After two exchange semesters, one in San Diego, USA and one in Taipei, Taiwan and travelling around Asia and Europe I made a lot of valuable experiences that I would like to share here for the prospective traveller. Many of these tips would have been very useful for me during my first journeys and I hope that some of them can be useful to others now. If you've already travelled some continents though, you've probably figured out most of the stuff by yourselve. Yet I hope that you can still take away something. Also helpful: The expertvagabonds "30 Best Travel Tips After 4 Years Traveling The World".
This list is open for revision and if you think I should add something, let me know!
Choosing the route: Obviously you are the best person to know where you want to go. However there are a few things I recommend to have in mind.
First, the more different the culture of a country, the more fascinating and valuable the general travelling experience. Secondly the poorer the country, the more extreme the experiences, the more dangerous the travel and also the psychologically more exhausting the journey. Therefore I recommend to increase your difficulty level gradually and not to begin your travelling carreer with something like Cambodia, India or an African country but instead with a developed country like Japan, Canada, Australia or Europe and to gradually increase the difficulty level.
What I also have to tell myself again and again is "don’t move around too much!" There is this urge to try to see everything but the moving between destinations eats up most of money and time and is also the most unpleasant. Staying multiple nights at a place will save a lot of hassle and enables you to get deeper impressions. Otherwise you might often also regret not having enough time left to really immerse yourself in a cool location.
Also, stay flexible! If all flights and hotels are booked there is no way to grab some of the best opportunities that the journey will offer you. Sometimes you meet cool people that you would like to hang out with for a few days, you want to stay longer or you are bored or even deterred and want to leave as quickly as possible.
From my experience it is best to have a plan about the general route and then plan about 2 days ahead. This gives optimal flexibility and still leaves you on the relatively safe side to get tickets and find good accomodations.
Length: For the beginning, about one month is a good time to explore multiple countries and can enable you to rent out your apartment at home to save some money. Shorter trips will make it more expensive and more superficial, longer trips can be too demanding for the start. However, there are not really any limits and the longer the stay, the deeper the experience and immersion in the foreign culture. I met people that were travelling for 5 years while working part-time jobs or living on their savings and even whole families taking a year off to travel the world together.
Weather and national holidays: Don’t underestimate the importance of the weather - it can make all of the difference. When choosing where to go, check for the general weather and season. Wikipedias “climate” section gives good indications. It’s not only about the temperature but also about rain or monsoon seasons. Also, before you book anything for your trip, get information about national holidays, at best from some local. I travelled during the Chinese New Year to Vietnam and Cambodia and most accommodations were booked out and prices generally doubled.
To book a hotel I recommend the websites agoda.com, booking.com or kayak.com and for hostels additionally hostelworld.com. Generally it is advisable to check back with the hotel to let them confirm your online reservation. I once nearly ended up sleeping on the streets in Cambodia because the hotel had messed up my booking and everything else was booked out because of a national holiday.
If you rent a room on the spot, always let them show it to you before you book it! This can avoid a nasty surprise.
Alternatively you can find interesting offers through airbnb.com, where private persons rent out available rooms in their house. It is generally cheaper, you get in touch with locals and usually have a kitchen available. And finally, if you haven't done yet, I really recommend to try couchsurfing, where you can find people that share their couch for free! Couchsurfing is a great way to get in touch with locals, to build international friendships and to get an authentic experience of a country. Unfortunately though, the couchsurfing website is not designed too elaborately and it can be time-consuming to find a host.
Personally I recommend to regularly switch between different types of accommodation to make to use the different respective advantages: A four-star hotel can be extremely nice to relax a little when you are stressed out and doesn’t have to be that expensive in some countries. A stay with couchsurfing or a lovely guesthouse can be much more charming and often the owners can offer great advice for getting around and stuff to do. A hostel is the easiest way to meet other travelers and join activities if you feel alone - however in dorm rooms there is always someone that snores, someone with smelly feet and someone who gets up extremely early.
Generally you get what you pay for and the comments and ratings on the different websites are usually very helpful. Don’t underestimate the importance of the location as additional transportation costs can turn a formerly cheap price expensive.
Flights: As flight comparison websites, I recommend skyscanner.com and kayak.com. Also if you google “flights from X to Y” or "flights from X" you get to see a list of possible connections and carriers, what can be very helpful for finding cheap connections. For short-distance connections however, flights are generally a bit overrated in my view. Don’t underestimate the time you need for check-in and all the other stuff plus getting to and away from the airport. This turns a quick 1h flight into a 5-6h act. If there is a 5-6 hour bus or even better a good train connection, this can save lots of money, spares the planet and is usually less stressfull as the time can be spent reading a book or listening to music instead of being in the hassle of an airport.
Buses and trains: Buses and trains are obivously the cheapest and usually also the most comfortable way to get around. For buses, check out which type is in use as they can be highly comfortable with lots of leg room or tiny vans where you feel every bump in the road. Here generally the rule applies: The bigger the better.
