We’re back in Canada to visit family for the holidays and take stock to prep for travel in 2016. Being home caused me to reflect on what we’ve learned so far, and how little we planned or knew about travel before set out for South America almost 19 months ago! We’ve come a long way when it comes to travel hacks since then.
We’re not travel experts, nor master planners, but we’ve learned what works best for us. Trying and comparing many new things (airlines, accommodations, and travel gear) helped us learn a lot about destinations and how to save serious money on travel costs. After 595 days on the road, I feel we’ve distilled down some great tips worth sharing. A lot of them are geared toward long-term travel, but many can be used for vacations as well.
Here are our best travel tips, we will continue to apply as we travel in 2016.
Travel planning and booking
One of the biggest lessons we’ve learned about travel planning and booking is time is money. Spending more on accommodation can save you a lot of travel time and be great for your budget in the process.
1- There are a lot of great places to visit in this world. Sometimes it’s hard to decide where to go! We check currency exchange rates and sites like Price of Travel and Numbeo to help us choose places that offer the best value for our money.
2- When planning travel longer term get an unlocked phone to buy prepaid SIM cards with a local calling number wherever you are visiting. This saves a lot of money avoiding international roaming charges if you need or want to make calls locally.
3- Download What’s App on your phone. You can send texts and video free to people all over the world without needing a cell plan. It communicates over Wi-Fi.
4- The one airline that was better than all the rest for the price and overall experience for us was Norwegian. Norwegian’s Dreamliner is always our first choice for long-haul flights.
5- We don’t use often aggregators to compare prices for flights. When we do we use Skyscanner and ITA Matrix. In general, we fly budget airlines and choose our flights based on a blend of best price and fewest connections. Searching directly on budget airline sites that service where we are and where we want to go helps us look at the most relevant options. This helps us narrow down the best choice faster.
6- Start looking for flights eight weeks before you want to fly and continue to check carriers websites frequently, daily until you find your best price.
7- Travel in the off-season or shoulder seasons. We have saved the most time and money doing this. Prices are better for both flights and accommodation during these months. There are also smaller crowds at restaurants and shorter lines at tourist attractions.
8- The cheapest accommodation can end up being expensive. Make sure where you stay is close or easily accessible to most of what you want to see in a destination. Also, are there restaurants, and shopping for necessities close by? Costs for cabs can be killer.
9- If you’re going to spend a couple of weeks in an area, or are organizing long-term travel, plan the first third of your trip. Leave the rest open-ended so you can plan and book the rest based on your impressions and advice of locals and fellow travelers you meet along the way.
10- Use Google street view to get a feel for an area. We love to stay in Airbnb apartment rentals but where some are located can make it a challenge to get around. Airbnb doesn’t give an exact address until you book, but they do give the general area for the rental. We use Google street view to get a feel for what’s close by and ensure we have easy access to things we want and need before deciding on a rental.
11- We save a ton of money on travel costs choosing Airbnb rentals vs. hotels and hostels. We rent whole apartments for access to a kitchen and sometimes a washing machine. We save money cooking some meals at home and enjoy a lot more conveniences and space to get comfortable.
12- Where we like the social aspect of hostels, most charge per bed. They can seem cheap but when you multiply bed prices by three, the cost becomes a lot less attractive. Most of the entire place Airbnb’s we rented were $50 USD a night, better value than hostels because of cost and conveniences.
13- The nicest (and cheapest, FREE) places we’ve stayed are because of house sitting assignments. A villa in Spain, a lovely home in the Panamanian rain forest, those two assignments alone accounted for 8 months of free accommodation for us! Sign up for our free house sitting course to learn how you could stay in the most incredible places in the world for free.
Convenience and Safety
Convenience and safety are paramount traveling with kids. Learning to recognize and act upon opportunities has helped us take advantage of many conveniences. Planning safety measures and clear, consistent communication has kept us all safe.
14- Do laundry whenever you can. You never know when you’ll have the next opportunity to do some.
15- Pack a headlamp and batteries. We use them a lot and they sure came in handy for the many power outages we encountered.
