100 things I wish I had known before traveling
After my first backpacking trip to Costa Rica on the summer I turned 20, I thought I had things pretty much figured out. Six years later, it turns out I still have many epiphanies on each trip (‘Duh!’) and an appalling tendency to forget lessons well learnt in the past.
I guess there is no good way to travel, but rather a long path to discovering how you like to travel. Still, if I was given the chance to go back through time, I would definitely race and tell my 20-year-old self a few things before she went off on her first trip…
Here is a compilation of 100 of these things. Feel free to contest/discuss/draw on everything I say in here!
1. Take pictures. Always. Everywhere. If you forgot/lost your camera, buy a disposable. Everybody will grumble and hate you for being the annoying camera person during the trip, then send you ‘thank you’/‘you’re awesome’/‘will you marry me?’ notes at the end of it.
2. Don’t let anyone near your bags during your leaving party. Or facetious friends might take all your socks out and replace them with several miniature Eiffel towers and one snowboarding boot.
3. Before leaving, scan your ID and send it to yourself via email. Replacement procedure way simplified if it gets stolen!
4. Baby wipes will save you when there are no showers around.
5. Travelling is a lot of waiting. Bring a book.
6. Sand will get inside everything.
7. Buy an extra battery for your camera.
8. Pack a pair of undies, a fresh T-shirt, a toothbrush and tiny quantities of your most important beauty essentials in your carry-on. If they lose your checked-in luggage, you won’t be left with nothing on arrival!
9. Research as much as you can before your trip: there are so many things you will regret to have missed out of lack of knowledge!
10. When travelling, start taking care of yourself like you would of a 6-month-old baby: most of the time, when you’re feeling unexplainably upset, you’re just hungry. Or dehydrated. Or tired. Feed yourself, drink water, go to sleep: better, right?
11. Don’t assume that you can talk freely to your friends in your native language just because you’re far away from home. The random fellow countryman/foreign-language enthusiast is always around — embarrassment ensues.
12. Always check your passport validity before buying the plane ticket.
13. The hostel rooms right near the sound system are cheaper for a reason.
14. Always pack one going-out outfit and a pair of pretty shoes, even when you’re going on adventure holidays: you never know when a surprise restaurant date/classy rooftop party will come up.
15. Also pack sneakers: you never know when a surprise three-day mountain trek will come up.
16. When you’re starting to panic, concentrate on the feeling of your feet touching the ground as you walk — or on your breathing if you’re sitting still. Now put things back in perspective.
17. Don’t go to the beach with your bath towel — sandy towels suck. Save it for showers and use a sarong for the beach.
18. When your guidebook specifies it’s preferable not to drink water from the tap, do not drink water from the tap — or parasites and antibiotics are likely to follow.
19. Ice cubes are made from tap water. Ask for drinks without ice.
20. Always take a pair of scissors — but not in your carry-on.
21. Back up your photos on a USB, an online storage space (Dropbox, Google Drive and many others offer this service), or both as you travel.
22. Pack your shampoo, perfume and all other products that are prone to leakage in a sealed plastic bag (Ziploc zipper bags are the best). This is also true for makeup removing wipes, which tend to leak when hard pressure is applied on the packet — i.e. whenever you check-in your bag on a plane.
23. Keep a travel journal. You don’t need to describe in detail everything you saw and what food you ate and how the bus was late — guaranteed to have you quit after 2 days —, but rather try to focus on your impressions: how it made you feel, what that smell reminded you of, how you bonded with that person. It’s a pain to do this on the spot, but you will thank yourself forever. Oh, and also write down the address of that cool place you visited so you can find it again.
24. Don’t use a vintage film SLR in the San Francisco fog.
25. If you are on some sort of medication, set an reminder alarm on your phone and take it. Everyday.
26. Bring as many pretty swimsuits as you want, but also pack a solid simple black bikini that you’re not afraid to damage: that way you won’t ruin your favourite swimmers during the unplanned river adventure/hammam session/surf lesson.
27. Wear sunscreen. SPF 30 will not prevent you from tanning; it will, however, prevent you from the dreaded peeling-skin-turning-pink look (and from, you know, cancer).
28. Even if you’re wearing sunscreen, don’t sit in the sun past 10 am if you’re anywhere near the equator.
29. Your skull is skin as well. Put a little bit of sunscreen on your parting, or it will burn, peel, and make you look like you have dandruff. Eew.
