How to Travel the World like a Pro: Tips after 2 Million Steps of Travel

On a hike in Cappadocia, we took our two millionth step. Given Turkey was our 9th country on this trip (if we count our brief transit time in Germany, Bosnia and Slovenia – hey, we got our passports stamped!), it seems like the right time to again share some of the travel wisdom we’ve been gaining along the way. Travel is a skill– one that most people let get too rusty. Months ago, shifting destinations was a bit stressful. Nowadays, we feel like badasses.

Not surprisingly when you’re traveling for a year there are a lot of logistics involved. We did some of this in advance such as generally knowing what countries we wanted to visit and making sure we had travel-friendly credit cards. We also researched which order we should visit the places we wanted to see so that we didn’t backtrack and were visiting countries during their cooler and drier months. Excel spreadsheets and the creation of a custom Google map with weather data helped with these tasks.

custommap
Screenshot of our Google Map (click to enlarge). We save anyplace we read about that gets us excited and add notes about it (often adding average weather data to know what months to avoid)

We’d google “Placename average weather” and generally get some nice pretty graphs showing us how to dodge the most painful months.

BEFORE YOU GO:

Visas, Permits, and other Docs 
We did enough visa research prior to leaving the US to know which countries we needed to apply for a visa in advance (India) and those where we could get them “on arrival” or where we would need to get them from another country while on the road (Vietnam).

Here’s a nice visual map of visa info for US folks.  Most countries allow for visa on arrival (i.e. just show up, pay $20ish, and come on in!). Even so, it is a very good idea to know what to expect prior to your plane touching down in a new country as every system is different and has its own challenges. Some things to consider:

  1. Does the country you will be visiting require additional passport photos? We printed off several 4×6 sheets to take with us.  You might need these for Visas, trekking permits (Nepal), getting a SIM card for your phone, and more.
  2. Know how much the visa costs, what currency they accept, and bring that money with you! We arrived in Turkey and discovered that they did not accept Turkish lira (which we had taken out of the ATM) for our Turkey Visas! They would take USD or Euro however. Some ATMs available in the arrival areas of airports will dispense local money, USD or Euro, but don’t count on it. In Nepal, the ATM at customs was broken and Tony had to beg to be let out of the airport to find another.

    visa

  3. Know the other Visa requirements.  Some places require proof that you’re going to leave their country within the visa timeframe– in Indonesia, we bought $40 plane tickets that we won’t end up using in case the customs agent wanted to see them (he didn’t, but apparently they sometimes do).
  4. Vaccine Card!  Some countries don’t want you entering unless you are vaccinated for certain diseases (yellow fever in some South American countries is a good example).  Load up on the usual suspects and bring your vaccination card.

Do you have the best Credit and ATM card?
There is lots of advice about this online so I’m going to keep it simple:

  1. Make sure you know what fees, if any, you will be charged for international purchases and ATM withdrawals. We got a Capital One card specifically for this trip as there are no fees (international or otherwise) on purchases EVER.  And fortunately the Schwab account we have had for years reimburses all ATM fees anywhere in the world. Over the course of a year this is a big win (note that many ATMs have limits of as low as $100 per transaction to maximize fees).
  2. Make sure to take both a Visa and Mastercard.  We have been in situations where a vendor (mostly online for airplane tix) only accepts one or the other.
  3. Be aware of the benefits you have with your cards like automatic rental car insurance.  The few times we have rented a car, we used our Bank of America card as they have us covered.  You will want to call in advance to confirm this service in the country you are renting in.
  4. Don’t plan on using your CC as much as you think you will.  It seems the rest of the world operates on more of a cash economy than Americans are used to.  Places that say they accept credit cards on their website often don’t.  They will also almost always charge a fee, so if you pay in cash you’ll save money.
  5. Finally, email yourself your credit card number and the phone number on the back in case of theft. Not a bad idea to email other info while you’re at it (passport number, etc).  We took photos of all these docs and emailed them to ourselves.

Being a Greek God of Airfare Research
Getting cheap tickets can be pretty agonizing when you know that there’s got to be a cheaper ticket if you could just summon the right Internet alchemy– and this is getting worse as plenty of airlines are “de-listing” themselves from aggregators like Kayak.  Aggregators all have a slightly different collection of airlines/data, so you should check them all.  Even if you do, you are often missing out on lots of airlines.  Busses are almost always your cheapest bet and, in many countries, are crazy-comfy with wifi and drink service (!). Trains, in our experience, are rarely well-priced unless they are commuter trains.  But, when we want to fly, here’s how we roll (er.. here’s how we fly):

  • For US travel, Kayak is fine, but for international travel you’ll want to add SkyScanner and Momondo to the mix. These will give you a baseline, but if you stop at aggregators, you’re missing the cheapest tickets.
  • If you’re in Europe, check the usual suspects for discount airfare (EasyJet and RyanAir are worth a look, but check WikiTravel for a complete list). Look at their route maps, as they often fly to weird airports that might be a cheap bus ride to where you really want to go.
  • Next step, google “DestinationName Airports”– usually that’ll yield a wikipedia article telling you about the local airport (there may be more than one!), including which airlines fly there.  Oftentimes, there will be airlines you’ve never heard of.
  • Next, google “DestinationName wikitravel”.  On the wikitravel page for that destination, find the “Getting In” section, which will oftentimes have good tips on the best airlines to check.
  • Note that, in many parts of the world, the airlines will sell you cheap tickets on short notice…  It’s easier to be spontaneous in Asian countries.
  • Finally, armed with your list of likely-cheap airlines, go directly to their web sites and see what you can find.
  • If you’re stumped or you have a complex itinerary, you can try FlightFox, which allows you to post a bounty ($25+) to amateur travel researchers for finding you the best fare that matches your needs.
  • Make sure you grok your airline’s carry-on policy…  Some airlines only allow very light carry-on bags.

