Diary of A Professional Traveler: On The Ground

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You’ve landed! You’re all rested and relaxed because you were prepared for the long flight and were able to find a comfortable seat and position that allowed you to get some rest. But now, it’s time to get out of that seat and get going!

Going through Immigrations and Customs, then finding your bags at the baggage claim can all be aggravating experiences. Allow me to take you through the process and help you along the way with some tips from personal experience.

When I travel to another country I always make sure that I’m not rushed when I get there. Whatever arrangements I make are usually crafted so I can take my time. One of the most annoying experiences one can have is disembarking from the aircraft. There are literally hundreds of people all pushing and shoving to get off ask quickly as possible. Most of the time I just wait for awhile and let much of the pushing crowd go past me. This is partly because I want to organize my personal items before I leave the aircraft .

Remember all those things that I put in my pockets for the flight? Well now they all go back into my shoulder bag, with the exception of the passport wallet. That stays in my pocket. I also put my Disembarkation Card into the wallet along with my boarding pass stub. During the flight you will have been handed a document to fill out for Immigration. That document can be easily filled out during the flight, saving you time later and also giving you something to do for awhile. Keep that document with your passport and boarding pass stub.

The first thing that I usually do is turn on my mobile phone. It will search the available mobile networks and connect with one. These messages will send me text messages that explain how to use their system for outgoing international and local calls. I pack up and head for the door.

When exiting the aircraft and into a new airport where you’ve never been before, you need to keep your eyes open for the quickest route to Immigration. Most of the time you can follow the main crowd because most people should be going to Immigration. Once you get to the area keep your eyes open for the lines in front of the inspection stations. Sometimes there are shorter lines at the far end of the room. Also, in times of peak passenger arrivals, authorities will open certain lanes normally designated for local passports, and allow passengers with foreign passports to be processed there. You shouldn’t have to wait more than 15 minutes to go thorough Immigration. Sure you can rush and get off the plane as fast as you can in order to get in line first. I’ve seen people organizing their stuff in line, finishing up their documentation, etc., but to me, it isn’t worth it to rush. I can afford to spend an extra 10 or 15 minutes in line because I’ve arranged everything so I can enjoy the travel experience.

The worst situation I was ever in was when I visited Japan in 2004. My flight landed from Taiwan and the wait to be processed through Immigration was two hours. Fortunately all those Taiwanese people in line were cracking jokes and that helped to pass the time. It really wasn’t so bad.

The Immigration Inspection

Relax, you’ve not nothing to be concerned about – but everybody is always a bit nervous when dealing with government officials. Just stand in line and wait until you are called to approach the counter. Make sure that you stand behind the line . I’ve seen a few people get warned and it’s such a simple requirement that you can’t afford to have the Immigration officer think you’re an idiot before s/he even sees your passport. Have everything organized so you can present your passport and Disembarkation Card to the Immigration officer. The officer may ask for your boarding pass because they categorize arrivals and want to verify your flight number, so have that stub ready. Sometimes misunderstandings arise. Above all, keep smiling and politely answer and explain anything you are asked. Immigration officers have a very difficult job. They have to screen out potential problem travelers and they have to do this within a short period of time. If the officer asks where you are staying, or asks you for a personal reference in the country, don’t take offense. Consider everything an opportunity for you to show how nice and polite people from your country are. In all my travels I have only experienced 2 misunderstandings with Immigration officers. One was when I had an expired visa in my passport. The officer didn’t notice a second, current visa has been issued on another page in my passport. I kindly directed his attention to the correct page with the current visa. My smiling face made it clear that I wasn’t being sarcastic toward him. The other time an inspector mis-calculated the number of days I had stayed in the country on my visa. He actually had stood up to call the police officer over to detain me when he realized his mistake. The smile never left my face. The problem disappeared immediately and the officer apologized to me.

When you are admitted to the country, your passport will be stamped, and in most cases some kind of document will be stapled into your passport. Make sure this stays with you because you must turn this document back into immigration upon your departure.

