Samuel and I started traveling together in 2012 (where has the time gone?!) and we've probably taken upwards of 100 trips together since. That's not even including short day trips and road trips. So needless to say, we've spent our share of time in airports and on airplanes. We've learned a thing or two about the best practices that work for us, and I wanted to share some of them on here for those of you seeking out travel tips for a future trip!
1. Bring an external battery to charge your phone on-the-go. know I sound like a broken record, but you'll be wishing you had an external battery to recharge your phone when it's at 2% and it's barely noon. I have my phone out constantly when I'm traveling and using the most battery-consuming apps, so my phone goes from 100% to 0% real quick. As you all know, I bring along my XXL mophie, which I swear by. There are smaller, more portable batteries available if you don't need a monstrous one like me.
2. Download a translation app or two. My go-to is SayHi, which has come in handy in plenty of instances. Google Translate is a wonderful tool that helps translate text in real-time (great for signs, menus, etc.).
3. On that note, keep some key phrases translated on your phone, just in case. I do this when we visit any place where I don't speak the language. Heck, I even do it when we visit Hong Kong, and I can fully converse with people there. It's just a great thing to have and takes little to no time. Some key phrases that I keep translated include, "Is this dish vegetarian?" and "Where are the restrooms?" . You should also have your hotel name and address in English and the native language so you can show it to anybody if you get lost.
If you have the time, try to pick up a few phrases in the country's native language. It's a nice show of effort and honestly, at times, it's much faster to spit out a word versus whipping out your phone every time you need something.
3. Find the best phone plan to fit your needs. Or if you'd prefer, grab a local SIM card upon arrival. Those are typically cheaper and might offer more flexibility when it comes to data. Samuel and I have been on AT&T's passport plan for years, and it's what we've been using since we came to China in September. Because we mostly text, our plan offers unlimited texting and 1 G of data, which works out perfectly for us. Sure, the limited data won't allow me to browse Instagram whenever I'm bored, so we only ever use it for navigation if we get lost. But either way, don't find yourself without a working phone when you're in a foreign country.
4. Exchange more money than you think you need. Of course, use your best judgement. The good news is that it's quite easy to exchange money nowadays, so it's not my biggest stressor. While we were in Bangkok last month, I ran out of money when I was out shopping, which was a first. Samuel was not with me, and I was at a night market far from our hotel, having fun, buying things left and right, and next thing I knew, I was down to my last 100 Baht (~3 USD).I find that once I get into the groove of things and let loose, I spend more money that I should, especially when I'm traveling. It's so easy to overspend while you're having fun (transportation, souvenirs, food, etc. cost money). It also depends on where you're visiting -- for instance, 200 USD didn't go far in Singapore, but it went a long way in Bangkok. At the end of the day, it's all about how you travel and what you deem worthy of your money. I just personally find that it's better to have a little more money than to run out all of a sudden and have to scramble to exchange money.
5. If you're going cash-less (though I recommend always keeping a little bit of cash on hand), be sure to alert your bank and credit card company of your travel plans. It's also wise to only use no-fee bank cards so you can spend your hard-earned money on your vacation rather than those pesky fees. I racked up so many unnecessary fees when we went to Vienna and I've learned my lesson.
6. Research and download their versions of Apple Pay, Uber, etc. In some countries, like China, mobile payment is the norm. I think I'm one of the few people in the country who still uses cash. So for convenience's sake, you can download those apps to make payment and bookings with one click. And since I get asked this so often, Uber doesn't operate all around the world (i.e. Southeast Asia uses Grab and China uses DiDi), so be sure to download and register for any and all apps that you'll need to use to make your travels more seamless.
7. One that I've learned while traveling around Asia is that it's wise to bring reusable grocery bags and toilet paper. Now, it may be the California in me, but I always have my grocery bags in my trunk. I hate paying for paper or plastic bags and I'm saving the environment while I'm at it, so it's a win-win. At the very last minute before leaving for China, I grabbed my Whole Foods bags and stuffed them in my carry-on bag. They've remained there ever since -- I use them whenever I go out. And what I've found in my recent travels is that it's just so much easier to throw everything (snacks, souvenirs, etc.) in a lightweight bag rather than carry around 15 smaller bags.
