I had a comfortable late-morning flight to Rome. The route to Copenhagen airport is an easy one. Hop a reliable bus for a 5 minute ride, switch to the metro for a 35 minute trip and boom. Next thing you know you’re at Copenhagen airport ready to move quickly through their efficient security lines and on to your destination of choice. The whole process is an easy one and something that I’ve gotten the hang of. But, what’s the old saying? Complacency is dangerous? That sounds about right.
Many of you probably found your way to VirtualWayfarer because of one of my packing videos or blog posts. Both are an area I specialize in and consider myself a bit of an expert in. So, when it came time to pack for my 5 day visit to Italy I didn’t stress out about getting things pre-packed. Oh, sure, I did the basics and made sure that the laundry was done. I even spent some time the night before fretting over what formal clothing to pack. You see, I was heading to Perugia as a finalist in the Perugia International Journalism Festival’s ‘Stories on Umbria’ contest but there in lurked my pitfall.
As I fretted over which suit to pack … to go formal or casual … which tie to take … and how to get it to Italy without turning it into a wrinkled mess in my backpack I neglected actually packing the essentials. When morning came and it was time to leave I launched into a flurry of motion tossing clothing, electronics, and the usual assortment of items on the bed. I was confident – and dare I say a bit cocky – chatting on Facebook and chuckling when friends asked if I’d packed yet. After all, I’m an expert – I only need 30 minutes.
Sidetracked repeatedly by conversations and general distractions I eventually realized that I was running a bit behind. I made the last minute decision to wear a sports jacket, dress shirt, jeans and a pair of leather dress oxfords for the flight. I’d only have about 30 minutes between when I was scheduled to arrive in Perugia and the welcome reception/dinner so I ruled out changing upon arrival. I also packed a full suit and dress shirt which I took in a hanging bag as a carry on for the following day’s official ceremony. This meant I needed to pack my normal walking shoes in my backpack. Which I did. Quickly. Grabbing a pair of my signature Keen Targhee IIs, tossing them in an old supermarket bag, and burying it deep inside my bag all took about 45 seconds. Then in went the rest of my clothing, camera chargers, spare batteries, dopp kit and the like. I paused, and with a flourish tossed the bag over my shoulder, snagged my camera bag, my suit and was out the door.
I made my flight to Italy with oodles of time. The trip from Rome to Perugia was uneventful. I applauded myself for my efficiency. The dinner was delicious and provided an incredible opportunity to socialize with veteran journalists from the likes of the AP, New York Times, and Telegraph. The following day’s award ceremony was equally enjoyable. Though I didn’t win the prize, being in the final three was an incredible honor. Particularly because I was the only blogger in attendance. I spent the remainder of the day walking around Perugia in my black dress oxfords. It was only the following morning as I transformed from semi-formal journalist to relaxed travel blogger that I realized I’d made the worst packing mistake in my personal history.
As I sat in my dimly lit hotel room, still a bit groggy from the night before, I pulled on my jeans, tossed a black v-neck t-shirt over my head and then dug around in my bag for my walking shoes. Unceremoniously I yanked them out and dumped the yellow Netto bag out onto the floor. With one hand pulling my t-shirt down over the rest of my body I slipped my left foot into my shoe and then kicked the right shoe into position. Then, as I went to slide my foot into the right shoe I realized it felt odd. I re-positioned, still not focusing on it, and tried again. That’s when I looked down and paid closer attention. That’s also when I realized that in my haste I had made an impressive error. I had packed two Keen Targhee IIs, true. Unfortunately the two were also two left shoes in similar, but slightly different colors.
That’s right. I packed two left shoes. Two left shoes that were also different colors. Sure, it would have been bad if I ended up with one left shoe and one right shoe from different pairs – that I could have passed off as being creative, or gritty, or…hell, I don’t know. Instead I was left with one simple conclusion. I was an idiot. Not only was I an idiot sitting in a dark hotel room, 2 days into his trip laughing at himself, I was an idiot that had three days of hardcore walking around Rome scheduled. Not something you typically want to do in a pair of black dress oxfords with minimal support, smooth souls, and stiff leather. As far as just wearing the two left shoes? Fat chance.
Too stubborn (and perhaps cheap) to buy a replacement pair of shoes for a mere 3 days I pressed on and wandered Rome alternating between my shower flip flops and my Oxfords. To make matters worse the Oxfords were relatively new, which meant that the leather was still quite hard and hadn’t formed to my feet. So, my penance for rushing out the door and not packing properly? Blisters, sore feet, and a bit of blood.
Oh, and for those of you that might wonder why I have two pairs of near-identical Keens – it’s because I picked up a replacement pair right before my 50 day Africa/Europe trip this past summer. The old pair were still good, but not quite good enough to risk the trip. The end result: two near-identical pairs of keens which sit like old dogs at the foot of my bed. The latest in a long line of shoes which have been featured repeatedly in the 320+ photos that comprise my traveling boots album. So, if you noticed that the shoes in my recent Italy Boot Shots were a bit out of place…now you know why.
Moral of the story? Even if you think you’re an expert, it’s still a good idea to pay attention. After all, no one is perfect.
This post is part of the Ask Alex, Travel Question Wednesdays weekly series. To see previous questions click here. To submit your own; tweet it to @AlexBerger, ask it in a comment on this post or send it in by e-mail.
