In the last 2 years, I've been lucky enough to travel to 21 different countries. From the Himalayan Mountains to the Indonesian micro-islands, from the Machu Picchu in Perù to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, from ultra-capitalist Honk Kong to Communist Cuba, I've travelled over 50,000 Km in all types of conditions.
This blog post is about everything I've learned travelling the world, including:
- how to find hidden gems
- how to make your travel memorable
- how to do sightseeing like a PRO
- how to eat "like a local" and avoid... "Delhi Belly"
- how to save money
My aim is to create the most comprehensive list of travel tips that go beyond the usual "take-the-sunscreen" advice. I want to give you tips to help you get the most out of your travels. My intention is to keep this list up-to-date as I keep travelling.
Note: these tips will probably resonate more with Westerners who are travelling to Asia, South America & Africa but any traveller can learn something from it.
This is a VERY long post (~ 4,600 words). My advice is to read it all once and then bookmark it to come back to it when you need specific advice.
List of content:
- Moving around
- Sharing is caring
- Shit will happen
- Travel fatigue
Packing - Let’s Cut The Crap
A lot of people, especially inexperienced travellers, inevitably pack way more stuff than they actually need, resulting in more travel fatigue (see "Travel fatigue" section) and a worse overall experience.
While some things are difficult to find in some remote countries, we now live in a global village and you can buy almost everything you need at your destination (often for less money too).
When it comes to packing there are only three principles you need to keep in mind:
- Pack the must-haves, not the nice-to-haves
Lay out all your gear. Think long and hard about every item, then eliminate anything you don’t absolutely need. If it’s your first big trip, you might end up packing more things just because "more stuff" feels somehow comforting and safe. Resist this urge to be over-prepared. Many first-time travellers wish they’d packed half as much.
- Don’t pack more than 1 week’s worth of clothing
It’s simply much easier to do laundry than to carry weeks worth of clothing. Pick some versatile favourites with a simple colour palette so that you can easily mix-and-match every item.
- Bring versatile instead of special-case items
Focus on items that will be useful to you all the time (or have multiple uses), and think twice about anything you’ll use only on unique occasions. A good example is coconut oil: instead of taking with you insect repellent, sunscreen, lotions, perfume, hair oil, etc you can bring just one small jar of coconut oil. Keep in mind you can often rent gear locally or find a cheap temporary fix instead of carrying something for one-time use.
The easiest way to avoid packing too much is to buy a backpack so small (25-35 litres) that you can only fit the essential. Yes, you will have to make hard decisions upfront, but your life will be much easier afterwards.
If you're looking for a backpack recommendation, Minal Carry-on 2.0 ($299) and FjallRaven ($124) are both great.
A good rule of thumb to know if you’re packing light is to ask yourself “What is the worst thing that can happen if I don’t have X?” You will quickly realise that the majority of items you take with you are not essential and you can easily buy them wherever you are. And yes, they do sell toothpaste in Madagascar.
There are a few extra things I always take with me that have helped me on countless occasions:
Always pack a small towel. Do not forget this.
- Internation adapter
I bought an international adapter years ago and it's helped me everywhere I've been.
Sometimes you will have to leave your backpack in "dodgy" places and you'll wish you had bought a lock.
- Plasters and medicines
I never use medicines so I don't have recommendations here but I always pack some Ibuprofen and plasters "just in case".
- Very VERY good trainers
You will (hopefully) walk a lot. The last thing you want is pain and blisters.
They cost a couple of dollars but they might make the difference between a night of sleep and one awake, especially on long-haul flights. Thank me later.
Food is one of the best things when travelling to far away countries. You don't need to be a foodie like me to appreciate the diversity and variance of culinary traditions around the world.
One of the first things I do when I go somewhere is to check the local market (or markets). That's often where the food gems are and, since markets cater to locals, where you find cheap good food.
Be careful that in some highly tourist places you can find markets that look like local markets but in fact are just for tourists. Usually, you can figure this out pretty quickly by looking at the ratio of locals vs tourists. Also in "real" local markets, the people selling stuff very rarely speak English.
One important thing to know about food is that there is often a "tourist" version of local food and the "real" local food.
