name about 15 times before they would give me any money.

    7. Special travel clothes

    These are really good. They wash and dry quickly, have millions of pockets, come in a myriad of sensible colours,…

    Except that they tend to be ugly, styled to suit men and in colours that I really, really hate and will refuse to wear. They make you stick out like a sore thumb, in the same way that that middle aged men in shorts stick out in Paris. Wear your regular clothes. If you wouldn’t wear travel clothes on a day trip in your home area, or to the shops, (assuming the weather is right) then why would you want to wear them whilst away?

    July 18, 2009

    5 items that (might) save you money on travel

    Filed under: shopping — Tags: — plonkee @ 1:23 pm

    We’re nicely in the middle of the summer season, so here are some things that you should consider obtaining if they will save you money whilst travelling. These are all items that are relatively inexpensive and will save you money in the long run, if you fall into the right category. I’ve noted who I think they would be good for, who probably wouldn’t benefit, and whether I personally own and use the said item.

    1. collapsible water bottle

    The best are made by Platypus and cost up to about £10 depending on the size you get.

    good for

    They are good for people who travel by plane to developed destinations and don’t want to buy multiple bottles of water. You can fill them up after security in the airport and then repeatedly in hotels/hostels whilst you’re away. Because they are collapsible they don’t take up valuable space whilst empty.

    less good for

    If you travel frequently by plane, the money saved in water at the airport by itself might make these worthwhile.

    They are not so great if you are going somewhere where you don’t want to drink the water, you’ll need to buy bottles anyway because you won’t be drinking from the taps. If you’re not travelling by plane, that often then you can just bring your water or whatever with you.

    personally recommended?

    I don’t have one yet but I might get one if my next holiday involves spending time in Europe, N America, NZ or Australia in hot weather.

    2. cheap mp3 player

    I’m thinking of the ones that have maybe 1Gb of memory and cost less than £20 and are recharged via a USB port.

    good for

    Ipod type things are awesome and amazing for travel. If you’ve ever sat on a long bus/train/ferry ride without entertainment you will truly appreciate having music available on tap. However, they are easily stolen, so you might not want to take your prized possession with you on a trip, it’ll cost you both money and hassle to replace. Which is where a cheap (inferior) product comes in. They are also easier to recharge – no need for adapters, pretty much everywhere has an internet cafe to use – but you might want to get one with reasonable battery life.

    less good for

    The extremely fashion conscious who wouldn’t be seen dead without something in the right brand/style. Also if you don’t like music or talking books you probably wouldn’t get much use out of one.

    personally recommended?

    Yes. I have had (and lost) a basic one of these. It recharged via a USB which was very hassle free, and I could store enough music to last me through the trip. Note that I managed to lose it.

    3. money belt

    Somewhere hidden to keep your money, passport, tickets, visa etc so that it doesn’t get stolen. Money belts should be worn under the clothes.

    good for

    Travelling in the parts of Europe/Asia/South America notorious for pickpockets – for example Italy and Spain. There are different versions that you can get – some go round your neck, others look like regular belts (but don’t normally fit a passport or tickets in), there’s one I quite like which loops onto a regular belt and then is worn inside your clothes – which means that there should be something for everyone. They are great for nervous, especially first time, travellers.

    less good for

    People who will insist on wearing them outside their clothes anyway. It’s like asking to be mugged. If you like to look very stylish whilst away they can be challenging to work with. If you’re going somewhere safe, and so won’t be carrying round any valuables and hardly any money, they won’t be worthwhile. Similarly if your idea of travel is to spend all your time away from people, they aren’t great value.

    personally recommended?

    I have previously owned one. I was 21 and travelling round the world. It was the cheapest I could buy, and I think I wore it once. I haven’t used one since, but I’m used to (and feel safe in) big busy cities, mostly have electronic travel tickets, and carry only as much money around with me as I would be comfortable doing at home – ymmv. I also claim to be super short, and these all seem to be designed for men. If I go somewhere *interesting* again, I might get the belt loop one and see how that feels.

    4. travel insurance

    For what is usually a fairly small sum of money in the great scheme of things, an insurance company will pick up the tab when the universe moves against you. Always shop around for a good deal, prices vary massively for the same coverage.

    good for

    Anyone who is travelling with passports, non-refundable or expensive travel tickets, or quantities of stuff. Or who is travelling somewhere where they are not entitled to free medical care. If you are British and you are travelling anywhere outside the EU you need this for the medical coverage alone.

    less good for

    People travelling very near to home, who have luggage they can afford to lose or replace, aren’t using a passport, can rebuy their tickets, and have their medical care covered in some other way.

    personally recommended?

    Good heavens yes, never travel without it, except for non-flying trips within mainland Britain where I’m covered partially by household contents insurance, plus have access to the NHS, and don’t need ID to get home. On one of my first exciting trips, my friend had her camera stolen. I’ve also known people need the medical coverage.

    5. silk sleep sheet

    A sheet made into a sort of sleeping bag shape, the smallest and best quality are made from silk and are reasonably priced from New Zealand.

    good for

    Anyone travelling using hostels where they charge extra for linen – on a longer trip those few extra $ add up to quite a bit. They’re also handy for extra warmth when you’re using a sleeping bag (and are more easily washed)  or where you’re less than convinced by the cleanliness of the bed linen.

    less good for

    People using 3* or better hotels, or staying with friends, or in decent rentals.

    personally recommended?

    Yes, I have one. I love it. I enjoy hostels, but I like having nice sheets even more. I have also used it in less than clean surroundings in Egypt. It’s so small that I tend to take it wherever I’m not certain that the bed/room will be nice.

    So there you go, there are all my suggestions for travel buys that might save you money in the long run. Why not add your ideas in the comments.

    March 11, 2009

    tipping in a group

    Filed under: shopping — Tags: — plonkee @ 1:02 pm

    When I was a student, I spent 3 months living in the United States on a J-1 exchange visa, and it was there that I learned to tip. Americans are profligate tippers in comparison to most other cultures, and we were instructed that the *done thing* is to tip around 15% in restaurants (round up to the nearest $). We were also given a list of other people that expect to be tipped in America, who we wouldn’t normally tip in the UK, and warned that the British sometimes attract a reputation for being stingy tippers.

    As a result of this experience I am now considered to be a generous tipper at home. I like to leave at least 10% in a restaurant. Recently, I went out for a meal with some acquaintances. The number of courses, and types of drinks that we were having varied quite a bit, so we all (without disagreement) contributed enough to cover our own bills. I put in £12 to cover £7.95 set menu and £1.75 drink, which leaves a pretty generous tip. One or two others also gave more than 10% extra to cover their tips. Still, the final bill was £96 between us, and we left £103 to cover that and the tip, which felt a bit wrong to me.

    Fairly often, in similar situations, especially if I’m the person collecting the money, or sitting next to them, I’ll add more so that tip is at least reasonable. In this case I was at the other end of the table, so that wasnt’ possible (I also didn’t have any more cash on me). I didn’t want to say anything because I don’t know these people well enough to effectively call them misers. I swear that more than a third of the group must have been freeloading on the tip.

    What do other people do when this kind of thing happens? How much do other Brits normally tip in restaurants? Stuff like this is why lots of places add on an automatic service charge for groups, which seems to annoy people a lot. Personally, I quite like it when service is included in the price of the food, which is become rarer and rarer these days.

    Let me know what you think in the comments.

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