18 Months of Travel: My Most Practical Tips

Cheers from London! I get dozens of emails, Facebook messages and Twitter pings each week asking for practical travel tips – what to pack, how to look fabulous, electronics advice — so I decided to answer some of the most frequently asked ones in a post. Practical travel tips can be found all over the web, so I’ll attempt to provide my take without regurgitating ones that you can find elsewhere.

Underwater housing for Canon G12 – best electronics purchase of the year! 

 On Electronics

Candid cameras. You don’t have to spend thousands of dollars on equipment to take gorgeous pictures, but you DO need to read your camera’s manual before you travel. And you know how they say if you want to be a good writer, you should read other good writers? The same applies to photography. Take a look at the travel photos you most admire and attempt to emulate them. I developed my style after a summer in Paris where I learned the techniques of great French photographers Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Doisneau.

For some modern-day inspiration, check out KristinKen, Kirsten and Steve. After a while, you’ll develop your own style and be on your way to capturing priceless memories that your Facebook friends will drool over.

People ask all the time what camera I use, so here it is: the Canon G12 – only $399 on Amazon. I also invested in the underwater housing for that model so I can scuba dive, whitewater raft or just get up close and personal with great white sharks – all with the same amazing camera.

Other cameras I like: Olympus Stylus Tough | Jodi’s Olympus

iPhone love. I had a conversation a few days ago with a friend who’s planning to leave the digital camera behind in favor of just his iPhone. iPhoneography is legit, and with apps like Instagram, PhotoStudio and Diptic to jazz up your snaps, the iPhone (or even just the Apple iTouch) is an indispensable travel tool. There are even detachable lenses – which I’m ordering as soon as I get back to the US. Check out Aviators & A Camera for tips on shooting like a pro with your iPhone.

Diligent note-taking. Boy, that sounds glamorous, doesn’t it? Obviously you can do this on any number of smart phones, but I use my iPhone religiously for taking notes. I have details for every single day of my travels over the past year and a half, from big events to tiny details like the conversations I had with strangers on the bus or funny people-watching incidents. I’ve never regretted taking the time to jot down the day’s events. Many folks use Evernote, but the Notes function works fine for me so I’m sticking with it.

More than just a bookworm. I don’t leave home without my Kindle 3G but it’s not just my Jane Austen obsession fueling the attachment. This particular model comes with a lifetime WiFi connection, so you can check emails, Facebook or Twitter from the Kindle without paying a monthly service fee. Admittedly, the connection is slow and the functionality is not great, but it’s the perfect way to touch base when other network options aren’t going to work. For example, while floating up the Nile on a felucca very, very far from WiFi, I was able to respond to freaked out family back home who’d heard about riots in Cairo.

Coming soon? I met a guy at a hostel in Ljubljana who had a handheld SPOT Satellite GPS. This would’ve been the perfect addition to my RTW packing list, as all it takes is the push of a button to alert a preprogrammed email list of your whereabouts. WiFi isn’t needed since it’s satellite-powered, so no matter where you go, you can push out a notification letting everyone know you’re safe. Each time you send a notification, it records your coordinates so you could feasibly have a detailed map of every track and trail you’ve wandered over the course of your trip.  There’s also an emergency button so you can alert help from anywhere in the world. Really wish I’d had this!

On Travel

Booking. I use a variety of online resources to research flights and hotels, but if I’m in a hurry I usually stick with Kayak and Travelocity. I know – that’s hardly a groundbreaking tip! But those are my go-to staples. I’m planning a more detailed post in the future with all my cheap flight-finding resources and travel hacking tips… so stay tuned.

Planning. I used to dedicate countless hours to researching destinations prior to a trip, but I’m time-poor these days so often I rock up to a city and know absolutely nothing about it. On one hand, that’s great because the adventure unfolds in its own way without too much forethought. If I do have a bit of time before departure, I’ll pull up dozens of windows on my computer with information from Wikipedia, Fodor’s, Frommer’s and friends’ blogs to read on the plane or train. It’s easier than carrying a guidebook and reading up just before arrival helps me to hit the ground running.

