My Top 40 Travel Tips

My Top Travel Tips | This Is My Happiness.com

If only all travel moments were as easy and carefree as this one! Actually, traveling can cause quite a bit of anxiety because it pulls people out of their comfortable, familiar surroundings. It’s been 24 years since my first trip abroad, but I’ve made my fair share of mistakes that continually keep me on my toes.

You might be thinking, “Gee, all we need is another ‘top travel tips’ blog post!” But I have to tell you something. It amazes me how many lessons I still learn while traveling AND how nervous other people get about traveling. It’s true. I talk to people all the time about traveling, and they’re constantly wondering if they should do this or that, sending me emails asking for advice about how to combat mosquitoes or negotiate with cab drivers, and telling me things that make me cringe, like that they will drive from Rome to Florence. So yeah, travel tips are still relevant, and I would LOVE to know yours!

My Top 40 Travel Tips | This Is My Happiness.com

Before You Go

Your credit cards: Don’t get stuck trying to pay for dinner in Prague with a card that keeps getting declined. Let your credit card companies know where you’re going. You can do this by calling or even filling out a travel notification form on the credit card website.

Bank accounts: Many banks offer “travel checking accounts” that can be used overseas without fees. When you get home, you might want to keep the account and set up a monthly transfer to build up your travel account for your next trip.

Vaccines: Check with your healthcare provider about vaccines. While I don’t want to debate the pros and cons of vaccinations, I believe that protecting oneself from typhoid, yellow fever, and malaria is part of traveling smart.

Medicines: Consider getting an antibiotic in case of food poisoning or typhoid. My healthcare provider has a travel clinic that will prescribe an antibiotic if I’m traveling to a country with higher risk of food-borne illness.

Bring Benadryl in case of allergic reactions or to help you sleep.

Italy Love It or Leave It Interview

Photo credit: Gustav and Luca of “Italy Love It or Leave It”

Understand what’s going on in contemporary culture: What do the local people care about these days? Is there an election coming up? What problems has the country faced lately? If you go to Italy, the documentary “Italy Love It or Leave It” will quickly give you an understanding of what the local people might be talking about.

Get a guidebook with practical tips about traveling in your destination: Use the guide to brush up on a few basics before you get there so you won’t have to waste precious time while on the ground. Rick Steves’ books, for example, include important advice about taking public transportation, entering museums, and tipping.

Consider a stopover: If you will have a lay-over somewhere, why not make it a full-blown stop of a few days? This is common on Iceland Air’s flights to Europe (passengers can stop in Iceland for a few days before continuing on to Europe).

We did something similar when coming back from Indonesia–we had to connect through Japan anyway, so instead of sitting in the airport for a few hours waiting for the next flight, we spent 3 days in Osaka and nearby Kyoto. We booked it as a multi-city ticket to allow us to have different dates for arrival and departure in Japan, but the ticket was the same price as it would have been if we had not stayed the 3 days.

My Top Travel Tips | This Is My Happiness.com

A connecting flight in Osaka became a three-day stopover. Why not?

Don’t backtrack! If you’re traveling to Italy, fly into one city and out of another. A multi-city ticket can sometimes be more expensive, but it’s worth it because you save the money you’d have to use to get back to the original city. This is also definitely the best use of your time. Why fly into Rome and travel around Italy, only to have to come back to Rome to catch your flight back home?

Get your devices ready: Update your devices before leaving. Empty unnecessary photos and other data from your phone so that you won’t have to worry about deleting photos and videos on your trip. Charge all your cameras and devices before leaving.

My Top Travel Tips | This Is My Happiness.com

Learn about the places you will visit: Imagine this. You’re in Florence, Italy, seeing the Duomo for the first time. You know the church’s famous red dome is from the Renaissance, by some well-known architect, but you can’t remember much else. You check your guidebook and see that it was built by Brunelleschi, take a few photos, think about climbing inside the dome, but then you move on because there is so much more to see.

Alternatively, you could watch this fascinating documentary about the dome. Just 45 minutes of the movie would give you enough background information to actually understand what you’re looking at…that Brunelleschi did what no one thought was possible, for example, and suddenly seeing the dome becomes so much more exciting and meaningful. Movies, novels, history books, and conversations with locals can take sightseeing to another level, one that you deserve since you’re spending the money and time to get there!

