January 28th, 2010


Before You Leave

A year ago, I quit my safe and secure life to see a bit of the world. And where our reasonable degree of patience thankfully prohibits a retrospective, I’d like to share a few things I’ve learned. But, please don’t mistake any of the following as authoritative. Well after global oil reserves deplete, the ozone layer dissipates, and the polar ice caps melt away, we’ll still have no shortage of travel advice.

So, before you leave...

Pack light

Palomita In My Backpack (2)

Baggage, in both the physical and emotional sense, is the biggest impediment to new experiences.

Gap years and other periods of life transition are great times to get up and go. When bonds with home are weakest. Significant others, beginning a career, and tackling the financial responsibilities of adult life are the biggest blockers for the young. As time goes on the complexity grows.

Shed or delay those obligations. A minute spent mentally at home takes away hours engaging in the foreign.

Instead, the important duties are keeping your wits, safeguarding your passport, and judiciously spending your money. Those three build upon each other. Anything else can be obtained and any other problem can be solved from them.

Of course, a good backpack doesn’t hurt. But everything past those key three is debatable, because nothing else is strictly necessary.

(What is my minimum? Two changes of clothes, a towel, toiletries, shoes, a water bottle, a sleeping bag, a mess kit, a rain jacket, a camera, a notebook with pens, a deck of cards, and a book.)

Bank smart

The ATM obsoleted the once ubiquitous traveller’s check. But the average checking account has a fee structure crafted to cheat any customer with behaviour outside the norm. This can include an overhead for withdrawing via a third-party, a percentage on exchanging into foreign currency, and a monthly charge for out of country transactions. Research ahead of time!

Plastic money (project365 - 17/365)

Credit unions, virtual banks and institutions that cater to migrant populations (e.g. military families) provide excellent services for wandering tourists.

Regardless of your chosen depositary, forewarn them with an exact itinerary. Then find and save their overseas access numbers. Overzealous fraud departments have a tendency to inconveniently disable cards.

In the end, the best preparation against financial trouble is having options; multiple accounts with multiple cards. Link them together to easily move money where and when it’s needed.

(Which banks? ING and USAA. Additionally, a group of banks including Bank of America, Barclays, BNP Paribas, China Construction Bank, Deutsche Bank, Santander Serfin, Scotiabank, and Westpac all waive interchange fees with each other.)

Fly cheap

A one-way ticket between any two major hubs is around $1,000. Keep that much in savings for an emergency. But, getting out should cost a fraction of that.

Use Kayak. It’s the flight finder of the moment. Sign-up for a free account to use their flexible dates feature and check full weeks at a once. Plan at least a month in advance. And don’t bother searching past the window after which prices level off.


Check regional carriers for special deals. In the US, both Southwest and Virgin reserve their lowest fares for website purchases. In the same vein, Emirates wants people laying over in Dubai. RyanAir is a notorious budget carrier in Europe. And EgyptAir took me from Cairo to Istanbul.

Some countries require proof of onward transit and sufficient finances. Or, more often, the airlines require proof as they bear the cost of deportation. Use timatic to find out entry requirements the same way as the carriers. Still, it’s always best to get a visa ahead of time. It’s always worst to buy a refundable ticket and cancel it upon arrival.

(Really, avoid flying. Going overland is far more rewarding.)

Read ahead

Buy a good guidebook. It will be a knowledgeable companion and an unfailing lifesaver. A handy reference for history, highlights, and maps. It’s also the best way to meet other owners of the same guidebook.

Encadré (Jardim Botânico, Rio de Janeiro)

Before going anywhere, exercise due diligence and read up on both Wikipedia and Wikitravel. The latter is far less comprehensive than any good guidebook. But, it’s more up-to-date and is full of odd bits of knowledge.

The Centers for Disease Control and Travel Health Online publish worldwide health information. Get appropriately vaccinated! And carry at least a month’s worth of medication.

If there’s danger, the State Department will know all about it. And notifying them about any imprudent plans will earn a subscription to a Warden mailing list. Pro is advanced notice of the best parties and protests, con is continued notice months after leaving.

Join CouchSurfing. It isn’t requisite to offer up your home, and neither to crash with perfect strangers. Even for the less adventurous, the website is a trove of information. There are groups, forums and events for every sort of traveller in any spot. Helpful members and community ambassadors love to be instrumental in successful journeys.

Ultimately, no source is better than a local.

(Lonely Planet.)

Thanks to Geneva Drouin for reading drafts and suggesting health resources.