Photo: Ross Borden

80 Things We Wish We Knew Before We Started Traveling

by Carlo Alcos May 5, 2011
Tips from experienced travelers, for newbies and veterans alike.

HINDSIGHT IS 20/20, right? Well, foresight can be near to it when you have the expertise of some seriously savvy travelers at your fingertips. Like the Matador team. If you’re starting out on your first trip, this is for you. Hell, even if it’s your 20th trip, this is for you too. I know I learned a lot putting it together.

On preparing for your trip

1. Print your entire itinerary and flight tickets/confirmations. Store these with your passports. You can’t always rely on Internet access or electricity to pull this info off your phone or laptop.

2. Keep a copy of your passport and never have all of your forms of identification or access to cash (ATM/credit cards) in the same bag. If that one gets lost or stolen, you are SOL.

3. Check in with friends and family from time to time, especially when traveling alone. It’s a good idea for someone to always know where your next movements are, just in case.

On talking to airline agents

4. Always be patient and polite. This person could be the difference between you getting the flight that night or having to spend it on the airport floor.

Travel in low season. In places like Thailand and India, food and accommodation can be half the price.

Bad: “Can you get me on the next flight out – I can’t miss my connection to Europe!”

Good: “Excuse me, Barbara. I totally understand you guys are slammed right now, but if you have one minute, I’d really appreciate if you could try to get me on that next flight out, otherwise I’ll miss my international connection. I really appreciate it. Thank you so much.”

5. Call the airline if you’re getting stonewalled, and find an agent that is willing to help you. Keep calling until you get the answer you want. Many times agents are trained differently and some are better than others.

On budgeting abroad

6. Travel in low season. In places like Thailand and India, food and accommodation can be half the price. And there is still plenty of sunshine.

7. Use the Share-a-bill iPhone app when traveling with friends. It helps to track who spends what so no more arguing about money.

8. Track your spending. If you have a laptop, use a spreadsheet and set up some simple formulas to automatically add up your purchases. Or simply write it all down in your journal. Be vigilant.

9. Set up a new account to pull from on the road. Limit yourself to that, so when it’s gone, you come home.

10. Check your bank account options. Withdrawing overseas can be a huge cost, so make sure you know the fees. It might be worth it to upgrade to a premium account that includes international ATM withdrawals (and sometimes your service fee can be waived if you keep a minimum amount in the account).

11. Know the exchange rate of your destination countries ahead of time.

12. Don’t use traveler’s checks. These are a pain in the ass to cash in, and the fees can be very costly.

13. Have local currency when you arrive (preferably small denominations). Having to exchange money at the airport when you land is expensive. If you do have to exchange at the airport, shop around a bit if possible. The first one you encounter is likely to be the most expensive.

14. Try your hardest to avoid currency exchange places. The exchange rate at these are the worst, especially in airports and train stations. Always better to get the local currency from an ATM.

15. Buy food and booze at large grocery stores, instead of going out to bars and restaurants.

16. Do research ahead of time and book a reservation at a hostel that is both nice and inexpensive. Walking around with a backpack on looking for a cheaper place to stay isn’t fun when you’re exhausted from traveling all day.

17. Check out Craigslist, HomeAway, Vacation Rentals by Owner (VRBO), and AirBnB for apartments to rent in the places you’re visiting — these are often cheaper than hotels and hostels.

18. Use Couchsurfing for free accommodations. [*Note: Never use this site solely for free accommodations. The main purpose is cultural exchange and to meet people. Reciprocate if possible when you return home.]

19. Don’t book domestic flights at the same time you get your international flights. Booking close to the departure dates from inside the country can be much cheaper. For example, flying into Kathmandu from New York is really expensive if you make that your destination and book from the US. It is much cheaper to fly from JFK to Bangkok, spend a night or two, and then book the flight from BKK to Katmandu on a local Asian airline.

On meeting people when traveling alone

20. Use Couchsurfing to meet folks for coffee or tea or to join in a group event. If you’re hesitant about it, check out Overcome Your Fear: How to Practice Safe Couchsurfing.

21. Sit at a bar and strike up a conversation with the bartender. They’re possibly bored, know a lot about the town, and might introduce you to other regulars.

22. Stay in a hostel, even if you want to stay in a private room. You can always meet people in the common areas.

23. Share information with other travelers. What goes around comes around. When you give others a leg up, it comes back to you down the road.