Mark your suitcase well: Add a colorful ribbon and a permanent name/address/email label.

Documents: Take photos of your passports and any other important documents and send them to yourself or upload them to Dropbox.

Stay in the center of town! After years of traveling, I made a promise to myself to never, ever book a hotel outside the city center in an effort to save a little money. It’s not worth it; part of the experience is staying where the action is, and doing so allows you the freedom to stop back for a rest or pop out for a drink at night.  Look for centrally located accommodations but be careful not to stay on the city’s noisiest streets.

Choose accommodations wisely. With the options of family-friendly hotels, luxury hostels, cabins at campgrounds, apartment and house rentals, and even Airstream rentals, the choices for accommodations have grown so much in the last few years. Just about anywhere you’re going has rental options through Airbnb, VRBO/Home Away, Flipkey, and Go with Oh! (in Europe). If you use a vacation rental, make sure you ask enough questions about the sleeping arrangements so you don’t end up with a rented room that looks like this (not exactly welcoming!):

My Top Travel Tips | This Is My Happiness.com

Ask questions to avoid staying in a room that looks like this.

What to bring

Consider the weather carefully. I’ve made the mistake of looking at the daily highs and making packing decisions based on those temps instead of realizing that that’s the high and the rest of the day will be colder than that. Pack a cozy scarf, a light fleece or cashmere sweater, and a small umbrella to make those daily weather and temperature changes easier to deal with.

My Top Travel Tips | This Is My Happiness.com

Layers!

Shoes: If I ever find the perfect travel shoe, I will feel like I’ve hit the jackpot (but I’m trying). Keep in mind that travel requires your most comfortable shoes; those boots or flats that pinch after a half-day outing at home are not made for walking the cobblestone streets of Europe. Don’t ever bring brand-new shoes that you haven’t worn for hours on end, and don’t rely on shoes that are just kinda comfy. My favorite travel sandals are these Birkenstock Women’s Gizeh.

What to pack for summer travel | This Is My Happiness.com

Birkenstocks are my favorite summer travel shoes, but good winter ones still elude me.

Antibacterial wipes and a small packet of tissues: Wipes for wiping down the tray table and arm rests on the airplane (seriously), tissues for the no-

A must: fleece leggings: For about $10-20 on Amazon, you can get yourself a pair of fleece leggings. Trust me, if you tend to get cold like me, then you need some. You can wear them under pants to keep you warm during your winter travels. You can wear them under a skirt instead of tights! And you can wear them as pajamas.

Always bring earplugs: You never know what kind of noise might be going on at night or in the early morning at your accommodation. Trust me, I’ve had plenty of bad nights’ sleep on trips due to the neighbors getting it on late at night or roosters crowing away at 3:30 a.m. Earplugs are tiny, so always have a couple of pairs stashed away in your suitcase.

An extra bag that can be easily stowed inside a larger bag until you need it. You never know what you might use it for—for gifts, as an extra carry-on, for carrying things from the local market, or as a place to stash laundry.

Airplane pillow?: I’ve been using these for ages because I hate airplane pillows. I always had an inflatable one that easily fit into my carry-on but was not always the most pleasant thing to deal with. I was recently given a J-Pillow to try and really liked it! Its shape is the most comfortable travel pillow I’ve tried, and I like that it has a snap ring to attach to my carry-on.

Buy a small portable charger. The battery on your device might run out more quickly than you anticipate, especially if you’re taking photos with it or using it for navigation. I have this one: Jackery® Mini Premium Phone Charger

My Top Travel Tips | This Is My Happiness.com

Use a variety of bags and packing cubes: baggies for toiletries and snacks, extra baggies for later, packing bags for shoes or laundry, packing cubes for cramming more into small spaces and staying organized. I travel with my two kids and therefore have to do whatever I can to keep our stuff organized, and I find that using bags to keep the stuff in our carry-on organized is a must!

Gifts and thank-you cards. The best gifts are local items from your home region, especially ones you know people can use, whether it’s wine, olive oil, a local specialty such as a unique kind of dessert or a jam made from local fruit.  A thank you card is a nice way to express appreciation at the end of a visit or for particularly good service at a hotel.

My Top Travel Tips | This Is My Happiness.com

My Canon G11 is all I used in Brazil. There are many point-and-shoot cameras with dSLR features.

