Things I’d Tell A New Traveler

By Nomadic Matt | Published June 13th, 2008

desert where the sun glows redHope. Fear. Excitement. Traveling for the first time provides us with a wave of conflicting emotions. We are excited about new possibilities but afraid of the unknown at the same time.

When I left for the road, I knew nothing. I read some bulletin boards, but I was green as they come. There were no travel blogs then, no Twitter, Facebook fan pages, or vast amounts of information on the Internet. You went on your own. It was good and bad at the same time. To compensate for the lack of preparedness, I followed my guidebook and wet my foot with tours. You could spot me a mile away with my guidebook and my backpack. A big sign hung over my head that said “SCAM ME.” I was young; I was inexperienced; and I made a lot of rookie travel mistakes.

With close to five years travel experience now, if I could sit myself down on the day he left for his world trip, I would give him this advice:

Don’t be scared. Fear is a powerful deterrent. Despite what they say on CNN and Fox News, the whole world is not out to get you because you are American. It’s not scary out there. People everywhere are just like you – they have hopes, fears, want the best for their children, hate their jobs, and are just trying to make it through the day. 99.99% of people don’t care where you are from. They aren’t out to get you, so don’t shy away from the locals. If you’re semi-street smart, you’ll avoid the .01% who do care where you’re from.

You don’t need a lot of stuff. When I went on my first trip, I brought a big bag filled with tons of stuff – hiking boots, hiking pants, a fleece, and more toiletries than CVS. But I didn’t even use half of it. They just sat in my bag and I had to carry it around. When I went away again, I took even less and still didn’t use it all. The lesson: Pack light. It’s less to carry and less to hold you down. You can pick up stuff on the way if you really need it.

Get a Phone. You meet a lot of people on the road who are all going different ways and you may find your paths will cross again. However, it’s hard to plan events around e-mail. Did they get it? Will they be there? I don’t know! Invest in a cheap phone so you can stay in touch with people better. Plus it comes in handy in an emergency.

The more you plan, the worse it is. Want to stay longer? Leave sooner? Change hotels? If you pre-planned your trip, that’s something you can’t easily do. When every day is planned out, when there are timetables to follow, you get stressed. Any kink in your plan, and you don’t know what to do.  When you plan too much, there’s no room to experience the happy accidents of travel. Travel brings a lot of unexpected events that can cause you to change your mind about a lot of things. Put some flexibility into your schedule, and go with the flow. It’ll make for a more enjoyable and less stressful experience. You just might be surprised by what unexpectedly happens and the people you meet. Let life unfold the way it should be.

Take More Money. I could do Asia on 15 dollars a day or Europe on 70, but I take a lot more money than that because you never know. There are a lot of unexpected costs on the road and, no matter how well you budget, you can never plan for them all. For example, I never expected to buy a new camera in Italy. I never expected to change my plans and live in Amsterdam. Maybe you decide that you are going to learn to scuba dive after all. Or you’ll want to fly to Fiji suddenly. No matter what happens, something will always come up and eat into your budget. Take more than you think you need so you have more flexibility.

Throw away the guidebook. Guidebooks are good for an overview and maps, but you’ll never find the best stuff in there. And, even if it is there, it’s dated information. The locals aren’t hanging out at that bar and, if they were, once the tourists come in, they leave. How many locals do you see at the tourist traps in your hometown? For the best stuff, hook up with the locals and ask them. Talk to them. People are your best resource for information. Ask your fellow travelers. You’ll never find that underground hot spot in a Lonely Planet.

Go Slow!! I know it can be tempting to try to see it all. Who knows when you’ll get another chance? But DON’T! With limited vacation time, we are always trying to squeeze in everything – rushing through twenty cities in twenty days, 100 countries on our RTW, etc. In the end, all we have to show for it are photos, stress, and a whirlwind of experiences but no real deep knowledge of the places we went to. When you travel, less is more. It allows you time to drink deep from each culture and soak it all up. Get to know the place – where the locals go, where they eat, what they do. Make time to spend a relaxing day in the park. Go slow, and you’ll experience more.

