Ever since I started to travel adventures back in 2016 (the bug bit me late!) I picked up a lot of experiences along the way. From simple tips and tricks to important things like making memories, I’ve fitted everything into my back pocket. Whenever I have a lull in between my travels, like my current predicament, I often look back to what I’ve learned on this life’s journey. I figured it’s time to put pen to paper so here are my Top 10(ish) of what I’ve learned while traveling solo:
PACKING LIGHT (No Brainer)
In the beginning I spent countless hours researching what I should pack and bring with me before my trip. I am talking HOURs on end of YT videos, one after another. I’d lay everything out, packed, repacked, unpacked, repeat. After a while my brain was FRIED to say the least. In the end when I was happy about my gear and what I was going to be lugging around I realized a third of it ended up being untouched! That third of space could have either lightened my load (40lbs fitted into my Osprey 55l) or given me extra space to bring things home like souvenirs or cool little knick knacks.
Pro tip: take a long look at your gear and ask yourself if you can live with or without it. Clothes in SE Asia are cheap so you can always scale back and buy what you need as you travel along.
Staying on Top of My VISA(s)!
Most of the countries I’ve been to issued tourist visas upon arrivals, no fuss no muss. But there are places where you’ll need to apply for a visa either at customs or beforehand (eVisa). During my trip both Vietnam and Cambodia required visas through applications in person or online. You can of course do it at customs, but I didn’t waste time and applied for them directly online months before my arrival. The perks of this is a) you’ll have all your paperwork with you when you arrive (time saver), b) you can save the precious pages in your passport (Cambodia’s visa can take up an entire page!) There’s a lot of e-visa services online so be weary of the one you choose before submitting any information. I didn’t get burned by the two I worked with, but never say NEVER.
If you end up finding a place or country super enjoyable and your visa is almost tapped out, just do a VISA run! A lot of travelers I ran into leave for a few days and re-enter for a fresh 30 day count. For ones needing applications for in person visa don’t forget to apply for them before you leave for the run! You can (for Vietnam) opt for a longer visa that has multiple entry allowances.
Pro tip: DO NOT OVERSTAY YOUR VISA! The fines, cheap compared to western standards, will still be a kick in the gut if you aren’t prepared for it. I was fined one million rupiahs ($70 USD PER DAY) for overstaying one day past my tourist visa in Indonesia. That hurt.
Keeping Track of My Expenses
If you’re only staying abroad for a week or two at most then this shouldn’t really hinder your travels, but considering I was gone for half a year I had to crack down on my spending. I kept a daily log of what I had spent (room, food, activities) just to get an idea of how expensive each country I visited can be and what I can expect to indulge or cut back on.
This proved itself worthwhile as I rarely went over budget (meaning I had more monies to do other things) and at times could indulged myself in something extra (cheap resort or 5 star hotel versus dorm life.) The log also helped friends and family who were on the fence of undertaking such an enormous trip. I coaxed them into realizing that it’s actually cheaper than it seemed at first!
Get Your Travel Vaccinations … In Asia
A pretty simple and straightforward learning experience was when I realized I could’ve gotten all my vaccinations done in Asia instead of stateside. All in I spent $800 for vaccines (Hep A & B, tetanus and typhoid) that would’ve cost me about $50 had I done it in Bangkok. Of course I had my reservations on how reliable AND safe the vaccines would be abroad. Surprise surprise they use the same brand vaccines there as they do here (USA), without the idiocracy that is the American healthcare system.
Upon further research Bangkok’s been known as the hub for backpackers getting vaccinations before gallivanting all around SE Asia. They’re administered at health clinic centers as well as their big hospitals, not some dark and dingy alleyway my friends seem to conjure up in their imagination.
Book an Exit Ticket Just in Case
One thing I definitely didn’t know about was exit tickets. The Korean Air ticketing agent refused to print out my one-way boarding pass to Bangkok if I couldn’t produce an exit ticket. His explanation was customs on the other end can refuse my entry without one. So what is an exit ticket you ask? If you guessed a ticket, by any means of travel, that states your intent to leave the country at a preset date, then you win! Most countries have 30 day tourist visa directly applied when you enter, but they want to see an exit ticket for proof of your departure once the visa runs out.
In the end I bought a ticket to leave Chiang Mai, Thailand for Hanoi, Vietnam as a precaution once I entered Bangkok. Wouldn’t you know it that the customs agent didn’t bother asking for my exit ticket! Better safe than sorry though!
Pro tip: you can pretty much book ANYTHING as a form of an exit ticket. Most people book a very cheap bus ticket leaving the country as their proof. Others book airline tickets with 24hr cancellation windows that they cancel after going through customs. The more you know.
