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How to travel well

Updated on May 5, 2010

Travel is supposed to be fun and life-enriching!

We all want to travel well, right?

Whether you're just going on a day trip or you're tripping across the globe, there are ways to make sure your trip is as good as it can be, freeing you up for the best vacation ever.

This whole Hub will be a collection of tips and tricks and pointers to help you make the most of every trip.

Before the trip

Plan, plan, plan! Know what sorts of things you intend to do, and what the weather will probably be like. Know how you'll be getting places and how much travel time is involved. Know who you're going with. Know the laws and regulations that apply to you and yours on the trip. Will someone need to watch your house and feed your cats? Will you be staying in hotels? Will you need dressy clothes or only casuals? Will you need to bring your own toiletries? Will the food be so different from your norm that you should bring meds to combat stomach upsets? Do you need to know key phrases in another language?

Make lists: Your itinerary and contact info to be left at home, as well as anything a house-sitter or the like would need to know about the life they're watching for you. People to call if there's an emergency, to be kept on your person. What you want to take with you, especially the things you'll definitely need. Places you want to see and things you want to do where you're going. Things you have to do at work and in your life before you go. Gifts you want to bring back and who they're for. Addresses for people you want to write to while you're gone. Foods you want to try where you're going. Anything you can think of-- get it all listed out ahead of time so you don't have to worry about planning it all after you get there. And the best part, lists are flexible: you've thought of it, and it's accounted for, but if you don't get around to it, it's fine.

Make a travel toiletries set: Get one of those little zippy plastic travel bags, a toothbrush holder, a soap holder and a collection of little bottles for shampoo and conditioner and bath gel and lotion. Get all those adorable little mini-size versions of all your daily need products. If you're the sort who wears makeup, get secondary travel versions of all your favorite cosmetics (so you don't have to worry about losing your favorite lipstick or eyeliner or whatever). Keep it all in your suitcase, and you don't have to worry about it ever: it will always already be there.

If you need a passport or a visa where you're going, make sure that's all taken care of months ahead of time. The more leeway for things to go wrong with the government, and the more time to fix it, the better.

Make a paperwork folder that you can carry with you: passport, visa paperwork, ID, all of that stuff, but also your travel journal, stamps, addresses and phone numbers, backup memory cards for your camera, a few sheets of writing paper, a notebook, all the sorts of writing utensils you may need. Something small enough that it'll fit in a bag you can take with you everywhere, or will fit into a pocket of your jacket is ideal. Keep this in a satchel or backpack, something you can take as carry-on, and then it's ready to go when you are.

Make sure your phone and credit cards will work where you're going, especially if you're going overseas. If not, make changes to how you call or handle money. Make sure you do all of this with lots of time to spare.

Make sure people know what flight you're on and where you're going in case something goes wrong.

Make yourself a budget, and write it all down so you remember it. Take the budget with you in your paperwork folder. Make sure you include things like exchange rates (if applicable), bills that'll clear while you're gone, leeway to leave tips, shopping trips, tour costs, and other things you normally don't have to budget for. Set an amount of money that can go to those things, and stay within that amount.

Clean your house before you leave. No one likes to come home to a mess, and it keeps the stress of getting back to your life to a minimum.

Packing

Start packing a week or so beforehand: Pay attention to what you use on a daily basis, and put all that in a pile for your trip. Pack all the clothes and shoes and everything else you think you might need, then start weeding it out: Do you need six pairs of pants, or will one or two do? How many shirts serve multiple purposes? How many shoes do you really need? Will there be hairdryers where you're going? In the end, you should have the minimum numbers of everything that will serve the most number of purposes, making your bag lighter and therefore cheaper, and leaving you with more space to bring other stuff home.

When you do the final pack for your clothes, roll them as small as they'll go so they take up less space, freeing space for more things and / or allowing you to take a smaller bag. If you can make everything fit into one bag, even better. If you're going on a plane, and the one bag fits into the overhead bins, even better, because you won't have to check it and therefore won't have to worry about losing it.

Pack your carry-on / overnighter with a secondary small overflow bag for bringing back souvenirs. When you get home, keep that secondary bag in the carry-on and you don't have to worry about it again.

Other things that should be in your carry-on: Your toiletries, your paperwork, an emergency change of clothes, a book or other distraction, and any electronics and their chargers that you're bringing with you. 

Keep some money aside for clothes if your luggage gets lost, and carry that with your paperwork, always with you.

While traveling

Keep your bags with you at all times.

