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Top 10 Travel Tips

We’ve received some terrible advice over the years. We thought we change that trend.

Top 10 Travel Tips
This entry “Top 10 Travel Tips” first appeared in a Dispatch, the updates sent to all Society members. You can join for free here.


There are a series of firsts we all go through: the first time on a plane, the first time leaving the country, and so on. We’ve all been new travellers at one point, and we are all still new travellers to someplace. Often, when we head to these new places for the first time we prepare by relying on word of mouth and our own preconceptions. For example, when I first headed to Africa on my first long, very low-budget journey through the continent, I relied on outdated advice from my brother. As a result, I shaved my head, as I assumed I wouldn’t be able to cut it whilst I was away. I also only took a pillowcase, instead of a pillow, to save space in my backpack (I figured I’d stuff it with clothes to make a pillow each night).

Three days later, with one stiff neck and dodgy haircut, I bought a proper pillow at a large modern shopping mall and got my hastily shaved head redone at one of the many, many hairdressers around.

So, with that in mind, here are our (vetted) top 10 travel tips.

Yes, laundries exist

“How do I pack enough clothes for two weeks in a bag that small?”

We hear this a lot. It is typically when booking a trip in Africa, involving light aircraft, where there can be strict luggage limits. This question ranks just below the old “What counts as a soft-sided bag?” as one of the top questions we get asked.

Long story short, you don’t need a new item of clothing for each day. And no, you don’t have to resort to wearing your underwear inside out to make it through. Packing-wise, there is a minimalist approach to packing called the “5-4-3-2-1” approach that isn’t a bad framework to start from. It does differ depending on the destination but typically means 5 sets of minimals (socks/underwear), 4 tops, 3 bottoms, 2 shoes and 1 jacket/dress. For longer trips, add a number here and there. It may not work for everyone, but it can give a rough guideline for the ratio of packing. After all, you can wear trousers multiple days without needing to launder them.

If that is too complex, try this one. Pack your suitcase, then take half the clothes and twice the money.

Ignoring that some dust on your shirt makes you feel more like an adventurer, you can also use the laundry. Laundries, or laundry services, exist everywhere. The general rule for this is that if you are in a city, there are laundry facilities around if you need them. The further away it is from you, the more likely a laundry service is available. And, the more remote a location, the more likely that laundry is included. You can also find that many lodges and hotels will also provide some laundry detergent in the rooms so you can wash your delicates. And by delicates, we mean the clothing kind, not your own kind (that’s what soap is for).

Take a used camera (and then ignore it)

Should you take a camera on your trip? Yes, absolutely, but only if you know how to use it. It is important to take something of quality, as an iPad isn’t going to do that well when trying to capture the majesty of an iceberg or the intricacies of an elephant’s eyelash. With modern phones providing an incredibly high image quality nowadays, even they can capture something amazing. Remember though, the further the subject is from you then the more you wish you had a proper camera.

That being said, learn to use it first. Don’t wait for the once-in-a-lifetime sighting to be the time you decide to figure out what an F-stop is.

Finally, once you have learnt how to use the camera and come across the sighting, put the camera down. Take some photos but don’t spend your entire trip looking through the lens. If you don’t spend time soaking the sighting in then you won’t have the memory to go with the photo, it will just be a memory of taking the photo. After all, your eyes will capture the image far better than any camera will.

Learn some words

No one is expecting you to be fluent. You also don’t have to learn it beforehand, particularly for regional languages that aren’t easily accessible. However, even learning a simple “Hello” and “Thank you” can be enough. Not only is using someone’s local language a sign of respect but the act of learning it is a quick way to unlock your brain to their way of living. A culture is sometimes best seen through its use of language, and by engaging with its rhythms. You can hear it in a jaunty “Jambo” or a sensual “Buenos noches”. When we impersonate a country’s people, we often do it through mimicry of a language.

If I were to ask you to impersonate a French person, in no short time you would be wrinkling your eyebrows and dropping a few “Le hou hou hou”. If you approach language learning like a child does, not trying to nail the pronunciation but instead approximating the sounds, it is then that you can hear the music of the language. Hearing the music of a language allows you to dance their dance.

Plus, it’s just fun.

A Safety Stash

It’s best to assume that you are a forgetful, easily distracted person when planning for the trip. For some reason, if you do lose your passport, Yellow Fever vaccination certificate or insurance details whilst leaning over the railing at Iguazu Falls, it is much easier to solve if you have a copy of it somewhere.

Before you go, make a copy of the important documents and store them somewhere safe. For obvious reasons, do not store them in the same place as the originals, as that defeats the purpose. It also helps to have a digital copy and don’t assume that you will have the internet to be able to download it if you need it. Keep a copy on your device in a downloaded file. For example, if on an iPhone, store it in your Files app.

