10 Tips for the Beginner Traveler

10 Tips for the Beginner Traveler

For the past two years I’ve lived and worked in over a dozen countries, spending most of the year as a digital nomad living out of a backpack. It’s awesome. I talk to a lot of people back home that have never traveled, and have lots of questions about the basics. I compiled these into 10 tips to make that first international adventure go as smoothly as possible.

1) Start somewhere easy

Some places are easier to travel to than others. If this is your first time out of the country, it might be worth considering one of the easier destinations over, say 6 weeks on Bouvet Island or a quick jaunt up K2. But hey, if that’s what you want, go for it.

2) Get your phone sorted out

There are few things more freeing than an unlocked smartphone. If your phone is unlocked you can get, probably, a local SIM card for cheap high-speed data, wherever you go. Forget overpriced travel data plans like those from Sprint and Verizon. Local SIM cards are the way to go.

Unless you have T-Mobile. Their Simple Choice plans get you unlimited international data in nearly every country. It’s pretty slow, however. I wrote about them in The Best Cellular Plan for Travelers.

10 Tips for the Beginner Traveler

3) The right luggage

Buy a smaller bag than you think you might need (more on this in #5). Personally, I prefer a good travel backpack. Some people like the hybrid backpack/rolly-bags, but I find them cumbersome. Avoid regular rolly bags, they’re more trouble than their worth. Big suitcases should be avoided at all costs (unless you’re going skiing or something and need to bring a lot of bulky gear).

4) The right gear

I love a good, cheap, travel laptop. A USB battery pack is invaluable. I love noise cancelling headphones, but they’re probably a luxury for most people.

5) Pack light

This will be the hardest thing about travel. There are few harder urges to overcome than overpacking. “But I might need this!!!” is so common there are industries built around needless junk and charging you for heavy bags. Aim for 30 pounds, tops, for everything. If you don’t bring a lot of electronics, aim for under 25. You don’t need more than a week’s worth of clothes. You can do laundry everywhere. Seriously, travelling light will change everything about how you travel.

10 Tips for the Beginner Traveler

6) Cloud data backup

I had one friend drop her camera in a taxi and lose 3 weeks’ worth of photos, nearly her entire multi-country trip through Asia. Cloud backups are cheap and easy to use. I like Google Photos, but there are a ton of other options.

7) Apps for you and your family

Google Translate is the greatest app for any traveler, by FAR (download languages when you’re on WiFi, and it will work without a data connection). Google Maps is a close second (download an area on WiFi, and it too will work without a data connection).

What I also recommend is hooking your family with apps too, specifically WhatsApp and Instagram (or Skype or Messenger, etc). Keeping in touch while on the road is key for your mental health, and theirs. I mention Instagram because it’s easy to use for those who aren’t too tech savvy, and it allows cross posting to Facebook, Twitter and the like if you don’t usually use Instagram. Tumblr is another easy way to share photos and info, and I’ve met several travelers that use that as an easy way to blog goings on to share with the folks back home.

8) Don’t be afraid of hostels

Hostels aren’t things that Americans consider. There’s a mistaken perception that they’re dirty, rowdy, dangerous places. I guess some are, but most of the ones I’ve stayed at in the two years I’ve been travelling full time are nicer than most hotels.

Review websites like Hostelworld.com and Hostelz.com give you an idea about a place before you ever set foot in it. Best of all, they’re a great way to meet new people.

9) Lock your phone

Your phone, and what’s on it, is probably the most valuable thing you have on you. Phones are easily replaced. Personal data theft is way worse. Pictures, addresses… how many banking apps and websites do you have that automatically log you in?

Lock your phone. The swipey geometry designs may seem great, but after you use them a few times, the screen will be smudged in the exact shape of your passcode. Numbers and biometrics are safer.

10) Don’t make it easy for thieves

I met a first-time traveler from a tiny mid-west town. She walked around London with her iPhone 6 sticking half out of her back pocket. Theft is rare, but don’t make it easy. Don’t leave your bag on a table at a sidewalk café. Don’t leave your backback on your back on a crowded train. You’d be surprised how often I see people not doing these things. There’s nothing wrong with being a little cautious.

You don’t need to lash your belongings to your chest with steel cables every time you leave the hostel. Just, you know, be aware of your surroundings. If someone could casually pick up something, or pull it out of your hands without any effort, maybe that’s not the best place for it.