The three questions I always ask at check-in. When arriving at a hotel or hostel, ask the concierge these questions:

1. What time is sunrise/sunset and where can I find the best view of each?

2. Where is the highest spot in town? (See below)

3. What is this area/town/country most famous for?

Get high ASAP. It’s not what you’re thinking! My first stop when visiting a new place is the highest possible viewpoint – a skyscraper, bell tower or mountaintop. It helps me get a sense of the place, to map out where else I want to go and to take pictures from a bird’s eye view.

Prague from the Astronomical Clock Tower – the best view in town, no? 

 On Safety

Ditch the money belt. These things need to go the way of the dinosaurs – straight toward extinction. I carried a money belt around in my suitcase for 9 months before finally ditching it. On top of the clunky awkwardness of the device, I often wear dresses and you just can’t get to that money without flashing your underpants to the cashier, you know what I mean? Instead of the money belt, now I use a wallet with a chain to attach to my purse or bag to prevent pickpockets from dipping in. I use a cute Vera Bradley Carry It All Wristlet and it’s served me well.

Keep multiple stashes in case of emergency. When I was pick-pocketed in Athens, I didn’t even cry. Yes, I was out $400 in cash and a couple of credit cards (and my student ID – dang!) were gone forever, but in another bag I had a bit of cash and cards for backup accounts – not the ones in my stolen wallet – so I never missed a beat and never was without money while awaiting my new cards and ID to come in.

I also have electronic scans in my email of the front and back of each credit card and form of identification, which came in very handy when I needed to contact each bank company to report theft.

Beware the sexy accent. All that ciao and Cheerio and spot-of-tea business is charming but dangerous. Someday I’m going to market Sexy Foreign Accent Repellant® but until I get around to it, just take my word for it.

On Money

Diversify accounts. I have a semi-complex cash flow system set up with checking accounts, credit cards and savings accounts at different banks for different reasons. When I travel, I carry my Capital One Visa card which allows me to make purchases abroad without charging an international transaction fee; I have a Fidelity account which I use to make fee-free ATM withdrawals, a PayPal Mastercard for quick access to profits there, and I have a Delta SkyMiles card for SkyTeam flight purchases (not that I ever seem to make any these days!).

Having several banks also helps if one card is lost or stolen or if the bank decides to freeze your account for whatever reason. (Sometimes it doesn’t matter if you alert them that you’re traveling, when a charge from Laos pops up, they stop all activity. Not cool if you’re trying to book a bus ticket!)

Having a variety of accounts gives me access to a variety of benefits of course, but it can get complicated remembering which accounts are connected, so I made a flow chart that I keep along with the scans of each card. (By the way, I’m a little OCD when it comes to list-making in case you hadn’t figured it out.)

Hats are my thing

 On Beauty

Wrinkle-free for free. Before my big trip, I used to breeze past the Duty Free section at the airport, but now you’ll find me there before every flight slathering on the most expensive face creams and luxurious hand lotions I can find. Think about it: if you’re taking a red-eye, why not put on a hearty sample of that $100-an-ounce regenerating serum and get some spa benefits while zooming over the sea in the middle of the night? It’s easy, it’s free and you look like you’ve had a facelift on arrival while the rest of the passengers look like puffy-eyed zombies.

Accessorize. I get asked all the time how I look so fabulous while traveling. First, thanks! I appreciate that! (What these folks don’t know is that the “fab” clothes I’m wearing probably haven’t been washed in two weeks… so it feels good to know I’m fooling everyone! Mwahahahaha!)

Generally, I choose a simple color scheme for clothes and then accessorize around it. I pack a mix of black, khaki and solid-colored separates and then a couple of inexpensive hats, sunglasses, scarves, earrings and bright necklaces to jazz everything up. When I get tired of the accessories, I just trade them out for cheap new ones and it’s like having a whole new wardrobe.

