The first thing I do once I have a destination in mind is to check out the visa requirements using the website for British citizens: FCO travel advice. (Each country has their own respective websites for their citizens.)
The FCO site also gives key information such as how many months are needed on my passport in order to enter the country.
Tip: ensure you know when your passport expires. My advice is to renew your passport nine months earlier than its expiration date- the extra months are then added on to your new passport. (Well they are in the UK anyway).
The FCO site also informs me of any no go zones. It has a map and areas which are red are ‘areas which the government advise against all travel’.
I ensure that I avoid these areas:
a.) for my personal safety
b.) because my travel insurance is very unlikely to cover me should anything go wrong.
I check this site before booking my flights, and keep an eye on it until the day I embark on my trip, and sometimes during my trip too, particularly if it’s in or near a conflict zone or area of natural disaster.
I check any health requirements using fit for travel. I find this website easy to use- it has a list of destinations and gives clear and comprehensive guidance as to which vaccines you may need before travel in different seasons and areas.
Tip: if you are entering a malaria zone get malaria tablets before you go. I made the mistake of needing extra tablets in South America and getting them there was a lot more difficult than I had anticipated. It involved hysterical crying to a Brazilian doctor who seemed alarmed that I needed a load of tablets which they prescribed for STDs. Turns out Doxycycline has a few purposes…
A lot of countries will only have the tablets which have more side effects, and not the preferred malarone tablets which has few side effects but is more expensive.
I usually find out which airlines operate between my country and my destination of choice using Skyscanner, but I then go to the airline’s website directly to make my final booking. Why? I usually find a wider variety of times, plus it is often slightly cheaper.
Even if it is a little more expensive I prefer to book with the airline directly as there’s less chance of the company going bust. I’ve heard many horror stories of travel companies going bankrupt and people losing thousands of pounds/dollars/whatever currency you use. Also if the flight is overbooked, the airline tend to prioritize those who bought flights directly from them and shunt the others off the aircraft.
Arriving jet lagged and then searching for a hostel or hotel isn’t my idea of fun. After a flight I usually need one thing- sleep!
Of course you may want to book your whole trip. That’s fine if you’re going away for a long weekend or a week, maybe even two. But for a longer trip I really wouldn’t recommend doing this. You don’t want to stick rigidly to a schedule as you will undoubtedly miss out on opportunities that crop up. Book a few nights and take it from there when you arrive…
Oh and print off the name, address and a map of your hostel/hostel, give one to relatives and keep one in your hand luggage/handbag.
There’s no point in taking two bottles of factor 50 sun lotion if its grey, freezing and cloudy…
I research the climate of my destination during the month I’m going in. That enables me to pack appropriately!
…you get the point
I check the currency exchange rates so that I can plan how much to take with me. Of course these fluctuate so keep an eye on them.
Tip: I also make sure I know what key amounts such as £1, £5 and £10 are in the new currency so I’m not ripped off or confused when I arrive at my destination. I make a note of such conversions in a notebook.
I will also research standard amounts in the new currency and ensure I can instantly work out what they convert to.
If the destination has a different language to English I start to learn and practice a few key basic words and phrases. Hello, thank you etc.
The lonely planet phrase books are fab and you can pick them up on their website, in most major bookstores or on Amazon. When I was in Mexico last year and South America in 2013 I took this phrase book and this one with me. I honestly found them so helpful, plus their dinky size meant they fit into my handbag easily so I could take them on buses and in restaurants.
They include useful day to day phrases such as getting buses or ordering from menus, and have the words spelt phonetically too to help you pronounce the words.
I’m a bit unusual in that I don’t like to do too much research on a place before I visit. I certainly don’t like looking at photos of key attractions. I never have. I prefer the element of surprise, something that’s increasingly harder to find in today’s society. I really wish I could be a traveller in the sixties/seventies when people were truly exploring new destinations.
However, sometimes you simply need practical advice such as how to get from one place to another, when and where to get the local bus or train etc, and so some useful resources include:
Lonely planet travel guides. In my opinion the best guides as they are so clearly set out with practical advice such as information on how to get there whether by land, sea or air.
However, make sure you have the latest copy, but even if you do- prices and places can become out of date very quickly. Take hotel and restaurant recommendations with a pinch of salt- as soon as these places are mentioned in the guide they lose their authenticity and inflate their prices. Best to wander the streets when you get there and find your own spots!
