I’d like to begin with a word about budgeting. There is some dispute amongst travelers, with some camps accusing others of spending way too indiscriminately. The other side argues it’s not a contest and who are they to get judged for how they want to spend their money? This ultimately begs questions of why you are traveling, and for how long but the way I see is that all other factors being more or less the same, if you love something, you generally want to do more of it. I love reading and I read every day. This doesn’t make me better than someone who reads one book every couple months, but it does mean I have a different relationship with reading, even though technically we are both “readers.”
In other words, if you are spending less money to travel for longer, you have a closer relationship to travel/backpacking/nomadry. And, almost invariably, spending less money will create a closer connection to the people and world around you. (Money often serves as a buffer from reality).
(One other disclaimer–most of what I’m talking about is for people spending months or years on the road, not weeks.)
Here are fifteen somewhat scattered thoughts I think can help new travelers. Some are practical and some are philosophical and all are admittedly skew toward my style of travel. Your mileage may of course vary.
1. Pre-booking defeats the point.
If you’re flying into Melbourne at midnight during the Australian Open, or hitting Edinburgh in the middle of Festival, booking ahead is essential. Otherwise, there really isn’t any reason to pre-order your rooms. There aren’t many advantages: You could end up in a less than central location, the cheapest places often aren’t online, and even those that are give discounts in person that cannot be attained over the interweb. Most importantly, aren’t you traveling to learn how to let go of type-A, over-controlling tendencies? Why eliminate your flexibility before you even arrive?
2. Follow other tourists.
Like Dirk Gently and his holistic detective methods, you can have fun following other tourists around. Don’t get all creepy, mind you, but you don’t need a map or a phone if you simply observe where other tourists are heading. This can lead you into some unexpected fun places and being free from expectations, you definition of “rewarding” will be pleasantly lowered.
3. Traveler’s insurance is for Fools and Mendicants.
This ties into my discussion about budgeting. Insurance isn’t cheap and wouldn’t you rather spend that money on adding a month to your trip? And again, aren’t you traveling to break free of the culture of fear and over-protection of the developed world? Take a risk, even if it’s one as banal as traveling with an uninsured digital camera.
4. Slow down, speedy.
There is a tendency to “do” a country, meaning a quick 7-10 days zooming between 5 or so major sights. This county can now be ticked off and now has been done. There is something to be said for occasional short trips like this, but as a habit it is kind of superficial. Even the smallest places are worth a few days’ exploration. 3 to 5 days is a good rule-of-thumb minimum stay. This gives you long enough to either explore the town, visit a few restaurants, time to get to know the staff at that one place. You can wander around the town/city/village and also find the nearby places just outside of town that locals know but guidebooks do not mention.
5. Be an Ambassador.
Like it or not, fair or not, your actions represent more than just you. When trying to stave off aggressive touts, don’t say “maybe later.” This means no, something they’re very well aware of, and you’re just too polite to say it. But that kind of politeness is only needed when dealing with people of your own culture. Just saying “no, not interested,” is a better of dealing with touts.
Those of us who grew up in West believe the human body isn’t disgraceful or disgusting. Many religions have strict dress codes, and it’s mind boggling to imagine gods who created humans (including shoulders) but feel disrespected by someone showing their shoulders at a temple. None of that matters. You are in their country, you play by their rules.
Maybe the difference between tourists and travelers is how they get to big locations?
6. Talk to Strangers.
Even if you’re shyer than the mayor of Shysylvania, there’s no better way to get around than asking the people who, you know, live there. Other travelers are great for information too if you’re not exactly sure where that last turn led you. You will meet people you never expected and for those collecting “authentic” points, a trove awaits here. This also will often keep you safer, as being human makes you less of a target than being an exotic other.
7. Embrace the Unknown
If you’re fully embracing nomadry, you will constantly run into situations where you just don’t know what’s going on. The bus can be 24 hours late. The airplane may unexpectedly kick you off your flight. The UK doesn’t allow you to enter. These all happened to me–you will accrue similar ones of your own. This will frequently be frustrating but it is a good chance to practice living in the moment. Try your best to treat it all as a game, and don’t let the bastards get you down.
8. Research all your options.
There might be flyers everywhere for a bus/train/ferry at a set price, but odds are the locals will have a cheaper, more interesting way to get there. For instance, in Malaysia it cost 20 dollars for a ferry from Georgetown to Langkawi. Every hotel and restaurant in Georgetown advertise this. But some googling showed that by adding a couple hours and going back via the mainland, you can save 8 dollars. And it’s a more interesting journey. This advice is mostly relevant in developed countries; some places there is one bus, and if you want to go, you’d better be on it. But it’s a good habit to research as much as you are able. You’ve never had more information at your fingertips–take advantage of it!
9. Take photos of more than just the Sights.
While a great picture of a castle, temple or mountain can win you some serious flickr fame or instagram cred, you might enjoy looking back more on a picture of your favorite kebab stand or that tasty popsicle you bought every day. Especially if you only visited the “sight” for an hour or two.
10. Trust everyone.
Why travel if you don’t believe in the innate goodness of your fellow man? People all over the world want to help you; give you directions or offer you a ride. And don’t insult them by carrying a money belt or bum bag. If someone wants to take your money, they will find a way. If you wouldn’t wear a money belt at home, wearing one abroad is, at best, highly prejudiced. Tourist countries have developed too many ways to steal your money legitimately via tours, touts and old-fashioned price gouging to need to emphasize pickpocketing.
11. Don’t trust everyone.
Okay, this isn’t quite the same as the above note. Its true that you should in general trust people, and there are far fewer psychos than the local news would have you believe. However, there are still plenty of scam artists who would quite happily part you from your money or possessions. Developing a bit of judgment will help your trip immensely. This varies from country to country–in general people in Laos or Myanmar are less likely to lie than people in Indian or Vietnam. You will develop your own instincts about trustworthiness.
12. Tiresome tours.
There’s this idea that the more semi-official tours you do, the better your trip is. It’s pretty easy to land somewhere, sign up for a trip to the local whatever and move on. But instead of dropping too much money on a tour or boat ride, try walking around some non-touristy areas. Talk to whomever you meet—they’ll likely be much more interested than if you had stayed in the backpacker areas. And this can be a far more rewarding way to spend your day. Nearly all the pictures in this post were taken on random wanders.
13. When in doubt, find a tout.
Touts can be annoying, but they are not evil agents of chaos trying to take all your money. They’re often very poor people trying to make enough to get by from people who are far richer than they. Most guidebooks advise not talking to them, but you can find some really good room deals by chatting with touts and looking at the rooms they offer. If someone has a hokey fortune telling bit, play along and give them a dollar or two. Traveling very cheaply is great, if that’s what you want, but improving other people’s lives, even incrementally, is much better.
14. DO YOU SPEAK ENGLISH?
It’s usually fairly easy to get by speaking English, but if you are headed to a country for 3 or 4 weeks you can learn some basic words—yes, no, please, thank you, 1-10–before hand or in impromptu language exchanges. with the children who will swarm you on trains, in cafes, on the street, or at monuments. They’ll be delighted to hang out and teach you some of their native language, and you’ll pick up a smattering of useful words. Win-win.
15. Sly Money Trick
When you’re new to a country and don’t know how much things are, try paying with a low denomination note. (You can ask, but there’s no guarantee you’ll get the right price quoted to you.) Either they will ask you for a little more, or assume you know what you’re doing and give you back the correct change. You can use this to get a baseline for prices of all your staples.
In the interest of not writing too much, I think I’ll end it here. But I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. Agree? Disagree? Completely apathetic? Let me know!