Where to stay
At this point we have stayed in every type of accommodation conceivable from 8×8 plywood rooms in Nepal to caves to luxury resorts. If you travel slightly off-season you will have numerous choices and can find great savings (do some googling to see if your destination is haggle-friendly).

cavePretty snazzy for a cave, eh?

While we often see backpackers walking around looking for accommodations in a place they have just arrived, we prefer to at least have a night or two booked in advance. The sites we have found most useful for this are Booking.com, TripAdvisor, and AirBnB (note that Booking.com and AirBnB both require that you stay at a place for you to leave a review, while TripAdvisor has more reviews but is easier to game). We get the most information out of reading the reviews from other travelers who will often share useful information like the bed is uncomfortable or the wifi is slow. We are getting braver the longer we are on the road and don’t worry about having a full weeks worth of accommodation booked in a place we intend to stay, but rather try out a location for a night or two and then extend if it meets our needs. Only one time in 4 months of travel was the location we booked not available for additional nights.

THE WEEK BEFORE YOU HIT A NEW COUNTRY OR CITY
Here is our punchlist of tasks before we head out to a new destination:

Research Geography & Transportation – waterbus, dolmus or rickshaw anyone?

DSC02168
$1.50 gets you a trip from Europe to Asia over the Bosporus (Istanbul)

  • Know how you are going to get to your first stop. Star it in Google Maps on your phone, save the address somewhere handy, and (if possible) find the hotel’s website for directions that they provide.  It’s not safe to assume that Google has the coordinates for a business correctly on Google Maps.  Surprisingly, FourSquare does a better job here (though we find their “tips” and rating low quality and too easy to game). Some places like Prague have easy to navigate public transportation systems from the airport, but other places like arriving in Turkey late at night required a long taxi ride to our first destination. Knowing what you should pay is important, as taxi drivers love to screw people fresh off the “boat”.  A good technique is just emailing your hotel/hosts and asking what a fair taxi price from the airport is. Some airports have a government-approved taxi stand where you pay a fixed price, and with a little Google research you can also learn about taxi companies that use meters or are known to be honest. At the Bali airport on arrival late one night the prepaid taxi station wasn’t open and the starting price for our 10-minute taxi ride was 5 times what we had read it should be. After a minute of discussion another taxi driver offered to take us for a dollar more than we thought was the right price and we accepted. DON’T let anyone take your bags at the airport before you agree upon a price. They will have them in a high-priced taxi before you know it, and in some cases insist on an overpriced porter fee.
  • Be aware of exactly where buses should drop you off. On some routes in Turkey the drivers are known to drop you one town short of where you need to be, claiming that is as far as they go. They apparently have kickback arrangements with the local taxi drivers who will then take you the rest of the way, for a price of course. If your ticket says X, make sure they take you there!
  • Download Local Maps.  Prior to our arrival in a new town, Tony downloads the local map and adds the airport, hotel, bus stations, select restaurants, etc., to the map. This will help you feel confident that either your taxi driver or bus is headed in the right direction and keep you on track when you are walking to a well-reviewed restaurant. If you aren’t going to have international 3G coverage (we don’t) or are going far enough away from civilization that you can’t get it, just open your destination in Google Maps and scroll/zoom around a bit. This gets the data on your phone. Again, we can’t stress how unreliable Google is for having hotels, restaurants, etc., properly located outside of the US, but it’s better than nothing.

Other Practicalities

  • Money Conversion/ATMs.  Before you arrive have a sense of the current exchange rate (try the free version of UnitsPlus if you have an iPhone). This is also helpful as you are making your first ATM withdrawal at the airport and trying to figure out how much to take out. We have learned to take the max it will allow, which does vary from ATM to ATM, but is always less than our bank’s daily limit.  If you’re going to small towns or remote places, check Wikitravel (google “Placename Wikitravel”) to see where the nearest ATM is.  It’s often farther than you think!
  •  Is the drinking water safe? We really hate having to buy bottled water everywhere and do our best to buy large containers to refill from (when the local tap water isn’t potable).
  • Learn a couple of basic phrases. Triposo is a great free app (iPhone or Android), which can be used without 3G– and it has an offline map, which is a nice backup for Google. We have found it most helpful for history, basic phrases, and reading up on the local cuisine/dishes. Just knowing how to say “hello” and “thanks” will often go a long ways with the locals. This can be more difficult where there are local dialects (there are 122 languages spoken in Nepal, for example), but there is always a national language.
  • Research tipping etiquette. It will almost always be less than in the US and you may find that your generosity is simply going to the house in places that aren’t used to tips. In other countries where the average annual salary is $1200 and the workers rely on a little extra, you can feel really good about even the smallest of tips.
  • Charge up all those electronics! On our travel days we always make sure that we have our gear fully charged since these devices are key to all of our travel information. No printed docs for us. We also have an external battery pack that we ensure is fully charged and use when batteries run low. It has been particularly handy on days when the phone battery gets run down from using the GPS extensively.
  • Synch your email and apps like Pocket and TripIt for offline access. Again, we are traveling paperless, so making sure that we have any last minute emails with travel details… is very important. It is so easy to check email on the laptop, but then forget to update it on the phone. And if travel plans were made a couple of weeks before and are buried in our email we forward them to ourselves again so that they are at the top of our inbox. We are also using Pocket, which is great for saving travel and destination articles for offline reading.

We’ve learned a lot in the last 4 months and are sure to keep picking up tips on the road.  Hit us with any travel tricks that we’ve missed in the comments!