The road to Mount Cook

61 Handy Tips For First-Time Travelers

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About to head off and see the world, but feeling a bit daunted by the whole thing? Don’t worry, you’re not the only one. Luckily, a little knowledge goes a long way, especially when you’re starting out.

Here are a few useful tips I wish I’d known before I went traveling for the first time. This list started off with 50 tips, but there have been so many good suggestions in the comments, it’s growing every year!

Planning and Packing

  • If you’re not sure if you need it, you don’t.
  • If you’re pretty sure you need it, you don’t.
  • If you’re absolutely certain you need it, you probably still don’t.
  • Take more money.
  • Take more pairs of underwear.
  • Take fewer pairs of shoes.
  • Don’t forget toilet paper. An almost-finished roll is fine. You may not use it, but when you need it, you really need it.
  • A cheap little corkscrew can officially turn you into a hero.
  • If it can’t be worn for three days then washed and dried in a hostel laundry room, don’t bring it.
  • Your airline’s baggage allowance is a limit, not a challenge.
  • Shampoo, conditioner, shower gel.  Pick one.
  • When showers and laundry are hard to come by, good deodorant makes all the difference. The stronger, the better.
  • If you can’t carry your luggage up a flight of stairs easily by yourself, it’s too heavy. See hints 1,2 & 3
  • Make sure your passport has enough pages and validity (> 6 months) to last your entire trip. The visas for some countries take up an entire passport page. No, I don’t know why.
  • A little planning is good. Accommodation in Western Europe is hard to find in peak season.
  • A lot of planning is not. The best experiences are often spontaneous, and detailed itineraries don’t allow that.
  • Learn a little of the local language. You’ll be surprised how far even just “please”, “thank you”, and “sorry” can get you in daily life.
  • Scan or take a photo of your passport and drivers license, and store them online somewhere secure but easy to access. Take a printed copy as well.
  • Speaking of passports and photos, keep a few passport photos in your bag. You’ll often need one (or more) when applying for a visa.
  • Aspirin, Band-Aids, and Imodium. The traveller’s trifecta.
  • Contraceptives are not the stupidest idea in the world either.
  • Travel insurance will save your ass — it’s certainly saved mine, and that of several friends.

In Transit

Plane at airport, sunset
  • Arrive early. Airports suck, but missing your flight sucks a lot more.
  • Jokes about security are hilarious. Spending time in jail is less so.
  • The only thing worse than the taste of airport food is the price. Eat beforehand.
  • Having a few drinks on the plane is fun. Being hungover on the plane is horrific. Your call.
  • Earplugs are your friend. These are the best I’ve found, and trust me, I’ve tried them all.
  • You’ll also want an eye mask, even if it makes you look like a dork.
  • Mild sleeping pills complete the arsenal, for when the people beside you really just won’t shut up.
  • Learning to eat using plastic utensils, with your elbows tucked in and your knees bumping the table, is an essential flying skill. Start practicing now by sitting in a cardboard box during your next meal.
  • Take something that can entertain you for several hours. A novel. Playing cards. An iPad. A ball of twine. Whatever. Just take something.
  • Set your watch to your destination timezone as soon as you get on the plane, and use that time when deciding when to sleep. It’ll help with the jetlag. Maybe.
  • Get up and go for a walk now and again when you’re in the air. It’s good for the circulation and helps relieve the crushing boredom of a long haul flight, even if only slightly.
  • After 20 hours in planes and airports, toothpaste will change your life.
  • When it comes to conversations with border officials, less is more. Answer questions truthfully but don’t volunteer too much.
  • Likewise, pay attention to the signs at immigration. If they say not to take photos or use your phone, don’t. Border guards are often grumpy enough without you giving them an extra reason.
  • Distinctive luggage is a good thing. Surprising as it might seem, yours will not be the only black suitcase on the conveyer belt.
  • Don’t change all your money at the airport. It’s usually the worst rate in town.
  • Having a change of underwear in your carry-on will be the smartest move you’ve ever made when the airline loses your bags.

