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“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”
― Anthony Bourdain (No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach)
Traveling is a life-changing experience. It’s scary yet exciting. You don’t know what to expect and the idea of leaving your comfort zone can be terrifying. And yet it’s addicting.
I remember my first overseas trip with my mother. It was to Singapore (pre-Marina Bay Sands) and I remember feeling very excited to see the very first stamp on my passport and my first airplane ride. I also knew even then that experiencing the world is exactly what I want to do. Even if I can’t do it full-time, traveling is something I look forward to every year.
If you have finally decided to take the plunge and take that much-needed vacation you’ve been promising yourself for years, good for you! There’s no better time than now when traveling has become accessible for everyone. Everything can now be booked online and destinations are waiting to be explored.
Whether it’s your first time to travel outside your home country or this is your first trip to a new destination, these practical tips will help you prepare so you can fully enjoy your trip.
50 Practical Tips For First-Time Travelers
1. SET A BUDGET
Start saving as soon as you feel the itch to travel because the reality is, traveling will cost you money. The sooner you determine your budget, the sooner you can decide on the specifics of your vacation: where to go, which hotel to stay at and what activities to do.
Also, always set aside a portion for incidentals or emergency expenses. This is a must.
2. RESEARCH AND DECIDE ON YOUR DESTINATION
Do a little research before deciding on your destination. There are so many things to know and consider. Read travel guides and blogs, it should help you decide if a certain destination fits your wants and needs.
3. KNOW YOUR TRAVEL VISA REQUIREMENTS
Visa requirements vary depending on your passport. Some visa application process is less strict with only a few requirements and some would require an interview plus a stack of supporting documents. Some can be processed online but most would require a trip to the embassy or a visa processing center. Approval will be entirely dependent on the documents you submit and your personal circumstances.
4. CONSIDER THE SEASON
Summer is the peak season for most travel destinations. Seasonal events such as the peak of cherry blossoms, fall foliage or winter events may also attract a throng of tourists. So will national holidays and long weekends. Expect lines at popular tourist attractions and crowds of people everywhere.
Personally, I prefer traveling during the off-peak season. Airfares and hotel rates are usually cheaper. There’s also a different feel to the destination once the tourist crowd is out.
5. BOOKING YOUR FLIGHT
One of the first things you need to secure is your airline ticket. This is usually the costliest component of your trip and getting reasonable fares would require you to book ahead of time (sometimes months ahead). Be on the lookout for special promotions or discounts with the airline or travel agency. Use websites such as Expedia or Kiwi.com to search for the lowest fares.
6. CHOOSING YOUR HOTEL
Airbnb, hotel or a guesthouse? That’s entirely up to you. For some, staying at a hotel is part of the vacation experience and yes, it’s perfectly okay to indulge a little. On the other hand, there’s also nothing wrong with choosing a simpler accommodation with the most basic amenities. After all, you’ll mostly be spending your time outside.
Booking.com and Agoda are my preferred websites when searching for and booking hotel accommodations. Booking months ahead or a non-refundable room will almost always give you a better rate. But just in case plans change or you found a better option, book a room that will offer free cancellation. Always read the fine print and change/cancellation policy.
7. PLAN AN ITINERARY
Itineraries are my thing and there are so many reasons why I love them. List down everything you want to see and do in your destination, group together those that are located close to each other, and divide the activities to the number of days you are traveling. Don’t forget to allocate extra time for delays, rests and other circumstances. And give yourself a free day to do anything you feel like doing.
Flexibility is important when it comes to traveling. Be spontaneous and be adventurous. That’s part of the experience.
8. DO NOT ATTEMPT TO TRY AND SEE EVERYTHING
Although I can understand the appeal of booking a “10 countries in two weeks” travel deal, this isn’t the best way to travel. One mistake that most first-time travelers make is trying to see everything all at once. Trust yourself that this is not your first and last visit. Get to know a city or two on your trip.
9. DIY TRAVEL
Travel agencies certainly provide an easy and convenient way to book your travel. But honestly, it’s not hard to organize a trip yourself especially now that almost everything can be booked online. And usually, you can save more if you do it this way, plus you have full control of what you can include in your trip.
Blogs and travel websites provide insights and opinion on just about anything related to discovering the world.
10. PURCHASE TRAVEL INSURANCE
This is one mistake that most travelers make, not taking out travel insurance. Some think that it’s a waste of money, that is until the airline lost your baggage, you’re hit with the stomach flu or you got into an accident while traveling. Always be prepared for the unexpected.
VisitorsCoverage is a great and easy-to-use website for purchasing travel insurance plans. You simply need to enter your destination (US or International), travel dates, and age and it’ll let you know which plans are available and the details of the coverage.
