How to Go from Clueless Tourist to Savvy Traveler

Whether you travel alone or with your family and friends, there’s a lot to consider before setting out. I’m not talking about the basics, I’m referring to learning lessons the hard way. Take the advice from to avoid these, and you’ll make your trips go smoother.

Don’t become a pack mule

 World travels

World travels

The most important tip is to pack light. Of course, you want to look good for those nights on the town and have different outfits for each day, but think of just three for a week—wash and wear, as I always say. If you pack a lot, don’t complain when your bag breaks an airline’s check-in scale and then have to pay that hefty fee. If money is no object, then keep in mind that you have to schlepp that big suitcase everywhere you go.

Once on an extended trip to Asia, my husband and I over-packed by an entire suitcase. Yes, a whole suitcase. It was a burden to have, and we ended up giving away half our clothes to anyone who would take them. Fortunately, we were in a poor country at the time, and people were all too happy to accept good clothing and that second suitcase, too.

Next, learn to pack. You don’t fold clothes, you roll them into tiny logs. This gives you more space in your suitcase and prevents wrinkles. Remember, less is more. Bring small, travel-sized items, such as shampoo, toothpaste and the like, even if it means using a different brand than usual. Also, it’s wise to keep these in Ziploc baggies. Planes are pressurized and bags are piled on top of each other, creating double the pressure in your suitcase. Trust me, you don’t want to discover the result of ruptured containers oozing gobs of liquids and lotions all over your clothes. Yes, it’s happened to me.

Do you remember those high school girls whose backpacks carried a collection of key chains with 50 different trinkets dangling from them? That’s what you want on your suitcase. It’s completely tacky and people may think you’re a little punch drunk, but it will help you to find yours among an endless sea of black suitcases at baggage claim. Plus, they say that decorated bags are less likely to get stolen or accidentally taken off the carousel because someone thinks its theirs.

Finally, do not put anything of real importance in your bag which is to go in the belly of an airplane. Luggage goes missing all the time. Once, my husband and I picked up our bag in the international terminal at LAX to have it inspected, then per protocol put it on a carousel that sent it just a short distance to the actual baggage claim. We were to be apart from our bag for about 20 minutes, but the bag never made it through. It was full of souvenirs and other memorable items from our lives and were irreplaceable. The airline gave us $1000, but nothing could replace what we had lost.

It’s best to be 3 hours too soon than a minute too late


At the Airport

Get to the airport early and simply expect you will always have wait-times in some or all parts of the airport. I cannot tell you how many times I have gone to the airport early and thought I would have time to spare, only to find that there were lines for everything and everywhere. On one occasion, my husband and I arrived at the airport three hours early for a regional flight (we were bored, so why not?). We soon found out that half of this tiny municipal airport’s staff was out with the flu, while the remaining employees, who were picking up the slack, seemed to be new at their jobs. We waited in line to check in; we waited in line to go through security, and we waited in the longest line for crappy coffee and stale pastries. For an airport that only had 10 flights a day we almost missed ours. Then, to top it all off, our plane had to wait on the tarmac for one hour, because an air traffic controller apparently forgot to set his alarm and overslept. This story is an extreme case but true. In the end, just go early.

Stressful situations such as these can set people’s nerves off at the snap of a finger. However, while dealing with airline personnel, it’s best to keep calm and carry on. We all know that some, not all, aren’t always the nicest, but put yourself in their shoes for a moment.

Those who work in travel-related positions deal with travelers at their worst: they’re hungry, tired, frustrated and have spent lots of money on disappointing vacations. Most people think that yelling and insulting a worker is included in the ticket price—it’s not. Travel industry employees can help you when you need it, but why should they if they receive the brunt of grievances?

We have personally received upgrades, free flights, toys for the kids, drinks, meals and hotel vouchers just because we went out of our way to be as nice and understanding as we could when dealing with those in the travel industry, especially in exasperating moments. Remember, you attract more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.

