As I wandered this world alone for more than a decade, I kept notes for myself. My tattered journals written along the way are full of tips for living a life of travel. I decided to share these backpacker and digital nomad “pro” tips for anyone currently beginning or planning to set up a life of travel.
Some of these backpacking travel tips came from the many brilliant travelers I met along the way. Other lessons were learned the hard way.
Without further ado, here are some unofficial “rules” of vagabonding that have served me well during my life of travel!
- A Life of Travel
- Interacting With People
- Daily Life on the Road
- Travel Tips for Safety and Security
- Money Tips for the Road
- Food Tips for Travel
- Travel Tips for Island Life
Tips for Living a Life of Travel
- Always go where the action is. Meet your fate head on. Write your own biography one day. Push your luck as far as you can get away with and still manage to tell the story later.
- Choosing seats on long flights is serious business. Pray, use dousing rods, throw some chicken bones—whatever you have to do. One of those green seat icons could put you beside an attractive intellectual. The other could put you next to a 5G conspiracy theorist for 12 hours.
- Consider the potential good in every bad situation. Don’t cry because you missed that bus. Maybe it was doomed to hit a cow down the road. Take what you have in every single situation and work with it. When life gives you lemons, be grateful. The Vitamin C will keep you from getting sick.
- Jump at opportunities to try something new. You don’t have to stick with a new endeavor forever or make it a passionate hobby, but try it once. Eating insects, scuba diving, cliff jumping, surfing, fire eating, standing on your head and singing Irish drinking songs—you’ll never know what impact something will have on your life until you do it at least once.
- Your current physiological state affects how you see the world. Never make an important decision, reply to a text, or answer an email while feeling tired, drunk, hangry, lonely, or angry. Sleep on it then reply the next day.
- Confirmation bias is real. If you really want to experience a place in the raw, don’t read anything about it or speak to anyone who’s been there already. The same applies in reverse when telling people about places. If you tell them you found a city to be dirty, they’ll notice every scrap of paper on the ground.
- Keep your itinerary as flexible as possible. You don’t know what new opportunities will come up or who you’ll meet. Buy one-way tickets whenever you can. Don’t pre-book unless absolutely necessary to save money or meet entry requirements.
- Colonial isn’t cool. Don’t use “colonial” in a positive context or in conjunction with “charming” when describing places. The act of colonizing countries historically involved invasion, oppression, rape, murder, and forced labor to construct that impressive architecture tourists love.
- Pack less. We all hear this well-worn travel tip but rarely heed it. Overpacking will be a curse on your trip from the beginning. You think you’ll need all those survival, comfort, and contingency items when facing the unknown, but you actually won’t. Write in your journal what you didn’t use so you’ll remember not to pack it again on the next trip.
- Time moves differently while on the road. You’ll feel like you’ve been away longer than you actually have.
- The road amplifies emotions. You may laugh and cry within the same hour. The highs are high and the lows are low. Don’t expect people at home to understand unless they’ve experienced backpacking or vagabonding travel for an extended amount of time.
Interacting With People
- Road karma is real. Always help a fellow traveler when you can. By giving to others, you not only help them, you send a signal of abundance to your own brain that lowers stress hormones.
- Don’t deny someone an opportunity to help you if they offer. In the same spirit as the travel tip above, it isn’t only about you. Buddhists may be trying to gain merit. Both the Bible and Koran instruct people to help weary travelers. Take hosts up on their offer for tea, advice, or whatever. Their helping you is actually good for their mental health. Think of it as selfish selflessness.
- Don’t be an @sshole. Always remember you are a guest when visiting a foreign country. You’re fortunate to be there and aren’t entitled to anything. Act that way. There’s a reason why the friendliest places are often the ones not yet inundated by tourism. Dealing with bad behavior jades people.
- Related to above: Don’t unwittingly criticize someone’s country with disparaging remarks such as “People drive crazy here!” or “Of course the train is late, this is [insert country].” Us travelers do it too often, and local people often overhear it.
- Talk to everyone. One small conversation could change your travels—or maybe your life. What you say isn’t nearly as important as you think. Your energy and how you make the other person feel are much more important. Every person you encounter is special somehow and can teach you something. I once said hello to a man and at a random equestrian banquet. He unexpectedly turned out to be journalist John Nance, one of the original discoverers of the uncontacted Tasaday Tribe! Sometimes, the lesson is how to have more patience.
- Keep yourself clean. Cleanliness can be challenging on the road, but people will respect your effort, and you’ll experience better outcomes. Humans are biologically wired to make first impressions. Strangers decide within seconds of seeing you whether or not they like you.
- Dress for success at the right times. Related to above: dress a little nicer when flying or crossing borders. You’ll enjoy unexpected perks, and if anything goes wrong, you’ll deal with less hassle than the person who wore their Thailand Full Moon Party T-shirt.
- Romances are faster and hotter on the road. Both parties know that geography will eventually win. You’ll have to pay the tab and part ways someday with a devastating goodbye, so you may as well squeeze every drop out of the beautiful moment.