A safety stash also works well. Get a small plastic Ziploc-style bag and tape it to the inside of your luggage, out of sight. In that, you can put the important documents and some emergency money (USD$100 seems to work well). I had one for years inside my backpack when travelling, hidden underneath the pack cover in black tape (which matched the colour of the pack). I only used it once, when a typhoon cancelled my flight from Osaka and caused a knock-on effect, leaving me without a place to stay or unable to change money in Shanghai on a public holiday. Only needing it once in many years is more than enough times to vouch for it being a good idea.

Drop the Uniform

Some places, like Antarctica, require some specialist clothing to visit. The tricky stuff (boots, jacket) is often provided but you do need to ensure that the clothing you take with you is warm enough. Some experiences, like the Rovos Rail, may require some formal clothing for onboard dinners. Other locations require some clothing considerations for cultural reasons, like pants (trousers) or a head covering for some religious sites.

Apart from that, most places don’t require specialist clothing. However, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t often an unspoken uniform, one that people think they need to dress in. In places like Africa, which seems to be an epic journey instead of just a plane ride away, there are often outfits to match.

Some arrive with their branded clothing and a large amount of technical expedition gear befitting an Everest climb. North Face baggage and Permethrin-soaked clothing all tend to make an appearance. Whilst pith helmets have thankfully disappeared from tourist trails, others do love a colonial-inspired outfit. Long leather boots, uncreased since being taken off the shelf a week earlier are matched with some clothing featuring an excess of pockets and buttons. Dramatically windswept scarves and linen complete the ensemble. Then there are those totally devoid of colour, with travellers have taken the khaki recommendations very seriously. And then there are those that go the opposite route and wear head to toe animal print, as though somehow this helps them bond with the wildlife.

The only firm recommendation is not to wear camouflage as this is a big no-no and this can actually be illegal in some areas. Apart from that, wear what you have, but remember you don’t have to wear anything special.

Travel Insurance

This is a short one and an obvious one. Travel insurance is a must. May you always have it, and never use it.

The biggest use of travel insurance isn’t the accident or emergency when travelling, or the old lost baggage situation. It’s actually the surprise situation that stops you going in the first place, which is more common than you think. Getting it early is worth its weight in gold.

Safety Days and Lazy Days

Flight delays happen. They are annoying, but not a big deal. They only become a big deal when your trip of a lifetime is over because of them, and the flight delay causes you to miss your gorilla trek.

At The Explorer Society, we are a big fan of what we call ‘Safety Days’, a spare day between big shifts in location. Arriving internationally in Africa? Put a day first before you head off on safari. Heading back from Antarctica? Put a night in your transit city before you fly home. Moving between two locations with long distances or multiple flights? Safety Day! Not only does it give you a day’s grace in case of any unforeseen incident, but the extra day also allows you to take a day to recover from long flights or time changes. Seeing a historical wonder on your first day is good, but not when you can hardly keep your eyes open.

Lazy Days are a similar concept but involve building in a planned day to be lazy. Travelling can be tiring, and you don’t want to spend all of your time constantly moving. As an example, instead of the common two-night stay in Victoria Falls other companies do, we choose three nights as standard. That extra day gives you a chance to have a lazy afternoon, without the guilt. You might read that book you’ve been lugging around, write the notes you promised you would or simply dip in an appealing pool. Or, take the time for some extra low-key exploring and slow dining in a local restaurant.

The Money Belt Mindset

Pickpockets, and other forms of petty crime, are definitely a concern for tourists, especially in tourist locations. You can see this in the numbers: Out of the top 15 locations for pickpocketing, all are in Europe. Tourist sites like Rome and Barcelona are famed for it. Hell, Barcelona averaged 18 reported robberies every hour in 2018. To be fair, Barcelona does get a lot of visitors and also gets a lot of visitors who either haven’t travelled before or don’t travel much. When large tour groups descend on a place, opportunities for thieves and scammers increase.

So, I suppose it’s a good thing we don’t do large coach touring or organise travel to those locations. On a safari trip in Africa, you usually only have a few days in cities and spend the majority of your time in the bush. The cities in East and Southern Africa don’t get the tourist crowds descending onto hotspots like in mainland Europe (eg. Trevi Fountain). The bush, meanwhile, is more likely to blind you with beauty than rob you blind. We do have a few locations where we advise guests to be cautious with their belongings, like Rio de Janeiro in Brazil or Buenos Aires in Argentina. For these places, the old question comes up about whether or not to wear a money belt.