The face that launched a thousand ships

We cringe when we hear the word “profiling,” and many believe that it makes no sense at all. While we were traveling from Houston to Dubai, the security agent at the boarding gate played a game of duck-duck-goose with the passengers. Ducks went for further screening, “gooses” got on board (my husband and I were “gooses”). Another friend of ours, who is a young, red-headed white woman from the Midwest, gets pulled aside for questioning at every plane, train and bus without fail. She has never traveled without the profiling police in toe, but she always cooperates with them, answers their questions, smiles and calmly continues on her way after it’s over, waiting until she’s out of ear-shot before releasing a barrage of colorful words that would make a sailor blush. Yes, she is all class.

Jump on the welcome wagon

seasoned travelers

Seasoned travelers

It’s best to do your research before you travel to a foreign destination. Find out the ins and outs about everything, such as currency and local transportation.

Not long ago, my husband and I were planning an extended stay in the ever unpredictable land of Sri Lanka. Though we thought about doing some research before our three-month trip, we listened to a “world traveler” who assured us that “there is no reason to carry so much cash with you—everyone takes credit cards these days; all the hotels cater to the modern traveler and have internet; getting around is always easy, and locals are all too willing to help the foreign traveler. Plus, American money is accepted everywhere.”

That’s not word for word but close enough. We trusted this insightful person and went (almost) blindly on our trip. We later found out that this “seasoned traveler” always goes with tour groups. In a nutshell, there’s a huge different between him and an independent traveler.

Here’s how wrong his advise was. We only exchanged two hundred dollars for rupees at the airport just to have some local currency on us. In the end, it was a smart thing to do, as there are hardly any ATMs in Sri Lanka. There were times when we had to travel as much as 40 minutes on a tuc-tuc just to find one. Moreover, if you want to exchange money, you almost always have to go to a black market to do it. Yes, we had to become criminals in order to get by. No one, except for a few expensive hotels and stores in the big cities, takes credit cards. Once you’re out of the capital city of Colombo, it’s cash only: at restaurants and hotels, on buses and trains—everywhere. We even had moments when we wondered how we were going to make it through the trip with only a few rupees in our pockets.

As far as transportation goes, we didn’t count on it being any easier, either. Of course, a tour bus is always more convenient, because it’s planned in advance just for you. In Sri Lanka, the crazy, little golf cart/lawnmower combo of a tuc-tuc is the way to go. It’s a sort of hold-on-for-dear-life ride of nausea, all the while breathing in the exhaust fumes from unregulated gas engines.

There are no seat belts, drivers ignore speed limits, if there are any, and a traffic light is nowhere in sight. These brave little toasters compete for space with buses, trucks and cars, weaving in and out of what looks like a single-lane road that has somehow become a four-lane highway.

Of course, you can take privately owned buses, but they might or might not have a time schedule. The police pulled over the bus we were riding and gave the driver a ticket for not having a license—twice.  We also made the mistake of not ensuring that each bus had air-conditioning—in a humid, hot country and a bus full of sweaty people, you do the math. Trains run late all of the time, and it’s more like a ride at Disneyland than a mode of transportation. In one word: scary.

The last mode of transportation is by hired driver. It’s not as elite or expensive as one might think, but the issue here is that a man is driving passengers in his personal vehicle. On that note, the chances are high that the driver will take you from point A to point B, via points C, D and probably E. We rode with one driver who needed to run so many errands that we arrived at our destination almost eight hours later. In the end, do your research no matter where you go, or who has been there before.

Google me up, Scotty!

On one trip, we found out the hard way that there’s no such thing as free internet in many countries. Not just Sri Lanka, but when we went to New Zealand and Australia. We were shocked to learn we had to go to internet cafes. If you have never been to one, let me say that it’s far from a romantic spot with a sultry Italian waiter named Francesco serving cups of cappuccino.