The Baggage Claim

Once you are admitted to the country you have to get your bags at the baggage claim. Depending upon what airport you are at, this can be anywhere from a very organized affair, to near chaos. As stated in previous articles, I usually try to do something to make my bags stand out from the rest – a brightly colored cinch strap or even a big “X” in duct tape on the outside will make a distinction. I’ve seen people right next to me pick up my bag thinking it was theirs. Sheer disaster was averted only because I was right there. Sure enough, their bag came a few moments later and looked virtually identical to mine. I learned that lesson the hard way. You don’t have to!

Sometimes, the baggage handlers will pull bags aside and stand them up beside the carousal. If you don’t see your bag in the regular rotation be sure to look around for any groups of bags that the handlers may have pulled aside. This isn’t special scrutiny necessarily, but rather the handlers’ way of managing the flow of baggage. Sometimes they remove bags that have gone around more than a few times, and others that have a tendency to block the flow, etc. For whatever reason you may find your bag pulled aside for perfectly reasonable purposes.

The Customs Inspection

In many Asian countries, there is a Red Channel, Green Channel system in place. Passengers with items to declare will enter the Red Channel. Passengers with nothing to declare will pass though the Green Channel.

How do you now which Channel to go through? The simple answer is if you have any doubts you can ask by going through the Red Channel. Nearly all tourist passengers are Green. Some business passengers must go through the Red Channel but sometimes the Red Channel is closed.

The truth is, laws and regulations may be lax where you are arriving. I’ve been in situations where I tired to go through the Red Channel, but the authorities waved me thorough the Green Channel even after I told them I had commercial items to declare. No matter what you think, read or have been told, whatever the authorities tell you, is what you should do . Sometimes, the inspectors will pull people aside and make them go through the Red Channel for a surprise inspection. Even though it’s not a requirement I usually have my passport showing when I walk through the Green Channel because ordinarily US Citizens are allowed to pass though inspection points without being subjected to scrutiny. In my travels I have never been subjected to a thorough Customs search except in the USA. I always walk though the Green Channel.

The Lobby

Now, this is the most dangerous part of the airport, in my opinion. Before we actually step into the lobby (sometimes called the Arrival or Greeter’s lobby) let’s make sure of a couple of things:

  1. Your passport is put away and the cover is not visible when you open your wallet.

  2. Your shoulder bag is zipped closed.

  3. Your other small bags are all zipped closed.

  4. Your bag straps are connected together and attached to your luggage cart (assuming you are using one).

  5. Depending upon how paranoid you are, you may want to remove your baggage claim strip tags from your bags.

Does all this sound paranoid? It should. You should be. Why?

The greeter’s lobby is where you will find people specifically there to prey on “rich” travelers. You might not think of yourself as rich, but when compared to some other countries, you are. But it only matters that these people think you are rich. When you leave the secure area after Customs you will enter the insecure zone of the lobby. People will descend upon you, offering you all kinds of services. My advice is to ignore all of them. Also, people tend to crowd in airport lobbies, and you may find yourself in the company of pick pockets. My shirts all have zippered pockets and those are where I keep valuables. I never keep a wallet in my pants either. That is just asking for trouble! In fact, I don’t carry money in my wallet. My cash goes in a zippered shirt pocket.

From Customs I proceed directly to an ATM machine so I may get local currency. Depending upon where you go, there may not be an ATM available, but only currency exchanges. These exchanges are more expensive because they have to make money on all the transactions. When you withdraw money from a foreign ATM the transaction is based on the current exchange rate and a flat fee. It’s cheaper to use an ATM than a money exchange.