Get Contact Information. You will make a lot of great friends on the road. Some of them will become lifelong friends. But sometimes you don’t get their contact information and you regret it forever. With Facebook, it is easy to stay in touch with people for years after your trip. You may grow apart, you may never see them again but what will haunt you the most is that you never got that person’s email just in case you are able to see them again. They become lost to you forever and you wonder longingly what happened to them.

Don’t Be Shy. It takes a lot of courage to talk to strangers. There you are alone in a hostel and everyone is sitting around talking. Speaking up takes courage. But everyone traveling is friendly. They are traveling because they want to meet new people. Just let the word “hello” come out of your mouth and everything else will fall into place. No one ever said no when they were asked “Can I join you?” It will be O.K.

Be Adventurous. I know you don’t like heights. I know you don’t like a lot of sports. But while your tailbone may hurt from hitting the water wrong, you’ll never regret taking that leap off the boat in the Galapagos. You may have screamed like a girl, but you did love that canyon swing. And didn’t those maggots taste good in the end? Challenge yourself. Take risks. Try new adventures. You may only ever do it once but at least you did it.

comments 54 Comments

Great post Matt, one of my favorites so far!

Love the new design, looks great!

Jenna

I love this advice! Good work Matt! :)

Good advice – love the new site!

The “Don’t be scared” advice is so important, I think, and now more than ever.

Welcome to the really real world of grown-up blogging!

The site looks fantastic, Matt. Great job! I’ll change my links.

this `post rings so true for me. When you travel alone you end up meeting folks that have no agenda as well and when you click, you want to continue to travel with them… planning ahead is a waist of money and quality time.
ps to your ps… porters are not required to cary your personal belongings. if you do not get a personal porter you have to carry your mat and sleeping bag. they carry the tent, food etc.

NomadicMatt

@Julie: This one you hear the most in the states. Everyone always asks “is it safe?” as if the world is dangerous but walking in NYC is easy. Speaking of NYC, are you there next weekend?

@steve: I know! Thanks for the push!!

@domina: TRUE!! I chaned my plans a lot because of people I met up with.

@everyone else: Thanks for the kind words!

Ron in L.A.

Good sound advice Matt…

R(etc… )

Hey Matt,
Happy Birthday and congratulations on a wonderful post! You’ve been so kind to me…dropping by and commenting…it’s really appreciated.

Have to agree with the “ditch the guidebook” advice given here…I actually think guidebooks are pretty handy…but see so many people with their noses buried in ‘em that I can’t help but think that they’re missing out on so much by trying to see it all….meh…I guess I’m preachin’ to the choir here.

anyhow, the gist of what I wanted to say is great friggin’ post!

Your new site looks awesome!

I agree with all of the above, especially go slow and throw away the guidebook. LP just directs everyone to the same places.

Great picture and some of the words were so true..Ive learnt a few myself though Im not a prolific traveller like u

Lakshmi

Hey Matt,
the redesign looks great!

Some great tips, thank you for sharing.:)

great advice! and the new site looks great – you’re work has definitely paid off! hope to see you soon!

hi matt, great site you have here! i definitely like this new layout. i think your writing is amazing and inspirational. i am currently planning my trip for after graduation, and i’ll be in asia and hopefully back to new zealand, too! when were you planning to be in those places?

NomadicMatt

@everyone: Thanks for all the great comments about the new site and this article! it means a lot!!!

@trang: I will be in southeast asia as of September.

Anthony

Trés bien on the site!

NomadicMatt

@Monna: That is a great tip! It connects well to the tour or not tour blog from a few days ago. It’s important to know what kind of traveler you are. If you aren’t a throw it to the wind person, a more structured environment could be a lot better:

http://www.nomadicmatt.com/travel-blogs/2008/06/10/good-group-travel/

Monna

Hey Matt!