Travel blogs. Typing in ‘name of destination travel blog’ into google and you’re likely to be bombarded with travel blogs- some much more comprehensive than others. If you find a travel blogger who is similar in their method and budget of travel to you you’re likely to pick up some tips!
Hippie in heels for information about India.
Goats on the road for information about the Yucatan peninsular in Mexico.
Nomadic Matt for budget travel.
But the best sources are the people who are living in the places. As soon as you get to your hostel or hotel or Air BnB ask questions. I guarantee that in five minutes you will get more useful information than you would in five days of internet research.
If you can’t afford decent travel insurance then you can’t afford to travel. Sorry. You really never know what is going to happen.
I’ve been fortunate enough that I’ve never yet needed to make a medical claim, but I have had to make two claims in the past- one when my rucksack was stolen on a bus in Ecuador and I lost all of my clothes, and once in the Cook Islands when my hostel got burned and then looted, and everything, including my passport had to be replaced, and flights had to be rebooked.
I always recommend getting a specific backpacker insurance policy such as this one by World Nomads. Specific backpacker insurance policies are usually more expensive however, they usually cover more activities than a standard policy, and also often are more flexible for those ‘on the road’ with claiming online, and extending your trip etc.
However, before any activities you do check that your insurance covers you. For example, when I did the Inca trail because of the altitude I was climbing, my insurance policy didn’t cover me and I had to take out a specialist one for that trek. Was it worth it? Yes because if I did have a problem and a rescue helicopter was needed, a normal insurance would not have covered that cost, and I don’t have ten of thousands of dollars to spend. Activities such as white water rafting ,and diving in certain places and depths are also sometimes not fully covered. So check your policy carefully!
2. Have a few different bank cards/credit cards and keep them in different places. Even if you get a new one and don’t activate it yet- you have it in the event of an emergency but nobody will be able to use it.
3. Have cash in different places. If on a long trip its always useful to have 50 to 100 US dollars stashed away somewhere just in case you need it.
4. Pack a torch. Yes really, a torch has been so useful for me on so many occasions from walking through the jungle to getting from a hostel dorm to the bathroom at night without disturbing others.
5. First aid kit– buy a mini first aid travel kit which usually come with plasters, bandages etc and then you can always add extras. I like to add the tablets of pepto bismol- useful in the case of dodgy stomachs, and also some kind of anti histamines and antiseptic cream.
6. Don’t overpack. But really when packing, as long as you have access to money and your passport/flights and visa, you can usually buy everything you need at your destination. I remember being at a hostel in Lake Bacalar, Mexico in summer and meeting a guy who had just quit his city job in London to travel. The amount he had with him was ridiculous he had about three rucksacks, he ended up leaving a load of brand new clothes in the hostel. He had something like three pairs of jeans! He probably wouldn’t need one never mind three!
7. Download your travel apps. See my post here for the travel apps I find most useful.
8. Write down and print the name of your hotel/hostel/guesthouse and have it on a map. I always like to have this to hand at the airport as I arrive as often the passport control officer will ask where you’re staying. You don’t want to get flustered or hold up the queue, or worse be interrogated further when you haven’t got the address or name of the place you’re staying. Also remember you’re not likely to have a local SIM card and not all airports have wifi so be sure to have a paper copy. Plus if you’re getting a taxi the driver might not know the name and will need the address and map.
So, although my actual itinerary is not planned, I still do a fair amount of pre planning. Many travellers tend to do the opposite- research every little sight and place of interest in detail, but neglect the bigger picture and the more important aspects.
I understand that it may seem daunting to embark on a six month trip with only two nights booked but in my experience that really is the best way to travel. You have full flexibility with your schedule! It doesn’t matter if you miss a bus or stay a place longer than you had planned to because you fell in love with it, or alternatively want to escape ASAP! There’s no cancelling bookings and rearranging plans. You simply do what suits you.
Plus once you meet other travellers and locals you will want to change your plans. Other people really are your best source of information.
If you’re a solo traveller I really do recommend staying in a hostel as you will meet so many more people.
Most hostels have private rooms as well as dorms so you can always get a private room but meet others at breakfast or by the social areas.
I hope this is helpful for those of you planning a trip!
Anything I’ve missed out? What are your tips for planning your travels?
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Hi, I live and work in Dubai. I enjoy getting out and about and seeing what Dubai has to offer, travelling in my holidays and spare time – prepare for blog posts about this, and cooking vegetarian recipes. I am passionate about travel and animals.