28 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Started Traveling
When you first head off to places in the world that are a lot different from where you live, a number of things change. You have to learn to adapt.
I still make a lot of mistakes everywhere I go, but I try to learn from each of them. Here’s a short list of things I wish I knew before I started my routine of extensive overseas travel, especially in countries in Africa, South Asia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America that are not part of the tourist circuit.
1. You can legally buy safe medicine, including prescription drugs, for very little money overseas. When in Africa or Asia, I stock up on anti-malarials that cost $5 a day in Seattle. On location, it’s more like $1 for a 10-day supply.
2. The best healthcare is not in the U.S., Canada, or the U.K. The best healthcare is in places like Thailand and Costa Rica; that’s why the practice of medical tourism will continue to surge as both travel and overseas healthcare become more accessible.
3. Take a lot of cash with you, and make sure the bills are new and have no writing on them. If you go to a place that accepts credit cards, then you can just redeposit the cash when you get home. It is far worse to end up short of cash with no credit card option.
4. If you do use your credit card, check the online statement at least once a week while traveling to make sure there are no fraudulent charges. Keep all your receipts, especially for large purchases such as hotel stays, and compare the amounts charged when you get back.
5. When you exchange money, hang on to the receipt you get until you’ve left the country. Once in a great while, someone at the airport will want to see proof of all your foreign exchanges.
6. The U.S. dollar is no longer the world’s currency. (In fact, some currency exchange shops will no longer accept dollars!) Travel with a stock of Euros to complement your dollars. The exceptions to this rule include some countries in Africa and Latin America that still use the dollar as their primary currency, and any country that has had a recent war.
7. Hire a taxi outside the airport, not from the guys who approach you inside as you’re walking out. Even better, walk further outside the airport to where the taxis pull in, and you’ll get a better deal because the driver won’t have to pay the entrance fee.
Update: as a few readers mentioned below, there are exceptions to this rule, especially in places like Mexico or Colombia. If you have reason to be concerned about safety, take the official taxi.
8. Never assume that your taxi driver knows where your destination is. Double-check and get him to ask someone before you go if there’s any doubt.
9. The universal rule of taxi haggling, for both driver and passenger, is that once both sides agree on a fare before setting off, neither side can reopen negotiations once you’re en route. You should not try to get a better deal nor should you accept any increase in the fare from the driver after the journey has started.
10. If you have a dispute with a taxi driver and you think you are being taken advantage of, offer to call the police and have them settle it. Many taxi drivers are scared of the police, and often for good reason (see below). If they are being dishonest and you mention the police, they will quickly back down. On the other hand, if they continue to press their claim, they may be right and you’ll need to pay more.
11. The police are not always your friends. Sad but true—in a lot of places in the world, the services of the police are sold to the highest bidder. Therefore, if you can pay them, they may turn out to be your friends… but in other cases, they may actually be the least trustworthy people in the country. Don’t be afraid, just be aware.
12. When you feel pressured beyond your comfort level by someone who tries to follow you, be polite but increasingly firm. Don’t string anyone along out of guilt—tell them you don’t want their help, and move on. If they keep following you, tell them to stop.
13. When it comes to visas (and all immigration issues), your experience will vary from place to place. The rules are flexible in most places, and sometimes they will work in your favor and sometimes they will work against you.
Planes, Trains, and Buses
14. All plane tickets are changeable no matter what is written on them, and any fees for changing can be waived with the right airline agent. You have a few options for making this happen: a) Hang up and call back to try with someone else, b) Call the Premium Traveler line or ask at an airline lounge, or c) Offer a “tip” at the airline counter (do this at your own risk).
15. Round-the-World tickets are the best bargains for extensive international travel. I use and recommend both the Star Alliance and the OneWorld products. Each have their advantages. SkyTeam also has a Round-the-World product, but it’s not nearly as good as the other two.
16. Most people flying Business Class are not paying full-fare. A high percentage of them on most flights are using awards tickets, special tickets, or have upgraded from Economy. Flying in premium cabins can help you in more ways than just being comfortable on long flights, because the tickets can almost always be changed or refunded without penalty. You’ll also get to hang out in airline lounges and get priority treatment, which may become very useful when you need to get in or out of somewhere fast. First Class is nice too, but the difference between First and Business is rarely as great as the difference between Business and Economy.
17. In some places, buses are better than trains for overland travel… in other places, trains are better than buses. Check out the options before you go to make the best decision for each place.
18. The concept of personal space means very different things in different countries. You kind of have to get used to that.
19. Like it or not, you have to be somewhat tolerant of smoking. There are lots of places in the world that haven’t picked up on the Western anti-smoking crusade. If this is hard for you to accept, you’ll likely be frustrated.
20. Unless you can be very discreet, never take photos of people without asking. Don’t be surprised if they say no, because many cultures are not comfortable with strangers taking photos of them all the time. If they do say yes, you may find yourselves indebted to them for a gift or other favor.
21. Never touch members of the opposite sex. This includes sitting next to them on buses and trains—you’ll often be shuffled around to ensure that you only sit next to people of the same sex, although you’ll also usually be given the best seat.
22. Don’t point your feet at people or touch anyone on the head. In several cultures, this is disrespectful or otherwise inappropriate.
23. Be careful with all hand gestures, including the “thumbs-up” sign and the “a-OK” sign. Both of these are highly provocative in some places.
24. Never make promises you don’t intend to keep. Don’t tell vendors you’ll buy from them tomorrow, don’t offer to help anyone visit your country, don’t say you’ll write to someone later if you won’t really do it, and so on.
25. Most important: don’t be a colonialist. Be careful about calling people “locals.” Don’t assume that your culture is superior. People are not stupid just because they don’t speak English or think like you do.
26. Be prepared to represent your country, whether you care about politics or not. For better or worse, many people will expect you to know a lot about politics in your home country and how governmental decisions in one country affect the lives of people thousands of miles away. Don’t say you’re from Canada unless you really are.