I have an addition to your list: “Know Yourself.”

While it’s great to push yourself and to stay open to happy accidents, some travellers will definitely need a bit more stability and structure. Before you go on the road for a BIG trip, you need to anticipate what kind of traveller you will be. I once heard of a woman who went off her anti-anxiety meds just before a trip around the world!

I think it’s important to acknowledge that every traveller is different.

My favourite tip on your list is to Go Slow. I have had really rich experiences when I spent a week in a place and not just a whirlwind 49 hours.

good advice. many people get caught up with lists that they have created by reading the guidebooks.. Just talk to the locals and find out what places are truly great! As an added bonus, you get to tell everyone about this cool new place you found… instead of saying “yeah, we went to the place on page 13, then the one on page 49…”

Thanks for this post Matt. I am leaving in 18 days and I was rushing it all too much, but with the advice of well-seasoned travelers and other blogs I am cutting out a couple of countries and saving them for another time. Again, great post, and thanks :)

Virginia

Hey Matt, I read this before I sent you a message.
this is helpful. although I need more. hit this old ass up when you get a chance.

thanks
Virginia

Good advice, Matt. I have to agree with Monna–some of us might actually be more stressed if we didn’t have at least the essential structure of the trip planned out ahead of time (what days in what cities, how we get there, where we’re staying). I do agree that leaving some time open in your schedule each day for “happy accidents” is very important, though–as well as “slowing down”. It took me awhile to learn those 2 lessons, but I find I’m a much happier traveler now and less exhausted when I get home.

I think the hardest thing for me is the ‘You don’t need a lot of stuff’ limiting my life to one bag will take some work but I’m on a mission already to remove the clutter.

jforest

These are great tips, I totally agree! My first 2.5 week trip overseas alone I packed so much more than I needed. I did much better for my 2 months abroad after college. I had one relatively big backpack, with everything I needed. I bought a beach towel when I was at the beach, since i hadn’t packed one. That’s now one of my favorite souvenirs!

Being flexible is by far the best tip. Don’t plan too much in advance. On my 2 month trip I changed my plans and ended up staying in the Cinque Terre in Italy for 1.5 weeks instead of the 2 days I was planning. The freedom to do what you want is the best part of travel!

pam

What about “there’s no wrong way to travel”? Folks will get bogged down in doing in “right” but the way that works for the one that’s doing the traveling is the best way.

NomadicMatt

That’s a good one to add too!

Great post. All too true. Especially the one about budgeting, unfortunately! As well as unexpected extra expenses (such as burst tyres on hire cars – groan…), some of the experiences that really make a trip are so worth splashing out on so it’s a good idea to have another kitty of spare cash just for these. I’m thinking hang gliding over Rio de Janeiro, whale watching in Baja, or trekking to Colombia’s Lost City. All these things cost a lot more than my daily budget but they are the things I remember most.

Kay

I’m a travel planner. I LOVE to plan. It’s part of the fun for me. I find that it’s the best way of saving money. When I travel in high season, booking accommodations in advance helps me get the cheaper places to stay. I can always cancel them but at least I have something set up!

Katia

Hi Matt
How do you manage the phone? Do tou buy new chips in every country??
Thanks for the advices!!!
Katia

NomadicMatt

Yeah, I put a new SIM card in whenever I go to a new country or I use any unused credit on the old card and then switch.

Carrie

I like your site a lot, but there are SOOOOO many typos it’s hard to enjoy it. Have a friend proofread it for you and it will end up looking a lot more professional.

NomadicMatt

While I appreciate your critique, rereading this article, I didn’t find any glaring mistakes.

