How To Monsoon The World
(a.k.a. Travel Hacking: how to travel the world with no money and time)
There are a million ways to travel, but only one to monsoon: Join The Monsoon
Travel is an art that can’t so much be explained as it should be experienced. So when I’m asked for advice on travel, I’ve always struggled to come up with an answer other than a simple invitation: “Best way is to find out for yourself. So come with us on one of our adventures!”
However, if you’re going to DIY, there are few things I’ve picked up over the years that address the ubiquitous issue of not having enough time or money. From planning your trip to returning home, this organic, constantly updated list of pointers will hopefully you in your future travel hacking. Best of luck and happy monsooning!
Don’t waste time – If you’ve already decided that you want to travel, then CONGRATULATIONS! Go straight to the Planning Section of this guide. If you’re still indecisive, then keep reading:
The hardest decision in travel is the decision TO travel
– “Momentum comes from pushing, not from planning. Confidence comes from scars and risk, not from indecision.” – Life Doesn’t Start Tomorrow. It starts with *you*.
None of the following will ever matter unless you commit to your decision. I’ve had quite a few people sign up for my trips and then back out at the last second. A few months later they’ll come back to me having regretted their decision.
Yes, dropping everything for something totally new and unknown can be scary! But nobody ever learned how to ride a bike by reading about it; you have to get on the damn thing! So work on that confidence and decide to go. Then GO!
What happens if you don’t travel?
“[Responding with] ’Yeah, but…’ is pernicious. Because it makes it sound like we have the best of intentions when really we are just too scared to do what we should. It allows us to be cowards, while sounding noble.” – 3 Reasons to Travel While You’re Young.
Let’s entertain the possibility that you’ll skip out.
. . . Then watch us as we come back safe and sound, share our stories, talk about how our lives have changed, and show you all our photos. Whether or not you will realize it then, when you have your first child, when in your midlife crisis, or on your deathbed, you’re inevitably going to regret that you missed out on an epic once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. This could set the tone for the rest of your life. Don’t let this happen!
Breaking a bad habit starts with a *jump*
When we were born, the world seemed like an exciting new place; it was a sandbox where anything seemed possible. Then as we grew up, our society/parents/authority figures would influence us to develop certain habits — usually with noble intentions to keep us safe from harm — that make us who we are today. However, the habits we had formed as a child in response to those authority figures may not be suitable to what we need as young adults; many of those habits now restrict us, discouraging us from taking risks and exploring what we’re truly capable of, rather than what we’ve always been told we’re capable of.
Generations ago, it would take some kind of trauma as a wake-up call to break free from the confines of our routine and begin a new chapter in our lives. A life-altering experience, usually negative in nature, would eventually lead us down a spiral to “rock bottom” before we start climbing up again, finally ending bad habits and beginning new, healthier ones.
“Once you lose everything, you’re free to do anything.”
But what if we don’t want to wait around for the next traumatic life experience to begin living? What if we wanted to be more in control of moving ahead when our lives feel stuck?
Sure, but that takes tons of introspection and nearly total self-awareness. And there are 2 things that can bring you to that state: legit hardcore meditation (i.e. vows of silences, spiritual pilgrimages, retreats), which is extremely hard to do, or the next closest thing: Travel. Just as how meditation is meant to remove the external distractions and stimuli that has been bogging you down in your life’s routine, so does travel in taking you away from all the noise that have compelled your bad habits to stay alive. Sure, you’re in a totally different, foreign place usually, but that causes a paradoxical, reflexive phenomenon where the only person you can rely on in such an unfamiliar situation (where you don’t know anyone, nobody knows you, and you can’t even speak or understand the language) is yourself. What eventually happens is a kind of forced self-reflection and eventual self-awareness to break the bad habits that were confining you that you had never been aware of (Just like what trauma does, but way more positive and you don’t have to wait around for it to happen).
And that said, just like how trauma wakes you the f*ck up in life, starting slowly in breaking a bad habit never works. And habits become even harder to break once you’ve accustomed yourself to a way of approaching new experiences. Do you think that to skydive you first have to look it up on Wikipedia, or learn to fall off a table? No. You simply jump. So those of you who want to travel, travel. And imagine how easy traveling will seem to you afterwards. Imagine how much confidence you’ll gain in yourself.
Not many people realize the opportunity for a tremendously positive life change and is already here and now: This could be the very moment where you turn your life around and finally do something *epic*.