Money belts were a big thing back in the day. Back then, you carried traveller’s cheques and cash, both difficult to replace. A money belt kept it all close to your body, often in a sweaty way, as you carried your valuables around. But nowadays, cash isn’t as common and traveller’s cheques are dead. The need to carry around vast amounts of currency isn’t necessary anymore. You might carry some cash, and maybe a card, but if you lose it then the world doesn’t stop. You can simply cancel the card via the Internet and carry on. This is especially true for digital cards like a Pelikan card or a Wise travel card, where they exist in both digital and physical form as a redundancy.

And, if the first rule of avoiding theft is making yourself less of a target, then money belts are the antithesis of that. By using one, you show thieves exactly where your valuables are, how much you are carrying and indicate clearly that you are unsure of your surroundings. Despite the nude colour, we can all see it. And there is the mindset it creates. After all, a money belt is a constant reminder that people are out to get you.

So what precautions can you take to prevent your belongings from disappearing? The first thing is not to take it with you at all, especially expensive jewellery. If you carry a wallet, don’t put it in your back pocket. Put it in your front pants (trousers) pocket, but don’t constantly check it as you are advertising where you keep it. We do recognise that women’s clothing typically has fewer pockets than men’s (damn the patriarchy!!) so a backpack might be needed in this case. A paperclip joining the zips together is a simple trick and means someone can’t unzip your bag without you knowing. In crowded situations with lots of people, move your backpack onto your front.

If you are really concerned, and in an area with a lot of muggings, feel free to wear a modern version of a money belt, not the old-fashioned beige one. Something like a ‘FlipBelt’, an elastic waistband used by runners, works well. It is comfortable, designed to breathe (unlike a sweaty polyester money belt), sits flat beneath your pant line and can carry some cash, a key and some cards.

It works especially well in combination with a ‘dump wallet’ in your pocket. The idea is you take a wallet, fill it with expired cards and only a quarter of the cash you need for the day. You use this as your wallet as you go, and can always top up the cash in the wallet somewhere private (like a toilet) throughout the day. If you were to get mugged, give them the dump wallet (aka ‘dump it’). You only lose a little bit of your money and not the card. And on that note….

We aren’t too different, you and I

Look, we aren’t saying you need to walk around thinking everyone is friendly and trustworthy. Obviously, not everyone is.

But, most people are.

When I first left Australia, I spent a day in a luggage store in Melbourne getting the backpack I needed for my trip. The guy that served me was an old traveller himself and had just come back from somewhere exotic. Out of nowhere, as I bought the backpack, he offered up one piece of advice.

“Remember, at the end of the day, people everywhere all want the same thing. All anyone wants is safety, happiness and a better life for our families.”

Years spent travelling around the world haven’t made me disagree with him. We have a rule at The Explorer Society of not judging a country’s people by its leadership, and despite all the minor things that make us different there is far more that we all have in common. This applies even in a place with great poverty. You may have far more money, but that doesn’t mean you are a target. After all, just because someone lacks money doesn’t mean they lack dignity.

All that aside, having a positive mindset and assuming good intentions is also an easier way to have an enjoyable trip. Be prepared for the worst, but expect the best.

If in doubt, do it

Look, this doesn’t apply to everything. Doubt is a helpful feeling to have. It can help you avoid dodgy situations like the ones to avoid in the money belt section. It can also give you a chance to cool down from a silly decision in the moment. But, once you’ve had time to think and you still can’t make up your mind, do it. A bit scared to swim in the Devil’s Pool above Victoria Falls? Do it. Unsure whether to buy that piece of art you saw at that place on your travels? Do it. Wondering whether to strap some steak to your body and charge at some lions? Don’t do it, and I am concerned that the answer from you was only “I’m not sure” and not an immediate “Hell no”.

At the end of the day, you always regret what you don’t do more than what you do. You have to ask yourself, deliberating in a dream location, “When is the next time I am going to be here?” The answer is often “never again”, and this is your one shot to do that thing. And, on a grander scale, the same applies when you are planning whether to travel at all. Life is uncertain, tomorrow isn’t guaranteed, and “Am I actually going to be able to do this later?” is a valid reason to follow your dreams now.

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Travel isn’t what is used to be. It used to be undertaken with a sense of adventure and discovery. As the world shrunk, so did our imaginations and over time, manufactured experiences, sponsored travel lists and mass tourism have slowly extinguished that magic. Amazing destinations, catering to the crowds, have become overwhelmed shadows of their former selves.

And so, we established The Explorer Society to be a travel company for like‑minded travellers. It’s for those who travel for the destination and the incredible experiences to be found within, not just for the bragging rights. We are passionate about avoiding the crowds and providing real and revelatory experiences.

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