Things I’ve learnt about travel / how to travel better

As this blog illustrates I’ve done a fair bit of travel, particularly over the past six years. Along the way I think I’ve gotten better at the mechanics of travel. Here are some of the things I’ve learnt that have made it easier and more enjoyable.

Navigation
Google Maps is an essential tool for not getting lost, or allowing the freedom to get lost and find yourself again, perfect for large markets or the maze of streets in the Medina of Fes in Morocco or Old Delhi.

Before travelling I download offline maps for the areas I’m visiting (menu / offline maps / custom map) to my phone. Without any internet access I’m then able to know where I am, and directions work (though only for driving).

I then use the places functionality. When you are viewing information in Google Maps on a place you can save it as Want To Go (green flag icon), Favourite (heart icon), or Starred Place (gold star icon). I use Favourite for the places I’m staying, Want To Go for potential places to eat, and Starred Place for potential places to visit. You can create custom lists but these three work well enough for me. They need to be saved when you’re online but then work offline. It’s pretty hard then for me to not be able to find my hotel, or where things are that I want to visit.

Information
I try not to over research places before I visit, to retain a sense of surprise, one of the main reasons that I travel. I find going on tours great for this as the logistics are already sorted, and I don’t tend to research the itineraries in much detail. There however are a number of sources I find useful to look at before or while travelling…

I find guide books from Rough Guide, Eyewitness, Lonely Planet and Bradt useful, particularly for history and cultural context. Ideally I can get them out of the library as an eBook rather than carrying hard copies around.

Wikivoyage is another useful source of information which often includes things not captured in the guide books. It’s an open source website managed by Wikipedia, focused on travel. The information can be out of date / incorrect / highly opinionated, but is another source to use, and as with Wikipedia if something is wrong you can correct it.

Google Maps also has a great function where if you type attractions into the search box it’ll highlight all the attractions in the map area you’re looking at. I then go through and save the ones I’m interested in using places. I find that this picks up 95% of what is in the guide books and Wikivoyage, plus ones that aren’t listed. It’s not 100% reliable but often it’ll also show the opening hours, and the ratings can be useful. You can also type in restaurants, cafes, parks, museums, churches, etc if you’re interested in places to eat or more specific types of attractions.

If you want background on a place, it’s history, economy, demographics, culture, etc, then Wikipedia is invaluable. I save specific pages on the country and places I’m visiting as PDFs, and load them on my iPad using Dropbox and offline files. I can then read them without needing the internet, a good way to help fill long bus journeys.

TripAdvisor has plenty of flaws but it is still a useful source of travel information.

None of these sources are definite but just by using a few of them it’s usually a pretty quick process to work out the things I want to do and see when I visit a place.

Transport
For flights I use two websites to identity the options, and then book direct with airlines. Google Flights is an easy to use and comprehensive way of understanding flight options, and has useful filters like whether the airlines are Star Alliance or One World if you want to maximise your air miles.

If you’re looking for direct flights to a specific airport then the Wikipedia page for most airports has a listing of all the airlines and destinations that fly there.

For getting from the airport to accommodation Wikivoyage often has good information on the options. If doing a tour I’ll always avoid booking a transfer through the travel company as they add on a huge markup. Instead I’ll book transport direct with my accommodation, or catch an Uber or Grab (in SE Asia).

When crossing roads in places with busy traffic try and cross with a local, ideally with them closer to the traffic than you are. In some countries, particularly SE Asia you should cross at a steady pace and the vehicles will avoid you, stopping confuses them. In other places this may not work. Best do as the locals do.

Money
The cheapest and easiest option is generally (though check before visiting, particularly places like Argentina and Iran) to get local currency from an ATM at the airport or once you’re in town. If given the choice never choose a conversion into your home currency, use the local currency for the best rate. There are usually one or two transaction fees (from the local bank and your bank) so try to minimise the number of times you get money out.

I pay for everything in cash unless it is a significant one off purchase, using your credit card will usually incur a transaction fee for each use, so you’re better off using cash. Let your bank know if you’re travelling abroad to ensure that your credit card will work.

US dollars are accepted for exchange everywhere in the world (and sometimes for direct payment), and to a less extent Euros. I always take some spare US dollars in case I have issues finding an ATM (or one with money) to cover me for a few days at least.

XE Currency is a useful free app. You can select up to seven currencies for it to compare at any one time, and the rates update every time you open the app when online.

Documents
I save copies of all my travel documents (flight tickets, hotel bookings, trip itineraries, etc) onto Dropbox and then save offline copies to both my iPad and iPhone. Saves on carrying lots of paper and ensures I have a backup or worst case can access through any device via the internet.

Health
Unfortunately getting ill seems to be a regular experience when travelling, particularly as I’m usually visiting developing countries these days. For a more enjoyable trip it’s worth paying attention to hygiene, both of your hands, and of the food and drink you’re consuming. There is plenty of advice online on how to best do this. My top tip is anywhere that the tap water isn’t drinkable or platable to non-locals to avoid brushing your teeth in it. Take a small water bottle to leave by the sink to remind you to rinse in bottled water.

Packing
Again there is plenty of packing information online but for me these are the absolute essentials I take on every trip.

  • Inflatable travel pillow, having a consistent pillow every night makes a big different to the quality of sleep, they’re very light and don’t take up too much space
  • Ear plugs, sleep is important when travelling…
  • Eye mask, and not the free ones from planes, spend a little money and get a decent one
  • Travel umbrella, small and light this goes in my day bag, useful for avoiding the worst of both rain and sunshine
  • Universal plug adapter, with four USB sockets to charge multiple devices at the same time
  • Emergency food supplies, usually energy bars for long journeys / late lunches

2 thoughts on “Things I’ve learnt about travel / how to travel better”

  1. Useful tips based on your extensive and varied experience. I would only add on the hygiene front, avoid salads – they are likely to be washed in potentially unsafe water – and eat well-cooked food not raw. Then, if eating uncooked fruit ensure you peel it yourself. And drink beer or wine rather than water if unsure of its provenance.

    1. Thanks Mark. I’ve learnt to be very careful with both food and drink. Result was a month in Africa with no issues at all!

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