Reflections on 14 Months of Travel

I started this incredible adventure on June 1, 2018, thinking that I might travel for a year, but more likely less time. But within 4-5 months of beginning this journey I realized that there was no way I’d be ready to stop prior to hitting the 1 year mark. And truthfully, the year has gone by so fast, and I’ve been so in love with this experience, that I figured it would be foolish to stop for no real reason other than: it’s been one year. I learn something new just about every single day (the world really is the best classroom), so figured it wouldn’t hurt to share some of the best tips and advice I have from this year. I’ll keep updating this post as I think of new items.

I want to lead with this: while I think gratitude is critical, the way in which it is expressed does matter. When reflecting on experiences I’ve had in my blog articles, I hope that I have highlighted how differences (different ways of living, thinking, eating, dressing, loving, etc.) have added to the richness of my life and experiences. I never intended to suggest in any form that I am “lucky” to not be living in a place or in a situation that is someone else’s daily reality, because this implies that I think I am, or that my life is, better than someone else’s, or, that someone else’s is “worse” simply because it is different. And that culturally insensitive perspective totally misses the point; it utterly fails to convey the beauty of traveling to, and getting to know, other cultures. What has become abundantly clear to me throughout my travels, and what I always intended to express (and hope I did!) was that, by seeing how other people live their lives, I had the benefit and pleasure of more fully understanding my human brothers and sisters around the globe, and my eyes have been opened to how many different and beautiful ways there are to live. And fully enjoy life. When I think of my family in Nepal, in the mountains, who work 12-14 hours/day, 7 days/week, and have little more than 2 changes of clothes per person, an outhouse, sporadic electricity, I don’t feel sorry for them. I smile and laugh, and am so grateful that, from them, I learned how beautiful and happy you can be when living so simply. I learned about love of, and pride for, truly hard work. That no matter your situation, you can always share with others (and, other creatures), or, what I like to call “extreme generosity.” I feel honored that they opened their home and hearts to me, allowed me to live with them, eat with them, become a part of their family. And I’ve had countless other experiences like this, which will forever be in my heart. My life is more enriched than it was before I started these travels.

General Advice/Reflections

You forget what “home” is or what your bed feels like. But in a good way. Anywhere and everywhere can be home.

When you need advice for where to go or what to do: Google Maps/Reviews. Outside of the US, Yelp! is useless. But locals around the world use Google and reviews (especially of bars, restaurants, waxing salons, etc.) is amazing! I was never disappointed when I relied on Google Reviews for advice.

I still prefer hot weather to cold, BUT super hot climates in places that lack A/C… nope! I struggle to sleep when it’s hot. So I suppose I only like hot if there’s sufficient technology for me to cool down. This is worth keeping in mind when planning. For example, had I known that my accommodations in the Cook Islands would have been so uncomfortably hot at night that I could barely sleep, it would have been well worth spending the extra $$ per night for a more expensive place with A/C (even though the trip itself was already expensive). If you can’t sleep, it’s hard to enjoy your time in a place, and you’ve already paid to get there so may as well enjoy it as fully as you can!

I love (LOVE!) solo travel and rarely ever feel lonely. When you’re open to people, it really is rather easy to meet people and make new friends all over the world. And if you have permitted yourself flexibility in your travel plans, don’t be afraid to join your new friends (or invite them to join you) for adventures together!

If you do find yourself wanting social company, hostels are still a great place to make friends, as can be Tinder (not kidding, I’ve collected more than a few wonderful travel FRIENDS around the world through this app- just be clear on your profile description that you’re traveling and looking to befriend locals and fellow travelers). Or just head to a popular bar/restaurant, don’t spend the entire time staring at your phone (hard for someone to strike up a conversation with you if you can’t make eye contact), and I can almost guarantee you’ll make a new friend.

You can almost always find someone who speaks English, no matter what country or how rural/”uneducated” (and by that I mean formal education only) the area. Unless you’re in Brazil (or, from what I’ve been told, much of mainland China).

It is totally ok to be in a fascinating foreign country and spend an entire day (or days!) binging Netflix and barely leaving your accommodation. You’re not on a 1 or 2 week holiday where you “need” to maximize every day by seeing and doing everything. In fact, you’ll get completely worn out if you do this. Time to chill is critical.