"Real" local food is what the locals eat. "Tourist" food is an adaptation of local food to attract the taste of Westerners. Sometimes they are similar. Most often they are two completely different things.
Most restaurants will serve "tourist" food (at very high "tourist" prices). If you want to eat what the locals eat you must go to a restaurant for locals, which is often off the beaten track or doesn't look like a restaurant at all.
To find these restaurants, ask a local (e.g: the host of your hotel or Airbnb). Not sure why but bar-tenders in café tend to know the best places. Also, ask them what the locals really eat (as supposed to what you see in tourist restaurants) and make sure you write it down in the local language.
Don't use services like SpottedByLocals or TripAdvisor. As soon as a restaurant is on it, it becomes "mainstream" by definition.
TripAdvisor is especially bad because people only write a review if they want to complain but rarely if everything went well. Thus you get a very biased view of a business through TripAdvisor.
One of the best restaurants I've found in Cuba (a place generally terrible for food) was recommended by a local bouncer we casually met outside a club. He personally took us there and we had a great evening.
One last word about restaurants for locals. In poorer countries, you might spend as low as $1.5 for a great meal, as opposed to $15 in a tourist restaurant. If you find these restaurants, make sure you leave a generous tip. You will make them happy, will put money into the pockets of a local family and they will serve you even more amazing food next time :)
In general, try as much local food as possible and leave your prejudices at home. Don’t ask what it is. Just put it in your mouth and see if you like it. Eat street-food as often as you can. Don't be scared; a good trick is to go to stalls with many people in the queue because it means their food has not been stale for hours.
You will be amazed at how many new recipes you'll discover.
If you do end up eating the real local food (which I hope you do), be prepared for... possible "digestion" problems. People who eat food that is completely different than what they are used at home, sometimes experience stomach pain or diarrhoea but this should not discourage you!
In fact, there is a simple trick to avoid all digestion problems.
Simply eat a local yoghurt as the first thing when you arrive and you'll be fine.
How does it work? In short, your gut contains microorganisms that help you with digestion. These friendly bacteria have been selected by evolution to fit with the diet of where you're born. When you eat food from a very different country, your bacteria simply don't know this food, hence the digestion problem. By eating local (as in made with local dairy) yoghurt you "reset" your gut.
Ideally, you want to find full-fat, sugar-free dairy from organic, grass-fed cows but if you can't or don't want to take a chance, you can buy probiotics in any pharmacy.
For accommodations, most people resort to either Booking.com or Airbnb. Whilst Booking.com is often cheaper, I prefer Airbnb because it gives me a chance to meet a local person, which in turn increase my chances to find places/restaurants/things to do that I wouldn't have otherwise found. So while Airbnb might cost more money, the "Return On Investment" is probably higher.
When choosing between multiple Airbnb accommodations I usually read very carefully the reviews and prefer places whose reviews praise the host for being helpful in suggesting good places.
Hostels can also be a lot of fun, especially if you want to meet other travellers/expats. If you do decide to stay in hostels, try to socialize with the staff (usually locals).
Finally, lots of people get stuck on the "perfect" location for their accommodation. The truth is that unless you're going to a big city, "where" you stay is not very important. However, don't stay too far away. Walking everywhere and taking the taxi will make you "feel" the place differently (I talk about this in the "Moving around" section).
The most useful advice about money is to figure out a daily/weekly budget and stick to it.
Why a budget?
Because when you go to a new country, especially if it's a poorer one, it'll be easy to overspend. First, everything will look much cheaper than at home. Secondly, at least for the first few days, you will have no idea of how much you're actually spending because of complicated currency conversions.
When I was in Bali it took me a very long time to "think" in terms of local currency (Indonesian Rupiah or Rp) where $1 is equal Rp 18,818.
A coffee would cost Rp 23,000 and an average dinner between Rp 94,000 and Rp 300,000. Training your brain to think in a different currency is difficult and takes time.
By having a budget you don't need to think how much you're spending, as long as it doesn't go over the budget. My budget in South-East Asia was $40/day for everything (accommodation, food, fun, etc). After I paid the Airbnb (usually ~$15/night), I knew I had ~$25 (or Rp 450,000) to spend for everything else. Most days I actually spent less but the days I had to spend more I didn't think twice.