Car or scooter rental: Having your own car gives a lot of flexibility and independence and won’t be too expensive when shared by 4. Also scooters are an excellent means to explore an area. Compared to the view from inside of a car you feel much more embedded in the countryside and gas consumption is much lower so it’s quite cheap. Depending on the country and route though, driving a scooter can be very dangerous, especially in heavy traffic and on bad roads. Always wear a helmet and test your scooter before renting it!
Don’t forget to organize an international drivers permit before the journey begins!
Public transport: Depending on the country, the public transport system can be the perfect way to get around or be inexistent. In most countries you can use google maps navigation function to find connections for public transport as well as buses and trains. This way in China I could use the local bus system even though there were dozens of buslines at every station, no maps of the line network whatsoever and everything was only in strange Chinese characters.
Bike: I highly recommend to explore cities by bike as you get to see much more of the everyday life and the neighborhoods compared to using public transport. Many cities already have public bike rental programs that are often even free for the first 30 minutes.
Navigation: Obviously the easiest way is using the Google Maps app if you have internet on your smartphone. But even without mobile internet, you can preload the required maps with wifi at your hotel and then still use it as GPS does not require internet to function. Additionally it is helpful to get a map of the local area from your hotel/hostel or some tourist place. While orientating with a map to find north without a compass, this trick is particularly helpful using an analog watch.
Backpack: Get a backpack that you are comfortable carrying in full load (10-15kg)! As the backpack I was using in Asia was too short for my rather long back, even carrying it only smaller distances was a torture. As the experience of carrying it can be very different for an empty one compared to the fully-loaded, try carrying your backpack around outside for a bit before starting your journey.
Depending on your need there exist high tech versions designed for camping on the one end of the spectrum or suitcase-like backpacks on the other end. Generally a backpack with many pockets can be practical for organizing your stuff. As always, the more you spend the better the quality; spend between 50€ and 200€.
Packing: Really, don’t pack too much stuff, never more than 15kg! Clothes for one week are sufficient and don’t bring more than two pairs of shoes. In case of doubt, leave stuff at home. You can still buy stuff at your destination if you really need it.
SIM card/Telephone/Internet: If you stay in a country for more than a week it can already be extremely useful to get a local simcard for calls and internet. This is often surprisingly cheap and mobile internet might even be faster than the Wi-Fi at your hotel.
Guidebooks: I go with the flow and recommend Lonely Planet guidebooks or alternatively Rough Guide. Especially once you get used to the structure and organization of the guidebooks, it’s easy to find good advice. Wikitravel.com was also very helpful for me.
Luggage and Gadgets:
- An additional smaller backpack for day-tours is very useful, there also exist super-light ones.
- Pack a bunch of plastic bags for dirty clothes and to organize your stuff.
- To find sleep in buses or overcrowded hostels, earplugs and an eye mask are very useful.
- Bring a breast pocket wallet and a lock for your backpack or the locker in a hostel.
- I can really recommend to get a pair of barefoot shoes like these. They are ultra-light and can be used for sports and hiking as well. By now I even prefer those over sandals i.e. for sightseeing trips. However, you might take some time to get used to them, and the experience might be a bit painful in the beginning until your feet adapt.
- Power adapter: For one country, just get one or two specific adapters. For multiple destinations or an open route, there are multifunctional tool than can switch all countries power plugs like this. Here is an overview of the different international power plugs.
- Bring a light bowl plus a spoon, fork and knive so you are less dependent on restaurants.
- The Amazon Kindle ebook readers are awesome for travelling. They are extremely light and much easier to carry around than books. The new versions with background light even make it possible to read everywhere in the dark and outside.
- Many wonder if they should bring a laptop or not. I usually took mine with me as I found it extremely valuable for organizing my days, to make bookings and to stay connected with friends. Here the benefits of an ultrabook become evident.
On The Road
Prices: Especially right after arrival look and ask for prices all the time, even for stuff you don’t want to buy just to get a feeling for the general price level. If you get to a place and find that one thing is overpriced then probably some more are overprized.
Culture: A good starting point to learn a bit about the culture and history of a country offer the respective lonely planet sections or wikipedia. Watching local movies or books is also a good way to learn about the history and the national identity.
Language: From my experience eventually you get around with English everywhere more or less. The more tourists around, the easier.
Meeting people: Especially if you are travelling alone and look for some company, there are most notably two ways: The first is staying in a hostel, where you can get in touch with other travelers easily and even find people to spend the day with. The second option is to visit couchsurfing events. On that website every member can create an event such as “Frisbee in the park” or “Free Yoga class” and post it on the website. In big cities like Berlin or Madrid there are usually about 5 events every day.