At Your Destination

Lisbon view April 2016
  • Being polite goes a very long way.
  • A smile goes even further.
  • If somebody doesn’t speak your language, that’s your problem, not theirs.
  • Lack of a common language does not equal deafness. Speaking more loudly will not help.
  • Be alert for scams and danger but don’t let that dictate your trip. Most people are not out to harm you.
  • Opening your heart and mind doesn’t have to mean opening your wallet.
  • Get out of your comfort zone. Eat, drink, and do things you wouldn’t go near in your normal life.
  • Bum bags/fanny packs are the stupidest travel accessory ever, for more reasons than I can even list.
  • Money belts aren’t much better, but if you must use one, don’t keep diving into it every five minutes. Hiding your valuables isn’t much use if they don’t stay … y’know … hidden.
  • Things will be different to how they are at home. That’s kinda the point.
  • Public transport can be cheap, comfortable, and efficient. It can also be the bane of your life. You will experience both.
  • If you miss that public transport, don’t stress. There’ll be another bus or train soon enough, and if you don’t have a fixed itinerary (see above), it won’t make much difference to anything.
  • Meet the locals. If you’d wanted to hang out with people just like yourself, it would have been much easier just to go to the mall back home.
  • Have an emergency source of funds hidden away somewhere, and treat your passport as if it were made of gold. It’s not quite the end of the world if you lose it, but it’ll feel like it at the time.
  • Keep some small change in your pocket. Many taxi drivers and street vendors can’t change larger notes, and it’ll save a lot of time and hassle.
  • Don’t be afraid to screw up. It’s ok. We learn a lot more from our failures than we do our successes.
  • Having flip-flops for the hostel shower can be a really good idea.
  • Don’t be the one who comes back to the hostel smashed after a big night out, turns on the light and wakes up the rest of the dorm. No really, don’t. Payback’s a bitch in the morning.
  • If your friends back home haven’t seen an updated Instagram post from you in the last hour, it’s ok.
  • Make time to stop and smell the roses. Some of the best memories of my travels are when I just sat in a cafe or on a park bench for a while, and watched daily life unfold around me.
  • When looking for somewhere to eat, find the place where there’s nobody who looks like you inside. Bonus points if it’s not in the guidebook, and extra bonus points if the menu isn’t in your language (or there’s no menu at all). The food will be better and cheaper, and the experience more memorable. Trust me.
  • There will be times when it’s all too hard. Tough it out. You won’t remember the bad times in a couple of months, but the good times will stay with you forever.

Got some more handy tips for first-time travelers?  Share them below!

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  1. This is great! Love it. Especially points #1, 2 & 3.

    But for any traveller…above all…as the Nike ad goes…”Just do it”!

  2. Travel and shoes are the real bummer – getting the mix right is one of life’s great challenges, especially in regards to points #1,2, & 3!!

    So any advice on the girl shoe issue?

    1. leave the high heels at home if u travelling to Africa:) Sneakers and flipflops all the way – something u dnt mind getting muddy in summer too 🙂

  3. @Jeremy – thanks – pleased I could make your night better!

    @Valerie – absolutely! Maybe that should have been point #51…

    @Mum – sorry, none of those points were gender specific, #6 included… 😉

  4. -toilet paper is not a bad idea… It has not to be the whole role… a little bit for any emergency…
    -Deodorant is very important, get the strongest one… I think that’s as important as #28
    -For long trips wear some shorts under your pants… so you can take your jeans off and enjoy a lovely sleep…
    -get some passport pictures with you inside your wallet… sometimes you need them to get a phone line, visa forms, whatever.
    -Don’t change all your currency at the airport, It’s always more expensive

    As you say enjoy everything about the new culture, even the annoying things. That’s when you learn more and simply understand life.

