Hard-earned travel tips from one who’s been there

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

I know you’re all waiting for some grand summing up of my big adventure: profound insights, life-changing realizations, blah blah blah. All I can say is I’m working on it, but don’t hold your breath. Instead here’s a much more practical offering: a bunch of random tips and observations on long term travel that I think I now have the resumé to offer with a certain gravitas. In no particular order, take them as they come.

----------

Upon entering a new hotel room in a dodgy part of the world (Africa, Asia, the Middle East) check that the hot water, heating, air conditioning, kettle, internet or other amenities work properly. It's much more likely you'll get moved to a new room if you haven't exploded all over the first one before discovering there's no hot water and the shower sprays sideways onto an electrical panel.

The smallest hotel room of the trip – Jerusalem. You are viewing a less-than-single sized bed, which took up exactly half of the room. The bathroom was about 1” wider than the toilet and you stood in the doorway to use the sink. 200 shekels per night.

----------

Always carry the business card of your hotel or hostel, or at least write down the name so you have something to show a cab driver to get you home. If the language does not use the Roman alphabet, get someone at the front desk to write it out for you.

----------

Carry chocolate. Or candy. Or whatever makes things better when things are bad. God help you if your comfort food is Waldorf Salad or Baked Alaska.

Sweet shop window display, Barcelona

----------

Always have a book, or iPod, or Sudoku or other distraction, preferably more than one. Travel involves waiting. It is inevitable.

----------

Be methodical and disciplined about packing. Have a list and check it every time, or risk leaving your last pair of clean underwear mating with the dust bunnies under your bunk bed in Bratislava.

----------

Always carry some kind of ID. A drivers license is good for this. It's official, and has a photo, but it's not the end of the world if you lose it.

----------

In galleries, museums and other sights always take the guided tour, especially if it's free. You may see a smaller part of the collection but you'll get a lot more out of it.

Me at Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow. Certainly one of my top five museums for the trip, which included a brilliant, free guided tour.

----------

Carry a photocopy of your passport information page with you all the time so you don't have to pull out the real thing to fill out paperwork. This also helps the authorities to know what embassy to contact when they pull you out of a ditch.

----------

Shampoo is everything. It cleans hair, bodies, clothes and dishes. What else would you need to clean? (Well, teeth I guess. Toothpaste is allowed.)


Electric on-demand hot water heater in my B&B in Bushmills, Northern Ireland. They are everywhere. Why don’t we have these in North America?

----------

Don’t be afraid to ask for help, directions or advice. People are usually friendly and genuinely want to assist. If they aren't they can be blogged about without mercy. The flipside to this is that people who seek you out to help you should not always be trusted, it's more likely you'll be the victim of a scam if the other person approached you first.

----------

Pockets are handy. Pockets with zips are better. Pockets with zips and snaps are better still. Pockets with zips, snaps, padlocks and armed guards are recommended for the Delhi metro.

----------

McDonald's is not the devil. If nothing else, the bathrooms are always clean. (But some of them actually require you to punch a passcode printed on your receipt into a lock on the door. France, I'm talking to you.)


McDonalds, Nezsky Prospekt, Russia

----------

Carry a stash of US dollars in a secure place, just in case. A couple hundred dollars should be enough, though Intrepid travel normally requires to have quick access to about $400 when in dodgier regions, in case you need to get out of the country fast. Smaller bills are better. 20s are good. If you don't have US dollars, euros are the next best.

----------

Don't be lazy about locking things up and keeping your valuables secure. The one time you leave your moneybelt unlocked in your hotel room (even if the room itself is locked) could be the one time it's not there when you get back. Also, ALWAYS lock your bag up on overnight trains and keep small valuables close to your head while you sleep. You may feel like a geek, but it's better than being a victim.

Jess, on one of four overnight trains in China

----------

Trust your instincts. If a street or shop or person seems dodgy just don't go there. There will always be another one.

----------

Haggle over prices when it's culturally appropriate, but don't get obsessive about it. Remember that you may be arguing over 50 cents, which is nothing to you but could be significant to the vendor.

Carving stall at Kande Beach in Malawi. I got a very nice carved giraffe here that I carefully mailed home from Livingstone, Zambia in the middle of January. It still has not arrived, and I suspect it never will.

----------

Don’t feel bad about taking a break from local food or culture. If you feel like you need a burger and a night of "Dancing with the Stars" in your room, do it.

----------

Get comfortable doing laundry in the sink, but understand it has its limitations. I found it helped to think of laundry treated in this manner not as "clean" so much as "thoroughly rinsed".