An internet cafe is usually not cheap, often with a dial-up service and probably not regulated. We realized that it’s easier just to go through withdrawals from our internet addiction and deal with it. Times are changing, and at any moment the world of wireless could appear everywhere. However, it’s always best to know this before you think you’re going to post images of that dinner and cocktails on social media every day.

Lastly, find out what a place offers to travelers. We once stayed at a location in the middle of a rain forest, and thought it would be the best place to escape from daily life. Ah, so quiet, so tranquil, so cheap and after a few days so boring. There was a town nearby, but it had just a few eateries and one small store that sold a few items. Other than that, there wasn’t much around us.

We didn’t have any books to read, no TV to watch, no internet to browse, and we didn’t often have any power. Any attractions to do and see were hours away by the dreaded tuc-tuc. If we had known this ahead of time, we would have taken our favorite selection of reading material and a deck of cards. In this day of technology and other electronic stimuli, we forget that many destinations may have little or none of it, and they can only offer the surrounding, natural environment. By the end of the first week, my husband and I simply found nothing left to talk about and ended up just sitting and staring at each other. We even met another couple one day, and they had experienced the same.

Remember, not every country has endless activities to keep tourists busy, and you may need to bring your own entertainment. Even if a place has TV, it may only have a few channels. Most of the world is poor and many locations don’t have the common luxuries we take for granted, like electricity. I loved my time traveling to remote lands, and I loved getting away from the common comforts of life and the entertainment I’ve been accustomed to. Yet I’m also real. I know that I cannot live in a log cabin and pretend I no longer want those things.

We come in peace

At the immigration,

At the immigration,

The experience at customs and immigration sucks, no matter where you go or what your nationality is. Customs officers are not nice people on purpose, because they need to judge you and what you say. You just have to think of the worst and hope for the best.

I don’t think I’ve gone through immigration and not felt as if I were going through some sort of interrogation. So, here’s the scoop: don’t try to be their friend (it makes you look like you’re distracting them); smile and answer questions honestly. Once when my husband and I overstayed our visa in a country and tried to lie our way out of it (don’t ever do that). Customs agents swiftly escorted us into a secluded back office, where we waited to hear the consequences of our actions. About 10 officers chatted away in a language I couldn’t understand, while the police stood at the door with guns drawn. I kept imagining how I was going to explain to my mother that I was in jail for an expired visa in a third world country thousands of miles away.

About 20 minutes later, one officer asked if we had any American money. I handed him five dollars, which was all we had, and I wondered if I was paying a fine or bribing him (or both). He looked at us square in the face and told us never to visit his country again on an expired visa. My husband I nodded our heads like little bobble people after his scolding and were thankful to see him stamp our passports to leave. We got off lightly, but it’s always best to obey the laws.

Moreover, it’s best not to act like a class clown and refer to “bombs” and “terrorists” at either airport check-in or customs. Those who do this find themselves dragged off by airport security before they can say “I was just joking” and receive a big, fat fine. Save the jokes for open-mike night.

I want to have my cake and eat it too



I remember the first time my husband and I went to Disneyland and had the plan to see everything in one day. It cannot be done nor should it; it’s just not right on so many levels. First, not everything is worth seeing, and why do that sensory overload to your body and mind? This is good to remember for every travel destination. You want to leave a place with fond memories, not blurred vision.

Again, like a broken record, do a little research beforehand. You can also go on a great website like and read what the experts have to say about the destination. Make a realistic bucket list and plan on how to make that happen.

A little RE-S-PECT

Some tourists feel they have a carte blanche when they go on vacation, and that local laws or rules don’t apply to them. Take the case of two American girls who decided to carve their initials into a section of the wall of Rome’s Coliseum. Someone spotted them and reported the incident to security, who arrested the two for vandalism and charged them $20,000 each. Plus, they will have to shell out court and lawyer fees for the criminal offense—all in the name of a selfie.

Cities and associations spend millions every year on repairing the damage tourists do to monuments, memorials, statues and other historical points of interests. Some young lovers thought it would be romantic to carve their names into the wooden bunk beds at Auschwitz. No, that’s not cool—it’s plain disrespectful. No one will be able to appreciate any sites in the future if they continue to suffer from vandalism.

