By Sherry Ott / Ott’s World
I’ve been on the road nine years to all continents and about 65 countries, and I normally shy away from giving people lots of advice about travel, as everyone’s tastes are different and I don’t profess to be an expert. But after nine years of living on the road, I think I have earned the right to share some of my best tips — travel tips that I use all the time. Keep in mind many of these are oriented for the long-term traveler or longer trips; however many can apply for vacations too.
And since the tagline for my blog Ott’s World, from the beginning, has been “Life and Travel Experiences of a Corporate American Runaway” — you not only get travel tips, but I threw in a few life tips too. And in honor of my nine years of travel, I’ll even give you 99 tips!
Travel Planning Tips
I plan very little these days. After nine years I have a system that just works now and I don’t even really think about it. However, these tips are things I still do today as I travel.
1. Always have a little U.S. cash on you stashed away — new bills preferably $20s and singles.
2. Sign up for an eating tour the first day you’re in a new destination so that you can get other food/restaurant recommendations.
Start your trip with an food tour to get more ideas for your stay. (Photo: Sherry Ott)
3. Stay in places where you have your own kitchen — save money on breakfast and pack a lunch.
4. Malaria pills may protect you from malaria, but they won’t protect you from dengue fever and other mosquito illnesses. I skip the pills and use repellent with high DEET instead.
5. Keep digital copies of all important documents. Take a picture of your passport, license, visas, and even the front and back of credit cards, and store them somewhere you can easily get them (in the cloud, or on the computer of a a family member who can email them to you).
6. Buy antibiotics in other countries where they are cheaper and you don’t need a prescription.
7. Always choose aisle seats on long flights — that way you can get up anytime you want without bothering people.
8. If you are going to be in a country for a few weeks or you are planning long-term travel, organize the first third of your trip and leave the rest open-ended so you can plan as you go based on the people and advice you get along the way!
9. T-Mobile has the best international cell plan out there for Americans: free texting and 1G of international data. The coverage in the U.S. sucks, but if you are going to be out of the country a lot, it’s the way to go.
10. Have a MasterCard and a Visa card in case you come across countries or ATMs that only accept one of the other.
11. Shoulder seasons, monsoon seasons, rainy seasons, and hot seasons are all the best times to travel as you have fewer tourists and cheaper prices. I love traveling to a place when you aren’t recommended to go. I find it more interesting to see how the locals deal with the inclement weather.
Don’t be afraid of rainy season in Vietnam! (Photo: Sherry Ott)
12. Sharing a bathroom with people is not a big deal…get over it. Staying in places where you have to share a room or a bathroom is actually a way to be much more social. As someone who travels solo most of the time, shared accommodations in general are a great way to meet people!
14. Booking an overnight train or bus is a great way to save money on a hotel and get to where you need to go.
15. Carry personal ‘business/travel’ cards with you so you can give your email/Twitter/Facebook/Instagram to people you meet along the way.
16. Sign up with the State Department’s STEP program. It’s simple and a good way to let people know where you are going to be in case of emergency. Plus, you get helpful updates from the embassy about things going on in the area, or notification of political issues.
17. If you are afraid of traveling solo for the first time, then choose a small group tour to go on. You can check sites like Stride to search a multitude of small-group tour operators. Based on my experience, though, my favorite small group operator is Intrepid Travel. Not only do they typically focus on local experiences, the group size is restricted to around 12 people max. You go solo, but you’ll meet many other solo travelers or couples and travel as a group. I’ve never taken an Intrepid trip I didn’t love.
18. If you are traveling for a longer time, spend some of your time volunteering in some way. There are many more options than simply teaching English.
My niece helping build homes in Lima. (Photo: Sherry Ott)
19. When traveling to remote or developing countries, bring postcards from your country to give out to local families you stay with. They love to see what your home looks like.
20. Have one song that you know the words to from your home country. That way when you are sitting around a fire or inside a local person’s home, and someone asks you to sing a song from your country — you know one! This will inevitably happen.
Travel Gear and Packing Tips
I get a lot of stuff from companies to try out and write about, but few are really any good or things that I actually use. This list contains some brand names of things that I absolutely adore and they are in my pack every trip. And if you are a travel company who has sent me gear to test and it’s not on this list – it’s because I probably don’t travel with it…sorry.
21. Roll your clothes to get maximum room in your suitcase/backpack.
22. Always have a headlamp with batteries packed in your carry-on/daypack.
23. Scarves make you fashionable and have various uses: towel, beach cover-up, sun shade, extra layer of warmth, modesty cover-up in Islamic countries, and they can be used to add a pop of color to a drab travel color palette.
24. Packing cubes are the key to packing happiness turn your bag into a dresser…organized! I use and love Eagle Creek Packing solutions.
