I'm not someone who backpacked around the world for years (maybe some day). Actually not that long ago I didn't even like traveling, just listening to someone who returned from somewhere made me tired. But some time in spring of 2014, I just got the itch of needing to travel. As a lazy person who is always looking for ways to optimize and simplify his life, I decided to share some tips which I wish I knew before I started traveling or just giving them to someone who is about to pop his cherry. Tips are in no particular order.
You can jump to any particular tip:
- Travel lightly
- Get a convertible duffel bag
- Be among the last people in the plane
- Use in-ear headphones
- Prepare your smart phone
- Don't plan, adapt
- Use common sense
- Use zip lock and trash bags
- Eat macadamia nuts
- Check your alarm five times
- Optimize your med-kit
- Learn about your lodgings
Lightly is the relative term so it might be a backpack or a suitcase, but if you can just travel with medium backpack (42x32x25 cm). Don't be one of those travelers who drags a bunch of suitcases just for a weekend get away. You have no idea how refreshing it is when you can just move through the airport without waiting in some pointless lines. Or moving through the busy street without disturbing anyone or being disturbed. Most of the time you can get by without a lot of things and if you really need something you can always buy it.
I personally use Kiva Convertible Duffel Bag, but you can get something similar. At first I had my doubts about it, in theory it sounded like a great product, but I wasn't sure I will be using it in practice. Now I love it, and will probably be buying a couple more. Even if you travel with one backpack, which doesn't weight much it is probably quite full and just makes you feel rigid. Just fill your duffel bag with stuff from it and your comfort level will improve a lot.
Don't be one of those who tries to cut the line to get into the plane. You won't fly out sooner than me, so just relax. Most will say it's just to get a better seat, well I'm sorry, but it's a lie. You won't get a better seat by boarding earlier. If it's your first time flying, well OK, you might want to get a window seat, but believe me it's not so interesting either way. Also from my experience I found that being among the last people in, gives you much better choices for where to sit (also the research shows what it's better to have less choices). The important part is to enter through the front of the plane. After that you can just walk down the aisle and process your choices (e.g., a crying kid too close, teenagers, etc.) and take one which you think will be enjoyable or least bothersome. If you look like someone who might start carrying people under his arms in emergency (never was in a crashing plane so not sure about it) you might get upgraded to the emergency exit seat. Also for someone who "has no ass" and sitting for long periods of time becomes painful, I want to be on my legs for as long as I can.
First, because you can remove the noise everyone is making and exchange it with some music you like or a good audio book. I don't know about you, but listening for hours of kids crying to me doesn't sound like a good time. Second, I hate flying mostly because it messes with my ears. I noticed that in-ear headphones helps with it. Earbuds isn't bad either, in-ear headphones is just more comfortable for me. Over the ear headphones are useless and cumbersome. Another tip for helping with pressure messing with your ears is to squeeze your nose shut with your fingers and swallow. I was suggested this when I was jumping with a parachute (too late), but I did it on the couple of flights and it helped a lot. Just don't overdo it, use your gut and do it when you feel it's needed.
Best choice would be to get a local sim card with a data plan. Doesn't always work. At least after I tried to put a local sim card in Netherlands it felt like my phone got an STD: it changed language everywhere to Dutch and everything stopped working. Didn't feel like giving it a second try. The most important thing to do is while you're connected to Internet just cache the area you will be visiting in Google Maps. Your GPS will work fine without the Internet and you won't need to fight with a paper map trying to figure out where you are. Just walk in the direction you want and from time to time check you position to correct your direction. Getting lost is just seeing more things than you planned and this way you will always have pointers how to get back to a familiar ground. You can also download a note with an information of where you're staying, a screen shot of a map (helped after trying to put local sim card) or anything else you might need.
I'm not saying you shouldn't plan your trip, but don't overdo it and better be ready to adapt. Like googling "how to get from point A to point B" or "what to do in point C" is fine and useful. "On 2 pm I will be in point A, in 10 minutes the train will arrive, travel to point B for an hour, ..." not so much.