  5. I can already tell this list is going to be a lifesaver! I’m packing up my bag now so I’m using your tips. Leaving in just a few days!

    Thanks for this.

  6. a couple of tips:
    Give a photocopy of your passport & itinerary to family or friends. if you take travellers cheques, give a copy of the numbers of the cheques to them as well. That way if you lose any of the above, it’s a helluva lot easier to replace.

    Don’t fall asleep! Well…not at the airport, or on a bus or train! I’ve known people with passports stolen from round their neck when they fell asleep at the airport, and bags been stolen from under feet, or the adjoining seat, when on a bus or train.

    If you’re really stuck re: packing – think of where you’re going. If it’s something you can buy there, then don’t worry about it!

  7. Christine: here’s my advice re: shoes & clothes (from a girl’s perspective) – pack one less pair of everything (shoes, shorts, shirts etc) – why…so you can go shopping once you’re there! 🙂

  8. @Santiago – great tips there, one and all. The toilet paper one has been a life saver in the past!

    @Adam – very jealous that your RTW has finally started – have a blast, sir!

    @Valerie – very useful stuff indeed 🙂

  9. Great list mate and as someone travelling now (oh I love saying that) it all makes perfect sense. I found a great patisserie in Paris and it was always a joy trying to order something when I don’t know French.

  10. Cheers Chris. 🙂 I’m not at all jealous that you’re abe to say that. Nope, not at all. Not even in the slightest.

    Ok, maybe a little…

  11. Just an addendum to #33… If you’re in Egypt and female, smiling at a man you don’t know can be construed as a sexually provocation. This is one warning my friend gave me before I visited her there. You’re better off not smiling if you don’t want to deal with verbal sexual harassment.
    It was a toughie for me, because I can’t help smiling at everyone!

    Great list of tips. Totally agree with #28, the toothpaste – I’ve spent way too many consecutive hours in airplanes and it’s one thing you can do to feel fresh when you’re looking like shit and really starting to drag. 🙂

  12. Nice tips Dave, and good ones from readers too (having a bundle of toilet paper is a lifesaver, you may not need it, but God you’ll be glad you have it if you do; I’d skip the shorts under the pants thing, but hey, to each their own).

    I also toss in a small first aid kit with antibiotic cream, imodium, band aids, chapstick, tylenol, benadryl pills (antihistamine, a nice non addictive alternative to sleeping pills, in addition to being nice to have if someone has an allergic reaction) and a travel pack of kleenex. With the pills, just a few of each is fine, you don’t need to bring along the entire box. Do NOT bring loose pills, unless you want to risk a body cavity search.

    I also have a very light, minimalist traveling style, and I can’t agree with Dave more about leaving the unnecessary crap behind. The more socks and underwear the better, though. The less gadgets and crap, the less you have to worry about being stolen. A pocket size digital camera is the only electronic gadget I bring with me, typically.

    My last three week trip to Thailand and Cambodia, my backpack weighed about 18 pounds. I was happily strolling around while my companions were loaded down under 60+ pound backpacks. And that was after they left another 75 pounds of climbing gear and other crap stored at a hostel in Bangkok. If you don’t bring a laptop, you also don’t need to charger and cables.

    Another travel tip — buddy up with someone on legs of your journey. Having someone you can trust to watch your backpack while you doze is really nice. Not having to carry all your gear while you squeeze into a tiny WC with a squat toilet, a tap, a wet and extremely dodgy-looking floor, and absolute no shelves or anywhere to hang anything is great too.

    Use some common sense, though; keep your passport and money on you, and if your nice new friend is gone with your backpack (and clothes) when you get back, well, lesson learned, but it’s not the end of the world.

    One piece of gear that’s very light, folds up very small, and can save you from a lot of unpleasantness is a sleeping bag liner. If going to a tropical area with lots of mosquitoes or backpacking / camping where there are ticks, I’d lightly treat the liner with permethrin prior to the trip. Not only will it keep the mosquitoes from eating you alive, but it’ll keep bed bugs and ticks off, and make you feel better about sleeping on dirty bedding in cheap hostels/bungalows. Keep the permethrin well away from cats or dogs, and apply it outside.

