tip archives

Looking for a quick travel tip or two? You've come to the right place.

  • In Europe, it is not uncommon for small cafes and restaurants to use a two-tier pricing system for food and drinks, depending on where you sit in the establishment. Sitting at the bar or deep inside the restaurant will often come with cheaper prices. On the other hand, enjoying a scenic table out on the patio or sidewalk may include a higher price. To find out, either ask a waiter/waitress, check out a menu, or keep your eyes open for a small sign in the restaurant informing you about their pricing system. We think that a great view makes the food taste better, but when you're on a budget...
  • Traveler's diarrhea. The name alone instills fear in travelers. With the ability to knock you off your feet for possibly days, travelers with this malady should take precautions to make sure that it doesn't lead to more serious problems like dehydration. There are a few things you can do to make the symptoms more tolerable and get back on the road to recovery: drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated, eat salted crackers to compensate for salt loss and avoid milk products. But remember, it is very important to make sure the water that you are drinking to hydrate yourself has been properly purified. Boil the water first. That 'sealed' bottle of water that you drank this morning may be the reason you have diarrhea in the first place.
  • If you are traveling alone and plan to be away for a long period of time, maintain contact with at least one person back home. With the availability of internet cafes, as well as affordable long distance calling, there really is no excuse for not 'checking in' now and then to let someone know that you are all right. It is a good idea to let that person know where you are and where you are going. Establishing a regular 'check in' period of every three days or so will help to ensure that, if something does happen to you, someone will know where you are (or where you were supposed to be). But try not to let your check-in routine take away from your trip. Keep it simple and not so often that it becomes too much of a hassle.
  • Modern bathrooms as we know them do exist around the world, but not everywhere. As a traveler, you'll come across everything from outhouses to simple holes in the ground where squatting is a necessity. In developing countries, cubicles may be enclosed, but as you venture further into the countryside, you may have to make do with little or no privacy. But no matter where you travel, take a roll of toilet paper with. In some parts of the world, it is either non-existent (you're expected to use your hand), very scarce or too coarse to be usable.
  • Hitch-hiking is a very inexpensive way to move from city to city. Besides the occasional dollar or two that you pay to help out with gas, it is virtually free. But getting someone to pull over and actually pick you up can be challenging, what with the number of people looking to thumb their way around these days. One of our faithful readers offered the following strategy: Use an empty (and clean) gas can to carry your clothes and other belongings in. As you stand on the side of the road with your gas can, drivers will think that you are trying to get to a gas station. Although a little bit underhanded, this trick will help you to snag that elusive passing car. Continue with the deception as you are driving, or come clean and divulge your secret, depending on the mood of your driver.
  • Take some time to think about what type of shoes you will want to take with you. Choose your footwear carefully as you will be spending plenty of time on your feet. Your choice of shoes will most likely depend on what part of the world you are traveling in (particularly weather and terrain) and what activities you intend to partake in. Generally speaking, a pair of high-quality approach shoes (light hiking boots) and a pair of sandals will suffice for almost any destination.
  • Theft from your backpack doesn't just happen when you let your pack out of your sight. You can have items removed from your backpack while it is still on your back. Small external pockets can easily be unzipped without you even noticing as you stand in a line-up or on a crowded bus. For this reason, it is a good idea to use a luggage lock to secure your zippers. If you find these to be inconvenient, twist-ties, zip-ties, a paper clip or even string can suffice in making it more difficult for thieves to get your zippers opened. Remember though that a thief can just as easily cut your bag to gain access. Simply securing the zippers does not make your bag theft-proof.
  • The importance of up-to-date and reliable travel information cannot be stressed enough. Relying on an old (also known as "out of date") travel guide will cause you much grief as you sooner or later discover that hostels close down, phone numbers change, and transportation schedules never stay the same. And even though your uncle Bob has told you everything about his backpacking experience through Europe 20 years ago, today's Europe is not like it used to be. Buy a new travel guide, visit web sites like the CIA World Fact Book, and take everyone's travel opinions as just that...opinions. A little extra time and money spent on proper information gathering will save you from plenty of hassles later.
  • In preparing for your trip abroad, try not to let everything wait until the last minute. It may seem like forever until you leave, but time has an uncanny way of passing by very fast. Things to do well in advance include obtaining a passport, beginning malaria treatment (if necessary), getting a full medical check-up, planning your itinerary and purchasing the necessary tickets. Then you can begin to prepare for the rest of your trip and assemble your gear. If you procrastinate, you will undoubtedly find yourself running around frantically the day before you leave, causing unnecessary stress and increasing your chances of forgetting important items or details.
