I’ve made many rookie travel mistakes so I am sharing 7 hacks that I’ve learned over the last 26 months of traveling to help you avoid the same mishaps. Most of these suggestions are changes I made while I was already on the road, but it would have made my life much easier if I had better prepared and done them in advance of leaving the U.S. These tips are meant to help make traveling easier, more comfortable or more cost efficient. Leave a comment if you have any other lifestyle hacks that have made you a better traveler.
SWITCH FROM A ROLLER SUITCASE TO A BACKPACK
It took me two months of traveling full time before I switched from carrying a carry-on roller suitcase to a more functional travel backpack. I never thought of myself as a backpacker and at the time I was headed to Thailand for my first month-long trip. I had been warned by friends who had visited Thailand that I would probably have to pull my luggage, or carry it, through dirt roads, sandy beaches and even on and off of boats.
I have now been living out of a backpack for the better part of two years. It currently weighs about 27 pounds, which is really far too heavy, I need to get rid of some things! I cannot imagine going back to pulling my baggage. I travel mostly in developing countries and have had to hike up mountains to reach hostels. Imagine doing a trek like that with a suitcase!
Select a backpack with sturdy support straps and a wide hip belt for a comfortable fit that will have less strain on your body. This purple style from Outdoor Master will stand out at baggage claim and is a steal at $59.99 for a 60L backpack. The backpack has a zipper front to make your items easily accessible and a convenient water bottle pocket to keep you hydrated. Do as I do and strap your yoga mat into the buckles of the bottom compartment.
SWAP THOUSANDS OF TAMPONS FOR ONE MENSTRUAL CUP
When I first started traveling I was still using tampons. I had heard of menstrual cups and cringed at the idea, thinking it would be a painful mess. I look back and laugh now that I know that menstrual cups are quite simple to use and virtually mess free. I had several embarrassing encounters in the rural towns of Albania and then Morocco when trying to purchase tampons from a pharmacy. In these areas, English is not widely spoken and I had not saved a packaged tampon to use as a visual aid to show the pharmacist what I was trying to purchase. In Albania, the pharmacist misinterpreted my hand charades and thought I was requesting condoms, which she handed to me in disgust. I was headed to India where I knew tampons would be even harder to find so I decided to try the menstrual cup in Spain before I headed to Asia.
I will not lie to you and tell you that your first period using the menstrual cup is easy and clean. The first time I took out my menstrual cup I proceeded to drop it immediately into the toilet, where I had just peed and not yet flushed. I’ve learned to always opt for short tidy fingernails during this time to avoid painful scratches. I find it easiest to enter when I am in a squatted position and easiest to take out while seated on the edge of the toilet.
The menstrual cup is much more cost efficient than using tampons and pads each month. I was spending upwards of $15 a month on these products, that often include ridiculous extra female taxes. That is almost $200 a year I was spending on managing my period. Menstrual cups can last for 10 years when cared for properly! I use the Diva Cup, which is available at a discount on Amazon for $25! Switching over means you will save over $2,000 over the next decade! It will also save you precious space in your backpack as the menstrual cup is tiny and takes up virtually no room. It should be stored in the cloth bag that comes with it and cleaned with hot water monthly.
DOWNLOAD DIGITAL BOOKS INSTEAD OF CARRYING PHYSICAL COPIES
Switching from physical books to reading on my iPad was no easy feat. I am a book nerd and love the sensation of turning the page, bookmarking pages and underlining passages that I love. I often read a book a week and lugging them around takes up extra space and weight that I simply can’t afford while living out of a backpack. I try to exclusively read books that I can download for free from Amazon. I am currently reading an incredible true story that I highly recommend to every traveler, A House in the Sky. I use the Kindle app on my iPad which can also be used on smartphones. When I am staying in a hostel for more than a week I will borrow a paperback book, but I never carry them with me anymore. I do not have room in my backpack, especially not when my iPad is now an entire library of hundreds of novels, biographies and travel guides accessible virtually and instantly.
OPEN AN INTERNATIONAL DEBIT CARD
Last year alone I visited over 30 countries, most which have their own currency. Prior to leaving the United States, I opened an online checking account with Charles Schwab. Typically, I withdraw small amounts every few days to cover what I expect my expenses to be so I don’t risk losing money or having it stolen. Usually, ATM fees can get costly but when you make cash withdrawals with the Charles Schwab Visa debit card you’ll be able to take advantage of their program that reimburses for ATM withdraw fees worldwide. An extra bonus, there is not required account minimum balance or annual fees. It is also really pretty and sparkly with a world map that makes me smile every time I swipe my card.
USE GOOGLE MAPS TO STAR EVERYTHING
I am honestly not sure how I was not constantly lost before I started using Google Maps. The app recently launched offline maps and downloadable areas which make it easy to stay on track when you have limited network access or have not purchased a local data plan. I find the offline map to be very reliable with a little blue dot that tracks your location. My top hack is to use the map to save all of the sites, restaurants, accommodations, train stations, and bus stops I plan to visit in a destination. To do this first sign into your Gmail account so that your map will sync on all your devices. Then type in the name of the place you are looking for in the search bar. Once you’ve located it click on the name and you’ll see a SAVE button to the right. Now you’ll have the option to save the location as a favorite place, which will appear on your map as a heart, a place you want to go, which will appear as a green bookmark, or a starred place which will have a golden star. I prefer to use the stars so I opt to list every location as a starred place. I am currently planning my month long trip to Sri Lanka and have been starring everything as I research on my Google Maps.
STOP USING BOTTLED LIQUID SHAMPOO
The heaviest item in my backpack used to be a bag filled with various liquid toiletries. I hoarded hotel shampoos, soaps, and lotions. I finally ran out of these right around Earth Day when I was working on a story for Tourism Concern about how travelers can make eco-friendly decisions. One of my suggestions was to use bar shampoo instead of liquid. The all natural shampoo bars from Lush Cosmetics are eco-friendly as they are not stored in plastic packaging. They can last up to 80 washes and you only need to use a tiny amount each time you wash your hair. Your hair will be healthier if you only wash it 3-4 times a week so one single shampoo bar could essentially last you an entire year. I am currently using the Honey I Washed my Hair which has made my mane thicker than any salon brand shampoo I have used in the past but I do have a hard time lathering up the soap. I also use Aragon oil in a glass container from a Moroccan women’s cooperative as conditioner for my hair and my skin instead of using bottled hair conditioner and lotion.
BOOK TRAVEL EXPERIENCES WITH LOCALS
I first discovered Visit.org when I was searching for cooking classes hosted by local village women in Thailand and ethical elephant conservatories. The social impact travel site encompassed everything I was trying to accomplish as a traveler – I wanted to learn about local culture directly from the inpiduals who are keeping it alive and support them by paying for the experience. My desire to become a more sustainable traveler and benefit local communities was made possible through the hundreds of experiences available on Visit.org through partner nonprofits, NGOs, and social enterprises. I loved the concept so much that I reached out about becoming an Ambassador last summer and have been working with them ever since. I have had the chance to visit a bear conservatory in Romania, an eco-village in India, and have recruited dozens of new partners in Morocco and India. My life as a traveler has since become a completely rewarding and transformative experience.
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