Yes, single-use plastic is destroying the planet. So reuse as much as possible! One of my favorite travel hacks: save your hotel shower cap and reuse to cover shoes before packing. Helps the environment and you prevent all the crap on the bottom of your shoes from intermingling with your clean clothes. That said, please try and do your part not to contribute to the massive trash problem in much of the world. Take a reusable water bottle with you. Recycle where available.

Before you head to the airport to depart, there’s really only one thing you need: your passport. You can buy everything else (you may not want to, but you can). So save yourself airport panic and have it handy prior to arriving to the airport. Also, if you run out of space in your passport while abroad: (1) you cannot get extra pages added to your passport, the US government stopped doing this in 2016; but (2) it is rather easy to get a brand new passport at a US Embassy abroad. Make an appointment online, get photos taken, fill out the application, and head to the Embassy/Consulate Office for your appointment. In most places, within 2 weeks you’ll have a new passport! (But FYI: if you’re flying the next day and need an emergency passport within 24 hours, this is an option. However, this is best reserved for a true emergency and not just lack of planning, because many countries will refuse entry; they don’t consider it a valid passport.)

Keep in mind when you’re preparing for a trip and reading blogs or looking at photos on social media, you’re only getting a slice of reality. For example, most people can’t tell by looking at my photos that I gained 25lbs over the course of this trip (I unapologetically love food!) because I only post flattering photos of myself from cute angles that show me at my best. You don’t see the muffin top hanging over my jeans, or the sometimes bizzare outfits I wear (hey, long term travel + cultural norms and heat in places = you get “creative”).

Keep in mind everyone (speaking particularly about fellow travelers) you meet in your travels is at a different point in their journey. This is another lesson I learned the hard way. I agreed to travel with a friend-of-a-friend, and we met shortly after I finished my month in Nepal. Because I had spent much of that time living with a family in the mountains, on dirt floors, without access to potable water or a shower or indoor bathroom, I had a very different perspective on what was “necessary” when arriving to a country. I judged him for “needing” a SIM card for wifi and constant connection when we arrived, and it hurt his feelings and got our trip off to a rocky start (by the end of the trip, I realized we had such tremendously different values it was unlikely we would have finished the trip as friends anyway, but my judgement at the beginning definitely didn’t help). Leading with love and kindness will do wonders, and I continue to try and be better.

Covet this time and who you spend it with. In the example above, I agreed to travel with this guy because he was lonely (he too was traveling solo) and he asked if he could buddy up with me. I didn’t know him that well, but agreed because I’m a people pleaser and it was the “nice” thing to do. And the outcome: disastrous. Over the course of my travels, I’ve paired up with numerous other people, some were friends I’d known for years and had traveled with before, others were friends for years but we’d never spent extended amounts of time together, and some were new travel buddies I had known for a matter of days, and all of the other trips were so much fun and conflict free. Because in every other instance I chose to travel with them, rather than agreeing out of guilt or “to be nice.”

Do not sleep on AirBnb Experiences! These are always operated by an individual or local, small business. It’s a great way to support the local economy, meet a local (and if it’s a group activity, other locals or fellow travelers), and get some insight into places or activities you might never know about otherwise. Or, that you definitely want to do, and will pay way less on Airbnb than with a larger, more established tour company. Or, if you’re a solo traveler, it’s my favorite way to get great, non-selfie photos!

Planning v. Going with the Flow

Flexibility is key. Please let go of the need/desire to overplan your trip when traveling long term. And accept that things will go wrong/happen every now and then. That said, if you know you’re a planner and a lack of plans stresses you out, then try to find a happy medium where you have enough booked that you don’t let anxiety creep in to ruin the experience, but where you still allow enough free time to accept recommendations from locals and other travelers (often, these may not be in travel guides and it could be the best thing you do/see in a country).

Last minute planning could mean you pay more, but not always.

