14 Ways to Be Prepared for Anything While Traveling

be prepared like a boy scoutWhen I was a kid, I was a boy scout. I made it pretty far too but then I became a teenager, decided it was “lame” and quit. As a boy scout, I learned how to tie knots, camp outdoors, be a good citizen, play with knives, and got to have cool sleepovers. One of the most important things you learn as a Boy Scout is their motto to always “be prepared”  and as I’ve grown up and traveled the world, I’ve found this to also be a travel truism.

You never know what might happen on the road. Stepping out your door into the unknown is what makes travel so exciting. Each day brings endless possibility, but that possibility is for both good and bad. You may end up enjoying a day sightseeing in Paris — or getting robbed in Berlin. You may spend an amazing day on the beaches of Thailand or suffer food poisoning in Costa Rica.

But if you’re prepared, you’ll be able to face whatever happens to you on the road:

Take Multi-Purpose Gear. Packing multi-use gear ensures you can easily adjust to changing conditions and helps reduce the amount of clothing you need to take. I like pants that zip off into shorts, walking shoes that look nice enough for an evening out, and using my swim trunks as a pair of shorts.  It saves room and I’m prepared for any dress situation.

Carry a Small First-Aid Kit. While we live in 2012, not 1912, and you can find modern medicine anywhere in the world, I always carry a small first aid kit with me with a few essential items to be safe. I take Tylenol, stomach illness medicine, eye drops, Band-Aids, scissors, hydrocortisone cream, anti-bacterial ointment, and a small supply of doctor-approved antibiotics. I’m usually able to find a pharmacy when I need one, but in case of an emergency it’s good to have these items handy.

Pack a Small Flashlight. You’d be surprised how many travelers don’t carry one, but a flashlight will prove to be invaluable when you suddenly decide to go caving in Panama, when your hike lasts longer than expected and nightfall sets in, or when the electricity goes out unexpectedly, which is not uncommon in a lot of places. I carry a small, waterproof pen flashlight when I travel.

Bring an Umbrella. Many travelers don’t pack an umbrella because it adds weight to their bag and they figure they can just buy one if they ever need it. However, while it does add a small amount of weight, I’ve found myself thankful for taking it more times than I can count. You never know when you might be exiting an airport or walking down the street and find yourself in a sudden storm. While others run for cover, I simply take out my umbrella and continue to my destination.

Learn Basic Phrases. Locals don’t expect you to be an expert in their language, but knowing how to say “hello,” “goodbye,” and “thank you” go a long way in endearing yourself to locals. After all, wouldn’t you be annoyed if someone came to your home and expected you to know their language? Knowing a few key phrases will not only make interactions easier, it will also help you when you bargain for goods, order food, get lost, or need help. I download the latest language app for my iPhone when I travel, but for those not using a smartphone, Lonely Planet Guidebooks makes excellent pocket language guides for just about every language spoken, and Benny Lewis wrote this excellent guide on learning languages.

Study Non-Verbal Communication.  Most people interact using both verbal and non-verbal communication, so paying attention to facial expressions can help you appropriately read a situation, even if you don’t understand the verbal part. When you don’t know the language or might take words out of context, keep calm and take a moment to read the feelings of the person. This has helped me defuse tense situations with taxi drivers, vendors, and hotel owners.  Understanding non-verbal communication doesn’t happen overnight. It takes practice but these websites offer good guides on how to understand non-verbal cues.

emergency cash for travelKeep Emergency Cash with You. While there is almost always an ATM around these days, you never know when emergency cash might come in handy. You could end up in an airport (like I recently did) and find that none of your ATM cards work and you are stuck without any money. I recommend having a stash of $200 USD for emergency situations. I don’t carry this money around but leave it in my hotel room safe in case something happens. It will be useful if you get robbed or lose your wallet.

Have Back Up Cards. I always keep one back-up credit card and bank card with me in case of emergencies. You never know when one bank might decide to lock your account for suspicious activity without telling you (yes, that has also happened to me), or when you might get robbed. I recently had my bank account information stolen while I was traveling in Europe. My bank had to deactivate my card and if I hadn’t had a second one with me, I wouldn’t have had access to any money.

Carry Cash.  With the advent of the chip credit card, many countries don’t take the American-style credit card anymore (cards with just a magnetic strip). While you should be able to use a credit card pretty much everywhere, you never know when you might not. One of my cards was rejected in Denmark because it lacked a chip, and I had to run to a bank to get money.  We get used to using credit cards, but it’s always good to have a little cash.

Make Extra Copies. Keeping copies of your documents can come in handy during an emergency, especially if you lose your originals. If you get robbed or lose your passport, having copies ready for officials can make filing police reports and obtaining new documents much easier.  When I lost my passport, my back-up copies helped with my police report and served as my proof of identity at the American embassy.  Copy your passport, your health/travel insurance paperwork, and your credit cards.

