October 31st marked 3 years since I packed my bag and set off to carry out my little experiment of combining online learning with world travel. Although I’ve been home sporadically since then, my existence has been pretty nomadic. The longest I’ve spent at home in those 3 years was 3 months and that was enforced by a broken leg. In fact, the longest I’ve spent continuously in one country has been 4 months in India.
During these 3 years I’d like to think I’ve picked up my fair share of travel hacks. These are all collected from my first-hand experience of traveling both solo and in groups, but never as part of an organised tour (unless it’s my own ;)). The “hacks” I’m sharing with you below are supposed to be novel, ones that you haven’t heard elsewhere and go beyond the simple travel advice that’s usually found online.
Some are long, some are short, some you might think are dumb. Some aren’t really hacks at all. If you’re completely new to travel you might want to supplement this list with other advice, but no matter your experience, hopefully you’ll pick up something useful!
Never admit it’s your first time
This goes for arriving in a new country or location, particularly at airports, train stations, and bus depots. You’re at your most vulnerable to scams and exploitation when arriving somewhere new, and you may notice everyone (particularly taxi drivers) will ask you if it’s your first time here. Maybe this is me being cynical, and may not apply to everyone, but I feel part of the reason they ask this is to know how much they can get away with when it comes to pricing and general scamming. Telling people that you’ve been here before makes them at least hesitant to try and mislead you or charge you something other than the going rate.
Perfect your shoe game
I have for a while now only travelled with one pair of shoes. They are the perfect travel shoe. I can cover all these bases with them:
Swimming / stuff where your feet get very wet but you need shoes on
Beaching (is that a word?)
Cycling (kind of, depending on the intensity)
They go with every single outfit in my bag. You can wash them without messing them up. They’re pretty indestructible as they’re made out of leather and are high quality, which comes with a high price tag but I think it’s worth it. They’re the kind of shoes where you don’t have to wear socks which is music to my ears as I have a phobia of them
The only thing I can’t do in them is run / work out, which I’m not mad about. Most places I go have either plenty of hiking, or water sports, or both, to keep me fit. And if there really is neither then I will wear just socks to the gym.
I always buy a pair of flip flops when I arrive. They’re always a fraction of the price of buying at home (~$1). I also spend what many think is a weird amount of time walking around barefoot.
Only problem with this set-up is these shoes are almost impossible to find in developing countries. So if I lose them I’m kinda screwed.
Maybe you don’t want to travel with one pair of shoes, but you should really think long and hard about the shoes you’re bringing with you. They take up a lot of space in your bag. Try to cover as many bases with as few pairs as you can.
Hostel life without hostel beds
Maybe this is a sign I’m getting old, but I’m over sharing a room with 8 to 16 strangers. But I can’t deny that staying in a hostel is the best way to meet fellow travellers. The perfect scenario is booking a private room in a hostel, but these are usually super expensive.
So how can you get the social aspect of a hostel without having to suffer dorm living or burning a hole in your wallet? Here’s what I do.
Find out the most social hostel in the area. Make sure they have a large common area and a fully functioning bar. Book one night in the hostel, and in your time there make yourself known to as many people as possible, especially the people that work there (it’s particularly important that the staff like you).
The next day find a super cheap guesthouse round the corner from the hostel. I’ve almost always been able to find a basic private room for the same price as a bed in a dorm at a popular hostel, certainly you’ll be able to find one for a fraction of what a private room in a hostel costs.
Because you’re “in” at the hostel and with the hostel staff, you’ll be able to hang out in the hostel and at the bar even though you’ve checked out. People probably won’t even realise you’re not staying there anymore.
Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened
Friendships made while travelling tend to be intense. You share so many life defining moments together that travelling side by side with someone for a week feels like you’ve known them for a year. And when they live on the other side of the world from you, the reality of the situation might be that your path may never cross again.
I used to find it pretty unbearable when I had to say goodbye to these kinds of friends, and sometimes I still do. Nowadays I reframe my thinking to help cope with it. Firstly I always believe that I will meet the people that matter to me again, even if the truth is I never might. And secondly I try to concentrate on being grateful for having met them at all. How lucky am I to have had people in my life that I miss so much? Yes, if I stayed at home I would never have to say goodbye to my friends. They’d always be a short commute away. But then I never would have met all the amazing people I have.