Y

I love this one. I am a new traveler, just started 2 years ago but never been to a lot of countries. So far, just two in South East Asia. I was with my male best friend in KL who is also very experienced in traveling and he convinced me to stay in a hostel – it’s a first time experience for me. But I am glad he convinced me because I had a great time. I met a few people while in the hostel, though we didn’t end up as friends, it help me loosen myself up a bit. It was a great experience. Thanks for these tips. It really helps. Next time I travel, I will remember this post. :) Great blog!

Emily

I am just starting to research traveling abroad for extended lengths of time and have been getting so stressed out by all of the decisions and planning. I keep starting to research and then stopping because I get discouraged or second guess if it’s a good idea. I’m glad I stumbled across your blog because all of your info has been really helpful and definitely encouraging. Your advice has greatly calmed my nerves, thank you!

Elize

I am used to walking to an ATM to draw money, but they don’t take mastercard everywhere and I didn’t have Visa.

Make sure you know where you can send/receive moneygrams from before you leave :) It would have made my life a lot easier in Amman

Jim

Timeless, sage advice here. I lived in Asia for a number of years, and when people came to visit, they all wanted to cram in the sights. But they always most enjoyed the two days in the middle of their itinerary that we planned nothing more than a slow motorbike trip through our small town to stop at markets, sip scalding hot tea and speak with locals. Sights are fleeting visual memories. Delicious conversation with strangers creates emotional tones that last forever.

Thanks for posting this article, Matt.

Well written advice for a newbie traveler like me! Thanks a lot! Shyness is my weakpoint and hopefully I can overcome it as I travel!

Cheers!

NomadicMatt

Welcome!

Jimmy A

Your the sickest Matt!

I couldn’t agree more with these tips! Excellent.

I like most of these, but I disagree on one. I plan for everything in a trip. However, I am very open to changing any plan if I see something better. My plan is more of a suggestions to avoid the “well, what should we do next? Let’s look online” moment that wastes time. Personally I don’t get stressed about stuff like that. Have you ever other people who over plan (on purpose) in your travels?

Sanna Hellgren

Great tips!

I would rephrase the expression “scream like a girl” though, a rather stereotypING expression don’t you think?

jonathan

very helpful, mostly the part about fear, thanks

I a new traveler! I’ve travel around Vietnam alone (with my motorbike). But that things also important for me. Thank you so much, Matt! I like yours posts! Hope meet you at Vietnam or somewhere in the earth.

Nikki

Loved this post – teetering on the edge of taking to the road and reading this has sure helped push me closer to the exit! Cheers Matt, inspirational blog.

Julia

Thank you Matt for giving me so much courage and hope for my future! It’s great what you do here!!

cherylyn

We are traveling to europe for the first time in a few months. We have given the most time we can be away spending the first week in Ireland with friends. Then we go to England (1 week) and last to Northern Spain (9 days) . Of the 3 countries England is overwhelming with where we should go. We don’t want to do all the typical tourist things. Where do you suggest we start or go? We have not booked anything yet as where to stay or go. Please help :) Any suggestions?

Great interesting post.

Great interesting post. I totally agree with the ‘Throw away the guidebook’ advise and to go with the locals. This very thing had actually pushed me to create my own website and try to live out of getting travellers direct contact with the locals.

I have a different opinion on “the more you plan, the worse it is”. It rather depends on how you plan and what you actually plan.
I plan a lot and my planned trips turned out to be much better than my more spontaneous trips. Although I love spontaneity…
I plan a lot when pinning my targets on the map. In order not to miss them and in order to create the best itinerary to see them all.

ANWAR

Hi Matt, you are really driving the nail aright. I passed through these experiences when I was on the tour of SE Asia. Specifically, speaking to the strangers was really a great experience when I was on the road for the first time. Being Asian and a little bit of serous nature, I really enjoyed the opportunities of talking to the strangers and getting out of the self shell.

One more thing I will add, making friends while being on road is easier when one is solo traveler compared to being in a group.

LOVE your posts. Keep it up and hope will meet at some point of some day.

NomadicMatt

I did that in New Zealand!

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