Back in September I was fortunate enough to go and shoot a wedding in Italy for a long time client and now friend. I brought my wife along with me and made a nice little extended vacation out of the trip and it was incredible. I’ve picked up quite a few travel tips over the years and I learned a few more on this most recent trip. So, I thought I’d compile a short list of some of the more important ones here. This list (in no certain order) will help not just anyone traveling to Italy but anyone traveling period.
1.) Keep Your Photo Gear In A Backpack, Not A Suitcase
This was a tip that I didn’t have to learn the hard way and it is of particular importance when in a foreign country. The main reason for this suggestion is to prevent theft and keep your photo gear in your possession at all times. Getting pick-pocketed in Europe is a very real threat so it’s important to keep your possessions in sight and nearby at all times. When you step on to a train, you have no choice but to put any suitcases you’re traveling with in the overhead compartments or in the designated luggage areas spread out in the trains. Sometimes the space above your seat is full and you have to place your suitcase several rows down (or in the next train cabin)! Would you feel comfortable placing your thousands upon thousands of dollars worth of photo gear in an overhead compartment out of sight for a 4 hour train ride? I know I’d be a nervous reck the entire time so I was glad to have my backpack in my lap the whole trip. I even used it as a pillow at times (although not a very comfortable one). My backpack of choice was the Shape Shifter from ThinkTank and I absolutely loved it. Be on the lookout for a review of that backpack coming very soon!
2.) Don’t Check Your Tripod
On the plane that is. I have always carried my tripod with me on the plane. I’ve never thought twice about this but for some reason I decided to check my tripod on my trip back to the states from Italy. I had to learn this lesson the hard way when I walked off the plane into Madrid-Barajas Airport in Spain for a 2 hour layover. If you’ve ever been to this airport then you can imagine my frustration. Terminal 4 at Madrid was redesigned in 2006 and is now one of the most elegant and modern airport terminals in the world and a photographers paradise! And I didn’t have a tripod! I know a lot of people don’t use tripods, but I rely on mine for the work I do. Try hand holding a camera in low light at f/11 when you’re trying to get an infinite depth of field and blur the people walking through the terminal! The one time I didn’t have my tripod!!! Ugh…
3.) Editing Can Wait
Sometimes I enjoy editing as much as (or more than) taking pictures. However, I was in Italy and was surrounded by some of the most beautiful scenery on Earth. Every time I tried to sit down and edit I thought to myself, “What’s a better use of my time: Editing the images I’ve already taken or going out and taking more pictures?” You can imagine what my answer was each time. Don’t use up your precious time in an exotic location doing something that will be just as enjoyable when you get home. Get out there and enjoy the scenery!
4.) Don’t Bother With 1st Class Trains
This one is a little Euro-centric I know. We bought two first class train tickets during our jaunt around the country and regretted it both times. In almost all cases, first class is the exact same as coach. You may get a food cart that comes by if you’re on first but you still have to pay for the food! So you basically pay about 30 extra Euro’s per person to get the option of buying food during your trip. Again, ugh…
5.) Unless Your iPhone Is Truly Unlocked, Consider It Useless
This was very, very frustrating in Italy. iPhones in America (at least through AT&T) are sold locked, meaning you can’t pop an international SIM card into it during a trip to a foreign country. I paid around $24 before leaving to jailbreak and unlock my iPhone so that I could purchase an international SIM card and continue using my phone on the trip. I wanted to do this because we were traveling with clients and I wanted to be able to reach them through phone, text or email if we needed to make plans to meet up somewhere. I clearly verified that my iPhone had been unlocked and we stopped at a cell phone store in Milan to purchase our international cards. We both purchased a ‘TIM’ card for about 10 euros which included 10gb of data, 60 voice minutes and 50 text messages. The first week was also totally free and we were only staying for 11 days. Well Michael (my client) popped his TIM card into his Android phone and was up and running in minutes. I popped mine in and…nothing. We spent the rest of our trip using the internet on Michaels phone to try and figure out how to get mine working and to no avail. The potential of this problem became very apparent in Venice when we discovered that the water taxi’s were on strike and we’d be forced to walk 45 minutes to our hotel will all of our luggage through the crowded streets and alleyways. Michael gave us his wife’s phone (also an Android with a purchased TIM card) and we simply plugged in the address to our hotel and used Google Maps to guide us straight there. We had to make so many turns through random alleys, across bridges and down narrow streets that there would have been absolutely no way to get there without a map. The walk took 45 minutes but it would have likely taken several hours had we been forced to rely on locals trying to understand our language.