What’s better, to have loved and lost or never to have loved at all? Maybe the jury is still out on that. Maybe at times it feels like you’d rather a life full of average people if it meant they’d never leave. I choose to believe life should be lived at the extremes. For me that extends to people and relationships as well as every other aspect of life.
Protect your time and energy
After a while on the road, particularly if you’re staying in a lot of hostels, you will probably get really good at making connections with people. You might even become somewhat of a social ninja.
I found that there was a point where my outlook on making friends shifted. It changed from “how am I going to go about finding new friends?”, to “How do I make sure I make friends with people I actually enjoy being around and make my life better?”
I found that I could make friends with almost anyone if I made the effort to. And that might sound great to some people, but having so many people pulling you in so many different directions and wanting your energy is exhausting. I started being very selective about who I would even introduce myself to. I stopped asking peoples names until I actually thought this was a person I was interested in knowing. Initial conversations I had with people were about interesting and thought provoking topics, and the more mundane questions that most people start with such as where are you from, how long have you been travelling, and what do you do came as an afterthought, and sometimes never at all!
I think you should be very deliberate about who you allow into your life, not just because your time and energy are finite, but because some people might make your life significantly worse once they’re in it. And they might be hard to remove.
Lockable bags = Portable safes
Most hotel safes can be overridden, which kind of defeats the purpose as the staff at the hotel probably know how to do this. This, along with many hotels and hostels not having safes big enough to fit all my valuables in (or not having safes full stop) is a problem.
I discovered these bags. They’re expensive, but the peace of mind they give you are priceless. I can lock these bags to an immovable object and leave them completely unattended in the knowledge that nobody will be able to steal them or anything inside them. Beyond just securing valuables in my accommodation this allows me to sleep soundly on public transport or generally in public without the worry that my bags are going to get stolen.
Smile and Laugh
This keeps you out of trouble and can also get you out of it. Inevitably you will have reason at some time or another to be upset or angry. But putting this energy out into the world almost never serves you. If you want help, you’re much more likely to get it with a smile on your face and a happy disposition than with a scowl.
And plus smiling is contagious! And how do you feel about people that make you smile?
The secret to negotiating
Recognise where you have negotiating power. It’s all about supply and demand. Is every shop on this street selling the exact same thing? Then the power is in your hands. See something you love that you haven’t seen anywhere else? Most likely you’ll be paying the sticker price or going without.
Where I have the negotiating power, I always employ the same strategy.
Look somewhat disinterested.
Ask the price
Laugh at the price
The merchant will probably ask you what price you’re willing to pay. I usually ignore this and continue walking. They’ll then start shouting prices at you down the road. I keep walking until they stop shouting. Once I know the lowest price they were offering I’ll go into the next shop and actually negotiate with that price as my upper limit. I think that a good starting point is 50% of that upper limit. If I can’t get a better price than I heard at the first shop I’ll go back to that first shop and buy it there.
This goes with purchasing physical goods (typically at markets) but also other services that are negotiable like transport and tours. This is especially important at airports, train stations, and bus depots. The crucial aspect of this strategy is keep walking. At transport hubs I will usually walk all the way out of the building before I even consider accepting a price, all the while listening for the prices that people are offering to get a good reference point.
For 3 reasons:
So you can actually get to know the people you meet.
So you can understand the world around you, rather than just take pictures of it.
So you can do something other than travel alongside travelling! Moving to a new place every few days makes it very hard to have any semblance of routine. And with no routine it’s very hard to be productive.
Ask the right people for help
I usually only ask for directions or general assistance from two types of locals. Both for the same reason that they aren’t actively trying to give me the assistance I’m seeking and therefore probably don’t have a motivation to lead me astray.
Unassuming bystanders: rather than those that approach you and are actively trying to help you. Maybe this is a sad way to look at people but I am always suspicious of people that go out of their way to help when it is not obvious I need it. Why would someone inconvenience themselves on the off chance that you need help? Much better to ask someone who is not trying to help you as they probably have nothing to sell you or overcharge you for, otherwise they too would be offering their assistance.
