When I was 11, I asked my mum if we could go abroad for our annual holiday, for a change, and she said yes. This tipped the scales for my tween years all the way up to now, where I have moved off from the safety net of a week’s holiday each year, sitting by the pool and taking the occasional day trip, to going for 2 weeks, then 3, and then twice a year, to eventually flying solo for months on end.
I ran through the gap year (in my own unconventional way) and now take trips whenever I have the savings and the time, often venturing back to my favourite destinations, or to catch up with the friends I’ve made over the years. Over these past 15 years I’ve learned a few things about travel that can only come with experience; some I acquired quickly, and others that took a few years and a variety of situations to come to form. Regardless of it being your first ever trip, or your 5th year being a nomad, you will learn ways that will make your travels clearer and easier. Below are 19 of my tips to help you out.
1. It's hot outside! The most obvious point to make – but surprisingly easy to underestimate – if you A; live in a cold country and B; If you have never ventured out of that country. For any travel newbies about to take their very first trip abroad and are headed to somewhere warm or tropical, prepare to put a whole new meaning to the words HOT and WARM. If you come from the UK where we see more grey skies and rain than a month of temperatures above 17 degrees you will be hit a lot harder by the wave of suffocating heat when you step off of the plane (there’s nothing quite like it). Nightly temperatures will barely drop as low as 20 degrees and you will be sweating day and night – in the taxi, when you get out of the when you sleep… just everywhere! You will quickly realise how your body will have to adapt to these foreign conditions if you plan to hack it on repeat visits to - let’s be frank - most of the world.
2. You can get by with a smile - You are lost, thirsty, trying to ask where the bathroom is, struggling to haggle down the price of an already inexpensive item in a market, whatever the situation you can almost guarantee that with a little bit of patience, some hand gestures and a smile you will be on your way to being understood. Kindness transcends all languages, religions, cultures and outlooks; use it more often than you normally would and be pleasantly surprised by the world that it opens up.
3. Air travel is uncomfortable - For me at least. If you aren’t above economy class and you get the dreaded middle seat hemmed in on each side by strangers (and a child kicking your seat just to top it off) then your journey will not be your best, I’m sorry to say. If you are like me and struggle to sleep if you can’t lay down straight, get headaches from too much screen time or have problems with your back, knees, neck – wherever – you have to find ways to get as comfortable as physically possible within the limitations. For me this involves contorting myself into the seat, resting my feet on the slumping down until I look like I’m about to slide off of it. The little things are crucial; reserving an aisle seat, walking around to stretch often, and bringing warm socks and an eye mask.
4. Layovers all the way! If you struggle with the long flying times, sit in a crappy seat, hate food and get uncomfortable then trust me, take that layover. I have been known to take 3 flights and over 24 hours of travel to avoid an direct flight because I know I would want to kill everone by the end of the direct option. I honestly haven’t flown (long-haul) direct in over 6 years and it is possibly the best flying hack for me. I often get uncomfortable, struggle to sleep and hate the food on flights so the chance to get up and have a decent meal and a walk around wakes me up enough to refresh me and stop me feeling that fidgety numbness I always get after about 4-5 hours of not being able to move.
5. Unlock your phone - If you are planning to take a gap year or even move abroad for more than a month then I would highly advise you to use local sim cards. I did this when I had been to Sri Lanka a few times and knew that I would keep coming back often. It’s even more valuable when the country/ that you are visiting have a low cost of living (back in the day I could call the UK from Sri Lanka for 40 minutes and it would cost me the equivalent of £2) Despite the ever prevalent social media and apps such as Viber and Whatsapp texts and calls are failsafe.
6. Stay longer - A lesson that took me years to discover; only after a few solo trips did I feel the desire to really slow down and get away from the organised tours and set itineraries, and discover the places I was seeing fully and on my terms. I am a full supporter to the saying don’t just pass through, stay a while. The longer you spend in one place the more you will experience and understand about the place you came so far to see. So slow down your travels, do as the locals do, observe, soak it all in. The benefits are endless, it’s time to stop mindlessly passing through, which leads me on to….
7. It's OK to return - It’s surprising just how many people hold the idea that they need to see the whole world, never to return to the same place twice. After all, the world is waiting, right? WRONG. By holding this idea tightly you are cutting yourself off to not just the opportunity to really explore and get under the skin of a country by coming back, but the chance to even find out that you might actually like a place enough to want to return. This one is possibly the single biggest ‘ moment’ I’ve had on this. In the early days I was a devout believer of ticking off every country without stopping for a breather. But then I visited Sri Lanka, and I was hooked (part fascinated, partly dragged in), and for 6 years I had experienced a whole new life over there. I honestly cannot imagine what my life would be like if I’d have resisted that initial urge. If you take only one thing from this post, then let it be this; stay longer, or come straight back if you feel that tug – it's ok. Quality of experience over quantity.
8. You'll meet new people - As much as you think that you won’t, you will. Even if like me you are the shy type and don’t like to approach people, you will still meet people. You are dealing with the population of the entire world, and every character in it. I have had people come to me without doing anything, being introduced via current friends, or just from taking a taxi to the airport! You can meet lifelong friends through travel and they are often the best and most colourful kinds of friends you can get. Others will just pass through, but over time you will have accumulated a global network of friends.
9. Utilise your network - Stay with friends as much as possible (relating to #6 #7 & #8). this helps to keep costs down (My Maldivian friend was my lifesaver when I went to visit him in Male by letting me stay with his family, but he was the only reason I was going to visit!) Hopefully you will value these people enough to not just use them for a free bed. make solid friendships and have reasons to return to their home countries; it’s often the only way to hang out in real life, and these opportunities make the friendships tighter and more valuable to you all the same.
