A few lessons on travelling
Travelling taught me a few interesting lessons. They may seem obvious to you, but I wish I knew about these a few years ago. Have a few protips!
I started travelling on my own, without my parents or sisters, in 2014. Me and my wife (then-girlfriend) went to Crete, Greece, for a week-long trip. "Trip" is an overstatement, as it was an organised stay in a hotel next to a beach, with all the food provided. I remember we went to Heraklion for a day trip, and that was the extent of us doing anything ourselves at that time.
Since then, we've been on such holidays only once: two years later, in Bulgaria, where our intent was just to lie on the beach and be lazy. All other trips were self-organised from scratch. They taught me a few interesting lessons, which I want to share in this post. They may seem obvious to you: we haven't travelled a lot yet, and we have visited only developed countries so far, so our perspective is still narrow. But I've overheard and been asked questions about these things from people that travelled with me, or I saw them repeat my mistakes. I realised that something obvious to me (now) may not be known yet to others. Hence this post, and a few protips from myself.
The Internet is great
In 2015, I went for my first serious overseas trip to Japan with my friend. Back then, spending money for mobile internet seemed like a waste: surely you can survive 3 weeks without Facebook, right? And save almost ¥10000! That was not the case in real world, unfortunately. We spent a lot of time hunting for free WiFi in convenience stores or at train stations, in order to make sure we're still going in the right direction. I remember one metro trip, where I struggled to connect with metro station public WiFi and get through the sign up form, sitting inside the train, in the span of less than a minute while the train was stationary.
I still have to remind myself and my wife not to refresh our Instagram feeds while on holidays, and to focus on the trip. But being able to instantly get public transport directions to some place, check opening hours, and maybe even buy tickets, all of this en route to that place, is a huge time saver. If you're travelling with a group, (my second and third time in Japan was in a group of 8 friends) then being able to confirm each other's locations, or even just share them on an ongoing basis through WhatsApp or Google Maps, is also a great help.
Back then, in 2015, spending extra money for a local SIM card or pocket WiFi seemed like a waste to me. Today, one of the obligatory parts of trip planning is making sure we stay connected. Pockey WiFi that could easily handle 8 people was about $100, local SIM card with a few gigabytes of data was around $30. Very small price to pay for all the time saved when looking for directions.
Lesson: pay little extra for staying connected, in order to save time you'd spend looking for free WiFi. It's worth it.
Initially, I wrote this section before our one night stay in Guangzhou, China. Back then, I was pretty convinced that when an international city has ATMs and cards support, it will happily accept my Visa cards. Turns out I was wrong—that was a new lesson for me!
It's 2019, and I bet you can still find lots of information online that Japan is cash-first country, and to bring lots of yen when going there because nobody uses cards. That might've been the case 10 years ago. Nowadays, every convenience store is equipped with an ATM. I personally verified that both Visa and MasterCard are supported in 7/11, Lawson and Family Mart convenience stores. Moreover, a lot of retailers accept cards now, including cafes, restaurants and souvenir shops. The only place that easily comes to my mind that doesn't support cards yet is recharging IC cards, used for public transport. These recharge machines still are happy only with banknotes and coins. Another is all the shrines, where it's really easy to lose money, for example collecting shuin. (That's a great souvenir, by the way.)
This year, I've been to New Zealand and Singapore. In both, I withdrew $200 at the beginning of the trip "just in case". Both times, midway the trip I realised I didn't have to do that, as every place in the Kiwiland accepted cards, and the only places where we had to spend cash in Singapore were: hawker centres, vending machines and two souvenir shops. We didn't spend more than $50 in all of them.
But as I mentioned above, it didn't go that smoothly in Guangzhou, China. In the beginning, the first two ATMs didn't accept either of my Visa cards, saying something (in broken English) about "unreadable IC chip". The third one worked flawlessly, and since then all ATMs I tried worked as expected. Moreover, not all places are equipped with a card terminal. Those that are sometimes support native solutions only, like UnionPay. And sometimes, even that is not accepted, in favor of mobile-only payment platforms, like WeChat or AliPay.
Assuming your piece of plastic is going to be accepted where you're going, you should minimise all possible fees. I have a Revolut card, which offers the best exchange rates possible, and free worldwide payments. And it also has a cool mobile app. But there are a few downsides:
- you need to deposit money in it, and sometimes there are weird daily limits if you don't want to pay any fees for doing that (eg. $280 deposit per day is free of charge)
- ATM withdrawals are free up to €200 or $200, there's a fee over that
- there's a 1.5% exchange fee during weekends
There might be a different solution. I can't praise Australian ING bank enough. On top of being absolutely fee-free inside Australia (and also having a modern web and mobile apps), they offer free international payments, and free worldwide ATM withdrawals with all fees rebated. They also offer extremely good exchange rate: it's different for different currencies, but when I tested it with Polish zloty, Japanese yen and Qatari riyal, it oscillated between 0.7% and 1.5%. Not bad. It's very close or on the same level as Visa's exchange rates.
