Long before Kim and I started the Unconventional Route—before blogs existed at all!—our top sources of travel tips and tricks were our moms.
Our moms gave us basic advice like to pack light, not forget our passports (with photocopies), be flexible, and get travel insurance.
Your mom probably already told you the same, so we won’t repeat them.
Instead, we’re going to share with you:
- Not-so-obvious travel tips and tricks that we’ve picked up over our many years on the road.
- Dumb travel tips we hear too often that you should ignore (and what to do instead).
- And some advanced and experimental travel tips if you want to try something new.
Our 10 Best Travel Tips
1. Get the most out of your trip by milking the planning process
The time spent planning and anticipating an upcoming trip is a gift that keeps on giving, so take advantage of it for all it’s worth:
- Take the opportunity to reconnect with old friends who’ve been where you’re going before and can share tips while reliving their own fond memories. (Win-Win!)
- Watch documentaries and movies related to where you’re going. Before moving to Colombia, we watched Colombia: Wild Magic on Netflix. It amped us up to explore lesser-known parts of the country.
- Read books—both fiction and non-fiction—about your destination to get your imagination running. Before moving to South Africa, 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.
- Enjoy the anticipation you haven’t felt since you were a kid waiting for Christmas.
Book as far in advance as you can to get the most out of these benefits.
And make sure to book your next trip as soon as you get home from the previous one!
2. Avoid starting your trip on a bad note by confirming the following:
- 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 our hometown of Vancouver, don’t have Uber. Others, like Playa del Carmen, are full of taxi drivers and tourist misinformation people 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.)
3. Make your travels more memorable by avoiding the temptation to count countries
Trying to visit as many countries as possible is like trying to have as many sexual partners as possible.
The first time you travel to a different country is special. The next times are too, to a lesser extent. But, by the time you’ve visited a handful of countries, you stop counting, start confusing them and calling them by the wrong names, and start sounding douchey when bragging about it to others.
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. Appreciate what you see more by learning a bit of photography
I didn’t give a crap about photography.
But then a family friend generously offered to give Kim and me some photography lessons last summer. Kim was keen and I agreed out of obligation, knowing I had to get better to improve this blog.
The lessons were super fun, I got really into it, and I later discovered an unexpected side effect:
Photography made our subsequent travels more enjoyable!
I used to see something and think, “Cool… Now what next?”
Now, I spend more time enjoying those sights. I consciously appreciate their light, color, texture, and composition, actively seek even more attractive angles, and relish the moment.
And now, after our travels, Kim and I can relive and remember those moments more fondly than ever thanks to having more and better photos.
Tip Within a Tip:
- Read This if You Want to Take Great Photographs, by Henry Carroll is the perfect starter guide. It keeps things simple, entertaining, and easy to understand. Plus that title’s amazing.
5. See more and plan custom itineraries easily by using Saved Places on Google Maps
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 plan our itineraries when we’re traveling (by trying to make routes that go from one saved place to the next). And when we’re wandering around aimlessly we can pull up our maps to see if there are any nearby places of interest.
Tips Within a Tip:
- Add a note to each saved place to remind you of why you added it to your list and where you heard about it from.
- Check out our Google Maps Tips and Tricks for more detail on how to do this, how to use the maps offline, and more of our favorite tricks you might not be aware of.
6. Make unexpected discoveries by putting 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.
Put some holes in your bucket list to lighten it up and stay in one place longer than you think you should to make unexpected discoveries that you won’t forget.
3. Stay comfortable, wrinkle-free, and odorless by wearing 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.
8. Make your day (and maybe someone else’s) by leaving your shyness at home
When you’re at home and a tourist stops you to ask a question or for directions, how do you feel?
You don’t laugh at them for their poor English or begrudge them for bothering you, right? You feel great for being able to help them out.
Helping a tourist out not only improves their trip, but it can make your day too.
Wherever you go traveling, make some people’s day in the same way. Ask your 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.
Ask away. Don’t be shy.
9. Avoid rip-offs and awkward misunderstandings by always asking the price first
Nothing ruins an experience faster than finding out it costs way more than you expected after it’s too late.
Sometimes it’s an innocent understanding.
