A New Generation of Travel Tips and Tricks
Long before blogs existed, our top sources of travel tips and tricks were our moms.
They gave us basic advice like, “pack light,” “don’t forget your passport (with photocopies),” “be flexible,” and, “get travel insurance.” Oh, and “don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
Your mom probably already told you the same, so we won’t repeat it. We’ve got way too many other travel tips and tricks to share with you as it is, anyway. Maybe one or two will change the way you travel.
Travel Tips and Tricks to Come:
Against the Grain Travel Tips and Tricks
Other blogs’ travel tips and tricks we recommend you ignore and do the opposite.
69. Don’t ditch travel guidebooks. Read them cover to cover
You’ll discover festivals, events, destinations, and attractions that info-regurgitating bloggers and Instagram “influencers” don’t know of. The history and cultural info in guidebooks will increase your appreciation of what you see and experience, too.
68. Don’t only learn common local words. Learn one unusual phrase.
For example, learn “I’m from Canada and do handstands for exercise” in a foreign language. Locals won’t see it coming, will find it hilarious, and will be much more likely to engage with you.
67. Don’t automatically avoid airport currency exchanges. Keep an eye out for good deals.
Some airport currency exchange offices offer the best rates in town. For instance,d Mexico City’s airport currency exchange booths will pay you to take US dollars off their hands.
So instead of assuming you’ll get ripped off, note down the market exchange rate before you leave then compare it to the rates at the airport currency exchange offices. You never know.
66. Don’t roll your clothes. Pack less and pack wrinkle-free.
If you need to roll your clothes to make space you either need a bigger bag or, more likely, you need to pack less crap.
65. Don’t bother with money belts.
Carry around in your pockets or purse just enough cash to cover you for the day, a credit card, a driver’s license for ID and nothing more.
Leave the rest of your cash in your bag, rolling it up with your socks is a decent hiding spot, back wherever you’re staying.
64. Don’t carry a photocopy of your passport. Carry your travel insurance contact info.
One surprising thing I learned when interviewing experts about how to choose the right travel insurance is that if you go to the wrong hospital your insurer might not fully cover you. So the first thing you need to do (once you’re done screaming and crying in pain or sickness) is call your insurer to ask them where to go.
63. Don’t avoid McDonald’s and Starbucks. Go inside.
Get insight into the local culture and cuisine by comparing their menus and prices to the ones back home. As added bonuses, Starbucks and McDonalds have clean public restrooms and free wifi.
62. Don’t be open to friendly strangers who approach you. Be wary.
Meeting local people is a must when traveling abroad, but it’s safer to be the one to approach them, not the other way around.
Give overly-friendly and surprisingly-fluent strangers who approach you out of the blue the opposite of the benefit of the doubt. (The detriment of the trust?) We’ve learned this the hard way.
61. Don’t always wear sunscreen. Use it wisely.
Sunscreen’s like swearing. Sometimes you can’t help but need it, but generally you’re better off avoiding those situations or finding alternatives.
60. Don’t ask any local for travel tips. Only ask certain ones.
People in the hospitality industry and, even better, expats will give you the best local travel tips because they’re used to sharing it and are looking for it themselves. Most other locals are stuck in their boring routines and will only have equally boring tips.
59. Don’t always wake up early. Prioritize good sleep.
Waking up early to seize the day and beat the crowds is only a good idea if you get to bed early. Otherwise, you’re screwing up your trip by making yourself more tired and moody.
58. Don’t splurge. Be cheap even if you don’t have to be.
You can’t buy yourself extraordinary travel experiences. You have to earn them. The constraints of a budget force you to do what the tourism masses don’t do. And that’s where the unexpected and unforgettable happens.
57. Don’t default to Airbnb. Carefully choose between Airbnb and hotels
Airbnb’s become big business. Many hosts treat you as money bags instead of people, more and more scams and dishonesty are at play, and some communities are being negatively affected. We still love it, but now we weigh the honest pros and cons of Airbnbs versus hotels before deciding.