People I have already given money to: Either by buying something, or consuming their service (ie. taxi drivers, surf instructors). As they’ve already made their money from you they’re usually in good spirits and are happy to give impartial advice. Especially if there is a chance you’ll buy from them / use their service again.
I do this a lot not just for directions but also to find out the price of things. I might ask the waiter how much a taxi to x place should be, which is a far more reliable way of getting a reasonable price estimate than asking a taxi driver. Unless of course the waiter is also a taxi driver.
Perfect your bag game
A huge concern that I had when first going away was how to secure my valuables. I knew that a lot of budget accommodation didn’t have lockers or safes, and had heard many stories of peoples rooms being robbed and also having their valuables taken on public transport either while they were sleeping or by some agile opportunist. I think these things happen much less frequently than it seems like on social media but neverless I wanted to stay safe. I also wanted to keep mobile and pack light.
I honestly think you can’t do much better than the set-up I have with my bags. I will walk you through it now.
Daypack: I discovered pacsafe, a company that makes lockable bags. Their bags are supposed to be theft-proof, which of course they’re not but they make it extremely difficult to be robbed. The daypack I bought from them fits all my electronics and other valuables in with not a lot of space left over so I can just about use it as a carry-on for flights, but it’s perfect for carrying everything I need on a normal day on the road. The lockable aspect of this means that somebody cannot sneakily open it without me noticing it, and in combination with a small lock could not get into at all. Not even if they cut the bag open as it is lined with a steel “exomesh”. If I add a bike lock to the mix, I can attach the bag to any immovable object and leave it unattended safe in the knowledge that nobody would be able to run away with it without cutting through the locks.
Additional lockable bag: This may be unnecessary for most people, but once I started Edumadic, I knew that the amount of valuables I travelled with would increase. And if I wanted to leave some valuables at home and take my daypack out with me then I would have no way to secure them.
So I bought a big “portable safe”. It has a very loose structure (almost like a reinforced shopping bag with a steel exomesh) so can be smooshed down if I’m not using it, and also fits the dimensions required for carry-on luggage. What I often do now is bring both this and my daypack as carry-on for flights, putting the daypack inside the safe. The safe also has rudimentary backpack straps so it can be used as such. This safe has the bike lock aspect that I mentioned before already built in so like with my daypack, can be attached to an immovable object. I usually attach it to my bed.
Actual Backpack: This is a really old 60 litre Backpack I found at my parents place. It’s probably 20 years old and is falling apart in a lot of ways, but having an old bag is deliberate. It looks like you’ve been doing this travelling thing for a while, and might indicate that you’re not the richest backpacker out there. Any potential thieves may just let you pass and wait for the next victim with that shiny new osprey bag.
Importantly, both the bags above fit into this bag, along with all my other stuff. So I can condense down to a single bag should I have a long way to walk with my luggage.
Other bags: I also have 3 other bags that I use to compartmentalise clothes and other stuff. These are basically shopping style bags (that can double as actual shopping bags!) and take the place of packing cubes that a lot of people seem to use. These in my opinion are a complete waste of money when you could literally get the same outcome with a plastic shopping bag.
I also have a drawstring bag that I take to the beach and also take for flights. Once through security I transfer everything that I actually want with me into this bag so I can put the rest in the overhead bins.
Perfect your packing game
Being able to pack in <15 minutes is really useful. This requires a few things:
Not totally unpacking everything and sprawling it across your room.
Having bags big enough that don’t require you to squeeze every last inch out of their capacity. This means that if you’re really in a rush you can indiscriminately chuck everything in your bag rather than folding neatly and systematically to make it fit.
Get a local sim card!
I can’t believe the amount of people I meet that don’t do this, it’s a complete game changer. Having access to Google Maps, and online messaging like whatsapp that you can also call through makes navigating a foreign country infinitely easier. It’s extremely cheap. In most of Asia you can buy a sim card with huge amounts (or sometimes unlimited) data for around $10. Even if you’re only in a country for a week it’s well worth it.
You will need a phone unlocked for international use to do this.
Don’t buy one at the airport if you can avoid it. They’re often over double the standard price found in a phone shop.