A quick introductory note – When I began authoring VirtualWayfarer in July of 2007 I never expected that I’d still be blogging on travel, adventures, study abroad and everything that goes with it nearly five years later. Over the years I’ve had a lot of questions and luckily my friends, network, and more than a few random strangers have gone well out of their way to answer those questions. While I still find myself asking questions on a regular basis I’ve found that I can also pay it forward as a resource for friends, my readers, and strangers alike. In an effort to share what I’ve learned from my various adventures I’ve launched Travel Question Wednesdays. I’ll be answering one reader-submitted question every week. You are all encouraged to submit, and all past questions will be archived and available as a resource for readers of this blog. I’m going to take a very open approach to the topics I’ll cover, so feel free to ask me just about anything , just keep it somewhat travel related.
This week’s travel question is from Pernille N. she asks,
Q. “When you are short-term travelling, is there one item you will never go without?”
A. – There are a few items that always find their way into my bag. Power adapters, a small luggage combination lock for hostel lockers, my cameras and a pair of jeans are all items that I won’t leave home without. However, the one that best answers your question is likely a microfiber towel. While many hostels (and most hotels) offer a towel as part of your room, or for a small additional fee, I find having a microfiber towel on hand as a backup is always a welcome travel tool. For the last few years I’ve used a small MSR Packtowl. As a funny side story, I actually accidently ordered a hand towel (about 9×20 inches) in place of a regular small travel towel. It arrived right before a trip, and I didn’t have time to swap it out. I decided to go with it anyhow, and I’m glad I did. Despite it’s size (it’s too small to wrap around me), it takes up virtually zero space, dries quickly, and is so absorbent that it is sufficient to dry me off completely.
I find that I use the towel about 70% of the time during hostel stays. It’s flexible, incredibly durable and can double as a small table cloth in a pinch. The more I use it, the softer it gets while retaining its super absorbent nature. They really are fantastic travel accessories, and as an added bonus you don’t have to worry about a large, bulky traditional towel which is prone to mold, takes forever to dry and can be extremely heavy. My mini-towel weighs less than a dollar in quarters, and rolls up into a ball about the size of a roll of pennies. Microfiber towels are made by a variety of vendors and are relatively cheap. I highly recommend them for people who want a useful backup or who are considering a bit of camping or hosteling.
Pernille, thanks for a great question! To my readers – have a question of your own? ASK IT! Want to see previous questions? click here.
This post is part of the Ask Alex, Travel Question Wednesdays weekly series. To see previous questions click here. To submit your own; tweet it to @AlexBerger, ask it in a comment on this post or send it in by e-mail.
A quick introductory note – When I began authoring VirtualWayfarer in July of 2007 I never expected that I’d still be blogging on travel, adventures, study abroad and everything that goes with it nearly five years later. Over the years I’ve had a lot of questions and luckily my friends, network, and more than a few random strangers have gone well out of their way to answer those questions. While I still find myself asking questions on a regular basis I’ve found that I can also pay it forward as a resource for friends, my readers, and strangers alike. In an effort to share what I’ve learned from my various adventures I’ve launched Travel Question Wednesdays. I’ll be answering one reader-submitted question every week. You are all encouraged to submit, and all past questions will be archved and available as a resource for readers of this blog. I’m going to take a very open approach to the topics I’ll cover, so feel free to ask me just about anything , just keep it somewhat travel related.
This week’s travel question is from Galen E. he asks,
Q. “What is the best bag for a two week trip? Why?”
A. – The easiest and shortest answer to this question is to take a small and medium-sized backpack combo. For a more in-depth break down of different baggage types check out my Lugging Luggage, The Quandary post. Ultimately, the answer depends on what type of trip you have planned and how valuable mobility will be to you. With ever increasingly restrictive luggage policies I prefer to fly with only carry-on luggage, especially for shorter trips in the 1-2 week neighborhood. The added flexibility and convenience of a backpack is hard to beat, and if you’re moving around a fair bit, facing cobblestone streets, or taking public transit between the airport and your hotel/hostel it can be wonderful to have the mobility a backpack offers. On the other hand, if your trip will consist largely of an all inclusive resort, taxi rides to and from the airport and a bucket of beer on the beach, then what luggage you take is largely irrelevant. I’ve assembled a number of user generated and personal packing videos on my Ultimate Packing List site which should give you a better frame of reference for how some of my readers typically pack. View the packing videos here.
At the end of the day keep in mind that most year-long, round the world travelers opt for a mid-to-large sized backpack with a small daypack as their preferred form of luggage. While packing for a two week trip, it’s often easy to pack about the same amount as those traveling for 10-20 times that. Even the most experienced traveler falls victim to this easy overpacking. Consider what you need, what you want, and what you’re comfortable going without and then choose an appropriate bag for your trip.
While the question of what and how to pack comes up quite often, there’s another question that is equally significant: what to use to transport what you finally decide upon. My recent move to Copenhagen offered several fresh reminders and new insights into how to pick luggage and the risk of heavy inconvenience if you choose poorly.