 On Packing & Luggage

I’ve written about What I Could Have Left Behind and What I’m Glad I Brought before, so I won’t go too much into specifics, other than to say now I have even less in my bag than ever before. You can buy everything you need on the road, so there’s really no reason to bring everything and the kitchen sink. (If you’re very, very particular about using a certain brand of shampoo, eyeliner, mascara, contact solution — then you may want to bring it.)

It’s true what they say: pack half the clothes you think you’ll need and twice the money.

Shoes. OMG. Shoes. Shoes (especially awesome ones) take up a lot of space, but aren’t really worth it because A. they rarely show up in pictures and B. comfort is paramount when traveling. I have a serious shoe rule: only 3 pairs allowed. (Four if there’s a gun to my head or a formal ball to attend.) I have Tom’s, sandals and tennis shoes most of the time. In Egypt, I decided to leave my tennis shoes at home and then was convinced by a sexy accent to hike Mt. Sinai — so I’ve added sneakers back into my shoe repertoire. If something comes up and you MUST have heels, you can always buy some – and then you’ve got a great souvenir to take back home.

Carry-on necessities. In my carry-on I have a little bag with essentials: a sleep mask, earplugs, extra headphones, Advil, a travel toothbrush, lip gloss and tiny moisturizer. I never unpack it, that way I never leave home without it.

Skip the backpack. I tried to be a backpacker, I really did. It lasted about 15 minutes and then I gave up and went back to just being myself – someone who likes a wheeled suitcase! I wish I could get by with just my Diane von Furstenberg rolling duffel, but it’s a bit too small and would take too much of a beating going around the world a few times, so I wound up with the Eagle Creek Twist – 65L. It’s a great size and very durable, however I have not once used the backpack straps. I think for a taller person, it might be more manageable, but from a short girl’s perspective, it just doesn’t fly.

Packing cubes for President. I swear by Eagle Creek packing cubes. As much as I still hate packing, with these babies I know where every single item of my bag needs to go and can be ready to rock-and-roll out in about 15 minutes.

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That’s all the time we have for today, but I plan to add to this list as I remember more tips. If they’ve been helpful, let me know and if you have tips to share with me, please do so in the comments. I’m always looking for ways to be a more efficient traveler!

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  • May 21, 2012

    Nice, thorough list – and one that neatly sidesteps a lot of conventional wisdom.

    An underwater housing for my camera is definitely one thing I need to add to my packing list, although I’m still torn between lugging the big DSLR or just a pocket cam.

    I think I’m keeping my money belt, though. It holds my passport and an extra credit/bank card – two things I never want to be without. I never put anything in there that I’ll need, so I never have to worry about flashing it around – which kind of defeats the purpose anyway.

    We use a pretty complicated suite of financial services when traveling, too. I have a specific checking account that is only used for travel, I pre-arrange money deposits into the account so I don’t have to send my log-in info over open wifi, I use auto-bill pay for everything I can, among other things.

    I also didn’t know you were such a Jane Austin fan (I must have missed that post). My wife, Shannon, is as well and even wrote a travel book for Nat Geo called Literary Landmarks from Jane Austen’s Bath to Ernest Hemingway’s Key West. Maybe worth a look-see.

    Happy travels,
    Brian

    • May 23, 2012

      I will take a look at that post – sounds like it’s right up my alley!

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  • May 22, 2012

    Very useful tips!

    I’m also looking for a backpacl/duffel/wheeled bag option because I get tired of just having one way to carry my luggage. And I have got to get me some packing cubes!

    • May 23, 2012

      Love the wheeled bag but just never got around to using the straps… I would’ve been better off with a regular-sized wheeled suitcase in the long run!

  • May 22, 2012

    Such GREAT tips! Love that you stop in the Duty Free shops before flights and sample. I do that too hahaha.

    • May 23, 2012

      Thank you! Gotta keep the wrinkles away, right?

