Traveling is amazing, and the opportunity to see the world isn’t one to be taken for granted. There are plenty of sites out there that will tell you all about the most beautiful locations, hidden gems, best gadgets, and most instagrammable views. This isn’t that. This is a short guide to tell you how to make all that happen. I combined some of my top blog posts so people could find everything on one place.
I quit my job to travel the world for three months and I learned a lot along the way. It doesn’t matter where you’re going, what you’ll do there, or why you want to leave your comfortable life behind. You’ll still need to know some of the basics. We’ll cover some principles in a quick and easy way, so you can get back to planning your world tour.
- Get Everything Down to a Carry-on Bag
- Get Through Airports and Passport Control
- Start Your Travels Right
- Review Different Transportation Options
- Stay Healthy Overseas
Let’s get started!
How to Travel the World With Only a Carry-on Bag
Not checking any baggage is the greatest travel-hack out there. Not only will you save money, but time at baggage claim as well. I don’t know about you, but when I arrive in a foreign city, the very last thing I want is to find out the airline lost my bag. That’s inconvenient on a short vacation, but catastrophic if that bag holds everything you own.
If you aren’t checking any bags, that means carry-on only. Unfortunately, each airline in the world has their own carry-on limits. If you plan around Southwest’s measurements, you may run into issues on your Ryanair connecting flight. In general, US based airlines are the most generous, followed by European and Asian ones. The smaller (and cheaper) the airline, the more stringent they are. It’s a good idea to plan on the most limited airline specifications to be on the safe side.
Exterior bag measurements are easy enough, but what about weight? This is where a lot of travelers get nervous. In the US, it’s unlikely for the check-in desk to weigh your carry-on, but bet on it in Asia (and Iceland). If you’re packing clothes and toiletries, you should be fine. Laptops and cameras get a little tricky since they add a lot of weight. Meeting a 10kg limit with a laptop in your bag is possible, getting under 5kg is very unlikely.
We’ve heard of people who travel with less than 5kg, but have never actually seen it happen. This is usually only possible when house-sitting. If you arrange to look after someone’s home (and usually their pets), you can jump from gig to gig for months. You won’t need to pack much, since toiletries and other essentials are often available at the house you’re taking care of.
How to Cut Weight
Lose the laptop
Unless you live on the road and write for a living, there’s no need to carry this heavy (and expensive) brick around the world with you. Anything you need to check can be done from your phone. If you want an in-between device, get a kindle or other tablet. They are smaller, lighter, and capable for most of what you’ll need to do. Not to mention it’s a bit gauche to whip out a $2000 MacBook Pro in a part of the world where people can’t afford to eat.
Get lightweight gear
This will get expensive, but you can buy your way to weight savings. Instead of a regular bag, get a super-light one. These have fewer straps, less padding, and are made of very thin materials to save every gram. Save a little more by skipping the padded laptop sleeve and wrapping it in your travel towel to keep it safe instead. Instead of a bulky and heavy winter jacket, get a compressible primaloft type. Collapsible water bottle and titanium spork? Why not!
Wear the heavy stuff
This is the easiest one, just wear your heaviest clothes and pack the rest. That way, you still bring everything you want, but your carry-on stays under the weight limit. So when you head to the airport, put on your jacket, jeans, boots, and a few shirts. This may be uncomfortable, depending on which climates you’re traveling between, but can work in a pinch.
Repack at the airport
Something I did to beat the check-in scale was to split my luggage. I fully packed my main bag before heading to the airport. Upon arrival, I’d transfer the heavy items (laptop and charger) to a compressible day-bag I usually kept in my main bag. At the check-in counter, I’d wear my main backpack and carry my little day-bag in my hand like it was nothing. If they wanted to weigh my backpack, that was fine, since a lot of the weight wasn’t in it. I’d maintain this Two Bag strategy through every transfer until arriving at my final destination. After passport control, but before leaving the airport, I’d put it all back in my main bag again.
Take less in the first place
The next level solution is to not bring so much stuff. When traveling the world, you don’t need nearly as much as you think. One of everything should work (jacket, jeans, shoes, swimsuit, shorts, etc). I’d recommend a few sets of t-shirts, underwear, and socks, but to each their own. Don’t worry, you can do laundry as you go. If you end up in a freezing cold city and only have a silk sarong, buy a jacket when you get there. Besides, there’s nothing better than saying “Oh this? I picked it up at a little shop in Hokkaido.”
When preparing to travel, lay out all of your clothes and all of your money. Then take half the clothes and twice the money.
Now that you know your maximum carry-on measurements and weights, put everything you’re bringing in a pile. Use some packing cubes to save space. The regular ones are helpful for organizing your bag. Compression ones are a lifesaver! Organization is key because you will have to find things in the dark without making any noise at some point. You will have to pack, unpack, and repack many times, so find a system that works for you. Now, it’s finally time to figure out how you’ll carry all this, and we do mean carry.
Get a backpack. Yes, it can get tiresome to haul all your possessions around, but rolling luggage is a nightmare. They work well enough in a quiet airport, but wheely bags are useless in the wider world. With a backpack, you can weave through a crowd, climb stairs, and keep both hands free. If you have your rolling hardside in one hand and your phone in another, you are at a severe disadvantage. If you trip and fall, something will break. If someone grabs your phone, you can’t abandon your wheely bag and chase after them. Not to say these things will happen, but it’s best to keep your hands empty.
A 45 liter backpack should barely qualify for most of the carry-on measurement limits. There are several travel companies that make fully-optimized 45L bags for digital nomads. Some have organizational systems, built in charging ports, and laptop sleeves. If you want the best, go for one of those. It will cost more, but will deliver the best possible packing experience. Also, Pacsafe makes some with built-in wire mesh if you’re worried about theft. But no matter what, you don’t want a bag that screams “I’m a wealthy tourist!”
However, if you have a 45L bag, you’ll fill it. If you fill it and try to fly on a smaller airline, you’ll face a difficult choice: throw away a few things to squish the bag down enough to meet their guidelines, or check the bag and risk it getting damaged or lost. That’s why we recommend a 40 liter backpack. I went with the Osprey Farpoint 40 for my three month around the world trip and it performed flawlessly. With a 40L bag, you’ll confidently sail through the check-in desk, while everyone else is debating which souvenirs mean the most to them.
