Travel tips for the Dominican Republic
(This Article has been adapted from a presentation I made about my experiences for the International Women's Club in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic during April of 2010.)
(Continued from home page)
On the flight in yesterday, I decided I could not get up in front of the International Women's Club in Santo Domingo without talking about flying etiquette. I mean seriously. There are the normal rules for flying. There are common courtesies most people generally observe in public. And then there is the way Dominicans Fly. I am always on the look out to new learn things.
I could probably talk about the things I have seen Dominicans do in airports and on airplanes for a week but I am going to limit this to three quick stories and by the way they are each great lessons you can learn from a Dominican about Travel.
First, Dominicans really know how to pack. The thing is many Dominicans do not get off the island very often so any trip to the USA is a huge event. This means when they go on vacation to the US they need to bring every one of their relatives in New York or New Jersey a small present. These small presents consist of Dominican Candy, Dominican Cheese, Dominican Salami, and of course Dominican Rum. There are actually hundreds of potential gift items one can bring to relatives in the United States, but since luggage is restricted most Dominicans stick with these smaller items.
Once the out bound gifts and souvenirs are given out, it is time to start thinking about the friends and family back home in the Dominican Republic. This means while just about any Dominican is on their vacation, they also need to go shopping to buy all of the things they need to bring back. I believe Dominicans are some of the most giving people in the world because in addition to bringing something for their close family, extended family, neighbors, not so close friends, and the guardian of their building, they will often get something for the children of their neighborhood. Doing this requires them to pack all sorts of things in their luggage. I have seen people pack everything from cheese and salami to toys, tires, bikes, flat screen televisions, Dominos tables, dogs of all sizes and of course picture frames.
Normal travel rules allow you to bring a carry on and a small personal item. They also allow you to carry up to 50 lbs in your checked luggage. I can remember a time when I got to the check in counter in New York and the poor guy next to me was unloading his suitcase. For some odd reason he was 22 lbs over his weight limit.
As I watched him open up his oddly large suitcase, I noticed that he had just about everything inside packaged nicely inside a plastic bag of some sort. He had shopping bags. He had stripped colmado bags. He even had black trash bag looking things. After thinking about it for a little while I guess it is a good idea to pack all of your checked items in plastic because you never know how much it is going to rain. You also do not know how long the baggage handlers in the Dominican Republic will leave your suitcase sitting out in the rain.
He decided it was better to just take two of the black plastic garbage bags out of his overstuffed suitcase and carry it with him. To an American, this would have violated his two bag limit for carry-ons, because he already had an overfilled duffel bag and a small roller bag. Luckily he was Dominican so the extra 22 lb bag was alright.
This is where we get to the next rule. Rule number two says that when traveling to the Dominican Republic there is not really any concept of what the carry on rules allow. I have seen piles and piles of checked luggage stacked at the gate because the over head bins were full. This is a good lesson to learn from our Dominican counterparts. Rather than pay for the extra checked luggage just carry the extra bag through security (no matter the size) and then let the gate agent take it from you and check it at the gate. The bag makes it there the same either way. It is just cheaper. The lesson to take away here is to go ahead an just pack as much as you want in your suitcase. If the gate agent wants to charge you then take out one of the trash bags you have inside and use it as a carry-on.
Flying rule number three. After you have cleared security you need to load up on booze at the duty free shop. You see, bags full of duty free booze do not count in your baggage limits. They are picked up from the duty free agent after you are already cleared to enter the plane so they cannot be taken and do not count against you. (I will revisit this in a minute after I discuss boarding). Also, duty free booze (particularly ticketa negra) is a great gift to share with any friends or family members you may have forgotten to bring something for.