While diehard backpackers are inclined to advocate vocally for (unsurprisingly) backpacks, others will only travel with duffel bags (some of which now come with built in wheels), or more conventional suitcases. Advocates of backpacks like myself focus on their portability and their flexibility. In a similar camp die-hard duffel-baggers swear by their wheeled or “rolling” duffel bags, often arguing that they offer the flexibility of a backpack with less weight and without the requirement that the bag always be carried.While not nearly as comfortable as a backpack, in a pinch the rolling duffel can usually be used like a make-shift backpack despite their unpadded straps. The third class of luggage is the traditional suitcase with built in wheels. These offer easier access to your clothing, a firmer outer shell, and of course wheels that make transporting your luggage across flat surfaces significantly less labor intensive.
Ultimately which type of bag you choose will depend on your age, your physical condition, the type of travel you prefer, and where you’re going. A trip to New York? You’ll probably find a suitcase to be the best and easiest form of luggage. Heading to Europe and expecting to have to walk with your luggage a bit? A destination with a lot of sand or dirt streets? I’d suggest going with a backpack or duffel.
I was recently reminded just how important selecting the right type of luggage was. When I moved from Scottsdale, Arizona to Copenhagen Denmark I had a lot of clothing and gear to re-locate. I fit it into four bags. Three were large suitcases, each with different types of wheels and the fourth was my standard travel backpack. While able to take the heavier weight, traveling with the suitcases quickly reminded me just how much I love my backpack and hate having to use conventional suitcases.
You’ll notice that this post has a series of photos of a broken suitcase wheel. The main lesson learned was that when picking a suitcase, one of the most important things isn’t color, handle, or size. It’s actually the type of wheels it has. As strange as it is, this is something I’ve never heard discussed before.
My three suitcases had three different types of wheels. One had 4 small spinning wheels located on the bottom of the suitcase horizontally. The other had 4 larger spinning wheels located vertically on the bottom of the suitcase while the last had two large fixed wheels built into the bottom of the suitcase as it stood vertically. Of these three suitcases the wheels on two of the three were partially or completely destroyed by the cobblestone streets I was pulling them across. The combination of the small-medium size wheels and their ability to swivel actually made them less resilient and quickly led to them being bent and eventually broken as the uneven stones combined with the weight of the fully laden bags to slowly tear them apart. In total I covered less than a mile with the bags in tow. Despite that limited distance it was enough to turn the wheels from helpful-aid, to obnoxious nightmare.
The surprising winner? The large fixed wheels built into the base of the suitcase. While seemingly less mobile/versatile and resilient, by being fixed they were able to better traverse the cobblestones and survived relatively intact. They also tended to roll better (which was partially also a matter of size).
So, the takeaway? Not all luggage is ideal for all situations. I think it’s easy for us to slip into a set category. I’m a “backpacker” or “suitcaser” etc. the reality is that there are ideal types of luggage for different travel styles and destinations. In gearing up for a trip and preparing to pack our gear one question we should all ask ourselves is, “what’s the right bag for where I’m going?” and the following five questions:
How much will I be walking with my luggage?
What type of ground will I be covering with my luggage in tow (sand, pavement, cobblestones)?
What are my luggage weight requirements?
How many different destinations am I visiting (keep in mind more destinations = more flexible luggage is needed)?
What type of luggage best fits my physical/health needs?
What’s your take? Any bags you really strongly suggest? Have a luggage nightmare? I’d love to hear your thoughts via a comment.
This post was made possibly in part due to the support of our partner – Travel Republic who are offering cheap holidays in October.
The following is my packing list for a 21 day backpacking trip through Argentina in December and early January. The video goes through each item I’ll be taking and highlights how and why I decided to take it.
This packing list is in preparation for a trip to Buenos Aires, Ushuaia, El Calafate, and Iguazu in December and early January.
***Update as of 1/13/09 I have returned to the states and will be doing a re-cap. The above list needs significant commentary as I overpacked/packed for a climate that was far colder than what I encountered. Things like the polos and wool socks should be avoided***
My anticipation is palpable. It’s been slowly building since September when I found a cheap ticket price, decided to leap at the opportunity and selected my destination. I’ve sent the past months fighting the urge to wander, dreaming of far off places and sorting through old travel photos from trips past. Now I can finally embrace the energy and anticipation! The raw nerves of a new experience in a new place, embraced on my own, in new territory and with new wonders yet undiscovered. Each trip pushes me outside my comfort zone, each trip helps me learn more about who I am and who I may yet become. This trip is another large step forward. I’m traveling solo for 20 days in a part of the world I’ve never experienced before. I’m excited, i’m nervous…i’m anxious.
I’ll begin by confessing that I don’t know much about my destination. I prefer it that way. In fact, though it embarrasses me to admit it – when I booked my ticket to Cancun, Mexico with the intent of then spending the lions share of my time in Belize I was under the impression that the natives spoke Spanish. It was only in exploring the Wikipedia profile for Belize that I realized the country – formerly British Honduras – actually spoke English. You should have seen my face! In the months since my original booking, I’ve done some minor research. I’ve reached out to my friends and contacts for advice on what to see, and explored the country briefly via google maps. That said, I’ve largely avoided organized guides. As I prepare to fly out tomorrow you’ll notice one rather obvious item missing from my packing list: A travel guide. Frankly, I don’t especially care for them. Even those geared towards my travel style (like Lonely Planet) seem too polished…too – dare I say pigeonholed? I’ll travel based on word of mouth, booking my hostels a day or two ahead of time as I go. Over the years this approach has made for some interesting situations, especially since I refuse to travel with a cell phone – but all in all they’ve been well worth it!
