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A Quick Word About Pre-Trip Planning

Travel Planning

Now that I’m no longer living in Mexico, I’m beginning to realize that, in terms of being a backpacker, I’m a little bit rusty. I haven’t been ‘on the road’ for quite a while and as a result, I just haven’t had to think about such things as long-distance transportation, finding nightly accommodation and of course, obtaining tourist visas.

Basically, I seem to have misplaced my travel skills and I’m having some trouble getting them back! My surprising inability to think like a traveler has caused me to make a few interesting mistakes this past week in regards to my upcoming trip to the Middle East. And while all of the mistakes are more of the slightly unfortunate / somewhat comical variety as opposed to the devastating sort, they’ve still led to quite a few hiccups that I wasn’t expecting to face.

At least these mistakes provided a wake up call before my actual trip begins, giving me a little bit of time to make the necessary mental adjustments. Once I arrive in Turkey at the end of the month, I should be back to normal once again.

HOW NOT TO OBTAIN A TOURIST VISA

When I officially decided that I would visit Syria on my upcoming trip, I did a very quick Google search in order to learn about their visa requirements for US citizens. After reading one website, the process seemed straightforward enough. All I needed to do was present myself at the Syrian Embassy or one of their Consulates in the US, hand over two application forms and the visa fee and then the tourist visa would be ready within two days. It doesn’t get any easier than that!

And so, based on that knowledge, I booked a flight to NYC (from Florida) where I planned to visit family and friends and apply for my visa at the Syrian Consulate. Unfortunately, the day before my flight, I discovered one minor problem with this plan. There is no Syrian Consulate in NYC! There are consulates in Houston, Detroit and Newport Beach, California, but not a one to be found in the Big Apple. I simply had assumed that if Syria had a few consulates in the US, then surely one of those would be located in the largest city in the country. Oh, how wrong was I!

As a result of this sudden discovery, I spent 4 hours running around Friday morning trying to make up for my mistake. I had no choice but to send my passport to the Embassy in Washington and the longer I waited, the longer my trip would be delayed. (It takes 7-14 days to apply for the visa by mail.)

I sat down and did some proper research, filled out the two visa application forms, obtained a money order, had some passport-sized photos taken and even spoke at length with a representative at the Syrian Embassy. I wanted to clarify exactly how they wanted some of the questions on the application to be answered as my last-minute research revealed the Embassy’s tendency to reject applications if everything is not in absolutely perfect order.

Finally, at 4pm Friday afternoon I walked into the Post Office and sent my package to Washington just in time. And not only did I have to pay the expensive visa fee ($131 for US citizens) but I also forked over a significant amount of money to send the package overnight, not to mention the self-addressed stamped envelope (also overnight service) I needed to purchase in order to have my passport returned to me.

As a result, the total cost of this tourist visa approached the nauseatingly high amount of $200 USD.

So it goes. I guess that’s the price I pay for being rusty.

THE ADDITIONAL COST

Actually, that’s not the total price I’ll pay in the end, as I must now wait until I have my passport back in my possession before booking my flight to the Middle East (this isn’t a must, but it’s definitely the safest decision). And since I plan to leave by the end of the month, I may not be able to use my Frequent Flyer miles for such a last-minute booking and the flight prices will most likely be much more expensive when I try to book a ticket only a few days in advance.

So, what I’m trying to say is…RESEARCH! Whether you’re planning to travel to Brazil, China or Romania or anywhere else in the world, two additional minutes of research can eliminate any potential last minute hassles and save you from spending a decent amount of extra money that you could have spent during the actual trip itself. In my case, my 14 months in Mexico apparently made me forget the importance of such pre-trip preparation.

TIME TO DO SOME MORE RESEARCH

With only a couple of weeks left until my hopeful departure, I now also understand the need to do some research about the Middle East itself before I arrive. After all, I don’t want to blindly show up in Turkey only to discover that Istanbul has been recently relocated to Mongolia.

So to start my research, I’d like to ask anyone who has been to Turkey, Syria, Lebanon or any of the other surrounding countries, for any tips or advice you think might prove useful to me. Any special areas you’ve visited, places to stay, food stalls to eat at? Any advice about border crossings, transportation or where to go if I suddenly have the urge to purchase a camel would be particularly helpful!


Have you been to the Middle East? If you haven’t, is it on your list of regions you’d like to visit?