A really good point-and-shoot camera: I love using my dSLR camera, but for many outings, it’s too heavy and bulky for me. However, I always use my Canon G 16 point-and-shoot camera. It has all the functions of a dSLR, like the ability to change all manual settings and shoot RAW. It also connects to wifi, allowing me to share photos straight from my camera. A smaller camera is also less likely to get stolen. There are several good point-and-shoot cameras like the Canon G series and the 4/3 cameras for less than $500.

Bring a back-up pair of sunglasses. I lost my sunglasses on a recent trip and wasn’t able to find a place that sold decent ones so went the rest of the trip squinting and probably making my wrinkles worse.

Check out my ultimate packing list (for adults and kids) for more ideas.

When you’re there

Ask locals: I’ve found that local people always give the best advice for where to eat and what to do.

My Top Travel Tips | This Is My Happiness.com

Ask locals for advice about what to eat and drink–they know best!

Travel slowly: Spend enough days in each place that you won’t leave with that all-too-common feeling of “There’s still so much to do here. Oh well, I guess we’ll have to come back.” Plan to visit 1-2 major attractions a day and leave time for just soaking in the place…sitting in cafes, people watching, an evening walk, and/or resting.

My Top Travel Tips | This Is My Happiness.com

People watching in Florence

Take those ultimate road trips, but plan for plenty of stops: Driving down Highway 1 in Big Sur, California? Just let the rest of your party know that you’ll be pulling over every 5 minutes. When you plan to stop at vista points and roadside diners, you won’t have those moments of, “Should we stop? No? OK, we’ll stop at the next one…{20 minutes later}…Darn, we should have stopped there.” It’s when you get out of the car that you have the time and space to absorb all the beauty around you.

My Top Travel Tips | This Is My Happiness.com

The reward for pulling over on Highway 1 on the Big Sur coast

White noise: Sadly, I am a light sleeper. I wish I weren’t, but I have always awoken at even the slightest noise. I must have white noise going in the background when I’m traveling so that I’m not bothered by the outside noises. I use the “brown noise” setting on SimplyNoise.com on my laptop or the fan setting on the White Noise HD app on my iPad.

My Top Travel Tips | This Is My Happiness.com

Roosters waking me up at 3:30 a.m.? There’s an app for that.

Go to the markets: Ask locals where the best markets are (since so many markets are geared to tourists now), and explore local food products and watch everyday life unfold for the regular customers.

My Top Travel Tips | This Is My Happiness.com

Buying jabuticaba fruit at the Municipal Market in Sao Paulo, Brazil

Try to use the language: The number of people who speak English around the world is constantly growing, but out of respect for local culture and language, it’s best to learn basic phrases and then ask “Do you speak English?” if more communication is required. When the spoken language is too hard, I’ve resorted to writing down short phrases or, when buying train tickets, the name of the destination city. More of my thoughts on language and travel here.

Get out on the water: Staying on a body of water? Then find out how you can get out there, whether it’s taking a ferry ride, renting a kayak, going snorkeling, taking a night boat cruise, joining a small group tour for whale watching–just do it because the perspective you get from actually being out on the water is so much cooler than looking at the water from afar.

My Top Travel Tips | This Is My Happiness.com

Treat wildlife with respect: Seeing wildlife is one of my favorite travel experiences, but it’s necessary to remember some manners even with the temptation to call your friends over and get as close to as you can. Remember to use a quiet voice, don’t do anything that would alarm the animals, and don’t encourage anyone to get too close. If you’re going to take a wildlife tour, do your homework and find responsible tour companies.

My Top Travel Tips | This Is My Happiness.com

Join in local festivals: I love interacting with local people and watching the ways in which they spend their free time, and attending a festival is one of the most fun ways I know of experiencing local culture. Try asking the local tourism office what festivals will be taking place during your visit.

My Top 40 Travel Tips | This Is My Happiness.com

Local music and wine at Bogle Winery outside Sacramento

Be smart about museums: I love art and even planned entire trips based on museum visits, but things have changed. Many of the world’s best museums are now so packed with camera-wielding tourists that you can barely see the art (see this recent New York Times article).

Don’t just go to all of them because you think you should…find out what each museum has and choose the ones that interest you the most. Get a museum pass for discounts and skipping the line, and make reservations if possible; whatever you do, avoid waiting in long lines outside major museums like the Uffizi or Vatican. Get an app or guidebook that explains the basics of what you’re looking at (this app for the Uffizi is a good example). Skip museums all together if you think your time would be better spent out and about, and if rain is in the forecast, save museum time for the rainy day.