The Packing List
I’ll let those of you curious about my itinerary and general trip information read my previous post on the subject [here]. For the rest of you – here’s a quick break down of what i’ll be taking – if you’re interested in more in depth explanations of the items, please check out my packing list site – The Ultimate Packing List.
Despite it being December temperatures are expected to be in the mid-high 70s and low 80s. Water temperature should be about the same. Despite that, I’ve made the decision to over pack slightly – just in case it gets colder. I’ve also added several more shirts than I ordinarily would, and an extra pair of shoes to accommodate my Salsa dancing/night clubs.
What I’ve packed:
-1 Cheap Walmart school/sport backpack to serve as my daypack
-1 Cheap Walmart full sized backpack with hip and chest straps
-1 Dopkit bag
-1 Water proof rain jacket
-1 North Face wind blocking fleece vest
-1 Warm scarf (actually an old airline blanket)
-2 Polo t-shirts
-2 Graphic t-shirts (one from a Scottish tour company to serve as a conversation piece)
-2 Button up evening shirts (one of which will double as swimwear for snorkeling)
-5 Pair of cheap Walmart athletic hiking socks
-1 Pair of standard ankle high, light weight socks
-1 Pair of Shorts
-1 Pair of dark jeans
-3 Pair of Ex-Officio Travel Boxers
-1 Black English Driving Cap
-1 Passport and Passport Carrier
-1 Inflatable neck pillow
-1 Sleeping mask
-1 3.75 inch collapsible tripod
-2 8 GB high performance memory cards
-1 Canon G11 Digital Camera and battery recharge station
-2 Lithium Ion batteries for Canon G11 Digital Cameras
-1 Old Nikon 6 MP point and shoot w/ 1gb card
-1 Flip Ultra HD 120 minute video camera
-1 Underwater housing for Flip Ultra HD model video cameras
-1 Mini USB cord to transfer files and recharge my mp3 player
-1 Converter plug for British Colonies
-1 4GB Sansa mp3 player with earbuds
-7 weeks of Malaria medication
-30 probiotic pills to improve digestion
-10+ sports powder packets high in B vitamins, C Vitamins, Potassium and Electrolytes
-1 Old pair of glasses
-2 Books to read
-1 Old pair of Skechers that I use as dance shoes
-1 Pair of Keen Targhee IIs
-1 Pair of Sandals
-1 Lock and key to be used to secure hostel lockers
Curious about what/why I packed one of these items? Feel free to ask about it in the comment section below this post. All of these items will be split between my two bags based on use/security/regularity of use. You’ll notice a guide book and pocket knife are missing from the list. Most people will opt to add a guide book – I suggest going with Lonely Planet or a similar publication. For those checking their bag, I highly suggest a pocket knife. I hate not having one on the road, but prefer the carry on approach which mandates that I leave mine behind. I also suggesting putting the shoes you won’t be wearing in a plastic trash bag to keep things clean. Also, consider taking a handful of plastic ziploc bags and a garbage bag if flying into a rainy destination.
Depending on what time permits, I hope to blog periodically from the road and will be providing a break down of how this packing list worked for Belize/Mexico upon my return. Stay tuned!
My last update mentioned a number of different projects. While most are still under way and keeping me terribly busy, I’ve completed and launched The Ultimate Packing List, which can be accessed through http://www.ultimatepackinglist.com.
I found myself regularly answering a multitude of questions for friends who were about to embark on their 1st, 2nd or 3rd trip abroad. More often than not I was able to contribute a lot, but left out important details – or found that they were too close to their departure date to act on some of the advice/suggestions I had to offer.
There are a multitude of great travel tip posts out there. In fact, just about every travel blogger who’s spent any time writing has written up a tips and tricks post at some point or another. That said, most have great information but are either too comprehensive (and have been turned into multi-page resource sites which are overwhelming) or too basic (and lack a succinct, yet comprehensive approach to delivering the tips and tricks needed).
Additionally, there’s not a one stop shop out there that streamlines finding and potentially purchasing hostel/backpacking specific gear. You can read through posts which randomly suggest (and even in some cases link to) various items they recommend but it’s usually scattered and leaves the travelers scrambling to claw together a solid list. Which is a problem further confounded by big box stores which have too many options and completely unnecessary items.
My answer? Create a website with 3 basic pages. That’s it. The K.I.S.S. principle in action – An extremely comprehensive travel tip post targeted specifically for 20-30 something travelers. A page to display videos outlining what and how to pack submitted by experienced travelers and a final page that interfaces with Amazon to deliver a storefront delivering rock bottom Amazon pricing on a very limited list of hand picked hostel/backpacking relevant and recommended items.
I’m currently looking for new packing videos and always open to travel tip or gear suggestions – so without further ado – hop on over, check it out and let me know what you think!
**Please be advised that an updated version of this list is available on VirtualWayfarer’s new sister site http://ultimatepackinglist.com. In addition to a more comprehensive list, the site features additional travel packing videos and a hostel/backpacking specific amazon shopping list.
The following is a comprehensive list of general travel advice specifically tailored to backpack/hostelers and the Euro zone. However, I believe no matter where you are traveling or what approach you will be taking, you’ll find a lot of good – and some unique information below.