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34 Responses to A Quick Word About Pre-Trip Planning

  1. Pingback: How Not To Get An Indian Visa - Wandering Earl

  2. Elise says:

    As the saying goes..’We all learn from our mistakes!’.
    Sorry, don’t have any info on Turkey, Syria or Lebanon, but I’ll enjoy reading about your travels there!

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  5. Sabina says:

    I hope you’re not kicking yourself too big time over this. Who wouldn’t assume there would be a Syrian consulate in New York City? I’m sure many others have also found this out the hard way.

    • Earl says:

      Hey Sabina – Exactly! A Syrian consulate in Houston and Detroit but not NYC? I wasn’t upset at all…just found it amusing. It all worked out in the end though and I received my visa via mail within a week…

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  7. Sam says:

    Hey Earl,

    It makes it all a bit less intimidating to know that even seasoned travellers like you still make simpled mistakes. Not that I’m glad you did make it at all. When are you planning to be in Syria, may I ask? I’m also about to start a trip to a few of the same places as you over the next few months, and I’m planning to be in Syria for about a month from the end of October. It would be great to meet up somewhere if our paths happen to cross!

    • Earl says:

      Hey Sam – As of right now, my plan is to get to Syria around October 20th, so I should definitely be there the same time as you. In that case, we definitely need to meet up, so let’s make sure we stay in touch! Are you flying into Damascus or crossing overland?

      And as I’ve said before, no matter how much I travel, I’m still bound to make plenty of simple mistakes…the good part is that the more experience I have, the more I realize that these mistakes are never anything to get too upset about!

  8. Little House says:

    I haven’t traveled abroad for some time now, and never to Turkey (but I seriously want to go!) I guess the visa issue is based on a country by country basis, or so it sounds. At least you still have a couple of weeks before your trip, so don’t beat yourself up too much! Thanks for sharing that info. It cleared up my first comment about visas. ;)

    • Earl says:

      @Little House – It’s funny that I had this visa issue right after you left your other comment :) In the end it wasn’t too terrible as my passport/visa have now arrived and so I’m all set to go. It actually took much less time to process than the Embassy had indicated. That doesn’t happen very often…

      Hopefully you’ get a chance to visit Turkey yourself one day!

  9. Greg says:

    Hi Earl,

    I was in Turkey for 6 weeks this time last year. One less common recommendation I have is Kalekoy, on the Mediterranean coast. While technically not an island, getting there takes either a 20 min boat ride, or a rough hike. Since cars can’t get there, evenings are quiet and stars plentiful.

    Another idea: You can get to Syria/Lebanon by ferry via Cyprus. We used the Turkey-Cyprus ferry, but did not have visas for Syria. If you have the time Cyprus is an amazing and complicated place.

    • Earl says:

      Hey Greg – Thank you for the recommendation of Kalekoy. I’ll definitely check that out! And the Cyprus idea has crossed my mind as well. Your description of it being an ‘amazing and complicated’ place certainly makes it appealing. I appreciate the advice Greg.

  10. Maria Staal says:

    Hey Earl, I am glad that you discovered your mistake in time and am able to rectify it.
    My experience with the Middle East is limited, but when I worked on the ship we berthed in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and were not allowed off, because non of us had a visa. I had expected to get a simple shore leave pass, but unfortunately that wasn’t possible. So we were cooped up on board all day, while the containers were being off-loaded. Very frustrating.
    We did managed to get a shore leave pass for our next port Khor Fakkan in the UAE. It was fun to see a part of that country that is usually only known for the captial Dubai. Khor Fakkan is surrounded by very pretty rocky hills in a orangy-reddish colour. Very picturesque.
    Are you planning to visit the Arabian Peninsula?

    • Earl says:

      Hey Maria – I would imagine that Saudi Arabia is one of the few places that doesn’t offer shore leave for crew members. At least you weren’t cooped up on board for two ports in a row! I’ve been to UAE a few times but never to Khor Fakkan so it’s good to know that it is such a unique place to visit.

      I’m not sure if I’ll head down to the Arabian Peninsula this time. I would love to explore Oman and Yemen but we’ll see how it goes with Syria, Lebanon, etc first. As you can tell, I’m not too good at planning things in advance :)

      • Maria Staal says:

        LOL, no maybe you’re not too good a planning in advance, but that’s a good way to keep it all adventurous. :)

        Khor Fakkan is actually situated on the Gulf of Oman, and not on the Persian Gulf side of the country. I enjoyed visiting it and would have liked to be able stay a bit longer. As it worked out we were only allowed a shore leave of about 4 hours.