Some tips to train your brain with the new currency:
- learn the prices of common goods, like a coffee in a café, a bottle of water, an average dinner, etc.
- stop thinking in your home currency (USD, EUR, GBP, etc). Force yourself to only think with the new one, even when you speak to your friend/partner/traveller companion. It will feel totally unnatural in the beginning but it'll speed up the process considerably.
In terms of credit/debit cards, I recommend using a bank that doesn't charge you for foreign transactions and/or ATM withdrawals. Monzo and Revolut are both great options. I'm not sure about US alternatives but let me know if you have any suggestion.
Do take an extra card for back-up. Disasters happen, cards get stolen, etc. The last thing you want is to get stuck in a foreign country with no money. Also, don't forget to tell your bank you're going abroad. When I started travelling my bank blocked my card every single time I changed country. Not fun.
If you do have a card that doesn't charge you for foreign transactions, try to pay with that card as much as possible since almost every bank caps the amount you can withdraw in foreign currency for free...
... at the same time, always assume only cash will be accepted (which will be almost always true) but only carry as little as possible. As a rule of thumb, carry enough cash to pay for 4-5 days of expenses (~$250). You'll almost never be away from an ATM for more than 24 hours anyway.
Don't buy a money belt. They are completely useless and will actually make you look like a clueless tourist.
Learn to haggle. Sometimes it will feel morally wrong and if you feel that way, don't do it. But most items will be priced 4 to 8 times higher for tourists and merchants have already considered that you'll haggle. Go with 1/3 of the proposed price, they'll go with 2/3. Settle for half price.
One last thing; I believe yo should be conscious with your money but not the point where you miss out on opportunities and experiences. Every now and then, don’t be afraid to blow your travel budget on those once-in-a-lifetime-experiences. They are ultimately what you will remember many years after your travel. At the end of the day, money is just a tool, not an end.
The way you decide to move around will dramatically change your perception of that place. We are lazy by nature and the temptation to take a taxi everywhere (especially when it's very cheap) will be strong.
However, my advice is to walk as much as possible. When you walk all your senses are active and you'll experience the city, the noise, the smells, etc like a local.
Besides, when you walk you give yourself the opportunity to get lost or stumble into random people. These things simply won't happen if you spend most of your time inside a taxi. You will miss out on the serendipity aspect of travel, which is one of the best aspects of it (see the "Serendipity" section).
Try to use maps instead of your phone. It might be challenging at first but you will get a sense of distances and the general layout of the city WAY quicker. Also, it will feel much more rewarding to walk from point A to point B without the support of Google Maps.
If you can't/don't want to walk, prefer public transportation over taxis to maximise your chances of meeting interesting people or just observe what the locals do.
In some places, you can hire a scooter. Do it. Great opportunity to get off the beaten track and explore the country-side.
Finally, some advice if you must take a taxi.
As much as I'm all about not having prejudices and trusting people, most taxi drivers will try to rip you off. In fact, I'll go as far as saying that in some places, taxi drivers are borderline criminals.
To avoid problems:
- use Uber (or a similar alternative) whenever possible
- ask taxi drivers to use the taximeter. You will often have to insist on that. Be ruthless because this is exactly how they rip you off. If they won't use the taximeter and they are your only option, agree on the price BEFORE you get on the taxi.
As it's probably clear by now, I'm not a big fan of taxi drivers.
That said, they can actually be your best friends when it comes to tips about the city. Nobody knows cities better than taxi drivers.
If there is one thing you remember from this section is this: don't rush to see everything. The biggest difference between experienced travellers and inexperienced ones is that the latter feel they have to see/do everything.
Don't make that mistake.
Instead, take your time. Exploring one place for 4 hours is more meaningful than visiting 3 or 4 places just to cross them off your checklist.
Take your time to explore places, absorb their history, talk to locals about the historical events that have shaped the culture.
Even if you remember my advice, sightseeing is more an art than a science. You will need to travel a fair bit before you learn about your personal "sightseeing pace" and adjust it.