Whatever you choose, make sure the backpack fits you, and you can comfortably carry it for an hour or so without difficulty. Most backpack companies make specific bags for women. These usually feature a shorter bag height and different strap design to be more comfortable. We recommend trying on the backpack if at all possible before purchasing. Better to find out you don’t like the set-up now, rather than while trudging through the rain six time zones away. You’ll be living out of this bag for a while, so get the right one for you and your travels.
So now, you have everything packed! It took a few tries, but you made it all fit in the end. You weighed the bag as accurately as you could, and it should be light enough to carry-on any airline. This is a big deal, so savor the moment.
If you still aren’t convinced, that’s ok! There are plenty of people out there who check bags for vacations and out-and-back trips, with no issues. If you’re planning a long term trip, either around the world, or for a gap year, these packing decisions become more important. A one-time baggage fee turns in 18 fees and delays. One small risk of a damaged or lost bag compounds into a real concern. There are so many potential setbacks that can be avoided with one difficult step: bring less. If you can figure out that one thing, you’ll preemptively save yourself hours (or days) of needless difficulty.
Carrying everything in a 40–45 liter backpack isn’t just to get through your flight check-in line, that’s only one part of your travels. The carry-on only lifestyle makes so many things easier:
- You’re more nimble than if you were carrying a monstrous camping backpack (or two)
- You can keep your bag with you on a motorcycle, tuk-tuk, taxi, or bus
- You can leave your belongings at the foot of your hostel bed, rather than spread across the hallway to trip people
- You won’t stand out as an obvious tourist
- It makes transit easier, which opens up more destinations, especially off the beaten path
All you need is less, but there are a few things you shouldn’t skip. This isn’t a definitive packing list, just a few items to consider taking with you:
- Travel towel: not a regular towel, a lightweight, super absorbent one. Some lodgings will provide these, or charge you by the day, but bring your own if you can. Besides, they double as a yoga mat or blanket.
- Universal outlet adapter: if you want to plug in anything while bouncing around the world, you’ll need one. Find one that serves as a voltage adapter too to avoid frying your devices.
- Day pack: one of those compressible ones that don’t take up more space than a tennis ball. Helpful for day trips and splitting your luggage at the airport if you go that way.
Here are a few things you probably don’t need to waste space on:
- Luggage cable lock: up to you of course, but I carried one around the world with me and only used it once. I had to sleep in baggage claim at LAX on my return flight with a few other homeless people, so I locked my backpack to my chair.
- Hoodies and sweatshirts: I love hoodies, but they take up way too much space in the little backpack. Compressible insulated jackets are a better bet, or skip it.
- Second pair of shoes: one pair of walking/running shoes and one pair of flip flops is all you need. Some people say you just need the flip flops! Unless you want a nicer pair of shoes for all the dancing and clubbing you’ll do in Eastern Europe, leave them out.
This isn’t as fun as scrolling through beautiful destinations, deciding which tropical beach to visit first. That said, your packing strategy is one of the most important aspects of traveling. It affects how you interact with people you meet, and how they perceive you. Besides, it’s much easier to take a spontaneous beach detour when you aren’t carrying around so much stuff.
Each airline is different, and each person is different. What works for some people is useless for others. If you plan on hiking and camping in the wilderness, of course you’ll need more equipment. If you’re going to work in some capacity on your travels, you’ll have to adjust accordingly. If you’re a professional (or future professional) travel photographer, you’ll need to bring cameras and lenses, regardless of weight concerns. No matter what your plans are, bring what you need, but only what you need. And I promise you, you’ll find out you didn’t even need that much.
How to Deal With Airports [And Passport Control]
How to buy your ticket
There are plenty of discounted flights out there. You can choose between aggregator sites, “last minute” deals, or booking through the airline itself. Each strategy has its own benefits, and some travelers maximize credit card miles too. That’s another article, but whatever you choose, pick a site to use, and stick with it. This isn’t strictly necessary, but it makes travel days easier if you login once and get your ticket, no drama. It’s usually not productive to spend hours trying to save $3.50 on your flight.
There’s a lot more to think about than your departure and arrival airports. If you have a platinum money clip and drive a Bentley, buy a direct ticket in first class and move on with your life. If your wallet is a rubber band and you take the bus, you have a few more decisions to make.
If your flight leaves at a sensible time (late morning to early evening) it will cost more. If your flight leaves at midnight, it will be cheaper.
Same story here, if you’re willing to fly into a foreign country at 3:30 AM, you can save some money. I found the best balance was to depart whenever was cheapest, but arrive at a reasonable time. Getting to the airport at 2:00 AM is difficult, but can be done with a shuttle bus or taxi if necessary. Arriving in the middle of the night is no fun. Metros are closed, there’s no buses running, it’s dark, and you’re exhausted. Any taxis working that late will cost more.
Assuming you couldn’t get a direct flight, or if you wanted to stop somewhere, you’ll have a layover to figure out. You don’t want a layover to be too short or too long.
A short layover means you might miss your flight, get stuck, and have to buy another ticket. It’s a high risk move. I once had 30 minutes to get off the plane, get to passport control, get through security, find my next gate, check in, and start boarding in Honolulu. I made it, but I actually had to run, and it was unreasonably stressful.
Layovers that are too long can become their own gauntlet. Sleeping in the airport is ok the first time, but a lot less exciting after that. No one needs an 18 hour layover in Manila.
The ideal layover length is 3–4 hours if you plan to stay in the airport. This gives you plenty of time to disembark, find the next gate, get something to eat, charge your phone, and carry on. If you want to leave the airport and see something in the city, 6–8 hours is a better bet. That should be enough time to clear passport control, get to whatever you want to see, see it, get something to eat, and make your way back to the airport.
I intentionally booked a longer layover in Paris to see some sights and wander through the city. I knew I didn’t want to pay to stay overnight in an expensive city, but if I was flying through anyway, why not eat a crepe within sight of the Eiffel Tower?
