9 Things I Wish I Would Have Known as a New Traveler

1. Don’t Pack Common Toiletries

If you would have inspected my suitcase on my first (and second… and third) international trip, you would have found that I clearly didn’t expect to find normal toiletries in foreign countries. I knew from photographic evidence that there was Sriracha Sauce on the International Space Station but for some reason I prepared as if Australians didn’t sell toothpaste? What was I thinking?!

I was making a classic mistake, I was taking what I had learned about camping and applying it to travel. For the vast majority of trips, these are NOT the same thing! Don’t waste precious space in your bag by packing common toiletries! If they aren’t provided for free to you by your hotel they will very likely be available for you to buy at your destination. (They will likely be much cheaper too!)

2. Go Grocery Shopping!

groceryWhen I first started traveling abroad, I actively avoided grocery shopping. I wouldn’t have admitted it then but I was afraid. What if I saw something strange? What if I didn’t understand a cultural norm? What if I had to talk to someone!?

It took me several trips to realize that those fears were exactly why I wanted to travel in the first place :-) Hands down, grocery shopping is the fastest and most effective way to get a peak at how a culture actually ticks. After I learned that, foreign grocery stores/markets become some of my favorite travel sights.

3. Don’t Just Talk Louder when Someone Speaks a Different Language

I am embarrassed every time I see this :-/ Back home, the natural response for when someone doesn’t understand you is to speak louder. This makes sense when both parties speak the same language. Unfortunately, this habit crosses country borders.

If someone doesn’t speak the same language as you, speaking louder will NOT help. It is demeaning and rude! Did you like getting yelled at when you were a little kid? Of course not. Now when this happens, I remind myself that I am a visitor in someone else’s country and do my best to either speak their language or speak slowly and with polite enunciation.

4. Buy a Local SIM Card

I put this task off for years simply because I didn’t understand what was involved. If I would have taken 10 minutes to research SIM cards on the Internet I would have saved myself a whole lot of confusion and annoyance. In order to use a local SIM card, your cell phone must be unlocked and have a SIM card slot. (Most phones outside the United States come unlocked. Inside the United States you need to ask your carrier to unlock it.)

If your phone is unlocked and accepts a SIM card, all you need to do in a new country is remove your old SIM card (you can do this with a paperclip) and swap it with a local one. SIM cards come in different sizes but if the one you but is too big all you need to do is cut it to fit with scissors (yes seriously).

Once you go through this process once, you will hit yourself for not doing it earlier. It is incredibly easy and cheap.

5. Use Your Phone Camera More

camera-phoneThe best camera is the one you have with you. If your camera phone is in your pocket, take more photos! You don’t have to be obnoxious about it (I am looking at you every single person at Disney Land) but do prioritize saving memories. Digital photos are free, weightless and make some of the best souvenirs for reliving your trip later.

That said, none of this applies to taking photos with your iPad. If you find yourself taking a photo in public with your iPad, please stop. Don’t be an idiot.

6. Hotel Points Are Not Nearly As Valuable As Airline Points

Airline points are an incredible tool. They can earn you free flights and upgrades and all you have to do is purchase things you likely already purchase. (The downside is that these purchases must be done with credit cards so you also have to flirt with debt). While this game is getting more diluted, it is still a great way to travel inexpensively.

Hotel points… not so much. Yes, you can get free nights using hotel points but they tend to be a much less valuable “currency”. When I first started learning the travel points systems I wasted far too much time and effort trying to optimize my hotel stays. This paid off far less than airline points and now I have just opted into staying at hotels far less often.

7. Learn Your Local Subway/Bus System Before Leaving

When I first started traveling I avoided metro systems. I didn’t have them where I grew up so I was afraid of them. As a result, I spent far too much money on taxis and shuttles.

After I learned how to use my first foreign metro system (Buenos Aires), I never looked back. Metros/MRTs/Subtes/Subways are essentially the same in all major cities. Learning how to use public transit has been the most financially beneficial fear that I have ever overcome.

8. Bring Strong Currencies With You Everywhere


North Korean currency, not strong but awesome.

When I first started traveling I would make the all-to-common mistake of exchanging all of my cash into the destination currency. “I won’t need this here!”, I thought optimistically.

I quickly realized I was wrong when I found out that you can’t exchange weaker currencies at most foreign exchanges. “What do you mean I can’t exchange Sri Lankan rupees to local? It is a real currency, it has a face on it and everything!”

