Advice for first time long term travellers

Pieces of advice proven useful during my first time backpacking.

Take several very large ziplock bags. Use them to pack your clothes in: eg, one for undies and socks, one for tshirts, etc. Seal each about 90% of the way then sit on them to squish out the excess air before closing them completely. It’s a cheap way to save lots of room in your pack and it means when you need to grab something it will slip out easily rather than dragging half your clothes out all over the place along with it.

Get one of those cables with a lock in case you need to secure your pack to something (a bunk bed, a train luggage rack, etc).

Even if you don’t use the cable the extra padlock will come in handy for lockers at hostels that don’t supply free locks.

Take a fine permanent marker with you so you can mark your name and check out date on food you want to keep in communal hostel fridges (usually a requirement).

Bring a one-size-fits-all sink plug. Sometimes it’s nice to have a bath (often showers are in baths anyway) or you might need it to shave or do light handwashing. There won’t always be a plug in the sink.

While a lot of hostels have laundry facilities and you can find laundromats almost everywhere, having that plug, a portable clothes line and a small bottle of handwashing laundry liquid do occasionally prove useful. (Note however that some hostels specifically don’t allow handwashing in sinks or drying wet clothes in rooms.)

If you have the energy for it, shower before you get dressed for bed. It keeps your pjs cleaner and it’s always nicer to sleep in something clean.

If your towel hasn’t dried completely by the time you need to move on keep it in a ziplock bag until you get to your new location and take it out to air as soon as you arrive.

The only time ear plugs have come in handy for me was on an overnight train when the wheels made terribly loud screeching noises in the middle of the night. I’ve never had any problem with noisy dorms or streets, but I’m a fairly heavy sleeper.

I used to pack a rain poncho but was always too embarrassed to use it. Just buy a cheap fold up umbrella if the weather start to turn rainy – and keep it in easy reach.

If you have a fringe take a small pair of sharp hair scissors and trim it yourself. As long as you don’t have a really precise style  you should be able to get the hang of doing it yourself relatively easily. Enough to get by at any rate. You’re backpacking, not entering a fashion show!

Make sure you bring essentials such as prescription medication, but you can buy and replace just about everything else you need (toothpaste, soap, clothes, etc) along the way. It’s half the fun of travelling and they’ll be the most useful souvenirs you’ll pick up! (I still use a cheapie beach towel I got from a stand by the beach in Barcelona 2 years later.)

In the same vein, don’t take one dressy outfit “just in case”. If you end up needing one you can buy it.

Having said all that, sometimes it’s nice to take a little piece of home with you. It’s a cliché, but next time I go backpacking I’m taking a small jar of Vegemite.

Take as few books as possible. Cut down on guidebooks by making good use of free or paid smartphone apps, saving websites for offline use with apps like Read It Later, take scans or PDF guidebooks you can also access on your phone, tear out or photocopy the only pages you’ll need, swap guidebooks along the way with travellers going in the other direction so you only need to carry one at a time…

In general, and anyone that’s ever been backpacking will tell you this: just pack as light as you possibly can! Buy the smallest pack you can get away with and aim to start off with it no more than half full.

Cache iPhone maps to avoid the need for cellular data and therefore avoid huge phone bills:

  • Go to Settings > General > Network, then make sure “Data Roaming” is set to OFF
  • Open the Maps app while you’re connected to your accommodation’s wifi
  • Find the city you’re currently based in. Move the map around, zoom in and out a few levels.
  • This info will now be temporarily stored on your iPhone for the next couple of days (or until you search another area in detail, thus overwriting the cache)
  • Now when you open Maps you’ll be able to view the bits you’ve cached without any kind of internet connection – and the GPS locator will still work (it doesn’t need cellular data)
  • You can also create bookmarks for particular locations on a wifi connection and access them offline along with your cached maps

Sometimes, your accommodation’s wifi just won’t work on your iPhone/Mac laptop/PC laptop no matter how much troubleshooting you do. Try not to rely on having it at your next destination until you’re sure.

If you’ve become heavily reliant on Google Maps but you end up needing to use a paper map, it’s not as bad as you might think! They can you mark you out as a bit of a tourist though: I like to refold mine so only the immediately relevant area is visible at about A5 size. (Messy folds and holes will start to form but it’s quicker to refer to.)

You can often get free paper maps from your accommodation (marked up with recommendations if you’re lucky!).

Take cycling or walking tours on arrival in a new city to get your bearings and see the highlights so you can decide what to go back and see in more detail later on. You’ll often pick up lots of great food tips too. The best kind of walking tours are the “free” ones (for example) – the guides work harder to make sure they’re interesting and you have a good time because they’re working for tips.

You’ll meet a lot of people you’ll want to stay in touch with. If you don’t want to go the whole hog and print up basic little business cards with your contact details on that you can hand out, always have some scrap paper and a pen handy.

Use whatever you can of the local language, even when they use English with you. I think it’s nice.

At the very least, try to learn how to say “thank you” – even if you have to ask the locals how to pronounce it!

Don’t assume a rail pass will be value for money, it depends on your travelling style. Even if you have a pass you often have to pay for surcharges or seat reservations on top.

If you need to buy train tickets and there’s a difficult language barrier, write down what you need with the help of a phrase book.

Take snacks on long train/bus journeys so you don’t have to rely on potentially expensive (or non-existent) restaurant cars.

Take local water transport instead of cruises, eg: Thames Clipper in London, waterbuses in Venice, local ferries in Istanbul. You’ll get the same views for a much cheaper price and I’ve personally never found touristy river cruises that informative (you usually can’t hear the bored guide over the loud speaker system).

Turn around after you’ve walked past a major monument – sometimes that will be the better angle for a snapshot.

Likewise, look up from time to time. You might see something interesting you would otherwise have missed by keeping your eyes at street level.

Coins are very useful! For public transport, laundry, vending machines, tipping, etc. Try to have small notes and big coins.

A money belt is not a bum bag. If you feel the need to use one, only put things that you don’t need to regularly access in it or you’ll just be advertising yourself to thieves. If you do need to access it in public, go into a restroom and do it privately.

Buy some Skype credit so you can make cheap calls to friends and family back home (if they don’t already use Skype enabling you to call them for free) and if you need to make any enquiries or bookings by the phone.

More packing and language tips.

My favourite travel links:

Wikitravel
The Man in Seat Sixty-One
Matador Network
Round the World Travel FAQ