56. Start your packing list early
Kim and I start reminders lists on our phones weeks in advance of departure. Whenever we think of something we can’t forget for our trip, we jot it down. We double-check those lists when we pack and triple-check them before we head to the airport.
55. Wear magical merino wool clothes
Merino is magical. It doesn’t wrinkle and keeps you warm when it’s cold and cold when it’s warm.
Best of all to me, Kim, who can smell even my faintest farts from across the room, can’t tell if I’m wearing one of my merino wool t-shirts for the tenth time without washing it.
Merino has its downsides—the need to wash with care, the cost, and that it doesn’t dry as fast as synthetic fabrics—but its benefits far outweigh them. So much so that I pretty much don’t buy clothes made from any other fabric anymore.
For more on merino and my favorite merino clothes, read Merino Wool’s Pros and Cons: The Honest Truth.
54. Bring an extension cord
As we shared in a recent Unconventional Monthly, my extension cord is my secret travel weapon. It turns one plug into three and helps me reach inconveniently-located outlets in hotels, Airbnbs, and cafes.
53. Fit in with your outfits
One thing all cultures in the world share is the tendency to judge a book by its cover. So if you dress like a tourist or, even worse, in a way that’s perceived as disrespectful in that country, you will be judged and treated accordingly.
52. Pack the right shoes
51. Stash a couple hundred U.S. dollars in cash
You’ll be glad you did if credit cards get canceled or lost, you go somewhere without ATMs and run out of cash, or go to a country where it’s cheaper to exchange them for local currency than to withdraw from an ATM.
50. Pack a change of clothes in your carry-on
If your checked-in bag doesn’t make it to your destination, you don’t want to be in a situation like I found myself in Jordan, where I had to hike around the desert in my jeans and one of Kim’s t-shirts.
49. Use refillable toiletry tubes
Pack your must-have toiletries in your carry-on, which means they need to be less than 100 ml. Instead of buying travel-sized shampoos and whatnot, buy refillable toiletry tubes like these.
48. Pack some Ziploc bags
We always end up using our Ziplocs. Sometimes it’s to protect our electronics from water (in which case, we double bag). Other times it’s to pack snacks. Occasionally, it’s to prevent disgusting stinky socks from contaminating the rest of our bags. You never know.
47. Pack a day pack
A lightweight 15 to 25-liter pack is super handy for carrying your camera, light jacket, and other knick-knacks.
Get a basic one that doesn’t draw attention, like the JanSport one pictured above.
46. Secure your stuff with twist ties
Wire twist ties server two purposes:
- Securely close up bags of snacks you buy during your travels.
- Slow quick-handed pickpockets by connecting your bag’s zippers together.
45. For cleaning your water, consider a Steripen
44. Download these apps
- Maps.Me. Especially helpful for offline trail maps.
- Google Maps. You probably have it already, but you probably haven’t saved the map to your phone for offline use yet.
- Google translate. Don’t over-rely on it, but have it handy just in case.
- XE Currency App. To translate prices into a currency you understand.
- Uber. Use coupon code chrisb4423 for a discount on your first ride.
- Splitwise. Easily manage shared expenses when traveling with others. See Money Tips below for more on this.
43. Confirm the following before you leave home
- Have you downloaded a map to your phone? Our Google Maps tips post shows you how, plus a few other of our favorite tricks.
- Do you know the exchange rate? Your chances of getting ripped off by taxis, currency exchange offices, and more skyrocket if you have no idea what the fair exchange rate is.
- How are you getting to your hotel/Airbnb? Some cities, like Playa del Carmen, are full of taxi drivers and tourist misinformation agents who are out to rip you off.
- Do you need an onward flight? Many countries, such as Costa Rica, Colombia, and South Africa, demand proof in the form of a plane ticket that you plan to leave the country. (We’ll share a tip for how to deal with this below.)
- Is the oven off?
Trip Planning Tips
42. Learn the local scams
In South Africa, scammers jerry-rig ATMs so they don’t return your bank card. When you go inside the branch to report the problem, they empty your account.
In Ethiopia, people will intentionally throw up on you. Another seemingly well-intentioned person will come to help clean you up… and clean your pockets at the same time.