Now when I travel I intentionally keep USD, Euro and local currency with me. This helps both when I need to exchange money or when I need to get out of a sticky situation.

9. Rent a Bike and Get out of Town

Most tourist destinations are structured so that tourists intentionally stay within one small area. In these areas, prices are inflated, petty crime increases and inauthentic cultural demonstrations thrive. It is all a show and easy to avoid.

Only recently have a I learned that the authentic cultural immersion that I want when traveling is as close as a bike ride away.

As opposed to motorbikes and cars, bikes are generally cheap to rent, provide great exercise and allow you to explore a city at a speed that allows you to take it all in.

People say you can’t buy happiness. Clearly those people haven’t rented a bike and explored a foreign country.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Nice post as always – Going to the grocery store is one of my favorite things to do in a new country – pharmacies are fun too. I normally skip bringing the toiletries just for a good excuse to go to the grocery store!

    • Hey Cindy, Always good to hear from you!

      Exploring pharmacies in addition to markets, brilliant! I am going to start to make a habit of that. :-) I imagine you can learn a lot of about a culture from their medicine. Normally I have only visited pharmacies out of necessity. Your idea is much better.

      Helpful tip!

  • Katie Helgesen

    Hi Danny, excellent points in this post. When I went to England, I was super excited to see all the different pringles potato chip flavors in the local grocery store. Todd and I went to several puerto rican grocery stores on our honeymoon and had fabulous and cheap finds including mixed drinks in foil pouches (like capri suns) that were easy to transport and beach friendly. Also, one of my most fond memories of a trip to the Florida keys was renting a bike and seeing what I normally would not have. Finally, I laughed out loud when reading your comment on taking photos with ipads…such an obnoxious site.

    • Katie reads my blog?! OMG. :-p

      Agreed that it is super fun to see all of the different food varieties that are available. I especially like when I find variations on childhood favorites that are no longer available in their original form in the US. (I am thinking of you original Tang.)

      Sounds like you made the most out of your trips :-)

      Cheers Katie!

  • Good stuff Danny! I love the bike tip. Heading off to Belize tonight. Will give it a try :)

    • Enjoy the trip, be sure to check out San Pedro if you have a chance! Enjoy the bike ride!

  • Hey there, Danny!

    I read this article aloud to my roommates and they had a good laugh and nodded in agreement to a few of your points. They both traveled for nearly a year straight—living in one country per month all around the world, so I trust their travel prowess. They added a few points of their own:

    1. Make a local friend (or two) to learn about hidden treasures and to get special access. Local friends add context to situations and can keep you from getting ripped off. The best tours are truly from locals. Although, they might also trick you into eating something weird just for a laugh, so be careful!
    2. Pack lighter. Then take less than that. And don’t pack for the “what if?” situations or based on silly thoughts like “Maybe there’ll be a cold snap?”
    3. Keep extra cash in your sock. Just in case.
    4. Touristy things are usually that way because they’re actually cool to see once. They just aren’t that indicative of the actual culture, so don’t spend too much time around there.
    5. Learn every local term in every language for the toilet. Seriously.
    6. Get really good at charades and stay lighthearted. Most people are very forgiving and like to laugh at foreigners who look silly but smile.

    • Hey bud!

      Glad to hear you are surrounding yourself with good company :-) I appreciated the tips. I love #4 and #5. I need to work on that :-p As always, thanks for your helpful insights!

  • Markus Allen

    Excellent tips again, Danny. Big fan here.

    I polled a bunch of New Yorkers and asked them for their #1 tip for hailing a taxi – I’m sure these would work worldwide:


  • I love going to the grocery in a new place! I get an indicator of how much things cost compared to back home, I get to check out the local stuff and try new foods (live trying new kinds of food!), and I get to see how the locals live.
    But I do carry my own toiletries though. I remember how I forgot my deo once and had to buy it from A store in Paris, it was more expensive (same brand). And I’d rather have my toiletries on hand than having to buy them from a store, cos in a lot of cases, I go out of the city and stay in places far removed from civilization (e.g. 14th century chateau in Bordeaux with nothing around for miles), so it’s easier for me to carry the essentials.