When advanced planning is necessary: if you are traveling to a country/city/region during a peak time, don’t just wing it or you could find yourself stranded or paying a ridiculous amount of money for everything from transportation to accommodations. Example: if you want to be in Hong Kong for Chinese New Year, plan well in advance or it’s not going to happen. (My personal example: my trip to NZ. I went during peak-of-peak summer travel season, and thankfully Jodi advised me to handle bookings in advance. Even then, I still only made reservations 1.5 months prior to arrival. But had I waited much longer, especially because NZ is expensive and I was trying to keep a somewhat reasonable budget, I would have been out of options in many places.)

If you’re lucky enough to have friends all over the world (like me!), make sure your travel schedule includes as many stops as possible to visit them. Not only does it cut down on accommodation costs, but it gives you the feeling of “home” periodically, no matter where in the world you are or how long you’ve been traveling.

Differentiate between “travel planning” (= I don’t do) and “necessary cultural research” (= always do) so that you’re a respectful, saavy, and prepared traveler. Prior to your arrival in a foreign country, make sure you understand at least the following : a few key phrases of the local language (such as “hello” “goodbye” “please” “thank you” “excuse me” “yes” and “no”); how to get from the airport to your accommodation for the first night and what the cost should be (especially if you have to rely on taxi or tuk-tuk service and not uber or the local equivalent); cultural norms and especially appropriate clothing (this is imperative in countries that are more religious or conservative, primarily for women); any warnings for tourists about dangerous areas or common scams; and, any additional requirements needed upon entry/to clear customs. For example, certain countries require you to have printed materials (so having them stored on a smartphone won’t work) demonstrating sufficient funds in your bank account to afford your stay, proof of accommodations, health/vaccination booklet/certificate, e-VISA, and/or departure information.

Regarding clothing, though I mentioned this immediately above, I want to take a moment to emphasize it here. Yes, we all want that “perfect” photo of us wearing our favorite outfit and looking gorgeous all over the world to post on social media. And especially when we’re visiting countries with temperatures exceeding 90°F/32°C, instinct/habit (for those of us from Western countries) is to wear as little clothing as possible. And in some places, that’s fine. But in other places, it’s extremely offensive and even possibly dangerous. Please remember when you travel to another country, you are a guest in that country. You chose to leave your norm to experience another culture, and sometimes that means you’ll be hot or uncomfortable, possibly drenched in sweat, and you can kiss that “perfect” social media photo goodbye.

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Unless this is your idea of a perfect photo. In case anyone has doubts, THAT IS NOT PEE. This is when culturally appropriate clothing meets 40-42C (104-108F) & northern Indian sun.

But this is SO MUCH BETTER than the alternative, which is total disregard of, and disrespect for, local customs. I saw so many scantily clad women at holy and historical sites around the world, more concerned about how the photo someone was taking of them than the effect they were having on everyone around them. Please, please, care more about the country/culture/site you’re visiting than looking “perfect” for a social media snapshot. (Also, I have heard stories of women being physically attacked by men in certain countries for violating strict dress norms; or if not physical attacks, such nasty stares and so much extra attention from local men and women you feel as though you could be attacked at any moment. No, thankfully, I am not speaking from personal experience. There is an easy way to never be a target- just pay attention to the norms and follow them. You can go back to whatever you’re most comfortable in, or the look that makes you feel most sexy, when you leave.)

Food

If you’re not someone who particularly enjoys eating (if you view food as sustenance only), feel free to skip the rest of this section and move on. I happen to love food. Really. There’s not a lot that gets me as excited when traveling as food (at least, in most countries). I believe one of the best ways to connect with a culture is through its food. So I’ve done my best to eat my way through all of the 28+ countries I’ve visited in the past year, and have a few take-aways.

(1) I spent 2 weeks in northern India and never got Delhi belly or any other serious food sickness that infects the majority of travelers. I spent 3 weeks in Thailand eating almost exclusively street food. I’ve eaten at local markets in various other spots around the world. No food poisoning, at all! How? I do not have some ironclad stomach impervious to bacteria; in fact, quite the opposite. I have a super sensitive stomach. So how have I avoided food-borne illnesses when I’m spending so much time eating? It’s simple: be smart. Listen to locals when they give you advice about what to eat or not eat (or, where to eat or not). (For advice on India, I got very specific instructions from Bhavna’s dad before heading to India, and I also listened to my friends while in India. Check out that blog post if you want to know what the advice was.) Also, I truly believe that keeping a more plant based diet reduces the chances of you getting food poisoning. Most food poisoning from abroad comes from meat and seafood (or raw/uncooked fruits and vegetables in places with dirty water). I’ve been adventurous but safe. And sure, probably a bit of luck has helped.