Every country has its scam. Google them in advance to avoid falling victim.
41. Use Facebook
Ask friends for tips about your destination. If anyone who replies lives nearby, invite them to lunch or coffee to talk about it.
And join expat Facebook groups in that country. You’ll find plenty of tips, be able to ask questions of your own, and hear about events happening while you’re in town.
40. Plan around events
Google “festival in [country/city] in [date you’re visiting]” to see if there are any interesting and unusual local events going on then use them as centerpieces to plan your trip around.
For example, that’s how we found the Saijo Sake Festival in Japan and it ended up being one of the top highlights of our trip.
39. Dig deep into the search results
Google’s top results are often the least useful because they come from big websites that all regurgitate the same top tourist attractions. Smaller sites (ahem, like The Unconventional Route) have tips you won’t find elsewhere.
38. Be strategic with your Google searches
Boring search queries, like “best restaurants in Cape Town” lead to boring results (except ours, of course). Instead, find unforgettable places by searching for “foods unique to Cape Town,” going through those results to find a local dish, like the Gatsby, that appeals to you and then searching for “best Gatsby in Cape Town.”
37. Don’t read all the reviews
Word of mouth is king, but if you insist on using Google or TripAdvisor reviews, only read the right ones.
Focus on the three-star reviews. These generally reveal the most even-handed pros and cons. Then, if you still aren’t sure, filter the reviews by date and read the most recent ones, not the most popular ones.
36. Look to travel in shoulder seasons
Even if the weather’s not as perfect as in the peak seasons, traveling in the shoulder seasons means fewer crowds, lower prices, and, most importantly, more flexibility. Flexibility opens your trip up to unexpected and extraordinary experiences.
35. Start your trip on the right foot
Book your first night or two in advance. Lugging your bags around town searching for a place to crash is a horrible way to start a trip.
And book an airport shuttle if your hotel offers it (and if there’s no Uber) to avoid the stress and negative first impressions of haggling with a taxi.
34. Don’t overrate relaxation
Even if you want to do nothing most of the time, make the effort to try or explore something new. That way you’ll return from a trip with more than just a sunburn and an ugly t-shirt as a souvenir.
33. Check out these sites for travel tips and info
- Airbnb City Guides: These guides consolidate the tips from all the Airbnb hosts in a given city. Only select cities have guides, but if the one you’re visiting has one it’s worth checking out.
- Gov.UK travel advice: The UK’s foreign travel advice provides more regional nuance and up-to-date info than other countries’ governments which tend to oversimplify and generalize.
- Eater: Their city guides closely match our tastes and suggest a wide variety of types of restaurants and specific dishes.
- The Unconventional Route: The best, obviously. Type the name of the place you’re traveling to in the search box on the top right of this page to see if we’ve written about it.
32. Check if you need an onward flight
Many countries require this and airlines won’t let you board if you don’t have a flight out of the country. Even more annoyingly, they normally only accept plane tickets, even if you’re planning on taking a bus or train to a neighboring country.
Fortunately, there’s a simple solution: Buy a ticket on Expedia that’s 100% refundable within 24 hours, show it at check-in, and cancel it immediately.
31. Go to the airport early
Head to the airport well in advance of the check-in deadline to avoid unnecessary stress and potential disaster. Worst case scenario, nothing unexpected happens and you end up with time to kill in the airport. Most airports have free WiFi so you can do the same inane internetting you’d be doing otherwise.
30. Ask for better seats
Bulkhead and exit row seats are sometimes available because most airlines charge extra for them but few people buy them. Be really friendly to the check-in agents and gate agents, ask them if they’re available. There’s a decent chance they’ll give them to you.
29. Don’t drink a lot of alcohol on the plane
Alcohol dehydrates you even more than flying already does, worsens your sleep quality, and exacerbates jet lag. It’s tempting to take all the free booze you can, but it’s not worth it.
28. Don’t put loose items the seat pouch in front of you
I’ve lost a Kindle, headphones, and other important items by putting them in the pouch of the seat in front of me then forgetting them in the frantic excitement of disembarking. Keep everything together in a small bag under your seat instead.
