Travel lessons I’ve learned: how to holiday like a pro

In my ideal world, it would be possible to travel constantly with no time or money constraints. In reality, travelling has to be squeezed into a few budgeted weeks per year. This has become easier as ten years of experience has taught me how to make the most of every trip, from long weekend to month-long adventure. I hope this blog post of travel tips and tricks will be useful on your next trip too!

Please note: this is written from the perspective of someone travelling from the UK, but many of the tips are equally applicable to travelling from anywhere.

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Before everything else

  1. Check your passport will be valid for when you travel – some countries require it to be valid for a number of months after the planned end of your trip.
  2. Buy travel insurance. If you’ll be travelling more than once this year, buy annual insurance (include anyone on it with whom you’ll be travelling). Use a comparison website such as comparethemarket.com or confused.com to find the cheapest deal for you. Ideally, you need to buy insurance first so that everything you buy afterwards (travel, hotels, etc.) is covered. Never buy the poor-value travel insurance offered by your airline!
  3. Check whether you’ll need any vaccines for where you’re going on the Fit for Travel website. If it looks likely that you’ll need any, arrange a travel vaccinations appointment at your local GP surgery well in advance of your trip (aim for two months beforehand)
  4. Check whether you’ll need a visa for where you’re going on your national government’s website (I use the UK Government’s foreign travel advice website). It can take weeks to get a visa so it’s best to check as early as possible.
  5. If travelling within Europe, apply for a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) that will ensure you never pay more for healthcare than the locals do. If you have one already, check that it’ll still be valid when you travel.
  6. Apply for a no-foreign-fees credit card such as the Halifax Clarity card (see a full list of top travel credit cards). You can use this to save money when booking anything in advance in a foreign currency, and most importantly for buying anything when abroad. It will not charge you fees for buying things in a foreign currency, and it gets you a better exchange rate than any exchange bureau. It’s also cheaper to use it to withdraw money from ATMs abroad (pay off your credit card immediately to avoid paying interest on the cash withdrawn)

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Travel

  1. Use a flights comparison website to find cheap flights.
    1. If you don’t know where to go yet, using Skyscanner to search for flights from your local airport to ‘Everywhere’ will show you where you can go for the cheapest price, so it’s a great source of inspiration.
    2. If you don’t know when to go yet, Skyscanner can show you what the ‘cheapest month’ to travel is, as well as find the cheapest days within any given month.
    3. If you know where you’re going and when, you might want to try some more flight comparison sites as well, such as Momondo and Kayak, to make sure you’re surveying the whole market. I’ve found Momondo to be particularly good for finding more obscure airlines.
    4. Before you book with a third party, check that their price is cheaper than booking directly with the airline. Booking directly with the airline sometimes makes it easier to check in, look up flight information, change flight information and claim refunds, so booking direct will always be my preference if prices are similar.
    5. Finally, before you book with anyone, check whether you can get cashback on your flights through TopCashback (I find it generally has more retailers and higher rates than its rival cashback website Quidco). Flights are so expensive that the cashback you receive from the purchase can be significant.
  2. Plan how you’ll travel from place to place, particularly to and from the airport or between countries, well in advance. You might need to put in special measures if the airport is very far out, or your flight gets in very early or late; and long train journeys are often much cheaper if booked online in advance.
  3. When planning to travel by train:
    1. Always use the local train operator’s website if you can – never an intermediary that charges more, such as Rail Europe. You’ll probably need to buy your tickets in the local currency, so make sure you use a no-foreign-exchange-fees credit card (see ‘Before anything else’, above)
    2. It’s worth reserving seats if you can, even if it costs a little more. We learnt this the hard way when failing to get seats on the train from Vienna to Budapest, which resulted in standing up, squashed in like sardines, in a train corridor for two hours.

Visiting the Acropolis, 14 September 2015 079

Accommodation

  1. Prioritise the following when scouring reviews to decide where to stay:
    1. Proximity to city centre, tourist attractions and/or public transport
    2. Quietness (if you’re a light sleeper like me)
    3. Comfortable beds (if you struggle to sleep on hard beds like me)
  2. Look at options on Airbnb (as well as apartments on Booking.com and other websites). It’s not unusual to find a full apartment that’s nicer, more spacious, better equipped, better located and cheaper than the standard hostel and hotel options.
  3. Check the price of total single beds in a hostel is less than the price of a shared room in a hotel, airbnb, or similar place. For example, in the past I’ve found myself comparing two beds at £20 each in a shared dorm with £40 for a double room (which is clearly preferable!)
  4. Budget hotels offer similar prices but vastly differing levels of quality. I’ve found Travelodge to be the worst, due to its hard beds and extremely basic and cheap-looking decor. Motel One and Ibis Styles hotels tend to cost more, but you get better value for money: comfortable beds, stylish decor, free toiletries, and sometimes extras like a free continental breakfast. Sign up for free to the Accor Hotels loyalty club and sometimes you’ll get discounts and extra treats in your room.
  5. If in doubt – and if you can afford it – book an extra night. You’ll never regret having more time away, only less time.

