This week marks the fifth year of my travels. 60 months. 261 weeks. 1,826 days. It feels like a lifetime ago since I bought that one way ticket to Australia, and if I had to do it all over again, I’d do it exactly the same.
Sure, I’ve made some mistakes. I’ve made some big ones! But that’s how we learn. I’d wish I could say I’ve learned one thing every month, but let’s be honest—I’m too stubborn for that. So I’m going to give myself some leeway.
After five years of traveling, these are 50 of the most important lessons I’ve learned.
1. Count your dollars, but don’t pinch your pennies
Don’t get caught up in the nickels and dimes. You won’t enjoy your travels if every single purchase is calculated. I always search for deals on bigger purchases, but I try not to sweat a dollar or two.
2. Throw out what you don’t need
There’s something to be said for simplicity. There’s a lot you have that you probably don’t need. Look at the items that you rarely use and get rid of them. I threw out my North Face jacket on my first day in Cartagena, Colombia. In this way I always travel light with just two small bags.
3. Carry a water purification system
Bottled water is expensive, and it adds up. If you’re drinking two liters per day (which you really should be!), you’re looking at saving at least $60 per month. Try the SteriPen to sterilize all your drinking water.
4. Spend more time in fewer places
I see many travelers powering through whole countries in less than a week. I’ve done it myself, but have learned that it’s no way to get to know a place. The number of places I’ve visited may not be as high, but I truly believe my experiences are richer.
5. Trust your gut
My gut always tells the truth. If you’ve got a bad feeling about something, trust it. Opting out of something isn’t going to ruin your day, but opting in somehow could.
6. Invest in quality gear
That $30 rucksack from China may do the trick, but it’s not going to do it well. You’re better off paying in dollars ahead of time than paying the price metaphorically later down the line. Not sure what to get? Here’s what I recommend.
7. Do everything that scares you
You’re not traveling to stay within your comfort zone, so if something scares you, make a point to do it. Whether it’s jumping off a bridge or eating a new dish, you’ll regret not doing it later down the line.
8. Don’t overplan
I rarely plan anything. I’ve found that if I get caught up in the details of my trip, I stress out. If you try too hard to force plans, they won’t work out. Just let them happen, and you’ll enjoy the journey a lot more.
9. Always keep a backup
It’s easy for things to get broken or go missing during your travels. My data is the most important thing I own, and I simply wouldn’t be able to recover if I lost it all. Make sure you’re backing up to an external hard drive and to the cloud. I recommend Backblaze.
10. Wake up early
There’s just something about a new town in the morning, when it comes alive and the streets begin to fill with people. You get a taste of the local life, and the best photos are always taken just after the sun comes up!
11. Carry a decoy wallet
Keep a ratty old wallet in your back pocket with an expired license, an old credit card or two, and $20 in cash. If you become the target of theft, your real license, activated credit cards, and larger cash stash will remain safe.
12. Lie in hammocks
They are the most comfortable and relaxing places to be. If you see a hammock, lie in it. If only for five minutes, I promise you won’t regret it.
13. Always get health insurance
Especially after finding out I needed major surgery (while I was in China, no less!), I always recommend getting health insurance. I was saved from an $8,000 bill which, obviously, was completely unexpected.
It doesn’t cost much up front, and since the risk of something going wrong is always higher when you’re abroad, I recommend World Nomads for complete travel and health coverage.
14. Make a fool of yourself
Because who cares!? Have a good time, and don’t take yourself too seriously. You may never see these people again, so any potential “damage” to your reputation stays safe.
15. Go broke
Don’t be a bum, but it’s worth going broke (or nearly broke) at least once. The lessons you will learn are invaluable.
16. Skip your Lonely Planet—talk to bartenders and taxi drivers
No, your guidebooks don’t know the best places to go. Bartenders and taxi drivers have their ear to the ground and always know what’s happening around town. Talk to them about where to go or what to see, and you can trust that you’re being given good advice.
17. There’s nothing wrong with going to bed early
Go to bed early and wake up early. Sometimes it can feel like a waste of a night, but it gives you all of the following day. Stock up on movies and fill up that Kindle—you’ll have lots of downtime to relax and power through your shows and books.
18. Visit restaurants for lunch, not dinner
If there’s a restaurant you’re dying to try, save your money by going there for lunch instead of dinner. Dinner is always more expensive.
19. Talk to that girl (or boy), even if you don’t speak the language
It’s always worth it—they’ll think it’s cute that you’re trying, and hey, you never know until you try!
20. Excuses will be your worst enemy
There are so many reasons not to do something. Not enough money, not enough time, too many responsibilities. You need to stop making excuses and take control of your life. If you want to do something, stop messing around and do it already.
21. You are an ambassador for your country
Everywhere that you go, you are an ambassador for your country. Do your best to represent yourself and your people in the most positive way possible. It’s a satisfying feeling to know that I have changed the perspective that many people have of Americans.
22. Stash your money in multiple places
Always keep a couple reserve stashes of cash spread throughout your person and your belongings. I like to keep some money in my shoe, some in my pocket, and some hidden in each of my bags. Plus I carry my decoy wallet if I’m going to be in a busy or crowded place, or somewhere I might be at risk for pickpocketing.
23. Visit all the local events and festivals you can
If there’s any sort of local festival or gathering happening while you’re in town, make sure you’re there. You gain a much deeper insight into the people and culture than by simply visiting the popular attractions. If there’s something big happening, it might be worth adjusting your trip, like the time I stayed in Colombia for Carnival de Barranquilla.