In almost every case someone will follow me to the ATM. I forcefully ask them to “go away.”I If they insist on hanging around I stand there and wait until they go look for another target and only after I am satisfied that no one is “shoulder surfing” I will make a withdrawal. Only take out enough money to get you to your first destination, usually your hotel. You can go back to another ATM in a bank later. But if you stand there and withdraw and count a large denomination of local currency, someone may risk robbing you for it. When I use the ATM, I have a simple tactic:

  1. Stand close – as close as you can.

  2. Cover your hands when entering PIN numbers.

  3. Use the large passport wallet to hide the screen.

Standing close helps keep people directly behind you from seeing but beware of those on the sides. Use your hands and wallet to hide what you are doing. When you enter the PIN number be especially careful. Most people use birthdays or some such number – that is way too easy and if your wallet is stolen they have your passport too – you are screwed! Use a random number. Cover the screen with your passport wallet (inside towards the screen of course!) so people can’t see what denomination of money you are taking out. Some ATMs have a “fast cash” feature, where you press one button for a particular denomination of cash. Sometimes that is better than making lots of beeps which might make people think you are withdrawing a large amount of cash. No matter what I always try to “ randomize” my button presses so they don’t seem to make any sense to listeners. When the money comes out of the dispenser, I use my wallet to grab it immediately and I gave it a quick count. Small amounts make it much easier to count only 4 or 5 bills so you can put the money away as fast as you can.

One annoying and potentially dangerous feature of some foreign ATMs is that when you are all finished with the transaction, it will display your available cash balance on the screen without you asking for it. I’ve seen more than one situation where a horrified foreigner had his considerable wealth advertised right out in the open on an ATM screen to a horde of onlookers. Not smart. Keep close and keep that wallet up to the screen until you are sure the machine is all finished and is soliciting new customers.

The entire time you are at the ATM, please make sure that your bags haven’t been made off with. Most places I’ve been don’t have highwaymen who will rob you face-to-face, but they do have opportunist criminals who will steal an unguarded bag. What I do is place the cart beside me and I put my foot next to it so my foot is always touching the cart. That way I can feel any movement that might suggest someone is monkeying around with my stuff. Having the straps tied together, and even wrapped around the cart handle also makes it hard for some to do a “grab and run” snatch on a bag.

Scams

Oh, now we get to my favorite part of this article! Scams are everywhere. Some of them are nothing more than jacked up prices for what otherwise is a good service. Others are re-directs, where you are misdirected into doing something else and paying for it.

Taxis

The moment you step into the lobby you will be besieged with dozens of people saying “taxi sir?” Only, none of these people are representatives of actual taxis. They are selling limousine services . Regular metered taxis are always found outside at the street level. Never use these “taxi” services inside and never, ever go with someone you don’t know. I go through this every time I arrive in Thailand and even at every bus stop within the country. There is always someone who says “come with me sir” and wants me to walk a few blocks to his personal car so he can charge me whatever he says. My advice is to act like you cannot understand anything they say. Answering or saying even “no thanks” just makes it worse. Walk through the lobby, ignoring everyone and go outside to the taxi stand. Usually the taxi stand will have someone who can speak rudimentary English and will write a dispatch ticket for you. Once I compared prices and I found that a limo ride into Bangkok (just a van crammed full of people and hardly comfortable) was 600 baht for the same trip that I took in a metered taxi by myself for 250 baht.

I also try to avoid eye contact as this often makes it more difficult to avoid a persistent person. I remember once that I was riding a bus and as it pulled into the station a group of local taxi operators started chasing it. As they ran alongside the bus, they were trying to make eye contact with the bus passengers so they could persuade them to use their taxi. I just happened to be randomly staring out the window when one guy ran into my field of vision. Sure enough, every time I even appeared to be looking in his direction he was pleading with me. As I stepped down off the bus he was right there, pleading and grabbing my arm.

Remember to use your name cards if you have them (your namecard book should be in your shoulder bag). Show the namecard of your hotel to the taxi dispatcher to avoid misunderstandings.

Sometimes the taxi driver will ask “how much?” hoping you’re too stupid to insist on the meter. Also, they will ask you “highway?” and if you say yes you must pay the tolls. The driver might ask for 100 baht for the tolls and pay as he goes through them, hoping that you are too stupid to add them up and realize he only spent 80 baht on the tolls.