The second part of this post deals with things I learned internally. Things that you can only really experience by traveling and doing the leg work. You end up noticing the far more important memories you take home with you rather than that magnet or shot glass. The intangible experiences are the worthwhile ones and these were mine:
Smile More. Really, That’s It.
I learn that we as people do not smile as much as we think we do. Next time think about how many faces you see walking down the street that simply just aren’t smiling. Once I started traveling abroad I came to the realization of how much I DO SMILE. Not only are you on vacation, away from the rat race, enjoying the fruits of your labor. But you’re experiencing something not that many are willing to put themselves through for whatever reason. That in itself is reasons enough to smile.
If the local language is a barrier I always found that a big warm smile followed by a few hand gestures go a long way. Countless times in Cambodia, or Borneo, hell even in Singapore, I found myself gesturing quite madly but always with a smile on my face.
We all know that a smile can quickly change a sullen mood so why not practice it more? It’s more than just breaking through barriers of communication, it’s a sign as old as time that projects warmth towards others. Smile more it’s good for your health, here or abroad.
There could be worse things in life, you could after all be in a cube working for the man.
Eat Local with Locals
The best meals I’ve ever had on my trips weren’t gathered from a Yelp list or expedia.com article. It’s always been and will always be my time spent eating local food with local people. You gain so much insight into their culture, especially through their cuisine. If you’re lucky, which you should always be, they bring you down to the best local, hole-in-the-wall joint and make you feel like family.
After years working in the service industry you realize people put their guard down when they’re eating. Everyone, mostly, becomes vulnerable as there’s nothing to hide while eating your favorite meals. This is more evident when the conversations with the locals are as free flowing as the $0.50 beers. A great learning opportunity to connect is what I’m trying saying.
Meals like these don’t come by too often so I lap it up as much as I can when the opportunity arises. Which makes places like hostels a gem because they are staffed with locals who are more than willing and happy to give you recommendations and even take you out. More reasons why I enjoy crashing at them. So toss out the Michelin star joints and pull a foot stool next to that busy street and enjoy!
Pro tip: Take a cooking class while abroad to REALLY immerse yourself in the culture.
Not Feeling Guilty for Doing Nothing
I was one of those travelers who wanted to get the most out of their trips. Had to squeeze in this morning retreat or this half day excursion. Whatever the case may be I wanted to spend every minute of my vacation doing something worthwhile to tell home about. In short all the things all the time.
During a hammock swing session in Costa Rica it dawned on me that you can be perfectly happy swinging in a hammock, doing absolutely nothing. Later on in my travels the sentiment was hark back ten folds when I found myself for days at a time just hanging out at the hostel or meandering the streets at meal time looking for some good eats. I realized it’s not always chasing waterfalls or 4AM banzai scooter ride to temple ruins. It’s about just being able to enjoy the nothing-ness in between all of the adventures too. Those undies are definitely not washing themselves.
Give yourself downtime, you earned it.
Saying Goodbye Sucks
Friends made through traveling are friends you can keep for life. Saying goodbye to them at any point of your trip absolutely suck bollocks. Not only people, but places and experiences can be sad to leave. You carry a lot of the good and bad memories with you and remember them through the faces you’ve met, places you’ve stayed and moments shared.
Look at it as a see ya later you know? Plus now you have reasons to explore more of our world!
Making Your Own Schedule
In a past life I was no stranger to the world of planning through word docs and excel spreadsheets. From itineraries to cost breakdowns I planned out everything down to the minute details. It was order, clarity and above all routine.
That all was thrown out the window once I started solo tripping. No longer did I plan anything more than a few days ahead of time and even then it’s usually just transportation to the next destination. I had the freedom to do anything and go anywhere I wanted at a moment’s notice without having to confide to a predetermined list or worse another person. That liberation was something I’d never felt and am so reluctant to give up in a post-solo backpacking world.
Ditch the planner, embrace the chaos, you’ll live longer.
Letting the Current Take You (BONUS)
Often easier said than done – just let go, trust me on this. The moment I just let things happen was a moment of clarity I wish I had gained sooner. Things won’t always go as planned, that wouldn’t be life now would it. There were countless things on my trip that blew up in my face (that bus never coming to get me, my bank cards being all locked out, getting food poisoning … from a PINEAPPLE, to almost getting robbed) that could’ve really set a sour mood. But I chalked it up as SHIT HAPPENS and it really is just that. You have to not worry about the things you can’t control and be good with whatever is flowing down your lane. If it rains too much book a flight so a sunnier place even if it’s not on the docket is what I am getting at.
Don’t fight the universe on this one just flow with it and good things will happen.
There you have it – my list of 10(ish) things I learned from my first stint abroad! I am always eager to chop it up with other travelers on what they’ve learned, intangible or not. What are some of your favorite lessons from the road?