Whether on a to-do, bucket or professional list, the ability and opportunity to travel is something almost everyone craves, especially when that travel involves leaving the ultimate comfort zone: your own country. The experience of traveling internationally, of being immersed in a culture wholly unlike your own, is a gift that everyone should experience. More valuable than any commodity, trinket or gadget that will someday litter your junk drawer, international travel will provide memories and leave impressions that’ll no doubt last a lifetime.
Of course, those memories can just as easily be bad as they can be good. You’d rather remember Rome for its fountains, its Forum and its food rather than for being the place you got pickpocketed. Your memories of Mexico City should be of the expansive beauty of one of the world’s most alluring and well-kept secrets, not the hotel bathroom you spent days in because you drank Mexican tap water.
Which is why I’ve listed out some of the most steadfast rules, tips, ideas and nuggets of wisdom that I’ve gleaned over years of international travel. There are some hard and fast universal rules that apply to travelers no matter the destination, like not waving cash around at a market in Marrakech or leaving your passport under lock and key at the hotel. And of course, there are plenty of those little tricks of the travel trade that you pick up only after you’ve done it (like making friends with the flight attendants, who can hook you up, making your flight as enjoyable as possible).
But the world and its little nooks and corners are deeply nuanced places, so what works in Buenos Aires might not be sound advice in Beijing and vise versa. Keep in mind that every place has its own little customs, rituals and mores, that every culture is different from the last, that no two places are exactly alike and that every new stamp on your passport will leave you with a life’s worth of memories.
If you don’t fuck it up and get your shit stolen because you didn’t listen to my advice.
So here ‘tis. The Travel Checklist. Ignore it at your peril.
Check your flight itinerary for carrier info when arriving at the airport. Note if your flight is operated by another airline to avoid confusion at the wrong terminal and then doing the death march across the airport with your bags carried overhead.
Check weight restrictions on airlines. Just because your bag was fifty pounds leaving, it’s possible your connection will not be as flexible and additional costs will be incurred. Learn how to convert pounds to kilos.
Take deodorant, toothpaste, a toothbrush and a change of clothes with you on the plane. You don't wanna be the smelly kid in class. Especially when it’s a class no one can leave.
Good headphones make a big difference on long flights, as the ambient noise from jet engines can be very fatiguing on the body.
Neck pillows will help prevent fatigue during long flights and can also serve as a substitute when your accommodation’s pillows are inadequate. If bag space is a hindrance, try inflatable neck pillows, which can be adjusted as desired
Striking up a friendly conversation with the flight attendants can go a long way. I have ALWAYS been given extra snacks, food and desserts after showing a bit of interest in the day of my flight attendants. Sometimes it has even lead to first-class in-flight comfort kits, though my record is scoring a $600 bottle of red wine for free.
If you are using hostels or renting an Airbnb, check in early to ensure space and remember they don’t always have towels, leaving you to buy a new one. Travel towels are always a good idea.
Day trips and adventures can be booked through your hotel with ease but you will pay extra that way. Find out what your hotel suggests first then try to walk around the local street booking agents for a better bargain. This might take a little patience through trial and error but you can save up to half the cost in some cases.
When booking a tour or adventure, read the fine print and itinerary because the full-day tour is often just the half-day tour stretched out. The half-day is typically enough and will allow you to explore more after your tour wraps up.
Always take your hotel's business card or brochure with an address printed on there. It will make it easier for the return cab ride as the drivers might not speak English.
Buy, borrow or rent a GPS because paper maps might not always cut it. Some rental cars have them included and the fee is usually worth it, especially if it is your first time driving in a given region.
Keep note in your head or mark in your GPS the location of hospitals and police stations in case of emergency.
Rental vehicles will probably be stick shift unless you specify automatic which may be more expensive. If you are comfortable riding scooters in Asia, that is a great way to save on cab fare and an awesome way to see the cities. In large cities like Beijing or Bangkok however, scooters are dangerous and cabs are typically very cheap.
Always use a metered taxi, as the flat rate guys usually try to rip tourists off.
Learn to convert kilometers to miles.
Always top off your fuel when practical, as petrol stations can be less common than you would think, especially in mountainous regions.
Save your final gas receipt to show rental car company proof of fuel purchase upon your return.
Have music on hand (iPod) with an aux cable for long drives. You probably won't like local music and you likely won’t understand the local talk radio.
DON'T SPEED! For the love of God, obey all speed limits because traffic speed cameras are everywhere and they issue expensive tickets. Most GPS units have the cameras marked but slow down anyway.
When renting electronics like GPS units or phones, check for damage on the screen by turning the device on before leaving the rental counter. Often rental car companies will hand you a GPS in a box over the counter but you may encounter a cracked screen or watermark. Finding this damage too late can result in a penalty that you’ll be on the hook for.
Walking tours are a good activity for your first full day in a place to familiarize yourself with the city for the rest of your stay. Ask a ton of questions. That’s what the guides are there for.
Ever wonder why you all of a sudden qualify for a special free deal when booking a tour? It's because the tour guides will take you to a sponsored venue (usually emerald or precious stone dealer) during your free tour which you are required to walk through. No purchase is necessary but it is kinda annoying. You will also be expected to tip both your tour guide and driver. It is still actually a good deal and cheaper than what you would've paid but it’s definitely not free.
If you take a trip then you should spend money to do cool things. Being cheap and boring is a waste of an expensive plane ticket. Don't come home with very little to show for it. If you do, ask yourself why you even went in the first place.
TripAdvisor.com is a great resource when researching locales. You can also verify your hotel by looking at actual traveler's pictures of where you're staying rather than relying on the photoshopped images the hotel put online, which are usually disappointing in person.