The world won’t wait for you.
Act & Commit to It
“Those that continue to experiment are rewarded with more experience. Those that think ‘I’m fine where I am’ never do– their world stops growing, and they don’t truly understand why.” – Touch the Burner.
If you feel that bit of awakening stirring within you is the real deal, then drop your sh*t and travel. Whether it’s on your own with us on our next trip, solidify your ideas into an actual plan. It’s the only way to know what you’re made of. And keep motivating yourself; don’t say yes one day and back out the next, because “the way you do one thing in life is the way you do everything.”
Or as everyone who likes to quote Steve Jobs would say: “stay foolish.” Let’s stop and think for a second: Steve didn’t say “BE foolish,” He said, “STAY foolish.” Once you make a decision, stick with it. And don’t look back!
“It’s less money than you think. And at least to me, the committing step is buying a ticket. Just click the buy button. Get yourself drunk to do it. Once you buy it, there’s no looking back. Buy a non-refundable one if you’re hesitating.” – Stephanie Quan
Read The News
Oil prices, the economy, elections, sanctions, climate change, world leaders making moves: International politics are constantly in flux and they will always affect flight prices. Most paradigm shifts — positive or negative — will cause flight costs to descend dramatically.
Plan Ahead, Loosely
*If* you have a limited amount of time to travel, get out a GoogleDoc or an Excel spreadsheet and plan out specific dates of where you want to be, where you’re planning to stay, and how you’re going to travel from city to city. Having some kind of plan can save you a lot of time waffling about in a foreign country if/when you get completely lost. You can get quick overviews of a destination from a Lonely Planet or on Wikitravel.
“Those guidebooks are super useful and they get you excited about the trip. plus they have TONS of useful information.” – Stephanie Quan.
“Most travel guides – or rather, really just Lonely Planet and Rough Guides, will have what the best price would/should be for a savvy tourist. Be sure to consult them ahead of time to make sure you’re not making an ass out of yourself and travel companions.” – Annah Kim
Keep An Open Mind
That said, keep your mind open to change when you’re traveling; my best travel experiences have been the spontaneous ones. If you set anything (too much) in stone, you’ll just be limiting your experiences.
Ask For Help!
This might be a shameless plug, but I LOVE TO HELP with travel plans. And I’m very sure other travelers who blog would be more than willing to share advice on itineraries and where to go/what to see.
“Make sure to ask Calvin for his itinerary through the part of the world you want to visit, because he probably already has a very good one you can just take and modify.” – Cynthia Koo of cynthiakoo.com
Avoid Tour Groups
Unless the country is North Korea or Iran — which REQUIRES some foreigners to be apart of approved tour companies in order to enter their borders — choose to travel independently. You’re young, you need the freedom, and you’ll meet so many more people doing it yourself. Part of the experience is to get lost and find yourself, not pay money to be led around like cattle. You’ll also save more money this way.
Understand That The World Is Changing
Western Europe, USA, Australia, etc.: they’re all stable first world regions that will change very little in the next 50 years. So whether you see these places now or later, it won’t make a difference; save first world vistas when you have a better paying job or when you have a family (although there’s nothing wrong with visiting them if you’re passing through or have to go for a wedding or something).
The reason we tend to favor traveling to regions like the Middle East, South Asia, South America or Southeast Asia is because while they are tougher to travel through, there will be no other time in our life where we will be as young or healthy to handle it.
Furthermore, they’re all places that are changing and will continue to change dramatically within our generation so you might as well see those places now and say that you were there “before the revolution” or “during the _____ crisis.” Being in a place that is so relevant to current events significantly adds to the experience and you really do feel like you become apart of history. As I tell everyone about my trip in North Korea: Until we have the means to build a time machine, North Korea is the closest you’re going to get!
Finally, the bottom line is that these places are CHEAP: my summer in South Asia and Southeast Asia allowed me to actually increase funds in my bank accounts because I wasn’t spending those same 3 months in an expensive Western European country or my home in the USA.
Pick the right seasons
Save money by traveling to a country during its low season. You have to do research on the specific country ahead of time to see when that is, but it’s usually when the weather is the worst. Examples include most of India during the monsoon or the Middle East during the summer.
But why go when the weather is bad? The reason is because you’re young; most of you can better handle a spot of bad weather instead of a 500% increase in prices when the weather is good. Think about how much money you can save while seeing 5x as much. And besides, places are more enjoyable when there are no crowds!
