Travel Do’s & Don’t’s – 10 Common Travel Mistakes to Avoid

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A(nother) Confession

I make a lot of confessions on here. You’re the world’s least private confessional, but I guess you’re less likely to molest me.

Probably.

It may come as a shock to those of you who know me that I’m not as put together and travel savvy as I might otherwise appear.

Sure, I’ve been on the road more often than not since 2007, but I still screw up… regularly.

I don’t think there’s a perfect traveler, nor do I even think there is a perfect way to travel. Even if there was, I’m so far from perfect that it would be laughable for me to lecture people on the subject.

I’m a hot mess most of the time. Emphasis on the ‘mess’.

So, while I’m by no means an expert on every aspect of travel, I’ve still picked up a thing or two over the years that many first time travelers might not know.

I still make many of these mistakes on a regular basis, so take this advice with a dose of “Shut up, you fucking hypocrite”.

My Travel Do’s and Don’t’s

What follows is a list of ten do’s and don’t’s that I’ve found adherence to (or at least awareness of) help to make a trip infinitely more memorable for all of the right reasons.

You can follow the below or you can roll your eyes and go on with your lives. I’m not your mother. Make up your own mind.

Don’t rely on guidebooks

Perhaps the biggest one most first-time (or second, third, or fifth time) travelers are guilty of is an over-reliance on the Bible according to Lonely Planet/Rough Guides/Frommer’s.

Written by pseudo-journalists on tight deadlines to create guidebooks for an entire country without actually taking the time to explore much of it, these guidebooks are a good starting point – but rarely paint the full picture.

reading lonely planet
Hmm… it says here that the Hanging Gardens of Babylon are the best thing to see in Iraq. Thanks, Lonely Planet! Image courtesy of Harald Groven.

Put bluntly: travel guides are marginally more useful than researching a destination on Wikipedia, and marginally less useful than reading a few recently published blogs on the subject.

Use them to learn more about your destination, come up with a few ‘must sees’, and to help map out your trip – but don’t ignore the fact that the world is a vast & dynamic place that no book could ever hope to encapsulate.

Disclaimer: I own something like a dozen Lonely Planet books and half as many from other brands. Guide books aren’t bad any more than movie trailers are bad. They get you hooked, but you need to see the full movie to really appreciate it.

Do your research

Not relying on guidebooks doesn’t mean showing up without a f**king clue as to what you’re going to do.

I learned this the hard way when I arrived in Urumqi without any idea of what to see there or where to stay. As a result, I spent my first night there lugging a backpack around until 4am found me paying a small fortune for a shitty business hotel.

You can read more about that debacle here.

Doing a little research saves you that frustrating feeling of leaving a place having just learned there’s something awesome there you had no idea about.

I’m talking leaving Austin without swinging by Jackson Hole, finding out about Coron after leaving Palawan, and staying within a block of New York City’s Highline and only stumbling across it because you get lost looking for a pizzeria.

It’s the travel equivalent to leaving a Marvel movie before the post-credits sequence.

There’s nothing wrong arriving in your destination with an open-mind and a blank itinerary, but chances are you’ll leave wishing you’d done a little pre-trip reading.

Don’t be too trusting

A friend of mine recently spent a day touring Siem Reap with a friendly tuk-tuk driver. Late in the day, having spotted something they absolutely had to photograph, they left their belongings with their tuk-tuk driver and rushed off to take said photo.

Five minutes later, iPhones filled to the brim with photographic gold and grins on their faces, they returned to find their tuk-tuk driver (and their belongings) were all gone.

The world is full of assholes, and while most people you encounter aren’t likely to be assholes, it pays to not blindly trust every smiling face and pretty Chinese girl wanting to practice her English with you.

littlefinger petyr baelish
Sure, Littlefinger, of course you can babysit my underage red-headed daughter.

It can happen in the streets of a modern metropolis or in an impoverished East African village. Hell, it happened to me on my last stop in Australia before coming to China.

Rest in peace, Kindle #4. I’ve already moved on to Kindle #5.

Do give living like a local a chance

Not being a blindly trusting fool with an idiot grin doesn’t mean being closed off to the world like Elsa from Frozen. Let it go, man. Love is an open door. Do you want to build a snowman? etc. etc.

Some of the best experiences you’re likely to have on the road will come from being open to people and not being afraid to say ‘yes’ to what life throws your way.

It’s how I spent a night dining with a Uighur family in Xinjiang, how I fell in loves with chips mayai in Tanzania, and how I did my first body shots from twixt the bosoms of a buxom Russian in South Korea.

uighur in Kashgar
I bet you were hoping I’d post the picture of the buxom Russian.

The world is full of assholes, but they tend to be outnumbered by good people. Don’t let a few bad people ruin you for everybody else.

Do take (educated) risks

You can’t really experience a country if you’re afraid to try new things. One of the reasons travel is so appealing is that it takes you out of your mundane suburban bubble and puts you someplace exotic and exciting.

