It’s early October, cool and crisp. N and I have been home from our round-the-world adventure for about four months, and it’s time to go again. We’re at the moment in a flurry of last-minute preparations to head to Oregon for a month, where we’ll volunteer on another goat dairy. This trip is quite a bit easier than the last one: no worrying about visas or passports, no cramming everything into just one bag, plus we’ll only be gone for one month, instead of five. But in the spirit of adventure, we thought we’d share some of our most useful travel tips, gleaned from nearly two decades (!) of short- and long-term travel.
There are vacations, and then there are trips. One could argue that a trip is a bit more serious than a vacation; it might last for more than a month and involve a committed disentanglement from the everyday world. And nowadays, with opportunities for remote work increasing, it’s more likely that you might be able to swing that four-months-or-more abroad plan you’ve been ruminating on for ever so long. Below, our most useful tips for those of you who might be thinking about making the leap from a standard holiday to a trip.
- Identify – roughly, at least – what you expect to get out of your travel. If you’re just traveling to capture Insta followers or get paid for blogging, fair enough. Or if you’re running away from a difficult situation, be honest about that, too. But don’t go traveling without at least a reasonably clear idea of what you hope to accomplish. Any less, and you’re asking the travel itself to do all the work. You have to show up, too.
- Make a budget. Then increase it by 25%. The old adage goes like this: “Lay out everything you think you need. Then take half that and twice the money,” and it holds true. For our five months overseas, we budgeted generously for two adults and still went over that number by 20%. They may say that the best things in life are free, but the truth is that travel costs money, and there is no glory in arriving back in your own country completely, totally broke. Account for the unexpected; for us, that was the high cost of point-to-point travel in Japan and unexpected gratuities required literally everywhere in India.
- Ensure your passport is valid for at least six months beyond your return date. This seems like a surprisingly obvious tip, but you’d be amazed at how many travelers are caught out by it. Different countries have different requirements, but having at least six months’ validity, plus at least three or four blank pages, in your passport will make border crossings much easier.
- Please, research your destinations – and their visa rules – before you go. Again, different countries have different requirements and all of this information can easily be found online, most likely through your home country’s government. “I didn’t know” is simply not a valid excuse at any international border crossing.
- Also, do a bit of research on your destinations and their customs. In many countries, it’s not appropriate to show shoulders and/or knees. Women might be expected to cover their heads. Certain countries may only eat with the right hand. Knowing this in advance can save a lot of awkwardness once you arrive, and you should always, always be respectful of the customs of the country you’re visiting.
- If possible, sign up for a debit card that reimburses ATM fees. In the U.S., Charles Schwab provides some terrific options that can save you a lot of money. Find out if any banks in your country offer similar programs because ATMs are simply the very best way to withdraw local currency and avoid usurious fees. Money changers – especially in airports and train stations – should be used as an absolute last resort. (Thanks, India, for only having broken ATMs in your airports so we were forced to use money changers.)
- Get travel insurance, and know its limitations. There are a number of great plans out there, but they vary enormously based on your home country and where and how long you plan to travel for. Do your research and don’t skimp on the essentials, and make sure you understand what will be covered if you’re required to be repatriated to your home country for additional treatment. Oh, and know that you’re rarely, if ever, covered for high-risk activities like skydiving, bungee jumping and so on.
Five months in just one backpack each.
- Pack less than you think you need, and buy your travel clothes at your local Goodwill or op-shop. It sounds counterintuitive, but you actually need far less for travel of more than two weeks than you do for a standard holiday. Bring some concentrated biodegradable laundry soap, and get used to washing your smalls in a hostel sink. Pegs and a simple washing line come in handy, too. Don’t take any article of clothing that you absolutely treasure – my favorite jumper is lost forever somewhere on an Indian train, or hopefully keeping someone else warm. You can always buy things on the road and donate what no longer serves you.
- Ziptop bags, duct tape, safety pins and a small sewing kit are absolute necessities. If there is one thing that long-term travel teaches you, it’s to be resourceful with what you have. Especially if you’re traveling extensively in underdeveloped countries, you’ll find that things we take for granted at home aren’t always available. Being able to successfully repair your own kit is good for the wallet and the psyche.
Oh, this? Just doing a few renovations at our summer cottage.
- Identify your priorities, and leave the rest to chance. In any country, there will be a few must-sees. Choose your top two or three mandatory sights, and let the rest of your trip happen as it will. Serendipitous travel moments rarely occur when every single second is carefully plotted out.
Above all else, go. Don’t let this or any of the billions of other pre-travel posts out there scare you – just go. There are few experiences in life as enriching as long-term travel and it will change you in ways you never even knew were possible. Grab your passport and your backpack and get out there. The world needs you.