As far as the toilet paper goes, I wish I knew that it was a luxury, that many restrooms, private or public, do not provide it. A quick Google search should tell you if wherever you're headed will require you to keep a roll on you. From previous experience, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, and Shanghai had toilet paper provided in all places, while Thailand and most places elsewhere in China do not.
8. Bring a travel first aid kit complete with any and all medications you'll need. I basically never leave the house without my little baggie of meds, so they're a must when I'm traveling. I keep band-aids, ibuprofen, allergy medication, and various topical ointments on me at all times. Trust me on this, you'll need them most when you don't bring them and when you're in a foreign country, you really don't want to happen.
9. The first thing I do after checking in at the hotel, even if it's at night, is buy a giant bottle of water. It seems unnecessary, but you're probably severely dehydrated from flying; plus, you'll need it the next day. Samuel hates this because I make him lug it around, but it's important to stay hydrated, people! I learned my lesson in Singapore when I had heat exhaustion, which was terrifying.
I certainly didn't know this prior to coming to China, but most countries do not have potable water, meaning that you can't drink from the tap. So when you go out, it's better to not drink the water restaurants provide unless it's from a sealed bottle.
10. Because phones and Internet might not always work when you're traveling, take a few moments to pin places in case you’re offline. What to pin? Your hotel, restaurants and cafés, attractions -- basically all the spots you might hit up. I have to admit, I don't do this often because I turn into the laziest sloth before a trip and can barely bring myself to back. I did, however, do this when we were in Berlin, and it was one of the smartest things I've done. I was able to walk around the city from pin to pin by following the compass. It's a good thing to have if you're in a pinch.
11. Some countries (ahem, China) block access to sites that you visit multiple times a day. Without a VPN, you'll quickly realize how boring the Internet really is. If you plan on browsing Instagram or watching your shows on Netflix while you're in China, you'll need a VPN to do so. Samuel and I use ExpressVPN, which, for the most part, has worked wonderfully. The Chinese government is constantly cracking down on VPN providers, so there are spans when ExpressVPN is not functional. Luckily, they have a full staff that works tireless to answer questions and fix whatever issues arise. Because of this, we like to keep other VPNs on our phones and computers so out Internet usage isn't halted due to one provider not working. Betternet VPN and Star VPN work really well, too.
12. Download shows and movies on Netflix to kill time at the airport. The entertainment selection of flights can be non-existent or flat-out underwhelming, so it's handy to have your own entertainment to pass time. A bonus tip, if you use a VPN and browse Netflix, there are hundreds of additional titles at your fingertips. Because VPNs bounce your connection to various remote servers, it opens up many more movies and shows that might not be available to you in your home country. Amazing, right?
12. Pack snacks, food, and water for the plane. It's actually one of my worst nightmares to be stuck in the air with no food. I cannot stress how awful it is to be hungry in an airplane. Sure, I could always purchase a meal or snacks, but often times than not, they don't have a great selection for my picky palette. And for some unusual reason, I automatically get hungry the second I pass through TSA. Because of this, I can usually be found with enough food to feed the entire plane. I also like to bring along my HydroFlask to fill up before I head to my gate. I used to wait until after security to stock up on food and water, but if you travel as much as I do, that adds up fast. It's simply not fiscally responsible to spend double or triple on the same food that you can bring yourself. Additionally, restaurants and stores in the airport aren't open 24/7, as I've regrettably learned. So to avoid any unpleasant surprises, I like to be over-prepared when it comes to nourishment.
13. Samuel had the genius idea to pack a pair of slippers from our hotel on our flight back from Amsterdam, and we have been doing this ever since. Basically, if the flight is over 4 hours, we bring disposable slippers. It truly enhances your comfort level on an already-uncomfortable flight. Try it on your next long-haul flight and you'll thank me!
