There are a few basic tips that I use when traveling abroad. Some are quite simple but can be easily overlooked. Some come more naturally than others but I find them to be very useful for getting the most out of your trip. I am notorious for visiting places in a short time frame, so I have come to lean on some of these tips to maximize my exposure to the people and culture on a quick trip. So, in no particular order, here are my 15 essential tips.
- Use Instagram and Pinterest to identify places of interest before you go. I find that this is more reliable than TripAdvisor and other touristy sites. I have often found hidden gems that don’t show up on Trip Advisor when I look at these two sites. Search using creative hashtags, locations, and phrases and start building your list of must-see.
- Download WhatsApp and set up an account and familiarize yourself with the app. If you aren’t familiar, it’s basically a messaging app that works on Wi-Fi and doesn’t use cell data. Its widely used abroad and is very handy when you want to use that same cab/Uber driver or when communicating with that guide in advance. Its better than email because you typically get a faster response and you can see when your message was delivered and when it was read by the receiver. It’s invaluable when your traveling in a country with no cell or data service and you need to contact a local.
- Try to wake up early and get started. I find that this is the best time for taking photographs, getting coffee, and really taking in the scenery before all the Instagrammers and cruise ship travelers arrive on the scene. I feel like this is when I get my best photographs and really feel relaxed enough to take it all in.
- Keep a journal of your trip. Even if it’s just making notes on a mobile app (such as “ToDo”), its always good to keep a journal of conversations you had with locals, places you visited, costs, favorite restaurants, etc. You can use it to tell stories later, blog, recall for social media posts, or just have for next time you visit.
- Research baggage fees in advance and pack accordingly. If you plan to use low-cost carriers abroad, be aware that many of them have not only size restrictions for carry-on luggage but also weight restrictions (which can often be impossibly small). If you have a credit card that offers airline fee credits, check to see if airlines you will be traveling are included and make the switch with your credit card before you fly. On that note, I like packing with travel cubes or compression bags to consolidate precious real estate in your luggage or backpack. Make a list and then rethink it. You almost always need less than what you originally think.
- Try street food. For goodness sake, do not eat in a chain restaurant when traveling abroad. Dive into the local cuisine and don’t be afraid of the street food. The best food I had in Jamaica was out of a metal barrel. They served conch meat with rice and beans wrapped in aluminum foil and cooked over a homemade grill right in the barrel. It was my favorite meal on the island!
- Consider renting a Wi-Fi mobile hotspot in advance of your trip. There are many websites online that rent these by the day. They generally run about $10USD per day and usually, they can arrange to have it delivered to your hotel upon arrival. Then, you simply drop it in the mail at the conclusion of your trip. This has helped me a lot. By keeping the Wi-Fi with me at all times, I can leave my phone in airplane mode and simply use the Wi-Fi for data, messaging, and Wi-Fi calls.
- Consider hiring a local guide or driver. This one is touchy for me. I like to explore on my own but I sometimes like to find a local guide for a day (especially if I have limited time) to take me around. I don’t get into pre-organized tours. I prefer hiring someone who can be at my disposal for that day. I have had invaluable experiences seeing things that were off the beaten path or getting the real scoop behind certain areas, mysteries, politics, and other subjects. Normally, I just do some research and find someone online and then reach out to them directly. I especially like ones that provide their WhatsApp contact so that you can start a conversation right away. Once I receive a response, I do some vetting via social media and make my decision. I am friends to this day with several of the guides I have hired in the past!
- Try and learn some of the local language. You don’t have to be an expert here, but I find that it is very much appreciated when you can say, please, thank you, how much, good day, etc. when talking with locals. They will appreciate your attempt and be much more likely to go the extra mile for you. Don’t be afraid to ask how to say something in their native language. Again, they will pick up on your efforts and you will likely get more personalized attention out of it.
- Download Google Maps and Google Translate specific to your destination. It will save you a lot of frustration during times when your Wi-Fi router is not working, and you need to find your way around or ask for directions. Just trust me on this one. You may never use it but if you need it, you’ll be glad you did.
- Pack a collapsible backpack in your luggage. If you’re not already taking one separate of your luggage, I think it’s a must. It’s great to have during the day to carry water, a Wi-Fi router, layers of clothing, a rain jacket, or to carry around souvenirs. I love to spend a few hours walking through local markets or bazaars and this is a good way to carry your finds around. Plus, you can stuff some protein bars or a travel guidebook in there so that you’re always prepared.
- Leave your Rolex and your diamonds at home. There’s no need to temp others with your good fortune. Of course, be smart when you travel but I have found that with a little caution and research, most countries are safer than you think. The State Department website can be like WebMD for travelers. It will always showcase the worst-case scenario for you to consider before traveling. This is not always a bad thing. It is critical to know the risk, but I don’t recommend taking a country off your list that gets labeled as “use extra caution”. You should, in fact, take precautions but not necessarily avoid it altogether. Countries often get labeled as a whole but often times; violent crimes are much more limited to specific areas that can be avoided altogether. The important thing to remember is to be comfortable with your level of risk tolerance. If you are uncomfortable it will show, and showing vulnerability is not the best situation to find yourself in. I recommend checking the state department website but also checking in with other travel articles (make sure it’s a recent article) and reading personal experiences before making a decision.
- Get off the beaten path. Sometimes I literally search for things that are not on the “Top 10 things to do”. You can find yourself in some interesting places and some of my best memories are when I get out of my comfort zone for a while. I’ve stumbled on waterfalls, dive bars, spectacular vistas, and great bargains on handmade items by exploring things that are not in tourist zones. You’re far more likely to get a true experience of the culture by allowing yourself to wander.
- Buy local handicrafts. You have to be careful to find authentic souvenirs and not those mass-produced in China. When you find a good one, get it! It makes for a great conversation starter when friends and family come to visit. My house is full of treasures from afar and they inspire me to daydream (which is one of my favorite activities). You can google souvenirs to buy in your destination for a little inspiration and tips on pricing and negotiating.
- Don’t forget to smile. Enjoy the moment. You’ll get more attention, better service, and more storytelling from the locals if they see you as happy and interested. Plus, your good mood is contagious, and it will put you in the right frame of mind for the perfect day!