I’ve learned a few tricks from travelling and living overseas since I took my first solo travel trip in 1995. I don’t really like to call these tips “hacks” as we’re not reprogramming a computer or breaking the law here. But they could be considered shortcuts, tips, or tricks for saving money, travelling in comfort, staying safe, and most of all, having a great travel experience. I acquired some of these travel tips from travel professionals and random people I’ve met. Others I might have invented or just absorbed by accident. Let me know if they work for you.
Carry a pen
This is one of the simplest travel hacks, yet one I still forget about until it’s too late. Carry a pen in your carry on luggage, or in a pocket when you board. Make sure you can reach it when seated, so don’t put it in the overhead luggage if you have a window seat.
When travelling to countries that require completed immigration cards, fill your card out while your flying. You can then take your time adding the flight number, hotel address, passport number etc. You might find yourself stuck at the back of the immigration queue if you wait till you land to fill out the form.
Get Universally Powered
Great for connecting your computer, phone, tablet, and whatever else you need to the local power without worrying about buying a converter in every country.
Although these universal power adaptor change to suit many countries, it’s worth having a single country (or group of countries) adaptor too, just in case. Universal adaptors have a habit of breaking (thanks to the moving parts) and single country adaptors are cheap and lightweight so why not carry an extra one or two?
Bring a jumper/sweater onto the plane even if it’s 35 degrees outside. Use the sweater if the air con is a bit aggressive in the waiting area or in the cabin. Sweaters also work as makeshift pillows and something to put between your ribs and the seat rest when you sleep. It can also act as a cushion for your arms when you read a book or tablet.
Carry an empty plastic water bottle. Make sure it’s empty before passing through security. Then fill it up on the other side. Almost all airports have free water somewhere. Saves paying extortionate airport water fees.
Water Bottle Upgrade
An upgrade from a plastic water bottle is a metal bottle. Yes, you can carry a stainless steel water bottle on a plane.
I like to carry a thick metal water bottle or thermos to serve two purposes (or more). One, I can store water and hot beverages in it. And two, it makes a great stand-in as a foam roller for massaging away knots in your muscles after long-haul travel. I’ll admit that it’s a very solid foam roller. But personally, I prefer that. If you’d like something that inflicts a little less pain try wrapping a towel around the water bottle.
Copy & Scan
Carry photocopies of your passport and spare passport-sized photographs. The more you travel to more exotic locations the more likely you are to need these on demand. Carry bank statements to produce in immigration if you’re entering a country multiple times. They might want to see how you’re supporting yourself.
Scan your passport and credit cards and upload them to Google Drive, Dropbox or Evernote. Make sure you to password protect these services because you might lose your phone. This is another way to soften a potentially major headache while travelling – losing your valuables.
Cover your Seat Bases
If you’re travelling as a couple, it’s worth picking a seat at the window and a seat at the aisle, leaving one space in between. When other passengers are picking their seats, they are unlikely to choose a middle seat. People travelling in groups won’t choose this seat either. If someone picks the middle seat, you can ask if they’d like to swap for an aisle or window seat. More often than not they will be happy to swap. This trick doesn’t work as well on budget airlines where most people just accept the seat they get.
Get a Temporary onward ticket
If you need an onward ticket when applying for a visa, but don’t want to spend money on an expensive flight you might not use, Onward Ticket can help by letting you ‘rent’ a ticket for a set time. Enough to get through the visa application process.
Keep tabs on Departures
Have you ever been sitting where you couldn’t see the departures board? You probably jumped up every now and again to see if your gate was open or the check-in gate was ready to receive you. Use the App In The Air (iOS and Android) to get real-time updates.
Bring a 2-pronged to single-pronged headphone adaptor for the plane. If you’re anything like me, you can’t stand the tinny, crappy headphones that every airline seems to supply. The problem is that most of the headphone socket use a two-pronged jack.
Double to single jack adaptors are cheap and available on Amazon and online audio stores. Stock up on a few and have a better audio experience. With your own headphones, you’ve got a better chance of drowning out the screaming kid in row 3.
Flaunt your money
Carry $10 in a side or back pocket.
I was mugged once in Central America (that’s the southern part of the North American continent below Mexico, folks) and the honeypot ten-dollar note in my pocket probably saved me from some (serious) harm. I’ve travelled to some dodgy parts of the world and back in my twenties I ventured into some dangerous parts of dangerous towns. But I wasn’t completely stupid. I always carried at least one note in a conspicuous pocket. When I finally got what was coming, the muggers put a choke-hold on me till they found the dollar bill. They then left.
Learn the lingo
Always learn a few local words.
The doors that have opened for me from learning a few words of the local language are huge and wide. I’ve managed to get myself out of tricky situations (many of which I’m too embarrassed to share), get directions, and obtain the correct bus ticket in some foreign land. All because I learned a few words and phrases like “how much?”, “Where is?”, “bakery”, “bus station”.
I can’t overstate how important this is. It could be one of the best travel hacks in your toolbox.
Zip Lock & Duct Tape
Carry zip-lock bags and duct tape.
With these two items, you’re pretty much set to tackle any logistical problem involving clothing, baggage, and even accommodation.
Use duct tape to tape off annoying lights in your room or to close off drafts.
Use the Offline maps feature of Google Maps to download a map you can use even when there’s no connection or wifi.
Each map eats up a decent bit of space on the phone but as long as you keep one or two and delete the rest, there shouldn’t be any issues.