      • February 06, 2016
        Charmaine

        That tip about duty free is definitely one I’m going to use 🙂 i go there for free samples of perfume but never thought about the serums – double thumbs up 🙂

  • May 22, 2012

    Awesome tips! I will try out your duty free tip tomorrow and hopefully arrive home fresh-faced and stunning! 😉

  • May 22, 2012

    Ooh I like your check-in questions, never thought to ask.

  • May 22, 2012

    I absolutely LOVE the tip about hitting the duty free beauty store in the airport for samples! I am not a very good “girly” girl, so I guess I have never really been close enough to that particular store to see what was inside. Sounds like a plan next time I am in the airport!

    • May 23, 2012

      It’s definitely worth a try – like a mini-trip to the spa!

  • May 23, 2012

    Ooh! I love the tip about getting samples at duty-free. I always spray sample perfume at the department stores, but never thought of it at the airport!

    • May 23, 2012

      I think my constant presence in airports, and thus, duty free shops, is surprisingly keeping me young =)

  • May 23, 2012

    If you’d like me to trial your sexy accent repellant when I’m in South America, just let me know! I will need the super strength version 🙂

    • May 23, 2012

      Oh yes, you will! I can’t wait for your adventure to begin!

  • May 23, 2012

    I often find myself at Duty Free dosing myself with my favorite Men’s cologne, John Varvatgos Vintage, which somehow makes me feel a bit more cozy on my next flight. Strange I know. Next time I am going to be sure to later up in the most expensive under eye creme I can find! Great tips!

    • May 23, 2012

      Thanks! The more expensive the eye cream, the better!

  • May 23, 2012

    Amazing tips Angie and some which I will certainly take on board seeing as I will soon be on the road for a long time, just like you have been! I really need some iphone gear…

    Although, I’ll be taking my backpack 🙂 I’m not a suitcase girl – as the name suggests! haha.

    As for sexy accent repellant… I’m with you on that sister! 🙂

    • May 23, 2012

      Can’t wait to follow your adventures, Ms. Backpacker. You definitely can’t get away with a suitcase with a name like that!

      • May 24, 2012

        Yea, that would be like an vegetarian posting a picture of themselves eating a steak – obscene I tell you!

        ‘Suitcase Becki’ wouldn;t have the same ring to it. Plus I love being a human turtle 🙂

  • May 23, 2012

    Angie, such a great post! I definitely need to learn from you about better packing…I had a total packing #fail in Italy for TBU. Also, love the suggestion of the underwater housing for a camera, that might be my next purchase! Have a safe trip back to JAX!

    • May 23, 2012

      But you looked SO cute at TBU! There’s something to be said for that =)

  • May 23, 2012

    AHHHHH! SHARK NIGHtMARES. gee, thanks, Ang.

    • May 23, 2012

      Dangit. I KNEW there was something I forgot to do!

  • May 23, 2012

    These are great tips, and some really unique ones too. I never thought about getting somewhere high to map things out, but as someone who is really navigationally challenged I think that would help. And the duty free is fantastic. I usually just check out the perfume samples there, but now I’ll be going for the beauty products.

    • May 23, 2012

      Definitely helps to see everything from above as soon as you arrive – will change the way you see a town from the get-go!

  • May 23, 2012

    Had to wince in recognition at the shoe comment. Always seem to cart lots of footwear options on holiday only to end up in the same pair of comfy sandals the whole time. Heeled Uggs, when will you be hitting the market?

    • May 23, 2012

      I did that for years but not on my RTW trip. I always end up in flip-flops anyhow!

  • May 24, 2012

    Great post Angie! I really need to get better at note-taking, packing less shoes, and taking advantage of the wisdom of concierges. Good reminders!

  • May 26, 2012

    Great tips, good idea asking those questions at the hotel! I should take way MORE notes myself when I travel, I always regret it..

    • May 28, 2012

      Of course I do look like I’m always texting or not paying attention because I’m forever taking notes in my iPhone… but I’ve never regretted it!

  • May 26, 2012

    Great tips Angie! Good advice for every traveller (seasoned and newbies).

