Seven years ago I quit my job and went on my first backpacking trip to South America. This post is a compilation of everything I’ve learned in the last seven years and what I WISH someone would have told me before my first trip. While nothing can really prepare you for the adventure that awaits, I hope this list finds you well.
Cheers to you and a lifetime of adventures. xo
This post is sponsored by Worldpackers and may contain affiliate links. If you use my links, I get a small percentage without costing you a thing. Thank you for using my links and supporting my blog! xoxo
1. You don’t need much money. Hitchhike, couch surf, or do a work exchange to extend your trip and learn the local language.
If you’re not currently loaded – no worries, I traveled on about $25/day in South and Central America with the help of work exchanges, couch surf, and hitchhiking – don’t let that minor inconvenience stop you.
I highly recommend doing a work exchange for 2 weeks to a month. For those of you who aren’t familiar, work exchange is volunteering for about 20(ish) hours a week in exchange for housing and meals. Jobs range from working at a hostel, teaching yoga, Work exchange is perfect for the start of a trip. You can apply for work exchange opportunities using Worldpackers.
Worldpackers offers thousands of volunteer positions for you to collaborate, learn, and get immersed in the local culture in more than 140 countries. I also love Worldpackers because if you ever need to end a volunteer experience early, their support team will help you to find a new host to continue your trip and can reimburse you for up to three nights of accommodation. After receiving your first positive review on Worldpackers, you can take part in Workpackers’ Programs and earn a little money so you can travel even more!!
Click here for 12 ways to travel for free.
2. Get a travel-friendly debit and credit card.
Bank fees are the devil. Get a Charles Schwab debit card. No, this is not sponsored. I wish I would have done this sooner in my travels. While not having international fees is delightful, my favorite thing about Charles Schwab is their customer service. When I left my debit card in an ATM in Mexico, I called Charles and they express shipped me a new card in less than a week, no questions asked. The day I received my new card in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, I fell in love with Charles even more.
If you’re reading this, apply for a travel credit card. Put all of your major purchases on your travel credit cards. Then, use your points for discounted flights, hotel rooms, and more. Credit card members often have perks like hanging out in those boujee airport lounges. A dream, am I right?
For advice on which cards to apply for and more on the art of travel hacking, click here.
3. It’s okay not to have a plan. Better yet, not having a plan will make your trip even better.
I recommend making a bucket list of things you’d like to see and do. A list of cities, activities, and sites that you can’t leave your trip without see (ex: Machu Picchu, Salt Flats in Bolivia, etc.). For safety reasons, book your first hostel or work exchange before you leave home. After that, you can book and plan as you go.
Here are some apps and helpful resources for trip planning:
- Housing: Hostelworld, Couchsurf, Airbnb, and Booking.com
- Navigation: Mapsme App,
- Transportation: Uber (it’s SO affordable in other countries)
- Trip planning: Tripscout
Click here for travel apps to download before your trip.
4. Haggle everything: hostel rates, produce at the market, on Airbnb – almost everything is negotiable.
This is something that took me a while to figure out. While I recommend using Hostelworld and booking websites, it’s often cheaper to pay off the apps and negotiate in person. For example, you can negotiate a monthly rate on Airbnb by messaging the host or in-person at the hostel. I recommend doing this especially if it’s low season.
5. Get a taxi from OUTSIDE the airport + negotiate a price before getting into the taxi.
If you walk across the street, oftentimes taxis are half the price. Always google “how much are taxi’s from the airport,” so you have an idea what price they are supposed to be. In a lot of countries, taxis are not metered and you must negotiate a price before getting in the taxi or the driver will give you an insane arbitrary price at the end.
6. Unlock your phone. Get a SIM Card.
For safety, it’s always a good idea to have phone data while traveling. You don’t need to keep your phone plan from back home. I have a prepaid T-Mobile plan in the states that I can reboot every time I go back. Once you arrive in a new country, switch out your US SIM card for a local SIM. You can get local SIM cards at the airport, convenience stores, or phone stores depending on the country. They are relatively inexpensive and 100% worth it.
Make sure your phone is unlocked BEFORE your trip. You must pay off your phone balance and work with your carrier to unlock the phone. It’s a bit of a process, so don’t leave it until the last minute!
