Life is full of amazing firsts, some better than others! There is just something otherworldly about the moment you arrive at your very first little dive hostel, down some crowded street in your very first foreign country, all alone with a slight pang of fear in your stomach; a long fucking way from home. You’ve been thinking about this trip for 6 months or maybe even a year, but you don’t even know what wanderlust is yet, this is country NUMERO UNO! The world, as they say, is your oyster.
We learned a lot since our first time. Our team at Kosan have been to over 40 countries and this blog post is being written from Argentina, so we thought we’d share a few tricks of the trade we’ve learned along the way. Here are our top tips for the first time traveller.
Make sure your passport is valid, and keep copies of it with you
Seems simple enough, right? Even if you’ll have visited and returned from a country well within 6-months, most countries won’t accept an expiring passport. Once when heading on a very last minute trip to Turkey, one of our teammates realized that his passport was going to expire in 6-months. Needless to say, we spent a small fortune and did a 2-day application. We ended up picking up the passport from the FexEx Depot by the airport…it didn’t even have time to make it to our house. Once you’ve got that sorted, you’ll also want to keep copies of it – printed ones which you keep on your person as well as digital copies to file away on a USB or cloud-based server.
Pro Tip: Don’t give up your passport if you don’t have to – Many hostels will ask you for your passport for the duration of your stay as a security deposit, and you only get it back once you’ve paid for your stay at the end. A savvy expat in Ho Chi Minh told us he always tells hostels that he’s lost his passport and just pays for the entire booking upfront. Not a bad idea!
Figure out your visa(s) well before you leave on your travels
To spare you airport and immigration humiliation – and maybe even your hard earned cash – visa requirements deserve a solid Google search. Third world countries are always changing up requirements, and although applications are usually pretty straightforward, there are few things to watch out for. Two recent examples:
Kosan teammate nicknamed The Oracle (for always being right) was recently traveling from Indonesia to the Philippines. Too busy being a digital nomad, he forgot to check requirements and discovered at the last minute that he needed a return ticket out of the Philippines just to enter. Long story short, he ended up buying the cheapest one-way ticket to Hong Kong he could… and missed his flight, resulting in an expensive night in Malaysia.
Case study number two. When our team arrived in Argentina in December we had to pay a “Reciprocity fee” of no less than $90 per person… then come January, they waived that fee. No way we’re getting a refund on that money.
Okay, enough about visas…let’s talk packing.
The internet is filled with many a’ glorious packing guides so we threw our hat in the ring and did our own. You can check that out here:
In a nutshell, do your research, pack light, check the season (most places have two seasons: wet or dry). Leave you sleeping bag at home and use our Travel System… okay, that was a shameless plug but don’t hold it against us. Honestly, you can use whatever bag suits your fancy just remember you’re not hiking Mount Everest and it ain’t easy to roll luggage through back roads of Bali or the cobbled streets of Rome. As for clothes, we’ll talk about a little later.
Pro Tip – Pack less than you think you need because A) hostels have cheap laundry services and B) if you need it and didn’t bring it you can just BIT …Buy It There.
Pro Tip – Don’t buy too much. Like a perfect shopaholic, on one the days we were in Thailand, one of our team members went to a market and bought all the relics, suits, jewelry, snake wine and souvenirs he could stuff in his bag. The bag ended up weighing way too much so he ended up having to kiss items goodbyee and buy a whole new bag just to ship the rest home, which also had extra bag fees. Costly mistake…
To insure or not to insure?
Not so funny story, once on the island of Koh Phangan a doctor tried to scam our friend out of $1200 but literally injected him in the ass with something and then telling him he was going to die. One block down the street another doctor said that his contemporary was a crook, our friend wasn’t going to die, and let us sleep out the night on a hospital beds while he and his son watched football (hint: not the american kind). What’s the point we’re making? That sometimes you’ll get free help for no money at all (except of course in America) but we still think it’s better to be safe than sorry and cough up a few extra bucks for insurance. You probably don’t need to rolls royce of insurance plans (we spent $300 for four people for 70 days in Argentina) but then again it depends on what you’re doing…you never know if you’re going to need an emergency heli vac out of the mountains of burma.
The Arrival, taxis scammers and hostels!
You ever want to feel like a celebrity just arrive at the airport in almost any third world country (at least that we’ve been too). They’ll be a horde of men clambering and shouting to give you a ride to anywhere. Literally…we once got a ride over 1000 kms from the airport…but we drunk and we’ll tell you how that story ended in a few paragraphs.
Most Taxi drivers are legit, even if that means you need to check out their buddies jewelry shop along the way. It always best to ensure the taxi is branded…if it not you may find yourself on the millionaires express (common in Colombia and other areas in latin america)…Can you guess what that is? No..we’ll it just means a few unwanted guest will join your ride and facilitate your city tour to every ATM until your bank account is dry. That’s never happened to us but it can happen. What’s far more common, which just did happen to a Kosaner in Vietnam, was that when the ride was over the doors were locked a about $30 extra dollar america was demanded before release.
It sucks, it happens, pay the money and then go grab a beer and chill out. Adopt the mindset that although it ain’t right they need the money more than you.
Afraid to take a cab – don’t be. In 30 countries and literally years of travel this has happened maybe five plus times. Consult Trip Adviser or your Lonely Planet to see what cabs you should take and if you’re still worried uber and other app based car services are starting to pop up everywhere. Even in Nam!