Stop waiting for the “right time”, ditch the excuses and travel the world in a “New York minute”
FYI, this style is not for everyone and recommended to those who only have a handful of days to travel; I strongly believe it’s better to use those days to travel regardless than to not go at all.
I credit this to having grown up in New York City: it’s totally possible to see *a lot* in a single day, especially if you’re young. So take a leap of faith and trust yourself that you can have an amazing adventure even if you only have 1-2 days per destination. You may not be always successful and it might be too crazy of a pace, but the time crunch will generate that adrenaline rush so you can be more efficient with your time, see more than you ever think you would, and make you feel like you really did have an adventure when it’s all over.
Besides, even if you have a few days off, wouldn’t that be way more exciting than spending those days at home?
Have your cake and eat it too
The essence of “monsooning” is to treat the world like a buffet (yes, food and travel do go together!): take advantage of your youth now and use that hunger to sample as far as wide as possible as early as possible. That way you get a better idea of where to come back to when you’re older, whether it’s next month or in a few years.
This belief motivated me to see 65+ countries while never missing a class during my 4 years of medical school. I also returned to certain cities over and over in India and China during that same time because I knew in my heart a cursory 1-2 days was not enough: I got to have my cake and eat it too! And despite what everyone had told me, to this day I don’t regret “missing out” on anything
Don’t let others influence your trip too much
“Traveling is one of, if not the best, root cause of personal growth. That being said, make the most of it and don’t let other people’s opinions taint your experience. This includes things like persuading you to be more risk-averse, telling you what you should do when & where (because they always wanted to do it and thus need to live vicariously through you), and letting people keep you from having the mind-blowing, taste-bud exhilarating, eye-opening experiences that you are meant to have while on your trip.” – Annah Kim
Choose good banks & credit cards
Some credit, debit or ATM cards will charge insane fees if you use them overseas. Others will instead reward you with points if they’re used for travel. So research ahead on your bank’s travel fees. Charles Schwab Bank, for example, refunds all ATM fees internationally.
If you’re an American Express cardholder (American Express cards are generally known for being good for traveling), make sure you also have a travel-friendly Visa or a Mastercard as backup as not everywhere can accept an AMEX. I personally recommend a combination of an American Express card and a JP Morgan/Chase Sapphire Reserve card as excellent all-around travel cards. Credit and debit cards are also great ways to prevent from being scammed.
And “if you don’t meet the requirements for some of the credit cards with the no-exchange-rate travel perks- check out some of the account options with banks such as HSBC. I lived in Malaysia and went to India, Hong Kong, and other places without a SINGLE exchange fee. All on the lowest-ranked checking account at HSBC.” – Annah Kim
Call your banks and phone companies ahead
Call your banks ahead regarding your trip so they don’t lock out your cards when they suddenly see international charges posted to your account. Being locked out means having to call your banks from overseas = time & money wasted.
And don’t forget to also “call your phone company if you plan on using your phone.” – Stephanie Quan
“Make lists if you start getting nervous. Even if its a month ahead. You might forget something later, so just keep a running list of what to bring. It’ll ease the jitters.” – Stephanie Quan
Travel in a small group?
I say this as a question because I prefer to travel solo. However, I’ve recognized how it’s much cheaper to travel with a group of friends where you can split costs on cabs, food, and lodging.
If you’re going to choose to travel with friends, aim for groups in multiples of 4; cabs usually can only hold 4 people at a time, and lodging usually can go up to groups of 4 in a room. Any more and you might have to pay extra by hailing another cab or booking another room.
Sublet your living space
You can maximize funding for your trip by subletting your living space on Craigslist or to your friends. If you own your place, then you’re simply generating extra funding for your trip. That also means that if you budget wisely enough, you might actually still have a profit by the time you come back.
If you’re renting your place, then you’re simply negating your monthly rent costs by subletting, which should be a no-brainer. Anything to save money, right?
Look up programs, scholarships, etc.
Many schools have study abroad programs, which are self-explanatory. There are also national programs (like Peace Corps) that can issue travel stipends and scholarships in exchange for research, volunteer work, or foreign relation experiences. You just have to go look for them!