Leave the Phone Behind
This might seem like a counterintuitive hack but let me tell you, it’s one of the best things you can do to lose yourself (literally) in another city or culture.
I spent most of my life travelling without a map, guidebook, or camera. Maybe it was a mistake to not bring the camera along but from experience, it’s easier to feel a place without all the baggage. My point is: our phones, cameras, guidebooks, and other gadgets can take away from the experience.
When you’re not worried about the perfect shot, it’s easier to just enjoy the moment. I’m guilty, as most of us are I’d imagine, of always thinking ahead and not actually enjoying the experience. Take a break from documenting everything. Otherwise, you’ll have photos but no memories.
Remove the tags from flights from your bags as soon as you can.
Bags get lost when handlers find an old tag and get confused. Make it easy for these guys and for yourself. Have only one tag on your bag and your chances of losing luggage are fewer.
Identify Your Bags
Attach a bright sticker or wrap something unique around the handle of your check-in luggage. Someone took my bag from an airport one time and I didn’t see it for 5 days. The other traveller had an identical bag, but she obviously didn’t need the contents for several days. She responded, days later, and said she’d just opened my bag and realised what had happened.
Make it easy for sleepy travellers to not take your luggage by mistake.
Baby wipes for subway rides
People go overboard with these wipes, scared that all germs are out to get them. But I’ve spent the last few years in South East Asia and never once got sick. My secret: eat well, drink lots of water, get plenty of sleep, and use hand wipes after taking the subway/metro/bus.
The handrails in public transport are a bacterial breeding ground. Every person that sneezed, put their hand to their nose and mouth, and then held the handrails has added to the slimy mess of bacteria. If you touch the rail and then touch your face, you’re setting yourself up for a cold, flu, or worse.
Wipe your hands down after using public transport and stay fit and healthy.
Beach Ball Plane Hack
This is weird but a good hack for resting the upper back and letting your body rest in a different position. Bring a beach ball (uninflated) in your carry on luggage and inflate it in the cabin. It can then act as a large comfy pillow (use the sweater to cover it) for resting your head.
This will get you some strange looks, but only for a second. Then you’ll only be regarded with envy.
Swap your food on the plane
If you prefer the main meal to desserts on a flight, offer your dessert to your neighbour. Do this as soon as the food tray comes out. The person beside you or even another seat across might offer you their main meal in return.
I’ve found that many people don’t want to eat rice and chicken or beef and potatoes served on most flights. But hardly anyone refuses the brownie and ice-cream or flan. If you prefer the sweet stuff, offer your main course up and see what happens.
Roll your clothes
This saves huge amounts of space. If you don’t believe me try packing the traditional way and then rolling everything. You’ll see.
Leverage Rideshare Apps
Install the Uber, Lyft, and Grab (South East Asia) apps on your phone.
If you arrive in a new country and don’t know what the taxi rate from the airport to your hotel should be, check on a rideshare app (via the airport wifi) to get a baseline. It’s often cheaper with the rideshare app (but not always). It’s a good bargaining tool to have for when the taxi drivers outside arrivals quote you double the Uber price.
Sleep, nap, or Work In peace
Use a white noise app like Noisli or Coffivity to drown out hotel noises or noises from the street. You can even use these apps to help you nap on planes. I’ve been using Noisli for years for when I want to do deep work. Brain.fm is another great option for concentration but the app also has soundtracks specifically designed to help you nap and sleep. I use the mobile phone app on planes and in hotel rooms to help me get to sleep. It really works. Just try it.
Double your carry-on bags
Travel with a laptop bag, but not a slimline one. This one from Victorinox (available on Amazon) is ideal. Sneak 5-10 kilos into this bag (just don’t tell the airline) and place it on top of your carry on. Having a bag that makes security inspections for laptops and power packs easier has the added benefit of not getting counted as extra baggage. This has worked 100% of the time. But don’t count on it working with Ryanair every time.
Bag Those Cables and Adaptors
Bring a small pull tie bag for all your cables, adaptors, lithium batteries and chargers. You then have to check one place to find them. Make sure to put the bag in your carry on luggage (important for travelling with Lithium batteries).
Ultra Minimal Quality Photos
If you want better quality from your photos than a smartphone offers, travel with a Sony Ultra Compact in your pocket. Superb quality photos, no setup, no adjusting, and a tiny footprint.
Make Your Own Baggage Tags
Laminate a business card (with your name, address, phone number, email) and punch a hole in the corner of the laminate. Tie the card to your baggage using the hole. You now have a waterproof baggage tag with all your details.
Split Your Clothes
Pack at least one set of clothes into your carry on bag. If the airline loses your bags you can sometimes expect a few days wait to get them back. The last thing you want on the first days of your trip is to go shopping for clothes. Or maybe you enjoy that kind of thing. In that case, ignore this advice.
Secure the Perimeter
Get a travel door wedge to prevent people from entering your room. Get simple, lightweight, and cheap door wedges on Amazon and sleep better at night.
And finally, remember:
- Be flexible! not everything will go according to plan
- Don’t act lost! Even if you have no idea where you are, don’t whip out a map or phone and look around wildly like you want to be mugged or taken advantage of. Keep walking with confidence until you figure it out.
- Forget about Instagram! Too many people live their lives according to their Instagram feeds. Don’t worry about getting the right shot. Enjoy yourself. Travel for you, not for others.
Happy Travel Hacking!