After 65 countries, I've been asked to put together a list of my most practical tips for any kind of travel; whether year-long round-the-worlds, or your first 10-day trip abroad. Things learned from my own mistakes, you hopefully you can skip that mistake yourself.
Before you leave the country, call 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 once you try to withdraw money or buy a muffin in the Dubai airport.
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.
Don’t share cab rides with strangers from airports. We’ve all seen Taken.
Similarly, don't take any unmarked taxis, and negotiate a price before you get in the cab (you should have researched how much a cab is to the city center - or wherever you're going - before you arrive, to avoid being ripped off).
When you first book your trip, book a hostel in the location you’re flying into for the first two nights. This will give you time to get your bearings, to read over your guidebook for the 90th time, 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.
Look up Visa requirements. Do you need one? Can you get it at the airport once you arrive?
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!
Find a market near your hostel to buy granola bars, a box of cereal, a bag of pasta, fruit, some vegetables if your hostel has a communal fridge. Get used to cooking your own meals. You’ll save money that way, and it could add up to a great meal elsewhere.
You’ll get sick. You just will. Most likely it will be a case of the “traveler’s runs”, but know where the closest travelers medical clinic is, anyway. Travelers Insurance is always a good idea, or be prepared to pay out of pocket. And be calm. We’ve all been there. I’m notorious for ending up in hospitals abroad. It just happens.
Know where it is & isn't safe to drink the tap water. And if it isn't safe, then don't even brush your teeth with it, unless you’ve been on the road for 3+ years and your body has adapted. Don’t eat the ice. Don’t trust ice cream that isn’t packaged. And if you can't say for certain that the meat you're eating has come from a clean facility, then avoid eating meat, too.
Make copies of your passport. Make copies of your immunizations records. Make copies of your flight itineraries. Make copies of your med prescriptions and eyeglass prescriptions.
If you CouchSurf or use AirBnB, be sure to read all reviews of that person on their profile. Have a backup plan in case you need to bail. (which is extremely rare, but, safety first). 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.
Don’t be the sloppy, loud, rude backpacker. I hate to say it, because it’s rather obvious to say, but people with bad hostel etiquette or have no desire to adjust to the local customs are just inconvenient and rude. Pick up after yourself. Try not to explode your backpack when you unpack. And please, don’t come stumbling loudly into a dorm at 5 AM puking up tequila shots. No one is then going to want to invite you onto that 6 AM sunrise hike.
Bring: water purification (I prefer Aquamira, but Steri-Pens work as well). A headlamp. Spare batteries. A small phrasebook. A swiss army knife. First aid kit. Light-weight sleep sheet (otherwise known as a sleeping bag liner). Ziplocs and plastic bags. Spare headphones in case yours break. Cheap rubber flip-flops for communal hostel showers. 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.
When you can, keep up to date on the news. Pull up CNN.com when you find yourself in an internet cafe. Read the current Travel Advisories. Stay updated. Things happen in the most unexpected places.
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. 80% of the world runs in slow motion compared to “our” world, which is run by agendas and crunch times. Bring a book with you, bring a deck of cards, get a game going with the locals while you wait for the 6 hour delayed bus. Laugh. Write. Embrace it.
You’ll probably lose your luggage. At least once. Pack spare underwear and essential toiletries (this includes medications you need) in your carry-on. Then find a shopping center wherever you’re headed and get some cheap clothes to change into while you wait for your actual bags to come. It’ll be okay. It happens to all of us.
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.
Engorge on the free hostel breakfast. I know, I know. It’s some sort of white bread, packaged butter and jam that looks like Jell-O, a tub of olives (“who thought this was a good idea?”), and maybe some Frosted Flakes and lukewarm milk if you’re lucky. But engorge yourself. If it’s all-you-can-eat, sneak a chunk of bread and an apple into your pack. Boom, there’s your free lunch, too.
Speaking of food, be adventurous, but don’t be risky. Swallow live mealworms in the Amazon? Sure! Drink the blood from a sacrificed goat in Tanzania? Like tea! Some sort of goopy, cheesy, corn-soup-esque, fermented stew with hunks of indiscernible bone and meat that your host mother in Tibet just handed to you? Thank you! It’s often incredibly rude to deny a meal when offered to you, so, enjoy it and plaster that smile. In this case, the “runs” will probably happen, but, c’est la vie. What a story! And no one was offended in the process.
When somebody asks where you’re staying, be vague. When a complete stranger asks to drive you from the bar to your hostel, you have every right to say no. The chances are they’re just genuinely curious or friendly, but be smart. Use your common sense. Use your gut. This goes for men and women.
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: follow. your. instinct. If someone is giving you a bad vibe, trust that it’s not coming from thin air, and try to always let someone (who you trust) know where you're going and who you're with.
Don’t buy the mass produced souvenirs. Please. 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.
Don’t walk with your headphones in.
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. They will always teach you something you didn’t know before. 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 incredible gift and opportunity.
Carry tokens of your home with you, especially if you’re doing a home-stay. 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.
Save cash. You can do laundry in the sink.
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. It may just change your life. Or it may not, but in that case, you’ll still end up with new stories, new connections, and a new path. I promise you won’t regret finding out.
(This is mostly for Europe travel): most countries offer some kind of discount with their train-rail passes. Take the time to talk to people who work at a train station. Do your research instead of springing for the first option. You’ll save money in the long run.
Don’t be tied to the internet. Sometimes it’s necessary to have a laptop (for work’s sake or backing up photos), but try not to spend hours every day chatting on Facebook and scrolling Instagram. Now is a good time 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.
Abandon all preconceptions. Traveling light means leaving any excess baggage - both literally and mentally - behind.
Finally, know 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 and telling you to be having 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 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.