Notify your bank & credit card company – Credit Card companies have a number of checks in place to help protect you from fraud. Unfortunately, these checks can be a real nightmare if you forget to notify your bank/CC company that you’ll be leaving the country. Make sure to call and notify them that you’ll be traveling. If they start seeing a lot of charges from a foreign location, they may put a hold on your card thinking it has been stolen. Make sure to provide dates you’ll be gone as well as the countries you expect to visit. There is nothing worse than trying to get a replacement credit card company while on the road.
Choose the right card – You’re going to pay a currency penalty no matter what you do. However, how much you end up paying can vary widely. Almost all credit cards charge a foreign transaction fee. These fees vary, but are often as much as 3%. What percentage they charge varies from card to card and from bank to bank. Make sure to find out which of your credit cards gives you the best deal. The same goes for bank ATMs and debit card use. Find out what the fee is, and what type of ATM’s are in your bank’s extended networks. Many travelers unwittingly spend $6+ on fees for every $100 in purchases or cash withdrawals they make. The FlyerGuide.com wiki offers one of the best breakdowns/easy to use charts i’ve found.
Currency Exchanges – I avoid these if at all possible. By using ATMs and following the advice I’ve outlined for reducing ATM fees I’m able to get the best currency exchange rate possible. Exchange booths are expensive and take a fee. They also tend to give outdated currency values. When you use an ATM to withdraw funds you will typically receive a better, more up to date, fairer exchange rate.
Travelers Checks and Money Transfers – Travelers checks are huge in the movies, and so are money transfers. In reality though, these two things are expensive and inconvenient. I typically use Visa/MasterCard credit cards/ATM cards while traveling and have never had an issue. Research the countries you’ll be visiting and figure out what cards are commonly used. In most cases credit cards or cash will be far more welcome than travelers checks.
Xeroxing important information – Few things are more inconvenient than losing or having your passport, important documents and/or credit cards stolen. Take the 5 minutes to copy the photo page of your passport, and both sides of your credit cards. Make two copies. One to stash in some obscure part of your backpack and one to leave with your stateside contact. Remember to keep a close eye on the xerox copies – they’re a great asset if you lose the originals, but can also be used to steal your identity if they get into the wrong hands.
Email yourself – If you have a web based e-mail platform, e-mailing yourself scans/copies of credit cards, important documents and passport info is a great alternative to the xeroxed copies outlined above. It’s easier to access, less likely to be compromised/stolen, and guaranteed to always be on hand.
Blog from the road – Do yourself, your friends, and your family a huge favor. Set up a blog before you leave. It’s free, easy and a great way to update friends and family. Sure, you can send a postcard out – but why not give them the chance to share your adventures with you? I highly recommend using WordPress – you can get a free, hosted WordPress blog at WordPress.com. In addition to saving you from writing 10-15 separate e-mails to friends and family, a trip blog creates a journal which you’ll be incredibly greatful for as you reminisce about your trip a year or two from now. Be descriptive and share your adventures – it’s a wonderful gift to friends, family and yourself. Internet cafes are common place on the road and the hour every day or two you’ll need to write an update can be a welcome rest period. Don’t know what to write? Check out some of my past travel posts from the road.
Resources – There are a lot of wonderful travel communities out there. It’s somewhat newer but TBEX or Travel Blog Exchange is a wonderful way of finding fantastic travel blogs and connecting with experienced travelers. If you’ve got a question or are looking for ideas – I highly recommend perusing their members lists. Need other sites or resources? Just let me know and I’ll be happy to point you in the right direction.
Vitamins – Yeah, yeah I know. It’s basic. However, it’s something commonly overlooked. When you’re traveling – especially if you’ve just started the trip, vitamin intake is a lifesaver. It’s not enough to just take your daily vitamin. Keep in mind that you’re exposed to a whole spread of new foods, new germs, and are temporarily drastically changing your lifestyle. During the first 3 days of any trip I double up on my multi-vitamins with a heavy focus on making sure I have a very high B vitamin intake. B vitamins are fantastic, they’ll give you more energy, improve your metabolism and help repair the added strain/damage your body is taking. I’m also a huge fan of anything with amino-acids in it. Especially if you’re doing a lot of foot-based touring. One great source is products like EmergenC. It has B vitamins, amino acids and a boatload of Vitamin C all in one hit. Sure they say it doesn’t work, but I call baloney. 2 or 3 of those a day and you’ll be doing yourself a huge favor.
Hydrate – Sure, drinking water is common advice…but it’s a pain so most people don’t do it. Big mistake – especially if you want to reduce jet lag. Sure, it’s difficult to know when your next bathroom break will be, but do yourself a favor – amp up your water intake and skip the soda/carbonated beverages for a few days. Taking your vitamins and staying hydrated will keep your body much healthier, improve recovery time, and increase the resilience of your immune system. Getting chapped lips or peeling cuticles? Drink more water – you’re dehydrated.
Timing is important – In my experience one major element that contributes to jet lag is that of mental adjustment. If you’re traveling trans Atlantic make sure to set your watch forward as soon as you board the plane. Use the 14 hour flight to adjust mentally instead of spending 14 hours in flux and then trying to adjust once you’ve arrived. Once you’re on that plane operate exclusively on destination time and try not to think about what time it is at your point of origin. It sounds silly, but it makes a huge difference.