Know What to do When You Lose Your Passport. What do you do when you lose your passport? Losing your passport can be scary, especially if you are planning on traveling soon. I didn’t know how to handle it, and trying to figure it out on my own was very confusing. Luckily, I took notes on the entire process for obtaining a new passport overseas — you can read the full text here, but the main points are as follows:

  • Go fill out a police report for your lost passport.
  • Go to the State Department website, print out some forms. Fill them out.
  • Take the forms to the US Embassy or Consulate during morning hours.
  • Wait in line.
  • Wait in line some more.
  • Show the official your police report, forms, proof of your upcoming travel plans, and a passport-sized photo. (If you don’t have a photo, embassies have small photo booths where you can take your picture.)
  • Read every sign made by the US Department of State while you wait even longer.
  • Pay the fee (about $120 USD).
  • Go home and eat lunch.
  • Come back in the afternoon.
  • Wait in line again.
  • Get your new temporary passport that will need to be replaced upon returning home.

Carry a List of Emergency Contacts. If something happens to you, having a list of emergency numbers on you will help medical professionals know who to contact. I also keep a list of my allergies with me so if I need treatment and can’t answer questions, doctors know what I’m allergic to. I keep two copies: one with me and one in my bag in my hotel room. Because having back ups are important!

Have Travel Insurance. The ultimate form of preparedness, having travel insurance will be a blessing when you have to go to the hospital because you popped an ear drum scuba diving, or you get sick on the road, or break a leg. Chances are nothing is going to happen to you while traveling, but for when it does you are going to want to have insurance. Only a fool travels without it.

Read Before You Go. There’s nothing more important than knowing about the place you’re visiting. Head to a library or bookstore and get a few books on what life is like where you’re going. If someone came into your home and ignored all your rules, you would get upset – the same guidelines are applicable when you travel overseas. Knowing basic rules and etiquette can help you avoid any misunderstandings and leave a favorable impression in your host’s minds. Otherwise, you could end up like this British couple who were jailed for kissing in public in Dubai. (That’s a big no-no in Middle Eastern countries.)

You never know when you might face the unexpected, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my years of traveling, it’s that even the best-laid plans can go awry.  You may not use these items all the time, and hopefully you won’t ever need some of them, but the point is to be ready when you do. After all, a scout is always prepared.

  1. Great list Matt. Just learning how to say, ‘I don’t speak (insert language here), do you speak English?’ along with learning the standard greetings of ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’, and ‘thank you’ have helped me out immensely while traveling.

  2. with the back up cards, make sure of them is a credit card – so if the sh*t hits the fan you can aways afford that expensive, last minute one way flight home!

  3. Dani Blanchette

    I always have the first aid kit, and stock up (in countries like Ecuador) on OTC things, like antibiotics, codiene cough medicine (i cant take the reg stuff and like to get bronchitis a lot), and things that i have to pay ridiculous amounts for in the states.

    I also always carry a small sewing kit (mom’s a seamstress). Brown carpet (thick) thread and a needle is all you need. You can use nail clippers or knife to cut thread. Comes in handy so many times. Fix clothes, fix pack, fix other people’s clothes (makes you friends…sometimes gets you a free beer).

    I also love superglue. Its really useful and for deeper wounds (esp if it needs stitches but you cant get to hospital) you can superglue the cut shut.

  4. Great list.

    I’d add an epipen to the first aid kit. I’m not allergic to anything, or so I thought, until I had a meal in Guatemala that caused my lips to start swelling. We had no idea at the time how bad the allergic reaction would be, and fortunately it didn’t require a trip to the hospital, but an epipen is something that I’m going to carry from now on. Scary stuff not knowing if your throat is going to start constricting.

    On a lighter note, a compass is super handy.

    Safe travels,

  5. Great tips thanks!
    Some banks will also let you have duplicate credit/travel cards.I leave one at home with a family member in case mine gets lost or stolen so I can have that one canceled and another one sent straight over. It’s also useful if you run out of money for whatever reason-someone can put money straight into your account and it will be there immediately instead of having it transfered over.

  6. Excellent advice, Matt!

    “I always keep one back-up credit card and bank card with me in case of emergencies. You never know when one bank might decide to lock your account for suspicious activity without telling you (yes, that has also happened to me) . . ..”

    And, all too many times to me!

    I highly recommend that you let your banks know of your travel plans before travelling. You can often do this online. I also recommend that your back up credit card be from an alternative bank and at least one card, if possible, be from a bank with offices in many countries.

  7. Penny

    definitely different sized safety pins and a few pairs of disposable gloves
    also, I have found some rubber bands and small roll of sello/scotchtape are helpful

  8. Leslie Lethridge

    I also carry an ace bandage in my kit. Learned my lesson when I sprained my ankle on the 2nd day of a Bhutan trip.

  9. Thak you for this great list! I always forget atleast one of the thing’s on this list. Think I’ll print this article staple it to my forehead so I never get myself into any jams, that could have been avoided, again.