  • On occasion, it may be necessary to leave your passport with a business or organization as collateral, such as if you decide to rent a motorbike or sporting gear. This is not a good idea as you should always have your passport with you. Instead, if possible, take an old, expired passport with you on your trip and keep it stashed away in your backpack. They will probably not notice (or care) that it has expired and will accept it as a valid passport for collateral.
  • When traveling in warmer climates, or if you are more active than usual, make an extra effort to stay hydrated by drinking lots of water and other non-caffeinated beverages often. Don't just wait until you are thirsty, a sign that you are already dehydrated. Dry chapped lips, unnecessary fatigue, and dark-yellow urine are all signs that you need more fluids. Staying properly hydrated will help you stay healthy and improve your mental state of mind.
  • Find out as much as you can about the major health risks of the area you are traveling to. Are there insect-born diseases that you need to be protected from? How can you protect yourself from these diseases? Is the country you are going to politically unstable or at war with another country or even with its own people? Read what you can about your destination ahead of time to help prepare for your trip and even help you decide whether the country is worth visiting.
  • Most budget travelers know about the relaxed attitude towards buying and smoking marijuana in Amsterdam and some other cities. But just because it is tolerated does not mean it is legal. Try to be at least a little bit discreet about your drug use. Contain your pot smoking to the cafes or relatively private locations. Smoking pot openly in public could get you arrested or fined. And when you leave a city where drugs are tolerated, make sure you get rid of all of it before you move on. The neighboring country may not have the same relaxed attitude towards drug use.
  • Before making a relatively expensive purchase, look the product over very carefully to make sure that it is authentic. Egyptian vases of basalt may be made of plastic, Norwegian pewter bowls could be made in America, and that brand name watch that you found in Beijing that is unbelievably cheaper than back home is most likely a fake (besides low quality parts and fabrication, mis-spelled words or brand names are a good indication). Follow the rule of caveat emptor - 'buyer beware'. If you don't mind getting a fake for a cheaper price, don't be surprised if it falls apart or stops working some time soon.
  • If you are thinking about renting a scooter or motorbike, take some time to think about the consequences if you happen to have an accident. Besides watching out for crazy local drivers and tourists, you will probably have to adapt to very different driving laws. Some things to think about: When was the last time that scooter was maintenanced? What sort of medical facilities does the area offer? Legally, how will you be treated by the local police? At the very least, make sure that you wear a helmet (now the law in Italy), eye protection and have something on your feet more substantial than sandals.
  • Most of the bulk in your backpack will be clothing. This means that the easiest way to reduce the weight and size of your load is to take less clothes with you. It just means that you have to wash what you do take more often. If you spend a little time each night doing a little wash, you can keep your clothes in constant rotation. Some travelers even take their oldest clothes with them and then throw them out when they are done using them.
  • Contact your credit card company in advance to let it know which countries you will be using your card in. Your credit card company, suspecting something is amiss when you're overseas, may cancel or put a hold on your card when charges from some distant country show up on a card that previously had been used only locally.
  • When buying a backpack, spend a little more money to get a well-built product. It should be light and comfortable, but also very durable because it will take a lot of abuse. You will be dependent on your pack. Any problems with it -- and there will be more if you buy a low-quality pack -- will directly impact your traveling experience. Spend good money on a good pack and feel confident that it will perform for you when you most need it to.
  • Although it has been said many times before, this week's tip is well worth saying again: Make sure that your passport is not going to be expiring within 6 months while you are away. The '6 month rule' is commonly accepted by most countries in the world. You will not be allowed to enter a country if your passport expires within this time period, even if you have a pre-paid airline ticket or train pass. Renew your passport ahead of time and save yourself the hassles.
  • If you really think that everything you are taking with you is essential to your trip, try this: A few days before you leave, load up your pack with all the items you plan to take with you and go for some test walks. Get on the bus with your pack and just head out somewhere. Go for a 1-2 hour walk and see how your pack feels. Even though it may seem silly, chances are, you'll get back home and cut your pack's contents in half. A few hours of practice will save you at least a few months of frustration.
