I took my very first international trip in 2004 (university spring break, Italy), Since then, I’ve spent about 10 cumulative years on the road. For much of those 10 years, I was traveling full time.
65 countries. 6 continents.
All of that travel comes with lots of lessons:
- Never tell anyone where you’re staying
- You’ll never use that money belt
- US carriers are robbing you blind on international data plans
- 7-11s have the best snacks in Asia
Those are just the little things! Some of the things I’ve learned are so important that they’ve become hard-and-fast rules. Commandments, if you will.
So! These are the rules I live by when I travel. As you’ll see, I learned them the hard way — I hope they help you stay happier and healthier out in the world.
1. Never Judge a New Place Before a Full Night’s Sleep
Travel days are so exhausting! Maybe it’s because I’m in my 30s, or maybe it’s always been this way and I wasn’t as aware of it — but after a day of hauling my luggage around cities and train stations and airports, I am beat. And hungry. And crabby. (No wonder; here’s what I figured out about travel fatigue.)
In that state, it’s really hard to see the positives of a new place. That’s why I don’t allow myself to judge a new city or country until I’ve gotten a full night of sleep. In fact, this is my most important travel rule.
Once upon a time, I flew from Bangkok to Kathmandu. I was up really early, almost missed my flight, dealt with pain-in-the-ass customs entering Nepal, and took a terrifying taxi ride to the hotel. Then I went out to explore, and a kid on a bike rain straight into me and knocked me down in the street.
I went back to my hotel and cried — not in pain (I was fine), but out of sheer exhaustion. In that moment, I hated Nepal. I looked at flights out of the country. I couldn’t wait to leave. Everything was terrible.
And then I slept for 17 hours.
When I woke up, of course, everything was back to normal — and Nepal ended up being one of my favorite countries in the world!
Moral of the story: a good night’s sleep helps you judge a new place fairly.
2. Only Pack as Much as You Can Carry on Your Own
A few years ago, I had this ridiculous moment in the Victoria train station in London — I couldn’t find an escalator or an elevator near my exit, so I was hauling my full-sized suitcase up a huge set of stairs, stopping every five steps to adjust my grip and breathe. I felt stupid (and probably looked it, too).
In that moment, I promised myself I’d never again travel with more than I could comfortably carry on my own. And I haven’t!
These days, I travel with a 24-inch suitcase, a daypack, and a cross-body purse. Fully stuffed, my suitcase usually maxes out just below the 20kg/44lb mark. I can carry it with one hand — with some effort — up and down train station stairs. This is pretty much my upper limit in terms of comfort and maneuverability; yours might be different.
3. When You Want Something Familiar, Enjoy it Without Guilt
When I was in my 20s, I wouldn’t have dreamed of entering a major Western chain. I was there to experience a new culture, damn it! It doesn’t matter how tired I was or how much I wanted something familiar — I was going to “live like a local” if it killed me.
Now that I’m in my 30s, that mentality is long gone. Because here’s the thing: travel is exhausting. It’s stressful. Sometimes, you need a little bit of comfort and familiarity.
If you really just want to sit in a Starbucks and feel normal for an hour, do it! If you’re craving a McDonald’s hamburger, get one!
And more importantly, do it without guilt. Enjoy the shit out of your big delicious American latte. Soak in the feeling of comfort and routine and normalcy. Revel in it. Enjoy the free Wi-Fi and stare at Instagram and forget you’re somewhere new.
Do not berate yourself for not trying a “local” place.
Trust me — when you leave, you’ll feel refreshed and ready to explore. When you’re feeling overwhelmed by the constant decision-making and unfamiliarity, these little pockets of comfort are the best.
4. Never Let Valuables Leave Your Sight…Also, Don’t Travel with Valuables
I travel to many countries where extreme poverty is the sad reality. While I always try to stay low-key, it’s impossible to fit in — which means that I’m automatically a target for theft.
To combat that, I keep my valuables close at all times. Also, I try not to pack something if I’d be really sad to lose it.
Naturally, I learned this the hard way.
In Ecuador, I got on a bus from Quito to Banos. There were only a few other people onboard, and I absentmindedly put my daypack in the overhead compartment. A couple of minutes later, I realized that was a bad idea, so I grabbed it and put it in my lap.
It was only when I got to my hostel that I realized that my bag was lighter. In just those few minutes, someone had come up right behind me, stolen what they could grab quickly, and shut the bag again. That momentary slip cost me an expensive jacket, hiking pants, and a hair dryer. Obviously not a big deal in the grand scheme, but it sucks to be robbed regardless.
5. Use Packing Cubes
You know when you find a product that’s so wonderful, and makes your life so much easier, that you become an instant evangelist? For me, that’s packing cubes.
I’m someone who finds comfort in order — so when my suitcase is a jumbled mess of clothes, it’s stressful.