Harness crowdfunding via social media
A bunch of my fellow monsooners have utilized social media campaigns like Kickstarter and Youcaring.com to fund their travels abroad. Whether the campaign to travel is for humanitarian reasons or simply a way for them to fund a dream vacation, I find people have been more surprised than not at how much they end up getting (think in the order of over $2000, $3000 USD!).
You’ll find that your friends, loved ones — and even complete strangers — will be willing to donate a little bit to help you get to where you want to go. And every little bit can add up. So cast ego aside; you have NOTHING to lose (and you get to find out who your real, true friends are).
Learn and exploit a useful skill
“If you’re good at something, never do it for free.” – The Joker
So if you’re not good at saving, be good at something else: Learn or exploit useful skill you can use to make money *while* traveling. That includes bartending, waitering, writing, translating, dishwashing, photography, cooking, fixing computers, etc. I’ve gotten plenty of free lodging and food for taking professional photos of a hotel or restaurant, proofreading advertisements, bartending, referring friends, and even rebooting a computer. Eventually, it all adds up.
Don’t forget the small stuff
Research ahead on visa entry requirements for your passport so you don’t get screwed at passport control when you land.
And “don’t forget to bring photocopies of health insurance, passport photos, and your passport.” – Stephanie Quan
Learn the language
“hello”, “yes”, “no”, “thank you”, “sorry”, “excuse me”, “where is the…?” “bathroom”, “bar”, “water”, “goodbye” are all useful things to know in any language.
“I think the advice you gave me and led by in terms of stopping by a ‘tourist stand’ to just grab maps and learn those few basic phrases in a local dialect was super super helpful.” – Karen Wong
Take cold showers
Some countries are simply hit or miss when it comes to places having hot water. Instead of being unprepared for rude awakenings when you turn that dial, get yourself used to the feeling of a cold shower. It’s also good for your health.
Depending on where you’re going buy your flight tickets at a set time before departure
Time Magazine and ABC News have written articles about how flights are cheapest around 100 days before departure. Huffington Post says 54 days exactly for domestic flights. Quartz released a fascinating article how flying to certain regions of the world consistently becomes the cheapest at certain periods before departure. It doesn’t hurt to buy early.
Buy your flight tickets on Tuesday or Sunday nights
Traditionally that’s when most airlines reset their prices. So I tried it, and there is a noticeable trend. This isn’t an exact science, though.
Watch flights like how traders watch the stock market
I usually track flights I’m interested in on various websites for a few days to evaluate a trend of a “baseline” or “normal” price. If a flight drops dramatically (and most flights do!), that’s when I buy.
Don’t let airlines hustle you
I always search my flights in “incognito” mode on Chrome or Firefox so airlines are blocked from seeing my IP address. That way, I minimize the chance of airlines and flight services noticing your interest in their flights that would cause them to increase the price on you overnight (this actually has happened to me, many many times).
Find your “gateway cities”
Want to fly into Phnom Penh but the direct flight there is too expensive? Then fly into nearby Saigon for ~$400 USD cheaper and take the $10 bus across the border into Cambodia. The same goes for flying into Montevideo, Uruguay from NYC and taking the 2 hour, $15 ferry into Buenos Aires, Argentina for $700 cheaper than flying direct to Buenos Aires.
That way you’ll get to see more, still arrive at your intended destination, and save hundreds of dollars in the process.
Use more than one website to find cheap flight tickets
If you’re crunched on time or want a wild card price, search on Hipmunk and use their clever “sort by agony.” Mix and match and see what you find. Skiplagged is also an option in case you’re okay with the moral relativism of skipping out on a flight to save money, and doing only carry-on.
Credit Donkey has a comprehensive guide on this.
Beware of Chennai Airport
Their currency exchange amounts to such a scam, I’m calling them out specifically here: If you’re leaving India from Chennai International Airport, you should know that their currency exchange is notorious for charging you a 12% commission fee with factitiously uncompetitive exchange rates. They retain a monopoly on the currency there so don’t give them the satisfaction of stealing your money.
The Argentine Travel Hack Still Works
When you book online on an Argentinian airline (ie. LAN or Aerolineas Argentinas) and click on the flag that suggests you’re from Argentina, the airline company automatically will charge you a price that is sometimes more than 50% cheaper than the regular price for foreigners. More info here.
Are You To Type To Have Trouble Packing?
“A few helpful resources that might be useful to share with your traveling audience.
Airport Safety Tips” – Katie Stehno
Google Maps not working? Get a compass
Learn it. Use it. Love it.