24. Leave your bucket list at home
I don’t like to travel to “do,” but rather to experience. A bucket list never stops growing, and rather than simply just being able to enjoy, you end up operating off of a checklist.
25. Tip appropriately
Research the local tipping customs and follow them. It’s respectful, and it contributes to the economy in a responsible way. If you come from a non-tipping culture, remember that your tip actually pays that person’s wage. If you can’t afford to cover the tip, you shouldn’t be eating or drinking there in the first place.
26. Get lost once a week
It not only helps you to learn your surroundings, but you’ll stumble upon local gems that you otherwise wouldn’t have come across. Plus, getting lost and finding your way again is just plain fun.
27. Keep an open mind
Don’t carry your own judgements into new experiences in new locales. There is often a lot that you don’t know or don’t understand, and your opinion may have been formulated entirely out of context or with a lack of knowledge. If you disagree with something, ask the hard questions, evaluate, and do your research.
28. Vote with your dollar
Especially when you travel, the way you spend your dollars are a direct vote in favor of whatever you’re purchasing. If you ride an elephant, you are voting in favor of animal cruelty. If you buy local, you are supporting the local economy. Which would you prefer?
29. Ride local buses
They’re the best way to catch a glimpse of local life, and you’ll end up seeing some new parts of town that you otherwise wouldn’t have.
30. Pack a good camera
It’s worth it. Your photos and memories are the only thing that will last your lifetime, and five years from now you’re going to wish you had better photos (I sure do). Take some time to research basic photography techniques as well.
31. Eat everything in sight
Bugs, stomach, eyeballs, whatever it may be—try it. You might actually like it (or you might throw up), and it makes for a great story down the line. At the end of the day, it’s not going to kill you.
32. Pack extra deodorant
Some countries just don’t carry the one you want. There’s nothing worse than getting stuck with roll-on or spray when all you want is a stick.
33. Have a backup plan
Things will always go wrong. Hope for the best but prepare for the worst. I didn’t have a backup plan when I got stuck in Colombia, and I sure wish that I did. That being said, if you just put a little faith in the universe, things have a way of working out.
34. Put some faith in the universe
Sometimes you just have to let go of control, and allow things to happen in the way that they will. Travel plans will not always work out, and you have to have faith that, in some strange way, the universe is unfolding in the way it’s supposed to.
35. Get a SIM card on your first day
Having a local number helps immensely, and buying a pre-paid card for data isn’t usually that expensive. With full access to apps like Foursquare and Google Maps, the city is always right in your pocket. I had unlimited 3G data in Vietnam for $7 USD.
36. Take naps
For one simple reason: they’re awesome.
37. Apply value to your time
Finding a good deal is absolutely worthwhile, but spending an hour looking for a $5 savings may not be. Sometimes it’s just easier to pay a little more for the convenience and time savings.
38. Use Tinder to find out what’s going on in a new city
It’s a great way to meet locals and to learn about the best places around town.
39. Wear solid colors
They match better, and your can make more outfits out of fewer pieces of clothing.
40. Learn the local language
A few phrases like “hello” and “thank you” can go a long way. Even more importantly, learn the names for foods and some of the local dishes—you’ll be using them three times a day.
41. Expect the best from people
The world is not out to get you and you are not always in danger. Be smart about your surroundings, but remember that people are generally good and will usually partake in incredible acts of kindness if given the opportunity.
42. Get out of Gringoland—party with the locals!
Going out for the night? Avoid the tourist bars and hit up some of the local spots. You’re guaranteed a more genuine and interesting experience. Some of my best nights out didn’t happen in nightclubs or fancy bars—they took place in local dive bars and pool halls.
43. Save your miles
There are so many rewards programs out there, it’s almost foolish not to use them. Whether you’re booking a flight, staying in a hotel, eating at a restaurant, buying gas, shopping for holiday presents, or purchasing groceries, make sure you’re earning miles or rewards.
44. Pick the one place you don’t want to go, and go there
If there’s a specific reason you don’t want to go, you’re probably lacking a certain understanding of what makes that place so special. I never wanted to go to China, but after spending time there, it has become one of my favorite countries.
45. It’s okay to splurge
Traveling is exhausting, so treat yo’ self! Pay for some luxury once in a while. You deserve it.
46. Seize every opportunity
If we’re not making the most of every day, then it’s a waste. I hate turning down opportunities, and I try to make the most of every single one I’m provided with. Maybe those opportunities require risks, but the rewards are far greater.
47. Don’t give too much weight to other people’s opinions
You probably don’t know what the context of their opinion is, so don’t give it too much credibility. Go see and do things for yourself and formulate your own. You’ll become a more opinionated person because of it, which, despite some connotations, is not necessarily a bad thing.
48. Slow down
You have time. Seriously, don’t stress yourself out. Take things easy, go sit in a park, read a book. Don’t get caught up in your travels and trying to do something every moment of every day, because you can never appreciate what you’ve done if you don’t take the time to reflect on it.
49. It’s never too late
Just a couple weeks ago I met an English couple named Jim and Jenny, both in their late fifties, who were riding a motorbike from Ushuaia, Argentina, to the Prudhoe Bay, Alaska—from the bottom of the world to the top. Never give because you think it’s too late. The fact is, it never is.
50. Just go!
If you want to travel, the first step is booking a plane ticket. It’s never the right time, and the circumstances are never perfect. Once the ticket is booked, that’s it–you’re going. And everything else will fall into place. I promise.
What’s the number one lesson you’ve learned in your travels?