After planning and going on many great adventures, we’d like to offer some advice on how to have the best trip possible.
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1. Read something about the place you are going before you go.
To many this is probably a no-brainer, but a lot of people just want to “show up and go where the wind blows them.” While this ideal notion of a spontaneous adventure may sound great, the reality can be very different and even dangerous. Pick up a guidebook, and read the general information about getting to your destination, getting around, customs and etiquette of the country you are going to, and basic advice on health, food, common tourist cons, and dangerous animals and insects. Make sure you know what gestures or behavior is considered rude at your destination and act accordingly.
Check up on current events in the country or city you are headed to. Find out if there are political protests, civil unrest, travel advisories, etc. Find out which neighborhoods are unsafe and be sure to avoid them. When we went to Thailand there were protests going on in Bangkok that included some grenades and gunfire on occasion. We followed the stories closely on the Bangkok Post and on Tripadvisor forums a few months before our trip, learned where the protest zones were and what areas to avoid, and we had no issues. Right before we went there was a story online in an Australian newspaper, where an Australian woman was interviewed in Bangkok and was completely apalled that the Australian government had not warned her about the protests and that she had wandered into an area where people had been killed in a grenade blast the night before and she had no idea that was going on. “There should be signs at the airport,” she said. “Our government should have warned us.” Don’t be that lady. Take some responsibility and read the international news. The internet is a big place with a lot of news resources
2. Learn how to say “Hello” and “Thank you” in the language of the country you are visiting.
No one expects you to speak Swedish or Thai, but learning these basic courtesies in the language of the country you are going to will win you brownie points with the locals. It is also often polite to ask “Do you speak English?” to a stranger before you start rambling off your questions. If you’re going to a country with a more common language such as Spanish or French, try to learn a few more basic phrases. If you know some of the language, use it. Even if you’re embarrassed about your pronunciation or grammar, locals will appreciate the fact that you are trying (except for people in Paris, but I digress….).
3. When visiting a city, map out the places you want to see and then look for a hotel close by.
Figure out what you want to see the most, and where the nightlife you are interested in is. Being able to walk places at your leisure instead of relying on public transportation is always nice. If you plan on going out drinking at night, you might consider getting a hotel close to the area you think you are going to be going. Public transportation is easier to come by during the day (and cheaper), and being able to walk back to your hotel tipsy at 2:00 AM instead of paying for an expensive cab ride is always a plus.
4. Use a money belt or cross-shoulder purse, and use ATMS in banks if possible.
Keep your money hidden under your clothes with a money belt, and if you carry a purse make it small and able to be worn diagonal and not vertical over your shoulder. This will make it a lot more difficult to be snatched or pick pocketed. Use common sense and don’t flash any large wads of cash around.
The best way to get foreign currency is from an ATM (traveler’s checks are a thing of the past). Tell your bank and credit card company about your travel plans prior to leaving the country so that they don’t block your purchases and withdrawls. In many countries, it is wise to withdrawl cash from an ATM in a bank (preferably during banking hours so that you can get assistance if it eats your card) and pay cash wherever you go instead of using a debit card. Credit card fraud is extremely common in many places, and the poorer the country, the more cautious you should be.
If you need cash and a bank ATM isn’t available, look for ones that are part of the wall of a building and not a stand-alone. We’ve heard of instances of fake ATMs eating your card or stealing your card information and then telling you the ATM is out of order.
5. Don’t be the guy with no shirt on in a restaurant.
You don’t need a sign that says “no shirt, no shoes, no service” to tell you that this is rude in most places. While in Thailand, a country that dresses fairly conservatively and tank tops are uncommon among locals, we visited a restaurant on the side of the highway for lunch. There we saw a fat European tourist in tiny short shorts, with no shirt on and his huge belly hanging over his waistband which looked like it was about to burst. The icing on the cake: black socks with sandals accompanied his outfit. Don’t be that guy. Just don’t.
6. Wear sunscreen.
If you are going anywhere tropical, or hot and sunny in any way, bring sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher with you and use it. Reapply after getting out of the water–even the most waterproof sunscreen washes off. A bad sunburn can ruin a vacation (and your vacation photos). As a bus driver in Bora Bora said, “Wear sunscreen. If you can’t touch your wife, the honeymoon is over!”
7. Avoid the tour buses if possible.
Yes, it’s easy to do a pre-packaged tour. In some places, it might be your best option. If it involves 40 other tourists from resorts in a huge tour bus though, try to avoid it. We managed to avoid a tour and take a shuttle to Chichen Itza in Mexico and it ended up being a fabulous trip. We got a photo of the pyramid with no one in it. Don’t be afraid to find your own transportation and see it on your own schedule. If it’s a big tourist attraction, get up early and get there when they open. The tour busses and crowds always start flowing in around 10:00 or 11:00, and if you can get most of the sightseeing done and move on to a less touristy location by then–bonus.
8. Don’t spend all your time in resorts.
Resorts are always enticing–huge beautiful swimming pools, beaches, fancy rooms and foo-foo cocktails. However, if you spend all your time at a resort you’ll miss out on a lot. We’ve stayed at a few and we always get annoyed with the fake, pre-packaged tourist show put on by the resort employees, and annoyed with our fellow resort patrons who are often rude to the staff and self-important. When we look back at all our trips, some of the best experiences were the mom-and-pop hotels and bungalows we stayed at where we met some locals or like-minded travelers and learned more about the culture and community.