(2) If you can do so comfortably, try and be a bit of a “flexitarian.” Before I started this trip I kept a primarily vegan diet. I immediately abandoned that while in Spain and switched to vegetarian, with a dash of seafood (because non-meat options are ridiculous limited in Spain and the Spanish seem to hate veggies unless they’re fried or served with meat). I have mostly stayed away from seafood, except when traveling in islands where it is such a deeply ingrained part of the culture, and where fishing is done by the same guy who cooks the food for you- not by some massive commercial fishery that is reeking havoc on the environment and exploiting its workers (or, outright using slave labor). Participating fully in these moments is more important to me than maintaining a strict veg diet while abroad. That said, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how many places around the world have vegan options (and when available, I tend to always lean in that direction for my meals). And my definition of “flexitarian” still doesn’t permit me to eat any land animals or foul; I just can’t and won’t do it.

(3) YOU WILL GAIN WEIGHT. Ok, if you are a total bad ass and seek out gyms everywhere in the world you travel, and if you have tremendous willpower and can say “no” to a lot of food/meals, you may not gain weight. But for the rest of us, it happens. I started my travels with a 240km hike and managed to gain a little weight during that. I then lived and hiked in the mountains of Nepal for a month (and even had a TRX with me) and still gained a bit more weight. And then had to abandon the TRX because I couldn’t afford the extra weight in my suitcase. Moral of the story: though I’ve been pretty active throughout my travels, you can’t exercise away a “bad” diet. (“Bad” because it was indulgent and delightful, but calorically heavy. But SO DAMN GOOD. I digress.) My caloric intake has consistently exceed what I burn = weight gain. At my peak, I had gained a total of 25lbs (~ 11kg). Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed every damn calorie I consumed, but not fitting into any of your clothes sucks. And can get expensive. But overall, 25lbs over 1 year isn’t too bad, and the moment I settled into a bit of a healthy routine of cooking for myself and working out again, it didn’t take long to get fit and healthy. (Let me pause and acknowledge: I’m a skinny white girl. Even with my weight gain I was still well within healthy weight guidelines. This is NOT about fat- or body-shaming, myself or anyone else. This is about me knowing my body, and understanding that I am a healthier, happier me when I’m more fit.)

(4) Cooking for yourself is a part of self-care, not to mention necessary for budgets in most parts of the world. (Unless you’re in southeast Asia, where you will eat like damn royalty for $1-$3 per meal. And you’d be a fool to skip those meals by cooking at home.)

Also, if you have a diet with any restrictions, learn how to say that in the local language! I absolutely love food stands, local restaurants, and trying things I’ve never heard of or seen before, but I like to make sure I’m not going to end up accidentally ordering (and then wasting and possibly offending someone because I won’t eat) a dish with meat.

Staying Connected

This has evolved massively since I started my travels. Now that iPhones offer wifi calling, when you’re abroad and on wifi, you can use your US-based cell phone and US-SIM card to call and text anyone back home, just as if you were physically in the US. GAME CHANGER!

Buy local SIM cards when you travel. It really is the cheapest and easiest way to stay connected. And having data on your phone in some places is the only way to access internet.

Download WhatsApp before you head abroad! FB messenger can be a useful tool too. There are few places in the world where people you meet won’t use at least one of these options, and it’s a great way to communicate with new friends. (If you do a guided group tour or trip of any type, you should definitely make sure you have WhatsApp on your phone, as this see ms to be the preferred method of group messaging that the companies set up prior to your arrival.)

My urge to connect with new people I meet while traveling and stay informed of what’s going on with existing friends and family all over the world definitely trumps my desire to unplug. I’ve accepted that.

