20 Things Every Smart Traveler Should Know

Dulles airport

I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes a good traveler lately, and usually those thoughts have gone into higher levels of personal philosophies and self-improvement. At it’s base though, no matter where we go there are a few things we should all know to not just make us better travelers, but better people. Here are a few I thought of, I’d love to hear what you think should be added to this list. (Also, where possible I’ve linked to resources to help you learn these skills. They haven’t paid me, they won’t pay me, I just thought it would be a good idea to offer resources.)

1. Wash clothes in a sink – All of us, from luxury to budget travelers will at some point have a laundry emergency and be forced to launder our own clothes effectively and probably quickly.  How to Do Laundry While Traveling

2. How to use needle and thread – I can’t sew, I’m the first to admit that but I do know the basics of threading a needle and reattaching a button. You never know how and when you’ll need to repair clothes or even luggage, so learn the fundamentals of sewing. How to Sew on a Button

3. Where the nearest embassy is – If you’re leaving the country, this is a simple and important thing to know. You never know what will happen, from losing your passport to military coup (less likely) so just do a simple search for the nearest embassy. If you’re from the US, here’s a guide: Websites of U.S. Embassies, Consulates, and Diplomatic Missions

4. To keep an emergency stash of money – Travel can be unpredictable and I’ve heard far too many horror stories of theft and loss on the road. I’ve even had it happen to me so I know the importance of keeping a secret stash of money. Just don’t forget where you put it. Secret Stash: Where to Hide Your Money

5. Art of haggling – Although for many of us the practice of haggling is an alien concept, it’s a vital skill to possess in many corners of the world. How to haggle while you travel

6. How to say “No, thank you,” wherever they are – I mean this in two different ways. First, I literally mean you should take the time to learn this phrase in the local language. It will help you a million times from warding off salespeople to buskers. Second, I mean that you should be somewhat selfish when you travel. Don’t do things you don’t want to do or waste time on experiences not important to you. How to Say No in Various Languages and How to Say “Thank You” in 58 Languages

7. Drive stick shift (manual) – Many of us have been spoiled by automatic transmissions in cars, a feature hard to find in many parts of the world. Learning how to drive stick shift will open up new travel possibilities and will prepare you to travel anywhere in any kind of car, truck or van. How To Drive A Stick Shift In Ten Easy Steps

8. Travel light – I can’t say that I’m any great expert in this, but I am getting better. No matter where you go and what you do, learning how to be a more efficient packer is a very valuable skill. How to Pack Light

9. Swim – Ok, this is more a life skill than purely a travel one, but it’s important. First, you never know when you might need to swim. Be it in an emergency situation or a fun new experience you want to try, swimming is an important travel skill everyone should possess. Total Immersion: How I Learned to Swim Effortlessly in 10 Days and You Can Too

Off road Australia Britz Campervan

10. The basics of geography – I think that to be a good traveler you have to be a smart traveler. Sure, idiots can (and do) travel, but armed with a little knowledge you can dramatically improve your travel experience. At the top of the list of things to know is basic geography. I’m not asking for you to be able to label every country in Africa, just know the major things. World Atlas

11. How to use a compass – Granted, few of us find ourselves lost in the woods with only a pocketknife and compass to save us. But using a compass is such a basic skill and arguably important at times that I think we should all know the basic tenets of proper compass use. Using a Compass

12. Proper use of chopsticks – Chopsticks aren’t just relegated to use in Japan, they’re a popular utensil all over the world thanks to the massive popularity of both sushi and Chinese restaurants. Plus you look cool when you eschew the fork and knife in favor of two wooden sticks. How to Use Chopsticks – Become an Expert in 90

13. Importance of travel insurance – I was a late adopter to this one, but I am now a firm believer in the importance of being insured when you travel. First, there’s the practical matter of travel delays and disruptions. There’s a lot we can’t control when we travel, so it pays to be prepared. Also, it’s always possible to have a medical emergency when we’re away from home and unless we have proper insurance in place, it can be a financially debilitating experience. Finally, theft and loss happens everywhere; pick a plan that will protect your fancy gadgets. How to Buy Good Travel Insurance

14. That local grocery stores are awesome – I’ve written about this several times, but one of my favorite ways to learn about local culture quickly is by visiting the nearest grocery store. Instantly you will learn what they eat and what importance they place on certain foods. The multiple aisles of olive oil in Madrid says something about Spanish culture. Grocery stores are also a great place to get cheap snacks, drinks and even meals. Cultural Immersion When you Travel