As for your Hostel, we’ll although we love them they’re no longer the only game in town. There’s coughing…which isn’t always our first choice, but Airbnb and homeaway is changing budget travel in big way. Our go too for the last five countries or so was bookings.com as it always proved the cheapest rates – even for the hostels.
Travel sheets aren’t a bad idea because more than once we encountered blood stains but what did you expect? And remember, you’ll meet lots of people who will look like they’ve been vagabonding for years but they were once you. We’ve never met a traveller who wasn’t excited as hell to pretend they were a local and give you all the advice they could about a place…so just say hi!
Pro Tip #1 – Be Spontaneous. Travel plans change all the time…so only book a few nights at your first destination and leave the rest unplanned. Spontinatiety is required for travel!
Pro Tip #2 – It’s okay to treat yourself. Love a good guilty pleasure? If you’ve been roughing it for a few weeks, it’s always nice to dish out for a hot shower, better thread count and not have someone you’ve never met snoring beside you.
Budget & Money
Know this no matter how much a of dirtbag you plan to be on your travels you’ll still end up spending more than you think. Whether it’s a flight change because you decided to stay longer, you just couldn’t find the $3 a night hostel, or you got sick of eating $1 burritos three times a day, just budget a bit more. Or maybe your tour ended up being a tad more than you thought or after meeting a new crew of fellow travellers you just turn baller one night at the bar. Trust us – it all happens.
Credit cards are a god send and can be used with most accomodation and some tour companies, but most of the rest of the world still love cold hard cash. Do some research on what credit cards offer the best international rates, points, fraud security protection and even insurance – which is probably better than you think.
Currency exchanges involve channeling grade school math so it’s good to make reference points. If a beer costs $x pesos and our know thats $5 then use the beer metric to quickly add totals. We don’t advise pulling out your phone for calculations.
Try and get your first week or two of cash at a currency exchange back home. With all the stuff you need to think about your first time in a new country, the last thing you want is to be asking your cabby is to take you the near ATM. Don’t travel with a lot of cash from in another currency as airport currency rates will gowch you and in-town currency exchanges aren’t great either.
ATMs are the best, but ensure to get enough cash to get from riable town to riable town. For example, here in Argentina our Debit Cards work at about 1 in every 5 ATMs and when it does work, it usually has a line up of twenty people or more. ave
Pro Tip – Why are you negotiating that vendor down? In some countries, prices start high in the spirit of a good old fashion negotiation – where the you better be prepared to walk away to get the price you want. And even if you did walk away, as hard as it for our minds to fathom, depending where you are that may not even be rude. But ask yourself: who really needs that $5 more? Epecially in the more rural villages where goods are actually produced by local artisans.
Traveller vs Tourist
No, we’re not getting in that debate and we don’t think you should either. In a new country we’re all travellers and tourists. The difference is not in the naming of a thing but the conduct and action.
Clothing: At Kosan, we adhere to the rule that board shorts and tank tops are for the beach. Some countries dress very conservatively, as a guest in their country you should respect those custom when going for dinner, to a museum, monument or even riding the train or bus. Bring a scarf to cover your shoulders, and don’t wear skirts that are too short!
Language: The entire world also doesn’t speak english and it’s rude to expect as much so when it comes to inevitable language barrier the rule of thumb is be gracious, patient and do your best. Learn as many simple phrases as you can ahead of time or brush up before you go out that day. Loud doesn’t mean right and you’d be surprised how far a simple smile and hand gestures can go.
Lastly, just remember that the guide book isn’t gospel. Yes, it’s damn important to bring, but don’t make it a crutch. Converse with fellow travellers and locals to find out great places to eat – that’s how you make connections. Don’t be afraid to not follow the exact route you’ve planned if another adventure presents itself. Look for connections but find time to be alone as well. There is an inherent beauty and sense of empowerment and accomplishment in traveling alone – but in unfamiliar new places easy to want to rely on others. Find balance in both.
At Kosan we fondly recall our first time (traveling). It was 33 degrees with 100% humidity in the streets of Bangkok for god’s sake – but I’d been too overwhelmed to change at the airport. The overpriced taxi cab (I hadn’t experienced tuk tuks yet) dropped me off at the mouth of Kho San Road, and it was there I stood, jaw resting on the grimy streets, backpack in a white knuckle grip. This place looked like Vegas during a world fair, potentially on the precipice of a riot…or maybe that’s just how I felt on the inside.
Market stalls filled with deep fried bugs, the sweet smell of cooking meats and fish oil wafting through the air. An orchestra of conversations – friendly faces, determined faces, savage faces. Not to mention a fair few man buns.
Mount Popa, Myanmar. From the KOSAN archives.
Next thing you know, a Scottish lass and British fella pull up in a cab behind me. They stand a few steps behind me in what I can only assume is the same awe-inspired trance I myself am in. Suddenly I realize I didn’t have a place to stay and a thought crosses my mind, I should ask them where they are staying.
I think you know where this story goes… we all share a hostel room, go get a beer and Pad Thai. We share stories of where we come from, how we ended up here, we meet a few more people along the way and the next thing you know, we’re shooting snake’s blood in a back alley of a back alley, and by the end of night, the old me has died a small death. A re-birth was happening.
Sure, many a re-birth has happened at the bottom of a bottle of SangSom Thai whiskey. But if you “feel it” the next day when the jet the leg is actually kicking in and you can’t stop staring with big shiny eyes at absolutely everything, even a conversation with local shaking you down for a few extra bhat is more liberating than any lecture you can recall. You may be onto something.