Citizens of countries with strong passports don’t have to worry about this much, but you should double check before you buy your ticket. Make sure you don’t need a visa (or e-visa) for any country you’ll set foot in. Not just your final destination, but every stop-over country as well. It’s a nasty surprise when the check-in counter won’t let you on the plane because it turns out you need a visa for Vietnam even if you aren’t leaving the airport.
- E-Visas are easy to get online. You’ll have to fill out some forms and pay a fee, it usually takes a few days, and you’ll get an email confirmation.
- Visas can be tricky. Depending on the country, you may have to visit an embassy or consulate in person and convince them to let you into their country.
Even if you don’t need a visa, some countries won’t let you in without proof that you’ll leave. They’ll want to see confirmation of a Return or Onward flight, which suggests you won’t overstay your welcome. Some travelers buy the cheapest next flight they can find, get past the guards, and immediately cancel their next flight and get their money back. As with anything, there are several ways to solve this problem.
Some countries want proof of where you’re staying. They’ll ask for a local street address, phone number, sometimes even the name of a local contact person. This is easily dealt with by having your first lodging information available. It doesn’t matter if this is a hotel or hostel address, chances are, no one is actually checking up on it.
None of this is meant to dissuade anyone, but it’s always better to know what hurdles you’ll face. Even better to know now, rather than after your 28 hour journey when the security guard who speaks very little English has a problem with your paperwork.
Now you’ve got your ticket ready, it’s time to head to the airport. Of course, make sure you’re packed ahead of time, and you have a way to get to the airport. Plan on getting there a few hours early for an international flight to deal with the “hurry up and wait” boarding process. If you have all your paperwork in order, this should be relatively smooth. Since you aren’t checking any baggage, it will be even easier.
We recommend following a simple adage with airports, and any other maze you want to get through: Go until someone stops you. Don’t stand still until you’re directly in front of the next roadblock. Find your check in counter and get your boarding pass. Find your gate and check how much time you have before boarding. This puts you in a strong position with limited last-minute issues.
The travel industry, and airports specifically, have various COVID-19 safeguards in place. Some airports require COVID-19 testing before boarding. Others limit passenger movements more than usual and require masks as well as social distancing. These policies vary with each airport. We recommend checking each airport’s website for their official COVID-19 position.
Once you’re on the plane, you’re on your own. Everyone’s different on a plane, so you probably know what you prefer.
- Is an aisle or window seat better? Window seats are better if you want to sleep, but aisle seats are helpful if you need to get up for any reason. Middle seats are the worst.
- Will you sleep through the flight, read, work on your laptop, scream and cry? There’s options for everyone. Longer (and nicer) flights offer in-flight movies, which can help break up a long haul.
We recommend using the restroom about an hour before you’re scheduled to land. This is right before the captain declares all passengers need to remain seated for the final descent. However you get through the flight itself, it’s right back to business once you land.
If this was an international flight, then your immediate goal is to get through passport control. Passport control is where you wait in an unreasonably long line with hundreds of other passengers. You’ll inch forward until you stand before a wizened customs official who decides to either stamp your book or severely complicate your day. This is not the same as Customs, which is usually for people who need to declare something (plants, animals, huge amounts of cash, etc). Everyone needs to deal with passport control, chances are you won’t need to worry about customs.
First, get off the plane
Stand up as soon as you can, get your backpack out of the overhead bin, and get down to the tarmac. The tunnels that let you walk directly from the plane to the airport aren’t too common outside the US. You’ll most likely end up on a shuttle bus that will take you from the plane to the international arrivals hall. Do what you can to get on the first bus. Once you’re on, stand right next to the door. Doesn’t matter if there are plenty of seats available, stand right there for a faster exit.
Second, run for passport control
Ok, maybe don’t run, but walk as fast as possible. Running can get you in trouble, so avoid that. This might sound excessive, but passport control is no joke. The massive line can take hours to get through. If you can rush past 300 people on the very long walk to passport control, you can save an hour. This is a deciding factor if your layover time is a bit tight.
Once there, follow the signs for your citizenship. If you can’t figure it out in the first five seconds, hold out your passport and someone there will point you to the correct line. Always ask for directions in an airport. They are staffed by experienced professionals, and in our experience, are ready to help visitors on their way. It is absolutely not worth possibly waiting in the wrong line. Even once you’re in line, look around for other people who have the same passport as you for confirmation. Try not to get jealous of anyone flashing more than one passport, they’re just flexing.
Third, take your quiz
Some countries require arrivals to complete a short form before passport control. Sometimes, the airline will pass these out on the flight, which is a time saver. Other times, you need to grab a form right before getting in line. Don’t stand at the counter filling it out, take it with you and hop in line, fill it out as you wait. We recommend bringing a pen with you for these situations; you never need a pen until you do.
The form is just basic information: name, home country, occupation, purpose of visit, passport and visa numbers, etc. Like all quizzes, there are wrong answers. If you quit your job to travel the world and now you’re unemployed, don’t tell them that. Say you’re a student, after all, we never stop learning. If you’re only in town to try drugs at famous nightclubs, don’t tell them that. Say you’re here for tourism, that’s an easy one. As with most forms, this will go into a big pile, never to be seen again.
Fourth, get past the officials
Once you limp your way to the front of the line, step up to the counter when asked. Don’t jump the gun and push your way forward, they don’t like that at all. Some people say you should greet the official and be friendly. We recommend keeping your mouth shut. Hand them your passport, visa information, and any other required forms. Then, continue to keep your mouth shut.
Answer any direct questions as briefly as possible. Don’t be a jerk, but you know, keep your mouth shut. The most important thing right now is to get them to stamp your passport and much more importantly, hand it back to you. Once they do, say “thanks” and walk into the airport. “ Thanks “ should be the only word you say to this official. The more words you say, the more likely there’s going to be a problem.
Since you’re keeping your mouth shut, there’s a few non-verbal ways to help your case:
- Wear your most professional travel outfit, something that says “I am a responsible adult, no threat to you or your country.”
- Look bored and don’t fidget. Keep your eyes slightly downcast, these are government officials after all, so they like a little deference. There will be cameras pointed at you, don’t look at them unless you have to for a retinal scan or something.
- Guys should shave before a travel day, some officials have problems with beards and/or ideologies. We recommend pulling your hair back from your face as well.