Some immunizations don’t come cheap: Japanese B Encephalitis, the 3 rounds of Hepatitis B, the 2 rounds of Hepatitis A…they each come at a couple hundred dollars a shot. But while expensive they reduce your chances of getting sick on the road. This can save you time and money that otherwise would be wasted on “sick days.”
That is unless you think getting sick is an enjoyable part of traveling, you masochist, you.
Get a security belt (NOT a fanny pack!)
This is an example. It goes inside your pants and can carry your cash, your passport, etc. And I never let a security belt leave my body unless I was going to take a shower. Haven’t lost anything (*knock on wood*) since.
Hide the bulk of your cash in everywhere BUT your wallet, and tell nobody
If I told you where I usually hide my cash, that would spoil the whole point of this. You get the idea. (OK, the inside of your shoe is a good place to start)
Ditch luggage with wheels, don’t bother checking in anything at the airport (get a BACKPACK!)
2 backpacks: one for everything, the other for daytrips. One goes on your back (duh), the other (optionally) at your front.
Make sure each bag fits overhead size requirements so you minimize the need for checking in when boarding flights. That way you save more money on check-in fees and save more time by not having to wait at baggage claims when you land.
You can pack a lot and get it down to size; the trick is organizing into groups: toiletries, medkit, clothes, and technology, each of which can be separated neatly into 4 pouches.
Get the appropriate clothing, “appropriate” meaning many things
Choose clothing that won’t make you stand out (bright, gaudy colors) so that you won’t be targeted as a cash-cow tourist. Choose clothing that won’t offend the local culture (like too tight or or too revealing) so that you won’t get nasty stares everywhere you go. And choose clothing that’s comfortable to wear for long periods of time since the idea of backpacking is to spend more time out and less time indoors.
While comfortable when dry, cotton can get wet and stay wet for uncomfortably long periods of time. There are cheap types of clothing that are sweat-proof, wick away moisture, and dry very quickly without getting smelly. Take a look for more clothing advice: How to Choose Travel Clothing.
Understand the utility of a “scarf”
Whether it’s a krama, a keffiyeh or a light scarf, a sturdy piece of fabric can go a long way: having a scarf whether in warm or cold climates will keep you warm, can act as an emergency towel, and will guard against dust storms, pollution and bad smells.
Women: Wear a ring
We have to acknowledge this: There are men all around the world who are jerks and total pigs. But you can ward off those pesky lotharios by pretending you’re married and you’re about to meet your fake (or real!) husband.
Bring your Student ID
– Huge discounts up to 50%-75% remain available to anyone presenting a student ID at various attractions and/or museums around the world. Not a student anymore? Bring an expired student card; rarely anyone cares to check. And you got nothing to lose by bringing an extra piece of plastic.
Be an awesome guest
“Pack something small for kids and people you stay with. Like a nice card. Or some pretty pens. Something.” – Stephanie Quan
Packing is an analogy to life
“Remember that time I traveled and got sick because I wanted to pack light and disregarded a hair dryer? The reason to travel young is because you need to figure out how to edit yourself properly. it’s not about someone else’s list, someone else’s priorities, someone else’s judgments. it’s about you figuring out good sense, and being thorough and thoughtful.
You’ll be surprised to learn what you can live without and where your priorities are. If the first time around you pack too much, oh well; throw some sh*t away. If the second time around you pack too little, oh well; beg, borrow or buy. Packing is an analogy for traveling which is an analogy for life. Figure out what is important to you, why, and how far you will carry it.” – Go Yang Park.
Memorize your flight details in and out
Save time digging through folded papers or looking it up on your phone; spit out the info when asked and get your tickets quickly at the airport.
Check in the day before
Check into your flight online the day before (most airlines allow this now). And if you packed right and don’t have to check in a bag, you can walk straight to security with the ticket on your phone. With enough practice, you can get from any airport entrance to the gate within 10 minutes, crowds allowing.
Fly out on Memorial Day
In my experience, flights are cheapest and lines are shortest if you fly out on Memorial Day (US airports only).
Wear airport security-appropriate clothing
Sign up for TSA Precheck, place all your metal in your bag or an easily removable jacket so you can walk through without fuss, and untie your shoes while in line.
