On July 17, 2011, a very shy version of myself boarded a plane with a one-way ticket in hand. I had never traveled alone before and never for more than two weeks at a time. The trip was brand new and I had no idea what I was doing.
I have made many mistakes over the past eight years.
I have been scammed in Russia, China, Laos, Maldives, Tanzania and Sri Lanka.
I lost half of the things I originally traveled with.
I have been missing more times than I can count. Even nostalgia.
I fell off the biggest sand dune in Africa.
Had cholera in Borneo.
He was afraid of anger in India.
I was involved in a tsunami in Thailand.
He got stuck in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
But I also learned a lot from my experiences. To celebrate a full decade since I left the UK and started a full-time travel life, I’ve put together a huge list of my biggest and best travel tips. These are all things I wish someone had told me before I started traveling, so I hope you find them useful, inspirational, informative and fun.
1. Eat local food
One of my biggest regrets from the first year of traveling was not being brave enough to try local food. I was brought up as a pickle type and this, coupled with debilitating anxiety and an eating disorder, led me to believe that I would hate or be allergic to anything I had not tried before.
Food is now my absolute favorite way to get to know a place better.
I love trying new things and have found a thousand amazing dishes that I would never have discovered had I continued to eat in supermarkets around the world. Trying new food is not intimidating and you will grow in confidence as you fall in love with more and more things.
2. Plan as little as possible
One of the first lessons I learned while traveling was that your plans will almost always change. You will come to a place and hate it and want to leave immediately, or you will fall in love with a destination and want to spend more time there. You’ll be friends with a bunch of great people and want to change your plans so you can travel with them longer, or you’ll find a great city that sounds nearby and wants to go there instead.
Sure, you should have a rough plan for your trip, but don’t book everything in advance or you’ll probably end up feeling overwhelmed and regretted.
Book a one-way ticket and your first few nights of accommodation – you’ll find the rest along the way. It’s not as scary as it sounds. If you are in a tourist destination, there will always be someone willing to take your money by giving you a place to stay.
3. Travel insurance is everything
If you only do one thing before you leave, make sure you get travel insurance. I’ve heard too many horror stories about travelers being injured in isolated places and ending up in debt worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Don’t think it won’t happen to you, because you know those passengers did too.
I have been using World Nomads for my travel insurance company for six years and recommend them to everyone I know. They were great to deal with when making a complaint.
4. Bring a spare passport with you
People laughed at me when I said I was carrying a dozen spare passport photos with me, but they were extremely helpful and saved me a lot of time and effort.
Who wants to wander the streets of some rural Cambodia town looking for someone who can take your picture? My friends had to do it!
I used them to apply for visas all over the world, to get a new passport when mine expired while on the other side of the planet, and even needed to buy a local SIM card in Nepal! Having spare parts in my backpack meant I didn’t have to waste a day researching and then wandering around a city looking for someone who could take a passport-sized photo of me.
5. Keep everything important in your backpack
I am fortunate that I have never had to deal with lost luggage, but ripped my backpack in flight and was grateful that I had nothing of value at the time. I have also been on dangerous buses in Southeast Asia, where we arrived at our destination and people were robbed of someone hiding in the luggage hold while we were traveling.
If there is something I would be sorry to lose, I keep it in my backpack, which is always by my side on travel days. For me, this is my passport, laptop, camera, external hard drive, debit card, and some spare money. As long as I have all this, I can survive indefinitely.
6. Wear sunscreen daily
When you travel, you’re in the sun more than most people thanks to months of island hopping and beach time, as well as days spent outdoors exploring. Wear sunscreen daily, whatever the weather and temperature, because you don’t really want your lifelong journey to cause skin cancer or a body covered in leather wrinkles.
I wear sunscreen on my face and chest every day, even in the fall of winter.
7. Take more pictures of yourself
So many times I have been too shy to ask someone to take my picture in one place and I have almost always regretted it. After eight years of traveling, there are probably only about 200 photos of myself traveling around the world. The pictures of the lovely places you visit are great and all, but when you get home, they’re not all that different from what everyone else has taken too. The photos with you inside are special and will mean so much more to you in retrospect.
8. Learn a few words of the language in each country you visit
You will get more respect from the locals if you can at least say hello, sorry and thank you. On this note, remember: if you don’t speak the language, it’s your problem, not their problem. And don’t start talking louder to make sure you understand. Instead, try to mimic or use a translation app on your phone.
9. Bring ear plugs and a sleeping mask
Traveling is not conducive to sleep, whether it’s snorers in dorms, early risers rusting plastic bags, or drunken travelers tripping across the middle of the night. Even if you do not stay in hostels, you will still have to deal with outside street noises, noisy bars nearby, and uncomfortable night trips. Put some headphones and a sleeping mask in the bag to improve your sleep. I use Sleep Phones to block out the light and listen to podcasts and I love them.
10. Space-saving bags will help you fit more into your backpack
I’ve always focused on packaging cubes, until I discovered the vacuum-filled versions! You put your clothes inside, close the bag, then roll it to let all the air out. I can literally put twice as much clothes in my backpack when I use them! Even if you don’t want to carry more stuff in your bag, it frees up so much space that if you need to pack quickly, you can throw it all in.