Monday, June 1, 2009

Travel Tip: Intro

Found in Quito, EcuadorI think I promised you all some travel tips? Time I started delivering. This post is going to be a basic introduction to what kind of tips I'll be giving you, and who they'll be most useful to.

I've done a lot of different kinds of travel to a lot of different places; short term trips on my own, big international trips with my family, study abroad on the other side of the world. But all of these kinds of travel are either pretty easy or come with detailed instructions or supervision.

Right now, I'm backpacking. I'm on my own, I'm away from my home country, I'm on a tight budget, and I'm gone for a long time. This is one of the hardest kinds of travel not to come with any training or instructions.

That's why most of my tips are going to be focused on this kind of travel. I can give you tips for better packing a roller suitcase or choosing a study abroad program, but I won't be doing that here. Some of the tips here will work for any kind of travel, but, for this blog, international, long-term, independent budget travel is going to be the main focus.

Here's what I think the most important thing you should know starting out, especially if the idea of backpacking through another country makes you a little nervous: Guess what would happen if I magically transported you out of your chair right this minute into just about any country in the world, giving you just your stamped passport, a credit or debit card, and some cash. Without you having read any of my tips, anyone else's tips, or a guidebook.

You would do just fine.

Seriously, you would. My first real tip is that you don't need my tips. Sounds like something out of Fight Club, I know, but it's true. Packing and preparing is actually kind of unnecessary. If you have money, means to access a bit more, and legal permission to enter and leave your country of choice, you're set. The civilized, human-inhabited world is built to be visited and traveled by foreigners, especially English-speaking foreigners like you. Armies of people spend their entire careers making it as easy as possible for you to travel to their homelands. It's a easier to travel than you'd ever believe.

Yes, if you come out without packing or preparing, you'll have to buy a few things. Yes, you will make mistakes, get a few unfair bargains, and be confused a lot on the way. But no matter how much you prepare or how much I tell you, all of those things are going to happen to you anyway at least once. There's nothing you can do to prevent that altogether. But in the parts of travel where it really counts (i.e. surviving, learning new stuff, going on amazing adventures, and having a good time), you could and would succeed just as well as I have, if not better.

If you've ever seen a Bond flick, you'll notice 007 doesn't tend to take a lot of time to pack his bag or read a guidebook. In fact he usually isn't carrying any bags. Just a sharp-looking outfit he's wearing, a random gadget or three from Q, and maybe a gun. Most of you won't want or need guns, won't be put into the movie situations you'd need those gadgets for, and as for looking sharp... well, we'll leave that up to you.

It's worth pointing out though, that there are two special things that let James Bond do this:
1. He's a fictional action hero who doesn't have to worry about things we don't want to sit around watching him do, like asking for directions in a language he doesn't really know or finding and using a bathroom.
2. He has limitless money.

Since these are two things that don't apply to most of us, we don't usually get to travel like this, without any preparation. Like I said, you could do it, and you would actually be fine. The problem is that because you don't have the money to stay in whatever hotel you want and because you do have to do stuff like finding and using toilets, traveling with no preparation will cost you a lot of time, money, and aggravation.

So, here is is my goal for these tips. I can't give you the ability to go out and be a successful independent international traveler. Whether you believe it or not, you've got that already (or you will have as soon as you have a passport). My goal is to save you time, money, and aggravation.

Here's a classic tip to start you off with. It's so classic it's become a cliché that you've probably already heard, (in fact I can think of at least one place I already posted it in this blog). I'm going to tell you again anyway: when packing, take all the money and clothes you think you need. Put away half of the clothing and double the money. You're set. As my last little episode with my bank cards should illustrate, having extra money is a good thing. Maybe not actually twice the amount you think you need, but if you can manage it, set that aside. At worst, you'll have a lot of extra money left over when you come home. As for halving the clothes, one of the most common traveler mistakes is to pack clothes that seemed like a great idea at the time only to really wish you hadn't brought them later. The next tip I post will help you prevent that.

While I'm on the subject, is there anything else people especially want tips on when it comes to backpacking or travel in general? Now's your perfect chance to ask.

Loved it? Hated it? Don't agree or find it confusing? Comment here or email me. Let's talk.


  1. How nice to start with encouragement rather than a list of things to be anxious about! Thanks for that. Since you're a guy you might not be thinking in terms of women traveling alone internationally, but if you think of things that should be noted there or your readers/fellow travelers who are women do, that would be helpful. Thank you. Oh on backpacks? That seems like a thing to get right from the beginning.

  2. It's true, I'm not a girl, and girls do have to worry about certain things one the road that I don't. But I've talked to a quite a few of them about it and can probably give you a few tips Actually guys have a few specific things to think about that girls don't as well, though they aren't usually quite as serious

    I'll get working on a post for gender tips and work on one for backpacks as well.

  3. I'd like to know how you handle approaching people - that's always my big issue in foreign lands, especially where I don't speak the language.

  4. I'll have to think about that one. The truth is, it's more common for people to approach me... though there's more to it than that, I think. At this point it's such a natural part of my life I don't normally think about it much. I haven't seen anyone in person that I knew before last September since I started my trip, so my social life basically revolves around meeting new people all the time (well, that and talking to people online). I'll think about it and get somemthing up.

  5. The "half the clothes, double the money" is cliche but so so true. Traveled around the world and found that I sent home a lot of junk I thought I would need but didn't (especially books that weighed me down).

  6. Quick question: What's your position on traveler's checks? My parents insisted on loading me down with a bunch when I went to Israel, but I hated them, mainly because I could never find a place to change them. (Many people would accept American dollars outright, which is probably not true everywhere.)