For instance, in China, my cousin tried to impress us with his language skills by ordering, among many other things, fish at a dim sum restaurant. He thought it was $10 for the whole 2 kg thing. It turned out to be $10 per 100 g, so $200 for the fish.
Other times, it’s intentional.
Taxi drivers are the classic culprit of this. They’ll take you where you’ve asked them then ask for quadruple the fair price once you arrive and it’s’ too late to negotiate.
It can feel impolite or unnecessary to ask for the price. Do it anyways. It never hurts as much as not doing so.
10. Pick the right restaurants and attractions by not reading all the reviews
Average reviews on TripAdvisor, Google, and whatever system you prefer are misleading and sometimes manufactured so don’t pay much attention to them.
Look for the right reviews.
First, 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. For some reason, most review aggregators put the most popular reviews first. Those are what people want to see, not the truth they need to see.
Dumb Travel Tips We Hear Too Often
(and What to Do Instead)
Ditch travel guidebooks
✓ Read a guidebook cover to cover
In many ways, guidebooks are more helpful than anything you can find online.
The trick to unleashing their value—but one that most people are too distracted to try these days—is reading them from cover.
On top of getting a decent history and culture lesson, by reading a complete guidebook you’ll discover festivals, events, destinations, and attractions that are barely mentioned online, in English at least, because #FollowMe bloggers and Instagram “influencers” have never visited them.
Tips Within a Tip
- Save on the cost of buying a whole guidebook by only buying the specific chapters you need on Lonely Planet’s website.
- Read why guidebooks are better than blogs to get a full appreciation for them and to learn what to watch out for on blogs.
Learn the common local phrases before leaving✓ Learn one unusual phrase
Don’t bother studying local phrases before you travel.
It’s a waste of your time.
You’ll learn everything you need to know—like how to say “please,” “thank you,” and “hello”—out of necessity pretty much immediately when you get there.
If you want to study the local language before you go, learn something out of the ordinary. Something like, “I’m from Canada and do handstands for exercise.” Locals won’t see it coming and will find it hilarious. Unlike a standard “hello” or “thank you,” an unusual phrase will make you new friends and open new doors to extraordinary travel stories.
Don’t exchange currency at the airport
✓ Know the right exchange rates
Not all airport currency exchange offices are rip-offs. Some offer the best rates in town.
At Mexico City’s airport, the currency exchange booths will pay you to take US dollars of their hands. Seriously. So try to have extra pesos on hand before you leave and do exchange your money at the airport.
Currency exchange booths at Cairo’s airport are similar. They have such a high demand for US dollars that they offer better-than-market-rates to get them from you.
So note down the market exchange rate before you leave (XE.com’s a good site for rates) then check the rates at the airport currency exchange offices just in case. You never know.
Tips Within a Tip
Here’s how to ensure you get the best exchange rate:
- Unless your home country uses an obscure currency, exchanging your money abroad rather than at home.
- When currency exchange offices charge a huge margin over market rates, withdraw cash from the ATM instead.
- Use a foreign exchange free credit card.
- When the credit card machine gives you the option of paying in local currency or your home currency, chose the local currency.
Roll your clothes
✓ Don’t get to the point where you have to roll your clothes
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.
We also recommend you leave some spare room in your bag for souvenirs or, our favorite, duty-free booze.
And, pack wrinkle-free clothing. That way you can just stuff in your bag willy-nilly.
Merino wool’s the best bet. I’ve only just discovered its many magical powers so, even though it’s expensive and I’m a poor blogger, I’m slowly transitioning towards a full-merino wardrobe.
Check out my tried-and-true, ever-evolving 57-item packing list for ideas on what to pack and what not to pack.
Carry a photocopy of your passport
✓ Carry your travel insurance contact info
You can store a copy of your passport on the cloud and pull it up when needed, but don’t do the same with your travel insurance.
If you get hurt, the first thing you need to do (once you’re done screaming and crying in pain or sickness) is call your insurer. If not, there’s a chance your insurer won’t approve of the hospital or treatment you chose and won’t fully cover you.
And if you’re too hurt or sick to call, whoever’s looking after you needs to know who to talk to, so have the contact number on you.
For tips on how to pick the right policy while saving as much money as possible, read our guide of eight simple steps to finding the best travel insurance. It’s geared towards Canadians, but the steps apply to all other nationalities as well.