15. How to change a tire – Many of us will rent a vehicle of some sort when we travel and the chances of getting a flat tire somewhere, anywhere is pretty likely. Instead of being held hostage to roadside assistance, take some time and learn how to change a tire yourself. How to Change a Tire

16. Sleep anywhere – I wish I could master this skill, but even though I haven’t succeeded yet I know how important it is. So many times we find ourselves in cars, planes, trains or wherever and a few minutes of sleep could mean the difference between sanity and going nuts. If you can tackle this skill, you are on your way to being a travel master. Power Napping: How To Fall Asleep Anywhere

17. Three good jokes – The ability to add levity to any situation is a great skill to have, even if some things may be lost in translation. If you’re not a naturally gifted joke teller, take some time to learn a few and keep them in your travel arsenal. Pretty Good Jokes

18. Exercises you can do in a hotel room – Staying healthy on the road is difficult, but given how physically taxing travel can be it’s vital to be as healthy as possible. If you can take even ten minutes a day to do yoga or exercise in some way, it will make your travel experience infinitely more enjoyable. How to Stay in Shape While Traveling

19. Basic first aid – You never know what will happen or where which is why it’s smart to be prepared. Take a local first aid class or simply research online on how to do simple things like offering CPR or the Heimlich maneuver. First Aid Index – Mayo Clinic

20. Take a decent photo – Almost everyone takes photos when they travel, but not everyone takes good photos. You don’t have to have a fancy camera or be an expert to come home with quality photos, so take a few minutes to brush up on the basics. Travel Photography Tips

These are just some things I think every traveler should know – what would you add to the list?

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

60 thoughts on “20 Things Every Smart Traveler Should Know”

  1. Great list Matt. Washing clothes in a sink has become a huge part of travel for me. It happens way more than I would have ever imagined. Being able to sleep anywhere is one that I would love to be able to do, but I just can’t seem to manage it.

  2. Nice list Matt. I might add:
    Use public transportation – saves a ton of money. If you use a taxi know the correct amount for the location you are going to.
    Chill – the longer the trip the more that things can go wrong. Have a back-up plan or at least just take it as part of the adventure.
    Buy good walking shoes. The world seems to be built on cobble stones. Also, walk as much as possible, it is good exercise and you will uncover interesting things that you might have missed.
    Ask the locals. In restaurants or sitting on a park bench talk to the people around you about their city/town/eatery – most will love to inform you about the menu or something interesting you might have missed.
    We love going to grocery stores also, sometimes it can be the cheapest meal around (i.e. Switzerland). We also go to drug and clothing stores to pick up articles we may have run out of.

  3. I’m starting to come around to the idea of at least considering travel insurance when in another country. Washing clothes is a great one. It enables us to pack much lighter; or at least for me to make more space for my wife to carry more shoes! My problem with sink laundry is sometimes the items I need to put on aren’t dry yet. Air drying takes longer than you think it does.

    1. Roll wet items in a towel and squeeze out extra water. Then hang on a hanger.
      Great tips. Good shoes and travel insurance is a must. Friend recently tripped in Spain. Surgery, business flight home and many months recovery.

  4. I would add how to check/predict the weather for your destinations. sure it’s warm but how about humidity, or could but what about wind chill, etc…

  5. Definitely agree with the comment on shoes. To me, this is the most important “gear” for traveling and one that I don’t feel guilty paying a lot for. Shoe malfunctions can ruin a trip and in many places, good shoes are hard to find. The other thing I’ve learned is I enjoy a trip much more if I unplug my devices when I get to my destination so all my senses are engaged at all times.

      1. Same here! And because I have flat feet I rely on not so cute sneakers and a pair of crocks (but not the bulky ones although it looks like they are quite popular in Europe nowadays).

  6. I hate washing clothes in a sink, but I’ve had to do that more times than I’d like to admit. And haggling is absolutely necessary–I learned a few tricks to it while living in China.