Stranger Danger

In Mexico

In Mexico

Apparently, we still have to talk about safety, despite it being common sense at its most finest. As a tourist, you are a prime target for most any crime. You might as well leave the airport wearing a t-shirt with “Fresh Meat” printed across the front. It’s a known fact that you come with credit cards, cash and travel documents, like passports. For most criminals, you’re the goose that lays the golden egg.

I knew a man who went to Mexico City and everyone—the travel agent, the cleaning lady at his office, even the Mexican immigration officer—told him that someone would pickpocket him, because that’s just the way it goes. Yet, he ignored the warnings and put his wallet “safely” in his back pocket. He hadn’t even left the airport before someone stole it. To our amazement he was “shocked” that it had happened at all. When he went to Paris one year, a clever pickpocket lifted his wallet—again, he was “stunned!” Rinse and repeat.

Remember the “stranger-danger warnings” we heard when we were children. Those words should echo in your mind, as if your mother were blasting it over a bullhorn.

Most hotels offer a safe for your passports, cash and credit cards. Use it! Don’t think that housekeeping is going to dust around that wad of cash and expensive watch on the nightstand, either. Also, while you’re out, put your money somewhere safe, like under the waste band of your underwear. You may look strange reaching down your pants for your money, but you know it will be there. Of all the travel stories, I have never heard of anyone having their money stolen out of their underwear. I guess even pickpockets have their limits.

Other tips:

  • When sitting at an outdoor café in a crowded square, don’t place items, like smart phones and cameras, on the table. Keep your backpack or purse on your lap, rather than placing it on the ground or across your chair.
  • Don’t let someone distract you when you’re at an ATM, and cover your hand with the other when entering your PIN—you never know who’s watching.
  • Don’t exchange currencies with someone on the street. More often than not, it’s not even the money from that country, and the person will most definitely fraud you on the exchange rate.
  • You cannot outsmart the person who’s running the illegal “shell game” on the street. The person who wins $50 or 100 euros is also in on the scam—just walk away and don’t get pulled in.
  • If you travel on crowded subway trains and buses, hold your purse and backpack close to you, and place your hand on your wallet if it’s in your front pocket.
  • Buy tickets for public transportation only at the machine or from a designated vendor (e.g. a kiosk/news agent stand). If someone comes up to you and wants to sell you a ticket, it has mostly likely expired, been altered or it’s counterfeit. Ticket controllers on trains know what to look for, and they could either fine you for your mistake or certainly ask you to pay again for a proper ticket.

There are plenty of tricks to scam tourists. In the end, listen to your gut feeling, because it’s usually right.

Here’s to your health!

If you can get sick at home, then you can get sick while traveling. It’s always best to keep in mind the basics while on vacation: a small amount of first aid always includes a good bed, a few aspirin for fevers, a couple of band aids, ointments for cuts, some lanolin for sunburns and over-the-counter medicine just in case you eat something that doesn’t agree with your system. If you do become really ill, ask the front desk staff at your hotel for a doctor. You can also get travel insurance that covers most medical bills in most foreign countries.

I know of someone who tripped while on vacation in Norway and knocked himself out cold. First responders flew him to the local hospital, where he stayed for two days. When they released him, he was able to catch up with his tour group. Though he finished the last week of his holiday with two black eyes, he loved telling everyone that his wife had beaten him up. Apparently, Norwegians don’t find that sense of humor very funny, and his wife was afraid she would be pulled in for questioning by the local police. In this case, think before speaking.

E.T. phone home

You’re better off buying a local SIM card when you arrive overseas, because it’s much cheaper for those calls you may need to make. I always buy one for my phone and provide the number to my friends and family, should they need to contact me while I’m away.