  10. Hey Matt-

    Solid advice, but I am heading to Cuba in a couple weeks and am leery of the atm situation. I have heard American cards dont work. So I am planning on bringing 1000 euros since I hear they get a better exchange rate. Any advice on pre-paid debits or what the money situation is in Cuba?


    • Anne

      I have travelled in Cuba and I changed money at the airport. Be very careful though and make sure you aren’t short changed. Even though it is the official exchange office one of our party was short changed. They counted out the cash so quickly you can’t keep up. Recount it in front of them.
      I carried plenty of cash, it goes a long way, and used a major bank in Havana when I ran out.

  11. randomraymart

    Great tips Matt!

    I forgot to bring an umbrella but I didn’t need it at all. It would have made my bag heavier (darn luggage weight limits) so it was good that I didn’t. Honestly, it depends on what place you go to whether or not you should bring an umbrella.

  12. Petri

    One can also do many things electronically; put them available, encrypted, in a site like Dropbox. Copies of passports, credit card details, emergency details, anything one can imagine (including copies of your flight tickets).

    We did a long trip a few years ago and my netbook died in Antarctica (static electricity, I guess). I bought a new Macbook in New Zealand a few weeks later and managed to get all the necessary things up and running — thanks to the copies in Dropbox. (Obviously the credit card details etc are there just for emergency, not on my laptop)

    Just make sure whatever online solution you use, it’s encrypted enough for internet cafes. And it’s better to do a cutekitten.jpg image of your credit card than a creditcards.txt text file :-)

  13. Great list, a lot of good tips. On a recent trip just to Colorado I had my debit card shut down by my bank without being told, so I highly recommend always having a back up until things can get cleared. I also always travel with a flash light and some duct tape wrapped around it, have used the flash light more times than I can count.

  14. Karen

    we always make sure to call the credit card company and tell them our travel dates so they know we are there and will not put a hold on our card…

    • I do the same thing, although Chase is notorious for still cutting you off. I told them when I would be in Canada, and even gave them dates that included a day before I left just to make sure the alert was processed. They assured me it would be fine, yet when I landed in Vancouver I couldn’t get cash out for my train ride into the city. Awesome. So I am in the process of switching banks and credit cards for my upcoming RTW trip – not only for that reason, but to avoid Chase’s astronomical foreign transaction fees as well!

  15. Great advice, Matt – I carry/know/remember all of the above in my travels, although it is nice to be refreshed on the routine for sudden loss of money or passport. And those chip cards are a royal PITA – I lived in the Netherlands for three months and I HATED not being able to get my own cash out at about 99% of the ATMs. (I lived with my Dutch boyfriend so we used his card and decided not to deal with the nuisance of opening a Dutch bank account for me. So we really made the decision to be inconvenienced, but still. :))

    Another great item to carry in first-aid kits is dental floss. Buy a cartridge at Walmart for 60 cents and fix tears, holes, and rips in clothing and your equipment gear – floss is a LOT sturdier than thread and cheaper!

      • aly

        Not easy when you have no identification…copies of passport really is a must…I had a very difficult time getting the head of the consulate to believe I was who I said I was…had no phone either ..

  16. For years I refused to take an umbrella, especially when going to locations that are meant to be sunny. And I have gotten pissed on. I got a tiny little umbrella from REI that doesn’t weigh much and it has come in handy quite a few times.

  17. karen

    memorize your passport number, then you don’t have to pull it out on the airplane and lose it. I believe it also makes replacing at the embassy easier.

  18. Wonderful tips! I remember my visit to china where the biggest struggle was related with the language. I am glad that human race discovered the science non verbal communication, gestures and body language 😀 else the trip would have been a disaster…
    Thanks for sharing wisdom, I am sure these tips will be of great help.

  19. Tedra

    I LOVE these tips, especially after my first trip abroad (& to Cuba at that!) because these are all things I’d already had nightmares over. Depending on how popular a destination you are going to, I’d also add the idea of a sturdy water bottle with duct tape around it. Lessons learned from camping: a tiny emergency blanket, a tiny emergency poncho, tiny compass & the smallest pocket knife you can find (buy there, even if you have to give away before flying home) are AWESOME.

    Also HIGHLY recommend the umbrella idea, my group quickly discovered that in hot/bright weather they’re great to use as a parasol or sun shade. Personally would recommend something other than black as I did though.

  20. cathy mccann

    Duct Tape! You can roll a length of it around a pencil for saving space. I’ve used it as first aid for my feet, repairing shoes, ad infinitum.

  21. Robert

    Why are we taking advice from a guy who just told stories of himself making every possible traveling mistake? Lost credit card, lost passport, ran out of cash, etc. shouldn’t we want advice from someone who hasn’t made every mistake in the books?!

  22. Aiden S

    Hey Matt. What do you put your copies on (for passports and what not). Like a computer or paper or like actual copies?

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