Some of the best and worst experiences of your life can be made while traveling. I’ve definitely made a lot of mistakes over the years, but being prepared for any situation and planning ahead can significantly improve any trip. Here are my five top travel tips for any trip, no matter the destination.
Budget according to destination, and always add in a contingency fund.
In March 2010, I flew to Munich for a weekend with friends. That same weekend, Iceland’s Eyfjafjallajokull erupted, affecting over 100,000 flights and stranding me in Germany. I had to get back to Spain after the weekend, but I was stuck. I ended up on a miserable 24-hour bus ride to Barcelona, stayed the night, and then took the high-speed train to Madrid, since it was the only type available. It was a nightmare – and an expensive last minute cost I hadn’t anticipated. Now I always have a financial cushion, only to be used in an emergency situation, not for upgrading hostel rooms or more comfortable transportation. Those expenses should already be built into my trip budget.
Make copies of important documents.
Before going to a new place, I fill a folder with important documents like color copies of my passport, hotel reservations, schedules and directions. Paper copies are easier than phone PDFs, but I do keep both. This way I conserve battery life, don’t require the internet, and can keep my phone discreet if I don’t feel comfortable flashing it around. In some countries, police may randomly ask for identification, and having color copies of a passport is useful when you don’t want to carry the real deal. They’re also good in case of loss, every traveler’s worst nightmare! Keep all of these files backed up on Google Drive and also share copies with a trusted friend or family member back home.
Dress according to weather AND local custom.
This may seem obvious, but I’m always amazed by how many people are turned away at holy sites for inappropriate dress. Don’t make the mistake I made, and wear a sleeveless shirt to the Upper Gallery at Angkor Wat – apparently a sarong is not enough cover! Sleeves are a definite must. That information would have been really valuable before my visit, but instead I had to sit and wait at the bottom (not that I minded too much – I was still sitting in Angkor Wat!). Many countries are more conservative than travelers may be used to, and if you don’t want to deal with denial of entry or negative attention, observe local customs. Some places may offer garments for free or for purchase, like the Vatican or Istanbul’s Blue Mosque, but others will not. Come prepared.
Read the guidebook, but then leave it at home.
I’ve met a lot of travelers who scoff at the mere thought of consulting a guidebook, but I vehemently disagree. My favorite sections are actually the chapters on history and culture, since no matter how long I stay in any one place, I always want to know more about the people who live there. Guidebooks often provide much-needed context, complete with facts on the current government, historical legacy, and even explanations on how the cuisine was shaped! The culture section can offer tips like never pointing your feet at someone in southeast Asia, or looking away from your elders in Korea when you drink. Sure, travelers are often given a pass and are not expected to know local customs, but it is definitely appreciated when they do. As for the rest of the guidebook? There is usually some great stuff in there too, but half the fun of traveling is exploring the city on your own and making new discoveries. Use it as a jumping-off point, but don’t live your life by the pages.
Throw the plan out the window.
It’s great to have a plan of when to visit a certain site or which ferry time most fits your schedule, but when traveling to another country, sometimes you have to throw the plan out the window, never to be seen again. I realized that when I visited Thailand during the rainy season AND Ramadan, and everything was closed. Oops! That being said, the hotels that were open were steeply discounted.
One winter, I drove to Montreal and the windshield wiper fluid in my car froze. I literally could not see out the windshield, and tried to create a makeshift fluid squirting device out of a water bottle (spoiler alert: it doesn’t work). I still think research and a loose plan can be immensely valuable, but you need to be able to adapt – either out of necessity, or so you don’t miss out on a unique, enriching experience.
These tips apply to any trip, local or international. A lot of them seem like common sense in hindsight, but I constantly see evidence that they aren’t for everyone! Oh, and a bonus tip – don’t feed the monkeys. They will bite you.
Do you have any tips that I left out? Share them in the comments below!