For me, the new year marks almost six years of mostly constant travel. It was around this time in 2011 that I had just graduated from college and was preparing for my big move to Korea.
Since then, my travel style has evolved multiple times and in many ways. From expat life to budget backpacking, travel blogging to tour guiding and solo travel to couple’s travel, I’ve just about gone through it all. While my travel styles and preferences will continue to change, just as much as I do, I think after visiting 39 countries I’ve finally gotten into the grove of this thing.
Travel hiccups will always present themselves regardless, but I no longer unrealistically set myself up for failure, or feel guilt for the things I missed because I needed rest. I don’t tote around a 500 page Lonely Planet or purchase a horribly long flight just to save $100.
S A V E M E F O R L A T E R // P I N M E
It feels good to have gotten the hang of it all…well, as much as I imagine one person can. In hopes to benefit your travels this year, here are some of my habits and tips:
1. Go with your gut when choosing destinations
One of the biggest travel mistakes I ever made was choosing a destination just because everyone else seemed to be going.
Just because everyone else said “it was amazing” and “go before it changes” I booked round-trip flights during the hottest season for far longer than I needed/wanted. After a few days there I realized that I just wasn’t into the food or really the country itself. If I listened to myself I would have just gone to Indonesia, a place that’s been on my list —and still is— for years. Darn!
Brazil– a country I always wanted to visit!
Still, under different circumstances and with a different attitude it could have been a completely different story. If it was purely myself that was interested in the country, maybe I would have put in more effort once there. I was really just going because I was a less-experienced traveler who wanted to get somewhere off the beaten path and feel adventurous.
When choosing where to go, don’t listen to anyone else. Sure, reading blogs and talking to friends help us get closer to figuring our preferences and desires, you should still take everything you hear with a grain of salt. At the end of the day, it should be your inner voice that makes the final decision.
Does everyone rave about Paris but you’ve just got this inexplicable obsession with all things Japanese? No need to justify it, book the ticket to Tokyo and save the City of Love for later.
2. Don’t plan too little… or too much!
Planning a trip doesn’t have to be so stressful that you’d almost rather not go at all. With the whole world at our finger tips, it’s never been easier to research anything you need to know. Once I have a destination in mind, here’s how simple the process is. Hint: it’s all about maintaining a balance of planning:
Your beach holiday doesn’t have to feel like work!
Before purchasing a flight:
- Decide how much time you have.
- Narrow down an area or region you can realistically cover in that time frame.
- Over-estimate a budget per amount of days (average accommodation + meals + possible tours + misc. extras).
- Check to see if it’s high season, good weather etc. so you know what to expect (and if it’s still what you want).
- Check how easy or difficult it is to enter and/or get a visa.
- Look at Google Maps and brainstorm a rough route. For example, could you do this trip in a loop or would it be more convenient to travel in one direction? This will help determine which flights to buy.
- Use Skyscanner or Kayak to get the best prices and check the prices throughout the entire month.
- Purchase and don’t look back!
Hitchhiking in Patagonia– it wasn’t scary at all and now it’s a great story!
After purchasing a flight:
- Google basics like, “where to go in ____” and jot down notes/ ‘star’ locations. (See #6)
- Prioritize those places by which interest you the most.
- Research to get a rough idea of how you’ll get around. Plan on taking the bus? Figure out how to buy your first couple bus tickets and leave the rest for when you’re there. Plan on driving? Better figure out how to make that happen ahead of time.
- Spend a little extra and order any travel items that might make your life on the road easier.
- Book accommodation according to your need. Unless it’s a short trip or during holidays, I usually book my accommodation last-minute so I can keep my plans flexible.
- Do some research on cuisine and cultural norms so you don’t arrive ignorant.
These days, doing this can be as quick as an afternoon or sometimes just take a couple of days. For less experienced travelers, it might seem difficult and stressful, but it really shouldn’t be. As long as you keep things as simple as possible, and always over-estimate timing and budgets (give yourself more time in places than you think you need and more money, as well) everything else will work itself out.
Most importantly: don’t waste your time and plan out every day and detail of your trip. Just knowing things you are interested in and having a rough idea how to make them happen is enough. It is 100% certain that things will change (usually for the better) once you arrive in the location. Give yourself the ability to be flexible. You are on vacation after all!
Does this make you cringe just thinking about it? Maybe an organized tour would be more your style.
3. Bring less
Thanks to the advice of my boyfriend, I’m currently traveling around Mexico for 2 months with just a carry-on and a personal item. I was unsure if this was the right choice for me, but it turns out, it’s one of the best things I’ve done for my travels! Not only is getting around easier, but flying is so much less of a pain. Also, you really can pack a huge amount into a carry on if you get the right one. Believe it or not, I’ve still managed to pack stylishly and like always, bring too much!
Key to this strategy is taking a trip to places with relatively similar climates and activities. If I were on my trip to Buenos Aires and Patagonia, this wouldn’t of been possible. For that trip I needed summer city clothes along with warm winter gear and a sleeping bag. Not carry-on possible.
My current Mexico luggage. Although you can’t see it super well, my PacSafe 45L fits a ton but still fits as a carry-on!
Everything I needed for 10 days including a tent and food on my back in Torres del Paine. I left the rest of my luggage at a hostel.
Having less is literally a weight off my shoulders. It saves time and makes me feel more organized and less stressed. I also love the bag I have, so that helps too.