Leave the suitcase at home – Even if you aren’t planning to “backpack” in the conventional sense of the word, ditch the suitcases and trade them in for a quality backpack. A suitcase with wheels is all well and good, but 8 out of 10 times those wheels will only be useful 5-10% of the time. A backpack is effective 100% of the time. It also encourages you to pack more effectively. Wearing the pack also gives you increased security but more on that later. There are cheap options out there, the blue pack in the video’s I’ve attached below was made by Outdoor Products, cost $45 and was purchased at Walmart.
Keep the straps in mind – The one downside to a backpack is the need to protect the shoulder straps, waist belt, and clips. A lot of newer backpacks have zip up covers which allow you to protect your straps when traveling by bus, plane or train. If yours doesn’t, you might consider purchasing a small, cheap duffel bag which you can roll up and strap to the outside of the backpack while traveling. This also makes securing your bag in hostels or hotels significantly easier.
Roll your clothing – Folding may be all well and good for a suitcase, but it’s terribly inefficient and can result in badly wrinkled clothing. A far better option is to tightly roll your clothing. It naturally eliminates a lot of the air which takes up spare space, allows for easier access to your clothing, and allows you to fit significantly more into the same space. Don’t just roll pants and shirts though! Make sure to roll it all, towels, jackets, boxers and sweaters!
Bulky items – Inevitably I find most people (myself included) lose a lot of space to 2 or 3 bulky items. Sometimes it’s unavoidable – let’s face it, jackets are big and puffy. However, usually at least one of the items isn’t actually necessary.
Towel time – Ditch the bulky bath towel. There’s only one way to go when traveling – microfiber travel towels. I’ve been using PackTowl Personal for years and love them. They dry quickly, are soft, are incredibly absorbent, and roll up to take virtually no space. To top it all off, you can get what you need for less than $20.
Pants and shirts – Take whatever you’ve packed and halve it. You don’t need to take a week’s worth of outfits with you. In fact, I can tell you right now you’ve over packed. If you are not 110% confident that you’ll need and wear the items you’re packing multiple times, don’t pack them. Have more than two pairs of pants? You shouldn’t. More than 4 t-shirts? Time to axe a few.
Power converters – It’s often a lot easier to get these once you reach your destination. However, don’t rule out picking up converter plugs before your trip if you know where you’re going.
Bags & shoelaces – Sure, you can get them at any time during your trip but I highly suggest throwing an old pair of shoelaces into your bag, a plastic shopping bag, and a few Ziplocs of differing sizes. Think of these as your traveler’s duct tape. You never know how or when they’ll come in handy. Example: While exploring the Scottish Isle of Skye we spent a day in nasty light rain and strong winds…not enough to keep us inside, but enough to damage any non-waterproof camera. Luckily I had a ziploc bag on hand and was able to create a waterproof case for the camera. The result? A bunch of amazing photos I would have otherwise completely missed out upon.
Super Glue – I’d suggest only purchasing this when needed to avoid having it explode in your bag. That said, Super Glue is phenomenal for quick on-the-road repairs. I’ve used it on multiple occasions to reinforce ripped seams on my backpack/bags/shoulder straps, on small cuts and as a quick way to make other general repairs.
Footwear – Two fundamental sets of footwear you’ll need for any trip. The first is a good pair of shoes walking/hiking shoes. I’ve been using Keen’s Men’s Targhee II for years because I love the fit, price and support. Make sure the shoe fits, can be worn in a variety of settings and is light enough for days spent exploring cobblestone streets but capable of slugging through rural highland mountains. Make sure to try them on in a store before you buy. Find one that works? I saved $30 by ordering the shoes off Amazon.
The second piece of footwear you shouldn’t be caught without is a pair of plastic shower thongs/sandals. Make these as cheap and light as possible. All you want is a basic, plastic $2 pair that dries fast. You do NOT want a nice pair of sandals and definitely should avoid sandals with leather.
Flip Video Camera – Recording your trip is always a challenge, especially as a hosteler/backpacker. You need something portable, affordable, but still high enough quality that the video is worthwhile. The new line of portable video cameras are great. In late 2008 I shot the two packing videos below with a first generation Flip Ultra. I liked the product so much that I’ve since upgraded to the Flip UltraHD Camcorder which records up to 2 hours, has better audio quality and shoots in HD. The cameras range in price, but the top of the line versions run right around $200. They’re the size of a cellphone and work beautifully for capturing video – most people think they are a cellphone.
Here are two videos from my last trip – a December voyage to Spain. The videos illustrate the rolled packing technique and provide a step by step walk through of things I took with me. Note: Despite going out of my way to pack light, I still over packed:
Not your parent’s hostels – The modern Euro hostel is totally different than what the movies and old stories have probably led you to believe. Most are clean, modern, and have fantastic amenities. In fact, it’s not uncommon for hostels to provide communal kitchens, en suite bathrooms, free/charge internet access and all sorts of organized events. Heck, believe it or not – a lot actually have on-site bars! Oh, and the whole…bring your own sheets or a sleeping bag…Not anymore! In fact, leave the sleeping bag and spare sheets at home. In order to prevent bed bugs and for health reasons mainstream hostels now provide linens and in most cases prohibit you from using your own. One thing to be prepared for (and personally I think it’s a huge asset) is mixed-sex dorm rooms. While almost all hostels provide female-only rooms, the vast majority offer rooms in a mixed gender dorm format.