30. Don’t leave you phone on the table when you’re sitting outside at the restaurant. Especially not in Paris.
31. Always take a few empty plastic bags with you: the time will come when you need to pack a wet towel/bikini in a rush or wonder where to put your dirty laundry.
32. Travel with two credit cards. When you lose/break/hit the withdrawal limit on your card, you’ll still have an emergency solution.
34. If your old phone is still working, keep it and recycle it as your loosable/breakable travel phone: phones tend to disappear during trips — or to be found at the bottom of a cup full of water the morning after a party.
35. Eat fruit and vegetables. Fatty comfort food is always what you crave on the road; but your body needs to be fed some vitamins once in a while!
36. Wear nail polish. When opportunities to wash are limited, those little patches of colour on your hands and feet will make you feel so much better about yourself!
37. Pack a head torch. Localising your pyjamas in your bag without waking up your dorm-mates, finding the toilets at night, avoiding to step on a slug while walking in the dark barefoot (yes, that happened): it will make so many things way easier.
38. Carry a small beer opener in your bag. Or learn how to open beers with a lighter (working on it).
39. Always carry some water with you.
40. Pack tampons. Pack condoms. Pack tissues that double up as emergency toilet paper.
41. Take a camera that’s good enough to achieve the results that you want, but that’s not so heavy that you will start leaving it at the hotel on the second day.
42. Always carry a scarf, even in stupidly hot countries: that’s where they tend to go mad on air-con. Protecting your throat will generally stop you from getting sick.
43. Pack a small bit of Marseille soap and delay laundry day by washing your undies and socks in the sink. It also does wonders as a stain remover (apply with a little bit of water, leave in for half an hour, scrub, rinse).
44. Sleep with earplugs on when you’re staying in a hostel dorm. Why every single dorm-mate’s favourite activity is to methodically rummage plastic bags at 5 in the morning remains unclear, but is sadly a verified fact.
45. When spending the night in a train, a bus or a dodgy hostel, sleep with your head on your handbag.
46. Always carry an energy bar around; it will save you when everything is closed and you need a snack, like, now.
47. Don’t stuff yourself with kilos of fresh berries, no matter how delicious they are. Your stomach will protest.
48. If you did stuff yourself with kilos of fresh berries, have a warm cup of tea: it will hug your stomach and make it all better. Better yet, swallow some activated charcoal pills — a natural lifesaver when it comes to upset tummies.
49. Call your bank before your trip and enquire about your withdrawal and your payment weekly/monthly limits. Ask them to raise those if need be — if you hit the limit, you won’t be able to do anything, even if the funds are actually present on your account.
50. You don’t need ten pairs of pants. What you need is lots of tops, plus a few trousers/shorts that go with them. And that one cute dress.
51. Don’t pack just one pair of jeans though. Because if it’s continuously cold, you won’t be able to wash them as you’d have nothing to wear on laundry day.
52. Never throw your camera in your bag unprotected, even if it’s a basic point-and-shoot.
53. If you snack on sugar, you’ll be crashing two hours later. Grab a banana instead.
54. Pack some serious moisturiser when you’re going to the snow, or your skin will get dry and feel unbearably tight. Ouch.
55. Don’t trust anyone offering you transport when you walk out of the airport. Airports generally have a transport information desk that will point you in the right direction.
56. Trust your intuition: when you detect a dodgy vibe, get yourself out of there, even if you don’t precisely know why.
57. Keep up with your meditation or yoga routine. Yes, it’s hard. But you need some sort of grounding, especially if you’re travelling long-term.
58. Take care of yourself: when you start getting sick, your body is sending a signal. Do something about it, or it will linger, get worse, and ruin the rest of your holidays.
59. Pack sunglasses. Even in winter — the glare of a grey sky can be annoyingly blinding.
60. If you haven’t ridden a bike in 8 years, don’t start again with a Vélib up a hill in the late-afternoon Paris traffic.
61. Don’t pack just one pair of shoes. If they get drowned during a rainstorm and need a few days to dry, you’re stuck.
62. When you feel like your body has reached its limits, go to bed. You’re not going to have any fun by pushing yourself to stay up when your brain has decided to go to sleep anyway.
63. Instead of stuffing your suitcase with a wide variety of outfits, pack different sets of jewellery and hair accessories: tuns of different looks without having to carry the extra weight!
64. If you’re going to swim in a river or a lake (or going anywhere near oysters in the ocean), pack some jelly shoes and save yourself from the pain of holiday-ruining underfoot cuts.