Don’t go to McDonald’s or Starbucks
✓ Do go to McDonald’s and Starbucks
You don’t have to get anything at them if you don’t want.
Go in them to get some insight into the local culture and cuisine by comparing their menus to the ones back home. Check what types of chocolate bars McDonald’s uses in their McFlurrys. (In Geneva they had Toblerone and in South Africa there’s a neon green lime flavor.) See what unusual spices Starbucks adds to their coffee. And compare the prices to the ones back home and other countries you’ve been, just like the Economist does so with their Big Mac index.
As an added bonus, Starbucks and McDonalds have clean public restrooms and free wifi.
Don’t judge people
✓ Judge judiciously
Every list of “best travel tips and tricks” is right that you should keep an open mind about the people you come across. Judging people you don’t know is bad. That’s literally pre-judgment, a.k.a. prejudice.
But post-judge away.
Dig into what led this person you’re meeting to act, believe, dress, think, or smell different than you. There are no exact answers, so you’ll have to judge for yourself. Doing so is how you enhance understanding of the world and learn to be a better person yourself.
For example, we made the mistake of pre-judging Osmin Hernandez, a celebrity fitness trainer we improbably befriended in Colombia.
We initially thought he was a loud-mouthed, wannabe celebrity meathead, but then we realized there was wisdom in his non-stop chatter and ended up learning some valuable lessons about fitness, marketing, and life in general.
Be open to strangers
✓ Be wary of strangers who approach you for no good reason
Wherever you travel, be careful of surprisingly friendly individuals who speak surprisingly good English.
If not, your next surprise may be a negative one.
Chris learned this the hard way.
In Istanbul, a super friendly guy chatted him up and invited him to join him for a beer. Chris agreed. Then, when they sat down, their table was surrounded by henchmen. They told Chris he had to either pay them 100 euros for his drink or… well, there was no other option. His new “friend” had lured me into a trap.
We’ve heard countless stories like this from all over the world and there are undoubtedly many more out there from travelers who are too embarrassed to admit it.
To avoid similar situations, give overly-friendly and surprisingly-fluent strangers the opposite of the benefit of the doubt (the detriment of the trust?). Either that or politely turn them away. Yes, there’s a chance they’re honest, but it’s not worth the risk.
Meeting local people is a must—every great travel story needs great characters after all—but it’s safer to be the one to approach them, not the other way around.
Always wear sunscreen
✓ WTF? Why does every other travel tips blog post mention sunscreen?!
Really? Do they not have any better tips than that?
And do they assume we live deep in caves and have never used sunscreen before?
Not only is this advice kind of insulting, but it’s questionable.
Sunscreen’s a good idea for situations where you can’t otherwise avoid extended sun exposure, but it’s got its problems too. It enables you to spend unnatural amounts of time exposed to the sun, and unnatural is almost always bad. Plus it blocks your skin from absorbing all the sun’s nutrients. There’s also a debate about whether some of its chemicals are toxic or not—if not to you, at least to the environment. And…
Enough about sunscreen.
Let’s move on.
Ask locals for the best travel advice
✓ Ask certain locals and expats for the best travel advice
Most locals have crappy travel tips because they have the same boring daily routines you do back home, don’t see their hometown with the eyes of a tourist, lose touch with what’s going on, and rarely explore new parts of town.
The trick is to find the right locals.
People in the hospitality industry like chefs, hotel and hostel managers, and (sometimes) Uber drivers are good sources of info. They know their cities the best and constantly get feedback and new tips from travelers and peers.
Even better sources of local travel tips are often foreign expats.
They see (or once saw) the destination with a similar perspective as you will and appreciate things that lifelong locals may consider to be boring or commonplace. Also, they’re probably used to showing around their family and friends so they will have curated a solid list of spots to check out.
To connect with a foreign expat, ask around your network for connections to friends of friends. And if that doesn’t work, join expat groups on Facebook.
Wake up early
✓ Get a 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.
Less sleep means more tired. And more tired means more moody, lethargic, and close-minded. That’s exactly what you don’t want to be when traveling.
But what if you don’t feel tired?
As sleep scientist Matthew Walker explains in his eye-opening book, Why We Sleep, when you’re sleep-deprived you often don’t think you’re tired, but you are still impaired and others can clearly tell. After I read his book, I completely gave up the idea of ever sacrificing on sleep.