Although most seabound vessels you might board for day trips might not seem seaworthy, you will probably be ok (if not I owe you a soda when you get back).
Eating and Drinking
Markets will be cheaper than eating out every meal. Stock up on groceries when feasible, especially if you’re staying in an Airbnb and/or have access to a kitchen.
In Europe and South America, stores and most food spots close early and take long lunches. Plan accordingly.
Rinse all fruit and vegetables you might eat, as agricultural regulations vary by country and are non-existent in some regions.
Check your silverware before you eat. But don't ask for a new set until after your food arrives (this is a good tip in America, too).
Mixed drinks are almost always watered down so avoid those in most cases. If you want beer, ask for the bottle unopened or have them opened in front of you. Better to buy your own sealed liquor bottle and mix your own basic drinks (or at least make the hotel drinks a bit more spicy).
Pay attention to your drinks when you go out to nightclubs and bars. Never leave it unattended (another rule of thumb in America).
Don't trust fruit that was not peeled or cut in front of you.
If the price is not marked on a menu, make sure you establish the price prior to consumption.
If you love mayonnaise or Miracle Whip, take your own jar or wait until you get home. If you do eat it while abroad, I can only wish you luck.
In most Alpine regions of Europe, tap water is typically better than bottled water. Everywhere else, only drink bottled water.
Check the local weather in advance for clothing considerations. Packing a lightweight rain shell is never a bad idea.
Ponchos will save your ass during sudden rainstorms and ziplock bags are great for electronics. They also pack easily and take up little space.
Don't carry your passport on you. Make a photocopy if you like for your wallet but leave the original safely in your bag or a hotel safe once you arrive.
Use a money belt or make sure your pocket where you keep your phone or wallet has a zipper, button or Velcro.
Look both ways! Pedestrians do not necessarily have the right of way in every country and most local drivers know that.
Take shoes appropriate for the local terrain. In Europe or South America, consider shoe tread and Gortex. In Asia, due to lack of civic cleanliness, I would suggest a thin and cheap closed toe you can discard after the trip like Vans or Toms. A cheap pair of shower sandals are also a great idea with hygiene in mind
When walking around new cities, no purses or backpacks please.
Try a thin or small messenger bag worn in front of you. Take only basic snacks, water, a poncho and enough cash to last you a day. Big wallets or packs attract attention and pickpockets have been known to razor backpacks and remove contents while in tight quarters like on buses or subways.
Keep conservative amounts of money on you. Hit the ATM as you go so you do not have large amounts of cash in hand. I am willing to pay $5 per ATM visit for the convenience of not carrying around a bunch of cash. I usually spend about $15-$25 per trip in fees but the piece of mind is more than worth it.
Get a credit card with no foreign transaction fees and use it frequently to conserve cash and reduce those ATM fees.
Keep small bills on hand and only pull out what you need when making purchases, so as not to draw attention to yourself. Never give a merchant a fifty or hundred note when the item is only three or four bucks.
Learn the local customs on tipping. In most countries, tipping is not required when eating at restaurants, unless you feel like someone did an extraordinary job. However, when taking tours in most Southeast Asian countries, it is nice to tip guides, as they usually rely on that for income. Some guides will try to ask you for more money when you provide an adequate tip and may even seem a bit pushy. In those cases keep your money and walk away. This will help future travelers dealing with aggressive guides and service providers.
You will very often see children or mothers with little children in their laps begging for change on the street. The children are used to draw emotion but you must realize that this is all part of a scam that relies on you giving money out of sympathy. Don't get sucked in.
When shopping in street markets the goal is to pay a third the asking price if not less. Don't be afraid to walk away. If you pay more than a third, you’re officially a sucker.
Wifi is sometimes hard to come by so beware. Places like McDonald’s generally have free WiFi. Internet cafes are also common in bigger cities.
Skype is cheaper than regular minutes on a phone but you need WiFi. WhatsApp is also a great free app that allows talking, texting and video chatting around the world.
Borrow an unlocked phone or have your provider unlock your phone so you will be able to use foreign SIM cards if necessary. This is great for emergencies.
Pack a common pain med like ibuprofen and a stomach remedy like Imodium in case the cuisine does not agree with you.
Laundry is usually very scarce. Keep that in mind.
Wet wipes and a couple laundry detergent packets are a good idea in case your clothes start to smell and laundry is scarce. Hand sanitizer is another key item to consider.
Remember to research and pack the proper power adapters.
Most businesses will not have public restrooms available.
Buy travel insurance. Email copies to your travel partners and someone back home. You should also keep a printout on you in case of emergency.
Pack several boxes of Clif Bars or other meal replacements to have on hand when local food is scarce, expensive or just gross. These are also great for hikes or day trips.
Travel toilet tissue is another happy item to have in your pocket to save you during unhappy circumstances.
SPOT or other tracking beacons should be considered when in remote locations.
Make an attempt to learn and use appropriate regional greetings and phrases. It will make you seem less ignorant which might get you less ripped off.
When buying ski lift or mountain passes, remember that a week or month pass is often cheaper than buying two or three single day passes.
Common items like sunscreen can be outrageously expensive, so if it’s going to be hot then buy it at home and take with you. ($6 sunblock in the U.S. would cost usually over $20 in most foreign countries). I usually just get a tube or two at Dollar Tree.
The weight you pack with bars, hygiene items and comfort items will give you flexibility for souvenirs because you will consume that weight by the end of your trip.
Dogs, cats and monkeys can all bite and rabies shots are not cheap (trust me!). So wait until you get back home to be an animal lover.
And most importantly, hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!