While it’s important to be cautious and safe, especially for solo female travelers, don’t keep your guard up unnecessarily. Westerners (myself included!) often think that when someone approaches us on the street it’s to sell us something, take advantage of us, some type of scam, etc. But I’ve spent lots of time in so many countries where that couldn’t be farther from the truth! People are generally really lovely and friendly! Sometimes they want a chance to practice speaking English. Other times they’re afraid you’re lost and want to help. Maybe they just want to have a conversation and find out who you are and why you’re visiting. Sure, it’s probably not a good idea to be visibly drunk and walking the streets alone, or head down an unknown and dark alley, or venture into a neighborhood you’ve been warned to avoid. But if you keep your guard up unnecessarily, when your physical safety isn’t actually at risk (and most of the time, it isn’t) you will miss out on all the amazing connections you could have. Feel free to extrapolate this and apply to your daily life back home too.

At the same time, don’t make yourself a target. See above re culturally appropriate clothing and how you carry yourself/choices about when and where to go certain places, aka, common sense. When you’re traveling (I think this applies everywhere, but is perhaps even more poignant in third-world countries), while most people I’ve found to be exceedingly honest, generous, friendly, and helpful, if you want to reduce your risk, don’t carry a purse that is worth more than what someone earns in a year. Same goes for really flashy jewelry or other designer clothes and shoes. My rule of thumb: don’t wear anything I’d be upset about losing. And don’t walk around with your fancy smartphone out in your hands (and visible to the entire world) while in transit. Keep it in your pocket as much as possible, which sometimes may mean skipping a few photos, or that you’ll need to duck into a restaurant, bar, cafe, etc., to use Google maps and figure out where you’re going.

Traveling from One Destination to Another

When traveling across time zones for a long period of time you gain a super power: no more jet leg! For real. I am in awe of how quickly my body adapts to the change. For me, one key to achieving this was NO MORE RED-EYE FLIGHTS! (If you can afford to fly business or first class, you can skip this.) When you’re taking a work vacation and traveling abroad, it makes perfect sense to maximize your time by taking overnight, international flights. But there’s also nothing worse than arriving in the morning exhausted from not actually sleeping well, and forcing yourself to stay awake for an entire day so you can adjust to a new time zone. But when you’re traveling long term, you can afford to “lose” a day in transit. I see it as an opportunity to binge movies, which makes the flight go by super fast. And when I arrive, it’s usually late afternoon or evening, so I only need to stay up a few hours before I can go to bed, sleep, and wakeup feeling refreshed the next morning. And I’m all set for the new time zone.

Don’t assume your international flight has screens. Many airlines around the world (even those associated with major companies) are cutting costs and going to more of a Southwest model; you’ll get free snacks, water, and non-alcoholic beverages (but not always!), and many offer an app that has free TV/movies, but you need to download the app before you get on the plane. My advice: make sure you have several of your favorite movies or TV shows downloaded from Netflix or Amazon Prime (or whatever service you prefer) onto your phone, just in case you discover there’s no screen or entertainment provided.

Read the fine print before booking flights if you want to collect frequent flyer miles. In my experience, British Airways/One World IS THE WORST!!!! I have flown at least 20 legs on “partner” airlines, often paying a higher price than flights on other airlines, to accumulate frequent flyer miles while traveling. But: (1) One World doesn’t automatically add miles for the majority of its partners, you have to save your boarding pass, ticket, and submit by fax within 6 months of your flight to request miles; and (2) you still won’t get credit for most of these flights. Turns out, there are an insane number of caveats that allow OneWorld to not give credit for flying on a majority of “partner” airlines around the world. So of the 20+ legs I flew on OneWorld Airline partners, I received miles’ credit for maybe 25%. (Seems like nearly all of the regional airlines that still claim to be OneWorld partners won’t get you miles for one reason or another. Here’s a specific example: if you purchase a flight on Iberia, you should get miles. Unless, after your purchase, you find out the flight is operated by Vueling. Though the flight was advertised as Iberia and you don’t learn that the provider is Vueling until after you purchase, too bad. OneWorld excludes all Vueling flights from its miles program.) If I had this to do again, I’d probably try another group (such as Star Alliance/United) or just forgo worrying about miles and always buy the cheapest available flight unless I knew for certain I would receive a credit (which is only “guaranteed” if flying one of the 7-8 major worldwide partners).