  7. I’ve been burned by failing at a couple of these. Not knowing how to drive a stick shift and then going to Mexico to rent a car… Nothing like having a bunch of natives laughing hysterically at the stupid American who can’t drive a car. lol Also, we definitely need to get better at haggling. We cave too easy and pay too much, often. :(

  8. Awesome list! I’m good on the 3 jokes, tire changing, and first aid, but definitely need to work on my needle and thread skills as well as becoming a better manual driver! ;)

  9. Be optimistic and open to new things. COMFORTABLE SHOES/HIKING BOOTS are pretty key. I also strongly believe in number 13, this is a must for travelers and they should never leave home without it. Cheers for the blog and keep up the great work, your producing excellent stuff:)

  10. Amazing!! I really love this list :)
    Nr.7 made me LOL …we have the opposite problem (breaking and accelerating together may be dangerous)

  11. I totally agree with point 10. It really surprises me how little some people know about the relative geography of places they’ve been or where they are. I remember asking friends at school after the summer holidays where they’d been. “France”. “Oh, whereabout?” “Dunno, France.” Really?!

    On the other side, I would love to have number 16 down. I kind of think of the ability to sleep anywhere as a super power. I’m so jealous of people who have it!

    1. I wish I could sleep anywhere but I just can’t. And I agree about geography and have been guilty of not brushing up on new destinations before leaving home.

  12. Thanks for these helpful tips Matt. I wish I could travel more to experience the real life of a traveller. I’ve learned a lot from your suggestions and from other travellers here. Perhaps in the future, I can also share some realistic tips.

  13. Hey Matt, Truly great list ! I will say that one of my favorite toiletry amenities to date was from a Fried of a Friend Favorite: the Cape Grace Hotel in Cape Town, which had lingerie wash in a plastic bottle next to the body wash. It’s been in my DOP quit ever since – all you need is just a bit for clean undies to soak in the sink.

  14. Great list. I’m another in the ‘wish I could sleep anywhere’ brigade – can’t even kip properly on planes which makes those ten hour plus journeys to far flung destinations more than a little painful

  15. This is an excellent list! Admittedly, I need to learn some of these things and definitely learn how to do others much better. Thank you!

  16. Excellent list, Matt. I would add:
    –Leave a photocopy of your passport w (a) family at home (b) in your checked bag (c) in your carry-on and (d) with your travel companion;
    –It really is possible to pack everything for a 30-day trip into one wheeled carry-on.
    –If checking luggage, keep two changes of clothing and basic toiletries/cosmetics in your carryon;
    –If you are traveling with someone and both of you are checking bags, place some of your clothes in each other’s bag. If a bag goes missing, you at least have some things.
    –If travelling to a strife-ridden area, register with the US State Dept before you go;
    –take two pair of really good walking shoes, and alternate them each day. Your feet will thank you.
    Happy Travels!

  17. This is a great life-lesson-in-general kind of list, too. I especially like the one about how to tell jokes. It’s the last thing people might have guessed when compiling a list like this, but it’s as practical as any other in its own way.

  18. Learning to say ‘no thank you’ in Khmer was so handy on my last visit to Cambodia. The difference between saying it in English and in the local language was amazing. Touts would leave me alone straight away if I spoke in Khmer.

  19. I’d include a few vials of essential homeopathic remedies (very small and lightweight) plus a tiny bottle of Rescue Remedy. Those have kept me calm,pain or illness free more often than I can remember. Having your Constitutional Remedy is a big help also in warding off sickness too.

  20. Having a small carry on bag with a few essentials helps, especially a change of formal clothes, footwear & a warm sweater if you are travelling to a cold country. Helps sustain in case of lost / delayed baggage.

  21. Wow! what a great list, I think I know about half of them… I would also add:
    – Know a couple of words in the native language (Hi, please, thank you and good bye)
    – Carry a med kit (paracetamol, bite cream, sun protection)
    – Be phone aware (call charges and wi-fi spots)

  22. Do you wear icebreaker clothing while traveling? I was recently in a Backwoods Store and was told they can be worn for a lengthy time period without having to be washed!

  23. Excellent advice! I particularly like the travel insurance one, you’d be surprised how many long term travellers don’t want to be “tied down” by anything from home and therefore forego the travel insurance bit. Of all the things, that’s the one thing you SHOULD bring…

    Great tips all around though, thanks for sharing!

  24. Just did a RTW trip with my family. Knows what to eat and what not to eat. We avoided major illness on an 11month RTW trip and I have got to say it comes from the good advice of fellow travelers who warned us not eat salads, and fruit that can’t be peeled and only really cooked street food. We enjoyed lots of great local foods in 25 plus countries but avoiding those things, drinking bottled water and sodas. I’ve seen people go down and ruin a trip fast ignoring those rules certain their five star hotel’s salad in peru is fine.