Finally, don’t forget your eyes and hands
Some countries require retinal scans and fingerprints at the passport control desk. These are often digital, but sometimes involve ink. If you’re on an INTERPOL watch list or something, keep that in mind. If not, do as instructed and get clean scans on your first try. This is another time when complications aren’t good.
You did it! You bought your ticket, got to the airport, boarded the plane, survived the flight, and successfully got through passport control. Welcome to a new country! You just did something most people never will, and it’s an exciting moment. Since you didn’t check any baggage, you don’t need to worry about finding it again, you’re free to go. Getting through airports can be difficult, but it gets much easier with practice. After a few flights, you’ll know the process so well, it will become second nature.
One last tip, we recommend eating in airports. It’s possible to pack some snack food for your trip if you have any space in your bag. Nuts and dried fruits work perfectly for this. Otherwise, buy food at the airport. We know it’s outrageously expensive and you’re on a budget. We’ve found that people get too frustrated and make bad decisions when they’re very hungry. So yes, $20 for lunch is ridiculous, but if it helps you keep a level head and not get snippy with an official, it will be worth it.
How to Get Started Abroad
Now that you’ve arrived at your final destination, there are a few things you need to take care of. I know you’re excited to get started after such a long trip, but trust me, this is important. Many people rush out of the airport, jump in a taxi, and get after it right away. If you use the next 30 minutes wisely, it will set you up for a better first day.
So you made it through passport control, and you’re in the international arrivals area of the airport. Depending on the time of day (or night), don’t expect many amenities here. Most airports don’t have much for new arrivals, they just want you to get out. Fret not, you won’t see everything you want, but you’ll find everything you need.
First, go to the bathroom. If this has been a 28 hour ordeal with four connecting flights, you definitely need to brush your teeth. It’s easy to lose track of this when you aren’t eating or sleeping on a regular schedule during your travel day. Wash your hands, brush your teeth, throw some water on your face, and you’ll feel 10x better.
Now, get some money. If you have currency to exchange, you might find a money changer, but those are usually on the departure side of the airport. So, you’re looking for an ATM. In Western Europe, you might be able to use your card for everyday expenses abroad, but most of the world uses cash. Cash makes it much easier to budget during your trip as well. If you only have 10,000 HUF in your pocket in Budapest, you can’t spend more than that.
You should have packed 2–3 bank cards for your travels. This can take a few weeks to set up ahead of time (opening new accounts, waiting for cards to arrive, etc). I used TransferWise for almost all of the ATMs I hit around the world. N26 Bank was my first backup. My regular M&T Bank debit and credit cards were there for emergencies, but I only used one once. Regular bank cards aren’t meant for travelling and they make accessing your money difficult. TransferWise and N26 were great, but I’m sure there are other options.
Another thing you should have done ahead of time is calculate how much local currency you’ll need to withdraw. If you’re staying for a week, add up your lodging expenses, then double it to account for food, drinks, transport, etc.
Ideally, you want the exact right amount of cash. Not too little, where you have to find another ATM (but this isn’t the end of the world). Not too much, where you might get stuck with excess local currency when you leave. If you’re visiting a cheap country, about $100 USD worth of local currency should see you through the first several days. Once you know your number, try to withdraw from an ATM. Most airport ATMs will have an English language option from the main screen.
If your transaction works out and you get a stack of fresh notes, congratulations! If it was declined, you’ll have to figure that out. If you know you have the money in your account, it should be easy.
- The ATM might be out of money. I ran into this a lot in India, and it’s no fun.
- The ATM might have a max daily withdrawal limit lower than what you’re trying to pull.
Either way, the first step is the same: try to withdraw half of your target amount. If that works, try to get the second half out of the same ATM. If that works, great! If it doesn’t, find another ATM from a different bank. There are usually 2–3 banks represented in the ATM area, so you should be able to find one. Try to get the cash you need before leaving the airport. Not having local currency is a real detriment as soon as you walk outside.
Now that you have a stack of cash, it’s time to get some smaller notes. ATMs insist on dispensing large bills. This makes it easy to carry enough money, but most local vendors won’t be able to make change for those bills. Even if they could, they don’t want to get stuck with that large bill either. You don’t want to end up trying to buy a $3 meal with the local equivalent of a $100 bill. It’s awkward for everyone, and they’ll get mad at you for trying. 2000 Indian Rupees is 27 USD, but NO ONE in India can make change for a 2000 Rupee note.
Pro-Tip: Throughout your travels, try to pay with the largest bill you think that establishment can handle. Hotels, hostels, and busy bars are your best bet. This way, you’ll get smaller notes as change, and you’ll have more flexible payment options. Long term travelers spend a lot of time trying to break large bills.
Breaking large bills in the airport takes some finesse. If you need to buy something small, you could buy it and get change back that way. If not, try a currency exchange desk (if you can find one) or a bank counter. Any business representative should be able to break some bills for you. Just ask if they could help you out. The worst they’ll say is “No” and you could move on to the next one. At least get some smaller bills. It’s not a good idea to try and pay for a taxi with a big bill from the ATM. They’ll pretend they don’t have any change and you’ll end up overpaying. You’ll probably end up overpaying anyway, but that’s another topic.
We’re almost there! Make sure you still have everything (passport, cash, backpack) and that nothing was lost in the past few minutes. You should know where you’re going as well. If your lodgings are close to the airport, that makes arrival and departure easier.
A lot of the world doesn’t have good street addresses. I ran into this in most countries I visited. The AirBNB or hostel or hotel will be at Something Road near Local Landmark in This Neighborhood. Not the familiar #123 Something Road, you might be used to. Of course, this makes things more difficult/interesting. You might need to cross reference the lodging address with your own map app and plan a route that way.
Reputable lodgings will try to make this easier for you. When you book your stay, if you can’t easily find them on Google Maps, email and ask for directions. Most will even make recommendations for public transportation routes. Get used to asking questions on your travels, there’s going to be a lot you can’t figure out on your own as quickly.