27. Be a courteous airline passenger
Don’t make the already stressful flying experience worse for everyone around you. Follow the simple but too-often-flouted rules outlined in this post by a blogger named Tynan.
Tips for When You’re Traveling
26. Ask targeted questions
For instance, if you ask your Uber drivers what they recommend doing in the city, they’ll almost certainly default to replying with the top tourist attractions. But if you ask where their favorite places are to get food when they’re working, they might reveal a gem of a tip.
25. Don’t be shy
When you’re back home and a tourist asks you a question or for directions, you don’t laugh at their English or begrudge them for bothering you, right? You feel good for being able to help them out.
People will feel the same when you ask them questions too. So ask waiters where their favorite restaurants are, runners waiting for the light to change about their favorite hikes, and staff at shops what they like to do on their days off.
24. Reframe problems as plot twists
The inevitable travel mishaps end up becoming the stories we tell most fondly. Try to keep that in mind to not stress too much and come up with a more clear-headed solution.
23. Keep your voice down
Avoid unnecessary attention. When traveling you generally want to observe and experience and not be observed and experienced.
22. Stay energetic with exercise
Exercise needn’t be a burden when traveling. It can make your trip even better by giving you more energy, a bigger appetite to eat more local food, and opportunities to meet new people and go places you wouldn’t see otherwise.
For inspiration, check out our fun and fast tips to stay fit while traveling.
Spending and Saving Money
21. Always ask the price first
Nothing ruins an experience faster than finding out it costs way more than you expected once it’s too late.
Sometimes it’s an innocent understanding. Sometimes it’s a shakedown. Either way, make sure it never happens with one simple question, “How much?”
20. Make free phone calls over the internet
Make free phone calls to US and Canadian phone numbers using Gmail on your computer (click the phone icon on the bottom left corner) and the Google Hangouts app on your phone (just dial).
In many other countries everyone uses WhatsApp, even local businesses, so you can call them for free using the app over the internet. Put https://wa.me/ then the number with the country code to open up a chat/call without having to save a new contact.
19. Use money-saving credit cards
Most credit cards charge a 2.5% foreign transaction fee on every purchase. But not all. Ours, for example, has no such fee and earns us 3% cash back on travel-related expenses. That’s a 5.5% swing.
If you’re Canadian, read about the best credit cards for international travel here.
18. Don’t double-pay travel insurance
Only buy travel insurance starting the day your free credit card insurance expires. Cards like ours have 31 days insurance, so that’s no small change in savings.
17. Negotiate the best hotel rates directly
Hotels are contractually forbidden from advertising lower rates on their own websites than what they give Booking.com and Expedia (which take 15 to 25% commission), but if you ask them for a discount or some other incentive for booking with them directly they’ll normally give it to you.
16. Make big cash withdrawals
In countries like Japan and Mexico where cash is king, withdraw as much as you’re comfortable with all at once at the airport. For us, that’s around $300. This saves on ATM fees and from having to withdraw cash in sketchier areas later on.
15. Know what to tip
Every country has different customs with regards to when to tip and how much. Look it up online and follow along.
14. Use Splitwise for shared expenses
The Splitwise app makes it easy to keep track of group expenses—who’s spending what and who owes who how much.
Advanced Travel Tips and Tricks
13. Kick your hunger habit
It took some getting used to, but now I only eat one or two meals a day and regularly go days without eating. I never feel hungry anymore, so I don’t need to carry snacks around, get hangry, or have to plan my day around meals.
12. Organize blind taste tests to meet people and learn about local foods
Blind taste tests are a fun way to really get to know a local delicacy—coffee in Colombia, wine in South Africa, Turkish delights in Turkey—and befriend new people.
11. Pack only about 57 items
Over the years, I’ve fine-tuned my packing list down to a list of 57-or-so items that fit into a day-pack. These items weigh less than 20 pounds combined, and really closer to 15 pounds since I’m usually wearing some of them.
Women may prefer to check out Kim’s 15 travel essentials.