65. The night before leaving, pack before drinking with your friends.
66. A universal plug adapter is a great investment: you pack it every time you go on a trip, no questions asked.
67. Always have accommodation booked for your first night in town.
68. In theory, you don’t need an envelope to send a postcard. In reality, you do; these things tend to disappear in the limbo of the international post service.
69. Check how much alcohol/cigarettes you’re allowed to bring into a country before going nuts at the duty-free shop.
70. Flying? Research public transport options from the airport beforehand. Write down which train/bus you need to take on a piece of paper, along with the exact address of the place you’re staying at — you won’t always be able to go through your emails when you arrive at the airport.
71. You can use Google Maps offline on your phone: preload the maps you need while you are connected to wifi (remember to zoom in close enough), then the GPS will be able to geolocate you on those even when you’re offline.
72. Never eat right near tourist attractions: terrible overpriced food guaranteed. Have a look through the backstreets, and go where not everyone is carrying a camera!
73. Pack at least two days before leaving. That way you have an extra day to figure out everything you forgot.
74. Don’t forget your toothbrush/pyjamas/phone charger.
75. Power-nap: you can’t spend the day roaming the streets of a city, running from one sight to the other, and then go out all night for too many days in a row. Unless you nap for an hour before dinner: energy levels restored, you’re good to go.
76. Pack a small padlock; in most hostels you will need it to close your locker and protect your most precious belongings.
77. If a restaurant looks suspicious, don’t order meat. Or dairy. Or mushrooms.
78. Don’t just follow your travel buddies around: learn your own way around the city.
79. Ditch folding and start rolling your clothes. Unbelievable suitcase space gain!
80. When traveling for more than a week, chuck a few rest days in your travel plan: relax, sleep, read your book, rest your mind. Then leave again, feeling like a million dollars.
81. Learn to know which friends you like traveling with: the person you love sinking beers with on Saturdays might be a nightmare on the road. If you’re planning some long-term travel with someone (i.e. several weeks), go away on a weekend together first as a test!
82. Budget your trip. Be aware that you’ll spend more than what you planned.
83. Don’t drink coffee or beer before a several-hour-long bus ride.
84. Print your best photos and stick them into photo albums. Or print photo books. Just don’t leave them lingering in your computer!
85. If you need to purchase extra weight for your luggage, do it online: it’s usually way cheaper.
86. Only take your laptop if you need it for work. It’s heavy and you’ll be scared to have it stolen.
87. Don’t pick the hostel that is also a busy bar and has only one bathroom for both. Or you will end up brushing your teeth in your pyjamas in the middle of a compact crowd of very drunk people wearing costumes and sinking beer bongs.
88. Limited checked luggage weight? Put the heavy stuff (shoes, books etc.) in your carry-on. As long as it fits the required dimensions, they usually don’t weigh it.
89. Incorporate transport time (and waiting-for-transport time) in your travel plan. Don’t try to fit too much in: taking time to enjoy will leave you way better memories than rushing and stressing out about not being on schedule.
90. Carry a lighter even if you don’t smoke. Hello new friends!
91. Don’t pack anything that you couldn’t bear to lose.
92. Going on a daily excursion somewhere where it’s going to be very hot then very cold? A skirt and legging combo is the solution: leggings come on-and-off as needed throughout the day.
93. Rain ponchos look stupid. Still pack one.
94. Do not, under any circumstances, no matter how hungover you are, order a burger from a random Asian snack-bar.
95. Tourist and traveler are not two distinct categories, but rather two conditions that you can embrace when you choose to. It’s okay to enjoy mainstream attractions and super cliché moments — it’s also more interesting to get off the beaten track from time to time.
96. If you’re allergic to something, learn how to say it in the local language.
97. When travelling somewhere where healthcare is stupidly expensive (like the U.S.), always buy travel insurance before your holidays. A lot of credit cards offer travel insurance for trips that last less than a certain number of weeks/months, if you paid for your flight with the said credit card. Check details before you go.
98. When you return, you’ll feel numb and things will seem weirdly normal for about a week. Then reality will hit.
99. Don’t assume you know it all because you survived your first backpacking trip. Or your tenth.
100. When things get rough, remember how lucky you are to be travelling — and that everybody back home is super jealous of you.
What would you tell your younger traveller self if you were given the chance?
All photos by Marie Colinet except: Photos 1 and 2 by Anne Colinet, Photo 7 by Rhys Kenny, Photo 17 by Flavie Esper, Photo 19 by Suzanne Reichenbach