I travel budget, and you might not want to do that, but regardless, here’s some insights I’ve picked up along the way that are applicable to anyone.
Obvious tips are obvious
Make sure you have a passport. Make sure you know where your passport is.
Make sure your passport is valid for six months after the date you plan on returning to the US. You can’t normally get visas otherwise.
Check out what outlets are used in the country you’re visiting. Buy an appropriate travel adapter. They’re like, 3 bucks on Amazon. It’s unlikely you’ll find one in-country anywhere, even in England, so BUY AHEAD. You don’t need a voltage converter for electronics for the most part, but double-check if you’re worried. You want to be able to charge your camera battery, iPod, phone, laptop, etc. This is vital.
Buy a good camera. Nothing’s worse than using a crap camera when you’re visiting iconic places. Sure, it can be expensive, but it is worth every penny. I have the Canon G12; it shoots video in HD and stills in RAW. I also edit in Lightroom 4 (or will edit again once I’ve saved enough to buy it; my trial ended in August).
CHECK VISA REQUIREMENTS. When you think about going to a country, when you book the travel, before you get on the plane. I cannot overemphasize this enough! Also, make sure you meet the vaccination guidelines. http://travel.state.gov is your friend.
Guidebooks and Travel Websites
When you’re going to a country that’s not a normal touristy place, Lonely Planet is your friend. It doesn’t have to be your best friend, but it is an extremely good starting place and guideline. Once you get somewhere and have met a couple people, then you might not need it as much as you can get local recommendations, but it’s really been worth the money for me every time I’ve bought it.
Along that same line, I never book anywhere in a developed nation without checking everything out on TripAdvisor. Reviews by real travelers can be a lifesaver. Now, granted, you have to take them with a grain of salt. A review by someone who is out of the country for the first time and doesn’t understand why hotel rooms in Europe are “so small!” doesn’t carry a lot of weight; all hotel rooms everywhere except in the US are small.
I do laugh hysterically at the reviews that complain about towels or cleanliness because that is the last thing I ever look at for a hotel or hostel. Your mileage may vary, but a thin towel doesn’t necessarily equate with an awful hotel, nor does dust or a misplaced hair. Often, those hotels are family-owned and operated and awesome. Also, I’ve stayed in some pretty awful places, so I start from a lower cleanliness requirement than most people.
If you’re going to be traveling from day to day, like on a bus tour, it’d be really useful to have a side- or front-loading backpack. Having a top-loading backpack means you either have to be completely organized with what you’re wearing when (like I tend to be) or you have to dig through the entire backpack every day. Pain in the neck. Roller suitcases are surprisingly okay – but just for bus tours. They stay in the bus or in a trailer or in a hotel/hostel, and you get picked up and dropped off, so you’re not carting them everywhere.
That being said, if you think you’re going to need to do any walking with your luggage, go for a backpack. On my DTS, I was the only one with a backpack, and I had so much more maneuverability compared to them. If you’re of a certain age or have a bad back, obviously, you can’t have a backpack, but otherwise, do it. It does look awkward when you have a backpack on both your front and back, but my hands were always free, I could run, and I wasn’t tripping over curbs or stairs.
Roads and sidewalks – if they exist – in other countries are not always nice and smooth (another reason to not go with the roller suitcase). I’d say go for sturdy shoes over fashion. Others would disagree. I bring flats (or chunky boots in the winter), and sure, I couldn’t go to a fancy dinner, but… what fancy dinners am I going to while I’m traveling? You can fit in another couple shirts instead of a pair of heels. (Full disclosure: the last time I wore heels was NYE 2011, which I did travel for, so they’re not an important part of my wardrobe anyway.)
Don’t be a mark. Don’t be flashing your Gucci and Prada and then be all astonished you were mugged. Don’t wear those godforsaken passport holders. I hardly ever carry my passport with me. I use in-room safes if available, but otherwise, I just leave it in my luggage. Some people I know who also travel a lot always keep it on them, but I figure it’s not an easy thing to replace, so I’d rather not have it on me to get stolen. Regardless, those stupid passport holders, and those stupid convertible pants, man, nothing else says “I’m new to traveling; please rob me!” quite like those. (Do people still wear Gucci or Prada? I have no idea; I wear jeans and band t-shirts. Yes, at the age of 32.)
Wear normal clothes. You don’t need special clothes anywhere you go on the planet. Everyone wears normal clothes. Even in Antarctica.
Use a normal purse or bag or wallet. You don’t need a special one. People manage to live everywhere you might go with regular money-holding apparatuses.