✓ Be cheap even if you don’t have to be
You can’t buy yourself extraordinary travel experiences. You have to earn them.
Being on a tight budget, even if you can afford not to, creates constraints that force you to do what you otherwise wouldn’t, and what most of the masses don’t either. This opens the door for the unexpected and the extraordinary.
Only splurge when it boosts your chances for experiencing an extraordinary travel story. This includes getting a better sleep, doing something out of the ordinary that you’ll never have the chance to do again, or buying yourself more time in the country (like a direct flight).
Trip Planning Tips
✓ Avoid getting scammed by learning their tricks
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.
In Turkey, friendly English-speakers will befriend you and invite you to a drink. They don’t tell you the beers are 100 Euro each until afterward and you’re surrounded by intimidating bouncers who’ll bounce their fists off your face if you don’t pay.
These are just some of the scams we’ve experienced ourselves or our friends have warned about.
Every country has their own go-to scams to rip off tourists. If you google them in advance, you’ll avoid them.
✓ Meet locals and get tips from them through Facebook
Put out a post asking friends for tips about your destination. If anyone who replies lives nearby, invite them to lunch or coffee to talk about it.
Also, find and join expat Facebook groups in that country. In them, you’ll find plenty of tips, be able to ask questions of your own, and hear about events happening while you’re in town.
✓ Make your trip extra special by planning 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.
✓ Find what you’re really looking for by digging deeper into the search results
When Googling “things to do in [place you’re visiting],” don’t just read the first page of search results.
Often, the top results are the least useful because they come from big websites that all regurgitate the same top tourist attractions. Smaller sites (ahem, like ours) can sometimes have tips you won’t find elsewhere.
✓ Get the answers you want by getting more specific in your Google searches
Boring search queries, like “best restaurants in Cape Town” lead to boring results.
Instead, try something like searching for “foods unique to Cape Town,” going through those results to find a local dish, like the Gatsby, that appeals to you, and searching for “best Gatsby in Cape Town.”
You’ll find some unforgettable places that way.
✓ Enjoy more flexibility for less by visiting in shoulder seasons
Even if the weather’s not as perfect in the prime seasons, traveling in the shoulder seasons means fewer crowds, lower prices, and, most importantly, more flexibility.
The less you have to book in advance the more you open your trip up to unexpected and extraordinary experiences.
✓ Start your trip off right by booking your first night or two
Lugging your bags around town searching for a place to crash is a horrible way to start a trip, so book your first night or two in advance.
Ideally you can have the flexibility to book the rest of your nights after you arrive and have had the chance to talk to other travelers and locals and get a better idea of what to see, where to go, and where to stay.
✓ Avoid boredom by not overvaluing relaxation
A week of sitting on a beach chair on a deserted island doing nothing sounds great when you’re overstressed at home, but once you get there you’ll discover it gets boring fast and is completely forgettable.
Even if you want to do nothing most of the time, make the effort to try or explore something new so you’ll return from a trip with more than just a lei and a sunburn as souvenirs.
✓ For ideas and info, check out these sites:
- 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.
✓ Don’t forget anything by starting your packing list early
Kim and I make reminders lists on our phones weeks in advance of departure. Whenever we think of something we need for our trip, we jot them down there.
We double check those lists when it comes time to pack and triple check them before we head to the airport.
✓ Stay plugged in by bringing an extension cord
As I 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.
✓ Make a good first impression by looking up local style and dressing accordingly
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.
Dress like a local, or at least a local expat, to avoid this.
✓ Keep your trip pain-free by packing the right shoes
Shoes that you can’t walk around in comfortably all day aren’t worth packing.
On a related note, never bring new shoes on your travels. The risk of them not fitting properly or causing blisters as you break them in can hamper your trip.
✓ Be covered just in case by packing a couple hundred U.S. dollars
Have U.S. dollars cash on hand in case your 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. The latter happens more frequently than you might expect.
✓ Avoid the risk of being stuck with one outfit by packing 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.
✓ Be kind to the environment by using 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.
✓ Be prepared by bringing some Ziploc bags
We bring a bunch of Ziplocs wherever we travel and we always end up using them before our trip is done.
Sometimes we use them 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.