16- Why is there never a rubber band when you need one? Ikea bag clips are the best for sealing up open snacks or anything open that doesn’t have a resealing closure. I carry some in my carry on and keep some in our housesitting kit as well.
17- I read somewhere, if someone is moving noticeably quick toward you, it can be a sign they want to take something from you. Recognizing this behavior and acting to prevent a potential scam helped me avoid a determined pickpocket.
18- Take pictures of your kids every time before you go out. I take a straight on photo, a profile, and pictures of specific details on Maks clothing. Should we become separated for some reason I have the most current picture of him and a detailed description of clothes he has on that day to show to authorities available on my camera.
19- Carry travel/business cards (or stickers) with your email/website/Facebook/Twitter to give to people you meet along the way.
20- Have kids wear a lanyard around their neck under clothes. We like the ones with a clear plastic sleeve attached. The sleeve is the perfect size for a business card. I write, “Please help I’m lost” and the address of where we are staying in the language spoken where ever we are. I also include Rob and my first name and our in-country phone number. My email and our blog contact info are printed on the business card. Mak knows to show it to police or security personnel if he gets lost.
21- If you wear prescription eyeglasses bring along a spare pair just in case.
22- Take pictures of menus and information plaques at attractions to remember details of a trip instead of taking notes.
23- Carry kids socks where ever you go, you never when you come across a bouncy house or play structure where socks are required for entry.
How and what to pack
We left more items and clothes along the way than we bought new traveling. Our biggest lessons learned when it comes to how and what to pack; You need a lot less than you think you do and quality luggage and gear may seem expensive at first, but buying it will save you tons of money and frustration in the long run.
24- Don’t take heavy, bulky books. An e-reader or Kindle is the only way to go traveling.
25- Quality luggage is worth every penny you pay for it. Our favorite bags are the Eagle Creek Gear Warrior, Eagle Creek Switch Back (it has wheels, a detachable daypack, and backpack straps), Osprey Ozone wheeled carry on, and the Marmot Minimalist backpack. Our Eagle Creek bags were checked for 13 flights and still like new. The one cheap Air Canada bag we took needed duct tape to stay together.
26- Roll your clothes to get maximize space in your bags and try to pack clothes that are lite and roll tightly. Both Rob and I dislike synthetic shirts. They smell bad fast and it’s difficult to get smells out of them. However, for pants, shorts or fleece synthetic is awesome. It rolls tight, it’s light, and it holds color better than cotton.
27- It is definitely a challenge to pack clothes for four seasons and have it all fit. We didn’t buy much in the way of clothing on the road, most of what we did was for Mak because he outgrew stuff. The items we love that pack small and help us survive all kinds of climates are Columbia micro fleece (great for layering and not pilling), Columbia synthetic pants, Mountain Hardwear compressible down coats, and Arcteryx thin, quality cotton tees.
28- Rob loves Fuji mirrorless cameras, the pictures quality and the low profile looks they have. The Fuji XE 2 is an excellent camera but not flashy looking. It almost looks like a point and shoot.
29- I want a Scrubba! We don’t have one yet, but I think the design is absolutely genius. The Scrubba is a good size, watertight wash bag that has a flexible internal wash board inside. It is also light weight and packs small. Handwashing is no problem, but there have been times I wished I had some sort of scrub board to get stuff cleaner. The Scrubba is perfect portable washing solution, I think!
30- Packing cubes are like drawers in a dresser. They keep you organized and save space because everything just fits better in your bag. We love how Eagle Creek bags and packing cubes fit so well together. You can buy different colored packing cubes, which is great for families. Everyone can have their own color, which makes finding things so much easier especially if you’re sharing bag space with another family member.
31- Pack a travel umbrella, we didn’t pack one before we left and struggled to find a good quality small one whenever we needed one.
32- Try to pack double duty shoes. I worked in an outdoor adventure store before we left and did a lot of research on what would work best on our feet. We walk a lot, hike a little, and I run a little too. Rob and I wear Merrel barefoot trail runners. They do everything we want them to, they are light, washable and very comfortable!
33- A lot of travel specific stuff is crap, but some accessories are necessary and quality. We use a travel adapter set, a Belkin SurgePlus USB swivel charger power bar, Pacsafe 85L, and Sea to Summit TEK travel towels.