7. Take your time. If you fall in love with a place, stay for a while.
Don’t feel pressured to see everything, because well, it’s not possible. You will get burnt out if travel too fast. Have an open schedule and be open to staying for a month in one city if you love it.
8. Lean on locals for recommendations.
Do not listen to bloggers who come to a city for a long weekend and try to give you “the inside scoop.” Go to the hole-in-the-wall spots away from tourist traps. Ask the hostel or hotel staff for recommendations, strike up a conversation at the coffee shop, or research relevant hashtags on Instagram for the best local spots.
Hot tip: I’ve found the best way to meet locals is using Tinder. Yes, I know it’s a dating app. Beware of gorgeous foreign men and women, do NOT fall in love! It’s a trap. *lol*
9. Rely heavy on your “resting b*tch face.”
Something my mother taught me from a young age: if you look like you’re going to murder someone or you’re in a hurry to get somewhere, people will usually not f*ck with you. The moments when you are completely lost and panicked, pretend like you’re on a mission to meet your BFF Betty for a cocktail. Duck into a convenience store to check your navigation apps, get your surroundings, then proceed. Do not use your phone in crowded, touristy spots.
10. Do not take pictures of people without their consent.
Abroad or not, do NOT take pictures of children EVER. I made this mistake early in my travels and later regretted it. I know it’s tempting to post everything about your travels, but it’s disrespectful and can be unsafe for the child. Do not take a picture of adults without their consent. I will also go a step further and recommend asking to take videos of restaurants or shops beforehand. People usually say yes and appreciate the gesture.
If you’re teaching children in another country and want to post pictures of your experience, consider blurring out or placing stickers over the kids’ faces.
11. The police are not always your friend.
In some countries, police are notorious for taking bribes and stealing your things. When in doubt, don’t carry your passport or anything valuable on you (especially at night). It’s often safer to play the “I don’t speak the local language” card and act like a dumb American tourist. Don’t trust officials just because they have a badge. Be cautious and smart. The less you have to deal with local officials, the better.
In some countries (like Egypt), it’s illegal to take photos of police, military personnel, and government buildings. Again, be cautious and avoid interactions.
12. Everything is figure-out-able.
Lots and lots of things can and will go wrong. If you’re expecting your trip to be as curated as a travel influencer’s Instagram feed, it’s not going to happen. The cool travel influencers that you’re creeping on forgot to include missed flights, sleepless nights of traveler’s diarrhea, and drunk crying episodes from being homesick.
Listen, shit happens. Somethings you’ll tell everyone for a laugh, other things you might never tell a soul because it’s that embarrassing. Good news: just about everything is figure-out-able. (note: I didn’t make up that nifty phrase, it’s a title of a book – so, it must be true.)
13. Be careful with hand gestures.
In Greece giving a thumbs up is equivalent to the middle finger. In some Asian countries, it’s rude to accept items with one hand or your left hand. In Vietnam crossing your fingers symbolizes female genitalia. Before traveling, research cultural norms (especially in Asia!!).
14. In some countries it’s rude to tip. Always carry cash to tip.
In Japan it can be seen as offensive to tip. Other countries like Egypt, it’s customary to tip for just about everything. In the USA, it’s normal to tip 20%+. Research beforehand the tipping culture and always carry small bills with you to tip.
15. Be prepared to represent your country.
No matter how patriotic you might be, you represent your country abroad. Some people might be meeting an American for the first time. Be kind, respectful, and keep in mind that you are a guest.
16. A country’s laws, actions, and beliefs do not reflect individual citizen’s viewpoints
For example, Egypt’s laws are extremely conservative and it’s illegal to be gay. But, I was welcomed with open arms and made a lot of Egyptian friends who were accepting.
17. Don’t listen to other traveler’s opinions about a country.
A country that is special to you might be someone else’s least favorite country. Form your own opinion. Don’t skip a country or city because of the opinions of others. Some people told me that I should skip Madrid because there’s nothing to do. *lies* Other people told me it’s their favorite city in the world.
18. Bring a journal and take “too many” photos
You will never say the words, “I should have taken less photos.” Looking back, you will wish you would have taken more. Bring a journal and write it in every day, even if it’s just a few notes about what you did that day.
19. Scan all your documents and make sure someone has access to all of your scanned docs.
Scan your passport and all of your important documents. Travel with at least 3 (colored) copies of your passport. Give a copy of your passport and important docs/card details to your mother.
