There’s lots of guides out there telling you the billion and one things to pack and be prepared for, warnings about knowing customs and to never make certain gestures, always carry cash, always have credit cards, or reminders that the police aren’t always your friend, etc. but this isn’t one of them. These are a few of the lessons we’ve learned from traveling, lessons that have had a big impact on us and how we travel.
Stuff Holds You Back, Embrace Minimalism
You’re all packed and ready to go on your adventure abroad. You’ve got everything you need in three suitcases – including the kitchen sink. You’ve got clothes for two weeks, soaps, shampoos, three pairs of shoes, towels, all your camera gear, laptop, Kindle, iPad, iPod, iPhone, cosmetics, hair spray/gel, entertainment for when you are on the plane, and somehow there’s still room for souvenirs.
Stop right there.
What do you actually need to pack? What will you be doing on your trip? You’ll need much less than you think. Halve your stuff, and then halve it again. Take only that. Everything you need can fit in a backpack.
Your stuff owns you and ties you to it. The more you have, the less you’ll be able to move around (and the more it will cost!) and the more you’ll worry about your stuff getting lost or stolen. The less you have to carry and worry about, the more free you will be to move and enjoy your trip. So only pack what you know you will need. Minimalism isn’t for everyone, but if you are traveling, you should embrace it.
On our first trip abroad, I packed too much. As a result I was constantly worried about it getting lost (it did) and it made each trip to the airport harder. Even while we were settled in, we realized we couldn’t just go outside of the main city for a day or two like we had originally wanted to, because our stuff tied us to our apartment.
So what should you take? Only what you need, and cannot buy once you get there. Consider what you’ll be doing and pack the absolute minimum. You really don’t need your whole wardrobe – and clothes can be washed anywhere around the world. For tech gear, prioritize what you are bringing to place emphasis on devices that can multi-task. Like to take a lot of photos? Get a smartphone. Want to read? Buy a smartphone or e-reader. Music? Smartphone. Maps? Smartphone. Email? Smartphone. Writing? Smartphone.
Be as compact as possible and learn clever packing tricks to maximize efficiency of space, and should something happen or if you need something, buy it while you are there and return/sell it when you’re done with it. There are groceries, 7/11s and Quick-E Marts everywhere so you can buy the cosmetics, toiletries or whatever other items you need and toss it before you leave.
When you leave to go to the next destination or even home, you should leave filled with memories and photos rather than a bunch of stuff. Taking pictures has gotten so much easier over the past fifteen years, and good cameras have gotten cheaper. I managed to take over 60 glorious gigabytes of photos during one summer trip alone, all of which were stored on my laptop’s hard drive. I knew they were vulnerable, and planned on backing them up as soon as we returned. I would have, and should have, backed them up during the trip – but I foolishly depended upon my web host’s server for said backup and had no idea that access to it outside of the US would have been blocked.
Naturally, my laptop’s hard drive died as soon as we got home. The data couldn’t be saved without using the services of a company dedicated to data recovery, which cost me over $2,000 – the price of my laptop. The whole experience made me sick to my stomach, but I paid it because those photos meant that much to me.
If you don’t have it already look into cloud storage – especially before you go. They didn’t exist when we left on our trip, but they do now and it would be stupid to not take advantage of them. On the plus side, many of them have apps to sync data from your smartphone too (bonus!) Also be sure to check if you’ll have access in the country you’ll be going to – trying to use the internet in China was so difficult we essentially took a sabbatical from it. It’s good to have more than one option.
Don’t Buy Stuff
This goes along with the first tip – don’t buy souvenirs, trinkets, gifts or anything like that. People back at home rarely want a reminder that you went abroad, and those trinkets often just take up space and gather dust. Aside from the fact that they are just things – often low in value but the price is jacked up to prey on tourists, the main important point is that they have significantly less value than experience and memories. A better use of your money is to go do things rather than buy things.
Also, your stuff owns you – refer to the first point.
Alternative Accommodation – It’s Not Scary!
Hotels are expensive, and can significantly shorten a trip to anywhere – so why not skip them and find an alternative? For newbie travelers I can understand there being some reservations about Couchsurfing and the alternatives – but as we’ve learned there’s also a risk of getting a crappy hotel and it can be a lot worse. Host families are a great way to stay in a new land, learn the language, culture and where all the interesting things are. But it’s not for everyone.
Only want to stay a few days? Why not Couchsurfing or a hostel? Want to stay longer? Get an apartment ahead of time, or stay in a hostel/couchsurf until you can get one.
It's difficult to see, but several ceiling tiles crumbled and the drywall bubbled and cracked and started to fall. Click to make bigger.