4. Put limits on your social media usage
When I first starting traveling on my own in college, I had to go to an internet café to upload photos or talk to family or friends. These days, it’s easily available to us all the time in the palm of our hands. While I love the ability to keep in touch with loved ones, I hate what it’s done to ourselves and our travel habits.
I’m saddened with the amount of people who have their faces in front of screens at beautiful places. What sickens me even more is I’ve done the same. Recently it’s hit me just how horrible social media is for our experiences, our happiness and our society.
Since documenting everything is now engrained in our minds as a daily ritual, one way to make sure you take control is by putting limits on yourself. While the best option would be to cut social media usage completely while on vacation, not everyone wants to do that. Just cutting down can do wonders.
Given that I have this blog and want to maintain its social media accounts, I remain torn. Sometimes, I’d like to do away with them completely. Here is an example of my social media limits and goals as I try and make it through this new unchartered territory of travel myself:
- Goodbye Snapchat. I want to experience food and locations with my own eyes. This took a while for me to do, but I think it might be the worst of all social media channels for our well-being. Once I found myself being stressed about being able to upload snaps or seeing how often I had a phone in front of my face in interesting and beautiful locations I knew there was a problem.
- Being aware of how long I spend on Facebook. It is scientifically proven that the amount of time on Facebook has a direct and negative connection to our happiness. While it is so easy to connect to WiFi at every bar and restaurant I try my best to always save it for my hostel or hotel room.
- Make an effort to put away the camera. Travel blogging habits has made this hard for me. Naturally, after years of blogging and wanting to grow my social media accounts, getting “the perfect photo” was a priority. I’m starting to get pretty tired of the subconscious stress this has been causing. These days, I’ll focus on photography on one or two days in each destination, and leave it at the hotel for the rest. Luckily I now have a constant travel buddy to take my photos, but I don’t want our travels to be dictated by it. I’m learning to just move on if a photo isn’t perfect and just appreciate looking through my own eyes.
5. Take it one country (or region) at a time
Last fall I spent five weeks in Nicaragua. Last spring was five in Patagonia. This year I’m spending two months in Mexico and one month in Colombia. Even though I have all this ample time to travel, I wouldn’t do it any other way. Gone are the days of trying to fit as many countries as possible into one trip!
Exploring Ometepe, Nicaragua
On a 10 day trek in Torres del Paine, Chile
Exploring off the beaten path Morelia, Michoacan, Mexico
Of course, most people don’t have this amount time and freedom to travel. Still, I urge anyone who is planning a trip to just focus on one area instead of trying to over-achieve. For one, it’s much less exhausting thus more enjoyable. Secondly, it’s rare that I’ve visited a country and left feeling like I’d seen it all, even after being there weeks on end! The more time you have in a place, the more you discover and the more you get out of the experience in the end.
6. Use Google Maps to your advantage
I still stand by the “don’t put in too much effort planning” advice, but there is one thing I have been doing that has been a great help. Whenever on WiFi before arriving in a location, I get on GoogleMaps and add a ‘star’ to all the places I’m interested in or want to see. After that, I research blog articles on the best restaurants and read reviews on TripAdvisor for good restaurants near where I’m staying. I then star the ones that look like places I’d like to try.
Once I’m done, I’ve got a nice layout of the city I will be exploring. Without WiFi, not all the street names will remain (unless you save the map offline, which is also helpful) but your stars and the layout of the city will be visible. I don’t typically like walking into a restaurant without knowing the reviews, so when I’m out exploring and want a good meal, I check my map and see which stars are nearby.
Not only does this organize the places I want to visit, but it saves me time and energy. No need to waste time roaming around looking for that museum, or wasting money on a crappy restaurant!
7. Appreciate the journey while you’re on it
Our precious travel time can slip by so fast. It’s so easy to appreciate it less than you should or be too busy thinking about the future to realize you’re completely happy where you are.
Blogging has always helped me reflect on my travels and notice the smaller details that I otherwise wouldn’t. I look around for unique and pretty views to get a photo, try more foods than I would normally to write an article and think back on the ups and downs for a trip summary. The constant reflection is one way I stay present and is a small extra kick in the butt to do, see and learn as much as I can handle.
While I don’t recommend you start a blog, I do recommend you find a way to reflect and appreciate the experience. Unfortunately, our brains don’t tend to do so naturally. Just writing down a few simple notes about each day will help your memory in the long run and give you some quiet time to reflect and soak it all in.
8. Go your own way, and don’t apologize!
I saved this one for last for one reason– you would have stopped reading by now. To truly be happy in your travels you have to stop listening to all the advice from others and just do things the way you want to. Also, the less expectations you have about a place is always better. I always enjoy places more the less I know about them upon arrival.
Don’t want to stay in hostels? Then don’t. Had enough of Rome but it’s only been two days? Then move onward. Don’t feel like rushing to ever tourist monument and you’d rather just sip coffee and watch people go by? Do it!
A lot of stress from traveling can come from expectations you’ve put on yourself and the destination. Instead of trying to recreate these unachievable ideals, free yourself. Do what you want, eat what you want, spend money how you want, and don’t apologize! As long as it makes you happy (and isn’t negatively affecting the location and others) do as you please.
The more you listen to your inner voice, the more you’ll enjoy yourself and the more you’ll get out of your long-awaited travels.