So You Want to Explore? – a First Timer’s Guide to Travelling
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Let’s make something clear – this is a long ‘ible that will read like a blog post. Why? Look at me. LOOK AT ME. I am the captain now.
Traveling has always been a big passion of mine. Am I a seasoned backpacker who lives in hostels, roughs it through entire continents, and has a billion stamps on my passport? No. What I am is a 23 year old who works in an office, lives in the suburbs of North Denver, drives a Subaru Impreza, and spends most of his day in a cubicle.
But in the past three years, I’ve lived in five different US cities and one international one. I’ve visited about a quarter of the US, traveled to various parts of Asia and South America, seen attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion, watched the c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain (If you haven’t watched Blade Runner, I’m sorry. You’re not ready for the world.)
Alright enough of me stroking my own ego. Oh right – I’m also dashingly handsome. Ok ok I’ll reel it in.
So the goal of this instructable is not to get you guys to love traveling – really that’s something that you need to decide on your own – but rather to get those of you who want to experience living but are terrified of the unknown. I get it -you see GoPro videos or /r/EarthPorn posts of amazing landscapes, guys and gals doing backflips off waterfalls, and just general debauchery in foreign lands. You hear stories of your friends dancing with the fires on the beaches of South America, kayaking off the coast of Nova Scotia, or soaking in the hot springs in Iceland. Volcano boarding in Nicaragua. Ziplining through the Monteverde Cloud Forest in Costa Rica. Riding through the mountain passes of Vietnam. Running from Drop Bears in Australia. The list goes on and never ends.
You travel to have fun. You travel to meet new people. You travel to the ends of the world to remind yourself that you want to be that old person with stories to tell.
So where do you begin?
I’ll be going over almost everything you’ll need to cover in order to set out on your å. The topics are as follows:
1. Locations and Logistics
4. Plane Tickets
13. Electronics and Misc Tips
Step 1: Locations and Logistics – I’m the Batman
Plan for every uncertainty such that when fate comes to sweep you off your feet, you’ll be ready to dance.
I have the personality of someone who plans for every occasion. Blame my hero, Batman. If he can have plans for taking down every member of the Justice League, I sure can have a plan for every trip I want to take.
THAT IS NOT TO SAY YOU ARE TO STICK TO YOUR PLAN NOTE BY NOTE.
I plan as part of my research into a place. Things to do, how to get to different locations, where to sleep, what’s good to eat. This gives you a good idea on what to expect. Some people like flying in blind – that’s fine but not how I roll. Remember, reading through a Lonely Planet book can make the difference between maximizing your fun times and being dragged to a back alley and getting stabbed.
As part of my planning process, I made a template I copy and edit whenever I am planning a trip:
Filling this out allows me to figure out how much money I’ll need to save for a trip, how feasible my road map is, and whether this is really what I want to drop money on.
The following sections are based off this template. Ready? Let’s roll.
Step 2: Vacation Duration – Time Away From Your Boss
Of course, you gotta look at how much time you’re able to take off school, work, or whatever in order to travel. I live by the rule that any international trip I’m doing has to leave me with at least 6 days of non-airport/transportation time. Why? That means I’ll spend two weekends + five weekdays (total of 9 days) on vacation. If you can’t get that amount of time off, don’t worry. Remember, this is just my own personal rule.
Let’s say you fly out on Saturday. You’ll spend pretty much all day getting to the airport for your flight, flying, arriving, then moving to your first location. That leaves Sunday through the next Friday to play. Then the following Saturday has you making your way back to an Airport and spending a night nearby then flying out on Sunday.
I also like to allocate about three nights at any location. Reasoning for this being that I found that you can’t really get to know a place until your second day there. The less nights you spend at one place also means more time you’ll be spending on a bus or car to get from place to place. You’re here to travel and experience life, not sit on a bus.
Step 3: Companionship – Hide Yo Kids, Don’t Bring the Wife.