Use Facebook groups
I’ve found that for almost every location where there is some form of expat community, whether it’s a digital nomad hub or a more traditional expat hot spot, there’s always a facebook group for that place full of information about it. As well being able to have your questions answered by people that live there that were once in your shoes, you can also search the group for previously asked questions and answers.
Get Tinder Plus
Yes, maybe for that…. But also because being able to change the location your swiping in to your next destination is a great way to find out local info from your matches!
Always post on social media when you’re in a new location
It’s quite unbelievable the amount of times I’ve done this and there’s been someone I know in that location, or coming in the near future.
Even if you don’t know somebody there at the same time as you, you may have friends that can give you tips about the place or know people that are there that they can introduce you to.
Cultivate a functional style
Aka minimise your wardrobe and make it inexpensive to replace.
On my top half I only ever wear plain white or black v neck t-shirts, and Hawaiian shirts, of which I usually have a couple with me. I also travel with a big hoodie.
On my bottom half I have two pairs of shorts (one blue one beige), 2 pairs of swimming shorts, and a pair of very comfortable black jeans.
Plus a couple of pairs of socks and underwear, that’s all I have! I can mix and match almost everything. And because it’s such a plain style (apart from the Hawaiian shirts) I can wear everything in any setting and any country without worrying about offending people. From the beach, to immigration, to the nightclub, my outfit doesn’t change.
Know the price before you buy!
This goes for taxis, tours, food, and anything else you might pay for later. The big one is taxis though. Always make sure you know the price that you are going to be charged before you get in the vehicle. And try to find out what a decent price should be for the journey you’re about to take before you start talking about price. And don’t be afraid to walk away if you don’t like what they tell you!
Only book 1 night
Or maybe two max. There are so many things that make an accommodation or even a whole location enjoyable or not. So much of which you can’t know until you’re actually there. Maybe the hostel is empty, or all the people are boring, or perhaps the opposite and you can’t get a minute of sleep! You can always extend your stay once you’ve arrived. I’ve found it very rare that I’m not able to do that, and the benefits of not committing far outweigh the risk of the place being fully booked the next night(s) in my opinion.
Side note: If you’re travelling in high season or during a popular festival this might not be a good idea. But you should be able to judge this by seeing how many hostels show up when you search that location on the dates you’re hoping to go, and seeing how many beds they have available.
Always carry toilet paper, and a metal spoon (also hand sanitizer?)
You never know when food poisoning might hit when you’re on the road. In a lot of countries toilet paper isn’t really a thing, and is only available in premises geared towards tourists. You may even be caught where there is no toilet available, in which case you’ll definitely be glad you brought some toilet paper.
I noticed this more in India than other countries but it has also been useful in other parts of Asia. Sometime you’ll buy some street food and not be provided cutlery. Even when you are, it’s good to consider the environment by bringing your own metal spoon rather than using their plastic ones.
The hand sanitizer is for both the toilet situation and eating. In brackets because I actually don’t have any in my bag at time of writing :/.
Top up on credit and bank cards while you still have a steady job
This is for two reasons. First to make sure you always have access to cash and secondly to make sure you have some extra credit lying around if you need it.
You never know when you might need some extra cash. Maybe you have an accident that isn’t covered by insurance. Maybe you are terrible with finances and realise you can’t afford a flight home. Maybe you want to start a business and want to finance it yourself using personal credit cards rather than a business loan or investment.
While you have a steady job and you’re at home you will be a far more desirable customer to banks than when you’re unemployed and bouncing around the world. Plus you are guaranteed to have problems with your bank cards, so the more different cards / accounts you have with you the less likely you’re going to stranded with no access to money.
I now travel with 7 different bank cards which may seem like overkill but running a business while travelling means I need to take extra precautions. I’d suggest having at least 3 different cards that you can access funds with.
This is particularly important for North Americans. Banks in that part of the world sound like a complete nightmare when it comes to dealing with people who travel a lot.
Don’t plan / it’s people that matter, not places
The saddest thing about travelling is saying goodbye to blossoming friendships and romances. Usually what pulls you apart is plans you’ve already made. You’re going north and they’re going south. Especially when travelling alone, these sad goodbyes can be easily avoided, or at least postponed, by being as flexible as possible.