Fourth, when boarding an airplane either going to or coming from the Dominican Republic, remember that Dominicans board like they have never flown before. There is a general air of disorientation and the concept of a numbered seat is totally foreign. I am lucky enough to get to fly first class the majority of the time, particularly when I fly with Delta Airlines (which has been my favorite airline until recently). Typically, flying first class allows me some special perks like being able to board the plane first and to avoid the mad rush as the crowd decides to get aboard. The truth is most of the time it is a mad rush to just get on board. The Dominican passengers are either so excited or so carefree they do not even listen to the announcements. Announcements for all flights to the DR are in both English and Spanish, so I know it is not a language barrier. But as soon as they announce they are going to open the door for boarding it is like they just announced there is one tostone left and then no-one will eat for a week. Everyone rushes the gate.
I guess there is another logical explanation for the reason most Dominican Republic flights have a chaotic boarding process and that is everyone on the flight knows there is not enough overhead space. This means everyone waiting to get on wants to do so first so their bag makes it. It seems that most people do not realize that the baggage that does not fit in the over head bins does not get left. It just gets checked below.
Also once you board a flight to or from the Dominican Republic there are no necessary etiquette for taking your assigned seat. I have boarded many times and had to ask to see someone’s ticket stub. My favorite seat is seat 3C. I like this seat because it has a seat in front of it, so I can put my bag below it. It is also not the first seat. The person in the first seat of the airplane and the first seat at the bulkhead gets hit with just about every single carry on bag (and remember many people will have three and four carry-ons).
Now do not get the wrong idea. It is not like I am rude when I find someone in my assigned seat. I would gladly exchange for another seat somewhere in the close vacinity, but seat 42F? Are you kidding me? Can anyone seriously tell me that they think there is a chance any sane human can confuse seat 3C for seat 42F.
Let me tell you about an experience I had with this exact situation. I boarded the flight going to Santo Domingo. I was boarding a little late on this particular day. As I reached seat 3C I noticed a little old lady sitting in the seat. This lady was nice and looked to be about the same age as my mother. I politely said. "Buen dia senora. Que silla tienes?" The nice lady showed me her ticket stub and said "Here it is. You can have it..." Now, there is a different of some 39 rows between where I have a seat and this nice lady. So i kindly said. "Senora, esa silla es atras. Alla." (Maam this seat is behind here. Over there.) She kindly responded. "Ya, but it is really far... and besides it is right by the bathroom... it smells really bad back there..." Are you kidding me! Anyways...
Even if it is your first time on a plane!!! Let me just say that boarding is a fiasco. Dominicans like to swear and complain that the compartments are not big enough. They like to complain that they do not have enough room. They say things that would shock most moms.... but when it is time to go home to the Dominican Republic they all are excited to get on board.
I cannot pass up the chance to tell a story about a flight I took on Jet Blue last fall. It was a flight that left JFK at around midnight and arrived in Santo Domingo at around 3:30 in the morning. If you will remember I mentioned all of the duty free shopping that goes on before Dominican Republic bound Flights? Well, on this particular flight there were plenty of duty free purchases. I happily boarded and took my seat. Now, since I was on JetBlue I was just mixed into the normal group. I call this experience "Flying back in general population." I was seated right in the middle of a whole group of Dominicans. I thought they were long time friends who were reuniting for a trip to the Dominican Republic, because as they sat down they all started talking. I found out later that the group did not know each other prior to the flight but during the flight there were many a friendship started.
For the first hour or so I minded my own business and just read my book. I tried to sleep a bit but was unable to because all twenty people in the three rows around me kept talking. They were talking just like the family does on the porch in La Vega, really loud and often over one another. After the plane’s drink cart had passed I noticed they were all happily sipping beverages but that none of them seemed to have purchased anything. Weird. My drink was long gone and my cup was bone dry. As I kept trying to doze off, one of them finally asked me if I understood Spanish. I of course told him that I did and that I lived in Santo Domingo. As soon as he heard that, he introduced me to the rest of the group. They were all Dominicanyorkers (Dominicans who live in New York) who were headed for various holidays to see family in the Dominican Republic. As soon as they heard I lived in Santo Domingo I became the center of attention. They asked me questions like whether I drive. They wanted to find out if I liked mangu. They wanted to know if i had tried a Cuba libre. They also wanted to know where my favorite place was in the Dominican Republic.