How many people you want to bring with you on a trip is up to you. Some people like to travel solo. Others like to have people with them. But the best advice I can give is to keep your group as small as possible and bring people who have the same drive as you.
I’ve led and organized groups of fifteen people for three/four day trips throughout China and found that the more people you have, the more of a hassle it is to find housing, transportation, and just organize it all.
I’ve also brought people who don’t have the same interests as the rest of the group. If you’re the kind to want to do lots of exciting things in rapid succession, you’re going to be held back by people who want to just lay around on the beach all day. For some reason people in a group often have the mindset of having to do everything together. As a result, having different people with different expectations of the trip can possibly lead to not everyone having a wonderful time, broken friendships, and tears.
Be careful on who you bring. Or don’t – it’s none of my concern!
Step 4: Plane Tickets – Google Flights
Now here’s the biggest obstacle that I found holds people back from traveling: dropping several hundred bucks on plane tickets. Let’s be real – there’s no advice I can give you on how to save up enough money to travel. Fact is that some of us won’t be able to afford it. Sorry. Then again, people have made it work on smaller budgets (see reddit.com/r/shoestring). The way I travel, I plan for a trip pretty well out in advance so I get the opportunity to look at average prices of tickets to where I’m going, how much I should be paying, ect.
The flight aggregator I use is Google Flights. Play with it! I’ve actually found the tool to be ridiculously useful in terms of finding the cheapest flights and to track ticket prices. If you look at a date too far out, you’ll notice that the prices are generally higher and more stable than the prices of dates that are closer to today. Airlines don’t usually start lowering their prices until probably three months out or so. You’ll see what I mean in a minute:
Let’s go to Google Flights at https://www.google.com/flights (Image 1). Throw in your starting location, your destination, and your travel dates. You can also click on the map near the bottom left of the page (Image 1) to bring up a map with all of the big airports along with their prices given your travel dates and departing airport. Fancy huh?
I’ve selected a San Francisco -> Taiwan for funsies (Image 2). Now once you hit show flights, it’ll bring up prices for that specific time frame (Image 3). Let’s say you’re more flexible than that! If you click on your departure date (Image 4) or return dates, it’ll bring up a calendar with the lowest price possible given the change in date. As you can see, the prices for the next two months are pretty standard expensive prices (Image 4). The change happens when you book tickets for dates that are about three months out (Image 5). If you note the bar graphs on the bottom of the calendar, you can see how the prices change in graphical format.
Again, play with it. This is the best tip I can give you on finding good airline prices.
Step 5: Packing – Clothes? We Won’t Need That Where We’re Going.
Now what do I bring on my trips? Depends on where I’m going, what I want to be doing, and what trinkets I want to bring back!
I know that’s not very helpful, but here’s my tip: bring only what you can’t get there or wash in the shower and wear immediately the next day. The more you carry, the more weight you bring and more annoying life gets. Just bring the essentials.
But here is the general idea for what I bring (Image 1):
QTY 2 – Backpacks
QTY 1 – Bag of Medicine
QTY 1 – Sandals/Flip Flops
QTY 1 – Hiking/comfortable shoes
QTY 1 – Wallet + cash
QTY 3 – Underwear
QTY 3 – Shirts
QTY 3 – Pants
QTY 1 – Swimsuit
QTY 5 – Socks
QTY 1 – Bag of Electronics (Camera, Charging Cables, Phone, Spare Camera Battery, Spare Memory Card, Travel Adapter)
QTY 1 – Bag of Toiletries
QTY 1 – Quick Dry Sports Towel
QTY 1 – Water Bladder
QTY 1 – Bandana
QTY 1 – Jacket (either rain or insulation or both)
QTY 1 – Padlock
I add and subtract based on where I’m going, of course.