So you know where you’re going, and where you are, now you need to get there. Depending on the time of day and your own preferences, there are several options:
- Walk: If it’s only 5km away, you could make it, and see some of the area on your way. I walked from the airport to my AirBNB in Kolkata, India. I eventually made it, and that walk turned into one of my best travel stories (no street address, at night, chased by dogs, it’s a good one).
- Public Transport: I prefer metro trains to buses, but either could work. Most airports are accessible by metro line, and if your lodgings are near another stop, this is a good choice. Although, many train and bus lines don’t run 24/7. If you’re flying in at midnight, they’ll probably be closed.
- Shuttle Van: Some airports, especially in Europe, will have a shuttle bus system. Buy a ticket at the desk, get in the van, and they’ll drop you off at your door. This takes longer than a taxi, but they’ll get you to the right place.
- Taxi: This is the most expensive option, but also the smoothest. As such, it is my personal favorite. The only time I recommend taxis is for arriving in a new country after a long journey. When all you want in the world is to get where you’re going as easily as possible, they’re the only choice.
- The Best Way: If your lodgings recommended the best way to get there from the airport, do that. I took the shuttle in Budapest because that’s what the hostel said. The metro was still open when I arrived in Tokyo, so that’s what I did. It’s good to adapt and listen to local advice whenever possible.
- Other: Some countries offer options like rickshaws, moto-rickshaws, motorcycle taxis, and more. If this is your first time, stick with what you know for now, but these are all exciting options to try on your travels.
Now you’re finally ready to step outside the airport. It took a few more minutes, but you have some local currency, smaller bills for daily use, and a plan to get to where you’re sleeping tonight. You’re refreshed, and have a bottle of water with you, so get out there!
Getting to The Door
Well, you somehow made it to the vague area where you’re supposed to be staying. The next step is walking in the front door. This should be easy, but often isn’t. Many smaller hostels and AirBNBs don’t have a large, brightly-lit sign out front. In fact, there may be no indication that this is the place at all.
The AirBNB in Tunis had no address, and I was stopped at the security gate anyway. The hostel in Budapest wasn’t allowed to have a sign since they were in a historical building, and I needed two security codes. The AirBNB in Kolkata had no sign or address. The hostel in Bangkok was on a main road and had a sign in English, easy peasy.
When you make lodging arrangements, ask them for directions, that can save you a lot of heartache. It’s no fun to be so close, but still not be able to find the door. Oh, and make sure they have a 24 hour reception desk if you’re arriving late at night.
Many taxi drivers will act like they know where you’re going, but they might only have a general idea. Finding the right place matters far more to you than them, so you need to keep your eyes open. Since you know about how far it is from the airport, watch the clock (and the meter) to make sure they aren’t driving all over the city.
You did it! You got to the right place, and you can almost feel the soft mattress underneath your weary body. Checking in is no issue. Most places will want to make a copy of your passport. They’ll also want payment in advance (usually in cash, which is why we got some earlier). Sometimes, you’ll have to take a quiz. They might have you fill out your name, home country, passport number, visa number, how long you’re staying there, where you came from, and where you’re going next.
Some places will add value to your check in experience. They might offer city maps, information about restaurants and tours, and more. Recommendations are the lifeblood of your travel experience. Locals know everything you need to know, but let’s focus on the important questions first.
- What’s the wifi password? Obviously this one is crucial, and chances are, it’s written down somewhere near the check in desk, so you won’t even need to ask.
- Can I drink the water here? Just because the locals can drink the water without getting sick doesn’t mean you can. There’s only a handful of countries in the world with clean tap water. The other 190 or so are trickier. If they say “Our water right here is good, but not outside of that” then it’s up to you if you’ll trust their filtration system. Otherwise, you’ll need to buy a lot of bottled water.
That’s it, those are the only two important questions to get answered right away. Anything else could wait until later. Put everything down on your bed, and celebrate that you made it. Landing at the airport isn’t it, you haven’t arrived until you’ve checked into your lodgings.
So what do you do now? You could sleep, get something to eat, explore the city, whatever you want. You did it, now it’s time for everything you’ve been dreaming about!
Transportation Options of the World
There are many other ways besides planes to get around the world. Some are best suited for local transportation, others could take you between countries. Your schedule and preferences will dictate which methods you take, but there’s always more than one way to get there. Trying new ways of doing things is one of the benefits of travel, so get out there and give it a shot!
These methods of travel are up to you. There’s no schedule or itinerary other than what you decide. They are often inexpensive, but require you to navigate and prepare to get to your destination.
Walk: Walking is the slowest and most in-depth way to see a place while you move. Nothing else gives you the chance to see, hear, and smell your surroundings like walking does. Whether mountainside paths by day, or back alleys at night, walking is the only way to reach some places.
However, all these benefits come with some complications. While a few fancy parts of the world might value pedestrian safety, the rest of the world does not. Accept the fact that your well-being at any intersection is everyone’s lowest priority. You’ll need to understand the rules where you are. In Georgia, they took jaywalking very seriously, but they had underground tunnels to cross at larger intersections. In India, everyone walked in the street since the sidewalks were full of food stands, small shops, and debris. Just watch for a minute or two and follow the crowd.
Once you have an idea of what everyone else is doing, get ready to accept some risk. Since none of the drivers care about you, they’ll drive so close, you’ll have to pull your toes in to avoid getting run over. If you play it safe, you risk never getting where you want to go. If I waited for a clear street crossing in Mumbai before stepping off the curb, I’d still be standing there. I learned that with such high traffic and no crosswalks, pedestrians had to band together and force their way across. A group would develop at the corner, and look for a small gap. We weren’t trying to cross the whole street at once, but just get far enough so that oncoming traffic would swerve behind us, and let us take another few steps forward. We’d cross one lane at a time until we made it across. This is difficult to do on your own, but easier in a group. Bikes and tuk-tuks were the easiest to stare down, but don’t even try it with trucks, they don’t yield to anyone.
Bike: I met a Portuguese guy in Georgia who had ridden his bicycle from London and had plans to continue through India. That’s about 3000 miles to Tbilisi, and about that far again to Eastern India. He would cover distance during the day, set up camp, cook his dinner over the fire, wake up the next morning, and carry on. He was talking about how he really wanted to ride from Argentina to Alaska someday.