When I was travelling India I made 3 trips up and down the country, visiting places I had already been multiple times. I did this to spend more time in company I enjoyed, and I don’t regret it at all. After a while, ticking that next city, or beach, or temple off your list doesn’t give you the joy that it used to. And what really lights your life up is the connections you make with your fellow travellers. I’d say that now the joy that I get from travelling is 90% the people and 10% the places.
Cross the road without dying
This is particularly important in Asia, where traffic laws seem to not really exist. Certainly in major cities in Vietnam, Indonesia and India, the simple act of crossing the road looks at first glance like an impossible task, but if you know what you’re doing it needn’t be.
The easiest way to cross a sprawling mass of seemingly unpredictable traffic is to outsource the task to someone else, preferably a local who has been doing this all their life. If you find yourself waiting to cross in the company of a local, stand with them between you and the oncoming traffic. Now all you need to do is keep their body exactly between you and the traffic, so that when you’re crossing, the traffic will only see them, and consequently have to only avoid one person instead of two.
If this isn’t an option you’ll have to learn how to cross like a local. The trick is to move slowly and predictably across the road, making eye contact with the traffic as you move. As long as drivers can predict what you’re going to do, they will avoid you. Driving in Asia takes a huge amount of concentration and drivers are constantly scanning for dangers to avoid so long as they can see you from a sufficient distance away and can predict where you will be once they reach you, swerving round you or slowing down to let you pass isn’t the infuriating inconvenience that drivers in your home country might see it as.
Don’t drink the water!
In most developing countries you’ll be advised to only drink bottled water. Listen to this advice, especially in countries where the locals don’t even drink tap water. In my experience it’s usually water rather than food that gets you debilitatingly sick. I know a lot of people who have been hospitalised by drinking tap water or even a salad washed in tap water.
However, I also have a friend who has been travelling through Latin America for 3 years, drinking tap water the entire time and has never fallen ill from it, but maybe he’s not human.
Side note: some people don’t even brush their teeth with tap water. I don’t take it that far and seem to be okay, but it’s your call.
Look your privilege in the face
The most important lessons I’ve learnt from travelling were from Cambodia, Poland, and India. I won’t go into the exact details of each experience here (I’d encourage you to do some googling or better yet visit yourself), but briefly:
Cambodia was the final stop on my first ever backpacking trip around South East Asia way back in 2014. I didn’t know much about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge before arriving in Phnom Penh. Visits to both TS21 and the Killing Fields quickly changed that.
I used to go to Poland every month with my consulting work. On one of my final trips I took a detour to Krakow, which is a beautiful city in itself. But the most important thing about this city is its proximity to Auschwitz, probably the most infamous concentration camp from World War 2. I can’t speak for other countries, but growing up in the UK we had a comprehensive education about the horrors that the Nazis inflicted on Europe, so I was well aware of Auschwitz and what happened there. Seeing the camp with my own eyes and being educated about the minute details of life at the camp by our guide made it so much more real.
I first arrived in India at 1am, once I’d made my way to my hostel in Mumbai it was around 3 in the morning. Of course I couldn’t check in yet and I’d slept the entire journey so decided to aimlessly wander the streets until sunrise. What I found on the streets of Mumbai that night be considered a humanitarian crisis in the west. I walked for perhaps 4 hours, and almost every pavement was lined with sleeping people. I must have walked past 500 of them. Men, women and children, all sleeping perpendicular to the road, a lot with blankets completely covering them head to toe (they could have actually been dead, I have no idea), but a lot were just laying directly on the pavement with no additional comfort whatsoever. A couple of days later I went on a tour of the biggest slum in Mumbai, which was similarly eye opening. I’m told that 70% of Indians (of which there are 1.5 Billion) are homeless.
Every day I see things that remind me of how lucky I am to be born in the UK. The experiences above really slapped me in the face with it, but similar realisations can be had just by spending time in developing countries and understanding the daily life of people that live there. Realising that the only thing that separates you from the victims of mass genocide or absolute poverty are the circumstances in which you were born might be the cure to all the worlds problems, and at the very least would put an end to a whole lot of complaining.