27. Always point out that a government’s actions and the beliefs of an individual (e.g., yourself) are not always the same. Most people understand this and some will even say the same thing without prompting, but it’s usually a good reminder to put forward.
28. No matter who you are talking to, never say anything negative about the government of the country you are in. Many rogue states, from Zimbabwe to Iran to North Korea, employ English-speaking spies who will deliberately try to incite foreign visitors into saying something incriminating. (I’m not making this up. In Guinea I was followed by the Secret Service everywhere I went. A friend of mine went to North Korea and found an extensive tape recording system in his hotel room.)
Lastly, remember that there are not many “undiscovered” places left in the world. Focus on the places that are undiscovered to you and you won’t go wrong.
Obviously, each place you go to will offer unique challenges, but following this list will get you off to a good start. Above all, don’t forget the cardinal rule of traveling—pack light. You really don’t need all the extra stuff.
My views on medical tourism are rather mixed. I had one friend who received heart surgery in India with no complaints. Another friend had plastic surgery in Thailand and didn’t enjoy it. Anyhow, nice Article on health travel.
Facial expressions can be very important to communicating. Sometimes it might even be helpful to exaggerate your facial expressions in order to communicate a point. A smile goes a very long way.
Other countries’ medicine is very dissimilar to ours.
I was in Greece and was given a cough syrup which contained ephedra (banned in the US for causing heart attacks) and codeine, same medicine both drug components! Always take your own medicine, foreign pharmacies are always very difficult to navigate.
The best medicine is the U.S. and I’m saying that having lived abroad and continually looked for American/European trained doctors.
Having lived in Nigeria for 2+ years i wouldn’t be taking anti-malarial medication continuously. Malaria or blindness? you can get tested and treated for malaria.
Be considerate! Once I was walking in the streets of Beijing when I came across a young child trying to sell some obviously handmade trinkits. Her prices were very cheap and yet there was a large American man standing over her trying angrily to haggle her down even lower. I’ve always regretted that I didn’t say anything, but I was too embarrassed. Later, when I was leaving, I was at the Beijing airport. This is the worlds largest airport and yet even from a considerable distance I could hear an American woman shouting at someone in one of the little stores demanding a cheaper price. This time I followed her voice until I finally found her. She had just told the small Chinese woman she wasn’t going to be cheated because she was an American when I approached. I said nothing but the look I gave her stopped her in her tracks. Please remember that everyone deserves to be treated with respect.
In foreign countries, you can save a lot of money by eating where the everyday people eat. Instead of eating in your hotel restaurant, ask a janitor where s/he goes for lunch. Sometimes, a mountain of rice and beans for 80 cents beats a $9 club sandwich. As long as the food is hot, it’s generally safe, even on the street. I’d trust a country’s staple food before its cold cuts, anyway.
Great tips!! I totally agree about the medicine – I always stock up on basics when I’m overseas and try not to buy anything in the USA. I’ve found the medicine to be exactly the same (or sometimes better) overseas and always much, much cheaper than in the states.
We are a family of five (Mom, Dad, ten-year-old twin boys, and the family dog) who are about to take off to ride our bikes from Alaska to Argentina – it’ll be fun to get back into “foreign” countries after having been in the USA for a few years. You can read of our journey at familyonbikes.org
Be careful getting malarial drugs and antibiotics in some African countries. They are cheaper, but in my experience they are sometimes expired or of poor quality or even fake!
Some very great points.
As people have pointed out, medicine can be a two edged blade sometimes and for the extra cost it may make the difference between a ruined trip (due to even some milder symptoms of poor medication which is possible, like diarrhea, or much much worse). I have lived abroad, and in a first world country (Japan) and although there medicine is of a very high standard, certain things like hay fever medicine etc are of severely diluted strength, and can be difficult to find there, which could make a trip problematic.
As far as the person in one comment getting mad at a fellow tourist trying to haggle a lot, this too can be a two edged sword. I personally don’t tend to haggle much when abroad, because ultimately most places that have significant haggling offer dirt cheap souvenirs anyways. However, in some ways haggling is something that is done in foreign countries and on certain items you are definitely getting screwed over unless you do haggle. It doesn’t hurt to pay more than a local in most countries, and you are still saving a great deal of money. But don’t let yourself be completely suckered.
There are some good tips in this article Chris. Thanks. I don’t agree about medical care, however. Medical services in North America, Western Europe, and Japan are the best around and for very good reason. The quality of the education, the standards and legal requirements, and the availability of the best technology eclipses that of other nations. Although you may find good resources at medical tourism boutiques, significant research is needed to establish that they are trustworthy with your health. You could end up in real trouble if you experience complications beyond their skills.
Having lived overseas for the past few years and traveling in Europe, the middle east, and Asia every few months, I can’t say that I’ve seen Euros become the new international currency. It’s be a fad recently to like Euros, but the dollar is still the norm and accepted in far more places. That’s unlikely to change anytime soon.
One last thing that I’d add – international travel demands patience and tolerance. Keep your cool, take your time, understand and respect that there are other ways of doing things. Things will happen, but that’s part of the adventure.
Very good point on taxi drivers not always knowing how to get somewhere! I’ve found that if you can find someone who is knowledgeable of the area and speaks your language, it can be helpful to have them write out directions for you to hand to your taxi driver. Also, if you are trying to get to a little known location, try to find out the name of a well known destination or landmark nearby, and have the driver take you there instead.
I just discovered your blog about an hour ago, and thus far like what I’ve seen. Keep up the good work!
I agree almost 1000%. I find the dollar in free fall in value. In many countries (Thailand, China,Japan,etc) I buy extra local currency to use on the next trip as the exchange rate for USD will have deteriorated. Last week I used Hungarian forints that I got at 200+. The rate now is 165:1.
Nationality? I wear a Canadian Maple Leaf lapel pin and if asked claim to be from Etobicoke (that is a part of Toronto). Mostly because I have yet to meet someone who holds Canada in the low regard they have for America. I will admit that I am ashamed of what the U.S. has committed throughout the world. People in other countries do not get the “controlled” views that we are fed. They pretty much get the “unvarnished” truth.