----------

Wet sink-washed clothes should be wrung out vigorously, then wrapped in a dry towel and wrung out again. They'll dry much more quickly after the towel treatment.

----------

Eat in sometimes, especially breakfast. Sometimes not having to venture out and stomach the local pig knuckle soup at 8am is a good thing.

Then again, sometimes you need the Full Irish Breakfast, including half a pint of Guinness. Like after arriving in Amsterdam on an overnight train after waking up to discover the dining car has been replaced, in the night, with several grim sleeper cars from Poland.

----------

Try not to stress about the cost of changing money. A percentage point here or there is minor in the scheme of things. Accept that converting currency is part of the cost of international travel and move on.

----------

Where it's safe and reasonably priced, rent a bike. It'll let you see and do more with less effort.

Sizing up bikes in Yangshuo, China

----------

Pack earplugs and be prepared to get comfortable sleeping with them. The same is true for eye masks.

----------

There are a few things that turn up just about everywhere: Coca Cola, Pringles potato chips, and Oreo-ish cookies. They are the holy trinity of long term travel snacky comfort food.

Well I didn’t say they were NORMAL flavours, just that they were there…

----------

Carry a small quick-dry towel in your daypack. They’re good for drying your hands in public bathrooms, wiping the sweat off your face, and when dampened can be used for a quick sponge bath that’s remarkably refreshing, especially useful after crawling out of the jungle following a 12km hash run.

----------

Bookstores in the larger airports will almost always have a good selection of guidebooks.

Excellent used bookstore in Hanoi, Vietnam

----------

When you check a bag for a flight have them stick the baggage claim tag(s) in or on your passport instead of your boarding pass. You're much less likely to lose track of your passport than your boarding pass or e-ticket printout.

----------

Don't ask a local person “Where should I go for ramen?” Instead ask them, “Where do YOU go for ramen?” There's a big difference.

----------

And finally: I know it's practical and probably more secure, but I'm telling you this as a friend: wearing your daypack on the front makes you look like a dork.

----------

That’s all I’ve got right now, folks. More profound thoughts to come, if I can manage to marshal them at all. In the mean time I’m relaxing in Winnipeg getting used to being somewhere where I can read all the signs and understand every conversation around me (which turns out not be a very good thing…). It’s all bit weird but it also has its compensations, like being able to walk into a kitchen full of familiar, favourite foods, or go for a run on streets I’ve run a hundred times before, or turn on the TV and watch a hockey game. So life is good, and some day soon I’ll figure out what happens next.

10 Comments:

Lisa said...

Welcome home..looking forward to seeing you and the new 'do'...Great tips!!

Liam said...

It's been great following you around the world - The burning question now of course, is "Where next"?

Anonymous said...

Oh how I will miss reading about your adventures! Are you sure you can't make a living from travel writing? Your blogs get me through the long times between my trips! Good luck to you in wherever life takes you next!

Megan from Iowa

V-Rah said...

Hi Pam,

Not sure if you remember me, since you probably met 1000 people while travelling...So glad you made it home safe!! I love that you posted the Russian McDonald's -which made me so happy during that trip.

I just wanted to say hi and to let you know that you are still my hero. Love your blog.

Veronica

Jeff said...

Thanks for taking the time to create the blog Pam, I've enjoyed looking over your shoulder for the past year or so. Looking forward to see where you wind up next, and will definitely stand you a round if we cross paths sometime.
CITT maybe, who knows...

your casual aquaintance, who feels like he's been reading your diary,
Jeff S. in Ontario.

anne... said...

hi pam! i'm a recent lurker (been reading your blog over the past month or so) and i'm happy to hear that you made it home safe and sound. i'm a fellow canadian considering taking a longish trip in the near future, and your blog has been excellent and inspiring. cheers!

-anne

marg said...

Glad you are home safe and sound. I will miss the blog but know I will return here for travel tipsnwhen I am lucky enoughnto venture somewhere interesting.

Free Guinness is the wind ever bringsbyou to Ottawa!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your journey with us! It's been great. You even inspired me to be more adventurous in my jogging routes!

Sorry you didn't make it Australia this time - maybe on another trip??!!

Blogger said...

Do you love Coca-Cola or Pepsi?
PARTICIPATE IN THE POLL and you could receive a prepaid VISA gift card!

Blogger said...

Did you know that that you can earn cash by locking special pages of your blog / website?
Simply join AdscendMedia and add their Content Locking tool.

Post a Comment