11. PHOTOCOPY YOUR PASSPORT AND IMPORTANT IDS
Make photocopies of your passport and important IDs. If you are staying at a hotel, it’s better to leave your important documents (passport, etc) inside the hotel room’s safety vault and just bring a copy with you at all times.
I bring at least two copies with me and leave one in a safe place inside my luggage. I also email myself a copy.
12. CHOOSING A LUGGAGE
Unless you want to rough it or are going backpacking, bring along with you a piece of good-sized luggage to hold your clothes, essentials and anything else you will surely pick up during your trip.
Most travelers now prefer hardshell luggage and while it certainly has more benefits (and more stylish!), it will take a beating as they go up and down the conveyor belt and in cargo so if you are using one, buy a cover for them to at least minimize the damage. Pick a stand out color or print so it’s easy to spot on the conveyor belt and less chance of it being mistaken as someone else’s luggage.
13. AIRLINE BAGGAGE LIMITS
Years ago, airlines were pretty generous with their allowed luggage (usually 2 pieces) but those days are long gone. Before you even start packing, check the baggage restrictions so you can pack accordingly and even pre-purchase additional baggage if needed. Overweight and oversized baggage is charged exorbitantly at the airport.
14. CARRY ON RESTRICTIONS (LIQUIDS, ETC)
Airlines and airport security will strictly check what you have on your carry on luggage. The usual policy is that you can only bring liquids on 100ml-sized containers (or smaller) that will fit a 1 quart-sized clear resealable bag. Check with your airline for the most updated and accurate policy.
Families traveling with babies can bring formula bottles, just let the airline and airport personnel that you have them. To prevent delays, don’t fill them up with water yet. Do that when you’re already at the boarding area or inside the plane.
Also, some countries with strict custom protocols may even impose a fine or confiscate if you bring in certain items from abroad. So again, check the official custom policies of the country your visiting.
15. PACK ONLY THE NECESSITIES
Don’t bring your whole wardrobe! You are going on vacation and not moving to another country. I know it can be tempting to bring a lot of your stuff and extra clothes (guilty of over-packing here!) but try as much as possible to only bring the absolute essentials. Toiletries are usually provided for at your hotel or else it can be easily bought at your destination.
The only exception is if you’re traveling with kids especially infants. Bring enough milk, diapers, etc plus extra because brands will be different and what you may need may not always be readily available in your destination.
Create a checklist to help you prioritize the things you need to bring so you don’t forget anything important.
16. CLEAR SPACE FOR PHOTOS
I mostly use my phone to take photos because it’s more convenient to just manage one gadget for picture-taking. Backup your phones or memory card and delete those blurry photos from your phone before your trip so you won’t be hassled with the dreaded “Your storage capacity is full” message when you are already on your trip. Buy extra memory cards or cloud storage if you must.
17. DOWNLOAD MAP AND TRAIN APP
Most popular cities now have an app dedicated to searching to/from routes for subways and bus. Trust me when I say that this would probably be your most used app during the trip and will save you tons of time when exploring the city.
Download an offline map if available so you’ll always have a copy on your phone.
18. RENT A POCKET WIFI
Pocket wifis are a life-saver especially if you are traveling long distances or are in between locations and not sure where to go next. Although most cities or restaurants and cafes would have some free (but limited) wifi in public areas, you will at least always have internet wherever you go and whenever you need it.
And yes, you’ll need it to keep your social media accounts constantly updated with your whereabouts and latest food discoveries.
19. BRING A POWER BANK
I never travel without a power bank and next to my phone, this is my favorite travel accessory. This is essential for every traveler because let’s face it, with the many things we do with our phone (games, apps, internet, text), we will most likely run out of batteries halfway through the day. Power bank to the rescue!
20. THE CONVENIENCE OF CONVENIENCE STORES
Tasting the unique flavors of a country for the first time is certainly one of the highlights for any vacation but sometimes, admittedly, it can be too much. And yes I know, a few days of culinary exploration isn’t that bad but not all people (and their tummies) are built for the experience.
Convenience stores usually offer quick and basic food choices and it’s budget-friendly too.
21. ACTIVATE YOUR ATM CARD FOR INTERNATIONAL WITHDRAWALS
Not all people know this but you need to call your bank before your trip if you intend to use your ATM card or withdraw money internationally. This extra measure is of course in place to protect you and your money so that no unauthorized purchases or withdrawals are made from your account. Also, check the fees and daily limits with your bank.
22. CHANGE A FEW CURRENCIES BEFORE LEAVING YOUR COUNTRY
Even if you are planning to use your credit or debit card for most of your travel expenses, it’s better to have a few currencies on hand so you’ll have enough money to pay for transport or food once you arrive at your destination. We all know airports money exchange counters don’t give the best conversions so if you have a friend (or if your bank allows it) who have leftover currencies from her trip to the same country, offer to buy it. Otherwise, withdrawing money from an ATM upon arrival is your next best option.