Advantage of using a bank from the country where you live is that you don't need to worry about exchanging too much money beforehand, and being left with extra currency after your trip is over. Revolut and similar solutions can do it as well, if you're not worried about the extra step of depositing money into it.
Lesson: chances are cards will be commonly accepted in the country you're going to. There may be a bank in your country which will have the same benefits as specialised currency apps like Revolut. Do the research and minimise fees.
Leave room for food
I've been to Japan three times now. My biggest mistake when travelling has probably been my attitude during my first trip in 2015, when I didn't want to spend a lot of money on the whole trip, and that included food. It resulted in me me surviving on food from supermarkets, vending machines and cheap fast-food restaurants like Sukiya or Yoshinoya. I mean, their gyudon is great, but now I can't see myself eating only that for three weeks straight.
The lesson I learnt then was that it's much, much better to budget more money for food. It gives you freedom in choice of where to spend time and what to eat. Most restaurants in a given area have similar prices that are considered "alright". In Poland it'd be around 30-40 zł, in Malta around €20, in Japan ¥1000-1500, and around Sydney around $20-30. If you simply expect to pay this amount for a meal per person, then you can get more picky.
So for the next trip, we guesstimated 10000 yen per day for 2 people as a reasonable amount. It turned out we spent maybe half of it. But thanks to it, we felt freedom in not having to worry about money when trying this or that particular restaurant. Or when buying another drink from a vending machine in a row. And it feels really great to have extra money at the end of the trip, as you can save it for the next one.
Lesson: budget more money for food. Eat out.
I'm writing these words while being on holidays in Poland, in my hometown. I think I packed lightly. And yet, my Switch console with two brand new video games I brought specifically for this trip (Bayonetta 2 and LA Noire) has still not been taken out of its case, even during flight. My Kindle, with two brand new books, has not been turned on yet. I might use either or both of them during our return flights, or later before we leave.
I learnt over the course of past few years that I don't really have to bring half of your home when going away. When I was a kid, I remember always packing all board games and books to my luggage, and then not using them even once. Usually, there are a lot of interesting things to do at your destination: people to meet, places to see, food to eat. You probably don't need all your entertainment systems.
What about other things? If you're travelling to a developed country and/or a big city, it's not the end of the world if you forget a thing or two. Turns out you can buy a lot of things in local shops. (Revolutionary, I know!) One time I flew to Melbourne, after checking in at the hotel and while preparing to sleep I discovered I forgot to bring my toothbrush and toothpaste. After short consternation, I decided to pay a nearby 7/11 (convenience store) a visit, and I found exactly what I was looking for.
These days, the most important items to me during voyages are passports (as you can't cross borders without them... unless you're in EU), wallet (with means to buy things) and phone (to keep in touch, and also to buy things via Google Pay). I'm less worried about everything else, because if I forget anything, I'll simply be able to buy it. Of course, it's better not to forget anything and save money, but it's just not that dramatic if it happens.
Lesson: leave your entertainment devices at home. You probably ain't gonna need them. Most of the things you bring can be replaced, so don't worry if you forget anything.
Do not (over)worry
During my first few trips, I put the valuable belongings (passports, bank cards, money) in a small travel wallet hanging on my neck, usually under my shirt. I always carried it around with me, usually without passports, as they could be left in the hotel. Doing it this way meant items inside were extremely safe. But it also meant that I felt the weight of the wallet on my neck, and on my chest/belly. Not the best feeling to have in the middle of the summer.
I learnt that most of the countries I traveled to were at least as safe as the country I lived in at that time. This got me thinking: if I'm not wearing a neck-wallet while walking in Poland, why should I do it in Greece, Malta, or Japan? As long as you use common sense, you should be fine with just the same wallet you use everyday, being kept in the same place. For me, that's one of the front pockets of my pants. My hands naturally cover them when resting, and I have a feeling that it'd be easier to notice someone trying to pull my wallet from my front pocket, as opposed to the back pockets.
Lesson: be cautious, but reasonably cautious, not overly cautious.
Broaden your mind
I hope you enjoyed these few tips of mine, and you found something useful for yourself!
If I was asked about the most important thing I learnt during my travel time, it would be that travelling is way less scary and much easier than it sounds. And benefits are enormous: you are going to broaden your horizons, literally and figuratively.
My parents never dreamed about visiting Australia. It was so, so far away, on the other side of the world. After me and my wife moved here, they got the incentive to visit us. But they continued to say that they will do it just once in their lifetime, since the distance was just enormous (over 16000 kilometres). But when they finally visited us this year, they were really surprised that we are only one day of flying apart. Relatively cheap price to pay for all the possibilities. So much that they are open to considering another trip to this part of the world, especially after visiting New Zealand.