I've had a few people ask for travel advice lately so I penned down some thoughts here. In the last 5 years and 35 countries, I've picked up a few hard earned pieces of wisdom that I now rely on for fun, safety and efficiency. Hopefully they help you on your next trip.
Use ATMs instead of currency exchange
In my experience its nearly always cheaper to get money out of ATMs when you get to your destination than to exchange currency, just be sure and let your bank know where you're going. Well's Fargo has an automated phone number to let them know dates and destinations. My local credit union account gives the market exchange rate plus a 1% transaction fee. It seems you usually lose about %6 or more on currency exchange. Generally I always carry $100 - $200 in US dollars just in case.
Always have a water bottle and snacks
Most of the time it's my trusty nalgene. Empty it before going through security at the airport and refill for staying hydrated on long flights. I never leave for a bus/train/airplane trip without it. Also, bring some food, usually Cliff Bars for me or some protein bars. You never know when you'll get stranded and being hangry (hunger + angry, noob) is the worst.
After 4 weeks in Southeast Asia and a bout of travel sickness in Bangkok, I flew to Dubai ready for any food that wasn't asian. I arrived during one of the worst times for a foodie, Ramadan, the Muslim holy month when it is illegal to consume food (or sell) in site of the public during daylight hours. What's more it was midday, I hadn't slept, I was starving, there wasn't a single restaurant open and I couldn't get in touch with the French couch surfing host I was supposed to stay with.
This is probably why I pretty much always have a stash of atleast 2 or 3 cliff or protein bars in my backpack now. It's super for saving money when you get locked into a tourist spot with 4x markups and you don't want to spend money or when you stayed out late the night before and you wake up to check out and run to the bus/train/plane.
And to finish the story, I found a grocery store that opened in the evening and randomly bumped into a Tunisian guy who offered a couch to crash on.
Bargain and give in
Bargaining is the norm in most third world countries. And as much as you'd like to have the trinket, it's not worth getting worked up. If you really like it, you'll be just as happy having paid the extra dollar and the dollar to the vendor is worth usually much more to them than it is to you. If the person ever tells you they are losing money selling to you for that price but they still sold it, they almost certainly didn't lose any money.
Research the airport travel options before you get there
Airport travel to/from rates are always the worst. Many times there is a local bus for a tenth of the price you would pay a taxi.
Learn something out of the ordinary in the local language
Speaking English is pretty much universal but its always good to have a few little things you can pull out for conversation starters or just to make the local cash register woman smile. Ask locals about silly sayings, slang, common expressions and write them down for later. Ghabaht, cachai, si-po, boludo, porteno, dale, enchante, ca chatoulle, eine fliggende kuh, aroy, boguns, merica, chaulo, acha, langes leben, tsuza toima… myriad others
Learn a few words in an obscure language to deflect hasslers
Very pushy sales people tend to congregate along tourist routes and at the drop off points for attractions. They generally know a lot of english and just a little bit of a few other languages. They'll start with, "Where you from? America, Spain, (etc)" Say the name of your obscure country of choice and few other words and they'll look for easier English speaking targets.
Ask people for help
Though most of what you see on the news is negative, no matter where you are in the world people are pretty normal (and that means nice). Think of them as your neighbors on your street, most people probably wouldn't hesitate to ask a neighbor for advice on getting somewhere or where the closest convenience store is. Furthermore, you never know when someone is going the same direction and will offer a ride.
In Turkey, my friend Grant and I rented a car and drove cross country to Cappadocia. En route we dropped into a tiny town for dinner and asked around for a cell phone store. We bought a SIM card but had no clue how to activate it and noone around knew more than a few words in english. We ended up getting two guys to Skype call their niece who was studying English in Ukraine. She translated for us and an hour later we had it working with the help of the two guys, their wives and kids who joined in on the translating, hand waving fun.
Get a SIM card
Most places it is super cheap to buy phone service locally and worth its weight in cliches. I have a SIM card for numbers in Thailand, India, Turkey. Spain, Panama, Argentina and Dubai. All of these have cost less than $20, usually $10. This usually gives you a month of calling/texting and sometimes a small data plan which is perfect for maps and email. I don't know how many times this has come in handy and made the trip flexible. Unlock your phone before leaving. I used these guys for my AT&T iPhone 5 and was happy with the service (unlockriver.com).
Use your phone for navigating without service #superdupersecret
Even if you don't get a SIM card, your phone can still receive the GPS signal from satellites to tell you where you are. You can download full map apps onto your phone and navigate around cities without having service. This one bit has helped tremendously. Take some screenshots of your destinations throughout the day when you have wifi. Also, this keeps sketchy taxi drivers honest when you show them where you want to go and that you know can see where you are on the map. To make it work on the iPhone you have to have WiFi turned on.