        • Earl says:

          Hey Maria – It is adventurous indeed. And 4 hours of shore leave is better than no shore leave! I remember on the cruise ships sometimes I’d be upset because I only had a few hours off in port, but then I realized that spending my 3 hour break on a white sand beach really isn’t anything to complain about!

          • Maria Staal says:

            You’re absolutely right. Just a few hours of shore leave is better then nothing.
            My problem was that because part of my work actually involved going on shore leave and finding things to do so that I could write about it, if I had only a few hours I might not get my work done before the shore leave was over.
            Resulting in my shortest shore leave ever, of only one hour, in which I took a hasty cab from the port to downtown Norfolk (Virginia), raided the tourist information for leaflets about the town and took a hasty cab back. I almost didn’t make it back in time. Good times… :)

  11. Forest says:

    Not been to Turkey yet but will do soon, after all it’s only a few hours flight from Cairo. If you happen to want to see some gant stone pyramids or anything else then feel free to have me as a free travel guide in Egypt…. Visa can be obtained at the border for $15USD and is valid for 1-3months (not sure how long right now was 3months first time I applied and 1 the second!) but you can overstay and they just give you a small fine on the way out!

    • Earl says:

      Thanks for the offer Forest! A free travel guide always sounds appealing!

      A couple of years ago I actually did manage to explore a bit of Egypt but there was of course plenty that I missed. It’s good to know that visas are available on the border (I couldn’t remember how I got the visa the first time) so that I can head down there and pick up where I left off. I shall let you know my plans as they slowly begin to form…thanks again!

  12. Ha! Sorry, no experience, no recommendations. But it did remind me of my mom’s experience when she was getting ready to visit us when we lived in Italy: her passport had expired, and she didn’t realize it until three days before her flight! Needless to say, that was quite the expensive oversight. The most ironic part was that my dad discovered it, and he’s not exactly, um, notorious, for looking ahead at the details. Even my mom had to shake her head at that one.(If you knew my mom, you’d be laughing.)

    • Earl says:

      Hey Jolyn! I was laughing even though I don’t know your mom! That’s exactly the kind of situation I was talking about. Three days before being scheduled to leave is extremely tight, and that’s amazing that she was able to get the passport on such short notice. Hopefully the visit to Italy made up for all of the extra expenses she incurred!

      Thanks for sharing :)

  13. Connie says:

    Planning in advance, especially with visas can sometimes make your travel difficult. Before I left the States for my Asia trip, I got a one year multiple visa for China since I knew I wanted to go into different areas of China and wasn’t entirely sure when I would be doing it. I paid $150 (I think) for it. I’m 9 months into the trip and haven’t even made it into China. ONCE!

    Planning and research in advance is good, but I’ve learned that over planning, can just lose you money in the long run. Especially when it comes to long term travel and open-ended itineraries. =)

    Looking forward to your posts about the Middle East trip! It’s definitely a place I want to explore more of!

    • Earl says:

      Hey Connie – I’ll admit I had a little chuckle while reading your comment :) It’s such a great example of how travel plans rarely seem to pan out as we expect them to! And that’s why I fully agree that over-planning can be detrimental in the end. We simply have no way of knowing where the road will lead until we get out there and start traveling. Normally, when it comes to visas I just get them while I’m overseas but unfortunately, Syria requires US citizens to obtain a visa in the US, no exceptions!

  14. Andi says:

    I think this is SUCH a helpful post, because a lot of times people think that we seasoned travelers never make mistakes, but it happens LOL. Thank goodness you were able to fix your problem! Middle East here you come!!!!!

  15. chel hamilton says:

    Wow. Turkey is the “middle east”? Who knew? (here i thought it was a tiny bit in europe, with the rest on the asian continent!) ;P

    In Istanbul…besides the obvious mosques, Topkapi Palace, and Grand Bazaar you really must take some tea at any of the outdoor tea places along the Bosporus, as well as have a meal at fish house there. Also, if a day trip is desired I highly recommend a rather less bustling day on the Princes’ Island of Buyukada (Ferries to and fro)…especially if the weather is nice.

    Buses, trains, and shared taxis are all good to go. And if you get the chance while traveling east you MUST see the underground cities in Cappadocia…such as Derinkuyu. I missed them when I lived there years ago but I plan to go back soon and see them. (p.s. if you are into conspiracy theory stuff then check out Collin’s book “From the Ashes of Angels” for more on these cities.)

    If you are headed south from Istanbul then Bodrum and Fethiye on the coast are stunning and worth the visit…one is a party, the other is more chill.