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Packing: bags

  1. Pack as light as you can. You probably don’t need more than cabin baggage only for a trip of a week or less, but make sure you buy a cabin bag that’ll give you maximum packing space (see below)
  2. Invest in a large, soft backpack that’s smaller than the budget airlines’ maximum size limits for cabin luggage from CabinMax or a similar company. They fit loads in (certainly enough for a week’s trip), are easy to carry around, can be squished into the overhead luggage compartments, and save you precious time and money at the airport that would otherwise have been spent checking in hold luggage, and waiting for it afterwards.
  3. Buy a smaller backpack to act as your day bag, which will fit in everything you’ll need in a single day or flight or train journey. Pre-pack this and put it inside the top of your larger cabin-sized backpack, and you’ll be able to quickly take it out when taking your seat on the plane, or heading out after leaving your larger bag in storage.
  4. Suggested day bag contents for a long flight or train journey:
    1. Ticket/travel documents
    2. Passport
    3.  Wallet
    4.  Phone
    5.  Earphones
    6. Book/magazine/something to read
    7. Reusable water bottle (emptied for going through airport security, filled whenever you get chance)
    8. Jumper (to wear if it gets cold, or to use as a pillow if you want to sleep
  5. Suggested day bag contents for a day out (in changeable weather):
    1. Passport
    2. Wallet
    3.  Camera
    4.  Phone
    5.  Phrasebook
    6.  Sunglasses
    7.  Umbrella
    8. Filled reusable water bottle
    9. Jumper (plus scarf, gloves and hat if you might need them)
    10. Lip balm
    11. (Miniature) bottle of sun lotion or moisturiser with SPF
    12. Small, packaged and sturdy snack such as a cereal bar
    13. Comb and hair bobble if you’ve long hair
    14. Daily makeup essentials and mirror, if relevant for you (try to buy mini makeup items if you can, so that they fit more easily into your clear liquids bag: I love my 4g version of Benefit’s ‘They’re Real’ mascara)

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Packing: toiletries

  1. Keep the clear bag provided at the airport for storing your cabin-luggage liquids, so that you can pack it before you get to the airport and simply whip it out at security. This not only saves time, but also ensures you won’t end up having to throw away items that you only find don’t fit inside at the airport.
  2. Ensure in advance that you have every liquid item you’ll need in a version smaller than 100ml, so that you don’t end up having to throw them away and replacing them with more expensive versions bought at the airport.
  3. Look out for toiletries whose ‘standard’ versions just happen to be under 100ml in size, such as many roll-on deodorants, as these are cheaper than specific travel-size versions.
  4. Remember that Vaseline counts as a liquid (but stick lip balms do not)
  5. If you’ve long hair, bring both shampoo and conditioner (as well as dry shampoo, if you use it) because even if a hotel provides toiletries it’s often just shower gel, which isn’t great for hair.

Visiting the Acropolis, 14 September 2015 224-1-2

Packing: clothes and the rest

  1. If there’s even a slim chance you’ll have opportunity to wear it, bring swimwear. You don’t want to waste time trying to buy one when you’re there, should the opportunity arise, or worse waste the opportunity entirely.
  2. Pack an extra for every type of clothing, e.g. two jumpers, even for a short trip, in case one of them gets wet or dirty.
  3. Bring comfortable and practical shoes to wear whenever there’s the possibility that you’ll be walking some distance. Bonus points if they are also:
    1. Quick and easy to slip on and off, to save time at airport security
    2. Waterproof, if it may rain (sodden shoes can ruin a day)
    3. Breathable, if it may be hot
    4. Supportive and protective (i.e. walking boots), if you may be traversing uneven or steep terrain
    5. Neutral in design, so that they can be worn in almost any situation
  4. Bring comfortable earphones, not only for entertainment, but also potentially for blocking out noise when trying to sleep
  5. Don’t bring precious and valuable things, except those you’ll need like your phone and camera. I’ve always found jewellery to be nothing but an unnecessary inconvenience that could easily get lost.
  6. Buy and fit travel adaptors to your chargers before packing them, so that they’re easy to whip out when you need them.
  7. Invest in a small portable charger such as an ANKER so that running out of battery mid-day or mid-journey is never a concern.
  8. Bring an empty plastic carrier bag in which to pack dirty clothes, or anything that gets wet.