Pay attention to airline restrictions on baggage when booking your flight! Flights to/from the US almost always include 2 checked bags. That’s almost never the case anywhere else in the world, even for international flights, unless you’re flying business or first class. In many cases only carry-on bags are included, and in some places, they are serious about weight limits for those too (I have seen carry-on bags weighed). It’s pretty much always cheaper to buy a checked bag ahead of time, when you’re buying the ticket. Know the fees if you go overweight on that too; sometimes it’s nominal and worth it, other times you could end up spending literally hundreds of dollars.

Never, ever pack valuable items in your checked bag. Always keep with you in your carry on. I’m talking about nice perfumes (just make sure the bottle is less than 3oz or leave it home), and any type of electronic device- I’d even advise the same of the empty box that once contained the device (if you’re holding onto the box). Here, I am speaking from personal experience; after checking a bag with the airline in Jamaica (this was back in 2010), someone stole my digital camera, perfume, and even a new Banana Republic sweater. The airline blamed airport security, and I was never compensated. It was painful losing the SIM card with all the photos of the wedding I had attended that week, but in the long run it was a good lesson- don’t assume a checked bag is safe, and keep valuables with you. If something looks valuable, there’s a chance it could be taken, along with anything else the thief deems desirable while digging through your bag.

I love the flexibility of traveling without many concrete plans, but make sure to have a departure ticket from a country before you try to check-in for your flight to that country. Otherwise, airlines won’t check you in, and you end up having to purchase an international flight that very moment on your cell phone in the airport concourse. (The only place in the world where this hasn’t been an issue for me is within South America. But even flying to South America from Central America triggered the “I need to see your departure flight prior to check-in” requirement.)

Money

SEPARATE CASH! Never, ever, keep all of your money and credit cards in the same wallet and bag. That way, if you are ever mugged or if you forget a bag or wallet somewhere, you’ll still have your extra ATM and credit card, and cash, in a separate (and still safe) bag/wallet.

A debit card that does not charge international ATM fees (you’ll still have to pay the foreign bank’s fees, but at least you don’t double the charges with your home bank) will save you hundreds of $ in the course of long term travel. I use a CapitolOne360 debit card to avoid fees, and have only had issues in 2 countries where it wouldn’t work. Same with a credit card- imperative to get one that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees. I recommend traveling with 2 ATM cards; that way, if you lose or forget one (like I did at the ATM in front of a 7-11 in Bangkok), or have one stolen, you don’t have to panic about accessing cash. Also, sometimes, for no apparent reason, banks/ATMs in certain countries will reject your ATM card; between the 2, I was always able to find one that worked in some machine to access cash. I found 2 credit cards very helpful too, because there were times when one credit card wouldn’t work (even with setting travel alerts on credit cards, fraud alerts still pop up and my cards were frozen on a few occasions).

Exchange all remaining money before you leave a country (unless you have Euros or another widely traded foreign currency), because it’s super frustrating to realize that many banks and even currency exchange businesses in your next country won’t accept currency from a prior destination. This is particularly true for countries with closed currency (where you aren’t supposed to take any money outside of its borders) or countries with a lot of instability and low value compared to the USD; I’m looking at you Asia. Better to pay whatever fee and lose some money in the exchange, than lose all of it because you leave and discover no place will exchange the currency.

Unless you spend a lot of time creating a budget prior to your travels, and then go to the effort of sticking to this budget while traveling, you will definitely spend way more money than you anticipated. If I had to do this all over again, I may have put in a bit more effort to do some amount of budgeting, or at least, changed my mindset on accommodations earlier. (But overall, I still spent WAY less traveling around the world than living in any of the large, expensive US-cities I previously called home.)

Always buy travel insurance. Yes, it’s expensive and hopefully you’ll never need it. But early in my travels I met a friend-of-friends who unexpectedly had a medical emergency while abroad and ended up in the hospital for a month! Yes, medical care abroad is much more affordable than in the US, but a month of intensive care is still super expensive anywhere. Plus, I choose not to keep US health insurance policies active while traveling abroad, and instead rely on my travel insurance as my substitute health insurance, so I’m still saving money compared to keeping US insurance while I’m abroad. And it’s particularly necessary if you’re doing adventure sports. (I use World Nomads.)