Regarding haggling. There are times and places where it’s appropriate to haggle. The thing to do is set a price in your head that you’re aiming at and see if you can get there. If not, and you really want the item, take the higher price. It may be that you’re idea of what it’s worth isn’t realistic. If you can’t get the price and are convinced you’d be paying too much – just walk away! The price will either come down, or you’ll find someplace/one selling something comparable.
Don’t ever yell or demean the seller in trying to haggle. You probably won’t get them to sell to you, and you’ll just end up looking like an arrogant Western tourist who is getting stingy over $1 or less. Not the best way to represent yourself, or your country.
Medicines can be dodgy in some parts of the world, but find a good local pharmacy and you should be OK. In many parts the locals have got to buy their medication over the counter and can therefore do so for a lot of things only available by prescription in the UK and US.
The hypochondriac guy complaining about cough syrup in Greece takes the biscuit though, none of them work regardless of ingredients!
P.S. Pseudoephidrine and codeine are legal in most countries and are a must for a bad dose of sinusitis.
Wow that’s some useful info being that I’m on the brink of a 3 year journey with my girlfriend, including a year in Australia as well as another year in her home of Paris, France. It should be an eventful couple years, and i thank you for some of those tips. Keep them coming! Add more if you can!
On the topic of keeping abreast of how the U.S. impacts other countries, especially if you are in an impacted country, I would say this: as soon as you can, try to get the local spin on what is going on, because Americans are most times are kept in the dark about the reality of such situations.
Several years ago, a friend and I were in Greece and there was a bit of back and forth between the U.S. military and the Greek government over waterway access issues. We never heard about it in the U.S., but it was a major problem in Greece.
My friend and I were strolling along Sophia Boulevard in Athens (foreign embassy row) and we noticed it had become weirdly deserted. Next thing we knew, a LARGE shouting mob of protesters with anti-American signs rounded a corner and were bearing down on us, sending automobiles fleeing before them. The police just stood there impassively watching, while my friend and I barely had time to duck into a side street and hide out in a church courtyard until the march was well and gone.
Life-threatening? I would like to think not. Potentially dangerous? Absolutely. Forewarned is forearmed.
Great blog! Thanks!
Hi i like your site and i enjoyed everything i read.i i’m Ghanaian and i hope you will visit Ghana someday.
I got malaria medication a lot cheaper in Ghana than in Atlanta. I think that I had to start the doses before I left, though. It’s a good idea to be wary of the quality. The medication in some parts of Africa may be old.
I lived in Ghana (Tema and Accra) for several months back in 2006. It is definitely one of my favorite African countries.
Thanks for keeping the discussion going. Please share this article with your friends if you found it useful.
Hi there Chris
Just finished reading your GREAT book – gave me some ideas, for sure. I’m a moderately creative person (ha) who yeah, is stuck in a lame job but have recently had some ideas of what to do next – I have an awesome wife and kid, which understandably limits my options right now, but your site and book are really great – I just found out about them, and I’m going to be following you in my RSS reader from now on – can’t wait to see what’s next.
This article was really cool too – I’m gonna show my wife and I wish my closed-minded father would read some of this interesting insight from someone who has ACTUALLY TRAVELED in his adult life (my father has not). He’s one of your “critic” types. 😉
Thanks again, and keep up the great work
-Jake in NH
I don’t want to travel anymore! Lol.
Nice insights… practically true. You can never be too ready for traveling but you can at least be prepared.
“Be careful about calling people “locals.” ”
I agree completely, but I’m finding it difficult to come up with a semantically similar, easy to use term. What term(s) do you use to refer to the people who live somewhere as opposed to travellers?
I’d like to find something different to use on our podcast and in my writing, but I’m hitting a brick wall.
Yeah, it’s tricky. In NGO language we would say “nationals” or be more specific and use the actual place they were from, e.g. Moldovans, Sierra Leonians, etc. But I do realize that can be a bit awkward or tiresome in common traveler speech.
I think my problem with “locals” is that is not so much the word that is the problem but the patronizing or demeaning way that a lot of people use it. It is not a pejorative in itself, but since it can be used that way I try to stay clear of it when possible. In a wider context, like your program (which I assume is quite respectful to people), I think that “locals” is fine as a general term as long as it is not overused.
Good luck with the podcast! Your site looks nice.
I am just returning from a 5 week stay in Spain – Barcelona and Madrid. I was pickpocketed in Barcelona, and my wife had her purse stolen in Madrid. You mention that you travel with a lot of cash. How do you protect your cash? Have you ever had any experiences with being robbed? How do you deal with it? We had lots of troubles canceling credit cards, getting new passports etc. Not to mention the added expense of losing all that cash. It is a hard psychological blow too. Now I am a bit nervous about traveling. Any tips or thoughts would be welcome.
Great tips. I’m going on an endless tour soon. Also reading parts of your tips for a non conformist life. I’d rather have my car break down on the backroads of life than glide seamlessly down the super highway that everyone takes and eventually get to where everyone goes.
Life should be a journey and it’s never about the end result; it’s the process!
> > Mostly because I have yet to meet someone who holds Canada in the low regard they have for America.
It will stay that way as long as people keep calling USA America… -_-. Canada is America, USA is America, Argentina is America. America is a continent (or two, depending on the school) with many countries; the USA is just *one* of them. Appropriating the name “America” just for yourselves shows an arrogance that many people dislike outside of the USA.
Someone in Germany wouldn’t say “oh, I’m European; in Europe we have the Oktoberfest and we eat bratwurst” because that’s only in Germany.
Regarding Nick Atnite’s pickpocketing… sorry to hear that. I have never been pickpocketed in my life (someone *tried* once in Stockholm but didn’t succeed). I just came back from a 3-4 week trip around eastern europe and everything was fine. I kept half of the important documentation in the room, half with me. Had my cards in a tiny wallet (only cards fit in there) in a “banana bag”, and a daily-cash wallet in one of my pockets. Always keep pockets and zips on the front, and take special care when there are many people around. Be reserved when taking money out of your pocket/s. I most of the times look around first to check any suspicious people.
