Three thousand days. Over eight years. That’s how long I’ve been traveling. Here’s how we’ve solved some of our travel problems.
Is your suitcase messy?
Packing cubes are great, but I’m a huge fan of small, cloth, colorful bags. I picked up several of these in Ecuador and Peru — and these are the perfect size for a pair of underwear, a t-shirt, and pair of socks. Go ahead and roll clothes as you’re putting them into the bags — instead of having to dig through your bag to find the three items, just grab one of these pre-packed bags and be off.
What’s our reservation code again?
Whether it’s for the flight or hotel, there’s usually a short alphanumberic reservation code. It’s part of the e-mail confirming things… but of course trying to find that amongst your other e-mails when you’re running behind is always fun. Plan ahead — you know when you’ll be arriving at each place if you planned ahead. Write down the codes on an index card and keep it in your pocket.
Need to keep dirty / wet stuff separate?
Plastic grocery bags are worth their weight in gold, from laundry bags to ways of separating wet swimsuits from the rest of your luggage. A better option is to avoid transporting anything wet. A microfiber towel or even a Shamwow makes for a much faster drying option.
Luggage difficult to maneuver?
Keep heavy stuff at the bottom of the luggage — shoes are an obvious culprit. Give those wheels a good ungunking while waiting to check-in or at the gate. For bonus points, employ a pair of tongs to reach stuff your fingers can’t, and WD-40 to lubricate them. Buying good luggage that’s built to last helps, too.
Carrying lots of travel-sized toiletries?
Fuhgetabodit! Bring what you have from home, unless you’re on a very short or minimalist sort of trip.
Always losing / damaging USB cords?
Put them in eyeglass cases. The more brightly colored, the better.
Don’t want to run through the airport to catch your flight?
Give yourself tons of time. The day before you’re flying out, pack everything up as best as possible. The day of your flight, aim to build in time everywhere you can. Assume you’re moving half your normal speed (which isn’t too far off when you’re loaded with luggage!). We usually aim to leave the house hours before we need to be at the gate — it’s a little absurd to some, but once we arrive at the gate there’s almost always a place to crash, plug in, and relax a bit with a game or some reading.
Tired of buying expensive drinks once past security?
Bring an empty plastic bottle or keep a cup in your carry-on. Bonus points if it’s a collapsible bottle, like this one. Plenty of other options are out there, but seriously — I’ve never had one confiscated. This only matters if there are water fountains or potable water from the bathroom sinks, of course.
Hard to get in and out of narrow aisles?
Raise the aisle armrest — this isn’t possible on all aircraft, but on some armrest there’s a tiny little latch just inside the armrest by the hinge. Lift or push that latch up, then raise it up 90 degrees.
Want the whole row to your and your traveling partner?
Book one of you in the aisle, and another with the window. Middle seats tend to be the last to be booked, meaning they’re less likely to get booked at all. If it is booked, ask to switch seats with them (most people are happy to get out of the middle, so ask which one they’d prefer).
Need proof of a return flight?
BestOnwardTicket.com for the win. When we flew into Ecuador, we were told at the check-in counter we had to have a ticket leaving Ecuador. It’s a requirement by many airlines, in theory, but Avianca (Colombia’s national airline) was actually enforcing it. We only found out this curveball last-minute made it ever more important this service perform — and fast.
Essentially, they lets you rent an onward ticket for a small fee They purchase it in your name, send you the confirmation via e-mail, and you can show / print that wherever you need to. (They then cancel the ticket after 24 or 48 hours — you can’t actually use the ticket.) Going from purchasing on the website to e-mail confirmations to passing muster at the check-in counter took about 30 minutes, and we avoided paying for a flight we wouldn’t use or spending hours trying to get a refund for a ticket we wouldn’t use.
Arriving and getting started
Need foreign currency at a rate that doesn’t suck?
Take your debit card to the ATM. Don’t bother with the currency conversion booths.
Which SIM card / prepaid phone plan is the best?
While I wouldn’t count on the free wifi found at an airport, search for the country you’re visiting on prepaid-data-sim-card.fandom.com/wiki for suggestions and instructions. This one site has been far more helpful than the official company’s websites, and often has info that’s either difficult or impossible to find elsewhere.
I’ll note that there are plenty of options here — roaming from your home country’s plan or a wireless wi-fi device are the two other most common ways — but frankly, the principle of using what the locals use has worked far more often than other tactics.
At the hotel
Forgot / lost your USB charger?
The back of many modern TV’s often has a USB port — perfect for charging your phone or tablet.
Don’t want to pay through the nose for room service or the in-hotel restaurants?
Take a walk around the hotel once you’ve checked in and settled in. Unless you’re in the middle of nowhere, you’re likely to find a restaurant, convenience store, or other options.