Booking – Depending on what time of the year you’re traveling, you might want to book ahead. Regardless, you’ll want to do some research (no better way to avoid bad experiences and bedbugs). There are three fantastic resources for booking and research. The first (and largest) is hostelworld.com The site allows easy booking and has a huge database of user submitted reviews which are invaluable. Slightly smaller, but equally valuable is hostelbookers.com. A third and relatively newcomer to the hostel database/online booking industry is the industry travel site bootsnall.com. Keep in mind that it’s sometimes possible to get a discount rate by booking with the hostel directly, and that many hostels have an extra cache of beds available (so even if one of these sites isn’t showing availability – sometimes another will have access to vacant beds).
For those of you traveling in Europe – one word of caution about Hosteling International hostels. HI was one of the first major hosteling groups and still clings to the outdated hostel model. A lot of their hostels have lockouts, group showers, charge extra for linens and are dirty. They are most prevalent in Italy where hosteling outside of major tourist destinations can be tricky.
Lockouts – Most hostels have abandoned the lockout model, but you’ll still find some shoddy ones that have lockouts. When booking online always make sure to check if a hostel has lockouts before you book. The standard lockout process means that the hostel locks the front doors during the day and late at night. For example, a standard lockout would be from 10AM-4PM and from 11Pm to 6AM.
Basic Hostel Etiquette – There are basic rules. I’ll cover them in greater depth in a different post, but here are four main ones to keep in mind.
*Noise – you are sharing a room with a number of strangers. Be respectful. If you know you’ll be returning late in the evening, or leaving early in the morning make sure to pre-pack/unpack. Most hostels have 24/7 receptions. That means you’ll have the option of getting back at all hours of the night. Follow the golden rule.
*The light switch – after 11PM the lights stay off with few exceptions. Sure, you can turn them on, but unless the room is empty or your party makes up the sole occupants – do whatever you need to do in the dark. Same principle as with noise applies – have your stuff ready and easily accessible. If you slap the lights on at 3AM in a drunken stupor, you’re going to look like an idiot and make a lot of enemies very quickly.
*Clean up after yourself – hostels are usually staffed by other travelers. If you’re lucky enough to stay at one with a kitchen or common area, don’t leave a mess and then walk away. There’s no housecleaning and there’s no maid – that’s why you’re paying pennies on the dollar for the room. When you leave a mess, you’re punishing everyone else.
*Be friendly and inclusive – One of the best parts of hosteling is all of the people you meet. Don’t be bashful when it comes to reaching out to fellow travelers, and make an added effort to invite your fellow hostelers to tag along. Don’t worry, it’s not weird to ask a perfect stranger if they want to head over to the nearby market with you.
Internet Cafes – There was a time when taking a trip meant complete disconnect from the rest of the world. Of late, it’s become common for travelers to travel with laptops, mobile phones, and other similar peripherals leaving them connected in ways previously unimaginable. However, some of us enjoy a happy medium. If you’re planning on traveling and are worried about staying connected, but don’t want to take a laptop – don’t worry. Internet cafes are significantly more common in Europe than the U.S. and Canada. Rates are also typically very affordable (In Europe they range from 1-3 Euro an hour in most locations). Keep in mind, however, that the connection quality can vary widely. Also, it’s not uncommon to find internet cafes that are running specialized software which at times restrict the use of peripherals (Double check that you’ll be able to connect and access your camera before you settle in).
A locker lock – Security in hostels is fairly lax and can take some getting used to. That said, there’s seldom need to worry. Most hostels provide security lockers for your gear and/or valuables. The standard approach is to provide a locker (think back to your high school days). Lockers are typically associated with your bed and are present in the room. I’ve seen them in all different shapes and forms – from metal, to wood, to enclosed caged racks. One thing is always the same though: you provide your own lock should you decide to use one. For this reason it’s advisable to pick up a small but sturdy lock that will fit a wide variety of locker types. I used a small luggage lock and very rarely had any issues. Be mindful that larger, sturdier locks may not always fit. It’s also important to note, that some hostels also provide in- room, programmable safes. These are a luxury and convenience, but also a growing trend. Typically an electronic key card is provided when safes are available.
Don’t stand still – Know that annoying guy at the airport or on the subway that just won’t stand still? Sure, he won’t stop moving or pacing and it’s a bit annoying, but it’s also a fantastic way to avoid pick pockets. Train yourself to perpetually move, even if it’s as simple as shifting your weight from side to side. By randomly moving and not standing perfectly still, you’ll make yourself a more challenging target. Thieves and pickpockets will have to deal with a moving target, and risk bumping you – both of which increase the chances that you’ll be alerted to their presence. No need to pace, but a little minor motion can go a long way to helping discourage criminal fingers.
Abandon your back pockets – I love to wear jeans when I’m traveling and as a guy I’ve always got a wallet on me. Like most guys my wallet is usually in my back right pocket and fairly bulky. When I hit the road though it takes the place of my car keys in my front pocket, where I’ve trained myself to casually brush my hand on a regular basis. My back pockets? Reserved for things like maps, bulky papers, fliers, and random tickets. I like keeping my maps in my back pockets (folded) because it adds the appearance of bulk/a wallet without endangering valuables.