  • Good list Danny. As English is not my native language, i can easily concur with your 3rd point. Here is what i would like to add from my own experience over the years dealing with Americans, British, Scottish and Australians. All these people seem to speak the same language, but ask me how different they are and let alone non-english speakers like the French and Germans.

    Rule #1: Don’t speak fast.
    Rule #2: Don’t speak too much.
    Rule#3 Avoid speaking in complete sentences.
    Rule #4 Don’t automatically assume that you have got your point across just because the other person is nodding his/her head or smiling.
    Rule #5) Speak less, use gestures more.
    Rule #6) Don’t get annoyed.
    Rule #7) Forget about your grammar. Do baby talk.

    In fact speaking fast is worse than speaking loudly. At least when you speak loudly, your words become somewhat free from regional dialect and easy to understand. Many people believe that they don’t speak fast. But for a foreigner your normal pace is fast. He can barely understand you in the first place and to make things worse, you bombard him with words after words. Speaking too much and speaking in complete sentences also don’t work. Just speak in few words, slowly and clearly and use gestures wherever you can. Speak like you are speaking to an infant. Repeat your words. Finally don’t get annoyed. Even if someone can’t understand you, he/she can clearly read your body language. Don’t assume they are stupid just because they can’t understand your language.


    • This made me smile :-)

      Very helpful perspective. I’ll keep all of those rules in common going forward :-)

  • Nice bit of tips.

    I would only add two words:

    Pack Light.

  • Haha! I like how you slipped in Sri Lanka in there ;-)

    Great post as always!

    Can I also add:

    1) Make sure you change at least some of your cash at the airport? I have made the mistake of trying to get the best currency exchange rate outside the airport, only to end up short of cash during my stay. Then I have to go hunt for the currency exchange place which usually wastes more of my time. Even when I do get the best rate, I still only get a few pounds extra which isn’t really worth the hassle.

    2) Never shop for gifts at the duty free. One of the biggest myths is that duty free products are cheaper than normal stores. The only items I’d buy (not that I do) but if I had to choose products to buy at the duty free they would be cigarettes and alcohol anything else I will avoid.

    • > 1) Make sure you change at least some of your cash at the airport? I have made the mistake of trying to get the best currency exchange rate outside the airport, only to end up short of cash during my stay. Then I have to go hunt for the currency exchange place which usually wastes more of my time. Even when I do get the best rate, I still only get a few pounds extra which isn’t really worth the hassle.

      I am really glad to know that I am not the only one who has goofed that up. I have done the exact same thing… twice.

      Excellent point on #2 as well. Someone has to pay for that expensive retail space, just because they don’t require taxes doesn’t mean they are not marking up the price.

  • Love these!

    Yes, absolutely agree on visiting supermarkets. I get a kick out of seeing weird local products, plus it’s a great way to learn the language.

    Totally true on the cash. I’ve lived in Argentina long enough to know that Argentine currency has absolutely no value anywhere else in the world. Whenever people visit, I recommend they bring cash with them and then exchange it on the “blue market.” I know it sounds horribly sketchy, and people usually ignore me. Until the moment they’re at the ATM in Buenos Aires and realize the exchange rate they get there is only half that of the blue exchange.

    Hope life and the end of the year are treating you well, Danny D.

    • Hi Leigh!

      > plus it’s a great way to learn the language.

      More importantly, it is a great way to learn the food version of the language :-p yum!

      Regarding BA. I had the same experience when I lived there (how long were you there and when?). It was the foundation for my current views on currencies.

      Cheers Leigh, enjoy the new year!

  • Ah, if only we could all learn from those who have gone before us. I’m sure some newbie out there is reading this and then making the same mistakes you did, only to regret it later. Some people just have to learn the hard way. :D

    That currency thing really destroyed my trip to Taiwan. I had CAD and AUD, but I couldn’t exchange anything into the local currency because the only exchange booth that was open wanted USD. And my flight was a few hours away and I needed to get to the airport. Some of the most intense moments in my life. I just wrote about this last week, by the way.

    I agree with all your other points, except for the iPad photo-taking. I don’t even own an iPad, but feel iPad owners have the right to take photos if they want to. :D

  • Larisa

    Another tip: if you understand enough of the local language, buy the local paper and read it as a break. It’s a great way to learn about what’s important to normal, every day people in that region. I actually did this in Singapore and otherwise never would have known that maternity costs are so high there that many women fly to Malaysia to deliver.

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