I’ve been travelling pretty much non-stop for the past 21 months, on average a different city every 7-14 days. I’ve covered more ground, sky, and eaten more bad food at 30,000+ during this time than I have in the rest of my life combined. I’ve been to countries where I can’t understand a word, gotten lost, found, cold, wet, and tired. I’ve also had the most incredible experiences that I will forever be grateful for.
As a result of sharing my images and stories with the internet, I get a lot of emails from people asking for tips and tricks on travelling safely. I’ve spent the last few long flights collecting a my thoughts on the topic. Most of these tips are airline travel based. It is by no means the ultimate list or anything close, just a few musings while living life on the road. I’m not someone with years of travel experience. I’ve only recently opened up this chapter in my life, but these little things have made travelling a whole lot easier. Feel free to take what you may deem useful, forget the rest.
I’ve also tossed in a bunch of very random views that I’ve seen over the last 18 months. No huge story behind any of them, just little memories. If you’re interested in any prints, you can buy from my SmugMug page here. If you don’t see what you’re looking for, please contact me here.
Passport and ID
These are gold. Keep them as safe as you can. I keep mine on my person at all times. It also helps to take a photograph of your passport (all of the pages within too!) and ID, and keep it on your phone or in some kind of secure online storage. Send a copy to a family member you trust. If you ever lose your passport, it’s much easier to pull your ass out of hot water in some embassy if you have access to a photographed copy of your identification.
It’s cheap, and it really doesn’t cost that much for the peace of mind. You never know when you’re going to have a freak accident with a mysterious allergy you didn’t know you had, or slip and break an appendage or something. Shit happens, it’s a lot easier to deal with when the expensive hospital bill isn’t coming out of your pocket. Most travel agencies, banks, or even your own insurance company have some form of travel coverage that you can purchase for the duration of your trip.
Wherever your destination, keep a couple hundred bucks in cash on you, in small bills. A lot of places don’t take credit cards. The last thing you want to do is pay for your $10 meal with a $50 or $100 bill. Smaller bills are common, easy to make change for, and don’t draw unwanted attention.
Do not let it out of your sight! Make it look crappy. Don’t have a big fancy camera strap that says “Hey, I’m expensive!” in bright yellow or red font. Get a plain strap, something that looks shitty. Keep the fancy one for your wedding clients or for the family reunions. That goes for your camera bag as well. Essentially, you want your camera to be as inconspicuous as possible. If you make it look like it belongs to a 6 year old, chances are a potential theif is going to take a pass. I also recommend you use electrical tape, pins, or something similar to cover up any markings, brands, etc that has anything to do with cameras.
Carry On Luggage
The bane of my existence. I will often travel with two carry on bags, if the airline will let me. I have one ThinkTank Airport TakeOff and one F-Stop Gear Tilopa BC backpack and I love them both. I also have two Harney Pouches that I pack my camera and lenses into for extra padding. I’ll often toss my camera and one lens, plus my laptop into my F-Stop backpack, and my extra lenses, cables, card readers, 3 Legged Thing tripod into my ThinkTank roller bag. Sometimes you have to gate check a roller bag, which is the ultimate stress for most of us, which is why I like having my gear padded down extra with the Harney Pouch inside my ThinkTank. Airlines can be total jerks about equipment and I’ve seen my little ThinkTank bag thrown around like a hot potato more than once through a passenger window. The extra padding helps protect against baggage handlers who might confuse your bag for a football.
If you ever have to gate check your roller bag make sure you have a small combination lock on your case. Keep your hard drives, memory cards, and anything else that has valuable information on it in a small bag inside. That way when you’ve been told by the airline that your bag cannot stay under your watchful eye, you can remove the pouch and keep that on your person. It’s bad enough seeing your beloved gear wander down the belt to possibly be never seen again, don’t let your photographs go with it. Some things are replaceable, some things are not.