25. My favorite travel items have double uses. My Lululemon reversible tights; MyPrAna swimsuit and shorts that I can hike, swim, and surf in; my Exofficio Storm Logic jacket that turns into a neck pillow (and it’s easy to wash).
My Storm Logic jacket and other Exofficio travel gear I love! (Photo: Sherry Ott)
26. Smartwool socks are great for travel. They dry really fast, don’t hold odor, and they stay warm in the cold and are cooling in the hot. The only socks I travel with!
27. Pack in one color palette so that you can stay light and everything can go together in different combinations.
28. Use a backpack if you are doing a lot of train or bus travel — it’s much easier to maneuver. I use an REI daypack and Eagle Creek backpack/duffel.
29. Bring a collapsible/refillable water bottle and stop using plastic.
30. Heavy-duty trail running shoes double as hiking shoes – one pair of shoes, two uses!
31. Exofficio underwear really do work as its advertising indicates. Wear them day after day!
32. Bring a small travel umbrella as it’s great for protection from the rain and the sun. One of my most essential items in my bag.
33. LensCoat raincoat for cameras are great to keep your camera dry in a downpour.
34. You must be able to carry everything on your own. If you can’t lift your bag over your head and into a railroad car or bus overhead storage, then you shouldn’t be carrying it.
You must be able to carry it yourself! (Photo: Sherry Ott)
35. Ditch the heavy books and use a Kindle or ereader — your shoulders and back will thank you.
36. Tripods are great — but if you need to stay light in your pack, just invest in a really good low light lens instead. I’ve been surviving off of a F2.8 17-55mm lens for years now and have never carried a tripod.
37. Buffs are great for so many uses — a hat, scarf, mask, tube top, wash cloth, and even handkerchief.
Buffs can be used for warmth, to layer under a helmet, or just for bad hair days! (Photo: Sherry Ott)
38. If you are on a longer trip and you are ‘living’ out of your suitcase, then take the management of that suitcase seriously. Every item has an 'assigned’ place, and make sure you put things back in the same place that you took them from. This makes it less likely that you will misplace things and lose them in hotel rooms, and it makes packing it up much easier.
39. If you wear glasses, have one extra pair to bring along just in case — even if it’s an old prescription. And make sure you have your recent prescription with you or somewhere on the internet cloud in case of emergency.
40. Bring a Rocket Air Blaster to remove dust and debris from your camera lenses. It’s small and squishes down.
41. Noise-canceling headphones are a LIFESAVER…worth the ridiculous price tag. I just started using them this year and can’t believe I waited this long.
42. Money belts are a waste, I’ve never used one in nine years. Plus who in their right mind wants to add bulk to their belly area?
43. Most things made specifically for travel are crap and you don’t need them. See #42 and save your money.
44. Always travel with a deck of cards.
45. Carry four or five extra passport pictures with you just in case you need them for visa applications while on the road.
46. Tiger Balm…’nuff said.
47. Don’t pack/bring cloths you need to iron or dry clean.
On the Road Tips
These are some of my favorite ways to deal with life on the road. Many of them are specifically geared toward getting off the tourist trail and finding more local experiences.
48. Save and listen to podcasts for when you have downtime on buses, airports, car rides, and there’s no connectivity. My favorites — This American Life, Planet Money, Startup, Amateur Traveler, This Week in Travel, The Moth.
49. Travel connected. Rent and use a MiFi device to stay connected no matter where you go in the world — it’s much easier than dealing with international roaming. Plus you can connect up to five devices to the MiFi device, which is perfect for group travel! I have been using Telecom Square MiFi devices for the last 4 years!
50. Use public transportation for real experiences. It may take longer, but who cares…the journey is the experience.
51. Always have emergency snacks for those hangry times. I use Clif bars.
52. Visit local supermarkets just to see what people eat in a country.
53. Respect the customs and dress appropriately. When in doubt, look around you and see how locals dress.
No shoulders or knees in the Middle East please, no matter how hot it is! (Photo: Sherry Ott)
54. Most all cultures are looking for the same things in life: love, happiness, and family.
55. All cities think they have the best craft beer movement in the world. They are all good…move on.
56. Whenever a local invites you into their home or out for coffee, go!
57. Be a good guest — leave no trace. As an eternal guest, I try to have no impact. Put away your things, clean up a space like it was when you first got there. Manners!
My niece and I learned the hard way! (Photo: Sherry Ott)
59. On that note…always carry Dramamine and take it whenever in doubt. It doesn’t work after the fact.
60. Learn how to say hello and thank you in the native language of where you are visiting.
61. Fill out those TripAdvisor reviews if you had a strong feeling about a place. It is a way to pay it forward, and it really helps the small businesses.
62. Rent a car and drive yourself! Learning to drive on the other side of the road isn’t rocket science, and it can be quite a fun adventure.
