Friday, 17 May 2013

My top travel tips

(This piece has no apostrophes. Because I cant find how to do them on a Mexican keyboard. It took me two days to find out how to do @ (FYI: AltGr, Q, 2)

Ive been a travel addict for many years now. Its funny, my parents love travelling and used to take us (me, my brother and sister) on foreign holidays when we were young and I hated it. I wanted to stay in England like my friends. In fact, on one amazing weekend we were allowed to go to Butlins holidays camp. We loved the pool, the food, the chalet, the games, that everybody spoke English, and the best, the fact we could go to the restaurant without our parents and be served.
My mum and dad kept insisting on going to France, Spain, Italy, Austria and Switzerland (my dad is a skiing nut). They even bought a thick stone-walled cottage in France, very cheap, in a tiny hamlet. Bo-ring. Every holiday the two day drive, the cleaning of the cobwebs, the same neighbours (Jean-Claude and Marie-Ange).
Of course, these trips turned out to be formative experiences and very influential on me. My daughter is half-French for starters.
It took me a while to get into backpacking: my first trip to India I was so ignorant I took my typical holiday clothes, including a mini skirt. I didnt even possess a backpack! I didnt know that there were cool travel guides like Lonely Planet. I went trekking in Tibet in flip flops, with my belongings in a plastic carrier bag, no tent, no sleeping mat, and a thin rented nylon sleeping bag. But I was young and strong and got through it fine. Later, going more hard-core, I turned into a bit of a budget travel wanker: I did South America for a year on $8 a day. Including everything. I was proud of travelling cheap, haggling non-stop to pay local prices. Doing it so cheap meant I missed out on some great experiences: the Galapagos, Easter Island and Antartica. I wish Id just spent the money, bunged it on my credit card. But, by roughing it, I also experienced things I would never otherwise have seen. I always hitched, mostly stayed with locals or camped, did things very slowly, covered the continent inch by inch on the road. You get a feel for a place that way.

Over the years Ive upgraded my style. I now love a proper hotel, a taxi, a wheely suitcase, a chocolate on the pillow and a few nice outfits when travelling. Its good to mix it up however, to be prepared to slum it again from time to time. No posh hotel can replace camping at the foot of the Perito Moreno glacier in Argentina for instance, hearing shards of electric blue ice carve off into the water all night, a dangerous thrill from which I could have died. (Campers have perished there and its not recommended)

So here a few things that I have learnt. These are more directed towards the budget traveller, which I still am, unless I get a press freebie. Please add your tips as Im sure Ive forgotten things!


1) Take flip flops. You will need them in dodgy showers and for the beach. They are light and waterproof and cheap.
2) Ive recently been converted to the film star like glamour of the eye mask. It does help you sleep.
3) Take a hat. I always forget and end up buying a new hat every trip. Useful for sun and cold.
4) Take a thin thermal underwear top to use as a sweater. They are light and dry easily while keeping your warm and not using much baggage space.
5) If you are a woman, take a mid-length skirt. Skirts are great on long bus journeys such as the one I took down the Peruvian coast, hours of driving through flat desert. On pee stops I noticed that the Peruvian Indians had no problem, huddling together and squatting, knowing that their modesty was protected in front of the male bus passengers by their large gathered skirts. I, on the other hand, was trying to find a small hillock behind which I could wriggle down my jeans and relieve myself. In the end, bus driver getting impatient, I thought the hell with this and didn{t care if everyone saw my naked arse.
6) I dont pack towels, I pack a sarong, which can be used to dry yourself, to lie on at the beach, as a scarf, head protection, for modesty say, in a church. The possibilities are endless.
7) Always put your swimming costume in your hand baggage. Unless you are of conventional size, that will be hard to replace if your baggage is lost. While you are waiting for your clothes, at least you can swim!


8) Be aware that some medicins make you photo sensitive, you burn more easily.
9) Always pack your vital medicines in your hand baggage.
10) I like to pack zinc oxide cream. For chafing thighs (sweaty!) and sun protection. Also talcum powder is a life saver, for the thighs again and the swollen feet in new sandals.
11) I carry salt and garlic. The salt is useful for electrolites if you get dehydrated plus you have seasoning for your picnics. Ditto garlic but that can also be used as an antiseptic, when rubbed on a small wound.
12) Hydrate! At altitude, in the sun, everywhere! Really important to drink enough water. Recently I was in New Mexico which is so hot and dry, I literally couldnt drink enough. I would wake up several times in the night, woken by thirst. Watch out for ice in drinks if in a place with dodgy water.


13) Carry an adaptor for your electrical goods such as an ipad, iphone or camera charger. Travel has changed so much. Nowadays even the most impoverished backpacker is booking everything through the internet with either or They are reading Trip Advisor reviews rather than carrying the Lonely Planet guide. They are emailing or facebooking as opposed to having mail forwarded to Post Restante. (Oh I loved that, going to Kathmandu Post Office and rifling through the rs in the index cards to see if an airmail envelope had arrived for me). Email is not the same. Nor are the travellers for that matter. I feel travellers have become less interesting generally. Its all gap year students on drinking binges.

14) Sometimes do the tour. When youve arrived, tired but excited and want to get a feel for the place, it{s a good idea to fork out the money for the tour. Today for instance, I took two trains and a collectivo (small bus) to visit a place, Xochimilco, where brightly coloured barges float down a Mexican canal. It was fascinating. But it took ages to get there and back, under my own steam, in the heat. I had to haggle with the boat guy. I probably spent 400 pesos. The tour would have been 500 pesos, including all travel from the hostel where I am staying, the boat, and a trip to Frida Kahlos house. Who is the smarter travelller here?

