13 Travel and Life Lessons Learned While Gallivanting Around the World

Posted on /by Natalie Sisson/ in Business Travel / 28 comments
Parked Plane

After traveling to 45 countries (some of those several times), I figure I’ve learned some valuable lessons that I’d like to share with you.

It’s a special time to reflect on this because in exactly one month from today, I am heading home to New Zealand for the first time in 5 and a half years! I really can’t wait to see how things have changed and what’s stayed the same. I’m looking forward to seeing my parents for the first time in 3 years (last time was London and Vancouver). I was lucky enough to see my sister in Canada in 2009 and again in Buenos Aires this year, but now she’s getting married in March 2012, so I can’t wait to be there for that special occasion.

It’s also bringing up some natural concerns around how I’ll like it. Will I find it too small after all this big city living and travel to exotic destinations? How will I adjust to having a somewhat permanent base for close to 6 months? Can I finally unpack the red suitcase?

Or will I tap into the thriving entrepreneurial community there and enjoy being back in paradise and never want to leave? The opportunities are endless and thanks to a friend, I already have my first New Zealand social media client!

In the meantime, here are some random, fun tips from one intrepid traveler to another. I hope you enjoy.

Always have a book with you

Even if you love your Kindle, iPad or listen to audio books these days, nothing beats the real thing. When you’re standing in a customs line for over 30 minutes, where you’re not allowed to use your phone or any electronics, you’ll be thankful for something to great to read. It’s also a talking point at customs.

Treat the service staff well

You just never know when they may help you out or make your day (or break it). I’m talking airports, train stations and bus and ferry terminals. On my recent flight back from Buenos Aires, with a stop-over in Houston, I left my book in my trolley but because I’d made a point of thanking the guy for stacking the trolleys, he somehow remembered me – and my bright green jacket – and returned it to me as I was going through security!

Buddhist Monk in Thailand

Don’t panic

If you miss your flight, train, bus or boat, you can always book and catch another. Even though it may be costly, it’s not the end of the world. For example, if you’re in the security line at customs at 7:15pm and waiting in a line, but your flight is leaving at 7:50pm like mine was, don’t panic. Once your bags are on that flight, they cannot leave without you. Worrying doesn’t speed things up either!

Refresh yourself

This may sound really obvious, but the one major ingredient to enjoying travel is staying well hydrated no matter what. If you have a plastic bottle or Nalgene with you at all times there are almost always water fountains to fill it up at. This means less waste of buying expensive and unnecessary bottled water, and one clear headed, refreshed you. Dying of thirst does not a happy traveller make.

Pack snacks

Sitting on any form of transport for hours on end knowing that you have no access to food or snacks is really unpleasant. So always take snacks – things like nuts and protein bars are great because they take up hardly any space in your luggage and satisfy your hunger cravings. Stay away from fruit though, when that squishes in your bag it’s not cool. Plus, in some countries (like New Zealand), it’s illegal to arrive with fresh produce and will cost you a hefty fee.

Don’t push your luck

Don’t mess with security ever. Being a cheeky smart ass is not cool either. Back in 2004, I was lining up to check in at the Sydney Airport, when a friendly security man asked if he could check my bag. I said “No problem” and he pulled out his swab wand.

Me (even though I knew the answer): “Mind if I ask you what you’re checking for?”
Him: “Explosives, ma’am”
Me: “Oh, no need to check my bag, I have them strapped right here”- I said as I patted my chest with pride.
Him: “That’s a federal offense, ma’am. I could have you arrested right here.”
Me: “Oh.”

Be prepared at customs

It never ceases to amaze me that people still bring large bottles of cream, liquids, water and sharp objects on as hand luggage. I’ve seen luxury creams binned, brand new bottles of perfume and expensive bottles of wine gone to waste. Always double check what you’re taking on with you. My mum once had a metal nail file mailed home to her! Normally they just throw them out.

Special Tip: Watch out for plastic hairbrushes that flip open and have that handy mirror on them – apparently these look like switch blades in an x-ray machine and will cause you to get your bag checked by an anal and aggressive customs person… yes, that really happened.

Always adapt

Your first purchase for any trip should be a multi-plug adapter so you can plug in and recharge in any country. There’s nothing like dead laptops, cameras and videos to ruin a trip. You just never know when you’ll need to whip out the camera to catch an amazing moment.

Party like the locals

While local festivals and parties are often the best thing to be around for, if you’re planning trips to a country during a major one, you’re likely to enjoy hefty travel prices and sold out accommodation that can really put a damper on your trip. So always check their calendar for National Holidays. For example, February and March in Brazil is crazy because of Carnival, and prices go up dramatically.

The crowded beach of Rio de Janeiro
The crowded Copacabana beach of Rio de Janeiro

Check your currency

When you arrive in a new destination, it’s always wise to have some local currency on you. Aim to exchange it in advance, not at the airport since they don’t have the best rates. Check XE.com – the world’s favourite currency converter – first for the most up-to-date rates. If you can’t, at least have some form of major currency on you to exchange (don’t rely on credit or debit cards working). The US dollar is not as widely accepted as Americans like to think. Your best bet is actually Euros.

Watch those hidden costs

Don’t rely on credit cards, many countries don’t accept them, only cash. Plus, ATMs can be few and far between. I dealt with this in Argentina, Thailand, Laos and Peru. Always ask your bank before you travel about withdrawal fees from other ATMs in international countries. For many, you get charged a small (or large fee) upfront and then again from your bank. Ask for any sister banks they may partner with in the destination you’re heading to – this can save you lots in fees.

Budget travel can be expensive

While I highly recommend using sites such as Priceline for great deals across the US on flights hotels and cars (recently hired a car for a week for $12 per day!), beware the hidden costs of those flights. The same applies to Skyscanner.net, one of my fave sites for European and international travel. Often, your cheap flight will have 1-2 extra stops and turn a 6 hour trip into a 15 hour one. That extra time alone is often worth the extra cost on a direct flight. Also budget airlines make you pay for all bags, food and drink, headphones and often movies! Take this into account.

Speak the local language

Travel gets a whole lot more fun when you at least know how to say “hello” and “thank you” in the native tongue. However, it goes way beyond that. Don’t be that ignorant traveler who knows nothing of the language, customs, rituals and etiquette in the country. For example, in Japan, eating while walking down the street is considered bad manners, as is pointing with your chopsticks. In other countries, not leaving a small portion of food on your plate is frowned upon. Entering temples and holy places like in Cambodia and Bali, you need your shoulders and knees should be covered. Respecting these traditions goes you a long way towards making friends and getting to know the hidden local gems.

Buddhist Monk in Thailand
Buddhist Monk in Thailand snaps a tourist

There’s so many more, and I’ll make sure to cover them in some upcoming posts. Also check out my Top Travel Tools page for more useful information.

I’d love to know your best travel story. Leave it in the comments below so we can all learn from or laugh about it.