20. When in doubt, throw your used toliet paper in the trash bin.
Many countries do not have the plumbing systems to handle tissue paper. It’s quite common to throw used tissue paper in the trash bin. Keep this in mind ESPECIALLY if you are staying with host family, you do not want to be the clogger of toilets.
21. Always travel with: baby wipes, comfy shoes, and something that makes you feel pretty.
Don’t overpack. But, I know you will. I do too. You will end up getting rid of half of your things along your trip. It’s okay, it happens to me every time.
Things to pack: baby wipes, comfy shoes, and something cute. Baby wipes could save your life (or bum) in a pinch.
22. Pack your favorite face wash and shampoo. It might be hard to find in other countries.
This one’s for my acne prone sisters. Bring your favorite face wash, I know you have one. Some countries I could only find apricot scrub and I wanted to cry. I don’t know how people survive without $30 face wash. *lol*
If you have textured/curly hair and have a shampoo or hair gel you cannot live without, bring it. You probably won’t find it abroad.
23. Keep up your routines.
Humans are creatures of habit. Routine and some form of consistency will keep you healthy during your trip. Bring a yoga mat if stretching or meditation is a part of your everyday life. I love taking dance classes and going to the gym, so when I’m traveling I try to keep those practices for my mental health.
24. Take care of your mental health.
Thank god for telehealth. Therapy is accessible more than ever before. You can now have a therapy session from your hostel room bed or (I prefer) a quiet park nearby. Continue talk therapy, medication, etc. while you’re traveling.
For mental health resources for LGBTQ+ digital nomads, click here.
25. Trust your intuition.
Trust your gut about people and situations. If something feels off, trust it.
26. Always lock up your stuff. Don’t forget to pack a lock.
Whether you’re in an Airbnb or a hostel, lock up your valuables. Most hostels will not supply a lock, so pack a few with you. One for your backpack and one for the hostel locker.
27. Not all hostels are the same. Beware of party hostels.
Hostels are a wonderful way to save money and meet other travelers. I’ve stayed at tens and tens of hostels, some amazing, others not-so-great. Some hostels are “party hostels” with bars. Beware: if you book a party hostel, bring ear plugs. People will be partying until 5am. I usually look for “digital nomad” hostels or chill hostels where I can work and relax. Always read reviews to find a hostel that is your vibe.
28. Come up with a budget for your trip and try to stick to it.
$50/day is standard for a budget traveler budget. I usually budget anywhere between $500-$1500/month depending on the country. Keep an emergency fund of $500-$1000 for emergencies or a cushion for when you get home from your trip.
29. Want to travel with a drone, nice camera, laptop, etc.? You can insure your things.
Renter’s insurance will cover your things while traveling. I’m insured under Geico (only covers theft), my plan is at around $75/year. I only recommend this if you are traveling with a lot of expensive gear.
30. Healthcare in other countries is affordable and often free. But, travel insurance is always a good idea.
Travel insurance is a MUST! I learned this lesson while traveling in Madrid, Spain with an ear infection. Healthcare is free for citizens, but for tourists, it’s around 300-400 euros to go to the hospital. If you are a digital nomad, I recommend and use Safety Wing. Safety Wing was able to provide me with a list of doctors and reimburse all charges.
If you’re traveling for less than 6 months, I recommend World Nomads Insurance. They are a little more pricey but highly recommended by travelers.
31. Some countries do not allow one-way tickets. You can book another flight with Expedia and cancel it within 24 hours with no charge.
I’ve had to buy a “fake” return ticket dozens of times. I almost couldn’t get into Costa Rica because I didn’t have a plane or bus ticket out. Search whether the country you are going to requires a return ticket. You can buy one just in case on Expedia and cancel it within 24 hours for no charge.
32. Some countries require visas, some visas you have to apply beforehand, others you can get a visa upon arrival. Research beforehand.
Americans must apply for a visa to Brazil beforehand and pay a fee. Other countries like Egypt and Bolivia require a ($$-$$$) visa that you can purchase upon arrival. Research beforehand!
More helpful resources for your first trip:
- 12 Ways to Travel for Free
- Packing List for Solo Travelers
- How to Quit Your Job and Travel (Step by Step)
- How to Conquer Your Fear of Traveling Alone
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