Despite a few close calls, we have yet to miss a flight simply because we’ve learned how to get in and through any airport security in less than 5 minutes. Knowing that you can save time at the security line allows you more time to explore a location before having to dash to the airport.
Research on the plane
If I’m not sleeping or watching a movie on the flight, I prefer reading up on the history of the country I’m heading to and planning out walking tours of the city I’m landing in.
So learn beforehand how to get into the city from the airport, what the cheapest mode of transportation is, and how to avoid scams when you disembark (Lonely Planet does a great job warning you what the scams are). Prior preparation on the flight will save you a lot of time when you’re on the ground.
Consider currency exchange/getting money at the airport
If you’re in a jam, I’ve found that the international airport’s exchange rates are generally competitive and reliable. However, this is NOT an exact rule as some airports will scam the crap out of you (examples have been Iran and Myanmar, both of which have a unusual currency situations), so do proper research beforehand.
If you have a good bank, consider an ATM withdrawal
I personally prefer to ATM withdrawals than any currency exchange as the banks I use are pretty honest and don’t charge me crazy fees. The obvious exceptions to this are countries without ATMs (like Myanmar), countries undergoing international sanctions (like Iran), or countries that won’t exchange back money taken out of an ATM (like Bangladesh). A good one is Charles Schwab, which will refund you any and all ATM fees — domestic or abroad — if you use their debit card to take out cash.
The best exchange rate is the trusted friend living/traveling inside the country
If you know a trusted person living inside the country who is willing to give you a more favorable currency exchange rate than what’s listed, that’s your best option at saving money. Otherwise, that person isn’t and shouldn’t be your friend.
Beware of unusual currency exchange rules in some countries
When it comes to places like Bangladesh or India, their national currencies become worthless when you take it outside their borders. This means you can’t exchange your foreign money back to useable home currency unless you travel back to that country again. Therefore when exchanging money in those countries, make sure you take out just enough so you can spend it all before leaving.
But if you find that you might leave the country with too much extra foreign cash that would be unexchangeable back home, remember to hold on to your currency exchange receipts so you don’t get screwed like I almost did in Bangladesh. Some airports will refuse to take back their own currency for US Dollars/Euros/whatever unless you present a receipt that shows the initial currency exchange.
Avoid the “Welcome to my country” scams
You might get hounded the moment you step into arrivals; disembarking tourists are usually tired, jet-lagged, hungry and therefore perceived as the most vulnerable to getting scammed. Whether it’s someone graciously offering a taxi or a tour service, take it with a grain of salt no matter how tired you feel. Chances are they’re too good to be true and you’re going to get scammed either way.
A good way to avoid this and save you stress is to arrange an airport pick-up from wherever you’re staying. Most guesthouses and hostels offer this service for a nominal fee.
If the cab isn’t metered, agree on a price before getting in
Agree on a price before entering ANY vehicle, because if you don’t and there isn’t a meter to tell you what you owe, your driver is able to make up any price he/she wants once you get to your destination.
Be firm on your destination
Many cabs waiting outside train stations, bus depots or airports will be working with local hotels for extra commission. That means while in transit, your driver may try to convince you that the guesthouse or hotel you want to go to has “gone out of business” or “burned down last night” and will try to redirect you to another place to stay. Don’t believe a word of what they say and tell them that you just called and confirmed with the hotel/guesthouse 10 minutes ago (even if you didn’t) before stepping into the cab.
Some might even try to sell you tickets to an attraction (like our experience in almost being scammed in buying Machu Picchu tickets), to which you should flatly deny because there’s a chance these tickets might be fake.
Be wary of con artists
There have been times where folks will offer to carry my bags saying that they work for the hotel or bus company where in reality they’re just random people on the street looking to make an extra buck off of you. Another stranger — a young boy even — might come with an offer of a “free tour” around the city saying that they work for an official tourist hotel or that they’re doing a summer internship for a tour company. Unless you don’t mind being the new philanthropist in town, refuse these potential scams and confirm with people at the hotel/bus/tour company if these people are who they say they are.
The world is safer than you think
I felt more at ease in places like North Korea or Iran than I ever did in the Brooklyn neighborhoods surrounding my medical school. You’d be surprised at how safe the world is as long as you stay mostly sober and not call too much attention to yourself. Besides, the point of travel is to judge for yourself instead of believing what other people tell you.