Check the weather for the place you’re going so you don’t look like an idiot. Like, if you’re going to England in March, bring a winter jacket (unlike me, who ended up always freezing).
Flights are canceled. Or delayed. Hotel reservations are lost. You might end up on a road with water up to your knees and a car that isn’t working.
It’s just part of travel. Being kind and polite goes a long way. You will get to where you need to go. You will find somewhere to sleep. Life will go on. Yelling at the only person who can help you is not going to make your life any easier. I say that as a traveler and as someone who’s worked at several hotels. If you are mean to any front desk clerk at any point during your stay, best believe that there’ll be a note on your reservation about it, and no clerk at that hotel will ever go out of their way to help you, no matter what. Promise.
On that note, most countries don’t tip like Americans. Don’t tip like an American. If in doubt, ask someone at a table next to you in the restaurant. You can even ask your waiter; it’s not to their benefit to lie. I still tip no matter what because it’s just ingrained in me, but in countries like Kenya, that just means leaving the change (and not the paper bills, just the coins). I said be kind and polite. I didn’t say be a pushover.
In general, people treat others as they want to be treated. Thus, if you’re in a hostel, be careful with your stuff, and don’t leave your laptop out where everyone can see it while you’re gone. On the same token, don’t freak out and carry it everywhere with you if there’s no safe ‘cause then you’re carrying a laptop in a bag all day, and that looks conspicuous. 99% of the time, it’ll be fine. Everyone’s carrying laptops now anyway.
You can drink, but you’re asking for trouble if you get drunk. I generally travel solo, so I don’t have more than one, maybe two drinks, because I have no one to watch my back. I’m paranoid, but clubs and bars are the number one places for theft and crime for travelers. There’s a reason for that. If you’re with a group of friends, then there’s more leeway because I certainly can’t say that I haven’t blacked out at the American Club in Dhaka, Bangladesh. (Empty stomach! Two months without any alcohol! Other excuses!)
Jet lag sucks. I’ve not found any good way of getting over it, and I’ve tried all the tips. Best suggestion I have is to fly into wherever you’re going at night. Then you go straight to a bed and sleep. Everything seems better in the morning.
Planes are awful. I love to travel, but I hate, hate, hate flying. I have no good suggestions. There are no good seats. There are better seats: I always tend to choose the back sides of the big long-haul planes because you only have one seat mate, but it’s still awful. Maybe one day, I can afford business. Or those first class special cabin deals where you have your own enclosed area and personal service.
Some people say to take pills and sleep through the flights, but I can’t. I’m not a fan of flying over water, and I hate landing, so I get paranoid that if I’m asleep, I’ll miss the announcement to like, abandon ship and end up going down with it. I’m dead serious. You know how you’ll take sleeping pills and then wake up and have to fight the pills that want to make you go back to sleep, but dammit, you are in charge of your own body and will go to sleep when you choose to, and then you end up lying there for a half-hour, exhausted but fighting with your own brain… or maybe that’s just me and why I don’t take ‘em on planes.
I also literally can’t get comfortable enough on planes to sleep. I am a mess after flying a long-haul flight – obviously – so sorry for the lack of tips! Just ignore the fact you have to fly to get anywhere. If you concentrate on it, you’ll never leave the country.
Check and double-check your travel itinerary before you leave. Make sure you know the time zone changes and that every travel bit works together. Double-check your itinerary before you come home. Make sure you have the right dates on your calendar.
Don’t worry about how much things cost. Constantly doing the currency exchange dance in your head only adds anxiety. You will spend more money than you’ve budgeted. It’s okay. Life will not end. You’ll figure it out back home. It’s better to actually experience traveling and the country you’re going to and not be freaked out by prices all the times. I’m not saying to not know what the currency exchange rates are; you should know what they are. Just don’t fixate on them.
In the interest of full disclosure, when I was in Australia and New Zealand after spending four months in England, I converted Aus/NZ dollars to both American dollars and British pounds. In my head. I knew everything’d be more expensive than in the US, but I wanted to know if it was more expensive than in the UK, which apparently was my pricing standard. My sister, a high school math teacher, finds that fascinating. Most people would find it odd … and against my own advice, but I still spent money like it was water, so clearly, the fact that Australia is twice as expensive as the US didn’t impede me.
Above all else, TRAVEL. You will learn more about yourself than you thought possible. You will stretch yourself past your own limits and actually enjoy it. Jumping off into the unknown (whether literally or not) is worth every penny.
Next week: Australia!
**** No idea of the source. It’s all over the interwebs unsourced. Cumberbatch’s a public figure at a public event.