This is deeply impressive! Biking that far, through heat and cold, rain and breakdowns, is amazing. Because biking is faster than walking, it’s easier to cover greater distances in one shot. Whether you’re exploring a city, or riding around the world, it’s a good option. Many European cities have bike-sharing/rental programs and bike tours available, which are more rewarding than bus tours.
Overland biking requires a lot more preparation than jumping on a plane. You’ll need a lot more equipment (bike, spare parts, tools, panniers, camping gear, food, etc) you don’t want to end up stranded 50 miles from anywhere. Navigation is a real concern, you’ll need paper maps and GPS to figure out foreign roads and trails. But biking, like walking, is a great way to experience parts of the world no other traveler would get to.
Hitchhike: I haven’t hitchhiked, and it has fallen out of favor in recent years, but the truly adventurous love it. The basic idea is you’ll jump in a car/truck/ox-cart headed in the same direction you are. So long as no one involved is an ax murderer, you’ll probably be fine, but there’s a lot of risk getting in a stranger’s vehicle. That risk, like many other risks, is what makes it exciting.
Another related travel method is stowing away on a vehicle without the driver’s knowledge. Popular choices are cargo trains and open trucks. There’s less concern about the driver attacking you, since they don’t know you’re there. But of course, this is illegal everywhere, so that’s something to think about. I met another guy in Northern India who hitchhiked and jumped on trains through Central and South America. He was crazy/inspirational, and he survived, so you might too!
There are plenty of ways to pay someone to take you somewhere. These options cost a little more, but don’t demand anything from you than to sit down and hold on. Depending on the situation, some awareness of the route and generally “paying attention” would be a good idea.
Rickshaw: A rickshaw is basically a cart. You climb in, sit down, and the guy pulls the cart to where you’re headed. Some rickshaws are literally just a guy pulling the cart as he runs along, others are more like modified bicycles. I personally don’t like the idea of someone else’s physical effort moving me down the street. But these are cheap and plentiful across Asia, and the income they make supports many families.
Tuk-Tuk: A tuk-tuk is the evolved form of the rickshaw with a tiny engine. There’s room for three small passengers in the back since no one wastes any space on safety equipment. Drivers cover a limited area, and don’t want to take you all the way across the city, since they don’t know that area.
Tuk-tuks are the most basic form of motorized transport and they’re delightful. Trust that the driver knows what they’re doing and don’t worry about small collisions with other vehicles. Keep all your appendages inside, and keep a hand on one of the rails to keep from falling out.
Despite their many advantages, tuk-tuks have their own set of considerations.
- Negotiate the price before you get in. Tell them where you’re headed and get an idea how much that will cost. You might be able to argue them down a little, but at least you could walk away if you need to. Once you get in, you’re not getting out for free. Some use meters like taxis, but a lot of drivers pretend their meter is broken, so watch out.
- Negotiate the route once you get going. If you need to get there quickly, tell the driver to take you to your destination directly, with no stops. This will probably cost more, which is surprising, but I’ll talk you through it.
- In Thailand and other SE Asian countries, tuk-tuk drivers are more entrepreneurial than some others. It’s accepted practice to use tourist passengers to make more money. They might take you to a suit shop, have you meet with a salesperson and walk around for 10 minutes as if you’re a customer. In exchange for bringing someone to the shop, the tuk-tuk driver will get a cash payment or fuel voucher. If you have time and don’t mind playing the game, you’ll get a cheaper fare (sometimes even free).
Ride-Sharing Apps: Uber is big all over the world, Lyft is more limited. Each region has their own favorite ride-sharing app. Some even let passengers bid on a ride to see who wants it the most. This is a convenient and familiar system that lets you pay through the app and not use up your cash. It may not be a very interesting choice, but it’s an option in more countries than you may think.
Taxi: Everyone knows taxis are expensive, and I only recommend taking them to and from the airport if necessary. However, they’re ideal for covering longer distances than a tuk-tuk would carry you. If you want to take a day trip a few hours away, a taxi might be your only option. As with everything, it’s good to learn how it works in that area and adjust accordingly.
In Tunisia, taxis with a green light already have a passenger, those with a red light are available, which is backwards. In the Arab World, male passengers are supposed to sit in the front, females in the back. If a male got in the taxi alone and sat in the back, it would be awkward for everyone.
One of the tricks taxi drivers do is they’ll run the meter crazy fast for foreigners. This is a popular move, especially leaving the airport, since most tourists don’t know any better. I paid about 7x more than I should have for my first taxi in Tunis. Assume that you’ll be ripped off at least once. There’s no shame in this, but watch out so it doesn’t happen again. This is another thing to ask locals about. If you know how much a taxi to the airport should cost, you’ll be better prepared if you need to argue with the driver.
Your safety is something to consider while negotiating (or arguing, depending on your style). If the price is $10 more than you think it should be, that makes a big difference to the driver, but may be a small amount to you. Is it worth fighting over this? Also, in Budapest, the taxis are run by an organized crime group that pushed Uber out of the area. This is the sort of thing to find out from someone at your accommodations rather than on the street. Obviously, don’t take a taxi at all in this situation. If you must, then argue about the price at your own risk!
Any means of transport that involves joining strangers on the way. Planes would fall under this category (unless you’re a NetJets member). This is more adventurous than hired transport, and is a good way to travel with locals.
Bus: Buses are a flexible option that can carry you across the city or into another country. International bus routes are popular in Europe, I took one from Hungary to Serbia, and the border crossing went smoothly. We recommend taking buses when there’s a simple and established system. If there’s published timetables, route maps, and booking apps, then you’ll be fine.
I took buses from city to city across most of Northern India, and there were a few unique issues. Booking was easy through the app, they offered day coaches and night buses with sleeper seats at reasonable prices for a 14 hour ride. I learned some hard lessons that I hope will help you avoid the same hardships.
- Try to book your ticket from the beginning of the route, so you don’t need to flag down the bus on the highway.
- Find and visit the departure point the day before you’re set to leave. When all the buses look the same and you can’t read the signs on any of the travel offices, it’s unlikely you’ll get on the right one. If you confirm the departure point in person ahead of time, getting back to it should be easy.
- Pay whatever it costs for air conditioning.