Take advantage of your 6 degrees of separation
Do a search among your friends on Facebook or LinkedIn (which is more reliable on people updating their current locations) to wherever you’re going and you might know somebody who knows somebody who will let you crash for free at their place. Other apps include Couchsurfing, Foursquare/Swarm and Yelp.
An amazing, unforgettable example is what happened to us when we arrived in Yogyakarta: A Sunrise at the End of the World.
Don’t have friends?
Stay in hostels or guesthouses close to all the action
Save time and money by staying in places near to where most of the sightseeing will take place. So if you picked a place over another because of the price, check if the costs of public transportation and taxis to/from to wherever you want to go will negate that price advantage.
Finally, check how long it’ll take to go back and forth between places, because sometimes long transit times might not be worth the couple of dollars you’ll be saving.
Beware of the “Lonely Planet effect”
There is a danger with relying too heavily on Lonely Planet for a place to stay. The guide is now so influential and universally known that some establishments get a little lazy on their accountability after a good review. There have been more than a few times where I would book a place based what I read in Lonely Planet only to find it sorely in disrepair.
Take advantage of your youth
So what if your flight was a redeye? Don’t waste time and tap into your youthful energy reserves: the moment you drop off your bags at wherever you’re staying, go out and explore. Tire yourself out to such a point that when you’re done, you can sleep and readjust your circadian rhythm more quickly. And then the next morning you can hit the ground running (literally) without having to waste time acclimating to the area.
Learn how to read a map
Remember the compass I told you to get? It’ll teach you how to read a map if you haven’t learned how yet. Whip that compass out, see where north is, and realign your map’s North with the compass’ North. Now you’ve oriented yourself. The streets and landmarks will come together very nicely after that. Knowing how to read maps will save you a lot time.
If you’re really hopeless with maps…
There’s Google Maps.
Be open to getting lost
That said, there’s nothing wrong with putting away the map, ignoring your fears and resigning yourself into the unknown. You’d be surprised how much you’ll find by being lost.
“As soon as you check-in to wherever you’re staying (assuming it’s a reasonable hour), no matter how tired you are…grab a map….then get lost on purpose. Find your way back home. I find doing this orients you to your surroundings quite well. Plus, it’s a hell of a lot of fun.” – Edward
Don’t take pictures of everything
Unless you have short-term memory loss, there’s a huge difference between seeing things through a camera lens versus seeing things through your own eyes. Many travelers forget to stop and take a deep breath before going for the shutter. So enjoy the moment: You are not your camera.
Don’t take your chances with tap water
A rule I picked up while backpacking in any country: the cheaper the bottled water, the more undrinkable the tap water. So don’t take chances and buy bottled water over drinking the tap. But if you want to be environmentally friendly and go plastic free, then you can buy that fancy UV filter/water purifier.
Minimize air travel; Maximize overland travel
There’s no better way to save money than to avoid airfares as much as you can. By hopping around city to city via overland buses or trains can save you upwards of thousands of dollars a week. And you’ll see so much more outside your windows and you’ll meet so many more fellow backpackers.
Kill 2 birds with 1 stone: Maximize overnight travel
When people complain that overland travel takes too much time, my response is to simply do overnight travel. Everybody needs to to sleep, right? Instead of spending money on BOTH travel and lodging, kill two birds with one stone by sleeping *while* on your way to your destination; that way you save money on transportation, you save money on lodging, and you save time overall by doing 2 things at once.
By the time you wake up, it’s 6am in a new city (or country) and you’re refreshed enough to hit the ground running.
Create your own personal couch surfing network (MAKE FRIENDS)
Make friends with fellow travelers! You never know when that friend will be hosting you the next time you pass through their country: A fellow backpacker I met in Peru ended up hosting me at her home in Dubai 4 months later. A girl I met in Mysore ended up being my tour guide in Barcelona about a year later. 2 girls that I struck a conversation with in Nepal ended up traveling with me for 3 weeks in India. 2 schoolteachers I met in Hampi ended up traveling with me to Goa. So swallow that pride, ignore middle-school awkwardness, and strike up a conversation with that fellow traveler next to you.
“If you pick a hostel, make friends. you never know where they’re going next and what connections they might have. I made a friend in Burma that I met up with again in Thailand.” – Stephanie Quan
Consider traveling alone
See above. Befriending and linking up with other travelers is easier to do when you’re traveling alone.