- Platonic friendships form faster on the road. Same as above, the clock is against you. Strong friendships tend to form quickly. Adventure and discomfort build bonds, and both are abundant on the road. Serious travelers don’t have time for making vague weekend plans or ghosting.
- Travel alone. At least for part of your trip. It’s the only way to taste the pure, intoxicating freedom of answering only to yourself. If you go with a travelmate, plan to take a break for a couple weeks at some point. You’ll get along better and the two of you can enjoy a big reunion later.
- Most cultures in the world bond over unhealthy activity. Drinking, smoking, or indulging in intoxicants bridge cultural gaps even quicker than sharing a meal together.
- No matter how crazy, extreme, or adventurous your trip is, no one is as interested in your solo travel adventures as you are. Don’t expect friends and family at home to understand or ask the right questions.
- The idea of saving or losing “face” influences every interaction you have. The better you understand the concept of face, the more you can use it to your benefit.
- Answering the same questions over and over is part of meeting other travelers. Instead of cringing when someone asks “where are you from?” or “how long are you traveling?” come up with some creative or funny answers. Deviating from the usual travel conversation will make you memorable.
Tips for Daily Life on the Road
- Walk until the day becomes interesting. When you aren’t sure what to do on a given day, Rolf Potts’ advice really works.
- Don’t use hotel furniture. You’ll inevitably forget something while tired and packing in a hurry. Instead, leave everything out in the open. You should be able to get it all back into your bag in five minutes or less if a fire alarm goes off.
- Know when to make a move. Destinations, like fish, have an expiration date. If you get up one day and feel like you’ve lost your connection with a place, start packing!
- Limit screen time when not working. You didn’t travel all the way around the world to sit in front of a phone, computer, or television. The people around you are infinitely more interesting.
- Always keep a travel journal. You won’t remember all the important stuff about your trip years from now. You think you will, but you won’t.
- Don’t mind the gaps. If you’re on the Tube in London, mind the gap. When keeping a travel journal, don’t worry about the gaps. All travel journals end up with days or even weeks without an entry. That doesn’t make the journal less valuable or a failed effort. Don’t feel guilty. Updating your journal should feel like a joy, not an obligation or monumental effort. You didn’t fail unless you quit journaling completely.
- If you use a laundry service, count how many items you’re handing over. When collecting your laundry, check for everything before walking away.
- For the most comfortable ride on old buses, choose a seat somewhere in the middle. Life above the rear axle is miserable.
- The surest way to learn a local language is with consistency. Fill the bucket with drips. Ask your waiter to pronounce one new word or phrase at each meal. Consistently learning a couple useful expressions per day will add up faster than you think.
- A lightweight silk sleep sheet is the most valuable piece of gear I own. It has saved me from 15 years’ worth of dirty mattresses and insect bites. I recommend getting a high-quality one such as a JagBag (not an affiliate link but there is a discount code). The double size is best for more room. My first one lasted over 10 years with heavy use.
- The village dogs, no matter if pets or strays, that are so friendly to you during the day turn feral at night. They often become dangerous, territorial beasts that form packs and patrol the streets. Watch out!
- Assume that public transportation will be obscenely cold in Asia. I’ve seen bus drivers wear heavy winter coats while keeping the AC set to maximum. Passengers, approaching pneumonia, develop hacking coughs. Maybe it’s a cultural phenomenon. Regardless, bring plenty of warm clothing for bus and train rides.
Tips for Travel Safety and Security
- All muggers know about money belts at this point. They’ll ask you to raise your shirt. Find another way to hide funds.
- Think like a survivor. Take risks on exciting adventures, not public transportation. Sit in the middle of local buses, not in the “no survival seats” with nothing in front of them. Wear a seat belt (if there is one). Use a life vest as a pillow on overnight ferries. Know where the emergency exits are. Look both ways before crossing the road. Eat your veggies. Always be thinking of your own well-being, even when making small choices. Expect to accumulate a few scars, that’s part of the game, but choose your battles.
- Admire but don’t touch. This most important rule of safety especially applies when snorkeling, scuba diving, and in the jungle. Many plants and creatures have natural defense systems. One of the most venomous creatures on earth is the lowly cone snail, a common seashell people love to pick up.
- There are generally two types of motorcycle drivers: the ones who have been down and the ones who are going down. Hiring a scooter or motorbike is a fun way to get around, but at some point, you may be asked to sacrifice some skin.
- Only hand your camera or backpack to people who can’t outrun you.
- Be friendly, but don’t trust taxi or tuk-tuk drivers in any country. Definitely don’t use them as concierges or local guides!
- If a police officer who pulled you over asks for your passport, you’ll probably have to pay to get it back. Better to say you left it at the hotel and offer another form of ID instead.
- Don’t put your bags on or near the bed when unpacking. I’ve encountered bed bugs three times in the wild but never suffered a bite or luggage infestation. If you do find a bed bug or signs of them, leave the hotel completely—with or without a refund. Put some of the bugs in a small bag and take them with you to reception. Don’t allow management to simply move you to another room. Housekeeping staff spread the bugs.