14. If possible, bring as much baggage as your airline allows. I know not everyone likes to check baggage and a lot of people like to travel light. I am not one of those people. I tend to try to bring as much baggage as I'm allowed: one checked bag, one roller bag, and one carry-on bag, even if some of them are empty. Between you, me, and the friendly agents, I usually have another bag with food, but that's besides the point. To take it even further, I sometimes stuff a duffle bag in my checked bag in case I really go overboard. It's comforting to me to have extra room for souvenirs and presents. Most international flights allow one checked bag, so why not? It's free and definitely cheaper to do so than to buy a suitcase when you need it. Another reason I do this is because of the strange phenomenon that my dirty laundry always seem to weigh more and take up more space on the return trip -- anyone else?
15. Some of my frequent flyer friends have suggested that I take pictures of my luggage and its contents, so I'm passing that on to you. I have never tried this because again, I'm lazy enough pre-trip. I've been told that in the unfortunate event that the airline loses your luggage, it helps move things along if you have as much detail and information about what was lost. I'm crossing my fingers that this doesn't happen to me because I simply do not have the time and energy to photograph everything that I've packed.
16. The last, but certainly not least, tip is to invest in a pair of noise-canceling headphones. I bought Samuel a pair a few years ago and he sang their praises so much that I sprung for a pair for myself. When we upgraded our phones and the headphone jack was no longer, we took the opportunity to upgrade to wireless noise-cancelling headphones. They are seriously the best things ever! They are pricey, but you will get so much wear out of them and you will never board a flight without them ever again. We gifted our parents each a pair of these headphones for Christmas several years ago, and while I can't tell you how Samuel's parents are enjoying them, I can testify to my dad carrying his around everywhere he goes. My headphones are still going strong, but I'm eyeing this pair for my next upgrade (they look so much more streamlined and chic!).
This year, the majority of our trips have been incredibly short. When you factor in all the travel time and jet lag, you don't end up with much time to play and explore. There have been so many trips where I've crammed so much into the day. While fun and unforgettable, it takes a toll on me that takes days to recover from. Take our recent trip to Kyoto: we faced with whether we should go see another must-see historic site (educational, highbrow, cultural, and touristy) or just give in and go to Nishiki Market (fun, culinary, also touristy, and as I've heard, "a waste of time"), we chose to go to the latter.
We wanted to spend our last night in Kyoto eating local snacks (that's one of my favorite things to do to experience the city!), shopping for Japanese goodies, and just enjoying ourselves. We didn't worry about what we "had to see" because really, that's no way to travel. Historic sites are special and we always make time to visit a few, but more and more so, we've found it important to have a balance of that and activities that we take personal interests in. I know plenty of people would frown upon going to random bakeries sampling cakes like we often times do, but guess what? It makes us happy and that's how we want to travel! I used to get so caught up in crossing off everything that travel guides and friends suggested I do and it wore me out. At some point, it becomes unenjoyable. And I can honestly say that running to and from must-see sites were not my best memories. I treasure all the spectacular sites that I've seen, I do, and I've learned an encyclopedic amount throughout my travels. But you want to know what my best memories are when I look back? They're almost always a medley of popular activities and our own ventures. I can't help but smile at the thought of going up to Victoria Peak in Hong Kong with Samuel and cherish the time we miraculously were able to get everyone together for dinner at our family's restaurant. I would relive playing with elephants in Bangkok, as would I split a mango sticky rice ice cream sundae with Samuel in a heartbeat.
Whew! I went on a tangent there, didn't I? This isn't so much a tip; I just wanted to remind y'all that as tempting and obligated as you might feel to do as much as possible and to do what you think you have to do, it's ok (in fact, it's encouraged) to go off the beaten path. Do a little bit of everything! You owe it to yourself to see the city and indulge yourself in your own interests. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the secret to a fabulous trip.
I hope you picked up some new travel tips! If you have any that weren't listed, I'd love if you shared them with me in the comments!