Is traveling something we can get better at? I sure hope so. After poring through all those maps, eating questionable meals, meeting people from all walks of life, and spending hours in transit… you’d think we’d learn a thing or two.
The beauty of travel is that it gives every traveler their own experience, their own stories, and ultimately their own advice. Here then, is some of my own advice, accumulated and refined in the years of traveling and living abroad. I hope it brings you some fresh insight and makes your next trip a better one. 🙂
1. Get Your International Drivers Permit (IDP)
This takes the top spot because it is the most overlooked. Getting your IDP is probably the easiest task to accomplish with the biggest rewards. With an IDP you’ll be able to rent a motor vehicle in virtually any country.
You’d be amazed at how much having your own vehicle can enrich your travels. The freedom of mobility allows you to explore more places in a shorter time frame and opens the door to taking roads less traveled. Without a rental car, I would not have been able to drive to the easternmost point of Jeju Island at 4AM to see the sunrise. Without a scooter, I would have experienced one of the most scenic drives in Korea from the seat of a hulking bus than from behind the freedom of handlebars. If you’re traveling somewhere that has crummy public transportation, I strongly suggest bringing your IDP and going the rental route.
See more. Wait less.
Apply for your IDP (U.S. driver’s license holders)
2. Maps Are Your Friends
Yes, the kind that’s printed on paper with an N in the corner. The kind they insert at the beginnings of epic fantasy novels like A Game of Thrones and you’re like, “Wait, why is there a map? This place isn’t even real.” Maybe not, to you…
As a traveler, map reading is an essential skill to have. Not only does it keep you from getting lost, but it also helps you better organize your trip. While planning your next destination, study its map and keep these things in mind:
- Try to find a hotel/hostel that is located somewhere relatively accessible by public transportation. Easy to get to and leave from, and never hard to find if you get lost.
- Stay somewhere central to all the spots you want to see. You can cover more area in less time this way.
- Group your sightseeing spots into districts, e.g. northeast, southwest, etc. Don’t waste time crisscrossing the city back and forth.
- Remote locations are nice, but don’t stay too far from the airport. Remember, getting back there takes time too.
3. Pack Light, Economize Space
Because who likes to carry shit around all the time? You’re traveling to leave home behind, not to take it with you.
Packing light will do wonders for your trip. Not only will your back and legs be grateful, but you’re going to be more mobile too. Unpacking and repacking will be a breeze, you leave more room for souvenirs, and lockers suddenly become a viable option.
Here is a helpful video that offers some key pointers for traveling light:
- Invest in sturdy, compact, lightweight apparel
- Bring clothing suitable for multiple environments, e.g. active & semi-formal wear
- Downsize. Example: for sunglasses, use a soft case instead of a hard case
- Easy to wash, quick to dry. Applies to clothing and towels.
One item in this video I can vouch for is the microfiber towel. A recent purchase, it’s gone with me on a few trips. Folds small, packs light, and dries fast. Also doubles as a blanket. Or a cloak.
4. Get Comfortable, Often
Traveling is hard work. Standing in lines, hauling luggage, sitting for ungodly spans of time… more often than not you’re going to be worn out just getting somewhere. While travel fatigue is hard to avoid, there are some measures you can take to feel a degree or two above “shitty” by the time you arrive at your destination.
- Mind your health. Nobody likes to travel sick. And unfortunately, sitting for hours on a plane is not the best way to recover from a lingering cold. Take extra good care of your body the week before your trip to prime it for the rigors of travel ahead. Eat clean, exercise, and get plenty of rest, especially the night before your flight.
- Stretch often. A proper stretch can simultaneously relax and re-energize, and is a good way to deal with the mass of tense muscles and compressed joints your body becomes when you travel. Sneak in a quick stretch before you board your flight, while waiting at baggage claim, in your hotel room, at the park… anywhere works. Pay attention especially to your neck, shoulders, and back. They are notorious for storing tension.
- Take your shoes off on long flights. Cabin pressure and prolonged sitting will make your feet swell up like melons. Shoes off makes a big difference. (Who cares if your feet stink? Deal with it.) If you want a special experience, make fists with your toes. Like Bruce Willis:
- Pack a second pair of shoes. No, not the stilettos. Opt for some light tennis shoes. Research has shown that rotating your footwear helps reduce the strain that walking/running places on your body. It also extends the life of the shoes! So the next time you go backpacking or expect to walk around a lot, a second pair of shoes could make your back and legs a lot happier.
5. Focus on the Few
Have you ever finished a trip and couldn’t remember what you saw? When reflecting on your journey, all you seem to recall was a repetitious cycle of getting somewhere, taking pictures, and moving on?
You’re trying to do too much.
Can’t blame you, it happens to everyone. Traveling is an expense-ridden time-limited experience, and we all want to get the most out of our money and time. It’s quite natural to look at a city and want to see “all of the above”. However, don’t lose sight of your true purpose: to experience something different and create lasting memories.
I’ve been on trips with deadlines for exploring each area, where preparing to go to the next place seemed to take precedence over enjoying where we were now. I’ve (over)planned vacations where I got to see 4 cities in 12 days, but only in glimpses through the standard tourist lens rather than the fuller picture that the natives know. Those trips always end with me feeling the same way – exhausted and unfulfilled.
The next time you plan a trip, plan well but plan sparingly. Focus on seeing a few places in full rather than many places briefly. Leave time to savor each destination. You didn’t come this far to leave without a genuine impression. And more importantly, leave room for exploration and spontaneity. Some of my fondest memories were made stumbling upon places I never planned to go.