So far so good.
Pickpocketers are a known issue in Barcelona. The police tries to work on it but there are many, and tourists often don’t go to the police (and the police don’t speak English, anyway…)
Lots of great advice. While it’s good to take lots of money with you, I’ve also found for urban destinations that it’s just as easy to find an ATM as soon as you hit the airport and take out money from the local ATM. The exchange rates I’ve gotten from those have been decent – better than some money exchange places that I’ve seen.
@POKIN – That’s often true for US accounts, but my attempts with UK and New Zealand accounts have been painful. I often convert cash in country and find that’s the best way.
Chris, these are really great tips for traveling to other countries. When in India, if you are a leftie, don’t shake hands or offer your left hand to an Indian, if you do, you have offended them. The left hand is used to clean yourself when you go to the bathroom. Most Indian style bathrooms have a faucet, bucket and dipper instead of toilet paper.
In India, in some places you are expected to haggle over prices and some places you aren’t. It can get confusing sometimes. Haggling doesn’t mean losing your temper and demeaning someone else. When the price is higher than you want to pay, you either accept the closest price you can get to what you want to pay or you walk away. You do have to be firm when you say no.
I once had a roadside shopkeeper who tried following me onto the bus to sell me an outfit that I wouldn’t pay his price for. The bus driver almost had to remove him from the bus.
I also had a man put a bracelet on me as I am telling them no. I couldn’t stop laughing at the comedy of the situation. He was determined that he was going to sell me the bracelet and I was just as determined that I didn’t want it. I took the bracelet off and laid it on the edge of his table as I walked away.
India is a hard land and a wonderful place to visit if you can handle the poverty. Being from the USA, I had no idea what real poverty looked like. The land can be harsh and unforgiving but the people I very quickly grew to love. I have been to southern India 3 times since 1997.
Great tips, Chris. We’ve actually started a specific label/category on our blog devoted to raising awareness about cultural differences and the interpretation of body language. Every time I research the area, I can’t seem to locate enough information on this subject matter in one place. If you don’t mind, I might expand on some of the actions that you’ve mentioned above – of course giving credit where credit’s due :).
This blog is awesome!! I have just recently discovered my love of traveling but for now it is very limited because of financial reasons. I visited the UK with my grandmother when I was 9, but obviously I didn’t get much out of it because, well…I was 9. So far my travels have been in urban areas though. I spent a semester in Las Vegas and I visited NYC once, and I am visiting both again this month. I can brag that I took a 3, yes THREE!, day bus ride from my city in NY to Vegas and that was a trip on its own…i will never forget it.
I am also unsure about travel because I haven’t found anyone I’m comfortable with who wants to travel like me, and because I’m in college right now and the pressure to stay in college is high. How I would love to just take the semester off and travel around Europe and the Middle East! Do you have any tips for extremely cheap (but safe) travel?
The medicine in other countries is generally cheaper because we pay for a lot of the research here in the United States. Places like Cuba do not. That’s not inherently bad, it just explains some of why we have higher costs here in the US. It also means that the medicine in other countries is not to be mistrusted. But do try to be careful…look at what the product is before ingesting it, and if you have any questions, contact a apoteker you trust.
That’s a great list, especially, take lots of cash. Nothing slows down a fun vacation than having to try to find an ATM or bank while looking at tourist sites.
Good List – We have been traveling for over 25 years and although the internet has made many things easier and more accessible, people in general have not changed. If you carry lots of cash (which we do) split it into several areas – some in a zippered wallet in a zippered pocket for the days expenses, some in a money belt or pouch under your clothes and a desperate stash in your shoes or hideaway socks with a zipper. The most important thing is to pay attention to your surroundings! I cannot believe how many times I have seen women hang their purse on the back of a chair, men pull out a wad of cash to pay for something, etc. Pickpocketing can happen anywhere including any big city in the USA. The only time we had a pocket picked was 10+ years ago in New Orleans at 4 am walking back to our hotel. We weren’t paying attention and it happened in a second. Of course, the days cash was completely gone before they got the wallet and the 1 credit card was canceled immediately. A little hassle but nothing to ruin a trip.
Your comment “The medicine in other countries is generally cheaper because we pay for a lot of the research here in the United States.”
Personally I think you pay a lot for the highly payed CEO’s and the investment bankers behind “big pharma”, while those in the world not under the influence of the USA pragmatically decided that improving people’s health is more important than the “intellectual property” of some corporation.
Now if these companies were spending most of that cash on research to cure the world’s most deadly diseases in stead of the more profitable cures for being fat or feeling sad I might be inclined to change my mind.
I finally found this article on here — I really loved it. There’s a few things you might have skimmed over but it’s a pretty good list.
Regarding medical care overseas I couldn’t agree more. I lived in Koh Samui, Thailand for two separate stints. After a motorbike accident the first time I trusted the hospitals enough to have my first child there and loved it. The prenatal care was up to very high standards and for my daughters birth a total of five doctors were in attendance. My ceasarean was sewn up by a plastic surgeon and the nurses were so fixated on my daughter I had trouble seeing her at first. Meanwhile the private room was the size of a small apartment and overlooked a private garden. It looked like someplace that movie stars might go for drug rehab.
Total cost of labor induction (my daughter was 10 days past due), emergency ceasarean, first shots, five day hospital stay and postnatal care? Around $1100 US (this was 2006).
I definitely don’t buy that western countries are the best for medicine. They’ve just got a different way of doing things!