Photo & Video backup CDs – Any time I’m on an extended trip I’m always paranoid about losing my photos and videos. What if my camera gets stolen or the memory card dies? Most camera stories have digital development kiosks. For less than $10 and 15 minutes you can usually create a backup DVD with all of your photos on it. Or if you’re game to do a bit more work, you can usually save a few dollars by burning your own DVD at a local computer cafe. I suggest making backups every 4-700 photos. One thing to definitely keep in mind – don’t delete the photos after burning the backup. DVDs scratch fairly easily, especially while traveling. Keep the DVD as a backup – not – as a replacement. Hopefully you’ll never need it, but if you do – it sure beats losing your images, or the quality loss that occurs when you try and re-download photos you posted to Facebook.
Travel Cards – Websites like Facebook and Twitter have made keeping in touch with fellow travelers much easier. Add e-mail into the mix and you’ve got a pretty cool tool to keep in touch with the amazing people you meet during your trip. However, it’s often difficult to track each other down/get accurate contact information. I can’t tell you how many people I missed out on keeping in touch with because I couldn’t read their handwriting or the note I’d written on a random scrap of paper had gotten smeared. Consider creating travel cards – basically business cards – but to share with fellow travelers. You can get 250 business cards for 20 minutes and $20 or less through Staples or another similar service (cheaper options online). Things to include: Your name, blog url, twitter url, e-mail, website, and if you can shorten it – the link to your Facebook profile.
Airfare – There’s a lot more to getting a great rate than just booking in advance. I’ve found that airfare tends to spike about 30 days before the departure date. Also, conventional wisdom is to try and book on a Tuesday or Wednesday if at all possible – and in my experience this still holds true. If you’re flexible and looking for a great deal I suggest utilizing airfare search sites like Kayak.com. I’ve done very well by signing up for an account and running flexible date searches. Don’t stop there though, most people check once – then book. That’s a major oops (airfare typically fluctuates hundreds of dollars from day to day). If you’ve got time, set up several searches to airports in the area/region you want to explore and for different dates, then sign up for their (free) daily e-mail updates for each. Once a day you’ll receive an e-mail with the current airfare and the $ change from the previous day. Monitoring prices this way works well, but you need to be ready to book when you see a great deal.
Another thing to keep in mind is specials. Airlines are always operating specials of some sort or another. Usually these are only so-so deals, but with a little research and patience you can usually find a fantastic deal. Sites like TravelZoo.com and Airfarewatchdog.com typically provide a good summary of current airfare specials. It’s also important to note that you should not limit yourself to the airlines that immediately come to mind. A lot of travelers (especially North Americans) forget about the wealth of high quality foreign airlines. These airlines are almost always extremely safe, usually offer better service than domestic airlines and can be much cheaper.
Discount Airlines – Don’t forget your discount airlines. The quality is usually rough, and you’ve gotta do your research to make sure you don’t get stuck paying any number of random fees – but the price is usually right. If you can book a day or two ahead discount airlines like EasyJet and RyanAir are typically cheaper and faster than long distance train rides. Keep in mind they also lack the amazing cross country view that train and bus rides offer. If you’re flying with a discount airline read up ahead of time. They typically fly into secondary airports which can result in costly/timely commutes between the airport-actual city if you’re not prepared. For a complete list of budget airlines world wide check out whichbudget.com.
Rail – When available, travel by rail is an excellent option. It is scenic, relatively comfortable and in western Europe, typically drops you off in the heart of the old city. Faster and more comfortable than bus travel, rail travel is typically also somewhat more expensive. If you’re traveling to eastern Europe be aware that bus travel is probably a better option as countries like Greece and Croatia have poor rail infrastructure. When buying rail tickets you typically have 3 options. You can purchase online, in advance, or the day of. Online and advanced tickets are typically significantly cheaper. Also, most countries have regional trains that, while slower moving, are 2-3 times cheaper than the faster commuter trains. Once you purchase your ticket, be sure to validate it before getting on the train. In Italy, for example, tickets are good for several months. To assure that they can’t be used multiple times, you have to validate the ticket in the yellow machines readily available in the train station. If you are riding without a validated ticket, there are stiff fines.
Conventional travel wisdom is to use a rail pass – do your research. Rail passes are no longer as good a deal as they once were – many countries (eg: Italy) charge seat reservation fees which can cost more than a lone ticket would. That said, in countries like Germany where rail travel is significantly more expensive, a rail pass can save you a lot of money. Another must explore site is seat61.com which has a lot of general information for those considering rail travel.
Bus – Far from the most comfortable way to travel, buses are a cheaper and still pleasant option. It is not uncommon for long distance buses to have bathrooms and many are equipped with ceiling mounted T.V.s providing entertainment. If you’ve got extra time or are traveling in eastern European countries, bus travel is a fantastic option and will give you a great view of local villages and rural countrysides. The air conditioning can be a bit rough, but it’s also a great way to interact with and meet natives.
*Special thank you to Cody Paris for the ongoing suggestions and feedback he has contributed.
Have a question or tip of your own? Please post it in comment form below. Also, please note that I will be constantly adding to this list as new tips, tricks & information come to mind.