Getting around (comfortably, and with kids)
Travel days can be challenging and we’ve learned it’s the little things that make a big difference when things get hectic.
34- Carry snacks everywhere. I always have granola bars or cookies in my bag whenever we are out and about should someone get hungry.
35- Bring new small toys in a carry on for long haul flights. They are great surprises for fighting boredom for kids and convenient if you need a distraction.
36- Help kids pack their carry-ons purposely not randomly (don’t forget kid-friendly headphones for movies and noisy game devices). Make sure their carry along bag has wheels or if a backpack is more suitable ensure it’s light enough for them to manage comfortably. Making kids responsible for their own stuff (if they are able of course) helps them lose less.
37- Let kids wear the shoes that are the most comfortable, not new shoes. Maks favorite pair is a lightweight slip on style (no laces is a very good thing in airports and on planes).
38- Book train tickets online, in advance or buy a rail pass. In Europe, it is always much cheaper than buying them at the station on travel days.
39- On longer overland travel days via ferries book a berth. Booking in advance, pricing can be really reasonable and having the private space for the kids is fun for them and quite relaxing for you.
40- Always, ask cab drivers how much the fare to your desired destination will be and verbally agree on the price before getting in the vehicle to avoid being taken advantage of.
41- Find out online or ask your bus driver about day and family passes. If you plan to ride the bus multiple times in a day getting a pass can save a lot of money.
Getting to know a destination
We are committed to getting to know the places we travel, that’s the whole point of our expat experiment! Getting off the tourist trail helps us do that.
42- Respect local customs and wear appropriate clothing.
43- Learn behaviors that offend people where you’re visiting to avoid upsetting a local mistakenly.
44- Shop at neighborhood and community markets to see what local people like eating.
45- Book a private room with an Airbnb host. This is a great way to get to know someone local and hosts give the best advice on what’s good to see and do which is invaluable. We’ll even give you $25 to try Airbnb for the first time.
46- Walk as much as you can. Doing so instead of driving or taking transit will help you see the fine details of a destination. Walking, sometimes wandering aimlessly has helped us find so many hidden gems.
47- Take a food tour early on in your trip. Doing so is a great way to garner more food/restaurant recommendations.
48- Try foods even if you think they look yucky. Locals love to see you eat their food and there’s no better way to develop a variety of tastes.
49- Find out what festivals and community events are happening while you are visiting places. Visiting these types of events are a great way to meet locals and experience local culture.
50- Another benefit to visiting place in the off-season is there is more opportunity to interact with locals. We love getting a clearer picture of how local people deal with daily life and seasonal challenges that occur.
51- Learn how to say basic pleasantries in the language spoken where you visiting and don’t hesitate to pull out a phrase book. Locals love to hear visitors try to communicate in their language. We saw so many faces smile and light up when we would say something as simple as please or thank you in the local language. Always return the smiles you get too.
52-Be a good guest and clean up after yourself. We always try to leave the places we stay the way we found them or better.
53- When a local invites you for an outing, or a drink or meal say yes!
Biggest travel paradigm shifts
The biggest stunner looking back on the past 19 months is how little we planned before we left to travel which brings me to our biggest paradigm shifts,
54-You don’t need to prepare for every eventuality traveling. You really don’t.
55- Dealing with a language barrier isn’t a big deal. A smile and patience are all that’s needed to establish clear communication in most cases.
56- Don’t let managing a chronic health issue keep you from traveling (if you can). Finding meds to manage my rheumatoid arthritis while we travel isn’t hard or expensive. A lot of medications and antibiotics can be bought over the counter cheaply in different countries.
57- Don’t let unsolicited negative opinions influence your decisions on destinations. Do your own research, take the road less traveled, doing so is liberating and so rewarding.
58- You and your kids are more capable than you think.
59- Travel builds confidence, it helps kids and grown ups push the boundaries on perceptions and expands comfort zones.
We learned a lot in our first 559 days traveling! But we know there are a lot more travel tips we don’t know yet. Do you have a favorite travel tip you’d like to share? Please feel free to share in the comments.