My family didn’t go on many vacations, while I was a kid and growing up. Growing up in the state of Utah, there were ample opportunities for camping and the outdoors, and that is what the majority of our family trips consisted of. But camping is a completely different ballgame when it comes to traveling.
We took one big vacation as a family, when I was seven years old. We traveled from Utah to California, for a weeklong trip. Disney Land, Universal Studios, my first time at the beach… even though that was literally 25 years ago, I have such fond memories of that trip. And I also remember all of the unnecessary luggage we packed along, as a family of seven. So much so, that even with a mini van, my dad ended up renting a Thule roof rack to put up top.
I wasn’t born into a family of travelers. Even extended family; aunts, uncles, cousins. Nobody was big on traveling, and this was in a day that you couldn’t just google it and get thousands of amazing blogs and resources at your fingertips. I pretty much had to figure it out on my own.
Here are ten things I wish I knew when I first started traveling!
Table of Contents:
1. Don’t Panic
2. You Don’t Need to Pack That Much
3. Things Will Go Wrong
4. Loose Itineraries
5. Comfort Over Style
6. Ask For Help
7. Take Risks
8. Enjoy the Moment
9. Know When to Say No
10. Take Notes
Did you miss a train? Forget to buy a ticket? Don’t know where you are? These types of situations are very easy to panic in. It’s important to keep a cool head and rather than panic, start thinking of what you can do to fix the situation.
When I was in France, I was with a group of about 12 other students, one of the girls fell asleep on the subway train and as we all hopped off and the train slowly began to move away, we saw that girl staring out the window of the door, absolutely panicked. Our teacher was freaking out, I could tell, but he stayed so calm for us. He had us girls go wait on the other side of the platform, in case she decided to take the next train back, and he took the boys and headed to the next stop in case she got off. About 10 minutes later, we saw her getting off on our platform, and all waited together for our teacher and the rest of our group to return. She had been crying, but said she figured we’d be waiting for her, so she returned to the previous stop. The way my teacher didn’t panic, man, I though he was so cool for the way he handled all of that.
So when I was in Japan for the first time and my friend who had lived there for a few years, who spoke Japanese fluently, missed his flight to meet up with us, I did my best to channel that calmness. He had planned out the trip, knew where we were going, the cool sights to see, and to find out he wouldn’t be able to meet us until Kyoto… well, my brother, friend and I felt a bit panicked. But we pulled ourselves together, started talking to travelers at our hostel to figure out how to navigate the train system, and we had the most amazing time in Osaka, Nara, and made it successfully to our hostel in Kyoto, where we then met up with our other friend.
You Don’t Need to Pack That Much
Oh boy… coming from a family who definitely packs too much because traveling isn’t a common thing, this one was hard for me to learn. Pulling along a heavy, filled to the brim, rolling suitcase along the cobblestone walkways around Europe was not fun. This wasn’t a carryon size, either. This was a giant checked luggage suitcase. Along with that, I also had a bag. My poor, misguided, 16 year old self…
I hadn’t perfected my packing craft when I went to Japan the first time, either. I still brought a luggage large enough that it had to be checked. And when you encounter the hundreds of stations in Japan that don’t have elevators or escalators, only stairs, stairs and more stairs… it’s not fun. I twisted my knee in Nara and was having difficulty with stairs as it was. Luckily, my weight lifting brother caught onto this and kept coming back down to retrieve my luggage once he’d make it to the top, carrying it the rest of the way. You’re not always going to have a brother to help you!
One of those moments of carrying my big luggage up the steep stairs of a Tokyo subway, I vowed that I was never packing that much again. And I am happy to report that I have succeeded. Take what you think you’ll need, note down what you could have left behind. It will only take a few trips to realize you can make it through with much less than you anticipated. Especially if you’re open to doing laundry while at your destination. This saves so much room for packing other things, aside from clothing. You can also get creative with compression bags or compression packing cubes for your clothing, too.
Things Will Go Wrong
Think of your every day life. Week to week, month to month. Even the luckiest of people still have days or moments that things go wrong. Why would it be any different when you’re traveling? You might take the wrong bus, show up at a museum to find it closed, lose your way on your way back to the hotel, maybe even lose your wallet. The difference here is, you’re probably in an unfamiliar place and that only adds to the stress you’re feeling.
Try to think about what you would do at home if this similar situation presented itself. Museum closed? Find another one, or explore the surrounding area. You might even find something that you end up enjoying so much, that missing the museum is no longer a big deal. Take the wrong bus? Ask which one to take to get to where you’re trying to go, or make a day of it and explore this new area instead. Lose your wallet? Retrace your last known steps and find the nearest police station for help.