10. You will graduate… From being a tourist. Congratulations! If this has already happened to you, you will know what I’m trying to say; there comes a time in every traveller’s life when they suddenly (or slowly and over time) realise they are no longer a tourist anymore. They don’t act like a tourist, they don’t travel like a tourist… their style and knowledge of travel kicked itself up a few notches and everything feels more… advanced. When you let go of package tours, become flexible in your plans (which often fall apart before they even begin) and live by more basic means instead of isolating yourself in 5* luxury all of the time, then you can say you have on from the novice ways of travel.
11. Your problems will follow you - No matter how much you think, or want that holiday to be a break or an ‘escape’ from reality, more often than not it fails. Only the very attuned can switch off from their busy reality and will already know that any major problems following them and nagging to be dealt with will be done so already as to enjoy the time away. Most forget that a holiday is not like a dream; your problems are attached by an invisible string, trailing along behind you ready to jump on you and trip you up no matter where you end up. Learn to address problems, or let them grow bigger.
12. You will fall in love - You thought that you would only meet Mr Right or Soulmates #1 and #2 in your normal social settings at home? YES – If you stay at home! There are nearly 8 billion people on this planet so the odds are high that you will meet people, share time together and develop relationships that blossom. Due to the nature of travel, and the types of ever-restless and nomadic people the lifestyle attracts, it’s a very mixed bag as to how long it takes for the relationship to either rise or fall, sadly leading me on to…
13. Prepare for heartbreak - For whatever reasons relationships don’t always work out; couple the numerous standards of dating, love and being told how to live our lives in this manic 21st century with trying to hold a relationship together when travel is part of the equation, and it raises the level considerably. Often when you lose a love you lose a friend too, which is a double blow and can make you feel incredibly isolated and suddenly aware you are travelling solo. The only good news is that if you are left with the short straw, you are in the right place; travel is the most concentrated form of medicine you can give yourself when life deals you a bad hand. Just trust in moving one foot in front of the other, opening to new experiences and the rest will place itself in front of you when you are ready. Oh, and it’s not what you want to hear when you are at the bottom looking for a quick way out of heartbreak, but time really is the key to healing.
14. You don't need all of those clothes! Or the hairdryer, the litre bottle of shampoo, those 2 tubes of hair masks, or the 4 pairs of shoes… Seriously, other countries do have toiletries that you will recognise, it's not the moon you are going to. From going off backpacking, to the standard 2 week ‘British holiday’ you are guaranteed to return with at least 50% of your stuff unused (even if you did unpack it and hang it in the hotel wardrobe - that still counts). you will realise you don’t need as much as you think you do and start minimising your luggae; the most nomadic, seasoned travellers find themselves doing it – it’s a continual lesson we all need to practise.
15. Your memories will revolve around travel dates - Now this might just be me and my weird brain – but ever since my first trip abroad my memories are recalled by which holiday I took in which year. To elaborate; I might struggle to remember what the year was that I finished college, so I would think back to old I was (17) and then what country I visited in that year (Sri Lanka) which led me to the year (2010). As the years ticked over I to take than one holiday a year with my mum, which then turned into solo trips, and months at a time spent living abroad. I would often recall from trips and have to think back using this method to remember where and when it was. Does anyone else do this! Or am I alone on this one?
16. Learn about animal welfare - Wether you care much for animals or not, more so dogs and cats, you will be hard pressed to keep your eyes dry or not feel the tug of sadness for the plight of animals across the world. In most undeveloped countries animals are disregarded, cast out on the streets or used inhumanely as guards and security means. Coming from wealthy Western nations we are appalled and confused as to how animals mean so little to people. If you are an animal lover, on the other hand, you will most likely become involved in their desperate plight and entangle yourself in the web of animal rights laws that are often ancient or non-existent, and those who have the power couldn’t care less. It is the hard truth and a valuable lesson to learn quickly. More often than not, it is the farangs, the suddhus, the bwanas, the foreigners who take action and volunteer or move their lives and their hearts over the oceans to dedicate their time to making improvements for these animals.
17. Visas suck - No matter what nation you are from, I can guarantee at least once in your life, a visa will mess up your plans and be a real pain in the butt. The amount of times I’ve refrained from visiting a place because the visa fee is exorbitant – yes Sierra Leone and India I am looking at you. For others I've had to change my route or stay only a short while because I cant get an extension. Even though I am one of the more fortunate passport holders, where being British gets you free entry to 174 of the 192 nations, it is undeniable we would all rather be one world without borders at times.
18. Staying with strangers is ok - By this I mean Couchsurfing – something I was afraid of trying for too many years for the silliest of reasons, but once I did I wonder why it took me so long. Since stepping into this wonderfully immersive world of meeting local people and getting free accommodation (lets be real, I’m not afraid to shout about how beneficial that part is) I rarely use hotels or airbnb, except for the odd overnight stay. Couchsurfing has become a way of life for me on my travels, and I have so many good stories to tell, and friends I have met along the way that I couldn’t go back to being in hotels 24/7, it's too lonely. It is one of the truly transformative parts of travel.
19. You will realise you are fortunate - Cliché I know, but it is so for good reason – its very true. Travel has many benefits that open up new areas of thinking and ways of living within a person; you are naturally unlocked to seeing what is different outside of your bubble, allowing you to learn how others live, and gaining an understanding that there is much more to the world than just your way. Along with the most obvious by-product of being more grateful for what you have, you recognise there are thousands of ways to live that are all perfectly acceptable and normal.