I find it more convenient to use my international debit card for purchases abroad. The exchange rate’s the best you can get, you won’t be charged withdrawal fees and of course, it’s very convenient. However, there were times when my debit card wouldn’t work and cash is my only option to pay. It also wouldn’t hurt if you bring an extra debit or credit card with you for such emergencies.
23. BRING A MEDICINE KIT
Always be ready for the unexpected especially for those pesky tummy aches from all the food tastings you’re going to do.
Prescription medicines should be properly labeled and in its original container. Save a copy of your doctor’s note if you can.
24. LEAVE YOUR VALUABLES AT HOME
You won’t be needing your jewelry or anything you consider valuable on your trip. It will not only attract unwanted attention. Leave them at home.
25. READ TRAVEL ADVISORIES
Before your trip, read about the weather forecast, economic and even political situations. Such issues are not a cause for worry but rather a precaution of what you should expect during your trip.
26. WEAR COMFORTABLE CLOTHES FOR YOUR FLIGHT
No need to dress up for your flight travel, you’ll mostly be sitting anyway. Just wear clothes you are comfortable with (decent and appropriate) especially if you’re on a long haul flight. As much as possible, I wear jeans that don’t need a belt and shoes that I can easily slide off and on. This makes going through security so much easier.
Also, pack a set of change of clothes and travel-size toiletries on your carry on luggage. You can always change when you land or at least you have a fresh set of clothes in case the airline misdirects your luggage.
27. ARRIVE AT THE AIRPORT AT LEAST 3 HOURS BEFORE YOUR FLIGHT
Give yourself enough time to check-in for your flight, go through security and immigration, and walk to your boarding gate. There’s nothing worse than missing your flight.
28. CHECK-IN ONLINE FOR YOUR FLIGHT
Most airlines offer online check-in option within 72 hours up to 4 hours before your scheduled departure. Online check-in passengers have a dedicated line at the airport check-in counter so that should save you some valuable time.
29. DURING YOUR FLIGHT
Catch up on good movies, read a book or just simply rest and sleep. Drink plenty of water. Stretch your legs every once in a while.
If you’re on a long-haul flight, bring disposable slippers so your feet can also take a break from your shoes.
30. PREPARE TO SHOW PROOF OF ACCOMMODATION AND RETURN TICKET
First-time travelers are often subjected to more intense scrutiny by Immigration Officers. You don’t want to be flagged as someone who might have intentions of overstaying. Be prepared to show documents related to your trips such as hotel confirmation, airline and train tickets, tour vouchers and even your itinerary.
31. LEARN A COUPLE OF PHRASES
Saying hello or thank you in the local language will always be appreciated. It’s also helpful to learn a few common phrases for travelers like finding directions and asking for water or the bill at a restaurant.
32. DO NOT BE AFRAID TO BARGAIN
Market vendors are used to buyers haggling and more often they are willing to sell a product at a lower price. Offer them a price that you think is fair but don’t low-ball too much that you might offend the sellers. A dollar may just be loose change for you but for the person you are haggling with, it may be equivalent to day’s worth of meals.
33. TRY LOCAL DISHES
There’s no better way to get to know a new town, city or country but by trying out the local dishes. You may not always like it but at least you tried it once in your life.
34. WHEN YOU SEE SOMETHING YOU LIKE, BUY IT
Traveling means you are always on the go and unless shopping is the only thing you will do on the trip, chances are you’ll only visit a store once or twice. If you see something you really like and you know that you can’t easily get it anywhere else, buy it. Saves you the time of going back and forth and you will not leave your trip with a hint of regret.
35. EXPLORE ON FOOT
Sometimes, the best way to get to know a place is by exploring it on foot. And getting lost is part of the adventure.
If you want to avoid the tourist crowd, just walk a couple of blocks away from the famous spot and find new things to discover off the beaten path.
36. EAT WHERE THE LOCALS GO
If there’s a waiting line, then it must be good? It’s not always true. The secret to knowing which of the restaurants are good is by looking at the diners. Are they mostly locals or tourists? There’s your answer.
37. FAMILIARIZE YOURSELF WITH THE LOCAL PRICES
It helps to know how the pricing goes in a city so you will have an idea of how much things cost. This may not be a big deal especially if you don’t have a set budget for your trip but it can prove to be helpful when it comes to getting an idea on how much to tip for services, market-shopping and finding the best deals.
Download a currency converter app on your phone before you go. That should help you make quick calculations if you need to.
38. WEAR COMFORTABLE, WALKING SHOES
Bring the comfiest walking shoes you own. Your feet will love and thank you for miles.
39. BUY SOUVENIRS
Save some space on your luggage and bring back home a little something that would remind you of the good times from your trip. A keychain? A refrigerator magnet? Anything will do.