Common Taxi Scams to Watch Out For

Mr. Running Meter: Once I had a taxi driver pull up to my hotel and not turn off the meter. As we were unloading our bags, I heard the meter beep. Sure enough, when I went to pay the driver, he insisted that the fare was higher than what was on the meter when we pulled up. The difference was 10 baht. People in SE Asian countries will argue with you over a US nickel, so be prepared for that. My wife, the professional auditor, staunchly refused to pay the higher amount, and as unbelievable as it sounds, Mr. Running Meter called us dishonest! If you have a traveling companion, I suggest that one of you get the bags while the other one pays the fare. That minimizes your exposure.

Mr. No Change: Always, always always make sure that when you take a taxi to the airport, you have small bill and coin denominations with you. Some unscrupulous drivers will be counting on the fact that you are rushed, don’t have change, and won’t have time to go inside to find a currency exchange and get change for him. So you’ll find yourself in a bad position:

  1. at the airport terminal, (probably with no time to spare)
  2. in the dropoff area, (no parking allowed, and police directing taxis to leave quickly)
  3. with a taxi fare of 250 baht on the meter, (which can’t be disputed)
  4. a 500 baht note, and
  5. a driver with no change.

Guess what he expects you to do? Guess what happens 99% of the time? That’s right – he makes out like a bandit. And, of course he is a bandit because this no change stuff is pure crap but you can’t do anything about it. If you try to skip out on the fare, he will be yelling for a police officer to come.

This tactic doesn’t work when going to your hotel or a restaurant because you can easily step inside and get change for the driver. This scam only works when you are rushed.

Once, Mr. No Change took me to the airport. When he got there and pulled the “I no change” routine, he wasn’t prepared for what happened next. I know he was expecting me to get all upset and give him the 500 baht note that I had. Instead Hui-chen stayed with the taxi and I went inside to find a currency exchange. I took my time and came back 15 minutes later. I smiled as I counted exact change in his hand. The game goes both ways, you know. While you’re inside getting change, chances are a police officer will tell him to move out of the drop off area. He could have been forced to abandon the fare altogether. As long as someone is there with the driver, he can’t drive off with your bags either.

Mr. No Change
Mr. No Change, hastily photographed with my mobile phone. He’s out there waiting for you!

Mr. 1 Baht Per Hour: File this under “if it sounds too good to be true – it is.” There are tuk-tuk taxis advertising to take you around for an hour, for the ridiculous fare of 1 baht. So you hop in the taxi and the guy takes you all over creation, but by the time your hour is up, he’s on the other side of the city and you have no idea where you are. It takes another hour to get back by the most circuitous route possible and obviously the second hour costs considerably more.

Mr. 1 Baht Hour
Mr. 1 Baht Per Hour

Tourist Areas

You want to visit some of the sights, so you hop in a cab. The driver tells you that the place you want to go is closed today. He suggests another place. You reluctantly agree. After all, he’s a taxi driver and he should know what’s open, closed and good or bad places to see right?

Wrong! You are going on a “tour” of his friend’s jewelry and clothing shops. Your driver gets a commission that is added right on top of your fare. He also gets a commission on anything you are dumb enough to buy from these scam artists and guess who pays that too?

When you find a taxi driver that tells you a certain attraction is closed, simply say thank you and leave the taxi immediately. A legitimate driver will drive off but your scam driver will continue to try to persuade you to go with him to an alternate destination. Ignore him. Find another taxi. When you find a driver that isn’t trying to scam you, ask him to use the meter. Taxi meters avoid misunderstandings. When taking non-metered taxis, make sure you ask the fare beforehand . Expect outrageous prices and don’t accept them. Once I asked the price for a tuk-tuk trip to a subway station and I was told 200 baht for a trip that should have been 35 baht. Do not be afraid to haggle, but keep that smile on your face. It’s just a way of life.