  13. Hi Crystal, thanks for stopping by! That’s a great point about smiling at men in Egypt, and an important one for women to know if they don’t want unnecessary harrasment – very pleased you mentioned it.

    Toothpaste and (as Santiago said above) deodorant make such a difference after tavelling for hours. It’s amazing how much better you feel when you don’t smell like a sewer and your mouth doesn’t feel like the bottom of a parrot cage…

  14. Hey Nick – wow, what an awesome list of tips. I can see us coming up with the next 50 hints over a few beers in September hey? 😉

    Silk sleeping bag liners are great – I always carry one these days, whereas I pretty much never carry the sleeping bag itself. Small, light, can be squashed into any space in your pack and keeps the bugs away. Brilliant invention.

    And oh so true about carrying less – I may smell like a pack horse by the end of a day on the road, but I prefer not to feel like one as well…

  15. Wonderful tips. I’d also add, if you think you definitely need it you can buy it there. Proctor and Gamble are in every country, you do not need 1L of shampoo!

  16. Great list and completely accurate. Love the whole “practice eating in a cardboard box” suggestion ha. Over-packing is the worst. You included this but if you forget something you can always buy it there. No sense in stuffing a bag full that you have to sit on it. (I’ve done this many times)

  17. @Thom and Sean – looking forward to following your exploits!

    @Ayngelina – you are so right. It’s amazing what you can find in even the smallest of places. And generally if you can’t find it, you can live without it anyway!

    @Suzy – absolutely! I’ve been equally guilty of over packing in the past … lesson learned, eventually!

  18. Thanks Maggie!

    As far as the Japanese encephalitis vaccine goes – well, all I can say is that it ranks up there with rabies on my list of expensive travel jabs that I choose not to get. 😉

  19. This is wonderful information! I’m preparing for a rtw trip, and I’ve been worrying and waffling about some things. Your list is going to be incredibly helpful as I pack and prepare.

    Now, if you could just tell me if I should get the Japanese encephalitis vaccine, I’ll be all set.

  20. I just packed, read this then threw half of what i packed back into my wardrobe. First time ill be traveling with friends overseas ever and i have a big attachment problem with clothes and shoes. But i took out half and im just telling my self ill be ok i can always go shopping, im good at shopping.

  21. @Paloma – Absolutely! There’s not many places where you can’t buy something if you *really* need to. And of course most of the time, you don’t really need to anyway! And shopping is like running – you have to keep practicing it to make sure you’re good at it, right? 😉

  22. Absolutely loved this post. My 3 adult children have traveled extensively and whenever I travel I remember their words of wisdom, especially about the amount of clothes and shoes we take.

    Great words of advice – ones i wish they had known before traveling.

  23. I would also suggest not taking pictures while you are waiting to get through customs. This is not always prohibited but I know that there are huge fines in places like Australia for violating this rule. Keep your money for the attractions rather than for paying fines for things that you shouldn’t be doing.

  24. I keep scanned copies of my passport and drivers licence in my online email account – and carry laminated copies around with me while the originals are kept in a ‘safe’ place.

    If I need to hand over passport/licence, I always give the copies (with the exception being at the airport). Some accom (Vietnam especially) want to hold on to your passport overnight, and motobike hire places also want to hold your passport. In many cases, I found the copy was acceptable. Much better to realise you left a copy behind than your real passport after you check in at your next place – a 12 hour bus ride away.

    1. That’s great advice actually, and something that I’m not as good at as I should be. I manage the first half – the scan to email bit – but never seem to get around to printing out and laminating them before I leave.

      I was reminded of that fact as I was arguing with a motorbike rental guy in Thailand last year about ‘damage’ as he held onto my passport….