9. Read reviews on www.tripadvisor.com before you book.
That fabulous deal on that hotel on Expedia? There’s often a reason it’s so cheap. Tripadvisor is a great way to read about other people’s experiences at a hotel or restaurant. You can tell when someone is being uppity (“there was a stain in the corner of the curtain”) vs. reporting a legitimate issue (“bedbugs!”). It’s also a good way to find out more information about the location of the hotel and what is nearby. We booked our resort in Bora Bora based on it’s walking distance to a convenience store and local restaurants to help us save money on food while we were there, and we learned all of that information by reading reviews. We’ve also discovered some really cool small hotels on Tripadvisor that we wouldn’t have seen as options on travel booking sites.
Another great thing about Tripadvisor is it’s forums. Ask a question and get answers from fellow travelers who have been there. Read other people’s questions and see answers. We’ve received a lot of good advice from fellow travelers on these forums and it really helped a lot with our planning. When you get back, post your reviews and photos and tell everyone what you thought about where you stayed.
10. Be an eco-conscious traveler.
Recycle whenever possible, and take all your trash with you when you leave a beach, park, or other destination. Don’t patronize restaurants that serve shark fin soup (more about this here). If going somewhere where animals are part of the attraction (such as riding elephants or whale watching), read up on companies and choose the ones that treat the animals well. Patronize tour companies that give wild animals their space and don’t encourage feeding them. Leave a small footprint, and don’t buy souvenirs consisting of animal parts such as ivory, shark jaws, or fur.
11. Pack light.
Yes, much easier said than done. I’ve kicked myself for not following this rule a few times. It’s always more difficult with cooler climates as well, because clothes are bulkier and take up more space. Take everything you think you need and then put half of it back. Tide makes great little travel-size packets of laundry detergent that are made for doing laundry in a hotel sink and we’ve used them quite a few times. Going for two weeks? Take one week’s worth of clothes and plan on doing some laundry when you get a hotel stay that is two nights or more. Trust us, it sucks lugging around a bunch of stuff and keeping track of it. If you can fit everything you are taking with you into a hiking backpack with some extra room for souvenirs to take home–you’ve done it right.
Our Travel Gear:
This is a great little under or over clothes passport purse. I used it for our trip to Thailand and it held my passport, credit cards, cash, iphone, and a lipgloss. It had multiple pockets to keep things easily accessible, and it blocks RFID scans to protect your passport and other RFID cards/IDs from identity theft. It can be worn across diagonally for safety.
We bought the Canon Powershot N when it first came out (after dropping and breaking our last Canon Powershot that we loved while in the Dominican Republic). This camera is awesome. It takes photos in many different modes such as black and white, sepia, fish eye, toy camera view, etc. It also has what I call “artsy fartsy” mode where you can flip a switch and it takes 5 photos at the same time in different artsy modes and you can choose the ones you like. The zoom is the best zoom I’ve ever had on a point and shoot camera, and it takes great photos in dim lighting. It also takes videos, and has a hybrid mode where you can do video and take photos at the same time. It’s small, and also has a flip screen for different angles and taking stealth shots.
Lifeproof is a company that makes waterproof, sandproof, and droproof (within reason) cell phone and ipad cases. Get this: You can actually use your phone while in the water.
Breathable, moisture wicking shirts are a lifesaver in hot, humid climates–especially when it’s inappropriate to show a lot of skin. Paddy just got some of these and he loves them.
If you like to go to the tropics and snorkel, investing in your own snorkel gear isn’t a bad idea. “Dry top” snorkels keep water out better than the cheaper open-tube kind. Snorkel mask tips: Make sure no hair is trapped under the mask, it will cause it to leak. To de-fog a mask, spit in it and rub the spit around the lenses. Don’t ask me why, it just works.
Supportive hiking sandals and water sandals are essential. Tevas are a great brand that we both own and love.
Waterproof bags are great for bringing cash, credit cards, keys, and other valuables in the water with you when you don’t have a secure place to put them (Never leave valuables on a beach unattended).
Hiking backpacks are great and easier than having to lug around a suitcase, especially if you’re going off the beaten path.
Something essential for a couple traveling alone? A Gorillapod. It’s a small, portable tripod for point and shoot cameras that can be stood up on the hood of a car, trash can, fence post, or bent around a tree branch. Perfect for getting a shot of yourselves together in the middle of nowhere. Works excellent on the hood of a car.
A small daypack is also essential for day trips and beach trips. We like to take along extra sunscreen, water, hand sanitizer, toilet paper (for those bring-your-own-TP types of public restrooms), snacks, etc.
A water camera is essential for trips to the lake, pool, and snorkeling. Also ideal for snow sports. Don’t forget to get a float strap so your camera doesn’t sink if you drop it.
Our favorite brands of sunscreen are Coppertone Waterbabies, Alba, and Bullfrog. Waterbabies has a high water resistance and SPF, as does Bullfrog. Bullfrog is non-greasy but is pretty toxic smelling so it isn’t great for the face. Alba makes great face sunscreen that is easier on the pores. Don’t forget to pack it in your checked luggage if flying.
Tide travel packs for doing laundry in the hotel sink. Make sure to pack these in your checked luggage or in your clear 1 quart toiletry bag for TSA requirements.
Don’t leave the country without Immodium for traveler’s diarrhea (it happens even when you’re being careful, different country, different bacteria). Also, Motilium from the UK helped tremendously when Paddy got the stomach flu in Ireland. It helps with nausea and stomach trouble. You can’t get it in the states though, you have to order it online. Electrolyte hydration tablets are also good if you get diarrhea or are sweating profusely.