Last time I went to Japan, we missed our train stop and accidentally took a scenic train around the Boso Peninsula. At first, I was a little panicked, because we had a full day of exploring Nokogiriyama ahead of us. We had a pocket wifi, so I looked up the new route we’d need to take and still got there with plenty of time to explore. It was one of the best mistakes I’ve ever made. That train ride was relaxing and absolutely beautiful!
In Iceland, we showed up for our Covid test way too early, but all we had to do was explain it to the nurses and they happily tested us early. There were a few instances in Iceland that we made a wrong turn or passed the turn we needed, and we always stayed calm and made it work. (But let’s be honest, there’s not actually a wrong turn to be made in Iceland, everything is worth turning for.)
Don’t get me wrong, having a jampacked itinerary can end up working well for some people, with tons of fun to be had! But I think it’s safe to say that tight itineraries can also equal stress, because there isn’t much wiggle room if (see tip 3) things go wrong. One missed bus can ruin the entire day’s plans, and if the previous activity is slightly delayed, it can ruin the flow of the rest of the day.
I think it’s great to preplan. In fact, I recommend it! But I always give plenty of time in between activities, more time than I think I’ll actually need, just in case there are any literal or metaphorical roadblocks.
Speaking of literal, when I was in New Mexico, we started out very early to make the long and winding drive to Gila Cliff Dwellings, only to find a road closure. I looked up alternative routes and it added a whopping 2 hours to the drive. This was our only big stop for the day, because we knew it would take a while to get to and from as it was, so it ended up not being a huge deal. The only thing we worried about was running out of gas in the gas-hog Jeep Wrangler 😬 Because we also got lost! We pulled into a local post office to figure out where we were, and also, asking for directions at a post office is a tip most people don’t think about. My sister works for the post office, and she knows her route, and several others, like the back of her hand. It makes sense, they are the ones traveling all over the city. So if you’re lost and you spot a post office, it’s a good place to go for directions.
I always say leave time in your day for unexpected adventures. You’re in a new place, you never know what might spark your interest. And if something seems more interesting than what you originally planned, don’t be afraid to deviate from your original itinerary! It’s okay to change things up as you go, especially as you’re getting the chance to see more of this new place, you might change your mind about several things you thought you wanted to see or do. There is nothing wrong with that and in fact, it might end up being the highlight of your trip!
Comfort Over Style
Now this was the main reason I overpacked, before. When I was a teenager, I had a very wild style and I loved to have a lot of options to layer and mix and match. I’ve always been pretty big on comfort, but would go for comfort in style. As I got older, I drifted toward grey scale and it’s something even now that I prefer. It’s so easy to look classy and be comfy.
You might need a nice outfit if you’re going somewhere for a special occasion, or a place with a dress code, but even then, that one outfit shouldn’t take up too much extra room in your suitcase.
I know it might be tempting to give yourself more options, like you have at home, so make yourself a capsule wardrobe. When I pack for a trip, I make sure that any top can be worn with any bottom, so I can mix and match as I please. I throw in minimal accessories because I’m more focused on what I’m going to see, not who is going to see me.
I think it’s important to remember why you’re traveling, when justifying what you pack. If you’re not going as a model with multiple photoshoots, and are instead going to have amazing experiences, then that’s what you need to pack for. A fancy dress and heels is nice until you’re lost and need to walk a mile back. All of that makeup looked great before you left the hotel and got caught in a downpour without an umbrella. And that cool hike might be impossible if you didn’t pack the right pants.
Figuring this out might take you a few tries, but that’s okay, you’ll get there!
Ask For Help
Ooohh boy, if you’re anything like me, the thought of walking up to a stranger in a foreign country, who might not speak your language, to ask for help… is terrifying. But this is one thing I learned very quickly. The majority of people are happy to help in the ways that they’re able.
It might be something easy, like a restaurant suggestion. Overhearing someone talking about a vegan restaurant and politely starting with that “Excuse me, I happened to hear you mentioning a restaurant, can you tell me where that is?” Easy enough, right? But what if you don’t know what train you need to take and you’re stuck on a platform not knowing what to do?
This happened to me in Japan, when I only knew basic words and greetings, and I showed the JR Train Attendant my destination and asked what train I needed to take. This was in the country side, this man didn’t seem to know any English, but he held up a hand, signaling for me to wait, went back to his office and came out with a paper that had a bunch of trains and stops on it. Two of them were circled. He pointed at the first train and held up one finger, then pointed a the second circled stop and held up two fingers. First circle was the train we needed, second circle was our stop. I thanked him profusely, and we were in Japan so he also profusely thanked me, and we were soon on our way.
In fact, I’ve asked for help with trains more than once now, and thankfully learned more Japanese over time so communication was a bit easier, but the fact is, even if you don’t speak the language, so many people are still more than willing to help. I’ve even heard stories of good Samaritans leading people to where they’re trying to go, because they couldn’t communicate it otherwise. Of course not everyone is going to help, but the only way to know is if you ask first.