Learn the local language
It goes a long way when the locals know you’re making an effort to know them, their language, and their country beyond just seeing things. You personally can get many freebies and discounts on souvenirs, lodging, and services simply by speaking to/haggling with them in the local language.
It’s more universal than speaking English. You’d be surprised how a simple, genuine smile can cross language barriers and get you out of most kinds of trouble. And you might be surprised how hard it is to force a smile, especially when stressed, so practice.
Don’t let double standards inhibit you
Although there are risks and inconveniences involved being a woman traveling alone, some of these perceptions can be overblown. You’d be surprised how people won’t mess with you if you can wear that confidence comfortably, which can be picked up and learned with more experience. And you have to start somewhere, right?
Believe it or not, most solo travelers I’ve met — whether it’s Western Europe, India, or the Middle East — have been young, confident women just as capable as any other solo male traveler. Don’t believe me? Look at the people we’ve met on our Friends and Contributors.
The general rule is that if you’re not in a first world country, every price is negotiable. Feign a lack of interest, be firm and persistent, and don’t hold back. Haggling is a test of willpower and to them, it’s all a game. One strategy is to pretend that you’ve done the activity before or lived here for a long time so you know what the “local” price is. You can also learn to use a few phrases of bargaining in the local language (“how much?” “that’s too much!” “can you go lower?”) which goes a long way. However, don’t go overboard; that extra 10 cents isn’t worth the respect you will lose when you start getting too obsessed with saving.
Pretend your a travel guide writer
“I was treated extra nice at this restaurant because as I was eating, I had my notebook out and it looked like I was taking notes on their food for a travel guide.” – Anonymous.
Ditch the technology
– Unless you blog like I do, leave the computer and cell phone behind. It may be cause a bit of separation anxiety at first, especially when you’re traveling alone, but you’ll eventually appreciate being away from it all when you forego anything that connects you to life back home. You’re on vacation, remember? So act like you are!
Caught in a monsoon/tropical storm?
When we came up with the title of the blog, we were expecting to get wet sooner or later in our travels. Thanks to fellow monsooner Erick Capulong, we learned that US Marines have their soaked, wet boots dry faster by stuffing crumpled newspapers in them.
(and when I facetiously asked why the US Navy didn’t encourage their marines just to “deal with it”, making them tougher soldiers, Erick replied with “‘cuz you can get blisters with wet boots and that’ll make you combat ineffective.” Oo-rah!)
If you haven’t done it yet, do it. Do it all. Say YES.
You’ve gone this far. And you’ll probably never have another chance to be this close to a particular foreign country and try something different. Whether it’s cliff diving, paragliding, eating something out of this world, trekking down to see remote waterfalls, doing a night safari, don’t be so judgmental and just do it . . . remember, people usually only regret the things they didn’t do instead of the things they’ve done.
Pursue spontaneity, believe in serendipity, and trust the unknown. Say YES
Otherwise, I wouldn’t have met 80% of our Friends and Contributors.
One of the most valuable things I’ve ever learned while traveling is to never place your idea of right and wrong onto other people: How would you feel if someone came to your doorstep and judged you or your culture for being different? Nobody put anybody in charge and made them the supreme master of the universe.
So maintain an open mind and remember that nobody is perfect. The humility you’ll gain from this will be worth more than the satisfaction of trying to prove that you know better. Because nobody really does know any better. That’s what traveling is all about in the first place.
Have more questions? Contact us! But before you send that e-mail…
• Yes, we read every single e-mail!
• Yes, we consider all advice given!
• Yes, if you’re in the area, we’d love to meet up with you!
• Yes, if you want to tag along, let us know!
• “How much does this trip cost us”: Our perpetual goal is to make sure that all of our trips — travel, flights, and lodging expenses included — will cost significantly less than it would be to live in any urban American city in the same amount of time.
• No, we do not want your spam.
• No, we won’t have time to feed your pet dog or find your long lost uncle when we’re in your homeland.
That said, go ahead and contact! But to prove you’re human, you have to replace the [bracketed] words with the appropriate punctuation:
Looking forward to your e-mails!
Topic specific posts:
- Border Crossing
- Doctor in the House
- Fit for Foodies
- Getting that VISA
- How Did You Do That?
- How’s the weather?
- Lessons Learned
- Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems
- Pre-travel Preparations
- Public Transportation
- Rules Are Meant To Be Broken
- The Nightlife
- Travel Warnings
- Walking Tours
- What to Pack
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