Great tips Chris. For health stuff, I have found this book invaluable – Travelling Well. Has lots of info about the most common ailments travellers encounter on the road, and includes what medicines to take and in what doses – handy when you’re in the middle of nowhere!
its great reading your blog and the comments. i’m an indian woman, a university-educated professional & i stay in one of india’s cities. we see a fair number of western tourists around. as an indian, i’ll do all i can to make tourists of any country, any colour, race, age or gender feel welcome in our ancient country which is also a modern democracy and the 2nd fastest growing economy of the world. but what hurts me is that because i wear our traditional attire, a salwar kameez and dupatta, westerners assume that i am an uneducated ignoramus, or at best, an exotic specimen of a stereotypical Oriental woman. i remember once a white western woman stopped me to ask if i had been forcibly married off as a child bride! most westerners refuse to acknowledge the presence of urban india, urban middleclass indians, who are educated, liberal, & upwardly mobile. and women like me, who may dress traditionally, but who earn their own living, make independent choices, and know parts of William Faulkner’s The Sound & The Fury by heart simply don’t exist for most westerners.
The medical services in the US as well as the OTC & prescriptive medication are outrageously overpriced and somewhat overrated. The medication is expensive not because of the research but thanks to the organized pharmaceutical mafia, which has the greatest lobbyist power on Earth. Why do Americans have to pay fourfold price on the medication? I order my allergy medication from Canada and half of them are OTC there, which makes sense. I still pay a quarter of US price, including shipment! I happened to get very complicated appendectomy done in Cyprus. Two consecutive surgeries, extra surgeons called in, two weeks stay in a private hospital, in a private room, round the clock care, nurses and what not. The bill rolled out to my traveling insurance? $8000.
This is a great post. Having travelled extensively myself I enjoy looking back and seeing what I have learned, not just about myself but about travel in general. It becomes especially apparent when people who are travelling for the first time ask me questions which I think are totally stupid, but which I probably asked myself at some stage – I’ll be referring them from now on 🙂
I disagree about carrying large amounts of cash. Instead, carry TWO of your bank ATM cards. Keep one readily handy and the other in your most secure place.
ATM’s are not only ubiquitous but they also offer THE BEST exchange rates.
Having lived in four countries on three continents – as well as having visited a dozen others, I can tell you that this list, along with the comments is quite valuable to the novice traveler.
Excellent tips! I would add two more:
1. Women traveling alone are considered fair game for harassment by many men in some countries. In their cultures, they assume if you’re alone you are inviting male attention. If you’re trying to reject hassling or being followed, be VERY clear. When you say NO, do NOT smile, hoping to still be polite. A smile is seen as being coy and a further invitation.
2. Lower your voice (unless you’re in the above situation). When I travel, if I hear someone talking ultra-loudly, I can be 98% sure it’s an American. That’s one reason Americans are sometimes considered pushy and obnoxious. Well, it is obnoxious! People in most other cultures speak more softly.
I’ve been enjoying your blog this evening. Jolie sent me the link. It’s been an interesting read.
Living in Sierra Leone, it’s funny reading some of this…
Healthcare- I can’t believe what some of my patients have been told by other doctors they’ve seen here! I would definitely be picky about the doctor I would see here. And there definitely dodgy medicine being sold here, not to mention drugs sold over the counter that can be lethal. Although there are a few (of the thousands) of pharmacies that do import their drugs from Europe and sell them at very decent prices. It’s all about knowing the manufacturing country, manufacturer etc. If you know what to look out for, you can usually spot the good stuff from the fake stuff.
Money- ATMs are, believe it or not, just making an entrance here. It’s only in the past few months that there are a few ATMs here where expats can withdraw money. Mind you, I have also heard that accounts have been overdrawn…so the account definitely needs to be double checked! Otherwise, dollars, euros and pounds still do well here for exchange.
I could go on…but will stop here.
Your travels make me want to travel around more too!
I stumbled onto this blog. Very interesting. Good tips for traveling. People traveling alone now days are courageous. Thanks for tips.
I can say from traveling (personally and with NGO’s) that what Chris has written is right on money (whether it be Euro, Dollar, Kroner, or Limperas…) and the part about war torn countries seem to line up as well. Liberia for example have their own money, BUT the american dollar is the only thing accepted in some places of business…it is preferred.
IN other countries they looked at my american dollars like it was (dirty) toilet paper.
You have to be careful about medication I’ll re-iterate that right up front, but for most medication being expired does not mean a whole lot. Several charities, humanitarians, and NGO mission operations in undeveloped countries use expired medication in bulk, and the honest Doctors to nurses will tell you it still works…its just a standard used to protect others in lawsuit happy developed countries.
For travel insurance it is costly for getting proper coverage if you are from the states or England and want to be ‘seen’ by your own doctors, BUT some international travel insurance places offer to pay for everything if you will be tranported to Maylasia and other areas that have excellent medical care. For example: Talent Trust Consultants…or TTC. Some will say the coverage is terrible (and it is if you choose to go back to the states for all the treatment) but if you have read the whole policy EVERYTHING will be taken care of if you defer to Maylasia for treatment. Google it, its a health care destination!
Looking forward to more insights Chris! (you’ve got me beat by a few 10 or 20 countries, but I am doing the best I can!)
One comment I would add is that you should always either spend all of your local currency or exchange it before leaving the country. It can be difficult to exchange it when you leave the country and even if you can, the rate will not be good.
Photography, my last two trip to Vietnam I learned to buy some local mints and small wrapped candy. When I see someone I wish to Photograph, and catch their eye, I smile walk up to them, give the gift and kindly point to lens/camera if I can take picture. 99percent of time they say Yes. Of course their our times I can’t ask, crowds, moving traffic. The zoom lens is very helpful for distances and I get by best photos, when they are not award. Many times I show the picture view on screen in camera. They luv to see themselves, Parents, children. I found many that have email. I try to send them a picture and many times they will ask me to be in picture. Photography, just check my web site, especially the people section.
Lots of great tips here for being on the road!
One tip I’d like to add here is that to get a good idea of what’s going on in the world is to subscribe to a couple of foreign TV channels that broadcast in English. There are lots of them.
Like some of the others here mentioned, US news is so highly censored, that if that’s what you largely rely on, you’re likely missing a lot.
If you watch Arabic news, or European news, you’ll get a much better picture of what our government is doing abroad and the impact it has. In other words, you’ll get the ‘big picture’ of how the US is perceived elsewhere and what the US is actually doing beyond our borders.