This one is going to look different for everybody! We all have different levels of what’s comfortable to us. To some, a risk might be joining a jungle trek at the last moment, or going sky diving. To others, it might be trying your hand at local festivities or joining a fellow traveler to take in some local sites.
When my sister and I heard a band we liked was playing in Fukuoka, and we were in Tokyo, we got guidance from her friend how to buy the tickets at a Family Mart machine, then booked a hotel near the Fukuoka train station, and hopped on that bullet train for a cross country ride. We had no idea what we were doing as we lined up outside the venue, nobody seemed to speak English, so we followed along with what the others were doing. It ended up being and absolute blast and one of the highlights of our trip!
In Iceland, my friend really wanted to do a whale watching tour. Nothing in this world scares me more than the ocean, and the thought of being close to a whale while on a boat is absolutely terrifying. Well, as scared as I was, I joined the tour with her and when the humpback whale broke the surface right next to our boat, I was in so much awe that I forgot to be scared 🤣 it was such an amazing moment in my life that I will carry with me forever.
In Thailand, my friend and I wanted to see Khao Sok National Park. We honestly had no idea what we were doing and completely winged it, getting to the bus station, jumping on a bus, booking a little cabin in the middle of the forest, and it was absolutely perfect. There were a few times we figured we made the wrong move and were going to have to find our way back, but we took that risk and pressed on, and were met with the most beautiful views of our entire vacation.
It’s okay if your version of risk isn’t as risky as others, the point is, be willing to take some of the risks as they are presented because you might just find more than you were looking for.
Enjoy the Moment
I have people back at home that all but threaten me to share photos of my trips along the way. And I am more than happy to share those photos and video clips with them. But I think it’s important to remember to enjoy the moment.
Do I wish that I pulled out my camera sooner to catch that giant iceberg breaking off and splashing into the water? Of course I do, but even that video can’t replicate what I was feeling in that moment (which was sheer terror because I didn’t understand what was happening and half expected some giant monster to jump out of the water).
In Thailand, my friend and I sat on the beach, just enjoying the feeling, and quickly began to joke and laugh at the amount of people who were timing and planning their epic shots, some taking damn near 50 shots, jumping in the air every time, only to view the picture, shake their head and go back to try again. It was hilarious! While I love capturing photographs along the way, anybody who spends more than 5 minutes trying to get the perfect picture of themselves at a site has probably forgotten to just step back and enjoy the moment.
I often look at photos of myself and laugh because I look stupid or my hair is wild, but I am out having the time of my life, I don’t have time to be a professional model for every photo I’m included in.
Often, I will start by taking in my surroundings. After enjoying the feeling and the place around me, I will pull out my camera to get some shots, photos and/or videos, to remember and document where I got to explore that day.
Know When to Say No
Safety is a priority. Safety over niceness. Always. Luckily, I don’t have a problem with this, but I know there are a lot of people who have a hard time saying no. You should never ever put your safety in jeopardy.
Back to that risk I took in Thailand, getting to Khao Sok. It started out with a taxi and the longer we rode in that taxi, the more uncomfortable I began to feel. The two men were insisting that they call their cousin to get us the best deal for a tour out there and when they said they could take us to the tour place, I just felt a rush of panic inside of me. Maybe their intentions were good, but I always follow my gut feeling. When I told them to drop us off now, they tried to round back and get us to stay. I actually raised my voice and demanded they pull over immediately, to which they did, thankfully. And we quickly got out. We walked to the nearest shopping center and grabbed another taxi to take to the bus station.
You might meet locals or other travelers that invite you to a restaurant or a bar. It’s okay to decline. You can decline politely, too. And I’m not one who likes to lie, but you may never see them again, you can lie about having other plans if it makes you feel more comfortable, but always prioritize your safety. If you feel like you shouldn’t do it, then don’t.
The last thing is taking notes. This doesn’t have to be some elaborate journal entry, complete with photos and relics, but it can be if that’s your thing. Taking along a small notebook, or using your phone and notes app, it’s good to jot down little things along the way. Something that happened that you want to remember, the name of a restaurant you loved, or a person you met, or a hotel you want to stay in again if you get the chance.
I like to do a travel journal, and I take a pocket printer, so I can do a quick entry every night before bed. I do brief descriptions of where we visited, include a picture or two, and add in things like tickets or even receipts that I want to save.
Spending too much time doing this might eat into your vacation a little, so just do the minimal if you need to. Being able to look back on these notes, journals, etc, is really fun and special for me. You might find it useful, or simply just sentimental, too!
I’m sure this post could be four times as long, but I thought I should include the ones that stood out to me the most. If you are new to traveling, I hope you can find some useful advice here. If you’re not new to traveling, I’m sure you can relate to at least a few! Let me know in the comments what I missed that you wish you knew when you first started traveling!
Looking for more travel tips? Check out some of my other posts: