After nearing 80 countries traveled, I've decided to put together my most practical tips for any kind of travel; whether year-long round-the-worlds, or your first 10-day trip abroad. Learn from my own mistakes, so you hopefully you can skip that mistake yourself.
1. Before you leave the country, contact your bank to tell them the dates you will be traveling, and the countries you will be traveling to, including layovers.
That way your card isn’t immediately canceled or flagged once you try to withdraw money or buy a muffin in the Dubai airport.
2. Take out plenty of cash once you get where you’re going.
Stash it all over you. In your daypack. In your wallet. In a hiking boot. In a hat. Make sure you don’t misplace it, but this way you will always have cash in case something is stolen or lost.
3. Don’t share cab rides with strangers from airports.
We’ve all seen Taken. Okay, that was a joke - but it's a good idea to rather be overly safe, in my opinion. And similarly:
4. Don't take any unmarked taxis.
And if you can, only take taxis that have running meters to avoid being ripped off.
5. When you first book your trip, book your accommodation in the town or city you’re flying into for at least the first two nights.
This will give you time to get your bearings, to rest, to talk to other travelers and the people who work there and see what tips/insights they have, to adjust to the food and time zone, etc. You’ll feel better if you can sleep in and know you have a definite place to lay down for the next couple of days.
6. Look up visa requirements.
Do you need one? Can you get it at the airport once you arrive? If so, what currency and denominations do they take?
7. Also, if you're the kind of person to buy one-way plane tickets, see if you need a plane ticket leaving the country to even be able to enter.
This is the case for many Southeast Asian countries, so do your research and be sure you meet all requirements before you get to the check-in counter!
8. Find a market or grocery store near your accommodation to buy staples such as granola or mixed nuts, a box of cereal, a bag of pasta, fruit, some vegetables if your hostel has a communal fridge.
Cooking your own meals means you'll be able to save some money, and it could add up to a great meal elsewhere.
9. Buy travel insurance - or be prepared to pay out of pocket.
Eventually, you may get sick or injured while traveling, and it's important to be prepared for when that happens. IMG Global is my preferred insurance company for when I'm traveling (they even offer coverage for the US).
10. Know whether or not it's safe to drink the tap water.
And if it isn't safe, remember not to eat the ice, avoid ice cream that isn’t packaged, and avoid meals that include uncooked vegetables and fruits.
11. Make copies of your passport, immunizations records, flight itineraries, and prescriptions for both glasses and medications.
Note as well that a copy of your yellow fever card won’t cut it; if you travel to a country that requires proof of immunization, you need the physical, original copy with you.
12. If you CouchSurf or use AirBnB, be sure to read all reviews of that person on their profile.
And, if you CouchSurf, be ready to socialize... a lot. You never know what you'll get, but I've found that your host will most likely want to show you their city as they see it. Have fun with it, and run with it.
13. Bring these essentials:
Water purification (I prefer Aquamira, but Steri-Pens work as well). A headlamp. Spare batteries. A small phrasebook. A first aid kit. A light-weight sleep sheet (otherwise known as a sleeping bag liner). Ziplocs and plastic bags to store wet and dirty clothes and shoes. Cheap rubber flip-flops for communal hostel and campsite showers.
14. Read into the culture of where you’re headed.
Pack accordingly. Cultural respect comes first (how long should your skirts/dresses/shorts be? Should you even be in shorts at all? Should you cover your shoulders or chest or both?). And don’t forget to read up on the weather. Yes, you are going to the Sahara Desert, but it drops to freezing at night. Lightweight thermal underwear is always good, just in case.
15. Keep up to date on the news and, if you’re from America, enroll in STEP.
I like to keep news alerts active on my phone. As well, enrolling in the STEP program (or in a similar program from your home country) will also keep you informed on any necessary travel advisories or warnings. Things happen in the most unexpected places.
16. Be patient.
The train or boat you’ll have wanted to take that Monday morning will only run once a week on every Friday. Things will be delayed. Bring a book with you, bring a deck of cards, get a game going with the locals while you wait for the six hour delayed bus. Laugh. Write. Embrace it. But just be sure to expect it.
17. Pack spare underwear and essential toiletries (this includes medications you need) in your carry-on.
Hopefully you'll never lose your luggage, but in all likelihood, it'll happen at least once. Having necessities and something fresh to change into in your carry-on is important for this very reason. This way, you can at least be covered while you wait for your bags to arrive, or while you go shopping for new threads in the local shopping mall.
18. Taking taxis isn’t cheating.
When you’re lost, frustrated, or nervous, don’t feel like you aren’t “roughing it” just because you want a direct drive to take you where you need to be. There's no award given to backpackers who punish themselves unnecessarily.
19. When somebody asks where you’re staying, be vague.
When a complete stranger asks where you're staying, you have every right to be dismissive or make up a white lie. Chances are they’re just genuinely friendly, but use your judgement. Keep some personal information to yourself.
20. But - don’t close yourself off.
There’s a difference between being wary and being unreachable. It’s okay to talk to strangers. Listen to their stories. It comes back around to this: use your best judgement. If someone is giving you a bad vibe, trust that it’s not coming from thin air, and try to always let someone you trust know where you're going and who you're with.
21. Don’t buy the mass produced souvenirs.
It was made in a factory somewhere, and is distributed globally. That's why you'll see the exact same "African masks" and "Asian Buddhas" in 40,000 markets across the planet. Buy from someone who is actually making what they’re selling, so you know the money goes directly into their pocket, and what you’re taking back with you is genuine, real, and you know its maker’s first name.
22. Don’t walk, hike, or cycle with your headphones in.
This applies for being at home, too.
23. Sit in the hostel common room.
Even if you’re just reading or working on your computer. People-watch, listen to conversations, be present. People will talk to you. Likewise, talk to people. You could find an incredible adventure, or at least someone to spend the day looking at a temple with or having a drink or dinner with. Now is the time to challenge yourself to be as open and as outgoing as possible. Remember: no one knows you here. That’s a pretty special gift and opportunity.
24. Carry tokens of your home with you, especially if you’re doing a homestay.
Whether that’s a San Francisco postcard, or a small stack of photos of your life at home. It will come in handy at some point, and is a kind, fun gesture, and a way to bridge the gap between yourself and someone else.
25. Save cash where you can, so you can save up for that 3-star Michelin meal in Paris.
You can do laundry in the sink.
26. Be flexible.
If people in your hostel invite you out to explore, or to a sports event, or out for drinks, or on a kayak trip, or even to a new city in the opposite direction of where you thought you were headed, go. I promise you won’t regret stepping out of your comfort zone.
27. Research rail passes.
Plenty of countries offer some kind of discount with their train-rail passes, whether for students, under 26-year-olds, multi-use passes, and more. Do your research instead of springing for the first option. You might just end up saving a lot of money in the long run.
28. Don’t be tied to the internet and social media.
Sometimes it’s necessary to have a laptop while traveling, but try not to spend hours every day chatting on Facebook and scrolling Instagram. Now is a good opportunity to ween yourself away. Find yourself online every now and then, send some photos to mom and dad, write a blog post, upload photos, and don’t feel guilty for it when you do. But I promise, it will all be there when you get back.
29. Abandon all preconceptions.
Traveling light means leaving any excess baggage - both literally and mentally - behind.
30. Finally, know that you can come home, whenever you want.
If you are truly unhappy, burnt out, or just want to leave, you can. You are under no obligation to stick it out just because everyone else is expecting you to have the time of your life. Change your plane ticket; go somewhere else. Or change your plane ticket, and just come home. But remember that each place holds its own magic and there are lessons found in every challenge, every difficulty, and every struggle on the road. Travel is not always beautiful, kind, and forgiving, as so much of us are lead to believe. It’s not what we always dream it will be. But it is what we make of it. Take away goodness from the hardship, and remember to love and respect a place for what it is instead of resenting it for any preconceived notions or problems you have with it, and use the lessons you learn abroad (what makes me happy? what truly matters?) to better yourself in that moment, and eventually, somewhere else.