Our accommodations were the worst during the actual ‘study’ part of our trip to China. In addition to the terrible plumbing, thin walls, rock hard beds and improper ventilation, one day we were hit with a heavy rainstorm that caused flooding (I stomped across campus back to the dorm with water up to my waist – hoping I didn’t fall into one of the many poorly marked pits where they were doing construction) the teachers and cooks fought to keep the water out, but unfortunately couldn’t. In addition to the flooding, several parts of the building began to fall apart too. The travel abroad reps at our university who picked the location for the study-abroad program made it sound much, much more luxurious than it actually was. The picture above isn’t the worst of the structural damage, but unfortunately most of my pictures were too blurry to be used.
On the flip side, I was quite entertained at the situation and value the experience. It was, if nothing else, much more interesting than a perfect situation.
Water left in the hallway, buckets that were once used to toss water out the windows and catch water dripping from the ceilings. At least the game tables were saved.
Teachers, cooks and administrators sweeping water out of the building after the storm.
Work or Volunteer To Stay Longer
If you want to stay gone longer than a week or two, you’ll need some sort of income. You can do this through making money online – or you can get a job or volunteer where you want to stay. Luckily, there’s a lot of options available.
If you’re reading this blog, then you obviously speak English. If you’re good at it, teaching English abroad is a great option as it’s wanted nearly everywhere. Nomadic Matt has excellent comprehensive resources for working, volunteering and teaching English abroad.
Don’t Just Look, Experience
You can visit a country without ever really experiencing that country… How? By sightseeing, visiting tourist traps and sticking to the expat scene. If you avoid people and the culture of different countries you’ll be missing out on what I find to be the biggest values in traveling. You don’t have to speak the language (although it helps, even if you can only speak a few phrases, and anyone can do it) to experience a country, but you do have to interact with the people that live there, adapt and do things you may not have done before.
It’s particularly difficult in a country where you don’t speak the language and where few people speak English. Despite not being good with Korean at the time, we did our best and it was appreciated. From the people we met, we learned things we likely wouldn’t have otherwise, we went to restaurants we might not have found, tried interesting food, I could go on forever with just our experience in Seoul alone. Get involved with the things that are going on.
Relax and Get Lost
Er, please don’t go away. I mean explore. There’s a time and place for schedules, sightseeing and to-do lists. Traveling is not a race, and shouldn’t be treated as such. Take your time, explore, do unexpected, spontaneous things. Taking your time and not rushing around allows you to relax, savor the experience, food and people, and to really connect with the area and people surrounding you. Save some time for exploration, you may be surprised at what you find.
One of my favorite times we got lost was when we stumbled upon a kung-fu shop in Beijing, wandered in, and wound up spending the evening chatting with the owners, learning about the things they sold, their family – notably one of their sons who has won several competitions. They even took us into the back of the store and showed us their personal favorite weapons. Stuff that we, as fellow martial arts, really love.
Leave Your Stereotypes At The Gate
If you travel and actually experience countries, instead of only sightseeing and sticking to the expat scene, you’ll learn pretty quickly that stereotypes are ridiculous and that the way you do things isn’t necessarily the right way. Nearly every country is modernizing, but in their own unique way – not westernizing (and definitely not Americanizing).
Learn, respect and celebrate differences. You’ll gain a lot of insight and may even realize that some of things you do seem backward.
There Is A Whole World Out There, Go EVERYWHERE
Speaking of stereotypes, it always makes me a little crazy when people restrict themselves to just certain places in the world because of a stereotype they have or because of something they’ve seen on TV. I’ve heard people say “I only want to go to X because it’s beautiful” (as if there aren’t other beautiful places out there, or other reasons to go to country X), or restricting themselves to western countries because they are afraid of what else could be out there.
Go everywhere, have an open mind, and expect to be surprised.
“If you’re twenty-two, physically fit, hungry to learn and be better, I urge you to travel – as far and as widely as possible. Sleep on floors if you have to. Find out how other people live and eat and cook. Learn from them – wherever you go.” – Anthony Bourdain
Fear Holds You Back
I’m just going to jump into this one, and say that you need to get over the fear of making mistakes, or doing scary unfamiliar things, because the regret of not doing or the voice in the back of your head that always whispers “what if?” will always haunt you. Stop thinking so much and just do. Places change quickly, and if you don’t do it you may not get the chance to later.
If you really have a hard time getting over the fear, realize that in 99% of cases it’s completely irrational. Weigh the benefits and risks, and the impact of the possible outcomes. What’s the worst that could happen? How bad would that really be?. As long as you don’t die or get thrown in jail, I’d say you’re good to go.
It’s All About Freedom
Minimalism, cloud storage, ignoring your fears, it’s really all about freedom. Freedom to travel, freedom to experience new things you wouldn’t have otherwise and freedom to stay longer – or shorter – if you wish. As we continue to travel we’ll learn more and share it when we do, but what have your experiences been? What advice do you have for new travelers? Share your thoughts in the comments!
Side note: some of the images in this post are not our personal photos, and I couldn’t find attributions for them. If you know who to attribute them to, or if they are yours, please let me know and I’ll fix it.