Whether your idea of taking a risk is sampling an (in)famous local dish or doing something a bit crazy like swimming with sharks or sleeping out under the stars, don’t let your trip be another paint-by-the-numbers, I went and bought the t-shirt affair.

You never know when you’ll next get the opportunity to do something just a little bit crazy.

Don’t leave home without protection

“It’s a dangerous business, stepping out your front door” – Stephen King, Harry Potter & The Hunger Games of Maze Running

Taking risks and covering your ass kind of go hand in hand.

boy in bubble
There’s no way I’ll get cooties in here! Image courtesy of Eric Mueller.

From wearing a condom with that dusky jewel from the bar to double-checking your scuba equipment before a dive to buying travel insurance, make sure you’re not exposing yourself to potentially life-changing bad shit.

For the record, I use Lifestyles Featherlite, I check three times, and I use Southern Cross Travel Insurance.

Use these recommendations wisely, reader-san.

(I may or may not have travel insurance for this current trip. I told you I’m a hypocrite)

Do get off the beaten path

This kind of goes hand in hand with not relying on guidebooks written with all the passion of a disinterested lover, but it bears repeating.

While I hate the phrase ‘off the beaten path’, I do love the sentiment. There is so much more to any destination than what it is most famous for.

In fact, some of my favourite experiences from my travels have been ones that occurred away from the crowds of selfie-stick wielding tourists and the overpriced souvenirs.

Don’t be afraid to think outside the guidebook, ask a local for their recommendation, or just start walking and see where your feet take you.

Don’t be ashamed to be a tourist

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to see the famous sites. They’re famous for a reason, and you shouldn’t deprive yourself of the experience just because some pretentious wanker from your newsfeed tells you it’s a cliche.

Sure, you look like a dickhead pretending to push the Leaning Tower upright or kissing in front of the Eiffel Tower, but that’s okay. It doesn’t matter what self-proclaimed experts and trendsetters think. It matters that you had a good time.

statue of liberty fail
Of course, if you are going to do the cliches, do them right. Photo taken by me, failing at life.

If you need to hug Mickey Mouse, draw a love heart in the beach, and carry on like an ass to make that happen – go do it.

Do learn the local language

Nothing opens up social doors and eases potentially stressful situations quite like being able to speak a little of the local language.

This is the crime I am most guilty of, as I speak barely two dozen words of Mandarin despite calling China home for the better part of three years now. 

I occasionally have the pleasure of traveling with a Chinese speaking friend though, and it’s amazing to me how many more adventures we have and how much money we save on food by seeking out local establishments and unchaining ourselves from the need for picture menus and English speaking attractions.

Learning the lingua franca not only makes your life easier, it’s a sign of respect for the country you’re visiting and is likely to make people see you in a more favourable light than Joe Whitebread, who keeps shouting NO ABLAR ESPANOL AMIGO!

You’re in Brazil, Joe; sort your shit out.

Don’t be an ethnocentric piece of shit

We get it, your country is amazing. It’s so friggin’ awesome that I can’t even begin to fathom why you ever left.

While you’re a guest in somebody else’s country though, take a moment to remove your head from your ass and appreciate that not everybody shares your high opinion of wherever it is you’re from.

Ethnocentrism is holding a place to the standards of your own culture. It’s complaining that the Chinese spit instead of blowing their noses, bemoaning the fact that Tanzanian streets aren’t as clean as the streets back home, or whinging that Koreans don’t respect personal space like back home.

angry woman
There’s no Whole Foods in South Sudan? This is an outrage!

All of these things can be frustrating or even confronting, but ultimately they’re not going to spoil your holiday unless you let them – and carrying on like you’ve been elected Chairperson of Good Taste paints you as an asshole.

Don’t be an asshole.

Your Say

Are you guilty of any of the above crimes?

Got a story about how doing a do made your trip more memorable?

Did I miss anything?

Featured image courtesy of Moyan Brenn. Man, that guy takes good photos.

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7 comments

  1. Don’t be ashamed to be a tourist. I think this is so true! I mean, what’s wrong with being a tourist? The only thing it means is that you are interested in meeting other people and exploring another country. If this is your way of doing it because it falls in with your personality then by all means it’s definitely better than staying at home! I think it’s rude to look down on people simply because they sit on a tour bus or travel on a charter flight. Everyone who does that is an ignorant dickhead.

    • Yeah, I hate those ‘expert travellers’ who roll their eyes at people who snap photos with the Statue of Liberty or who want to eat the touristy food. Just because you’ve outgrown all of that (we all start as tourists) doesn’t mean everybody has to be a cynical, jaded hipster who only eats at hole in the wall street markets.

    • I’m so proud of being a tourist i walk around with my physical map open LOL. I mean the best part about travelling is doing all those stereotypical embarrassing touristy things that I can’t do back home?

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