Travel days are usually a mix of the chaotic and exhausting, and largely spent running your ass from one location to the next, hoping you don’t miss a transfer. If that is not your normal travel experience, you’re a luckier person than I am. Always try to travel with a bag of grub in your pack, something that won’t go bad tomorrow if it doesn’t hit a fridge, and something healthy. It’s easy to get in the habit of munching on whatever’s cheap and available when travelling, which leads to a growing waist line and a fair bit of self loathing. I usually keep a bag of assorted nuts (some people like dried fruit but I’d personally rather chew on tires) and a few granola bars in my bag, along with a small ziplock bag of vitamins I can mix into a bottle of water. Airplanes are little metal flying test tubes for the next Black Plague (Ebola anyone??). It doesn’t hurt to keep a little vitamin C and D handy. I’ve been *that* sick passenger before, and I felt bad for everyone around me and the poor bastard who pulled the short straw to sit in the seat after me.
It’s also super handy to keep a reusable water bottle handy on you. When the flight attendant is walking the isles offering drinks, you can usually get them to half fill (or more) your empty water bottle for free, thus saving you the cost of paying the price of your unborn child’s soul for water inside the airport. Most airports also have water fountains, so if you trust the water in the area, fill that bottle up!
Ear Plugs, Headphones, Music & Power
We’ve all heard it. The symphony of crying babies while boarding a plane for what will be an eternity of non-stop vocal chords that can only last that long and be that loud in the earliest stages of life. I know there’s nothing that can be done, and I don’t get angry about it. They’re babies. It’s what they do. However, you can ease the headache by stashing a few ear plugs in your skull, or some fancy noise cancelling headphones. Ear plugs are also handy when you’re crammed into a smelly dorm room hostel in the middle of nowhere Scotland, and the overweight British dude in the bunk below you has the capability to give children in China nightmares with the volume and cadence of his snoring. True story…
A few tips on music however: don’t use your phone for your music. If your device is anything like any phone I’ve ever owned, it will last only long enough to get a couple rounds out of a playlist before it dies. Usually just as the plane lands. Then you’re landing, needing to call your ride and your phone is fucking dead and now you’re running around trying to find the mysterious hidden power outlets that give you Final Fantasy flashbacks when looking for a secret chest or scroll or some dumb shit to get to the next level. Get an mp3 player, and listen to that to your hearts content.
Also, buy an extra battery! I’ve recently bought one from Best Buy for around $80 and it charges my phone, iPad, and MP3 player back to full if I’ve managed to suck them dry. I haven’t really tried a bunch of different ones, but I’ve heard good things about Duracell’s USB Charger I haven’t bought one though, so if it sucks, I’m sorry. I was told good things. Also, put your phone on airplane mode when you’re charging, it’s way more efficient.
Travelling usually means you don’t look like a beauty queen. Mix in a little jet lag, screaming children, and being stuck middle seat next to a sick woman and a dude who should have bought two seats, and you’re not likely to pick up any dates. So, after 36 hours of travelling, you land, take a hop to the bathroom, look in the mirror and the glass shrieks and shatters into a thousand pieces. Then you go wait for your luggage only to find that your bag is lost and now probably on its way to Aruba. Now you’ve got no clothes and you look as homeless as you probably smell. Your carry on bags probably hold only your precious cameras, hard drives, and some life preserving food. I get it.
Here’s my suggestion: cram a spare pair of socks and underwear into your little bag of carry-on wonders. Use them as stuffing around your lenses. Space is limited, so make it useful. For extra fun, make it something exciting and exotic. That way when airport security inevitably tears apart your camera bag for the grenade they’re convinced you’re trying to smuggle aboard, they can find an extra fun kind of surprise. If you can get them to blush, they will regret ever asking “Can I open this bag?”. Go for it champ. Honestly, it’s the only way to make the humiliation of airport security fun. Seriously, one of the worst things to run out of on the road is clean socks and underwear. Especially if your checked bag is delayed a day or two.