That’s a great tip Marita!
Chris — I love the tip on “never make promises you don’t intend to keep”. Too often travelers say “maybe later”, and then they get hassled everywhere they go. Just saying a direct no is the easiest English there is to understand. Travelers need to get used to saying no.
Great article and interesting comments. But to those who bash the US and seem to be among the “blame America first” crowd — have a little respect for your own country, otherwise next time you go abroad, stay there permanently.
I’m all for taking cash. I took only my debit and credit cards while visiting Curacao and couldn’t use them because the ATM’s didn’t use the same companies -like Cirrus, Plus, Star, etc. Good idea to ck before you leave!
Regarding medicine – I always take a few ‘natural’ antidotes like activated charcoal. This is used by the CDC (center for disease control) in all food poisonings. It can be used for many other things as well. Make sure it’s ‘activated’ charcoal you get from a health food store (not the kind you grill with!)
Thanks for all the great tips Chris!
Don’t take these remarks so seriously; sometimes the US is loved and sometimes it’s hated. It’s just a lot more fun and easier to travel when you go during a time when the world loves the US! The US is the world’s super power and every country in this world looks to its leadership. That’s just how it is.
I found your website about 2 weeks ago as I was trying to figure out the best way to buy a round the world ticket… your information was very helpful and I have been reading through your website slowly ever since. You have a lot of great information. I am going to be setting off around the world for the next year and your site has been a great help… especially with the second passport article page.
As a side note with all the comments that i have read and hear while living in a foreign country with concern to the US. As in the comments just on this page, there is a lot of controversy about the US and as a person representing the US i would like to say that yes… the US has a lot to work on, it does, and it has caused or been apart of a lot of negative issues around the world. Hopefully with a new president and a new directions we can make a lot of positive changes. another thing i would like to point out to a lot of people who dont usually take this into consideration. The United States is the 3rd/4rd largest country in the world against China changing depending on your definition. As i have encountered, when many others talk about people from the US, they speak like we are all from one place and we are all the ones making the decisions that our government has made. Let me point out that the whole country of France is smaller than the size of Texas…. which is ONE of FIFTY states in the US. Italy is about the size of California. To group all people from the US into one category is a little misleading, just as it would be wrong to categorize any people from any country as a whole. We are all very different depending on what region of the country we come from and have very different ideas and perspectives about the country.
As for the money while traveling… i usually try to take a few hundred dollars/euros with me to get me through the first few days. I have never had a problem with my stuff getting stolen, but i dont feel safe what so ever carrying around a load of cash. As long as you are in countries that have ATMs, it seems to me to be the best bet. I rather loose a card and have it canceled and get a new one than to have all my money stolen or loose it. ATMs can give you in my experience just as good or even better rates in some countries. You can look for banks that your home bank has agreements with like Bank of America and BNP, and you wont get charged the regular fees. Be careful using credit cards in some countries though… in Denmark the government just added over a 3% fee for any foreign credit card on any purchase in the country so it would be far better to always pay in cash. A great thing to look into while you are traveling is to get a capital one no hassles card. there are no international fees… while most banks will charge you 3%. It is a good investment i believe. Also, anybody who is going to be spending a lot of time in europe and wants to travel using ryanair… you can save the handling fees (5 euros on every flight May 2009) by having a visa electron card. Well worth it for foreign exchange students planning to travel a lot with ryanair.
I really like your blog and i hope i can continue to find more useful or just interesting information!
Thank you for the wonderful information, Chris. I would add that pointing is sometimes a threatening gesture, even here in the U.S.
You are so right, Iran is one of the worst places to express any opinions other than the official line. I lived there for a long time. People are jailed and killed for political opposition…even these few words of mine might reach the wrong people and get me banned from that country. Luckily, I don’t care.
Happy travels, all.
Wonderful article. I wish I had known most of those things before I moved to Asia.
Great article. I appreciated your comment about not saying you’re Canadian–unless you really are Canadian. Technically, I think that could be considered a form of impersonation if someone actually asked to see your passport to confirm your nationality. 😉 These days, I’m not so sure that being Canadian gets one any extra brownie points as a traveller, either, thanks to some of our brilliant politicians’ actions. and attitudes. Please do not say you’re Canadian and then proceed to behave in a rude or obnoxious manner toward people. (We sort of like our reputation as being polite, nice people, thank you!)
Here are a few other thoughts on some aspects of travelling:
Re the subject of medications. If there are medications that you must take on a regular basis, make sure they are in the original bottles, that you have the receipt, patient information sheet, and in some cases a letter from the physician. Some prescription drugs–and even some fairly innocuous over the counter drugs that are quite legal in most places are not necessarily legal in other countries. Even regular cough medicine and decongestants could get you into big trouble in a place like the United Arab Emirates. Pretty much any medicine or substance that is considered to be even remotely habit forming is considered a restricted drug there. You can usually find an online list of medications that are allowed or must be accompanied by a doctor’s list through the country’s embassy website. Better safe than sorry on this one, I’d say.
I had my cell phone pick-pocketed at the Delhi train station on my first visit to India. I’m just glad it was only the phone and not my passport or credit card. Fortunately, my partner had his laptop computer with him, so I was able to contact the cell phone company, in writing, and let them know what had happened. That piece of documentation came in really handy when I got my bill the next month and discovered that the pickpocket had run up nearly $300 worth of calls in the three days it took my cell phone provider to put a block on the phone. (Because of the provider’s delay, I didn’t have to pay the charges.) It’s also a good idea to leave a copy of your passport number (and travel visa documents), credit card numbers, etc, at home with a trusted person who has stashed them in a safe place.
I’d say no matter where we are in the world, simply respecting other people by not making assumptions and not judging by appearances will go a long way to forging much more cordial interactions. Also, if you don’t like getting really stupid questions that are also insulting, why would the person you are interacting with be any different? Okay that’s the end of my rant for the night!
Happy travels and trails to everyone.