Just because you aren’t in your home country, it doesn’t mean that your phone will not work—trust me it will but at a high cost. I found this out on a trip to Jamaica one year. While I was lounging on a sandy beach, I decided to call home and make my friends and family a little jealous. I’m not really sure how long I talked, but I do know that it wasn’t important enough to justify the exorbitant $600 bill I received. I could have taken another trip for that price.

Tourists without borders?

If you cross borders by car or train, just remember border control can reject your entry request. I know of a woman who loved to drive to Canada, and it was always trouble-free. This all ended one day when the kind officer decided to pull up her driving record. There was a DUI (driving under the influence), and he denied her to cross due to a no-tolerance law. One man attempted to go to Mexico, but apparently the guard didn’t like the man’s attitude (he admits he had been drinking) and refused to let him pass.

Also, if you plan to combine more than one country on your holiday, it’s always wise to check the laws about re-entering the first country you arrive and from which you also plan to return home. Some places, like Thailand, offer a re-entry permit, which you can arrange in advance before traveling to neighboring countries. This saves you from the hassle of filing for a new visa or using up your original permitted days while traveling outside Thailand.

In the end, it’s best to take a few moments and look up the laws and rules when it comes to border crossings. It will save you the agony of an official sending you on your merry way.

And that’s a wrap

So, here’s the deal in my personal and humble opinion on traveling: It is the best and I love it, but I always do my homework before setting off to a new destination. I learn from others, gather information the best that I can, listen to warnings and obey rules and laws. If you don’t feel you’re able to do this, then going through a tour company is probably your best bet; they take care of the worry for you. Even if you’re planning a trip in your own country, a little extra time educating yourself on where you’re going can turn a so-so trip into one of a lifetime.

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34 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Good, sensible advice. To be taken seriously, but let it not put you off travelling!

    One should know you are going to a foreign country, or even just a city. People live there, eat, get sick, get well, have fun. So get to know them, fit in and learn what is fun there. I heard of someone who did not like Egypt, because there are too many Egyptians. Well, then stay at home please! We got to know many Egyptians, who were never less than happy to get to know us, and show us around their country. The same with Ghana, Nigeria, Tahiti, Italy, you name it. Meet people with friendliness, and you will be surprised. As for officials, remember that they have a job to do; an often unpleasant, but important job. Make it easier for them, and give them a smile and a ‘Thank you’ and see the difference.

    And do not take too much luggage!

  • I might add:

    Dress down and without jewellery, or certainly without expensive jewellery. Thiefs know good from bad so don’t worry about nice costume jewellery since they know it’s fake.

    If you are on an organized tour, with security, then your big camera is fine. But if on your own, or in a place where there will be crowds, use a high quality point and shoot and leave the camera with the long lense back at the hotel. If you do take along the big one, don’t keep it in a camera case, but rather in a cheap market bag, backpack (of course held securely or in front of you but never on your back).

    Let your credit card company and bank know you will be out of the country and where. Check your daily and weekly ATM withdrawal limits and increase if required so you don’t have to keep withdrawing and incurring fees for each small withdrawal.

    Take a duplicate ATM and credit card. Sometimes machines eat cards, and sometimes you get them back, and sometimes you do not.

    Keep a list of all phone numbers you could possibly need, such as that of your bank and cc company so you do not waste time tracking them down if the cards go missing.

    Tourist visas and photo page of your passport should be copied and kept apart from originals.

    That’s all for now.


  • Very sound, practical advice. All who plan to travel this summer should read this article!

  • ATMs spit out foreign currency! Best trick ever!
    Be sure to carry cash. Even after notifying your credit card company, it may be denied
    (thanks Paris!).
    Take day tours to places you don’t want to drive to or if don’t want to drive on the wrong side of the road (thanks England!).
    Go new places, try new food. Get to know some of the people (thanks mission trip Ukraine!).
    Pack for the weather where you plan to be or you’ll end up buying appropriate clothing there (thanks Alaska!)
    Leave room in your luggage for purchases. Don’t worry over buying things. Are you going back soon? Go ahead and buy it or you’ll regret it later.
    Take pictures or let another person who likes being behind the lens do it.
    Travel is amazing. Get out there and do something new!