10. Disguise and protect your bag with a big stuff sack
A bag big enough for your backpack to fit in serves three purposes:
- For bus and plane trips it conceals your fancy backpack and disguises it as a random sack of some local’s stuff that thieves won’t be interested in ransacking.
- It protects your bag’s straps from getting stuck in conveyor belts when you check them in for flying, which happens more often than you think.
- You can use it to separate dirty laundry or whatever from the rest of your clothes.
9. Use dating apps to meet people
Use apps like Tinder and Bumble to connect with people in your area even if you’re in a happy relationship like Kim and me (thanks largely to daily gratefuls).[Note: Bumble BFF exists for non-romantic and non-sexual connections, but in my experience not enough people use it.]
Our 8 Best Travel Tips & Tricks
8. Bring gifts
Bring some traditional snacks or sweets that are unique to your country to give to people you meet abroad. They will appreciate the gesture and likely reciprocate.
7. Walk whenever possible
Even if there are no obvious highlights or attractions along the way, if it’s safe to do so and you have the time, walk. Walking is the best way to immerse yourself in a foreign culture and encounter the unexpected.
6. Milk the planning process
Before your trip:
- Meet with old friends who’ve been before. You’ll get tips, they’ll relive fond memories, and the two of you have an excuse to reconnect. (Win-Win!)
- Watch related documentaries and movies. Before moving to Colombia, we watched Colombia: Wild Magic on Netflix. It amped us up to explore lesser-known parts of the country.
- Read fiction and non-fiction. Before moving to Cape Town, I read Born a Crime by Trevor Noah and The Covenant by James Michener. Both taught me tons about the country’s history, which I appreciated a lot when I got there.
- Relish in the anticipation. you haven’t felt since you were a kid looking forward to their birthday.
5. Stop counting countries
Trying to visit as many countries as possible is like trying to have as many sexual partners as possible.
You’ll never forget the first time you travel to a different country. The next couple too, to a lesser extent. But, by the time you’ve visited a handful of countries, you stop counting and start confusing them and calling them by the wrong names.
So instead of racking up countries like notches on a bedpost, pick the ones you visit carefully and spend quality time getting to know them intimately.
4. Learn photography
I didn’t give a crap about photography, either. But then a family friend gave Kim and me some photography lessons and now I’m hooked.
Surprisingly, photography has boosted my travel experiences. I used to see something and think, “Cool… what next?” Now, I savor those sights. I consciously appreciate their light, color, texture, and composition, and actively seek even more attractive angles.
And, thanks to having better photos, Kim and I can relive and remember those moments more fondly than ever.
3. Dump everything into Google Maps Saved Places
Our Google Maps look like Christmas trees by the time we get somewhere new because we use the Saved Places functionality to record every place we read or hear about that might be worth checking out.
This helps us remember hot tips from friends, plan our itineraries (like the 24 foods in 24 hours in Taipei), and find places of interest when we’re wandering aimlessly around a new city.
2. Get a good guide early on
A good guide can provide a momentum boost to your entire trip. They’ll give you local insights that will enhance your appreciation of everything you see and experience from then on and share tips on things to do, see, and eat that you may not come across otherwise.
1. Put holes in your bucket list
“Once you have a checklist, you don’t look at what you have. You look at what you don’t have.”A beanie baby collector with inadvertently good travel advice in The Great Beanie Baby Bubble
If you’re too busy looking at your agenda and hustling from one attraction to the other, you’ll return home with a completed checklist… and an empty feeling inside.
Then, when your friends ask you about your trip, instead of having extraordinary stories to share with them, you’ll just bore them with a list of things you saw and cliché photos they’ve already seen a million times before.
One Final Travel Tip
You’ve just read literally every potentially useful travel tip and trick we could think of.
But here’s one final tip:
I’m sorry, it’s kind of corny….
Use a lot of these travel tips and tricks at home, too. Life’s a trip. The more curiously and adventurously you live it, the more extraordinary it will be. To explore something new every month, join the Unconventional Monthly.
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What’re Your Best Travel Tips and Tricks?
Share your travel tips and tricks with us and future readers in the comments below.