  • Be sure and make duplicate copies of all of your important documents. Take one copy with you in case your originals are lost or stolen and leave a copy of your documents at home with a family member or friend. This will provide you with a back-up system until you can obtain new ones. Having copies on hand will often speed up the process of issuing your new documents to you as well.
  • Credit cards are a safe and convenient form of currency when traveling abroad. Not only can you use them to make purchases, but you can also get cash advances with them (provided you know your PIN number). The problem with cash advances is that you begin paying interest on the "loan" immediately. To avoid the 18% (or more) interest charges, over-pay your credit card before you leave if you intend on using your card for cash advances.
  • If you are having problems with the local language, there are a couple of tricks that you can use to help communicate with your taxi driver to help you get around in the city. Ask an employee at your hostel (who speaks the local language) to write down the name of your intended destination and directions to get there (if necessary), which you can then show to your taxi driver. If you have a business card, letterhead or brochure from your hostel, you can show it to your taxi driver to help you get back. For more information about communication in other languages, check out our Language and Gestures article.
  • As tempting as it may be, avoid going barefoot when in a developing (or just plain dirty) country. Lack of decent foot protection leaves you more susceptible to many problems, including injury, insect bites, cuts or punctures (which could give you tetanus, requiring a shot which leads to a whole new batch of risks) and acquiring bacteria and infections from direct skin contact with contaminated sand and soils. Keep your shoes or sandals on and save your soles.
  • Packing light is always a big issue with budget travelers. Ask any backpacker who has had to carry all of his belongings on his back for a month or more and you will no doubt be given some good (and not so good) advice. Deciding on what to pack and what to leave behind is definitely a personal issue, depending on the importance of comfort, style, etc. ( and of course, depending on where you are going). But one piece of advice always seems to hold true -- when in doubt, leave it out. The world really is a small place. You will be able to buy almost anything you want where ever you are going. If not, then just do without.
  • Traveling in the peak travel season of any region can be a frustrating experience as you vie for access to the local attractions. If you must travel in peak season, there are a few things you can do to avoid the crowds -- head out early in the day and hit the most popular attractions first, get off the beaten path and experience the local affairs, avoid museums on their free days, visit attractions late in the day when most people have retreated to their hotels -- all strategies that should help keep your sanity in the midst of the tour groups and hoards of other backpackers.
  • Looking for a restroom but don't want to pay for it? Muster up some courage and walk into any cafe or restaurant and head toward the back to find the restroom. You may find that it is easiest in places with outdoor seating because waiters will think you're a customer. American-type fast-food restaurants, parks, train stations, museums and hotel lobbies are also great places to find a free WC (that's 'water closet' for you rookies).
  • Before you leave, prepare yourself to use internet services abroad. Set up an internet-based e-mail account (such as Hotmail), become familiar with the log-in process, make sure you remember your password and give your new e-mail address out to friends and family. You will also want to save your friends' e-mail addresses on a floppy disk (or better yet, email them to your own address for easy access). E-mail copies of important documents to your email address as well.
  • Consider flying into one city and out of another to avoid wasting time and money. For example, if you are going to Europe, you could fly into London, travel through Europe heading south, then catch a flight out of Rome without having to loop back to London for an added cost and waste of time. Remember that this strategy will be cheaper if you can use the same airline for both your incoming and outgoing flight.
  • A travel guidebook is a very useful 'tool' to take with you while traveling abroad. These books can provide you with plenty of useful information and tips about the area you are traveling in. But you will find that the information you are interested in is spread out over many pages within the guide. For this reason, it is a good idea to take a small pad of Post-It notes with you to flag the most useful pages in your guide (such as maps, currencies or hostel listings).
  • When taking pictures of anything that is behind a piece of glass (for example, a painting or a suit of armor), do not stand directly in front of the glass. Instead, stand at a slight angle to the glass. This way you will avoid the reflection of the flash as you take the picture. If you stand directly in front of the glass, you will simply get a picture of your flash and the picture will not turn out.
  • Your airline ticket will most likely be one of the largest purchases you make for your trip, so this is obviously where you have the greatest opportunity to save some money. It is essential that you do your homework and use all of the available options to trim this cost down as much as possible. Inquire at several travel agencies (both local and online) and peruse the newspapers for deals. Planning early for this purchase will certainly save you money by allowing you time to shop around and compare prices.