- Free walking tours
Almost every city in the world has free walking tours often run by locals in exchange for a tip. They are a great way to 1) know the city 2) learn the history of that place 3) make friends 4) get tips on restaurants/things to do from a local. Go to FreeTour.com to see if there is one in your destination.
- Get a guide
Getting a guide is super cheap in some places and very expensive in others, and it's definitely not something I'd recommend all the time. However, hiring a guide can be one of the best investments you can make when travelling. The amount of things I learned from my guide when I visited the Taj Mahal and Machu Picchu is simply priceless. Bonus point: pick a local guide and contribute to the local economy.
- Avoid tourist places in weekends
The worst time to visit a tourist place is the weekend. The best time is lunchtime during the week.
- Student discounts
Most places will have student discounts and if you have a student ID (even from a foreign country) you'll get the discounted rate. Don't forget to pack it!
- Send yourself a postcard
My girlfriend and I always send ourselves a postcard from every place we visit. These are a cool souvenir to have later.
Visiting places is cool but unless it's your first rodeo you will get tired pretty quickly of seeing cathedrals and museums.
The novelty will wear off soon and you'll quickly revert to your old routine (if you're lucky) or you'll simply slack off on the beach (if there is one nearby).
Laziness is your worst enemy when you're travelling.
There is no worst sin than to visit a new country and do EXACTLY THE SAME THINGS YOU WOULD HAVE DONE AT HOME.
Indeed, travelling is, first and foremost, a way to do new experiences, things you would have not done at home. "Seasoned" travellers know that the real value in visiting a different country lays in what they can learn from it.
The good news is that there are a plethora of cool and exciting things you can do in any place you visit: cookery classes, surfing, martial arts even local shows!
One of the coolest things I did in China (in an otherwise underwhelming trip) was to see a local show with comedians, actors and dancers. Only one of seven performances included spoken conversations, so we had no problem watching the show. It was actually a lot of fun.
Finally, embrace dull moments. Not everything will be "amazing" or "unique" or "breathtaking". There will be a LOT of very dull moments, for example waiting in airports, resting after a long day of sightseeing, etc. Buy a deck of cards and always take with you a notebook to sketch ideas on.
Serendipity or simple randomness will play a HUGE part in your travel. When you are at home, routine controls most of your life. When you're exploring a new place, everything is novel and your senses are alerted.
Say yes to people, go to places you'd never go to, do things you'd never do, eat things you'd never eat and see what happens. Let serendipity do its course.
Agree to random invitations. If somebody you've just met invites you to an excursion, go. If they invite you to dinner, accept. Allow yourself to be surprised. Trust people. Something magical happens when you trust people and let fate guide your choices.
In India, I took a train from Udaipur to Mumbai (16 hours train!). I could have chosen the more comfortable 1st class, instead I chose 2nd class to travel with locals. On the train, I met an amazing Jainism family, who owns a jewelry shop in Mumbai. Since I forgot to buy food for the journey, they gave me some of their food (to be fair, they had enough food to feed the entire train).
I didn't just discover new (amazing) Indian food, I also made new friends. We spent the entire journey chatting, playing Uno, telling each other stories. They were amazed to learn I was unmarried at 28 years old and that my girlfriend was on the other side of the world (at the time I was travelling by myself). I was amazed to learn about their religion and the fact that they take one of the five vows (non-violence) to an extreme: they won't accept any violence, direct or indirect, towards any living being.
Remember that most locals can't even imagine travelling to a faraway country. To them, you are the equivalent of an astronaut: someone they only see on TV and can do things they can't. They want to show you their country, its culture, its beauty. Most people feel pride in showing you their traditions.
Sometimes this might be overwhelming. In some parts of the world, it might even be scary (we got scammed in China by two ladies who made us pay $50 for a cup of tea, but it was an isolated episode). And if you want to simply to go a place so you can cross it off your checklist, then ignore this advice and play it safe. But if you want to truly travel, you must learn to trust the world.
I hate to say this, but things are slightly different if you're a single woman travelling alone. Unfortunately in some parts of the world women, especially if travelling alone, are seen as an easy target by local men. This is not to say that you shouldn't do things, but perhaps you want to be extra cautious especially if the person who invites you is a man.