    My most important bit of advice? Avoid saying “um” when searching for the right word outload. Use “eh” instead as um, sick, and peach sound like certain cuss words in turkish that could get you into some serious misunderstandings with the locals…especially a guy saying “um” to a woman – bad bad move.

    That said, the Turks are usually extremely warm and generous people. But please don’t say no to offered food, drinks, or tea or it can cause an offense.

    Oh yeah, And have a GREAT TIME!!!

    • Earl says:

      Hey Chel – Thank you for all of that great information! Much appreciated. I will certainly follow your advice and do some more research on the places you mentioned. And that’s especially good to know about “um” sounding like a curse. Now I can avoid that from the start without learning the hard way!

      And I actually checked a few sources and Turkey is considered to be a part of the Middle East, just as Egypt is even though it is in Africa :)

  16. Alan says:

    Hey Earl!

    You can pick up a 90-day sticker visa in Turkey for $20. A short, easy line at the Istanbul airport. Not sure if you were planning on Eastern Europe, but as an American citizen you don’t need visas for most of those countries, and they’re all a short train ride away from Istanbul. You could throw in a nice 2-3 week circuit!

    I was in Syria on a business visa but took a shared taxi from Damascus to Beirut. Read this post for details:

    http://www.the9to5alternative.com/blog/from-syria-to-lebanon-and-back-in-70

    I’m not sure American citizens even need a tourist visa in Lebanon anymore. As for Jordan, you HAVE TO VISIT PETRA. Stay down in Wadi-Rum as long as you can. Amazing scuba diving and desert tours, but Petra is a must. It’s like a $15 bus ride from Amman, and usually leaves early in the morning. In Amman, the Wild Jordan Cafe offers great views of the city and has some stellar food.

    In Damascus, try to stay at one of the guesthouses in the Old City. I stayed at the Old Vine Hotel near the big mosque, but since I was there I’ve heard there are many other accommodation options. The restaurants in the Old City are really cool–hidden 17th century courtyards, decked out with sheesha and the best damn Middle Eastern food you’ll ever have.

    Give me a call if you have any other questions! Sending you an email soon.

    • Earl says:

      Thanks for all of that excellent info Alan!

      The last I checked is that we do need a visa for Lebanon but apparently it’s quite easy and cheap at the border. Now that I see the link I remember that post of yours. I’ll definitely read it again right now! And I do have a friend in Bulgaria that I’m thinking of visiting so a quick trip to Eastern Europe may be in the works as well. Although, I’m quite certain that the Middle Eastern food is going to make it very difficult for me to leave those countries!

      I actually have been to Jordan already and visited Petra on that trip. And I would agree with you that anyone in the area should visit Petra, which is absolutely one of my favorite places on the planet. I was shocked to discover how large the site was and I didn’t want to leave before exploring it all, over and over again! Jordan as a whole was a wonderfully rewarding destination as you discovered yourself…

      I’ll be in touch before I leave just to catch up and I’m sure I’ll have some more questions as well :) Thanks again for all of the advice!

  17. Audrey says:

    Don’t beat yourself up too much. It happens to the best of us!

    We visited Turkey almost 10 years ago, so my experience isn’t all that recent but I’m sure many of the places have stayed the same :) In addition to Istanbul (a city I really want to return to!), highlights in Turkey for us were Cappadochia and a boat trip to Olympus. We were the last boat of the season (November) so we got a very cheap price and had the whole boat to ourselves – one of the benefits of staying flexible. The bus system is fantastic and goes everywhere. Food is excellent and cheap.

    Don’t have any experience with border crossings or Lebanon, Syria or other countries in that region. But, if I hear of anyone with such experience, I’ll be sure to let you know.

    • Earl says:

      Hey Audrey – Yeah, I’m not too upset about it :) It’s actually quite amusing to me that I didn’t think things through very well! Cappadochia is definitely on my list and the trip to Olympus is appealing because of the opportunities to do some hiking in that area as well. Thanks so much for the info and hopefully when I start writing about my trip, you’ll recognize the same Turkey that you enjoyed!

  18. Theodora says:

    At least you got the visa! We got knocked back for a Myanmar visa in Vientiane. Having travelled 14 hours to get back in time to pick up our passports from them. Hadn’t, however, booked any flights around it…

    I guess the whole “axis of evil” speech still rankles in some parts…

    • Earl says:

      Hey Theodora – Well, I don’t have the visa yet! It’s hopefully being processed this week and I’m supposed to have it sent to my by Saturday :)
      Good to know you got your Myanmar visa, such a wonderful country to visit!!

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