Now, every time I return home from Asia I am awestruck by the fact I can turn on any tap in my house and drink the water that flows from it. This miracle becomes more and more amazing the longer I spend abroad. I hope this and the other lessons above never leave me.
Live in poverty
This is something I first heard deliberately addressed by Tim Ferris. He does this in a few different ways, going long periods of time without eating, wearing the same clothes for extended periods of time, or just living extremely frugally for a number of days. The idea behind doing this is to practice the worse case scenarios that you fear most. What if you lost everything tomorrow? How would you cope? Living as simply as possible, even in poverty, exposes you to that worst case scenario and shows you that maybe it’s not as bad as you imagined.
Travelling gives you a great opportunity to do this on a regular basis. Take the public bus, eat the $0.50 street food. Sleep on the beach. Walk for 5 hours with your luggage instead of taking a taxi. Knowing that you can cope in tough situations is totally liberating, and expands your comfort zone further than you thought possible.
Stay out of trouble
Any disagreement where the person in the wrong is not clear cut, you will always lose against a local. Have a traffic accident? Your fault. And you’ll have to pay damages and hospital fees if you hurt someone else. A local cuts the line for drinks at the bar? Let it go. Find out that you’ve paid triple what you should have for something? Expensive lesson learnt.
Life in developing countries can be a dream and can fill your life with many exciting experiences. It’s not so dreamy when things go wrong and you come to the realisation that the police in your home country are not so bad after all. If you want the comfort of knowing that you can rely on laws being enforced should your travels go pear shaped, maybe you should stay home, or at least limit your travels to Europe.
Download these apps
Google Maps and / or Maps.me: for generally navigating the world. Maps.me allows you to download offline maps so you don’t need internet to use it. I actually just stick to Google Maps. They have a downloadable feature also although it’s not quite as good as maps.me.
Booking.com, Hostelworld, Airbnb: For researching and booking places to stay. Booking.com allows you to book places without paying anything in advance so I usually prefer using that over the other two if I can.
Skyscanner, Momondo, Rome 2 Rio: The first two for finding cheap flights. I sometimes also use Kiwi.com and google flights. Rome 2 Rio is incredible. It’s an app that tells you how to get from A to B, with links to ticket booking. Literally any place in the world to any other place in the world. I don’t understand how they managed to build such an amazing app.
Google Translate: For translating things. it also has language recognition so you can speak into it and it will translate into a different language, and will even say it back.
Trip Advisor: I use this mainly for checking out reviews of restaurants.
Evernote: Afree notes app that I use rather than the native one on my phone because it syncs to my laptop as well.
Uber or it’s regional alternative: Saves you the hassle of haggling prices with taxi drivers or can at least inform you of what a reasonable price should be. Asia has a regional version of Uber called Grab which is almost identical. There are country specific versions also.
Xe currency: An exchange rate app to help you figure out conversion rates between multiple currencies. You enter the amount you want to convert and it will show you the equivalent in up to 8 different currencies at once.
Your banks app: So you can keep a close eye on your finances.
Read lots of them, and know how to read them. I usually completely ignore 5 star reviews having known a few hostels and hotels that give incentives to their customers to leave them such as a free beer. I usually don’t give much weight to 1 star reviews either as these tend to be people with unrealistic expectations or were victim of an extremely rare occurrence probably out of the control of the staff.
It’s the reviews in the middle that really tell you something. Are the things that the 3 star review said were bad important to you? Maybe they complained about bugs in the room, or the breakfast being lame. Or maybe there was no social life, or the dorm didn’t have lockers. These are all things that might matter to some people but not others, that you wouldn’t know about unless you looked beyond the headline score.
Bury your patriotism
Understand that you are not your country. You are not responsible for the actions of it past or present, and consequently you don’t need to defend it or your fellow countrymen. You are a person, that happens to have been born on a particular patch of dirt.
Similarly you can’t shouldn’t take any credit or be proud of the good things either, for the same reasons.
The longer you travel the less association you will feel towards that place that you plopped out into the universe, and the more you will feel like a citizen of the world, and maybe understand that really we all are, separated by arbitrary and invisible lines on a map and different coloured little books.