Accommodations

My favorite stays around the world have been homestays. Turns out, I don’t actually need that much privacy or space for myself. When staying with locals (who I’ve met through Couch Surfing, Airbnb, and as part of my Spanish school in Costa Rica), I’ve had the chance to make new friends, get tips and advice, have snuggle time with pets, and truly feel like I’m at home. Not traveling. It really is the best and I can’t recommend highly enough. (Also, renting a room in a house will save you tons of $$ and you still have your own private space. You just can’t bring guests home with you. But when traveling, part of the fun is exploring new restaurants, bars, parks, museums, etc., so you won’t exactly be entertaining much at home anyway. Unless you want private space for romantic rendezvous… then, do you!)

You can definitely choose not to stay in hostels all the time, but a resolve to never stay in hostels when traveling long term fades pretty quickly when you realize (1) you can extend travel significantly if you’re spending 1/10 of the cost of housing, (2) they aren’t full of young kids partying. I found that so long as I spaced out hostels, and didn’t try to spend weeks on end in one, I could handle sharing a few days here and there. I met folks in their 70s staying in hostels in parts of the world, as well as families. Sometimes, it just is the best option.

Private rooms in hostels can sometimes be a great compromise when you don’t want to pay for a hotel room, but want private space.

In some places Airbnb is the best, in other places, it costs just as much as a hotel (and with hotels, you’ll get more amenities).

When picking accommodations, never compromise your safety. It is not worth saving $$ if you put yourself at risk! (And sometimes, whatever $ you save by staying in a sketchy place will be swallowed by taking cabs everywhere, or if you are mugged or have things stolen.)

Shopping While Abroad & VAT Refunds

Pros and Cons of buying a new smartphone while abroad. Pros: you get upgraded technology and a better camera, and if like me, your smartphone is your only camera for your travels, this is a huge. Also, if you save your receipt you can get tax paid back at VAT counter at the airport, which can save you $150-$200 on your new phone (note: thank God VAT in AUS worked so well, because that is the exception around the world. Before you make a purchase counting on refund of sales tax, be sure to fully understand the process in that country & if your purchase qualifies). Cons: literally everything else. Most US cell phone providers won’t let you activate your new phone while you’re abroad, so say good-bye to your US number until you’re back in the US again. Don’t think that’s a big deal? Think again. You have to say goodbye to EVERY APP that uses text confirmation, unless you want to download and create new/separate accounts, including Uber and Lyft, Venmo, WhatsApp. (Note: when I switched phones, wifi calling was not available. Now that it is, and I can receive text messages to my US-based number without racking up massive cell bills, this wouldn’t be a concern. However, if you have an Android phone, I have no idea if wifi calling is available, and if not, this concern applies.)

VAT Refunds. If you do a lot of shopping for goods (and have receipts, buying from a street vendor won’t count) it’s worth it to save your receipts, because you are entitled to get ALL TAX MONEY BACK! In theory. However, in my experience, most countries make this almost impossibly difficult; they have no real interest in giving you the taxes back (even if you are fully entitled to them). Australia was the only country I visited that made this easy. There was a single counter to visit after I cleared customs and security, and I showed them the receipt and my iPhone, and they processed the refund (there was also no line). In every other country where I bought enough (usually: art) to make it worth a refund, I found the process impossible. And in many countries, only items purchased at specific stores that are part of a VAT-refund program (example: Global Blue). If you’ve purchased items you believe qualify, you may need a specific receipt/form that the store has to give you, so inquire at time of purchase. Also, if you’ll be packing any of the items into a checked bag, you’ll probably have to go to a VAT Refund counter before you go through your security line, unless you plan to carry all purchased items in your carry-on. Allow lots of extra time, as the lines can be long. (And if you bought something expensive and had it shipped directly to the US, in many cases, you’re screwed.) Then once you clear security and customs, you’ll have to find yet another line to wait in; again, these lines can be quite long too. You will probably need to add at least 1 extra hour to the time you arrive to the airport in advance of your flight, and if you have an early flight and the VAT Refund Office isn’t open yet- you’re screwed again (I also had this issue in several countries). In summary: when you’re traveling abroad, you’re entitled to refunds for all taxes paid on goods. But the process of actually getting that money back in many countries is so onerous, you may have a hard time doing so. GOOD LUCK!

 

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