I just got back from Rome and some of the tips we followed. Keep your wallet in your front pocket and in large crowds keep your hand on it. Women loop the purse strap over your neck and keep the purse in front of your body and away from the street side if on sidewalks.
Keep a photo copy of your passport and non 1-800 contact numbers for cards.
Good stuff. I’d like to disagree a little on haggling:
The domestic Chinese market is far too big for tourists (and expats) to really distort prices, but you should always, always, haggle and get a fair price (there is sometimes a range).
Paying more than market, not haggling hard, and tipping does not win you respect. In some industries, salespeople will brag to each other about how much they made off you. If you try to tip at a normal restaurant, the server will likely bring you the ‘change’ that you ‘forgot’ on the table.
Merchants will never sell at a loss, rather just refuse the transaction. If they look really happy, you likely paid too much. In some markets, you may need to walk away once or twice (after they’re convinced you’re interested, but not TOO interested) to get a reasonable counteroffer.
As I said before, though you can’t really spoil a market this big, you CAN spoil it for other foreigners, both tourist and expat. (Tens of) thousands of expats live and work throughout China, especially in the big cities, and they have to live with stereotypes and expectations of big-spending foreigners every day, sometimes on salaries of less than $10,000 US / year. Furthermore, whole mini-industries of scams designed to lure and rip off gullible tourists prey on short term arrivals, and some ‘tea house’ scams have turned violent.
In summary: Please respect local culture, and don’t spoil things for future visitors. Always, always haggle in China!
(even with no Chinese skills, my friend saved on everything from clothes to transportation and hotel room rates)
I also appreciated your comment about not impersonating Canadians.
I’ve lived on and off in Europe and always found it hilarious how many youngsters on the backpacker routes had Canadian flags pinned to their backpacks. I’m not sure who they think they’re fooling. I’ve never had a problem being openly from the USA, and in fact I’m rather proud to have convinced several friends who began as die-hard anti-Americans that some of us are nice human beings.
Ditto on the extra cash. You don’t have to keep it on you at all times, but it sucks to be stranded somewhere unexpectedly because the ATMs don’t work, or are on the wrong network, or don’t exist.
Regarding stolen passports, etc: make good, clear, sharp, detailed photos of IDs, important docs, and send them to your email address. If you lose them, you can get online just about anywhere and retrieve the pics.
The more traveling I do, the more I can relate to this list. I especially like “never assume that your taxi driver knows.” In almost every place I have been, I seem to run into a clueless taxi driver! I know this was written over a year ago, but it still proves to be very solid advice!
First off, I disagree with several tips. I have traveled to over 30 countries so I am allowed to comment on his tips. There is no greater medicine then Western Medicine including Europe, Australia and the U.S. As a surgeon myself, I would never want a complex surgery done in any country than in Europe, Australia, or the U.S./Canada. The level of care is far superior to that in Asia as evidenced by the fact that U.S. doctors and surgeons take mission trips to these same countries to train their doctors. If medicine was so advanced in these countries, why would we continually have groups going to these countries to treat their population? Why did King Hussein in Jordan fly to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN rather then staying in his own country or going to Thailand for his treatment? Why you ask? Because the best medical care is in westernized nations. So whoever started this blog is talking from you know what. You get what you pay for!
In addition, taking lots of cash is very foolish. Any remotely developed country will have ATM’s and it is extremely easy to change small amounts of money.
Lastly, stop bashing the U.S. This stems from jealousy. We, as a country, have had our moments, I don’t agree with the Iraq war, ect… but we do a lot of good things for many countries. We send aid, and workers, and many other resources to an unlimited amount of countries that need help. Let’s highlight some positives rather than always being negative about the U.S. It is a wonderful country, and I haven’t been to any other country that I would rather live in. The conveniences, the way of life, and our democracy are what make this country great. Every four to eight years we have a peaceful transition of power unlike what is happening in Iran right now. It’s time people stand up for the U.S. rather then bashing it. God bless the U.S.
I found this article very interesting to read. Some things are familiar and others are not. The bit on the Culture was very useful to me. I read that you travel light so it is easy to go outside the airport to fetch a taxi. Unfortunately, I do not travel light but we usually rent a car if we are not doing a guided tour inclusive with the flight.
On our most recent trip (tomorrow) we have been charged an additional 68€ for not booking hotels with the travel agency. This is a rip off and our tickets were delivered four days before departure. I contacted the travel agency but they said it was too late to change flights so we are stuck. We are going on a regular airline but they have put us on a charter flight coming back which means less luggage. Of course I am mad about this and I think it is most unfair but will take it up upon our return.
Chris, love your blog. Good info there, even for the experienced traveller…particularly the parts about touching, photos, pointing, contact with the opposite sex, and other cultural issues. What I’d like to know is, how do you finance your travels? (Keep up the good work)
A comment on haggling. Simply set a price you are willing to pay and if it is not met, walk away. Don’t complain and don’t get mad , it’s supply and demand. As a tourist it’s not my right to be sold an item at the price I dictate. People aren’t under any obligation to sell it to me. Until I actually purchase it, it’s not mine and I shouldnt make any demands on it. Keep in mind that a product may cost USD 1 to manufacture but sold at USD 1,000,000 and if I pay that price that is exactly what the product is worth …to me (ie. one million dollar water when you’re dying of thirst in the desert!). I’m not being cheated when I participate in making the market. It’s when people listen to outside “noise” and fear being made a fool of that leads to those ugly confrontations in haggling. Stick to the principle of valuing something based only on your capacity to pay and its value to you and nothing else. I may “overpay” or “miss out” on some things but I don’t feel bad because I’m listening to myself and I’m consistent in my choices/decisions.
Sorry to post anonymously and I don’t wish to offend but I don’t write a blog or have a website but I felt like sharing my travel experiences.
Thanks so much – your blog is inspiring … to help the readers enjoy the diversity of the world with respect and patience. I am green with envy at all your travels!