Stay hydrated, and do that by drinking water. Alcohol makes travel less sharp and caffeine keeps you awake, but both also sap water from your system and make it harder to adjust once you get there.

Eat regularly. If you're going to be in a lot of airports, make sure you bring snacks with you. Keeping your blood-sugar up helps you adjust and enjoy and keeps the stress down.

Enjoy the process: Even an airport is a new place with new things to discover. Journal your thoughts and observations, take as many pictures as you want, talk to people along the way, pick up post cards and fliers and leaves and flowers and whatever else you can put into your journal. 

Call home or update your internet statuses along the way whenever you can.

Look nice. People who look put-together and purposeful are less likely to get hassled by security, and therefore have a smoother trip through airports. Plus, getting dressed and looking nice is a part of your normal daily routine, and keeping to as many daily routines as you can makes the transition to a new place easier.

If you're going overseas, bone up on nice and useful things to say in the language of wherever you're going. Even if you can't say much, the fact that you're trying will go a long way toward dispelling the Ugly, Pushy American idea, and it'll make it much easier to get along.

When you arrive

Don't go to sleep. That'll only make time-change adjustments worse. Instead, overlap your day and act like you've had a nice night's sleep; pick up wherever you would normally at that time. If it's breakfast time there, go eat breakfast and then go on about your day-- just don't plan anything really strenuous until the next day, if you can. Stay awake until local bedtime, sleep then, and wake up at local wakeup time. Voila! No jet-lag.

Check in on time at your hotel, and take the time to know who to talk to if there's a problem, where the amenities are, and so on. 

Call home and let them know you arrived okay.

When you first head out into the city, get lost. It's the best way to know a city on it's own terms, and you'll find landmarks that will help you find your way around the rest of your stay.

Use the phrases you learned. Talk to the locals and get to know the shopkeepers and hotel staff around you; if they like you, they're more likely to warn you of bad parts of town and guide you to good restaurants and events. Ask them how to avoid scams and the like, and heed their advice.

Visit the sites using a good tour book, especially the sort written for off-the-beaten-path travelers.

Live like a local as much as you can. No one really likes the typical tourist, and being one only separates you from the city you're trying to experience.

Always be polite. You're the outsider there, and being pushy or demanding isn't a good way to get people to help you out when things go wrong.

Eat the local food. You can get McDonalds anywhere, but what can you find that you've never seen at home? And don't ask what's in the food unless you're specifically allergic to something-- things are much tastier when you don't know what weird part of the animal it comes from or what they do to the vegetables. If you like it, make note of it and see if you can find recipes or local sources when you get home-- you've just enriched your life and widened your scope! If you don't like it, you've still had a unique experience! Take pictures of what you eat so you can show your friends back home how brave you were.

If you shop a lot, consider mailing things home instead of packing them in your bags. you'll probably be tired going home, and no one really wants to carry heavier bags back home. If you have a lot of laundry, mail that home, too. Mail is safe and rarely loses things, and will probably arrive not long after you get home.

Write letters and mail postcards. Family and friends like to share your experiences, and it's nice to be included, even by proxy.

Buy things that will remind you of what you did and saw there. Charms for a bracelet, books, statues or things to enrich your home, pretty trinkets, something beautiful to wear; these are good souvenirs. Junk that's cheap, uninspired or out of place in your house will probably just get thrown away or put in a closet later.

Do what you want to do, and don't sweat it if you can't get it all in. A slow ramble around town is much better, in the long run, than a breakneck tour where you only get three minutes at all the sites. Whatever you miss this time gives you incentive to come back later.

When you get home

Combat jet-lag the same way you did before, and ease back into your life slowly, only doing what most needs to be done at first, so you aren't immediately overwhelmed with your obligations. If you can manage it, come home a few days before you need to get back to work so you have a post-vacation buffer to allow yourself to readjust.

Make a scrapbook as soon as you can, if that's what you intended when you collected up all those ticket stubs and fliers; the longer it sits around, the less chance it'll get done. Other trip-saving ideas: get a photo-box, label it with the dates of the trip and where you went, and label everything that goes into it (it's like a freeform scrapbook); scan everything you brought back, and make a digital scrap book, gallery or photo album, then get rid of it all; make a big collage or mobile or art-piece out of it all so it enriches your life in a more immediate way.

Put stuff away quickly, also because of the Delay Factor. The longer you leave the laundry and the unpacking and so on, the longer it'll just clutter up your life and be one more chore you have to do later.

Share your trip with friends and family. It's not a thing separate from your life, but a part of it, and the people closest to you will want to know how it went.

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