Anyways, here are some of the bigger, more important considerations you should keep in mind:
Really, go to REI or any sporting goods place, get yourself a 30-40L pack that’s comfortable, a comfortable 10-20L day pack, and stop. You’re going to want two packs – one for carrying all your clothes and souvenirs (you freaking tourist) then another smaller daypack that you can shove into your bigger one while changing locations and carry with you whenever you’re out and about.
My packs for traveling are the Eddie Bauer Alchemist 40 (that I found to be tough as hell) and the REI Flash 18 as my day pack. I leave the Alchemist 40 at wherever I’m spending the night and only bring what I need in the daypack with me (water bladder, jacket, camera, ect.) . This is also where the padlock comes in – you want to make sure your hostel has a lockers to store your stuff and you’ll have a padlock to secure them.
Really don’t stress out on what pack you are gonna bring. Make sure it’s big enough to carry the bare minimums plus some extra so you can bring home souvenirs but not big enough that you’ll want to bring 50 shirts, 50 pairs of underwear, and that jade statue you stole from the Shinto shrine for good luck. Also, you’re going to hell for taking that statue. Shame on you.
I like to wear hiking shoes or running shoes everywhere. They’re comfortable, usually already broken in by the time I go on my trips, and are usually quick drying depending on the material. But let’s be real – the best pair of shoes is the one that’s most comfortable and suitable for your setting. You won’t want to bring hikers with you to Paris or loafers to the Himalayas. For example, I’ve done Costa Rica in Merrell Moabs + Teva Hurricanes and China in Clark Bushacres + Teva Flip Flops. Bring what you wear at home for whatever setting you’re going to.
SYNTHETIC. ALL SYNTHETIC. Cotton absorbs moisture and holds onto it for a freakishly long time (sorta like a clingy ex). Buy quick drying shirts, pants, socks, and underwear. Seriously. You’ll want to be able to wash what you bring in the evening, wring it out, hang it up, and have it dry by the next afternoon. My shirts are all polyester workout shirts, pants are quick drying synthetic pants, ExOfficio underwear (these are amazing btw), and workout socks. Workout clothes dry quick and if you know what you’re looking for, you can find some pretty good looking ones that you can wear casually. I wash all my clothes at night, hang them up to dry, and they’re usually dry by the next evening when I wash the next set.
If you’re going to somewhere with easy access to laundry services, then go nuts. In the UK? Go ahead and bring your jeans and cotton shirts. Going to Peru to hike to Manchu Picchu? Yea it’s doable, but probably not the most comfortable.
Oh and bring a swimsuit. Who knows when you’re going to go for a swim! And at the very least if you have a comfortable pair of solid colored board shorts or something, it can double as something light you can wear out while hiking!
I bring one of each of the following: Painkiller, Poop Solidifier, and Allergy. You’re inevitably going to get a headache from drinking too much, poop yourself from eating tarantulas on a stick, and swell up from rubbing up against something that turned out to be called the Mushroom of Death and Suffering. For me, that means Advil, Imodium, and Benadryl. Most everything else you can get at a nearby local pharmacy.
And don’t forget to get whatever shots you need to get before arrival. You can figure out what you need by looking online at the CDC’s webpage.
Step 6: Food – Is That…a Guinea Pig?…Can I Eat It?
What to eat, what to eat? Just eat whatever the locals eat! You’re here to be adventurous, not eat McDonalds in a foreign country. You might poop yourself the first few times you eat the local food, but at least you’re experiencing life! And sides, that’s what the Imodium is for!
Really, get your hands on everything that sounds exotic. If the locals can eat it, you can eat it…probably. How many times will you get Yak Milk Yogurt back in the states? Deep fried scorpions? Burritos?! Ok maybe you can get some good burritos back home, but still. You get what I mean.
Despite that – be careful where you eat. Not what you eat, but where you eat. For example, street vendors are great places for local dishes but be sure there are lots of people eating at those vendors otherwise you run the risk of eating spoiled food that’s been sitting out. Food is usually good no matter what you’re eating, but it sure better be sanitary. Fried tofu in gutter oil? No Bueno.