- Ginger works as well or better than Dramamine (dimenhydrinate) for preventing motion sickness. If you’re about to take a winding bus journey or choppy boat ride, buy a piece of raw ginger root in the market. Use a knife to shave yourself a piece of “candy” to suck on during the trip. It works wonders. Keep a plastic barf bag handy anyway to give your seatmate who may not be sucking on a piece of ginger.
- Don’t put your phone on the table in cafes and restaurants. It’s dirty, discourages others from joining, and encourages snatch-and-run thieves.
- Staying at high elevations can be hell on your mind and body. Be ready for it.
Money Tips for the Road
- Learn the numbers. If you’re going to be somewhere for a while, learn how to speak and read the numbers of a local language as soon as possible. You’ll save a lot of money while haggling. Merchants give better prices when other tourists nearby can’t overhear. They’ll know you care about the culture and aren’t just on a one-week shopping expedition. Sometimes signs and price tags in the local language are cheaper than the prices you’re quoted in English.
- Movement costs money. The longer you stay in one place, the cheaper it gets as you learn where to go for food, drinks, and accommodation away from the tourist areas. Also, you can negotiate for longer stays at your accommodation.
- Always negotiate. Ask for a discount. Don’t let pride or fear of embarrassment cost you travel funds. Offering half the indicated price is predictable. You’ll still overpay if you do that. Always give a little on your final price to allow the seller to save face.
- Don’t deviate from cultural norms. Failing to negotiate because “it’s only a dollar” or “they need it more than I do” actually hurts local residents long after you leave. Skipping the haggling isn’t a form of charity—it drives local inflation. Over time, merchants won’t budge when local residents try to haggle as they always did before. Instead, merchants will wait for tourists who pay more. The same applies to drivers. Numerous times I’ve had taxi drivers pass local people trying to hail them so they could collect me, a tourist.
- Horde your small change. Local residents often do, so you should play the game. Follow their lead. It’s possible to simultaneously be “rich” and “poor” in some places. Large bills can be difficult or impossible to spend. Try requesting odd amounts from ATMs to get smaller denominations (e.g., 2,800 THB instead of 3,000 THB). If the bill is 300 baht, don’t give three 100s; try to break your 500-baht note instead.
- Money is nice, but happiness is nicer. Life flexibility, location independence, and autonomy are things that many wealthy people don’t get to enjoy. There is a very good chance the guests you see in expensive hotels and restaurants are going home much sooner than you.
- Watch out when trip shopping. Buying gear and supplies for a long trip is dangerously exciting. Companies prey on newbie travelers and sell them useless gadgets. Don’t aimlessly comb through the travel-sized or outdoor / survival aisles. Go with a list and already know what you need. Don’t let companies tell you what you need.
Food Tips for Travel
- Avoid misspellings. If an establishment can’t spell a Western dish properly on their sign or menu, they most certainly can’t cook it properly. Stick with ordering what you know they can cook.
- Don’t eat on trains. No exceptions.
- Street food isn’t any riskier than restaurant food. You can see conditions, cleanliness, and what’s happening in plain sight at a street-food cart. On the other hand, you have no idea what kind of infestation or bad behavior is going on behind the kitchen curtains in restaurants.
- A monotonous diet can be dangerous. It’s proven to drive depression and has been the undoing of many a solid sailor and survivalist. I blame my daily diet of rice and beans for some of the insanity during my isolated, off-grid housesitting gig in the Yucatan.
- On every trip, you’ll probably have one of the best meals of your life and one of the worst meals of your life.
Travel Tips for Island Life
- The price of paradise is sharing it with lots of things that bite. Creatures that eat smaller pests are your friends. Don’t unnecessarily kill or remove geckos, spiders, frogs, or anything else that eats ants and mosquitoes.
- Charge mindfully. In hostile environments, always plug your charger up first, then connect it to the device. If the outlet erupts into a fireworks display, you’ll only lose an adapter instead of a laptop. On a similar note, don’t charge devices unattended. Unclean power, generator restarts, and storms can zap sensitive electronics. You need to be there to pull the plug when the lights go into poltergeist mode.
- Always keep the mosquito net closed, even when you aren’t inside.
- Coconuts provide life in tropical places. Drink them for electrolytes. Eat them. Wear them. Dump one over your hair and skin after a shower.
- Be very, very afraid of coral. The marine bacteria in coral can be extremely tough to kill. Take care of all minor injuries to your skin. Even the smallest of over-scratched mosquito bites, cuts, or abrasions quickly become infected in humid, tropical weather.
- Islands are often happy, healthy places. More sunlight and movement are scientifically proven to elevate mood, lower stress hormones, boost the immune system, reduce inflammation and chronic pain, increase activation of stem cells for turnover of hair and skin, encourage social and mating behavior, boost testosterone, and more.
More Tips for a Life of Travel to Come!
This obviously isn’t an exhaustive roundup. I do, however, intend to keep adding to this list of tips for living a life of travel as I continue growing and learning. Bookmark and check back!