  • Your traveling experience will be far more enjoyable if you stay healthy. Plan for the unexpected before you leave and be prepared so you can ward off many health problems and hopefully minimize the severity of those that do occur. Incase you do come down with an unavoidable sickness or injury of some sort, it is important that you are at least somewhat prepared by having medical insurance, a small first-aid kit and knowledge of the health dangers that may be present in your region of travel.
  • When you buy bottled water, make sure that the safety-seal isn't broken. We've seen vendors in Egypt selling water in bottles that have already been used. They were just filling them up with local tap water. If particulates are visible in the water when you shake the bottle, do not drink the water. It's generally safe to drink carbonated water and sodas, but again, make sure that the safety-seal is not broken.
  • Take a few passport photos with you. If you require a visa to get into another country, you may need to have one of these pictures to attach to it. But rather than hunting all over the city looking for a photo booth or photography store (or paying lots of money), you will already have the photos. We know of one group of travelers who spent half a day in Tel Aviv, Israel trying to get passport photos taken for Egyptian entrance visas when it could have taken half an hour.
  • Don't leave your credit cards in the small safes offered by some hostels and hotels. Staff have keys to these so-called security devices and could 'borrow' your card to either make purchases (which you probably wouldn't find out about until you got home) or make a copy of your card which could then be used over and over. When you do make credit card purchases, don't let your card out of your site for more than a couple of minutes. It takes very little time for someone to make an extra charge or two while you are waiting for your card.
  • Near some attractions you may be approached by locals who are keen to offer you their personal "tour services" and escort you around. Sure, they may offer you some valuable information about an attraction as seen through their eyes. But consider whether you can obtain decent information from your travel guide or nearby signs instead - all for free. Paying for local "tour guides" can be tricky. Be sure and barter for, and agree on, a price before the "tour" begins but don't pay until you believe that it is finished (and even at this point you may find yourself in an argument over the thoroughness of the tour).
  • If you are visiting a tropical region of the word where insects and bugs are a problem (especially in malaria-infested areas), use bug netting to keep the critters off of you while you sleep. But rather than just letting the net hang down around your bed, tuck it into your mattress. This will eliminate any bugs from crawling or flying up underneath the netting. A net impregnated with permethrin will also increase your insect defenses.
  • One of the best sources of information about things to see and places to go is other travelers. While you are away, ask people you meet about the places and sites they have been to and visited and what they thought of them. You don't have to always take their opinions as fact. Everyone has different tastes - even if they didn't like something, maybe you will. But generally speaking, other travelers often make for useful advice.
  • If your travel itinerary includes several different countries, try to begin your trip with the country that is most familiar to you (language, customs or just similar to your own). This way, you will hopefully get off to a good start and begin to establish the many travel habits that should become instinctive after a bit of experience. Travelers arriving in an extremely unfamiliar country may be overwhelmed by the many differences in culture, etiquette, etc.
  • Use a mini tripod (about 10 cm. tall) to take self or group photos. Made with thick, formable wire legs, this handy tool screws into the bottom of your camera and presto, instant studio. If you don't have a mini tripod, you can use anything to prop a camera up to take your picture, from a rock to a box of crackers. Of course, you will need a photo timer on your camera to do any of the above, which is definitely a worthy option to consider when buying a camera.
  • We recommend using a money belt to conceal your wealth and keep your passport and other ID safe from thieves. BUT ...carry around some money in your front pocket too! If you do get approached by a mugger, give him your pocket money to ease his needs and then plead poverty. This also helps when ever you buy something because you won't have to keep pulling your money belt out.
  • If your travel pack has a zip-on daypack, take it off and put it inside your main pack if you carry any valuables in it (while wearing your full-size backpack). Or, just don't keep anything valuable in your daypack if it is zipped onto the back. While standing in line or in crowds, thieves can quickly and easily un-zip your daypack without you even noticing. Look for a daypack that not only zips on but also uses compression straps to help keep it securely attached.
  • Consider traveling with a partner rather than going on your own to help save money. Car rentals are cheaper when the costs are shared, and two-for-one deals abound in many travel hotspots. And besides security and companionship, having a travel partner will allow you to lighten your load by sharing some items (ie. laundry soap and travel guides). Some people also find it much more enjoyable to be able to share experiences with someone else.
  • When booking a seat on an airplane, try to get one next to the isle or by an exit. This will provide you with plenty of leg room to stretch out for the long haul. If you will be flying with another person, take one isle seat and one window seat, leaving the center seat open. The odds are that no-one will be seated between you, giving you a little extra room. If somebody does end up between you, just ask them to trade seats so you can sit beside your partner.