  25. Thanks for taking the time to do this! I’m going to be sending this to a friend of mine who i’m going to be traveling with.

    I’ve never heard of trying to rent a vacant dorm room…that’s pretty interesting lol


  26. About to embark on a grown up RTW trip in October with a 5 week house sit in Melbourne. Deciding on what back pack and should I go with macpac or Caribee with wheels, as we are both in our 50’s with some back probs. The only really challenging part will be Singapore to Bangkok, as in USA west coast, NZ then Oz but intend to be on a low budget most of the time when not in free accommodation in Melbournw will be visiting Adelaide, Sydney Fiji and perth. Tips for oldies welcome. Also not sure I can live without iPad.

    1. Hi Coral,

      You might be interesting in this post that I wrote a while back about what to look for in a backpack – I talk about the ‘backpack with wheels’ option there a bit. Synopsis: I’m not a fan. You might well find that they are actually worse for your back than a normal pack, as they tend to be heavier and less comfortable to carry. I’d go for either a standard backpack or a suitcase with wheels, but not try to combine the two.

      I’m a huge fan of Macpac, and that’s what I’m using currently – I wrote a post about choosing it and a review after 6 months on the road with it.

      With the places you’re going, you might find an iPad is really useful – if it means that you don’t take either a laptop or an e-book reader, for example, and you’re going to relatively safe parts of the world, it could be a good option.

      Regardless of what gear you take, though, most important: have an amazing time! The spirit that you approach the trip with will be far more important to how good a time you have than the equipment that you take with you 🙂

  27. 100% true about the shoes, especially for girls. You don’t need 4 different pairs of heels and you won’t want to lug them around. The last point you made reminds me of a post I wrote on my blog. People tend to only talk about the good times and supress the bad memories of travel. Its ok to not be elated every single day. Everyone has their low points but there will be TONS of highs too.

  28. Just exploring your site a bit, love the tips. Being a traveler for only 5 months now, I have definitely discovered the importance of many of these tips on my own.

    I like the tip about not being afraid to screw up. You are exposing yourself to situations you have never been in. I ran out of money completely here in New Zealand, and I felt so ashamed, but I buckled down and I’m kiwi fruit packing now, and I realized it wasn’t so bad. And a BIG lesson.

    Thanks for the tips!

  29. Just relax and enjoy the moment.

    -If you lose the train, don’t mind, there’s a lot.

    -If you don’t find hostel, you have a new challenge in your trip and a funny time to explain later to your friends.

    -Don’t worry about your look or you clothes. Come on, your a tourist, not an executive.

    -Do not get mad with de unfriendly and unpleasant people. Smiles, there’s few.

  30. Stop & smell the roses!
    I see people rushing from activity to tour to attractions non stop…then when they get home they say they didnt get to mix with local people!

    Park up in a little local cafe & while away a few hours….watching the world go by, chatting, making friends….
    Your life will change!

  31. Brilliant tips, fun to read as well, thank you 🙂
    Also great additions in the comments.

    I have 2 more:

    Pack essencials in your carry-on in case your big luggage gets lost, also stuff you might need when waiting around, eg. a small botte of sunblock and mosquito spray (if you go tho these places)

    Make detailed plans beforhand (also enhances the looking forward to your trip) but have fun with the fact that they will probably change spontaneously once you are there.

  32. Would the 1st Timetraveller really need to use an airport? Wouldn’t it be some sort of podlike thing you travel through time with.
    Depending how far into the future or past you go, would current money be any good anyway?
    If you travel more than 5 years into the future your passport will be expired and if you go into the past, explain how you have a future dated passport?

  33. Tips 1,2,3,4,21 and 22 all bye themselves can make the difference between a great trip and verying degrees of less. I now where good earplugs every night and found they can change a $30 hotel room into a $150 suite. Also great for most clubs with crazy loud speakers.

