6 beginner’s travel mistakes to avoid

in front of one of the canals in amsterdam. I'm still plotting how to return to that beautiful place.
in front of one of the canals in amsterdam. I’m still plotting how to return to that beautiful place.

Before I disembarked for Paris more than two years ago, I was a mere travel novice. I think I’d been to Jamaica. Puerto Rico, as well, although it’s technically a part of the United States. Not even Canada or Mexico. So, I’ve learned a lot about travel these past 20-some-odd months I’ve spent exploring Europe, Africa and North America. People often ask me specific tips about their upcoming destinations: Where do the cool people hang out in Paris; how to find a great beach house in Cape Town. But, more than random facts about random places, I’ve collected lots of general knowledge about how to travel better—more cheaply, more satisfying and just plain smarter.

Here are 6 travel mistakes to avoid on your first few journeys:

1. Not getting points/miles for your travel.

Like, seriously.When I think about all the travel points I didn’t even think to get over the years, it makes me cringe. Really, real-life cringe. Here’s the thing: Most people have one single, solitary airline with which they remember to sign up for a frequent flier program. When they fly that one single, solitary airline, they remember to enter their number and get points. When they’re not flying that airline (which is lots, because most of us budget travelers are not paying enough to be loyal), they don’t get any points. Not to mention when they rent cars, check into hotels, or take the train or bus. THAT’S INSANE. And, yes, the caps were necessary.

Every single time you journey somewhere, Google to find if there is a loyalty program. Sign up for that program. Get them points! Even if you don’t fly them frequently. It’s free, and it takes two seconds. You never know if you’ll start to fly them more frequently, or whatever. Don’t leave any points on the table. Not only are loyalty programs great for free trips (although, honestly, you have to fly A LOT to get them), they might also be attached to some sort of status program, wherein you might get a free checked bag (airlines) or late checkout (hotels) or other perks. The more you start to travel, the more these seemingly small perks start to mean a whole lot, trust me.

2. Paying money to exchange currency at the airport.

Honestly, I never did this. I had the good fortune to live with a host family in France who gave me the lowdown on the country’s no-ATM fee policy, and that was all I needed to hear to politely side-step the currency booths at Charles de Gaulle. (Note: this doesn’t mean your American bank won’t charge you a fee, just that you won’t get hit with two fees.)

In this day and age, there are so many ways to pay for things abroad that you really won’t need much cash, especially in the developed world. If you do need cash, it’s almost always more sensible to hit up an ATM and incur whatever fees (typically less than $5 total) rather than being at the mercy of a constantly fluctuating exchange rate. Not to mention the pain of having to exchange the money back to U.S. Dollars (and pay another fee) on the way back home.

Here’s what I’d suggest instead:

I. Do some research on the credit or debit card you plan to use abroad. Find out what (if any) foreign transaction fees will be incurred on each purchase. My experience is these fees are pretty nominal, pennies to the dollar, but it’s good to know ahead of time. Find out if there’s a reciprocal relationship between your bank and a bank operating in your destination. If so, you might be able to take out money from designated ATMs without cost.

II. If you have time, apply for a credit card that waives international fees. If not, be prepared to spend between $1-$3 per $100 you spend abroad on foreign transaction fees.

III. Use your credit or debit card as much as possible. Pre-pay for attractions online, look for vendors who take cards, etc.

IV. Try to calculate how much money you’ll need in cash, if any. Take it all out in one ATM transaction (unless it’s a ridiculous amount! Use your own judgement) so as to avoid multiple ATM fees.

Lastly, while we’re on the subject of travel points and credit cards, get you one that does both! A credit card that will help you earn travel points (airline, hotel, or other). This will be the best investment you’ll make toward future travel, while also saving money on foreign transaction fees, as many (if not all) points cards waive those fees.

3. Avoiding hostels.

OK, so I’m supposed to help you spend less money on travel, right? Well, find thee a hostel. Especially if you’re relatively young. Especially if you don’t mind sharing accommodations like bathrooms, living areas and sometimes bedrooms with other travelers. Especially if you’ve blown your travel budget on the flight (#beenthere). It can be prohibitively expensive for us North Americans to even leave the continent, and so many of us never do. But, especially if you’re traveling to Europe or Asia, seriously consider hostels.