During the hour or hour and a half that we talked, I found out that I had spent more time in the Dominican Republic than most of these "Dominicans." I found out that I had visited more of the country and could actually tell them about places they should go. I knew Santo Domingo much better than any of them, since it was common among the group (as it is for many Dominicanyorks) that they only visited once every few years.
When we were only about an hour out of the Santo Domingo Airport, the flight crew started to wonder why none of the cups in that section seemed to get empty. It was probably also weird that they had only sold one $7 beverage, yet the entire section must have sounded the local colmado. They were singing, talking, and of course in typical Dominican style, laughing a lot. After the first hour of the flight the time really seemed to fly...
The group would only speak in Spanish and the flight attendants could only speak in English. It was funny to watch the group, who all except me lived in New York or New Jersey, claim they did not understand a word the flight attendant said. They ended up leaving two large bottles from some sort of duty free purchase empty on the plane. Looking back on that flight and all of the talking and stories, I will probably never be on such a fun flight, particularly since I really do not like JetBlue. Some people wonder why I do not like JetBlue. Well, for one I think the airline is cheap. I mean seriously, how cheap does an airline have to be not to hire Spanish speaking flight attendants for flights to the Dominican Republic.
My last travel observation is how to travel like a Dominicana (Dominican Woman). Dominicanas, in case you have not realized it yet, have a need, or some may say a duty, to be beautiful. I guess I need to be a little careful since my wife will likely read this, but I think it is fair for me to say that most Dominicanas think it is a duty or a responsibility to be beautiful. This rule is not necessarily the same for Dominican women when they are out of the Dominican Republic.
I have heard people argue that the rules do not change when a Dominicana is visiting New York or New Jersey, but the reality is life in New York is much different from life in Santo Domingo, or Bonao. This is particularly true during the winter months, where the weather in New York is often a few notches below freezing. The weather during the winter months in the Dominican Republic is a few notches above warm. As a result, Dominicanas can wear less clothing in the Dominican Republic than they have to wear when they are in New York.
For example, most Dominican women will wear normal shoes, or even tennis shoes, when they are in the USA. They will also have on extra bulky jackets and sweatshirts to help keep their bodies from freezing. These items are a necessity when they travel to the USA in the winter.
They will wear these ugly things to the airport and then after the flight has left the gate they will enter the bathroom on the airplane to transform themselves into true Dominicanas. They enter a Dominicanyork and they exit una Dominicana.
This means they have another outfit in their carry-ons, which I now realize is one of the main reasons for the large amount of carry-on luggage. It is also probably one of the main reasons they are so frantic when they are not able to bring all of their carry-on luggage with them. I mean seriously, can you imagine a Dominicana entering the Dominican Republic dressed like a Dominicanyork (in the winter time)? That would violate every fashion rule ever written in the country.
A typical Dominicana outfit will include a pair of pants that is one or two sizes smaller than necessary, particularly when compared to the bulky items needed in New Jersey in the winter. It will have a shirt that is one they probably took from their younger sister (or daughter). It will have a pair of 5 inch heels. And, of course a pair of very large ear rings. I do not know what it is but if you are going to be a woman in the dominican republic you need to have each of these items in your carry-on.
After the partially transformed Dominicana has returned to her seat she will then finish off the beautification by applying makeup and perfume. Once completed she is finally ready to enjoy her vacation.
If you are traveling to the Dominican Republic for the first time, remember to watch people. There are always interesting things happening on every flight. You never know if someone is getting deported. You never know if someone is going to drink their entire duty free purchase. You also never know exactly what is qualified as the appropriate outfit for an excited Dominicana. Each of these things are areas where the typical North American culture is very different from the Dominican Republic. Remember to relax and enjoy your adventure!
For more great stories buy a copy of Moving to the Dominican Republic today!
Dominican Republic Information