Sharing is caring
There is absolutely nothing wrong with travelling alone. In fact, I believe it's something everyone should do at least once in their life. I myself travelled in India, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam for 4 months with no one to keep me company but my books.
That said, your travels will enjoy a different dimension if you travel with somebody else (ideally someone you love). What you experience won't be just in your head, but it will become real in the memories of two people.
Travelling with your partner can do wonders to your relationship. I've experienced this myself when I've travelled with my girlfriend to Bali, China, Japan and South America and I've heard the same thing from other people who have travelled with their partner.
I don't advise travelling in groups bigger than 3 though.
Three people seem to be the human limit of tolerance when it comes to travel. Every single time I've met groups bigger than three, they were very unhappy and wished they could let somebody go.
Shit will happen
Three things are sure in life: death, taxes and shit will hit the fan when you're travelling.
Perhaps if there is one thing I hope you remember from this entire post is that you should expect everything to go wrong.
Things won't go as you planned, people will scam you, places you wanted to visit will be closed and so on and so forth.
When I went to see the Great Wall of China, something I've dreamed about since I was a kid, it was the foggiest and wettest day I've ever seen. I didn't get to see any of the "amazing landscapes" people talk about. Instead it was wet. And uninspiring. And miserable.
What do you do when this happens?
I can't really tell you how you should react. But I can tell you what I believe is the way to deal in general with shit in life.
- Step 1: You accept it. You accept that things don't always go as you planned them. You don't complain, you don't whine about it.
- Step 2: You find a solution. Quickly.
A word about customer support: if you come from a Western country you might be accustomed to a very high level of customer support. In the West, the customer is "always right". When you have a problem, especially in poorer countries, you'll quickly realise how spoiled you are. Keep your cool when something doesn’t go your way. If you don’t, you’ll end up just looking like an asshole tourist.
At the end of the day, it's often these times of hardship (and what you do to fix the problem) that turn an otherwise average trip to an amazing memory.
Related to the above section ("Sharing is caring"): travelling with somebody you love (and hopefully that loves you) will make a huge difference in how you deal with times of hardship.
If you find yourself completely lost and hopeless, go to a fancy hotel. There is always someone who can speak English there.
By far the most overlooked aspect of travel is travel fatigue. Naturally most people only visualise the positive things but this also means that they will not be prepared to deal with the inevitable fatigue.
Travel fatigue includes jet-lag, walking long hours, excursions, carrying a heavy bag (see the "Packing" section), lots of sun, new food and everything you don't normally do. All this walking and experiencing and hustling and moving and trying new things etc will tire your body and mind. That's why you hear travellers saying "Travelling is exhausting".
Plan things in advance. For example, if you've allocated two or three days for sightseeing, make sure you give yourself enough time to rest every day. If you're travelling and working (digital nomad style) decide upfront which days you're going to work and which days you're going to do everything else. Don't mix things up. Mental switching is exhausting. Give yourself time to rest and unload, physically, mentally and emotionally.
You will always feel like you're not seeing or doing "enough" and you'll end up cramming too much into your days.
Don't be that person. As I say in the "Sightseeing" section, choose quality over quantity. That's how you turn a simple trip into a memorable experience.
A couple of final thoughts about travelling the world.
Have an open mind
In some places, locals will do things that you won't understand or that will shock you. Don't judge them. Just observe, internalize, ask, try to understand why. Observing how people around the world live their life according to completely different sets of belief and social rules is the real learning.
Don't judge other travellers either
Everyone travels in a different way and, more importantly, is fighting a battle you know nothing about.
Most people on this planet are born, spend their entire life and die in the same country. Often in the same village. Travelling to a far away country it's not the norm for the vast majority of people in the world; if you can, it means you belong to the 3% who can afford it. There is nothing wrong with that. But don’t forget how lucky you are. Be grateful and pay it forward.
Wow, that was a long post!
4,600 words later, this is all I know about travelling the world.
I don't pretend to know everything but I hope this list covers the most important things you need to know to make the most out of your travels.
Of course, reading is one thing and doing is another.
Nothing will beat your personal experience and who knows, maybe you'll come up with a completely different list :)
PS: If you have any feedback/idea/suggestion on how I can improve this list, reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org