Only one plug in the whole room?
A power strip (power bar) to the rescue. Pay a bit more for the one with a longer cord.
Where is that hotel again?
Grab a business card and/or star the hotel on Google Maps. The card’s for the taxi or a local, as necessary, while the Maps star is for you.
Discovered the internet is slow or expensive?
Download the offline Google Maps for the city in question, and search for the bus apps, the subway apps, the city government apps while on wifi. Doing it before you leave home allows you to test apps, delete the crap, and keep the rest for when you arrive.
About to forget where you have just been?
Whether you’re writing about the place or not, take pictures of the entrance sign, any signboards, and any maps.
Bank / Paypal freezes your account?
Hindsight’s 20–20. You should have told them ahead of time where you were going, but that doesn’t help now. Call them — e-mailing always seems to take forever.
Is the place still open / does it exist?
A place’s website hasn’t always been the most accurate. While it’s helpful to call, if it’s popular at all it’s easier to check for reviews on Trip Advisor and its activity on social media beforehand.
More than one location for a place on Google Maps?
We’ve seen this a few times — and it’s times like these that I’m reminded Google is often a collector of info, not always a provider of it. If the area has Google Street View or Google Earth, there are usually the easiest ways to narrow it down. In other cases, the two locations are fairly close to each other, even within walking distance.
Alternatively, do a Google search for the place in your browser, which usually brings up a map. Tap that, and it’ll load up the map in the app.
Eating and drinking
Don’t want to eat at the same places as every other tourist?
Get off main streets, meander away from touristy areas and down side streets. A minimum of a couple blocks is a good place to start. You can also use Yelp or Tripadvisor to see a place’s reviews, paying attention to any reviews written in the native language.
Trying to stay on a budget?
Cooking in your hotel is obvious enough, but sometimes it’s cheaper and easier to grab some street food. Grab some local beers (or wines) and head back to the hostel / hotel. Forget about the clubs or higher-end bars.
Around the apartment
Stubbing your toe on steps?
Some apartments have rooms where the floors are at different heights. My solution was to put half of a foam noodle along the step up to avoid stubbed toes. Same idea goes if there’s a low clearance — say, along a set of stairs.
Moved to a new place and don’t want to get lost coming home?
Star the location in Google Maps (or your preferred mapping app) so it’s always easy to locate.
Hate fumbling for lights or bumping into doors?
Glow-in-the-dark paint or glow-in-the-dark duct tape. In a pinch, those glow-in-the-dark stars will work as well. Be careful to apply these to the plastic covers only — getting these off of drywall or paint can be tricky.
No oven mitts?
Yep, that’s awkward. Instead of struggling to keep a washcloth or dish towel away from the flames, cut a couple of flaps from a cardboard box and fold in half.
No measuring cups / scoops?
Plastic bottles of the 500ml, 2 liter, or 3 liter size are perfect for this. Cut off the top half or two-thirds and voila! If you need a precise measurement, use a known quantity (like a full 12 ounce / 355 ml can) and mark a line with permanent marker. The edge will be sharp!
What’s considered a ‘cup’ in cooking varies from 236–284ml for reasons I’ve never learned or cared about. As a rough guesstimate, I’ll round to 250ml where precision isn’t critical — that 500ml bottle of Coke or water thus holds about two cups.
Time to use the other end of that plastic bottle. Cut about 15cm / 6 inches from the top.
Need a ruler?
A standard A4 sheet of paper is 210 × 297 millimeters or 8.27 × 11.69 inches — call it 300mm or 11.5 inches for simplicity. Fold in half to get 150mm or 5.75 inches, and again to get 75mm or 2.875 inches.
Need to block some light in small places?
Forget shades or curtains, especially if you’re only in the apartment / hotel room for a short period of time. My personal favorite is cardboard, since it can wedged into places without needing tape and removed in seconds. Cut a piece about 1.5cm (or 1/2 inch) bigger than necessary.
Not allowed to put holes in walls?
Command strips are my favorite — but get them bigger than you think you need. When you’re ready to leave, they come off with a solid pull and don’t take a chunk of the drywall / paint with it.
Need to get your deposit back?
This all-purpose cleaner can be made almost anywhere in the world:
1 cup water
1/4 cup white vinegar
2 to 3 drops dish soap
Combine water, white vinegar, and dawn dish soap in an empty spray bottle
Good for virtually any surface (metal, plastic, glass, mirrors), though I’ve read it’s not good on granite.
A mix of baking soda and white vinegar cleans many things, assuming you’re familiar with how baking soda and vinegar react. In general, try to put that reaction on the surface being cleaned. Bonus or side benefit? It’s cheaper and better for the environment than most anything store-bought.