✓ Explore comfortably by packing 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.
✓ Secure your stuff with a few twist ties
Those little, normally red wire twist ties serve at least two purposes:
- Securely close up bags of snacks you buy during your travels.
- Slow quick-handed pickpockets by connecting your bag’s zippers together.
For the latter purpose preferably get white twist ties instead of attention-grabbing red ones.
✓ For cleaning your water, consider a Steripen
For places where the tap water’s safety is questionable, the Steripen is an effective answer. It’s a UV wand that destroys 99.9% of the bacteria.
It’s expensive (around $100), doesn’t make the water taste any less nasty, and doesn’t filter out any particles in the water, but for frequent travelers to dirty-water destinations, it’s a handy tool.
✓ Put your phone to good use by downloading 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.
✓ Avoid getting stuck at the airport by always checking if an onward flight is necessary
We already mentioned this in our top 10 travel tips, but it bears repeating:
If you’re flying with a one-way ticket to a foreign country, double check whether you need a ticket out of that country before they let you in.
Many countries require this and airlines won’t let you board without it. 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.
✓ Minimize stress by giving yourself time at the airport
Avoid unnecessary stress and potential disaster by heading to the airport well in advance of the check-in deadline.
This may seem obvious, but ask anyone who has traveled a lot and they’ll have stories for you where they disregarded this advice and screwed up their trip as a result.
Worst case scenario, nothing unexpected happens and you end up with time to kill in the airport, which probably has free WiFi so you can do the same inane internetting you’d be doing otherwise.
✓ Possibly get upgraded by asking 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, and there’s a decent chance they’ll give them to you.
✗ Reduce jet lag and land rested by not drinking a lot of alcohol on the plane
It’s tempting to say yes to all the alcohol that is often offered on international flights (and in airline lounges, if you have access), but getting a buzz on in the air puts a damper on your time on the ground.
Alcohol dehydrates you even more than flying already does, worsens your sleep quality, and exacerbates jet lag. It’s not worth it.
✓ Take some weight off by checking in your carry-on
Even if you’re traveling with only a carry-on-sized bag, you may want to consider checking it in if A) It’s a direct flight or there’s ample connection time, so the risk your bag gets lost is minimal and B) You’re traveling internationally, because the line for immigration is generally longer than the wait for your bags to come out.
That way, you can relax while everyone else races for overhead bin space for their mega check-in roller bags.
✗ Reduce the risk of losing your valuables by not putting them individually in the pouch of the seat 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.
You won’t lose anything if you keep all of your items together in a small bag under your seat instead.
✓ Don’t make your fellow travelers’ flight worse than it has to be by being a good 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.
✓ Get the best tips by asking targeted questions
Similar to our earlier travel tip to Google search specifically, you’ll get the best travel tips if you ask the right questions to the right people.
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 or what they like to do on their days off, they might reveal a gem of a tip.
✓ Turn problems into adventures by reframing them as plot twists
Mishaps inevitably occur when traveling and we tend to unduly stress over them even though they end up becoming the stories we tell most fondly.
If you keep this in mind and treat your problems as plot twists you’ll avoid unnecessary stress and, more often than not, come up with a more clear-headed solution.
✓ Avoid unwanted attention by keeping your voice down
When traveling you generally want to observe and experience and not be observed and experienced, so keep your voice down.
✓ To really immerse yourself, walk whenever possible
The best way to immerse yourself in a foreign culture and encounter the unexpected is on foot.
Even if there are no obvious highlights or attractions along the way, if it’s safe to do so, walk.
✓ Hit the ground running by splurging on good guides early on
Doing a tour with a good guide early on can provide a momentum boost to your entire trip by giving you local insights that will enhance your appreciation of everything you see and experience from then on and sharing tips on things to do, see, and eat that you may not come across otherwise.
The challenge is assessing beforehand who will be a “good” guide. You’ll have to rely on testimonials and reviews to increase your odds of choosing the right one.
✗ Stay energetic by exercising on the road
Exercise needn’t be a burden when traveling. It can actually make your trip even better by giving you more energy, giving you the appetite to eat more local food, and enabling you to meet new people and go places you wouldn’t see otherwise.
For inspiration, check out our eight fun and fast tips to stay fit while traveling.