  • Really great tips here! Especially like the ones about packing light and getting to the airport early. Staying hydrated while traveling would be another one to add. Thanks!

  • Being a longterm professional traveler myself there are great tips in this article even for a seasoned traveler like me. I can especially recommend reading the part about packing light and being at the airport early after personal experiences where I didn’t do this and things went bad. Great and well thought through tips!

  • Very well written article! The information, tips, and advice goes straight to the point.While most articles related to this topic would be a little long, yours is an exception. Your article keeps things interesting to keep the visitor wanting to read through the entire article. Best Regards,Tony

  • Wow, that’s a great article. You have covered all. I love the way it was written. Thanks for the well informative article. Looking forward to seeing more of these. Thanks.

  • A very good, thorough article. Great for newbie travelers but also for seasoned travelers, as we must never get blasé and forget these sensible tips.
    As a couple of other people commented above, we always take a copy of all documents with us, carried in a separate place to the originals, just in case. Plus a spare passport picture.
    I don’t think travel insurance is optional—it’s essential. You never know what might happen, and it’s way better to be covered, in case.
    For my phone, I never bother with a local SIM card, as over the years we’ve often had hassles with them. So, now we put the phone on airport mode and just use wifi whenever we can get it. The same for laptop/tablet. The world of wifi is expanding, although of course it’s not everywhere. If we were to have an emergency, then we would just ‘bite the bullet’ and pay for a phone call.
    The ideas and examples about personal safety and theft in the article are really good. It’s a fact of life and probably most frequent travelers have bumped into this in one way or another. Dress down, don’t flaunt anything, keep your money etc in a very secure place at all times. We (my husband and I) also divide up money and credit cards so if by some horrible chance one of us gets hit, then we still have enough to get around/report the problem/get home etc. Always realize that those thieves/pickpockets are pros, and they can get innocent travelers very easily!
    Great discussion. Thanks

  • Very sensible advice, but above all, be safe but don’t be so guarded to allow that to obstruct your enjoyment of your journey.

  • Very well done! Don’t forget inoculations, especially Hep A and B for certain countries and ask about drinking water safety. Kits are available that purify water.

  • Marc and Christina: Great article. I presume the Norway accident was me. But what I want to add is that I was robbed once in Mexico and twice in Spain. So I know the crooks are the professional. Once I was aware of it, twice I only knew about it when I reached for my wallet. So your warnings are sorely needed to be followed by all.

  • Very good, informative article. I learned a long time ago to fold. So what if you wear the same outfit two or three times, these people do not know you. It is easier to do laundry than drag bags around. I never pack valuables in a checked bag, my luggage has beenlost several times. I am not an international traveler, the farthest I have been is Canada and Hawaii. I like keeping my feet on American soil and our Canadian neighborhood. I also tie a bright blue or red ribbon on my bags to easily recognize them.

  • Excellent article–wouldn’t change a word and have added it to my FB page!
    Mark Feldman: Columnist, The Travel Advisor, Jerusalem Post

  • All good, common sense advice. Taking on-board information from articles like these can make the difference between a great vacation and one that you’d much rather forget. I travel quite a lot and you tend to get into a state of mind, almost second nature. Often travellers that go perhaps once or twice a year don’t switch-on to the little things like fastening your small rucksack around a table or chair leg when having a coffee. It’s little things like this that tell the robbers that you’re no easy target and they’ll look for someone else.
    Great article!

  • Love the tips and the humor with it. I haven’t seen a great article like this for a long time. great and keep up the great work. can’t wait to read more of these.

  • All good tips. My husband and I also carry Activated Charcoal capsules with us when we travel. They absorb toxins and are incredibly effective if you have any kind of digestive issue or feel ill.

  • The article was great, very helpful, but I really enjoyed the comments as well. Thanks for the great subject

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