  • May 26, 2012

    I don’t know how I didn’t think of the duty-free samples thing before! Genius!

  • May 26, 2012

    I usually skip Duty Free unless I’m looking for something in particular, but you’re so right! I will be lathering on the expensive stuff before my next international flight.

    • May 28, 2012

      Lather up, my friend. We are going to be some young-looking 80-year-old travel writers!

  • May 26, 2012

    I am REALLY bad a note taking on my trips. But I do take a gazillion photos, so I usually rely on those to jog my memory. 🙂

    • May 28, 2012

      The photos definitely help =) I love flipping through after a particularly busy week and thinking, “WOW, I did a lot!”

  • May 26, 2012

    Great tips – I love the idea of asking about the highest point! I’m with you on note-taking. I have the craziest details in my journals. They may have faded from my memory, but make me so happy when I find them jotted in the margin of a journal.

    • May 28, 2012

      Yes! Little details always make me smile when I remember a stranger I met on a bus or a funny incident somewhere. And I would’ve forgotten had I not written it down!

  • May 27, 2012

    Funny about the money belt when I travelled to Europe from Canada I always wore one…but since I moved to England I never even think about one.

    When I stopped playing the what if game it helped a lot, I know only travel with a carry on – take that Ryanair!

    As well keep and bring clothes I no longer wear and leave them behind, makes room for my “souvenirs”

    • May 28, 2012

      That’s a great tip! I often leave clothes behind as well… it just makes sense!

  • May 30, 2012

    Great tips! Why have I not thought of slathering on the expensive night cream at Duty Free before?

  • June 01, 2012

    I like my Eagle Creek convertible backpack (45L no wheels) as well. I use the backpack straps all the time, but I like that I can tuck them away for flights and bus trips.

  • June 19, 2012
    Rebecca

    Great article and great tips! Visiting the duty free is something we never thought of over here! Will definitely share this travel tip with our travellers!

  • June 22, 2012

    I always love trying to get to the highest skyscraper or building possible just to get the layout of where I am, I find it helps when I get lost.

  • July 16, 2012

    I can second the whole “ditch the money belt” thing. Total waste of space! I’ve been traveling almost 14 years and I’ve never been (knock on wood/touch wood) pickpocketed or mugged and I’ve never worried about belts or bags or secret pockets. I just don’t go out with more than 20-30 bucks in cash and no cards unless I’m heading to the ATM. Everything else stays back at the pad in a safe or wherever I can ensure my things are safe.

    Traveling light…that’s what it’s all about 🙂 Good list!

  • August 17, 2012

    Love this list! We leave for our trip in less than a month so these packing tips are incredibly helpful!

  • December 16, 2012

    I am guilty of not reading my camera manual and I bought it around 6 months :S Really have to get round to that but its soo long. Ooh and I love the free sample tip, I will be looking for them next time I’m at the airport 🙂
    Ally recently posted..My Travel Budget, and How to Make Your OwnMy Profile

  • July 24, 2013
    Chris Keusink

    Angie, I never write to sites but I just had to tell you . . Eagle Creek makes a carry on backpack that also has suitcase wheels and a strap for carrying like a suitcase. I used it in Greece for three trips to the island.

    Ios was great in June before the students arrived.

    Alsthough luck has nothing to do with your success, I think it helpss that you’re cute.

    Chris

  • August 14, 2014

    What a great, informative list. I sighed when I got to the shoe bit – still something I struggle with… But I’m slowly (but surely) learning to leave my stilettos at home. I’ve learned the hard way that hiking in them is less than ideal 😛
    Sabina @GirlvsGlobe recently posted..The Perils of Being A Pretty GirlMy Profile

    • August 26, 2014

      Shoes are tough! I took only one pair with me last week to Costa Rica and I found it strangely liberating. No shoe choices to be made, no extra weight. I might try it more often…

      Thanks for reading, Sabina!

  • March 09, 2016

    Great article! Sexy accents. Sigh. You’re so right on that one. Repellent would be good!

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