Coming from America, I had a very skeevy opinion of hostels. In Washington, DC, where I live, many advertised as “hostels” are actually brothels. So, I was understandably a little weirded out by the prospect. But, if I had to choose between not going somewhere and going and staying in a hostel, I chose to go. I stayed in hostels in Barcelona, Amsterdam and Prague. Not to mention living and working at a hostel in Bàvaro, Dominican Republic. I’m an old hostel pro now, and I recommend them for people who want to have a less touristy experience, while meeting lots of locals and other travelers. I did have a negative experience at a disgusting hostel in Prague (I stayed in two different ones—one was awful, one was great) that I’m still recovering from, but other than that, the hostels I visited were as advertised and overall pleasant experiences.

I’d personally recommend these hostels:

la playa de los corales, where I got to swim for about six weeks this summer.
la playa de los corales, where I got to swim for about six weeks this summer.

4. Not reading reliable travel reviews.

This is getting into the “more satisfying” travel situation. Although there’s a mildly disturbing new-ish trend to christian certain travel experiences as the “right” way to travel, and others as the “wrong,” way, I don’t actually believe there is a right or wrong way to experience another place. I’ve visited other countries and straight relaxed on the beach with daiquiris the entire time. Absolutely nothing wrong with that. I’ve visited different countries and had the total opposite experience—living as a local, doing all the stuff I’d never do at home like light a stove pilot with matches or boil water to make it safe to drink. With each of those experiences, I enjoyed it for what it was.

With that in mind, I have to implore you to first know what kind of experience you’re looking for, then actively seek it out via travel reviews. Reviews are life. And, I mean, you already know this because you read three pages of reviews before selecting a water filter on Amazon, but I need you to really know this. Tips from fellow travelers, be they gleaned from the Holy Grail—TripAdvisor—blogs, vlogs, Yelp, travel guides, friends, etc. will save you time, money and, most importantly, sanity.

You absolutely need to know if you’re looking to do a hardcore, outdoorsy hiking trip that where you’re staying is really more of a glamping campsite. (Or, vice-versa, as I learned in Marfa.) You would be remiss if you didn’t know the sneaky little tip about visiting Toronto’s CN Tower: If you pay for a meal in the tower restaurant, admission to the observatory deck is free. (I’ve witnessed a crestfallen face or two after informing people who’d already visited of this fact, which I learned, of course, on TripAdvisor.)

My point is to comb through reviews—for your hotel/hostel, the attractions, the subway or bus system, even tour companies. There will always be surprises, but you want to keep it to the fun ones, and not the devastating ones.

5. Wearing uncomfortable or new shoes/clothes.

Switching gears entirely, your trip will be infinitely more enjoyable if your feet aren’t tortured the entire time. I’ve personally experienced the discomfort of the wrong shoes after hours and hours and hours of walking, running to catch buses and hiking up hills in a new city. Traveling almost always requires more movement than our day to day lives (unless you’re regular job is, like, a tour guide) so be sure to pack those shoes that are the most, most comfortable. Not ones you think are comfortable, or ones that are comfortable for an hour, but ones that you’ve actually tested out.

New shoes are an absolute no-go, even if they’re new athletic shoes. You need broken in shoes, but the type is different for everyone. I survived an average of four miles a day in Paris with flat ankle boots (after my time there I was rewarded with a nice, big hole in the bottom corner, but it was worth it). For others, sandals. For someone else, flip-flops. Whatever your go-to walking shoes are, pack those, and don’t try to get fancy.

Same goes for clothes. For me, it’s normally some variation of leggings and sweatshirts. For others, it’s jeans and a sweater. Others still prefer long dresses. Whatever clothes make you feel the most comfortable, go with those for the majority of your trip. Switch to your cute sundresses, jumpsuits and crop tops for the evening, or for trips where you know you’ll be jumping in and out of the Uber.

6. Expecting the food to taste like home.

This is something I was never able to put my finger on until my sister pointed it out on a recent trip to Toronto. Although it may seem obvious, don’t go to Australia looking for great Mexican food. Same goes for burgers in France or tapas in Japan. Although, there are no doubt places in those countries that have passable to fantastic iterations of those food, you’re exponentially increasing your chances of disappointment by not catering to the strengths of the place you’re visiting. Most people think to look for great poutine in Toronto, or crêpes in Paris, but beyond the sort of renowned delicacies of a place, don’t think to play to the strengths of that place.

For example, for some reason, all manner of fantastic Asian food—from Thai to Japanese to Chinese—can easily be procured in Paris, in addition to top-notch croissants and crêpes. Same thing with Toronto, it’s the perfect place for ramen, teriyaki and Korean barbecue. But, if you go to Toronto looking for great fried chicken or Jamaican patties, you may or may not get what you want.

So, that’s my advice. What are your favorite travel tips for newbies?

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