Take the leap and drive yourself! (Photo: Sherry Ott)
63. Send postcards! People still love to get things in the mail.
64. Take pictures of menus or historical plaques if you want to remember things but don’t want to take notes.
65. Jet lag sucks, nothing stops it, and all of the jet lag apps suck. However, melatonin helps and I advise you to change your watch to the destination time as soon as you get on the plane. And whatever you do, try not to nap.
66. A rule of thumb: If there isn’t a price listed or a price tag, this means it’s okay to haggle. This is just part of the process, it is expected so get over yourself and have fun with it. This is especially true in most developing countries. There, you can even haggle when there is a price listed.
67. Eat anything you are offered. It’s just kind to at least try it — yes, even if it’s disgusting looking.
Me eating hot vit lan — duck embryo. (Photo: Sherry Ott)
68. When you get to a new country, spend the majority of your time observing instead of judging.
69. Don’t worry about exchanging money — 99 percent of places I have gone to have an ATM at the airport where you can simply get out the cash you need in the local currency for better rates than any money exchanger. Call your bank before you go and let them know what countries you are traveling or else this may not work!
70. Once you get that local currency out of the ATM, THEN go to the money exchanger and ask nicely if they will break a large bill into smaller bills. It’s always good to have small bills for taxis, bottles of water, and tips. Many people often tell you they don’t have change for large bills and cannot sell you a bottle of water/bread/taxi ride.
71. When a place offers to charge your credit card in your home currency, decline it and tell them to charge it in their local currency. There can be hidden fees that cost more than exchange rates when you have the company charge it in your home currency.
72. Do laundry whenever you can as you never know when you will get the opportunity again.
My niece learning to wash laundry in a hotel sink! (Photo: Sherry Ott)
73. Look for school-age kids when you can’t find someone who speaks English; they often at least know a little English from school or television. And if that fails…Google Translate!
74. Adopt and enforce the rule “one in, one out” when it comes to your suitcase. If you must buy something, then something else must go!
75. Once you pass through immigration, put your passport away and never carry it on you once you get to your destination. If you are carrying it in your money belt, purse, pocket as you tour around a city, you just increase the odds that it will get stolen off of you. Leave it in your room locked/hidden in your bag. Out of all of the countries I’ve traveled to, there was only one country that I actually needed to carry my passport with me at all times — Lebanon. In the others…just put it away.
76. Back up everything regularly. Whether you travel with a laptop, your phone, an external backup drive, or whatever, have a backup plan. Something will get stolen/lost eventually.
77. Keep track of your adventures somehow, whether you keep a blog, a journal, or one-second-a-day videos. It’s a great way to see how far you’ve come and learn from your past.
78. If you have a bad experience somewhere (Airbnb, Couchsurfing, etc) leave an honest review about the situation. If you are going to use the sharing economy, then you are responsible for making it work. That means leaving good reviews and bad reviews as it may save the next person from a very bad situation.
These are not necessarily travel-oriented, but they are a few of the life lessons I’ve learned along the way, and am still learning.
79. You don’t need half of what you think you need in life…or in retirement…or in your suitcase.
80. Do at least one thing that is completely ridiculous, dangerous, and pushes your boundaries; it will probably be the most memorable and talked about thing that you do in your life.
In July 2011, I drove 10,00 miles from London to Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia, in the Mongol Rally. (Photo: Sherry Ott)
81. People with less seem happier all around the world.
82. Accept praise or a compliment with a thank you and move on.
83. Meet new friends, but don’t forget the old.
84. Travel makes you see your own culture through others’ eyes, and that can be a humbling, beautiful thing.
85. The Middle East has the most welcoming guest culture than anywhere else I’ve been in the world. Surprising? Yes — but this is why it’s important to not let the news and media rule our impressions. Get out and see for yourself.
86. At least once in your life, travel solo — completely solo.
87. Learning how to give someone a bribe is a good life skill to possess. Practice.
88. A smile is the universal language.
89. SPF 30‚ every day.
90. Conform and be dull.
91. There is not one right way of living your life. Many paths can get you to where you want to be in life, and if you are bold and take the unknown paths, you may end up in a place you never thought imaginable.
What path? Just choose one and make the best of it. (Photo: Sherry Ott)
92. Don’t spend your life pining away waiting for stuff to happen — just go and make it happen yourself.
93. Certainty is overrated.
94. You are more capable than you think you are.
95. If you know you are going to make it, then it’s not an adventure.
Driving 2,000 miles across India in my own rickshaw was a true adventure! (Photo: Sherry Ott)
96. If we have space, we fill it — it’s human nature. Whether it’s a home, garage, storage unit, or suitcase. So if you want to be/live light, then just get a smaller space.
My niece Allie prepares for our trip to Belize! (Photo: Sherry Ott)
98. If you have a goal to do longer -erm travel, but don’t know where to start, the best and first thing you should do it pick a date that you want to leave. That way you have something to work towards.
99. Say “YES”! It’s much more fun than saying “no”.