IMG_7325 crocker

Take public transportation; i.e. avoid cars and planes: This tip depends greatly on where you are traveling. If you’re going to Europe, use trains when possible. Why? Because they drop you off in the center of town (instead of at an airport outside town), and train travel in Europe is a beautiful experience. If you’re going to be in San Francisco, avoid the sky-high parking fees and stress of navigating those hills and take MUNI instead. What is true in most places is that renting a car and trying to navigate another country’s unusual traffic and parking laws can be a hassle…try driving in Prague and let me know how it goes.

Shop locally: Buy souvenirs from local people, especially from people who have made the items themselves. Look for markets that sell handmade items and for artisan workshops where you can see the products being made and learn about the process from the artists themselves. A good example is buying artisan jewelry in Italy.

My Top Travel Tips | This Is My Happiness.com

Jewelry that reflects a sense of place, made by an artisan in Florence

Seek out the “real deal”: Look for places where you can interact not just with an employee but with the person responsible–the chef, restaurant owner, winemaker, artisan, shop owner. It’s through such interactions that you can gain a deeper understanding of the cultural heritage of a place.

My Top Travel Tips | This Is My Happiness

At the Shale and Blair Vineyards tasting room in Carmel, CA, the vintner pours the wine and tells tales of his family’s wine heritage.

And YOU? What are your favorite travel tips? I’d love to hear them! 

For more travel tips, check these out:

31 Sustainable Travel Tips

What to Pack for Summer Travel

What to Pack for Fall Travel

What to Pack for Winter Travel

Packing Tips for Family Travel (on G Adventures)

34 Comments

  • Brianna says:

    Fantastic tips Jenna. Before a big trip I seek out books and novels set in the area I’m going not only to get excited for the trip but to also get a feel of my destination. When travelling to cities I like to stay in areas in the city itself that are also residential within easy walking distance (or public transport). In London I like the area near the British Museum and in Washington DC I like staying near Dupont Circle.
    Brianna recently posted..Why I’m personally banning Starbuck’s Pumpkin Spice LatteMy Profile

    • Jenna says:

      Yep, I do the same with novels and movies set there. Staying in a residential area near the center (and accessible by public transport) is a very good idea, too, because the historic centers can tend to be noisy and more expensive. For example, in Prague, there are really nice areas to stay that are just outside the center.

  • Alexandra says:

    Love these tips. I think I do most of them, but you are truly one of the best and most conscious travelers I know.
    In the finding out about the place before you go, I like to follow local bloggers on twitter, and start interacting with them as well as reading their blogs, before I go to a place.
    Thanks for the link to my Uffizi app!!
    Alexandra recently posted..Muralia: passion for wine, Maremma styleMy Profile

  • Wendy says:

    I always pack a couple of large scarves; one soft and comfy, one dressier. They can be used as a shawl, a blanket, to cover my dress if it’s too short for visiting churches, a pillow, or to dress up an outfit. They take up very little room in my bag. I always keep one in my purse or day bag as well.

  • Great list! I especially like your comment about visiting fewer destinations and really enjoying each one– I think three days is perfect for smaller cities.

    My husband & I travel to Italy every year for business, and we bring Canadian art and scenery calendars to leave at our apartments and B&Bs as a thank you; perhaps we are promoting reverse tourism in the process! They’re also flat and easy to pack, and can’t get broken.

    We save some money by taking breakfast foods with us, like instant oatmeal packets, cereal, jars of PB & J and instant coffee. When you’re in a self-catering apartment, these basics can make a quick breakfast or snack, and they’re all finished by the time you go home. Splurge on a fancy breakfast out once in a while, but having your favourite cereal while still in your PJs is nice and cheap!

    Happy travels!

    • Jenna says:

      All good ideas! Thanks for sharing! And how wonderful that you get to travel to Italy every year. I would love to do just that soon!

  • Gina says:

    What a great list! Definitely agree with you on the shoes. It seems comfortable winter shoes are so hard to find if you want them to also be cute. I love my Keen sandals for summer. Also, never thought of using a white noise app while traveling – I’m going to try that!
    Gina recently posted..One Day in a City…Soon with a BabyMy Profile

    • Jenna says:

      Merrell shoes are pretty good for winter, but I’m still looking for really comfortable, yet cute shoes for fall-winter-spring travel.