  • When buying a backpack, spend plenty of time trying on a variety of styles and brands. Because your pack is going to be your 'home away from home' for some time, you want to make sure it fits right and feels comfortable. Fill it with weight bags (which should be supplied at the store) and walk around with it on your back. Adjust the support straps and make the necessary adjustments to ensure that you are buying the right pack for your back.
  • Don't accept packages from strangers (or even recent friends) and then attempt to cross a major border if you don't know for sure what is in the package. As well, even though theft from your backpack is a concern, you should also look out for anyone putting something into your bag too! Criminals may try to slip drugs or other contraband into your pack and let you take the risk of crossing the border. Then they will get it back from you any way possible. Many large borders ask you if you have recently received any packages from anyone.
  • Fill small travel containers and tubes only 3/4 full with fluids and then squeeze the remaining air out before closing. That way they won't burst during your flight, where the reduction in air-pressure would normally make them explode. It's also a good idea to place liquid-filled containers in sealed Ziploc-type bags when packing just in case they do burst or end up leaking.
  • Rental cars are prime targets for thieves. They break into rentals knowing that, more often than not, there will be valuable items in the car. The key to avoid falling victim to an auto theft is to make your car look less like a rental car and more like one of the locals'. Take off the rental company stickers (if possible) and place a local newspaper in the back window and on the dash. As well, be sure to hide all valuables in the trunk where they are out of site. Leaving your glove box open and empty also helps convince thieves that there is nothing of value in the car.
  • Make a sleep-sheet to take with you. You can make one easily by folding a sheet in half and sewing it up one side. Keep about half a meter un-sewn at the top so you can fold it back a little when inside. Or better yet, check out Dreamsacks, makers of silk sleep-sheets...very light and compact. A sleep-sheet will keep the bed clean and more importantly, keep the bugs off of you. Put your pillow under your sleep-sheet as well so your head isn't directly on it.
  • If you are going on your first backpacking trip abroad, take one or two photographs of friends and family with you while you travel to ease the feelings of homesickness. Seeing a familiar face in a strange land always seems to lighten your mood and make you feel closer to home. Even if it isn't your first trip abroad, you may want to share your photos with any new friends that you meet while traveling.
  • The durability of coins means that they will last hundreds of years longer than paper money. For this reason coins are often used by many countries in the world, rather than paper currency. Even in Canada, the one and two dollar bills have been replaced by coins. You will find that you will have much of your money in the form of coins. When choosing a neck wallet, look for one with a small mesh change compartment in it. You can also take a small pouch with you and carry it around in your pocket.
  • Take a cable and padlock with you while traveling abroad. Use it to lock your backpack to your hostel bed, a bench, a pole or any other secure fixture. This will, at least, make it more difficult for a thief to steal your bag (just enough so that they pass your bag up for someone else's). If you're traveling on your own, a cable and lock is even more important -- you won't have a partner to watch your bag while you do quick errands like run into a bakery or use the washroom.
  • Take a small first-aid kit with you. From tiny slivers to full-on cuts or other maladies, your first-aid kit should have a little bit of 'everything' to help you out. If you are traveling with a partner, just carry one kit between the two of you. Assemble it yourself so you have just what you need and you know exactly what it contains.
  • Take plenty of film. Carrying around a couple rolls too many is not that big of a deal. But paying up to $10 for one roll of film when you need it is. Film can be very expensive in developed and less-developed countries. Even in Japan you can expect to pay a lot of money for film. If it's your first trip and you like to take pictures, six rolls will suffice for a two month travel adventure. If you have too much, sell it to other travelers for what you paid for it or be real popular by giving it away.
  • Scan the main page of your passport and e-mail it to your own web-based e-mail address. That way, if you lose your passport, you will have a copy that you can access and print out from any computer with internet access. This works for health insurance forms, credit card information, phone numbers and addresses, and any other paperwork as well
  • Beat jet-lag by doing things on the airplane according to the time in your destination city. This means that as soon as you get on the plane, set your watch to your destination city's time and act as though you are already there -- sleep and eat according to this new time. Also, because the air in airplanes tends to be extremely dry, drink plenty of water and stay away from coffee and alcohol, two natural diuretics (dehydrators). You'll feel more refreshed and energetic upon arrival.