15) Book a decent hotel for the first night while you get your bearings. The good thing about hostels though is if you are a lone traveller, you get to meet other people. I quite like sleeping in dorms. Hostels do sometimes have private rooms however.

16) Write things down, dont just rely on emails. You want your flight info, your medical insurance details, your home address, passport number, credit card numbers, written on the front page of your notebook (a pen and paper one that is) NOT just floating in the ether. Stuff gets lost and stolen. You need hard copies. Remember that not everywhere has internet even if they say they do.

17) I suffer with swelling ankles on planes nowadays. I wear compression socks and take a diuretic for a long haul flight. I drink lots of water. All this helps prevent monster ankles in todays niggardly seating allowances.

18) Try not to sit at the back of the bus. The suspension is always worse, especially in very poor countries and on winding roads. Plus it means you are near the toilets which smell and sometimes overflow. I always book for the front. This means you can see if the driver is crazy/asleep or if there are bandits boarding (you can hide your stuff)

19) Most importantly, use your instincts. If it feels wrong, it is. It can be odd to be rude when repelling that friendly local who gives you the creeps. But you are abroad and vulnerable, your gut instincts, if you listen to them, will save you every time.


  1. Along with your swimming costume in the hand baggage, a clean pair of knickers and socks, a thin, long cotton t-shirt (that can be nightwear as well), moisturiser, toothbrush and toothpaste. If I have those, I don't care too much about anything else!

  2. Hi Kerstin,

    Great post and travel tips! I am just over halfway through a 6 month sabbatical, currently in Ecuador. Agree that there seem to be more "gap yah" brats than when I last travelled in my early 20s.

    I wanted to add some tips I have found useful while travelling:

    1) a tupperware container is a great thing to pack - not only is it a sturdy way to store bits and bobs that can get tangled or lost in your backpack (eg adaptors, charging cables, batteries) it's a great to be able to make packed lunches from markets

    2) one of those washing lines which you can string up anywhere and doesn't need pegs is indispensable

    3) all purpose, eco friendly soap can be used for clothes, hair, body and even food and is suitable to use in rivers etc if you are camping.

    4) kindles are awesome - but don't do what I did and neglect to buy a case. The screens are surprisingly fragile - mine broke just a few weeks in to my trip :(

    5) if you're a shutterbug, sort through your photos as you go. Don't make friends and family scroll through dozens of the same shots - pick the best and discard the rest. Also save and back up everything! I have been using Dropbox but others prefer to email photos to themselves or even save photos o to disc and post them back home.

    Feel free to check out my food and travel adventures at

  3. SarahC: this trip Delta lost my baggage for a couple of days and they had a kit with precisely all those things in it. They must lose baggage regularly!

  4. Hi Leila,
    Great tips. Yes a tupperware container. Nowadays with the clip on types, they don{t empty their contents in your bag.
    I{ve brought my ipad rather than my kindle which is great for browsing but terrible for writing with.
    Good idea about using Dropbox. I{ve been backing my photos up on my ipad but having had my phone and a camera stolen on this trip (while I was sleeping! in my 2nd floor hotel room!) I{m terrified about getting my last camera nicked. I think that the ipad backs them up to icloud.
    That{s the thing about travelling, you learn something new every time. Just like with cooking.
    Spent a couple of months in Ecuador a few years ago...lovely relaxing place.

  5. Actually I don{t have a kindle, but I do have the kindle app on my ipad.

  6. My top tip is to make sure you have something warm to wear on the plane, especially if you are on a budget airline with no blankets. I take a pashmina for this and to wear on chilly evenings.

    I made my friend do a walking tour of Split yesterday, I don't think it would have occurred to her but she was glad we'd done it afterwards! Fascinating Roman history here, although as a Roman nut I want to know more now (today is the negotiated "beach day" of our holiday though)

  7. Great post! Bringing back lot's of good memories.

    I always have photocopies of my passport and visa in my hand luggage and backpack. Shampoo bars are really good as you don't have to worry about bottles leaking in your bag.
    I use those packing cubes that fit inside a backpack. You can stuff your clothes into them and then zip them up which makes you feel more organised than you are.
    From 6 months in India I learn't to carry a candle and it was the first thing I would unpack as the power seemed to go out often.
    A swiss army knife credit card comes in handy too. Compact and surprising how useful a tiny knife can be for preparing food.

    I am sure the list could go on! Thank you for making me think about it all :)

  8. Sarah: candle yes! Never heard of shampoo bars sounds intruguing!

  9. Bugger this iPad cara it was you who mentioned the candle. My sister got those packing cubes to help organise her but I don't think it worked. She's dead messy.

  10. Sarah: yes something warm for the plane is essential, sometimes I've frozen. Also for overly air conditioned buses!

  11. Useful tips! Thanks! Enjoyed this! xxx

  12. I am also a big fan of traveling; but I'm an even bigger fan of traveling on a budget. This is exactly why I do my hotel booking in advance, at least a couple months, to save me money.

  13. This made me laugh so much - I loved the bit about the missing apostrophes! Everything you say is true: particularly roughing it and then treating yourself. On our honeymoon, we did three nights camping and then a night in a really nice hotel where we had about twenty baths. Citronella candles? I can't bear that tiny whine of mosquitos as you're about to fall asleep. Great post x

  14. Sophie! Yes! Citronella candles! Or, failing that, citronella oil to drop into candles and rub around ankles and wrists as an anti mozzie device.
    Mexican keyboards are a complete mystery. French keyboards think the semi:colon is more important than the full stop. You have to do shift to get a full stop. Tells you everything you need to know about the French.

  15. Lots of good serious tips here. Although not a rough it type of gal these days, somethings in the handbag is excellent advice.


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