My last international trip: Prague, Moravia, Crakow, Sokal in Ukraine
It was great
Great tips. The only thing I would be careful with is with the taxis. Yes, getting them outside the airport is usually cheaper, but it can also be dangerous. In many Latin American countries, you’re better off prepaying the cab at the airport.
Hello, Chris, I’ve just stumbled to this article and enjoyed reading it and the following comments 🙂
I agree with pretty much everything you’ve written, however I’d like to point out that there are always exceptions to every rule. For example, although it’s useful to bring a lot of cash with you, sometimes you end up at a place where you can easily get pick-pocketed and yet there were tons of ATMs around (like Spain for example).. So depending on cash instead of debit/credit card isn’t always a good idea.
My suggestion is the following: Always inform yourself about the place you are going to travel to. Living in the technological era, it’s pretty easy to learn what you need to know – currencies, political situation, medical care.. Everything you need. You can even check the address you are going to in GoogleMaps instead of just writing it on a sheet of paper.
Anyway, I wish you a lot of great trips:)
Wow, so many comments that I don’t have a lot to add. Except that thing about extra cash is important even in 1st world countries. Hubbie and I were off to the market in Loule, Portugal one Saturday morning. Only had a few euros but weren’t worried because there is a bank-a-minute there.
Yikes. That Saturday morning the entire satellite network was down! It was too funny to watch all the touristas wandering around town visiting every cash machine possible, hoping beyond hope that they could get some moola.
No serious results but a good reminder to always keep a small stash of cashola. And some fond memories of watching how different people deal with bad news!
By the way, one thing that I really like about your site is that it is so readable. You keep your paragraphs short, your font is very legible, your material well laid out and your esthetics very pleasing to the eye. Besides the fact that the ‘real’ you is evident in what you blog, I think its visual appeal helps a whole lot.
Hi Chris, Always enjoy your articles. One thing I would add, always carry tissues and some local coins for the restrooms. Many countries are not like the US and have free facilities.
This is a lovely list and I’m glad someone pointed it out to me. I’m an american who has lived in Spain and now the UK.
I tend to buy medicines when I travel, also. When I go to the states, I buy Aleve (naproxen sodium) because it’s not available in the UK, and I buy huge bottles of aspirin, because you can only get a 32 blister pack in England, which annoys me. In the UK, I buy Nurofen with codeine for painful headaches, because in the states, I’d need to see a doctor to get codeine.
It’s never a good idea to just take whatever they sell. You must be an informed consumer and know what you’re buying and what it does. Saying that, it really is useful sometimes to stock up while you can.
I wanted to ask JJ above, who said that it’s selfish of us to call ourselves americans when canada and peru and elsewhere are also americas, what his alternative word would be for someone from the United States. United Statesian? I don’t think it’s at all a cultural ignorance; just lazy tongues faced with a long country name and shortening it to the most logical nickname. The french would say I’m americaine and the spanish would say I was norteamericana (north american) and I don’t get upset with them for being less specific as it’s really a function of language. If someone from Argentina is an american, why can’t I be as well? (Versus none of us being allowed to say it?)
As far as hiding your nationality abroad, I think it’s never a good idea. If you are polite, educated and respectful, then you should consider yourself a great ambassador for your country. Maybe some places think Americans are bad tourists because everyone has been lying for a decade and saying they’re Canadian. I had a Canadian friend tell me once that he’s always found Americans to be very polite and sweet and that he felt it was a shame our government didn’t do much to accurately represent our people. That’s a conversation that never would have happened had I said I was from Nova Scotia.
When I get in a taxi I always have a local map at the ready and if possible the location I am going to written in the local language (not every taxi driver can read). Traveling without heavy suitcases frees me considerably from the feeling of being locked in with any particular taxi driver.
Great information! Thanks for sharing! I don’t have a lot to add but I have learned a lot here! One thing I will share is that you will find a great wealth of information at your local library if the area you are visiting has one. We have a lot of people come to ask us local information, where things are, whats a good place to eat and things like that.
I’m off to find the title of your books so I can order it from my local library! 🙂
An excellent post of short, concise tips. I’m off to live in Thailand for a year and leave in a few days so this has been a very enjoyable read. Thankyou.
Regarding carrying cash while traveling…. I am a young female, who has traveled solo in Latin America. I ALWAYS carry at least $200-300 USD equivalent on me in a combination of USD and local currency. Never have I been robbed while traveling. Break the cash up and store it in at least 3 spots (bag, socks, purse/wallet…) Think Smart!
Great basic guidelines to traveling anywhere, and an interesting and useful conversation. The only thing I would add is that, in many places, it’s recommended that you take only official taxis from inside the airport gates–Mexico City, Caracas, Bogota, many larger cities in India. I’ve unfortunately known several people who’ve gotten scammed or, worse, robbed by unofficial taxis. The legit ones cost more, especially from the airport, but it’s a small price to pay.
Chris i have recently just discovered your blog and i have to say that i am so inspired! I’m a high school senior and thinking about college majors now. I don’t know what i want to do but i do know that i want to travel! I’d like to work with impoverished third world countries just like you did in West Africa. I can sincerely say that your blog has been really helping me 🙂
Life is way too short to not see the world. And if you put your head to anything, then it’s really not that difficult to do what you want. I think it’s just important to strip away from the values we put on material things. What did you do after college? I am as well dreading the ‘real job’, i know that i cannot be happy in a stuffy office. I am so glad that i found your blog, and at such a good time!
There is definitely a right and wrong way to bargain, but as was mentioned above, in China you need to bargain. I’ve lived in Beijing 4 years and speak Chinese and everyday I see foreigners getting ripped off on something that cost about 1/20th to make. You can drive a hard bargain quietly and still let the shopkeeper save some face. There’s no reason to feel guilty, it won’t be sold to you if they’re not making some profit. Really just watch how the locals do it.
And for the other comment about being careful not to call locals “locals”. I have yet to have a day pass where people do not point and yell “foreigner” at me, in Chinese. I don’t think either word is offensive if done in a polite manner. The way it is usually done to me is not polite by Western standards but one gets accustomed to these things.
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