[*Note: Meeting people is never compulsory. Don’t feel bad if you’re not up for it.]

On researching a trip vs winging it

24. Be flexible, situations can change very fast and you don’t want to miss out on things if you have a rigid plan.

25. Research Couchsurfing and similar sites to find forums for cities you plan on traveling through. Ask locals and expats questions. You might even make some contacts before you go. Don’t forget to check the Matador Travel forums!

26. Understand you never have time to see EVERYTHING. And be okay with it.

27. If you don’t have time to research or buy a guide, at least have a map, whether it’s downloaded to your handheld, printed, or bought.

On adapting to a new country

28. Get out and about as much as possible. Orient yourself as soon as you can, and learn at least some basic expressions of the language ASAP. Taking a course locally can help with meeting people, too.

29. Talk to the front desk staff at your hostel (if you’re staying in one), they will have all kinds of advice for you. They know what they’re talking about, so reach out to them.

30. Find a room in a shared house with locals.

On food

31. Learn food words in the local language. You’ll be eating three times a day in whatever country you’re in.

32. Have snacks (e.g. nuts, fruit) handy. There’s nothing worse than settling on something because you’re too hungry and annoyed to keep looking for the perfect restaurant.

33. Carry a couple Cliff Bars with you. The train might be late, the bus ride might last four hours longer than you thought. Keep your mind working at its best by staying nourished.

34. Avoid fruits and veggies that can’t be peeled or cooked when in developing countries. For more info, read Robin Esrock’s How to travel in India and not get sick.

35. Eat street food. In many places, this is how the locals eat on a regular basis. It’s a great opportunity to get an inside peak into the culture.

On taking taxis and other transport

36. Find out the procedure and price for getting a taxi. You will most likely get ripped off at least once, but don’t worry about it. Let it be a learning lesson.

Carry a “dummy” wallet with some expired credit and bank cards. Hand that over if you get robbed.

37. Pay attention to how things are done, like observing how the locals get on the bus and pay. Every place has their own system.

38. If you’re driving in “sketchy” places, make sure the back doors are locked, keep your bags on the floor instead of on your lap, and be vigilant when stopping at intersections.

39. Always negotiate the price of a cab BEFORE you start towards your destination. If the cabbie is unwilling to agree on a price when you get in and he’s not using a meter, get out and find another cab.

40. If you’re on a long bus trip and there’s a break, always make sure you keep an eye on the driver – when he/she gets back on the bus, they’re going to leave.

On staying safe

41. Don’t keep all your cards and cash together. Use multiple pockets so if your cash gets ripped off, your ATM card doesn’t have go with it.

42. Carry a “dummy” wallet with some expired credit and bank cards. Hand that over if you get robbed.

43. Don’t carry your passport with you. Keep it locked in a safe if possible or hidden away. Carry a copy of the passport.

44. Keep your eyes peeled. Stay aware of your surroundings. If you get the feeling that something isn’t right, pay attention to it. That feeling is real.

45. Don’t get drunk. This is when you’re at your most vulnerable and can make poor decisions.

46. Wear a jacket with an upper-breast zipper pocket where you can put passport/docs, even camera/wallet. Pretty impossible to thieve from.

47. Don’t travel with a laptop unless it’s necessary (e.g. your work). There are cyber cafes all over the world for easy Internet access.

48. Don’t wear any jewelry, don’t carry your dSLR in a brand new bag that screams CAMERA, don’t carry a fat wallet in your back pocket, and don’t pull out a big stash of money when you are paying for something at a counter.

49. Keep all your valuables and documents close to you when taking long distance bus rides. Not in your backpack that’s in the luggage compartment.

Read How to NOT Get Robbed When Traveling in a Dangerous Country for more tips.

On health while abroad

50. Drink lots of water. To help with jetlag, drink at least three liters in the 24 hours before your flight. Don’t let yourself get thirsty.

51. Pack some Ciproflaxin (aka Cipro). This is a miracle anti-biotic that is used to treat all kinds of things, from a bad stomach bug to a bladder infection or UTI.

52. Always bring Neosporin and bandaids. Neosporin is another miracle medicine. It’s a simple over-the-counter ointment that will fight off infection in open cuts. It will also fight off any sort of rash or skin irritation and it can be tough to find in local pharmacies.

