Travel tips 101

Beginner travel tips: the very basics of smart and safe travelling that everyone should be told at least once before setting out for the road.

The other day while writing a blog post I got to thinking about all the little bits of “travel knowledge” I’ve picked up over the years, all the patterns I just automatically follow when I’m abroad. Even though I now take them for granted to the point where I don’t even think about them anymore, it was not always so. All of us had to learn the unspoken rules of smart and safe travelling somewhere, whether from friends and family, or the hard way through bad experiences. It is now June 2020 and the whole coronavirus crisis is slowly winding down in my part of the world, so some of you will probably start looking towards your summer vacation and possible future travels.

Hence I asked myself: what advice would I give to a complete travel beginner who’s preparing for their very first trip abroad? Well, this blog post is the answer. It is a complete list of beginner travel tips, which mostly apply to backpacking and budget travelling, but also travelling in general. It’s everything I could think of, no matter how obvious and banal, that someone should be told before their first trip in order to ensure a good and most importantly, a safe travel experience.

First and foremost

  • Have fun! Don’t stress about everything you need to see or do to complete the list. You can always come back if you really want to.
  • Take your time: spend an extra hour eating pastries in a cafe you like, go for a walk with a random person you just met or sleep in an extra half hour – you’re on holidays!
  • Say yes to adventure: go somewhere you just heard of because someone recommended it or you like the name, join that group of people you hit it off with, stay out dancing until 5 am even if you wake up with a hangover. The random adventures are what you will remember most about your trip.
beginner travel tips
Vintage photo of my very first independent trip to Spain in 2013, I was 18.

Packing

  • Once you think you’re done packing go through everything again and leave a third of it at home – trust me, you won’t need it. We always tend to pack too much in the first go. If you want to further reduce your luggage, consider bringing some laundry soap and washing on the go.
  • Bring copies of your most important documents (paper or photo). If you lose your passport or credit card at least you’ll have a back up proof of existence and far less trouble when sorting it out.
  • Pack some toilet paper/tissues, a small sewing kit, basic med kit (painkillers, fever meds, anti-stomach problems meds, band-aids etc.), a bit of baking soda, hand disinfectant, some cash and cheap flip-flops (to wear in shared bathrooms and showers) wherever you’re going. It might sound weird, but these things will help you out so many times.
  • Make sure to pack layers, just in case. Even the most tropical place can get cold and windy sometimes and the AC on the planes or buses can be set to freezing. Also, check the customs of the country you’re visiting: do you need to bring a headscarf, will they let you visit a church in shorts etc.
  • Always pack a change of underwear, basic toiletries, medications, some water and a snack in your carry on luggage, just in case.
  • Wear sensible shoes! You’ll most likely be doing a lot more walking than you expected.

Safety

  • Always trust your gut – if something feels off for whatever reason, don’t be afraid to say no or leave.
  • Tell someone where you’re going: your partner, a family member or a friend. Keep them informed of your planned itinerary and regularly check in with them, particularly when travelling solo. Also, mark them as emergency contact (EC) in your phone contacts.
  • Don’t wander around in shady foreign areas after dark. I really can’t stress this enough, because it’s basic survival.
  • Don’t flash your valuables around or preferably, try to limit the amount of expensive things you’re bringing on your trip.
  • When wandering around in pickpocket hotspots, regularly check your bag and keep it close, i.e. hold it in front of you on a crowded subway escalator. You don’t need fancy anti-theft gadgets, just a bit of caution and common sense.
  • Always bring a small padlock to lock your luggage with while you travel and use in hostel dorm rooms to lock your locker. It won’t stop a determined thief with wire cutters, but it will prevent opportunity thefts.
  • On a related note, always keep your luggage within eyesight at the airport: it’s not about someone taking something out of it, it’s more about someone putting something in it that could get you in trouble with security.
  • When travelling by yourself, don’t get dead drunk with people you’ve just met an hour ago. It may seem obvious, but this one is the root of all misfortune.
  • Also, when travelling solo, always bring all your luggage with you into the bathroom if you can. You never know.
  • Inform yourself of the political and health situation of where you’re going: get vaccinated if needed, take antimalarials if applicable, bring bug spray and wash your hands frequently.