Don't plan much / Be Spontaneous
Plans will find you, just get there and be social. Trust me, it'll work out and your lack of expectations will turn into surprise. When you don't have serious plans, you have the freedom to do anything.
Some of the best experiences I've had have happened spontaneously. Stumbling across the best beer in my life in De Garre alley in Brugges, Belgium, sneaking into an abandoned jobsite in Dubai with a Tunisian guy to eat a McArabia sandwich looking out over the Arabian gulf, trading an incredible meal in a French castle and spending the night sleeping in the car in the Pyranese mountains on the side of the road to make up for the lost money.
Rely on your gut
Body language is pretty universal and you know when things are getting out of hand. Not only this but just with general travel arrangements and plans, listen to your body when it comes to pacing your travel days and down days.
A corollary to this one is to make friends. When you're standing in line to buy something or waiting for a bus to come in a sketchy area, start talking to the most normal looking person around, sign talk if you have to. They'll feel for you and you'll be a less likely target.
Getting taken advantage of might as well be charity
I take a ton of precautions to avoid being taken advantage of but if you travel enough it will happen. When it does.. it's charity, move on. They obviously need it enough to sacrifice morals and the fact that you're traveling to their country usually means you can afford to lose a little without much stress but (in my mind) it means food on the table for their kids or just an evening to enjoy a nice drink on me.
Except for that sly Romanian cab driver in Bucharest, who told us the rate was 10X what it was supposed to be and bent us over for an extra $90, I hope he gets a flat tire on the way to a nice dinner.
Never put cash in the same pocket as your phone and keep the most valuable things on you
Firstly, because you'll pull your phone out of your pocket, as a habit, and find your money missing later. Second because it's just good to diversify. Split valuables up and distribute them in different places, only Keep the most valuable things on you. Try and put money in a chest pocket or zip pocket if you have one.
When I was robbed in Chile, I chased 3 guys for 3 blocks to get my bag back. I ran after them across the lawn of a casino, hurdling bushes and low fences. We crossed crowded streets with people slamming on breaks and honking. They probably thought I had some really valuable stuff in that bag. Fortunately, luck and some yelling convinced them to drop the bag which I retrieved. Everything valuable though was in my pockets, my camera, passport, and wallet. The bag had a ragged map, camera charger and tshirt in it.
Don't walk around with your passport
You rarely ever need it and just about always a paper copy will suffice. You do need it when you get a SIM card usually and sometimes an additional passport photo.
Spend time with locals
The people you meet while traveling are 10 times (or 1,000) more interesting and memorable than the monument, palace, castle, or massive statue of a prawn (you can skip Ballina, Australia). The absolute best stories and memories I have are from the people traveling with or met along the way. Definitely couchsurf, use meetups.com, hang out with the hostel staff.
Couchsurfing has led me to random games of ping pong on the roof of a hotel in Dubai, booze cruising with locals around Sydney harbor, road tripping around New Zealand, celebrating Halloween in a small village in Ireland, and intense discussions on communism in Slovenia. It's like having family and friends all over the world.
When living out of a backpack, I need a system to stay sane and know when I have everything. I keep my general day to day needs in a small backpack and try and always put things in the same place. I have one pocket for paperwork, passport, vaccination proof, insurance copies. Another for snacks, chapstick, headphones. I use a small fanny pack to for chargers, cables, small souvenirs, etc. In my main bag, I have everything separated into separate bags. One for clean and one for dirty clothes, and a bag for utility items (medicine, rubber bands, zip ties, small sewing kit, lock, etc).
Other quick thoughts
- Have an extra camera battery. Chargers are nice, but dead batteries always happen at the most inopportune times.
- Bring half the clothes you think you need, you'll buy more on the way and the 40th time picking up your bag to change busses/hostels you'll thank yourself.
- You can probably get by without a rain jacket/umbrella. If its a warm, 3rd world country, people magically appear when it starts raining to sell ponchos and umbrellas. Even then it's usually a serendipitous time to stop in for a drink or bite somewhere new.
- Take breaks, you're better off meeting a few locals in a place and having long dinners with them than seeing another 2 cities for a day apiece and moving on.
- Be considerate. You can usually tell Americans abroad from a mile away.
- Take lots of notes, you never remember as much as you think you will.
Thanks for reading, feel free to ask any other questions. A lot of people ask me how I've gotten to where I am, with quitting a job and finding a great work/life balance. I'm working on a post to share my thoughts on this.