Things I Wish I Knew Before Traveling Long Term
You can prepare all you want to leave home with all of your worldly possessions packed in a single bag, but it’s also important to know this: you will forget things and you will pack things you don’t need. Don’t sweat it. It’s not worth spending money on things you think you might need now…keep a small, hundred-dollar budget on the road for picking up things that you’ll need. You’re embarking on a lifestyle: it’s impossible to pack for every eventuality. That being said, there are a few simple tips that I wish I knew before leaving that would have saved me some time and money. Here they are, for your benefit!
Ensure your passport expires at a date far, far in the future! It’s not something you want to have to worry about when you are abroad, or even when you are visiting home. Make sure your expiry date is at least 5 years from the date you plan on leaving.
Go to CVS and get a dozen small passport sized photos. You will need these for visas and it’s a real pain to obtain in a foreign country. Do yourself a favor and get a lot of them (for cheaply) now, and stick them in your passport holder until you need them.
Bring $100-$200 in USD cash. You will need these for visa entries. It can be difficult to find an ATM to withdraw cash at a lot of borders, and most places accept USD. An additional bonus is the “free money” that you’ll find when you’re a budget traveler scooping out American 20s from your passport case months after you’ve withdrawn it from your account.
It’s worth getting an International Driving Permit. Many countries will accept your license from home, but you can also face a “heavy” fine (especially in Southeast Asia) if you can’t produce your IDL on the spot. For a $15 online application that doesn’t require you to leave your computer, it’s worth getting one of these. I went with AAA, and even though I didn’t need to present the Permit, I had confidence renting vehicles and driving them that I was covered if I was stopped. With 179 countries recognizing this permit, it’s a safe bet your destination will too.
Bring yourself a journal--maybe a nice Moleskine. You’ll have significant thoughts you want to write down, as well as notes from other people.
What To Pack
You don’t need a dedicated “dirty laundry bag”. It’s one more thing to carry around, and serves no explicitly useful function. Plastic shopping bags you pick up on the road will do just fine.
Plastic shopping bags. Ones you find on the road will do just fine, but it also doesn’t hurt to start your trip with some: they make for great trash bags that you’ll need on-the-go. You can also store your dirty laundry!
You should buy a pair of hiking pants that zip off into shorts if you want to do any kind of outdoor activity. You won’t wear them to the bar, but you’ll be thankful you have a pair when camping or hiking.
Bring a sarong, not a towel. For the most part, you’ll use a towel for laying out on the beach or grass, quickly drying off after a dip in a pool or the ocean. Unless you’re going to a brisk destination, a sarong works just as well and is much easier to carry. It also doubles as a handy cover-up if you need to dress modestly for any religious destinations.
A small, multi-purpose keyless lock. You do not want a lock with a key; this means you have to keep track of the key. Try to get a combination lock (TSA approved) with a wire rim…this can be used for locking your bag, a storage locker, or even a bike. Versatility is the name of the game. I used this one from REI until I lost it (the reviews are poor, but I didn't have any problems).
Bring a small toiletry kit. The key here is small. Small, small, small. Bring only what you need, but be sure to bring what you need. Oftentimes the cosmetics you are into aren’t available overseas. Personally, I really missed waxed dental floss. Be sure to pack yours.
Bring a small inflatable pillow. If you’ll be gone for any length of time, there will be at least one night where you do not regret bringing it.
If you’re thinking about it, get a smart phone. It makes everything so much easier. Of course, there is merit to not having a phone as well (see article), but if you are looking to bring connective electronic devices, a phone is a great way to consolidate. You won’t need an iPad, an iPod, a GPS, or even a computer or a camera depending on your needs. An iPhone 5 literally does it all.
Google maps works on your phone even when you shut your cellular data off. You can’t type in new directions, but you can use the map function and follow old ones: this will save you a ton of money on data plans, and can even get you out of a bind in low service areas. Google maps often still works when the rest of your phone won’t.
Don’t bring a camera. Well, let me clarify—don’t bring a point-and-shoot camera if you have a smartphone. You want to reduce all of your electronics that make you a target to an absolute minimum, and leaving at home your camera that takes photos just as good as your smart phone is a great way to do it. If you’re into photography and want to carry a DSLR—by all means, long-term travel is the best time to use it. Just know it’s a lot to lug around.
Do Bring a Kindle. If you read more than one book a month, do yourself a favor and buy a Kindle. The battery lasts for an insanely long time (tip—keep it in airplane mode to extend the battery life significantly!), and weighs a fraction of most books. It’s the best decision I ever made to buy a Kindle for my trip. I’m always entertained, and cut down on size considerably.
You can call 1-800 numbers free from Skype as long as you have an internet connection. This is particularly helpful for getting in touch with banks and credit card companies to give travel notifications and unlock locked cards. It is bound to happen!
Approaching Daily Life
If you’re going somewhere where the main language isn’t English, always carry a pen and a piece of paper in your day bag. Oftentimes you’ll find the locals eager to teach you a new word or phrase, and you want them to be able to write it down. It also proves useful when you’re trying to find something written in another language and they need to help you. For these purposes, pen and paper trumps cell phone. Every time.
Bring a zip-lock bag for all of the food you might have. It helps keep the crumbs out of your bag, which you do NOT want. Trust me.