Spending and Saving Money
✓ Make free phone calls over the internet
You can 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.
✓ Save on foreign exchange fees and insurance by using credit cards wisely
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 like rental cars, restaurants, and hotels. That’s a 5.5% swing, which makes it worth doing some research and considering getting a card for your international travels.
If you’re Canadian, we’ve done the research for you. Read all about the best credit cards for international travel here.
Once you’ve got the right travel credit card, use it whenever possible to earn maximum cash back and minimize the need to use cash, which costs you in ATM withdrawal and exchange fees.
✓ Get the lowest hotel rates by booking direct
Sites like Booking.com and Expedia charge hotels commissions of 15% or more, so hotels much rather you book directly with them.
Hotels are contractually forbidden from offering lower rates on their own websites than what they give Booking.com and Expedia, but if you ask them for a discount or some sort of reward for booking with them directly they’ll normally give it to you.
✓ Save on fees and hassles by making 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.
Store the cash somewhere safe (rolled up in your socks is a good one), keeping only as much as you need for the day in your wallet.
✗ 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 drivers license for ID and nothing more.
Leave the rest of your cash hidden in your bag—split into two hiding spots if you have a lot—back wherever you’re staying.
✓ Be respectful by knowing how much to tip
Every country has different customs with regards to when to tip and how much.
Look this up online and follow along.
✓ Easily manage expenses while traveling with others by using Splitwise
The Splitwise app makes it easy to keep track of group expenses—who’s spending what and who owes who how much.
Kim and I use it every day for expenses between the two of us and whenever we travel with friends.
It’s super simple to use. Invite your travel companions to join a group, enter the shared transactions as you go, then, at the end of your trip, settle up with everyone according to the totals Splitwise calculates for you.
✓ Recall these money-related travel tips from above
- Bring USD
- Know the exchange rate before arriving and where and how to find the best one.
- Always ask for the price first
Advanced and Experimental Travel Tips
✓ Enjoy all sorts of unexpected benefits by learning to not eat
It took some getting used to, but now I only eat two meals a day and regularly go days without eating.
Not only do I get significant physical and mental health benefits from fasting (see our fasting tips for info), but I also never feel hungry anymore. I eat when it’s convenient, not out of habit.
This is huge for traveling because I don’t need to carry snacks around, never have to plan my day around meals, and never feel hungry.
✓ Meet people and learn about local foods by organizing blind taste tests
Get to know the hallmark food or drink of the place you’re visiting—coffee in Colombia, wine in France, gelato in Italy, Turkish delights in Turkey, etc.—by doing a blind taste test.
Assemble a bunch of the same food or drink from different manufacturers across all price ranges and see (actually don’t see; test) if you can the difference when blindfolded.
It’s a fun way to really get to know the local delicacy and a fun way to make friends by inviting others to join.
✓ Save yourself some hassle by packing 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 considering I’m usually wearing some of the items.
Check out my minimalist packing list to get started on fine-tuning your own.
✓ 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.
Thanks to our friends Em and Trev (a.k.a Tom) for this tremendous tip! Please share your own in the comments.
✓ Meet people by using dating apps[Note: Bumble BFF exists for non-romantic and non-sexual connections, but in my experience not enough people use it.]
Even if you’re in a happy relationship like Kim and I are, use dating apps like Tinder and Bumble to connect with people in your area.
Be sure to make it clear on your profile that you’re looking for a friendly chat over a beer or coffee and not a fling and increase your odds by giving those people a good reason (i.e. other than sex) to want to meet with you.
✓ Make stronger connections by bringing treats from home
Think of a traditional snack or sweet that’s unique to your country and bring a handful of them to give to people you meet abroad.
They will appreciate the gesture and likely reciprocate, which will open the door to unexpected and extraordinary travel experiences.
One Last Travel Tip
You’ve just read literally every potentially useful travel tip and trick we could think of.
But here’s one final tip:
Consider using a lot of these trips at home, too. I don’t want to sound corny or anything, but life’s a journey and the more curious and adventurous we are the more memorable it will be.
It’s hard to avoid falling into a routine, and that’s why we have our Unconventional Monthly where we nudge you out of it by suggesting one unconventional idea a month.
Sign up here:
And if you can think of a travel tip or trick we and all the readers might find helpful, please share it in the comments below.