40. DO SOMETHING UNIQUE TO THE COUNTRY
There’s no point in traveling if you’re just going to do the same things that you do in your home country. Plan an activity that you can only do or see in that city or something that is highly recommended or a must-see for first-time visitors.
41. RESPECT THE CULTURE AND CUSTOMS
What is normal and acceptable at home may be frowned upon when you visit another city or country. We are visitors to their country, therefore, we adjust to their way of life. Not the other way around.
And this includes talking too loudly in a public area. I remember during a family trip to Tokyo, we were sitting in a restaurant and my sister showed me a video on her phone. The waitress promptly asked us to turn off the video and not be too loud as a courtesy to the other diners. Since then, I’ve made it a priority to extend the utmost courtesy and respect to local customs.
42. BE ON THE LOOKOUT FOR SCAMMERS AND PICKPOCKETS
Scammers are out there and they are really good at what they do. There are just too many types of scams and they always think of new ones. If it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. Trust your instincts.
Pickpockets prey on distracted travelers. Fortunately, I’ve never been a victim of pickpockets while traveling but I do remember one instance during a trip to Paris when my sister and I sensed a girl scoping us out while inside the subway. Call us paranoid if you will but if we were right, we could have been a victim right then and there.
No matter how safe a city or place may seem, do not let your guards down. Always take care of your belongings.
43. YOUR SIGHTSEEING BAG
I prefer a sling bag to carry my essentials when I’m out sightseeing. It’s big enough to hold my travel-size wallet, phone, power bank, a comb, and a couple more things. If I’m in a crowded area or a train, I just simply put the bag in front of me with my hands guarding the zipper. Also, I carry with me a reusable shopping bag that can be easily folded up. Most cities now charge extra for plastic bags. An even better reason? You’re helping save the earth!
I remember reading an article on how backpack or belt bag-wearing tourists can be easy targets for pickpockets but I think that as long as you don’t keep anything valuable on the pockets of your backpack or wear it in a way that’s too accessible for anyone, you should be fine. Keep your bag in front of you when in a big crowd or when you know you’ll be distracted.
44. BOOK TOURS ONLINE
There are several booking websites specializing in fun activities to do at your destination. Among the popular ones are Viator.com and Klook.com (Asian destinations). Advance booking tickets are usually the cheapest, even train tickets. Cheapest rates would also mean non-refundable bookings so make sure that you don’t miss your train and you show up on time for your tour.
45. TAKE ADVANTAGE OF FREE WALKING TOURS
Some tourist attractions may offer guided walking tours and the only thing you need to pay for is the entrance fee. Check their official website to see what they can offer.
Some countries may also have locals offering their version of a walking tour. Some are completely free (tips are appreciated) and they do this because they want to practice their English, meet new people or just simply a hobby.
46. HOHO (HOP ON/HOP OFF)TOUR BUSES ARE GREAT VALUE
If your schedule is tight but you want to see the top attractions in a short amount of time, book a Hop On/Hop Off or Sightseeing Bus Tour. This is a cheap and convenient way to see the highlights of the city.
I absolutely love HOHO Tours because not only will you be able to cover almost all the top attractions, there’s usually audio guide access on your seat so you can learn more about the city while seating comfortably in your chair.
City Sightseeing and Big Bus are two HOHO bus tours that operate in major tourist cities.
47. VISIT A MUSEUM OR A CULTURAL PLACE
Even if it’s not your thing, visit at least one museum or an important monument. Your trip will not be complete without paying a courtesy call to Mona Lisa at the Louvre or visiting one of the Grand Palaces in Seoul. You don’t have to know much about art to appreciate art.
48. DON’T BE AFRAID TO BE SEEN AS A TOURIST
I’ve read many travel guides advising tourists on how to be, well, not a tourist. While it’s certainly worthy to take note of local food recommendations (those “where locals eat” guides), there’s absolutely no reason to pretend that you’re not a tourist by dressing up like a local or going to some off the radar place, because guess what, they will always know that you’re a tourist. And that’s perfectly okay!
I love being a tourist, doing touristy things. Popular tourist attractions are popular for a reason and you should see them especially on your first visit.
49. SET PROPER EXPECTATIONS
I’ve read one too many reviews of a guesthouse being too small, a popular restaurant being over-rated or an attraction not worth the time or money. You can’t expect everything to be absolutely great on your visit just because someone else had a very positive experience. We all have different likes and interests. Be realistic with your expectations.
50. KEEP ONLY THE GOOD MEMORIES
Vacations are not programmed to create only happy memories. There will be times that you will be disappointed, scared, angry or would even want to cut your trip short to go back home. Please don’t. Charge it to experience. Focus on the good things and leave the bad behind when you finally go home.
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Got more to add on the list? Feel free to leave it in the comments below. I’d love to chat! 🙂