- Eat and drink very sparingly before and during your bus journey. 14 hours is a long time with only one bathroom break at a rural truck stop with squat toilets and no toilet paper or soap.
- Don’t expect answers to any of your questions:
- When are we leaving?
- How long will it take?
- Is this a rest stop or are we just picking up more passengers?
- I paid for this seat, why is someone else here?
- How long are we staying at this rest stop, and is there food?
- What do you mean this is the end of the line? That’s not what my ticket says.
If you do nothing else, confirm everything you can from the beginning. Make sure you know the departure point and timeline. When boarding the bus, confirm the destination with the driver, look him right in the eye. Then, confirm the destination with another passenger before the bus leaves. This sounds like overkill, but it’s important to be very sure you’re headed to the right place.
Metro: Metro systems are the easier and cleaner alternative to buses. If you’ve taken the metro at all before, you can figure it out in another country. I took the metro in Paris, Tunis, Budapest, Mumbai, Delhi, Bangkok, and Tokyo. They more or less all follow the familiar pattern. Figure out where you are, where you’re going, map the route, buy a ticket, get on the train, easy.
Transfers from one line to another can be tricky, but if you follow the signs and ask someone, you can do it. Many popular city metro systems have signs in English as well as the local language. Some metros are rough, with limited seating and people hanging out the doors as the train hurtles down the track. Others are civilized and polite. Delhi had the best metro system I encountered. Everything was new and clean, never crowded, smooth. Tokyo was much more comprehensive though. No matter which city you’re in, the metro will be easier to decipher than most other transit options.
Train: Train routes make the most sense for long distance travel, rather than short trips. They’re a good choice for getting anywhere more than a few hours away, and can even glide into other countries. Some of the most famous trains in the world include the Orient Express in Europe, The Blue Train in South Africa, and the Trans-Siberian Railway in Russia.
Trains offer different levels of comfort to fit your budget. 3rd class might be a wooden bench seat, 1st class offers butler service and true luxury. The trip will take longer than a plane, but you’ll get to actually see the countryside instead of the grey seatback in front of you.
This isn’t a comprehensive list, but should help open your mind to new transportation options around the world. It’s a good exercise to think of different ways to get where you’re going. That way, if one doesn’t work out, you already know what you’ll try next. Depending on where you are (and your schedule), water transit might be a good choice. There’s ways to get a spot on a cargo ship for international voyages or take a ferry for a short jump. Or you could buy your own motorcycle in Vietnam and ride up and down the coast at your own pace. Or y’know, just take a running leap into a cargo train and hope no one sees you.
How to Stay Healthy Overseas
It’s a crazy world out there, but with a little preparation you’ll survive. There are some things you should do before you leave your home country and some to think about while on the road. Since we’re limited to a carry-on backpack, we don’t want to bring anything we won’t need. Luckily, if you think about your wellbeing before you lose it, you’ll stay healthier. None of this constitutes medical advice, and the upcoming COVID-19 vaccine may change some of this information.
Before You Leave — Shots
Find out what vaccinations you’ll need for your planned destination. If you know exactly which country (or countries) you’ll visit, this is easy. If you plan on bouncing around the world until you get tired of it, this is more difficult. There are ways to look up which diseases are prevalent in specific countries, but you need to know which countries you’re looking at.
Regular doctor’s offices don’t provide travel vaccinations, so you’ll need to find a travel clinic. In the US, these aren’t covered by any health insurance, other countries may vary. Some foreign employers or non-profit organizations might cover your shots, but it’s likely you’ll have to make your own arrangements. I went to Passport Health for my shots. It was a smooth experience and only took one office visit. These clinics are specialists and they know all about the diseases you’ll face wherever you’re going.
There is only one vaccination that is actually required anywhere in the world: Yellow Fever. Some countries, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, require proof that you’ve been vaccinated against Yellow Fever. As far as I know, that’s the only required one, everything else is just recommended.
If you’re from a Western country, you may not be used to worrying about anything more than a sore throat, but there are some terrifying diseases out there. As with the rest of your travel experience, it’s a question of what level of risk you’re comfortable with.
- Some diseases will put you on your back for a month. This is a problem if your tourist visa runs out, but you’re laid up in bed shivering.
- Others will kill you without immediate diagnosis and medical attention. This is a problem if you aren’t staying in major cities near a hospital.
- Still others will kill you no matter what you do after you contract them. Prevention is the only reasonable plan for these bugs. Otherwise, you’re playing the odds that it won’t happen to you.
My big round-the-world trip touched down in: London, Paris, Tunisia, Hungary, Serbia, Poland, Georgia, Qatar, India, Thailand, and Japan. I only had a vague idea where I would go when I got my shots, so it was hard to know what I would need. I’ll tell you what I did, but please, be smarter than I was.
I only got two shots: Yellow Fever and MMR (measles, mumps, rubella). Yellow Fever is the only one required anywhere and I didn’t want to be turned away in the airport. MMR is a basic “good idea” shot, but isn’t travel specific. Those two cost me about $500 USD.
They tried to sell me on all the other vaccines too, but I didn’t go for any. Rabies sounded like a good shot to get though. Rabies will kill you if untreated and it’s a bad death. Real bad. However, it’s a three shot course that takes a few weeks to run and costs $1400 USD. I decided to risk it. This was a good plan until a pack of street dogs in Kolkata chased me down an alley when I arrived. My only thought was don’t bite me, I didn’t get my rabies vaccine!
You should get the vaccines you need before leaving, but it’s possible (and much cheaper) to get them once you arrive overseas. I opened my head on some rusty and dirty metal when I was in Jaipur, which is not something I’d recommend. I was more worried about tetanus than the little bit of blood. As soon as I got to Amritsar, I got a tetanus shot at a pharmacy. It was done in 5 minutes and cost 45 cents. Some travelers get all their shots in cheaper cities with good hospitals. India is a popular choice for those going through Asia.
If you go to a travel clinic, you should get a yellow booklet. The WHO distributes these to serve as your proof of vaccination. Keep this with your passport in case you need to prove yourself at any borders. Make sure to keep it updated with any future vaccinations.