  25. Your website is such a gem! I am so glad I stumbled upon it :) I am planning a trip of Europe in the summer and am always welcoming new information of how to make my trip great! Thanks for including links for different tips! Have a good week.

  26. #1, #5, and #14 are my favorites here. I am getting pretty good at haggling for room rates and taxis but am less good at haggling at markets and often get overcharged for fruit and veg.

  27. I am going to france and looked for an app for my phone, so I can load a ton of sentences which my app will say in the foreign language, so I can either learn to repeat it or let the person serving me hear it. (By preloading I dont need wifi for the app to work)
    Also a hair dryer which is at most hotels comes in handy to dry off those still slightly damp clothes you washed the night before.
    I often book accomodation that has a washer/dryer
    I also take a portable iron and pack a lot of lightweight shirts which roll up to practically nothing and weight very little. I wear clothes under these shirts if it cool or a coat on top if its really cold but they wash quick and dry quick and always look smart.
    Always take your 50plus sunscreen and some aeroguard for insects
    I was also told that if you have a shot of vodka before your meal it kills a lot of bugs (Not sure on that one but cant hurt)

  28. Top list Matt! Fully agree with learning the dark art of the compass! Saved my bacon heaps of times when our phone has run out of battery.
    Cheers :)

  29. Awesome list. Matt, I vote for your last point- photography. It is really needed to brush up our skills so that we can capture and create the best moments of our traveling in the best way.

  30. Great list! Washed my clothes in the sink while in Bangkok, as well lost my passport for a short period in Malaysia..was stressful because I was visiting briefly, but fortunately had copies:

    1. What a great review of common sense hints. Starting my annual RTW with 5 star and hostels in route.Two natural thoughts: learn to say “Good morning” in the language in travel and do not be shy. Ask questions and get recommendations from as many as are willing to share. thanks for sharing.

  31. Hi
    Art of Haggling
    I do this in every country I go to and the wife hates me for it. The USA does not like to haggle apart from Alaska I tried to haggle in Moab Utah for a Gopro and I was asked to get out of the shop.
    Bill from Scotland

  32. Dan@ghanatravelstowestafrica

    These are great points indeed. But i would like to comment about the importance of haggling right here in Ghana and to me it’s a bit funny. You see anytime i get to hang out with travellers and we decide to go somewhere by taxi, the cabbie would give a high price. In this case i,the local speak in a phony accent and when we try to beat down the price, he resist initially. But when he senses that other drivers want to get hold of us, he would accept our price, not his and go with us. As we go, we notice the pride and exhilaration as other ”envious” or jealous drivers wave at him and tell him in our language that he is lucky to driving a traveller.

  33. Great list, especially the ‘driving stick’. On many occasions, I have been the only one able to drive because of that. Grocery stores are also a must! For international travel, I like to use the Do’s and Taboo’s of foreign travel series (I am sure there are more out there) by Roger Axtell. Great tips on customs and even covers gestures, which are often overlooked. Aside from making sure you don’t offend someone, just really interesting. I am also a frequent traveler who does so with a full-time job, so looking forward to exploring the site!

  34. Hahaha, oh my goodness, I found the male version of me!
    Everywhere I go, #14 is a must. I buy things from the grocery to bring home and to give as small gifts to friends. I’m obsessed with pancake mixes, tea , coffee and anything & everything that I’ve never ever seen before except in that country I’m visiting. Here are just some of my unusual finds: Kisses brand chocolates with macadamia (Maui), chocolate flavored Cheetos (Bogota), green tea Listerine mouthwash (Philippines).

  35. A little late to be commenting on this post but I love this! Tips like these are always useful for newb travelers. And about haggling, I’d like to think I’ve saved a lot of money from haggling. Especially in Asia where it’s practically a norm

  36. Hi Matt! Cool tips. Once I washed clothes in a sink, it was disgusting. And it didn’t help.
    I’d add a skill to pack stuff compactly. Especially, it touches girls :) Art of putting a huge pile of things in a small bag or backpack is necessarily for a traveler.

  37. Okay! I don’t know swimming and this has been a challenge. I remember my visit to Rishikesh where we did white water river rafting but again I missed the opportunity of cliff jumping into the river because of my fear… I missed it totally…

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