Money

  • Always choose to take out cash/pay in the local currency at the ATM/shop when the machine asks you whether you want to be charged in the local currency or in your home currency, because the automatic conversion rates are horrible. If you choose the local currency option your bank will charge your account based on their daily exchange rate, which is usually much better.
  • Notify your bank that you will be travelling. I once got stuck in New Zealand without money for 24h because the bank blocked my card due to suspicious transactions abroad.
  • If possible, get a bank card with no foreign transaction fees.
  • Never ever exchange money at the airport. All the currency exchange offices have the worst exchange rates there.
  • Similarly, renting a car and choosing the airport as your pick up and drop off point often costs extra, so always double check that and be aware of additional car insurance charges if you’re under 26.

Accommodation

  • When booking accommodation always read the reviews. Also, search for any mention of bed bugs if it’s a cheap one and run away if there’s a recent mention.
  • Don’t assume stuff in the hotel minibar is free. All those goods from the tiny fridge in your room often come with extra charges.
  • Don’t leave your important stuff in the accommodation, unless it has a secure safe. Always bring your ID and at least some money with you in case of trouble.
  • When staying in hostels don’t be the douchebag who has sex in a crowded dorm room or hogs the shower for 30 minutes. Also, be patient with people coming in late or leaving early and get ear plugs if it bothers you.
  • Always say hello to your dorm roommates. People are more inclined to be nice and helpful towards people who’ve taken the time to establish a basic connection and it’s good to be a decent human being. 🙂
  • Check the hostel kitchen for shared leftover food, oil and seasoning: travellers often leave behind useful food items and they’re free to take.
  • Try couchsurfing or an alternative way of finding accommodation, particularly when travelling alone for the first time. You’ll meet lots of friendly, amazing people and they’ll help you navigate the country.

Food

  • Always look for a place to eat/drink a few blocks from the main square in a city, the prices drop exponentially once you’ve turned a corner or two.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask the locals for food recommendations, they’ll be happy to help you out and you’ll spend your money in a restaurant worth spending it in and support the local businesses instead of food chains.
  • When dining out in a nice restaurant on a budget remember to check if there’s a couvert/table setting charge and if it’s automatically included or not. That innocent-looking bread basket may or may not cost you extra if you touch it.
  • Don’t feel pressured to leave a tip if you’re on a budget or didn’t like the service. Although tipping is customary in most countries and a very kind thing to do, you shouldn’t feel obligated if you can’t afford it.
  • When travelling to a new country, which is very different from yours, give your stomach a few days to adapt to the local food and environment. Avoid eating fresh fruit and vegetables for the first day or so, because they’d most likely been washed in local tap water – drink bottled water if you really have to, it’s better than getting sick. Eat cooked food and yoghurt, which helps your gut to get used to foreign bacteria. Also, Coca-Cola is easily found everywhere and great to cleanse your stomach if you’re feeling an onset of travel stomach (spicy food too, but that’s not for everyone).

While these beginner travel tips are likely obvious to most of us who’ve travelled independently a lot, they really shouldn’t be taken for granted. When you’re just starting out with something completely new, it can be hard or even embarrassing to ask the right questions about something that most people consider clear as day.

So hopefully if you’re a travel novice reading this, you didn’t have to ask and are now aware of all the hidden travel traps and rules (and if you’re already a seasoned tourist, then you’ve been reminded of all the golden rules). Come check out the rest of my travel tips here, but if you do want to ask about something, you can find me on social media, contact me or ask in the comments below. I’ve also lost more than 20 € at the airport currency exchange at some point and I’m happy to help you avoid that. 🙂

Bon voyage!

P. S.: It’s good to consider your impact on the world when you’re planning your travels, so also check out these tips for sustainable travelling and my guide to reducing waste while travelling which will also save you some money in the long run.

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4 thoughts on “Travel tips 101

  1. This was a great post. We haven’t traveled outside the country much but really, a lot of that advice is good anywhere. I have to confess that I did laugh out loud when you talked about not wandering around in shady areas. I thought, “Yes. Some fiery redhead in a hooded cloak and armed with a dagger may step out of the darkness and demand your cheese!”

  2. Another thoughtful article Petra. One thing I would add is that in some countries it is common for the tip to be included in the restaurant bill. It is usually classified as a service charge (a propina in Spanish speaking countries). If in doubt, ask. We are currently in Budapest and here it is usually included at 10 to 13%, but not always. Of course, if you have fabulous service and your budget permits, you can always leave a little extra cash.

    1. That’s true, thanks for the comment! I like leaving tips for good service, but when I was younger I was usually on a very tight budget and I wish someone had said ‘it’s ok to not tip if you can’t afford it’, because I’d often feel like I was being stringy.

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