No matter what, you’ll limit your exposure risk if you follow two simple rules:
- Stay out of the jungle
- Stay away from animals
If you drink clean water and wash your hands once in a while, you should be fine.
Before You Leave — Insurance
I don’t have any affiliate deals, so I can only tell you what I know. You should get health insurance made for nomads. Standard health insurance plans won’t cover you overseas, so you’ll need a new one. This is different from travel insurance for your trip.
- Health Insurance is what it sounds like. If you get injured or sick, they might reimburse you for your medical expenses. They also might have an international network of healthcare providers if you need one. This is what you should get before you leave.
- Travel Insurance covers inconveniences. Lost baggage, lodging cancellations, rental car breakdowns, even inclement weather. All these can be insured against. Up to you, but I wouldn’t waste money on this.
I got my health insurance through Safety Wing. It was cheap, and I followed the “something is better than nothing” mentality. I never needed to use it (even with the super cheap tetanus shot), so I don’t know how their claims process goes. There are many more comprehensive plans with other carriers. Some will send a helicopter to airlift you to the closest hospital, even if you’re deep in the wilderness, if you’re willing to pay for it.
Set up your plan, and keep a printed copy of your card with you. Some immigration officials want to see this at passport control, but it’s rare. Just another aspect where a little preparation can save you a lot of hassle later on.
The main thing you have to remember is that other countries have doctors too. Billions of people have access to some level of healthcare around the world. Compared to the US, healthcare anywhere else you’d want to visit in the world is far cheaper and more accessible. That $0.45 tetanus shot would have cost over $400 in the US. You can buy bandages and painkillers anywhere. If something more serious happens, as long as you’re in a major city, you can find a hospital.
Bring With You — Remedies
Don’t overpack here, figure out the best benefit per gram for your health needs, and put those in your bag. Don’t re-pack pills in smaller baggies to save space either. I know those mostly-empty bottles take up too much space, but use the correct labelled container. If airport security searches your bag and finds baggies of unlabelled pills, that wouldn’t be good.
If you travel, you will get sick. It’s going to happen, so accept that fact. The water will get you, the food will disagree with you, all the new germs you’re exposed to will make you sick. This isn’t the end of the world, just something to think about. Here are some options to consider bringing with you, in addition to anything you need for your specific wellness needs. Again, this isn’t medical advice, don’t try to sue me.
- Immune Support: Some are pills, others are dropper bottles, but they help you not get sick, which is good! Advantage Liquid Concentrate (ALC) is a popular one. Even once you get sick, this will help you get through it faster.
- If you only pack one of these, make it this one
- Activated Charcoal is a lifesaver when you get an intestinal sickness. [Keep reading at your own risk… OK, I warned you.] Shortly after I got to India, I trusted the hotel’s filtered water and I shouldn’t have. I experienced severe intestinal distress and had to use the bathroom all the time for a few days. This was an inconvenience, but it turned into a problem because I had a 14 hour overnight bus ride to endure. There’s no bathroom on the bus, and only one rest stop. I was concerned this would go horribly wrong. I limited my food and water intake as a precaution. I then took activated charcoal tablets every few hours. It was a rough ride, but no problems.
- Bring this one with you too
- Vitamins and Minerals: If you’re stumbling through every nightclub in Eastern Europe, you aren’t worrying about your Potassium intake. Even if you are, it’s hard to find fresh produce or salads in most of the world. Much easier to take a pill once a day to keep some vitamins and minerals in your system.
- It’s a good idea if you have space
- Bandages, painkillers, hand sanitizer, etc
- Buy it there if you absolutely need to
Stay Fit on the Road
It’s difficult to exercise while traveling long term. If you have deep pockets, you could join CrossFit, I hear they have locations around the world. If not, you’ll want to figure something out for yourself. If you’re following the carry-on only plan, you won’t have any space to bring workout equipment with you. Even if you did, do you really want to carry that around the world?
- Walk: Why not get healthier while experiencing street life as you explore the area? I walked about 5km every day and it was the best way to see things.
- Stretching/Yoga: If you have your own hotel room, or can find enough space in the hostel, stay flexible. This is another good way to reduce injuries as well.
- Bodyweight Exercises: Pushups, lunges, squats, and other contained exercises are good options. Explosive or loud ones, such as burpees, would annoy other people in the room.
- Swim: If you’re staying near the water, swim a little bit!
Find a plan that works for you, even if it’s just walking to lunch and dinner. Exercise offers many benefits and provides a sense of stability when everything else about your life is different overseas. I lost a few pounds while traveling. This was mostly because I wasn’t snacking on pretzels and chips while watching Netflix, but all the walking helped too!
Risk comes from not knowing what you’re doing.
You will get sick, and you will run into problems on your travels. Take a few precautionary steps to alleviate these issues. Get the vaccines you need so you don’t have to worry about it every time you see a mosquito. Get some health insurance, if only to show it to the immigration officials. Bring some basic remedies with you, especially if these are hard to get overseas. Develop a basic exercise routine to stay limber, especially if you’re traveling long term.
It’s much easier to recover from illnesses, excessive drinking, and other experiences if you maintain a high baseline of general health. That way, you can turn crazy issues into interesting stories at your next cocktail party. Risking it on a week-long vacation is fine, but if you’re on the road for a few months, you’ll need a preventative healthcare plan. At the very least, drink a green smoothie once in a while!
The further someone is going, the less they tend to bring. We’ve all seen people pack three bags for a weekend away. I lapped the world with a 40 liter backpack. I heard about a guy who only traveled with the clothes he was wearing and a small satchel. The less you bring, the better and easier your travel experience will be.
So buy that ticket already! You know the countries you want to visit, so pull the trigger. Once you book a flight, you’re on the clock. You have between now and your departure date to pack your bag, address all your visa needs, get your health insurance and bank cards in order, and get ready. Now that you know how to clear these hurdles, you’re ready to go live your dreams.
Spending time in another country should change your life. Travel is one of very few things that isn’t a waste of money. I recommend solo international travel in the strongest possible terms. If you’ve ever wanted to go see the world, that desire will never go away on its own. It doesn’t matter if you’re young, old, sick, or poor. You can do this!
Originally published at https://www.dirigible42.com on February 7, 2021.