  • Tricia says:

    Jenna, some spot-on pointers! I smiled when I saw your suggestion to bring along thank you-notes, as we regularly travel with a stack of them. (Here in Bulgaria, despite my inability to write neatly using the Cyrillic alphabet, it’s been fun attempting to write notes of appreciation to the kind locals who have invited us for dinner, given us homemade jam, and even crocheted slippers.)

    Also, liked your reminder for incorporating stop-overs in a given place. Wish that’d previously been an option when we traveled to Europe via Iceland!
    Tricia recently posted..Exploring the Roman Ruins of Salona: A Day Trip from Split, CroatiaMy Profile

    • Jenna says:

      The thank you notes are actually a pretty new thing for me, but I try to use them as often as I can.

  • Amy says:

    Great list and very different from your typical travel tips, so thank you. One thing we plan to do more is use the public transportation. We did however drive in Prague a few months ago. Haha, it’s not for the timid driver, that’s for sure!
    Amy recently posted..5 Great Day Trips Out Of PortlandMy Profile

  • Great and comprehensive guide, Jenna! I especially like your advice on asking locals and doing a stopover. The latter is an excellent way to see a new country and it is how I’ve explored Middle East the last few years.
    Miriam of Adventurous Miriam recently posted..Top 5 Temples in BaliMy Profile

  • Leah says:

    These are some great tips. I’m always learning from each trip, as well as other travel writers like yourself. I found myself nodding in agreement and kicking myself because I didn’t think of some of these sooner. Great call on the bank account. I just asked my bank if they did something without ATM fees and of course, they don’t. Might be time to start looking around. 😉
    Leah recently posted..My Best Worst Flying Experiences EverMy Profile

  • Cassie says:

    I love these tips, Jenna! So many things I fumble with again and again.

    And I’ve been a terrible blog commenter this month. I’ll make a donation to Unicef in your name to make up for it 🙂
    Cassie recently posted..Paris Rooftops, Windows, and DoorsMy Profile

  • The biggest thing I take away from this and that you cover in several items: be local. And when in doubt, ask. I try to research everything before a trip but sometimes there are things I forget or just overlook.
    Lance | Trips By Lance recently posted..Debut of The Daily Traveler in PrintMy Profile

  • Sify says:

    Jenna, here you are giving nice tips for travel. But according to me, it’s very important to first we are carefully planning the trip like Do we Have All Required Travel Documents or Do we Plan to Drive Overseas etc..

  • LOVE these tips! Especially telling your credit card company that you’ll be traveling…hmm…I should do that for my upcoming Mexico trip! Also – love the tip to bring ear plugs (I always do!) and emptying your phone/camera of photos (I often forget!).
    Colleen Lanin recently posted..Hawaii Island’s Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel with KidsMy Profile

    • Jenna says:

      I sometimes forget to tell my credit card company, but that feeling when you try to pay for something and can’t…terrible!

  • One other thing, download a translate app to your phone. Google has a great one, and it can be a real lifesaver.
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  • Corinne says:

    Great tips! We can all always use a refresher 🙂
    Corinne recently posted..Finding a Vacation Babysitter or Child CareMy Profile

  • Great tips! There are a few things I didn’t think of here. Now I’m off to buy fleece leggings (I’m always cold too!)

  • Jagoda says:

    Take maps, travel slowly, local people are the best guides you can find on your way:)

  • Christy says:

    Great tips! I’ve gotten extremely lazy with things like bringing a copy of my passport, extra passport photos, etc, but my friend just had hers stolen and had to give up a $2,000 flight because she didn’t have a copy! Yikes. I’ll be taking my copy with me from now on (or until I get lazy again ;).
    Christy recently posted..Our Most Popular Photos on Instagram in August 2014My Profile

    • Jenna says:

      That’s too bad about her passport but good to know that the copies really can come in handy sometimes!

  • Great Tips !!

    Thanks for posting….

  • Eryn says:

    I guess we will never know about all the beautiful things that our planet offers to us, but still it is worth travelling to find out most of them. Keep on travelling!

  • Awesome tips! I agree with all of these. It’s really important to keep these information on mind while planning or during the trip.

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