Here's an example from my trip to Amsterdam. The end of the trip was supposed to be simple: travel with a train from Amsterdam to Eindhoven for 1.5 hours, sleep, fly back home. The real trip had much more steps. After buying the train ticket some kind of power failure happened which closed the whole Amsterdam-Eindhoven line. Had to travel to Rotterdam. After about 1.5 hours from all the information I had noticed it won't be taking me to the city center and will be going to the wrong direction. Had to make a call to get out (don't know if it was the correct call or not, just had to adapt to a situation to the best of my knowledge). Got out in suburbs at least 10 kilometers away from train station. As a bonus had to reach the train station in about 30 minutes (as the next train will be in another 30 minutes and the trip is longer). This is the great example why you should travel lightly. With a few more hick ups along the way, finally got in the train which was traveling for 1.5 hours to Eindhoven. From train station to the place I booked for the night was about 8 minutes of walking. After 7 meters of walking it started to drip. Put the jacket on just in case. After 3 meters the storm started with rain pouring like the sky was drowning. Arrived to my host drenched in water. Only after a shower I felt like human again and after working for a bit I felt like I'm back in control. So it wasn't surprising when my first thought after I was suggested emergency exit seat my first thought was "Great, another detour. At least I will have some legroom until we crash". Unfortunately, had a very nice flight with lots of turbulence and song lyrics "I'm falling, I'm falling fast" while landing. However, I wouldn't change this for anything as it showed me how I can react to un-expected situations (What doesn't kill you makes you stronger). Just sometimes you have enough to stop caring about adventure and all you can think of is a destination.
If you walk around with your phone or wallet half falling of your ass pocket, don't be surprised when it will get stolen or lost. You might look like a tourist (especially if you're dragging a bunch of luggage around) making you an easier target, but all the problems might as well happen in the country you live. Just use some common sense and you should minimize your chances of being robbed or something like it happening to you. Keep your valuables in front pockets or somewhere where it is not so easy to reach. Get a padlock for your backpack, it won't do any good, but will make you mind feel safer thinking it will be harder for someone to get into your backpack (placebo effect). Don't flash around all the expensive toys you have. And if someone comes to you and asks if they could use your phone just say "No" and get ready to fight.
Put your chargers into one of them, small medkit/toiletries in a different one and have a few spare bags (they take almost no space/weight). Not only it helps with organization, but it might also save your things from getting destroyed, if for example you get in a rain storm.
They are not cheap, they take space, they are heavy (all points relative), but they will keep you going until you could put a steak or some other nice meal in your stomach. A couple of them will keep you going for a few hours and won't make you crash like some crappy carbs filled snacks you would put in yourself otherwise.
Learn from my mistakes and make sure your alarm is set correctly as you really DON'T want to miss your flight.
If you learn it the hard way just like I did (I had to learn this lesson sooner or later), please see Don't plan, adapt.
And if you're trying to stay away from bad habits, like smoking or drinking, the urges for them will be much higher at this point. It's the perfect situation to have a smoke or a beer. Just acknowledge the urges and stay strong, they won't help at this point (at least I can't imagine how they might help at this point).
Smile and enjoy an expensive story :)
This will be different for everyone. Don't pack half of your backpack with drugs because you might need it if something almost impossible will happen. You probably don't want to leave some medication that is important for you either.
A good test that I will be using from now: if pharmacies are closed and will only open in the morning, could I survive over the night?
A few personal examples. Lets say, I get a terrible head ache and have no painkillers. Even if I had to spend time until morning rolled in the ball, it's still more of an inconvenience than a problem. There are also natural ways to help with it and after a couple hours of sleep it might even pass away. So pain killers would be useful to have, but not very important.
On the other side I have problems with my nose being blocked which, when trying to sleep leads to grasping for every molecule of air you can get in your lungs. There are some long term fixes which can lessen this issue. A short term fix also exists, but I try to avoid it as even the doctors suggest to avoid it. So for the trip to Spain I packed only the long term fix and it would have been enough, unfortunately, I got a cold and situation worsened leaving long term fix useless. Also, there is nothing I could do naturally to improve the situation (have enough problems with sleeping without having to do it while standing). After spending hours trying to fall asleep, decided to stop this torture and rather go for days without sleep, at least this way I won't oversleep my flight. Next time I will make damn sure I packed the short term fix as even an hour without it is one hour too much.
Pack everything you wouldn't want to be an hour(s) without. If you have free space, pack that might be helpful to shorten the wait time and for everything else just wait it over.
If you know where you will be staying (for example by booking through airbnb) always ask about what is important for you. Don't assume things just from photos or description, always ask before booking.
As a digital nomad I need good (even poor works) internet connection to be able to work and earn money for financing my trips. What I don't want to hear during it is: "My internet connection isn't working, it will be fixed on Monday (which is after I check out)."
Also from now on I ask if any smoking is being done inside (including shared space). As for someone who stopped smoking, I find it nauseating when I have to walk through smoked area (or even worse, it starts getting inside my room).
Even if something important for you is written in big letters, ask, don't assume.
This isn't the end of the list as I'm sure it will be updated once I get more travel experience. But these are the tips I wish I knew about before having my first trip.