    1. Tips 1,2,3,4,21 and 22 all bye themselves can make the difference between a great trip and verying degrees of less. I now where good earplugs every night and found they can change a $30 hotel room into a $150 suite. Also great for most clubs with crazy loud speakers.

      One more thing— in some countries criminals will pay big money for a good passport—especially U.S. And U.K. Use copies whenever possible and leave your original in a hotel safe. The day you loose your passport/ visas will be your worst travel day.

  34. I might suggest: Several passport size photos, a few copies of your passport first page a bar of sunlight soap for laundry and about 25 feet of heavy string. Often the easiest laundromat is the bathroom sink and the best dryer is the patio or over the tub. A small flashlight is useful when stumbling to the bathroom in the middle of the night.

    Your list is awesome. I especially like #43 and hope many of my friends read it.

  35. One other note: We have discovered in travelling to SE Asia yearly for the past 16 years that when packing if it won’t fit in the aircraft overhead you have way to much stuff with you. Checked luggage unnecessary.

    1. A couple of reasons:
      1 – they aren’t required for security in about 80-90% of the places I’ve seen them being used. Furthermore, rather than enhancing security, they often make you more of a target – if your belt/pack is visible, or you make it obvious that you’ve got one by diving into it in a public place, you’re basically saying “I’m carrying things of value.”
      2 – in tropical countries, money belts (or anything else worn under clothes) get sweaty and smelly in a matter of minutes.

  36. I LOVE this! I am currently planning a big long-term trip and this is exactly what I needed to read as I was starting to get to a place of overwhelm. Thank you for making me laugh and relax!

  37. the list was so long that i didn’t read it all but i believe you should not take anything that cannot be easily replaced on the road.

  38. All very good points except the mild sleeping tablet thing. Im a flight attendant and have to deal with people passing out on me and peeing themselves etc because of “mild sleeping tablets”. Theres nothing mild about them at 35,000 ft.

  39. 10 days and counting … Off on my first backpacking adventure on my own and this list has helped so much! Asia, aus and NZ here I come!! :))

  40. Hi – great post!

    All of these ideas, and a little planning ahead can really make the trip go incredibly smoother.

    I’d like to add a couple things.

    – Small change. In many places, even taxi drivers might not be able or willing to change more than the equivalent of a few US dollars. So if you take a morning moment to separate your cash money and keep a smaller selection easily accessible it saves much time/stress. Additionally, it’s also great to have in pocket a few coins for street performers/musicians.

    – It’s good to learn a handful of key words in another language. Like “thank you”, “do you speak English (or whatever language)”, and whatever the local word is for “excuse me”, as there is nothing worse than bumping into someone accidentally and not being able to communicate that it was unintentional. Also, in many places, if you show an effort to speak a teeny bit of the language, the locals will often open up more and show a different face than they do to just the everyday tourist. Small effort that goes a long ways.

    (Side note: don’t use when encountering officials, customs agents, etc. Here it’s often best to play dumb tourist, not because anyone is doing anything wrong, just to speed up the process.)

    – I recently and accidentally purchased reversible shorts from a supermarket in Mexico. Blue on one side, plaid on the other. Two shorts in one!

    – Wine opener, because, duh. Even one of those little 2-piece plastic ones can turn you into the evening’s hero.

    – Lastly, if you take a few minutes to study a street map, if you are going to a city, and try to commit to memory some of the major streets, it can really save you in a pinch, and give you a sense of geography which I find really helps especially because I have a horrible sense of direction. I usually keep a map taped up on the wall or in a notebook while I’m traveling, and glance at it occasionally. People think I’m some sort of direction genius when really it’s just completely overcompensating for my lack of an internal compass.

    Anyways, thanks Dave. Fun stuff.

  41. I remember the first time I had my first solo travel, I am clueless why is my remaining money does not balance with the budget I created after traveling. Then I realized I did a currency exchange at the airport. Conversion rates at the airports really suck.