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KNOW BEFORE YOU GO

Part of the pleasure of travel is getting acquainted with a place in advance. Reading Jan Morris’s "Venice" made my first trip to Venice that much better as I was already bursting with anticipation.

But nothing will be more use to you than some contact with a native of the country you’re going to. Either before you go or when you’re there. I don’t necessarily mean a commercial relationship – a guide or a travel agent of some kind – but someone who lives or has lived in the country you’re visiting who could give you some help. Nothing is more valuable to a traveller than inside information.

The better you know the language the more you will understand and appreciate a place. This needn’t mean full scale fluency, but at least enough greetings, words of thanks and appreciation in the local language, to make the first contact and very often coax out someone who is equally shy about trying out their English.

Read up carefully on the habits and customs of a country. In some places how you dress, how you eat, even how you say hello will be quite different from home and though most people will excuse anything because you’re a foreigner, it is amazing how much of a difference it makes if people feel you have made some attempt to understand their way of doing things.

Packing. Worth thinking about carefully. Run the trip through in your mind thinking what you might be doing day by day and make a list accordingly. Remember it’s the most mundane things that will be the most important. So, keep wardrobe simple and concentrate instead on things like toilet paper. Single sheets in flat packs are much easier to pack, and use, than a roll.

Know your luggage. When you pack, make sure you know what you’ve put in and where it all goes and try and keep it the same every time you re-pack. This may mean getting up fifteen minutes earlier on the day you move on but it does mean that you notice straightaway when things are missing or need to be replaced, and save yourself a lot of panic and stress.

Passports. They still induce terminal anxiety in me whenever I leave home. Unfortunately most countries, including Britain do take them very seriously, so all that obsessive checking and double checking of its whereabouts is worth it.

But sometimes merely knowing you’ve got it is not enough. The old UK passports had names and numbers on the front and were bigger and much less easy to lose than the present flimsy European Community substitutes, whose identical covers once landed me in an embarrassing spot.

Checking on to a Eurostar at Paris I handed over my EC passport only to receive a very strange look from the immigration officer. He peered again at greater length then frowned and shook his head. When I asked what the problem was, he held up the passport and I found myself looking at my wife’s picture. I realised with horror that we kept all the family passports in the same drawer, and I’d taken the wrong one.

Fortunately I was saved by his colleague who seemed to recognise me from Monty Python and therefore assumed it was quite natural for me to be dressed as a woman. But if you weren't in Monty Python this could be a serious problem.

So, always make sure it’s your own passport you’re carrying and not Madonna’s or Tom Cruise’s.