Enter the humble packing cube! I didn’t discover these little guys until country 56 (I’m now at 65), and they have changed my travel life. They keep everything contained and organized. I never have to dig around to find socks or a specific shirt.
I am a packing cube evangelist. Read about it here: Are Packing Cubes Worth It?
6. Always Check a Bag
So I know this goes against all of the carry-on only travel wisdom on the internet — but I always, always check a bag. (Review of the one I use: Samsonite Aspire Xlite) This is for four reasons:
- I don’t have to drag a suitcase through crowded concourses and tiny airport shops! I’m always so happy to ditch it at bag drop.
- Since I don’t have to worry about carry-on weight limits, I can stuff my suitcase with more clothing options. And shoes!
- I don’t need to worry about size restrictions for liquids and gels. I travel for weeks and months at a time, so I like to use full-size bath products. It cuts down on plastic waste — plus, I don’t have to buy replacements as often.
- I never need to worry about finding space in an overhead bin. If they’re all full, my backpack and purse fit under the seat in front of me. That cuts out a huge amount of stress and pressure!
It’s so nice to wander around the airport free of luggage.
7. Choose Travel Companions Carefully
Oh, this is a tough one. Travel puts such unique stress on a relationship. Those tiny things that irritate you about each other at home? They get really big, really fast when you’re stuck together on the road. Before you know it, you’re yelling at your friend that if she doesn’t stop complaining, you will punch her in the face and knock her out so she can’t complain. (Yes, I did that. And no, I am not proud of it.)
Thankfully, this is a lesson you only need to learn once. (Hopefully) The aforementioned friend had never left the United States and wanted to join me in India. I warned her that it would be a very challenging experience for her first trip — maybe she should visit me in Europe, instead? She insisted, so I agreed.
Worst. Mistake. Ever.
This girl complained for two weeks, nonstop. She didn’t like the food. She was jealous that the women were so thin. Everything was too dirty. Why couldn’t these people just clean the city? Why doesn’t everyone just stop staring? Why can’t the cows just move out of the street? Why is it so crowded everywhere?
We both had a miserable time.
I learned two big lessons on that trip:
- I should never have allowed her to join me in such a challenging place
- I should never blindly say “yeah, sure!” when someone asks if they can travel with me
Now, I pick travel companions carefully. Even more importantly, I match the destination to the person. Not everyone wants (or is equipped) to experience tough but fascinating trips — and that’s just fine!
8. Get Cash and Make Change at the Airport
The first thing I do when I land in another country is head for the ATM. They give you better rates than exchange booths; plus, I like to hold on to my US cash in case of emergency.
The trouble is, ATMs often give big bills. In some countries, shop owners give you the stink eye when you hand over a high-denomination bill. Or, they flat-out refuse to take it while giving you the stink eye.
So, once I get cash from the ATM, I head right for an airport convenience store and buy something small. (They get heavy foot traffic, so they almost always have change.) Then, I can head out into the city knowing that I can ride public transportation or buy a snack without a hassle.
9. Do Not Base Travel Plans on State Department Advisories
I’m the type of traveler that does almost no research. I find a cheap flight and book a couple of nights — then I just show up and figure it out.
Want to know what else I do not do? Base my trip on the travel advisories from the State Department. Not because they’re not valuable, but because they are terrifying. (No wonder people are afraid to travel!)
This is not to say that you shouldn’t read the advisories and alerts — read them, but don’t let them freak you out. Pro tip? If you see a scary warning, look at the region it applies to. Chances are, it’s nowhere near any of the country’s main tourist sites.
Take Mexico, for example. You might look at the warning and see that state of Colima has a Level 4 advisory due to “violent crime and gang activity”. That doesn’t mean you should cancel your trip to Cancun! Just avoid Colima (easy to do) and you’re good.
10. If a Place Sucks, Leave!
I was raised with that Midwestern attitude where you soldier through hard things until you complete your goal. Then, you learn from the process. We are tough, hardy folks (9 months of winter does that to you) and we do not give up on a challenge.
That’s a great approach to life, but it’s not always great for travel. Why? It means that even when I absolutely hate a place, I still feel compelled to stay and experience it! Inevitably, I find myself resentful and dealing with travel burnout.
Here’s the thing: travel is all about freedom. I’m so fortunate to be able to travel so freely — why on earth would I spend my precious time visiting places that make me miserable? (Those places don’t need my negative energy!)
To be honest, I’m still working on this one. It is getting easier, though — when I hate a place, I’m pretty happy to remove myself. Quickly, if necessary. (Those last-minute, get-me-out plane tickets are tough on my finances, though, so I’m trying to be better about choosing places with greater care.)
And that’s that — my most important travel tips! If you’ve learned any big lessons on the road, let me know in the comments.