Step 7: Lodging – Don’t Let the Bed Bears Bite.
I like to use Hostelworld.com to look up places to stay and book them before I get there. When you book through Hostelworld, you’ll pay a smidge more for reserving online but hell, the cost is usually like an extra buck a night or something. Booking online also gets an email sent to your hostel. If the hostel is reputable, they usually send you a personalized email too. This gives you a direct contact to someone who’s already there and can help you plan your activities for a location.
For example, when I stayed in Arenal in Costa Rica, I emailed back and forth with my hostel about activities and got info on good local sodas (small restaurants) to eat at, local swimming points along the river, and special deals on things like ATVing.
If you want to be fancy, sure you can stay in a resort but hostels are where you’re going to meet other travelers, grab drinks with people from other countries, and just really get that backpacker vibe. Everyone is friendly and everyone is happy. If you’re lucky, you’ll make friends for life in one! If you’re less fortunate, then hell, at least you’ll have a drinking buddy for the evening!
Step 8: Activities – No, Running From the Cops Don’t Count…yet.
This ties back into the idea of doing your research beforehand. A Lonely Planet book will give a good idea of what the area is famous for. Museums, beaches, zip lines – the possibilities are endless!
Of course the best way to know what to do is to talk to your hostel host. They’ll know all the ins and outs of the area. Ask them what the locals like to do in the area and have them point it out on a map. Then write it down so you don’t forget!
Don’t be afraid to reach out and do things out of your comfort zone. You’re traveling, you’re living, you’re having fun! Remember – you’ll never see these guys ever again so even if you poop yourself while base jumping, no one who really knows you will ever find out about it!
Step 9: Safety – Don’t Move. They Can’t See Us If We Stay Still.
So first thing’s first – stay in a group. This way if you get mugged, they’ll only kill one or two of you before you guys overwhelm them and end their miserable existence. Or, you know, being in a group will deter them from messing with you guys in the first place.
Second – don’t walk around looking like a target. You’re walking the streets at night with a Gucci bag? I hope you’ve got a spare! Got a giant DSLR hung around your neck in a shady part of town. Guess you’re gonna be shooting on a disposable camera now. Just don’t be silly about it, right?
Third – eyes on your bag. When I’m on subways, I keep my pack on the floor between my legs or pushed up against a wall. Sitting down for a drink at a café? My back is on the floor with my foot through one of the shoulder straps. Don’t be caught blindsided when someone runs by and snatches your bag or opens it up and grabs a handful of what’s inside.
Fourth – Carry only enough cash/valuable that you’re not dead in the water if you lose it. Leave a spare credit/debit card in your pack back with the hostel. Don’t fill your wallet with bills unless you’re going to a strip club.
Step 10: Transportation – Choo Choo
We’ve already covered planes so I’ll skip out on that. In terms of transportation, you’ll find that research is your friend. Knowing how the public transport systems work, how to read a train ticket in foreign languages, and what the options are will really help you out.
That said, use the public transport! I’ve found that in many places like China, taking the bus or the subway is the most economical way of getting around. Sure it’ll take longer than taking a taxi, but it’ll be also a fraction of the price! The only downside is that you need to know how the transportation system works so you know when to get off.
If all else fails, use the taxi! Taxis in other countries are usually nowhere as expensive as the taxis in the States. So if you need a lift to somewhere the public transport doesn’t run, hail a cab! Or better yet, ask your hostel host to call a cab for you! This way you get hopefully a cabbie who won’t try to scam you and will have a good idea on what you meant with your broken Spanish skills.
Don’t write off walking and renting bikes though – these offer you the ability to see a city as it is. Riding bikes on top of the castle walls of old Xi’an or riding 10 miles on a dirt path to a Caribbean beach town offers you an experience that you won’t get from the inside of a motorized vehicle. If the city you’re in is bike friendly or small enough to walk, I’d do that instead of riding a bus or a cab.