53. Carefully consider bringing malaria pills or not. Many places the health office says you need them, you don’t. Inoculation/immunization is big business and they want to sell pills. Do your research carefully and read forums with advice from other travelers.

On connecting with locals

54. Learn some of the local language. It will not only give you confidence, but will give you a ready-made excuse to talk to anyone (to ask for help or practice).

55. Avoid getting trapped in expat bubbles — tap their knowledge but don’t use them as a comfort blanket.

ABC. Always Be Charging. Whenever you can, plug those electronics in and keep those batteries juiced.

56. Keep a “promise book” with you (can just be the back of your travel journal). Use this to help keep the promises you make to the people you meet on the road (e.g. sending the photo you took of them). Be good to your word.

57. Don’t just seek out conversation with your peers. Some of the best connections you can make abroad are with the very old or very young, even if all you get out of them is a warm smile.

On carrying electronics

58. If you do decide to take a laptop, get a cheap and light netbook. You have the benefit of having a familiar keyboard and if all the computers are taken at the cyber cafe, you can just find wifi somewhere.

59. ABC. Always Be Charging. Whenever you can, plug those electronics in and keep those batteries juiced.

60. Find out what adapters you need for your trip and make sure those are packed. Also make sure your electronics meet the electricity standards of your destination (110V AC, 220V AC, etc).

On taking photos without being obnoxious

61. Smile. This is key; it will make you seem approachable and non-threatening.

62. Make an effort to communicate even if you don’t speak a common language besides “hello”, “thanks”, and “goodbye”. Hand gestures work as good as verbal conversations.

63. Observe their work and, if possible, momentarily partake in their work with them to let them know it’s not insignificant — whether helping a porter take down the tent, or lending a hand to a baker. This also builds a quick transient level of trust.

64. Respect and sensitivity should always trump the perfect shot. Let people pray or meditate in peace. Stop following that monk or little kid around. Let people pull you into their lives when they are ready.

65. Make eye contact with the people you are photographing, even if you are taking pictures of their merchandise. Make eye contact with parents when taking photos of children.

66.Show your photos to your subjects. Make good on your promise if you tell them you will send them copies.

On haggling

67. Haggling is not a competition — it’s a way for the buyer and seller to agree on a price that is acceptable to both parties. Humour goes a long way in defusing heated situations.

68. Try to learn a few sentences like “How much” or “That’s too expensive” in the local language. It’ll make the vendor smile and often will agree to lower the price.

On border crossings

69. Know well in advance the visa requirements for all your destinations. Some can take weeks to obtain.

70. Have solid and prepared answers when crossing borders, especially between the US, UK, and Canada. Check out these tips learned from an experience crossing from the US to Canada.

71. Always check that your passport is stamped with a correct date before leaving the immigration center. If there’s a mistake, you can get in trouble (not the immigration officer).

72. Never say your purpose for entering a country is “work” if you are a journalist on a press trip. You can avoid the 20 questions game this way and also ensure they don’t try to charge you extra for a different visa.

On packing

73. Bring cable ties and ziplock bags. Cable ties for holding things closed or tying bundles together. Ziplock bags for things that are wet (damp clothes, stuff that is stained, etc) or things that might break and mess up other things (suncream, that bottle of snake wine, etc).

74. Always pack a headlamp. You will be surprised at how often you will find a use for it.

75. Bring a sarong with you (men too). It can be useful for so many things like covering yourself in holy places, a bedsheet in shady hostels, a towel, a beach/park blanket. Tip: to keep cool at night in a hot place, soak the sarong and wrap it around you while you sleep.

On relationships

76. Sex with random people while you’re traveling won’t make you feel less lonely or forget the (ex)partner you have (had) back home.

77. Sometimes a stroll with someone you’ve just met, holding hands (with optional “make-out” session) in a plaza somewhere in Costa Rica or Mexico, feels better than anything.

78. You can’t expect it, but it’s possible to meet your life-partner while traveling. She or he could be right there on the bus with you.

79. Have reasonable expectations (or, better yet, none at all!). If you take a trip to heal a broken heart, be aware that you could potentially feel worse.

On place

80. There’s a tendency sometimes to think “this place will always be here. I can do more here later.” Places change a lot faster than you can imagine. Whatever it is you need to do, do it now.

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