I was an immature teenager playing a game of tag with a schoolyard full of smiling 9 year-old Nicaraguans.
It was hot out. The air was sticky. I was dressed, unnecessarily, like a young Rick Steves. I was incredibly happy.
During that short three week trip to Ometepe, Nicaragua, I had been bitten by the travel bug for the first time. I fell in love with the mentality that the world was my oyster – new cultures, foods, landscapes and experiences were out there to be explored. It spurred a travel-driven period of my life where I managed to visit over 20 different countries with year-long stints in two. I had the pleasure or exploring the Great Barrier Reef from above and below, strolling along the Great Wall of China, trying my hand as a rancher in Wyoming, teaching English to Spanish youth, wandering the immense lands of Patagonia, playing on a traveling basketball squad in Iberia, attending a spiritual retreat in Africa and filling my Moleskin journals with enough stories to make my mother cry — out of both joy and rage.
I’ve learned a lot along the way – emotionally, personally, professionally and logistically. A lot of those lessons are unique to me and me alone, but being prepared to go abroad is a logistical artform that anyone can pick up. If you are preparing for an experience abroad, first of all, congratulations! And second, read our short traveling abroad checklist that can help prepare you for a few important things before you depart.
Vaccinations, Pills and All That Jazz.
Make sure you purchase some precautionary medication before your departure, especially if this is your first long stint abroad. I hate taking malaria pills. I hate shots. I hate having to carry things I may never use in my backpack, but I have become violently ill in less than ideal places. I’ve hallucinated from dehydration and a stomach virus on the rooftop of a Moroccan hostel because I didn’t have enough money at that point of my trip to afford a room. I’ve had parasites attack my stomach in Central America. And I had that one sickness in Patagonia (I honestly have no idea what it was, but it knocked me off my feet for several days), but in many situations, that medicine in my backpack I was saving for a painfully rainy day really did come in handy. It’s worth the price and the annoyance of carrying it around. So research the countries you will be visiting, find out the most common traveller issues and buy medicine accordingly.
Copy, Copy, Copy.
Have you ever had a checked bag misplaced by an airline? Have you ever had a bag stolen? Have you ever left one at a friends house for a weekend and couldn’t pick it up for a few days? These things happen and it’s vital that you still have access to your important documents. I once left my Spanish residency card at home while traveling to the UK. Guess what? They wouldn’t let me back in on account that I had overstayed my welcome on a tourist visa and didn’t have proof of my temporary residency. It took several trips to the embassy to figure it all out. If it weren’t for a copy my banker had back in Spain, I might still be stuck in Dublin.
With that said, print out essential travel information such as your first hostel location, the name of your in-country contacts, your insurance card, and most importantly your passport. Make 3 copies of your passport and do the following:
1) Give one to a family member at home before you leave.
2) Pack one in your larger backpack or luggage suitcase and hide it. Put it in the lining of the bag or some place that is hard to get to.
3) Keep the third in your day pack or the bag that never leaves your side.
Also, make sure your passport is valid for a time period well beyond your stay. If you need to apply for a passport or a passport renewal, do so months in advance. Achieving these tasks may seem simple, and they are, but they still take a considerable amount of time.
Think about Doubles
Everyone talks about packing light, but asking yourself “what is the bare minimum I need to pack?” isn’t the most efficient question to ask. Instead, ask yourself, “what do I absolutely need that can benefit me in more than one situation?” For example, when traveling in Europe during the summer, pack a shirt that you can use to not only explore city streets, but is also formal enough to wear into museums, churches and a pretty nice restaurant...if the opportunity ever arises. If you are visiting countries with varying climates on a single trip – like going from the heat of Columbia to near freezing temperatures in Patagonia – think about what kind of layers make sense. A huge overcoat isn’t something you’ll want to carry around all trip, but a sweatshirt with an undershirt and a rain slick could make for a much more useful combination.
Practice Being Flexible
Abroad you will be put into awkward positions. You will be uncomfortable. Some smiles will start with cringe faces. These are character building moments, but you need to keep an open mind and learn how to best embrace them. You can attempt to prepare for these experiences before you leave by getting out of your comfort zone in a variety of different ways. I’ll let you get creative here, but here are a few things that I have been subject to that you need to learn how to deal with on the road:
– How to sleep in new, less ideal places (ex: a dirt shack with no AC or formal roofing).
– How to try new foods even if you think you’ll hate them. (Think fish bread, matador testicles, blood sausage, etc).
– Physical embraces. (ex: If you aren’t comfortable giving another man 2 kisses on the cheek, you aren’t ready to visit a lot of different countries).
– Not having electricity 24/7.
Make a “Don’t Get Duped List”
Tourists often get served tourists prices while on the road. That’s okay, it’s going to happen – your pocketbook will get taken advantage once in a while. However, your goal should be to prevent it to the best of your ability. In order to do that, research the following before you depart on your trip:
– The exchange rate.
– The average price of a taxi from the airport.
– The average price of a hostel or hotel accommodation.
– Public transportation costs.
– Cell phone or any other communication costs.
– Find out the translation for “I'm sorry, but that’s too expensive,” and “I’ve only got ___ dollars,” and “thanks so much, but I’m on a budget.”
If you are going to be traveling for more than a month or so, you will most likely look into an international plan or grabbing a local cell phone. It’s much cheaper to do the latter and then sign up for a Skype number for that particular country. That way, your family or friends can call you in case of any emergency and have it relayed to your local cellphone for a few cents. Even if it’s not an emergency, it’s a cheap alternative to an international cellphone. Trust me. If you find yourself is a terrible bind and need to contact someone abroad, all you’ll need is a few cheap local credits to get through. You can usually buy credits at local mini marts and grocery stores.
A lot of people ask me if you need Internet on your phone. Sure, it helps, but for me it takes away the fun of having to interact with locals to find your way and communicate. If you want it for security reasons, having an unlocked phone is the way to go. That way, all you need to do is buy a new SIM abroad and purchase a prepaid credit plan.
I hope this short list helps some of you better prepare for an incredible experience abroad. Remember, it’s a beautiful world out there with beautiful people and beautiful sites. Go out and enjoy it – just do what you can to stay safe while you do it.