Another thing to watch out for is this variation on the closed attraction scam. Your taxi driver will pull up on the street beside the attraction, but not in front of it. As you step out a man dressed in a suit will approach you and apologize, saying that the attraction is closed. At that point he will “suggest” another attraction, and then you’re back in the taxi and off to the same jewelry and clothing shop as before. These two are working together. Keep in mind that this “well dressed man” is well dressed according to local standards which in most cases means a poorly fitted suit. He’s no official and he has no ID either. He’s easy to spot. He’s a local guy trying to scam tourists. The best thing to do is to thank him, and then pay the taxi driver for the fare and send him on his way no matter what he tells you. Once clear of the scammer you can enter the attraction. Bear in mind that the local authorities may or may not do anything about these scammers, even if you report them. Don’t let an attempted scam ruin your day. Just consider it part of your tourist experience and be thankful that you knew what was happening and you weren’t taken in by it. In fact some of these scammers are quite friendly and will probably pose for a photo for your blog article on scammers!

In other countries people are friendly but sometimes they use that to take advantage of you. I’ve had local people approach me on the street to apparently say hello and practice English, only to have them launch into a very well rehearsed sales pitch about their friend’s suit shop or jewelry store. Other places have roving recruiters that will follow you around trying to hard sell you into going places, and in particular bars that feature women dancers. These types can be extremely persistent so the sooner you let them know you are not interested the better. I had a guy follow me for four blocks, so I stopped and let him catch up to me. I told him I wasn’t going anywhere with him and to find someone else. These guys work on commission so as soon as he heard that he took off.

My last recommendation is for you to purchase a map and get familiar with the layout of where you want to go. That familiarity may come in very handy when you least expect it. Also, GPS receivers are very inexpensive these days and once you travel with one, you’ll never go anywhere without it again. Even a simple compass can let you know if your taxi driver is going in the right direction. Once I let my GPS run while I took a tuk-tuk from point A to point B. When we arrived a point B destination, I showed the map to the driver. Clearly he had driven a series of “S” maneuvers to make it seem longer in order to justify the outrageous price he wanted for the ride. Busted!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this series on traveling, and I hope this series can help you avoid some of the pitfalls and problems you may likely encounter in your international travels.

But above all, please remember to have fun!

Articles in series Professional Traveler:

  1. Diary of A Professional Traveler: Packing
  2. Diary of A Professional Traveler: Boarding
  3. Diary of A Professional Traveler: The Flight
  4. Diary of A Professional Traveler: On The Ground
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4 comments

  1. Good tip: Pack used underwear into your carry-on so the authorities don’t mess with it too much…

    HAHAHAHA..

    Seriously though, Michael gave me a real good tip on backpacks. I purchased a backpack that looked like a school backpack. It was actually made to carry a laptop and used it as such. It was a great disguise!

  2. Mitesh Damania » Colby always leaves a couple of briefs (with award-winning skid marks on them) on top of the pile so they get pulled out first. lol yeah that backpack works for me too. glad it helped you out. 🙂

  3. Hi MJ,

    Great post. Some of your tips I have used on many business trips to the Philippines. Good tip on filling out the customs card on the plane but make sure that when filling out the custom card, there are two pieces (the carbon copy layer over the regular layer). I once had a flight stewardess give me just a single piece (she tore it out of the custom cards booklet wrong) and I notice (or thinking) at the time. Anyway, I ended up having find a new one and go back to the end of the line as some Immigrations Officials at the counter won’t be so understanding and will not you fill out a new one on the side and let you back in the line afterwards. I had to wait in line another half hour for that mistake.

    Also good tip on having to pay the toll charges as often times it is definitely not already included in the taxi fare. Although my experience in the Philippines is that the taxi drivers will give you back your change immediately after each toll instead of holding on to it for the next one.

    1. Peter Ho » oh yeah, that is a great point about the disembarkation card: if it’s supposed to be multi-part, be sure you have the document intact. Thailand and other places I’ve been have a single layer, but 2 actual cards that you tear apart. one gets filed at incoming inspection and the matching card gets filed at outgoing inspection. man, that must have sucked, having to go back to the beginning of the line! btw i have heard that taxi drivers in the Philippines are honest. your comment seems to support that. thanks for your comments Peter!

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