Top Ten Tips for the Tentative Traveller
Salty Mick's Travel Advice - Take It or Leave It.
The seasoned traveller may well agree or disagree with my top ten tips, however these nuggets of advice are not for them, they are intended for those who haven’t travelled much, especially to countries where English is not the first language. That being said, I think my top ten tips are, in most cases, applicable no matter where you travel. See what you think.
When going on a short break to a foreign city, or even on an extended backpacker excursion across a continent, I always like to travel light. Why? With one small bag I’m on and off planes and out of airports quicker than you can say “my suitcase is lost in transit.” Women (my wife) may argue that as a bloke, it’s easier for me to travel light as I don’t have to lug about cosmetics and “lady things.” I say, "that is true girls", but I also carry the camera, tote the notebook, pack the maps and grapple with the guidebook, more often than not.
Traveling light also means that I have more weight and space collateral to acquire things enroute (ie: Shopping!), I can also bring a spare folding bag to carry the goodies home in.
2 Learn the Language
I don’t mean become fluent in French or Chinese overnight, but there are certain words you just have to know. I reckon these are (a) Please (b) Thank you (c) Sorry and/or excuse me (d) Yes (e) No (thankyou). This limited vocabulary should get you by in most countries. So many people speak English these days, and actually want to try out their skills, that you will soon find you are discussing complex issues with 10 year Cambodian street urchins who have mastered the art of debating in English, before making you part with several dollars for an item you didn’t want, which is no biggy really. Being able to say "No thank you" firmly in the local language will usually see off persistant street vendors and touts. (See Point 3: Blending In)
3 Blend In
Try your hardest not to look like a tourist. You will be hassled less, you will feel safer and you will feel more superior to other tourists – it’s win, win, win all the way with this one. Blending in simply means not flashing your camera around too much; not wearing national identifiers such as Union Jack shorts or Stars and Stripes headbands and not carrying a map the size of a dining room table so you always look obviously lost.
4 Familiarise Yourself First
Before you arrive in a foreign destination, learn as much as you can about that particular place as quickly as you can, even if you have to speed read the pages in your guide book as the plane is touching down. This means that when you make it through customs you will have some inkling of orientation such as where downtown is in relation to the airport or how much a bus or a taxi should cost to get to your hotel or hostel. The idea is to avoid being ripped off too much, which is almost an inevitability for first time travellers in foreign lands. You only need to know the basics about a place - enough to get you to a safe and secure sanctuary where you can relax and regroup after your journey; plenty of time for research and discovery later, which brings us to…
5 The Guided Tour
To tour or not to tour? That is the question. Once upon a time I was dead against it, preferring stubbornly to wander about a foreign city for days on end, discovering things for myself. However, with experience, I have found that it is often advantageous, educational, and fun to devote at least one day to an organised tour of the place I’m in. I know, I know, I said ‘Blend In’, but while you are on the tour you are fairly anonymous anyway, surrounded as you are by other tourists. Do this, then blend in! The second day in a place is a good time to do the tour – it means you can wander about a bit on the first day, getting your bearings (with your discreetly folded Map which you bought at the airport when you arrived!) becoming acclimatised, chilling out and booking your tour. For a short stay in a European capital, nothing beats the open-topped bus ride. A tour of the canals of Bangkok is brilliant and a cyclo ride through Saigon is unmissable. The advantage is that you will get to see many of the main sites, gain a handle on street layouts and you may also meet up with like minded others who could become friends.
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6 Get to Grips with the Exchange Rate
For heaven’s sake, you are on holidays, not trying to raise a mortgage or engage in insider trading. If the exchange rate is 6.4 to the dollar make it 5 for your own sanity. In other words round it down to an easy to calculate number – that way you wont be trying to figure out the cost of everything every time you have to spend; and you will be paying less than you think you are, though this is irrelevant as I don’t know anyone who has ever spent less than they think they are spending when travelling or on vacation. Nothing screams “Look at me, I’m a tourist from the West, I have lots of money but I am as tight as a gnat's chuff when it comes to forking out even the tiniest amount more than it says I should in my big, fat guide book” than someone trying to calculate the exchange rate while buying a Pad Thai off a street vendor.
7 Guard your Valuables
Your camera is insured, your watch is easily replaced, you can always buy more clothes. No, your valuables are (a) Your passport (b) Your Cash and card (c) your ticket out of the country if you have one. Nothing else matters that much so make sure it is these items you have a close relationship with at all times. If you trust your accommodation then you can leave your passport and ticket in the safe, but you may need the former for ID purposes on a daily basis, so make sure you have a secure and secret pocket somewhere on your clothing where this can live comfortably. I opt for a sturdy cloth pouch that I can sling over my neck and under my t-shirt.)
Always carry enough ready cash in your pocket for the day's spend so you don't have to dip into your secret pouch, thus revealing its existence and location to prospective thieves.
I am notoriously unsartorial, a 'jeans man' through and through. However, clothes are more important when you are travelling than ever. Remember, you are travelling light. The climate of where you are also dictates what you wear. In the tropics, the last thing you want to be wearing during the day are bloody jeans. The modern combat/cargo short is excellent for the tropics, especially since they have loads of pockets where you can safely stash your valuables.
Even better are the cargo pants that have zip-off legs - kill two birds with one stone - shorts and long trousers in one. These are especially handy when making long distance bus trips in S.E. Asia - the buses tend to be sub-zero on board due to over-use of air con, despite it being 30°C+ outside. Board the bus in shorts and zip-on the legs for the long cold night (also have a hoody or sweatshirt to hand as it will be very cold.
Cotton, cotton cotton - shirts, t-shirts, skirts if you’re a lass; cotton trousers – fantastic for both sexes in the cooler evenings. A cotton/canvas hat can be screwed up and carried in a day pack or a pocket but will keep the midday sun off your maddog English head too.
OK, I hate to say this next bit because the fashionistas will have my balls, but for footwear, I found those plastic/rubber Croc shoes to be perfect for the tropics. They work with shorts and they look a bit like shoes when worn with cotton trousers when dressing up for a night out; they are water-oblivious and don’t slip about on your feet like sweaty flip-flops; and they offer reasonable arch support on long walks. Just my opinion.
9 Local Customs Aware
This one again, is common sense. Be aware of local customs, from the airport onwards. Obviously don’t carry drugs and make sure you can bring booze into a country too. Once in, respect the customs that you have read about in your familiarisation brush-up, such as dressing modestly and wearing headscarves and taking off shoes in temples and not pointing your feet at people etc. Crazy, rude Westerners don’t do anyone any favours in the long run. It’s just common courtesy. Once you are familiar with a country you will find out what you can get away with and where – cities are usually more liberal than out in the depths of the countryside where there are few, if any, tourists. Beach life too, is usually more western friendly in this regard too.
10 Be Friendly
A smile is equal to a credit card insofar as it can keep you out of trouble and gain you certain advantages. A smile with an ‘excuse me’ in the local lingo will open doors and elicit positive responses. A cheeky grin with a firm ‘No thank you’ in that language will convince the most aggressive tout that you may be a foreigner but you are well travelled, multilingual and are firm but fair and not worth wasting time on. Just be friendly – always.
Khop chai lai lai and Bon Voyage, Amigos
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