5 Common travel fears and how to overcome them

5 Common travel fears and how to overcome them

One of the most surprising reasons that people don’t travel isn’t a lack of money or time, it’s the fear and anxiety about all of the what-ifs? Even people who claim to have a strong desire to see the world have often never traveled more than a few states away from their homes because they just can’t seem to get over the idea that something bad will happen that will ruin their trip, or worse, put them in danger.

There are surely horror stories about terrible events happening to people traveling abroad in unfamiliar countries, but these are actually very rare events. You are statistically in more danger just driving to the grocery store in your home town. Read more to find out some of the most common travel anxieties, and how to overcome the fear of the unknown.

Going abroad is dangerous

Well, it can be, but so is getting in your car every day and fighting your way through rush hour traffic on the way to your mundane office job. You’re no more likely to encounter a dangerous situation abroad than you are staying right where you are, although how you deal with a crisis may need to be handled a bit differently.

Do a bit of research and educate yourself about the particular dangers at your destination, and take steps to avoid any known issues, like people that try to scam tourists. Get in touch with the local embassy when you arrive, and make sure you know who to call if you find yourself in need of assistance. Make sure you’ve researched the monetary system, so you know whether or not you’re getting a good deal when making a purchase. If you use common sense and plan ahead, there’s no more danger in traveling than there is in staying put.

I don’t speak the language

While it’s always intimidating to go to unfamiliar territory, going to a new place where you think you can’t communicate with the locals can be a terrifying prospect. English is becoming more and more common throughout the world, and most people in populated places will have a working knowledge of basic conversational phrases. People working specifically in tourism-related industries, such as hotels, airlines and tour guides will almost certainly have a higher level of English fluency.

Spend a few weeks prior to traveling learning some essential phrases, especially “please” and “thank you”. There are very few places in the world where you can travel that you will simply be unable to communicate, and as a novice traveler you should probably avoid venturing that far from populated cities. Begin your travel career in countries that are similar to your own. Enjoy European destinations or the UK. There is plenty to do without the inherent risks of culture shock or inadvertently offending the locals.

What if I get sick or hurt?

Most of the governments keep a travel advisory list for countries around the world. There you can find information about recommended vaccines, and what types of food and drink to avoid while traveling. Odds are if you do become ill, it will be a minor issue. For the record, diarrhea is the number one complaint of travelers. Make sure you bring some over the counter medications for common ailments and a small first aid kit, and you should be fine.

Prepare ahead of time and contact your insurance company about coverage for emergencies when you are abroad, as well as researching the hospital facilities available so that you can give some direction if you do wind up needing emergency medical care. In truth, most doctors and professional medical staff will likely be well versed in English no matter where you go, and there are good facilities that can be found even in the poorest of countries, as long as you know where to find them.

What if disaster strikes?

Disaster can mean many things to many people. Loss of identity papers, thieves, scam artists, terrorism, natural disasters, and the list goes on and on. This is where it’s important to remember that disaster can strike anywhere, even at home. You’re much more likely to have your credit card information stolen while sitting at your office than you are having your passport stolen while traveling.

If you’re truly concerned about violence or other political unrest, do your homework before you travel and avoid places with a higher risk. Stay in touch with family and friends, and have someone you trust back home keep some emergency funds for you – ready to wire to you instantly in the case of a theft or loss of critical documents. Again, remember that you can contact your embassy to assist you at any time when you are traveling abroad, but that incidents like these are truly very rare.

What if I get homesick?

It’s not really a “what-if?” It’s a what do I do when I get homesick?. It’s nearly impossible to make it through any journey without a longing to sleep in your own bed, or to curl up with your dog who is boarding at the vet’s office. Remember that it’s temporary and you’ll be home soon enough. Try to remember the reasons that you decided to take this journey, and consider the memories you’ve already made. Make appointments to regularly Skype with friends and family and stay in touch via social media. By the time you do return home, you’ll probably feel like it was over too soon, and wish you could have stayed longer.

If in the end you’re really unhappy, you can always cut your trip short and head home sooner, but you’ll probably find yourself wishing you hadn’t sometime in the future. Traveling is a wonderful way to bring excitement to your life, and once you get started you’ll most likely spend all of your free time looking forward to the next great adventure.