Laundry: t’s usually easy to find places that do your laundry very cheaply for you or if you want to wash it in the sink by yourself, find instructions here.
Writing a blog or diary: During my exchange semesters I used to maintain travel blogs and can really recommend to do this. Firstly, it is a great way to preserve your memories for the future (it's too easy to forget stuff) and to process the experiences and I'm excited about reading my post in 10 years or showing them to my children. Secondly, this is a great way to let family and friends take part at your journey. And thirdly, it is a good way to practice writing and organizing your thoughts what I found more and more enjoyable. I recommend Googles simple and free Blogger Service.
Alternatively you can just take notes about the stuff you have done every day in written or on your smartphone as a note somewhere.
General: Let your slogan be "Better safe than sorry"! Always have that in mind when you are travelling in unsafer places. Often it is annoying if you have to stay away from delicious-looking food, put on a breast pocket wallet or make other precautions, but compare this to a week of diarrhea or a stolen wallet and it will be worth it.
Take as little valuables with you as possible. Ask at hotels receptions if its safe to lave valuables in the room. If not you can usually leave stuff at the reception or use your safe. While getting around, use a breast pocket wallet for money and cards. If you have to travel with lots of money, hide it somewhere in your clothes or toiletries (I used to put some money bills in an empty shampoo bottle). You can also buy a small lock to lock up your backpack or suitcase if you have to leave it at places that you don’t feel 100% safe about.
Safety Issues: You can check for actual safety issues such as violent protests, actual apidemics or catastrophies here.
Sickness & Medications: Take some basic medications, including painkillers and a diarrhea treatment. If you really need to see a doctor, guidebooks are valuable for finding a nearby hospital. Remember to get travel insurance.
Vaccinations: Visit a doctor to check possibly necessary vaccinations already at least 3 month before the start of your journey. You can check general recommendations based on your destination here.
Food: Go to places where locals eat. The general appearance of a restaurant/imbiss can indicate the hygiene but tourist restaurants can be of worst quality as there is not really any incentive to let people come back. In countries with bad hygiene just avoid street vendors, it’s not only about the ingredients but also how they prepare it - if some white rice is served in a dirty bowl or was taken with a spoon that was earlier used for raw meat than a bowl of rice just isn't safe. Even though the stuff might look delicious, it’s probably not worth a week of diharria. It’s always safer to avoid seafood, meat and fresh ingredients that are not cooked or fried. All the processed food from supermarkets is safe. Bananas, chocolate bars and bread (like baguettes) are an excellent snack for in between as they are cheap, safe regarding hygiene and easy to carry and eat.
Secure your data: Especially if you bring your laptop, I highly recommend making a security backup of all your data and also to copy the stuff from your phone and to leave these backups at the safety of home.
Plan for a stolen wallet: Make a list of all the cards and stuff in your wallet (though you should leave as much as possible at home) and write down emergency numbers to lock your accounts in the worst case scenario.
The Psychology Of Travelling
General: It is easy to handle a big journey like some work that is to be done: Cities that have to be travelled, sights that have to be seen and dishes that have to be tried out. However, a journey is not about getting stuff done. It’s about experiences and joy. I know how easy it is to forget that, but often it is very worthwhile to take a step back and look inside how you feel and what you want to do. If you don’t feel like sightseeing, then don’t! Even if you have a tight schedule and let’s say only 3 days for a place like Tokyo – there is probably more value in hanging out in a nice park, taking time to read a book or relaxing in an onsen instead of checking off boxes from your “sights-to-do-list”. Further, the more I have travelled, the less I enjoy ordinary sights. What I found much more valuable is genuine interaction with locals and immersion in the everyday life by visiting local markets or biking around. Also untouched nature is usually much more fascinating for me than some cities. A helpful practice to take a step back and to stay mindful is meditation. If you want to try it out, there are often free events on couchsurfing or alternatively, try the app “Headspace” for guided meditations.
Fails: You will do a lot of mistakes and make bad or at least non-optimal decisions. But try to see every single mistake as a lesson. Identify the problem and how you could improve on the situation next time.
Contribute: If you travel to a poor country and want to support the locals, buy local products instead of branded chips or coke and stay in smaller places and visit local restaurants instead of a big hotel chain and MC Donalds. You might also consider to donate some money for a good cause.
If ratings on websites were useful to you, also rate your accomodations and if wikitravel was useful to you, also add your advice that was missing.
On travelling alone: What I noticed while travelling alone is that I had generally stronger and also more emotionally intense experiences - bad ones as well as good ones. I think the reason is that travelling alone moves you out of your comfort zone and therefore you just get more exposed to the outer experiences. You are more vulnerable but also more opened to be swept away by the beauty of something in front of your eyes. Also I liked the complete independence - you can always do whatever you want to do. Concluding, in my experience, traveling on your own is more challenging but enables deeper experiences and more independence whereas travelling in company is more convenient and comfortable.