6.) Research The Places You Visit Ahead Of Time
This tip really paid off in some situations, and would have really helped in others. The places that I researched beforehand were so much more enjoyable to visit knowing the background and history of each place. I could really appreciate these locations and it made photographing them so much more rewarding. On the flip side, I also visited several places that I didn’t research. This left me really unsatisfied because I had no idea what I was looking at and was desperate for some kind of information about it. Fortunately I was able to talk to locals in a few cases or find some sort of plaque to describe the place briefly. Sometimes there’s no way to plan for things, for example when you stumble on to some place you didn’t plan on visiting, but if you know you’ll be traveling to a certain location or ruin or building, dedicate some time to researching and studying the background and history of it. It will always pay dividends!
7.) Figure Out How Much Money You Need To Save, Then Save More!
The last thing you want to do is be concerned about money on a trip. If you have time to plan and save for a trip, go ahead and save more than you need so you can splurge a little. Saving extra allowed us to eat out at nicer restaurants, travel to more places, purchase tickets to more museums and sites, taste more wines and cappuccinos, buy more souvenirs, drink more water (at 3-4 euros each, water gets expensive quick!) and just be able to enjoy ourselves rather than stick to a tight budget the entire time. I think anybody can do this if they plan accordingly. Budget before the trip so you don’t have to budget on the trip.
8.) Spend Some Time Without Your Camera
I know, this sounds absurd, and it’s a hard one for me at times but I always try to spend some time away from the camera and just let my mind…my soul really…take everything in. I love taking pictures, I love the challenge of finding that perfect composition and pressing the shutter at just the right moment. But there’s something to be said about letting the camera sit one out every now and again. To enjoy a fresh cup of cappuccino with your wife without taking a picture of it. To just be in the moment and take it in without trying to take anything from it but memories. Depending on how obsessed you are with photography, this may have to be a conscious decision you have to make and follow through on, but I never regret taking at least a few moments to just let my memories take the snap shots.
9.) Have A Backup Plan For Your Images
I haven’t been through this yet (and God willing I won’t have to) but I have heard horror stories about people taking thousands of images on a trip, only to have their camera stolen, their hard drive crash or their memory cards fail before they get home. Don’t take any chances with your precious images! They are your memories! When I travel, I always have a well thought out backup plan in place.
In Italy I took two sets of CF cards. One set for all my travel and landscape work and another for the wedding I shot there. My goal was to never erase over a CF card unless I absolutely had to, so the CF cards would act as a form of backup if needed. At the end of the day I’d download the images from the day to an external hard drive and make a copy to my laptop (I made sure before the trip that I’d have enough space on the laptop as well). With the images still on the CF cards I had everything backed up in three places. I then placed the CF cards in my camera backback, my laptop in my wife’s backpack and the external hard drive in my suitcase. That way if one bag got stolen somehow we’d still have the images in two other places. Nothing is going to protect you absolutely 100% but you might as well take as many variables out of the equation as possible.
Well I am quite confident that a number of our readers here at DPS have trips coming up to Italy or some other part of Europe (or the world for that matter). I hope this article will serve to better prepare you for the adventure of a lifetime and prevent you from making some potentially costly mistakes in the process. Traveling is one of the greatest things you can do to invest in your world view and your short time here on Earth and I hope you’ll consider it if you haven’t already. Anything worth having is worth working for and traveling around the world is worth having! So here’s to getting off the couch and getting out there. Cheers!
“The measure of your success usually comes down to who wins the battle that rages between the two of you. The ‘you’ who wants to stop, give up, or take it easy, and the ‘you’ who chooses to beat back that which would stand in the way of your success – complacency.”
— Chris Widener
Now I want to hear from you! Have you been to Italy or some other foreign country recently? Feel free to expand upon this article in the comments below with extra little nuggets of wisdom about traveling abroad. Looking forward to your thoughts!
Oh and be sure to follow me (James Brandon) and Darren Rowse on Google+! My last article here at DPS was about tips for G+ and it was written while G+ was still in beta and invite only. Since then it has opened up to the public and has (I believe) over 50 million users at this point. I really am loving G+ so far, it’s a photographers playground really! So drop by and say hello and I’ll add you to my DPS Readers Circle. Cheers!