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On your phone

  1. Download the TripAdvisor app and its data for whever you’re going to in advance, so that you can scope out attractions and restaurants when you’re offline
  2. Download the Google Maps app and use its ‘offline areas’ feature to download the map for the area you’re visiting, so that you can easily see where you are and navigate when you’re offline. This can really save the day if you get lost.
  3. Download the Google Translate app and the package for your destination’s language for translating menus and anything else you see written down (but have a phrasebook as well, as looking up words and phrases in this is sometimes quicker!)
  4. If noise sometimes keep you awake, download an ambient sounds app such as ‘White Noise Free’ that, when listened to on earphones, blocks out random sounds such as people’s voices and makes it easier to sleep. This might not work for everyone, but it has kept me sane when staying in noisy hostels where I couldn’t sleep otherwise. White Noise Free has a large choice of sounds, so you can choose one that works for you; because I find it easy to sleep on planes, the ‘airplane travel’ noise is perfect for me.

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In your wallet

  1. If you travel a lot, it’s a good idea to own three wallets:
    1. a home wallet with everything in it
    2. a small travel wallet for taking on holiday with you
    3. an ‘other currencies’ wallet where you keep leftover foreign currency from past trips, in case you ever need it again (keep this in a safe place at home)
  2. Pack your travel wallet with:
    1. A travel credit card (see ‘Before anything else’ above)
    2. A small amount of cash in the local currency (£20 to £50 worth) for occasions where you can’t use credit card, such as market stalls. Find the exchange bureau offering the best rate using TravelMoneyMax.com and order in advance to get the superior online rate.
    3. A European Health Insurance Card (see ‘Before anything else’ above)
    4. I.D. card

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Planning activities, food, etc.

  1. Have a rough itinerary for each day you’re away. Some people may call it excessive, but I find it’s a really good idea as it prevents you from missing anything or wasting time deciding what to do when you’re there (especially if you’re the indecisive type, like I am!)
  2. Do research beforehand and decide what you must do (i.e. what you’d be really disappointed to miss) and plan to do it as early in the trip as possible. Don’t leave it until the last day, because you never know what might come up and disrupt your plans.
  3. Note the opening hours for every attraction you want to visit and use these to plan roughly when to do each thing. Neglect to do this and you risk turning up somewhere only to find it shut – and that you spent the few hours it was open at a place that you could have visited later.
  4. As someone who enjoys planning and efficiency, one of the hardest lessons to learn has been to factor in breathing space around planned activities. It’s hard to know how long you’ll need in any one place, and having some downtime in which you’ve nothing to do is better than potentially feeling rushed.
  5. Book restaurants in advance if you find one you definiely want to eat at. If possible, it’s easiest to book online before you go, but otherwise you can phone to book once you’re in the country. There have been many occasions where I’ve been turned away from fully booked restaurants and wished that I’d booked when I could.
  6. Learn at least a few words of the local language, such as thank you, please, hello, goodbye, yes, no, even if most people in the country you’re visiting speak English. It shows respect for the local culture, and local people tend to appreciate that you’ve made the effort (even if it’s badly executed!).
  7. Always try to have a Plan B for when Plan A falls through.

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When you’re there

  1. Pick up free maps of the city and the public transport network at the earliest opportunity. As great as Google Maps is, finding tourist attractions and public transport tends to be easier with paper maps.
  2. Pick up a business card for your hotel so that you can show it to taxi drivers who may not speak your language, or use it to ask for directions if you get lost.
  3. Photograph everything you want to remember, because memories fade quickly if not reinforced. You’ll never regret taking a photo, only not taking one.
  4. At the same time, don’t always be thinking what would look good on a photo. Take the time just to live in the moment and experience a place with all your senses while you can.
  5. Only buy a bus tour or similar if you don’t know what you want to see in a city (or can’t walk far), and avoid long walking tours (unless you’re very interested in history). There are probably better uses of your time (will you really remember any of the stuff you’re told?) and it’s annoying to have to be somewhere for a set time, and to be ferried around in a group.
  6. An all-day travel card is often a good investment if a city is large and has a good public transport system. Not only will it probably save you time and money, but it’ll also ensure you never feel restricted to any certain area.
  7. If something goes wrong that you can claim for on your insurance, get it in writing from an official source. This means obtaining a police report if you are a victim of crime, a doctor’s letter if you receive medical treatment, and confirmation from the hotel if you lose something or something else goes wrong.
  8. Stay positive! Some things are bound to go wrong, even when you’ve planned everything perfectly. The important thing is that you move on from any disappointments, arguments or straight-up disasters as quickly as you can, so that you can enjoy the rest of your time away as much as possible. Once you’ve taken any immediately necessary steps (see above for insurance claims) and found a work-around solution if necessary, there’s nothing to be gained from dwelling on low points. You’ll have plenty of time to mope and reflect on your feelings once you’re back home (take it from someone who’s broken a camera and lost a phone while away)!

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I’m always learning new things as I travel more, so I expect to continue adding to this list over time. What lessons have you learnt while travelling, and do you have any tips to add to this list? Let me know in the comments!

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3 thoughts on “Travel lessons I’ve learned: how to holiday like a pro

  1. This is fantastic advice!! Not that I ever travel abroad, but this is all really useful for those who do. I love the pictures you’ve chosen too! 😀

    Like

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