Back to the fact that you look like you’ve won the Medusa beauty pageant. Ladies? It doesn’t take up much room to keep a tiny comb, a stick of mascara, some gum, and a small container of foundation or concealer. Call it vain if you want, but 30 seconds in an airport bathroom, looking at one of the broken shards of glass you picked up off the floor, it can make you feel a little better. But don’t forget: if you have a bottle over 100mL, airport security will totally take that shit away from you and you’ll be out the $98374520.95 that the makeup probably cost. Because let’s face it – “beauty” is expensive as fuck. I’ve also had my makeup kit stolen twice from my checked luggage.
I travel 95% of the time with a pair of trusty leather boots. I got 4 years out of my last pair before they inevitably blew apart whilst scampering along a British coast line. If they’re remotely nicely put together, you can mix them up with a dress or nice pants if you get hauled into some kind of an event where your filthy travel pants just won’t cut it. I also recommend keeping a spare of sneakers with you. If your boots get soaked, tear apart, get stolen, or mysteriously get a hole in the bottom of them because you walked 10,000 miles in them and they’re just tired, you’re not fucking screwed. Yes, you can buy shoes anywhere, but if you don’t have to drop money on new shoes that you have to break in on the road, it saves money. And blisters. It’s also nice to just sometimes break up the monotony of what your feet are walking.
I hear this a lot: “I can’t do that, travel is expensive!” I call BS. Yes, you can travel expensive. Yes, a week vacation somewhere can cost you thousands of bucks. However, it doesn’t have to. Not if you’re creative with your money. In my experience, the most expensive part of travelling is airfare. Unfortunately, to get to Europe from Canada, it costs about $1500 round trip. However, this is the day and age of the mighty internet and our big ass planet is getting really tiny. Reach out to the world. Make friends online, join groups, talk to people, hit up some Google Hangouts and start connecting with faces in places where you want to travel. If you aren’t too picky about where you sleep, it’s not that hard to find a few square feet to put your head down on for the night. .
If that fails you can also try using AirBnB. You can rent rooms, couches, apartments and houses, depending on your budget. I’ve used it a few times now with great success. There are news reports about it being unsafe, and the reality is that you could be putting yourself in a bad situation, but read the reviews of the location, pick places that have had many people staying there, and take good care of the place while you are there. You rate the place you stayed and they rate you as well. If you trash the place or are anything other than a good person, they will make a note on your profile too, and other places will be less likely to rent to you. It’s built on trust, just like meeting people online.
The next expensive thing can be food. Skip eating out and hit up a grocery store. If you’re staying with people, cook your own food. Yes it’s nice to eat out when you’re in a new place, but if you’re on a budget you just have to get a little creative and conservative with your money. Buying sandwich supplies for 5 days can cost the same (or less) than one meal out.
One thing I’ve learned… People are people everywhere. MOST people want the same as the rest of us, to grow up, happy and healthy, and not have to worry about where the next batch of food is coming from and watch their kids grow up healthy and safe too. The news would have us believe that the world is full of evil little fuckers that want to see your ass dead before dinner, but that’s total bullshit. The world is mostly full of really nice people. Mostly. Nice people have bad days, and there really are rude pricks out there who want whatever is in your backpack or your underwear. However, with that in mind, people are generally pretty awesome if you just approach them with a smile. Which leads me to my next point…
It’s not a question of IF something will go wrong in your travels, it’s WHAT. Something almost always goes sideways, don’t let it get you pissy or down. It’s part of travel and part of the adventure. It’s tests on your ability to adapt, and keep going. Try travelling with as few plans as possible. “Where are we going to sleep when we get there?” “Who fucking knows? If we can’t find a room anywhere, we’ll sleep in the car.” Whatever! It’s travel! Shit happens. Learn to enjoy it, because the whole point of travel is getting one more step closer to self-actualization and doing some cool shit.
Take Lots of Pictures
I’m not talking about the epic vistas that you see that you wake up at 4 am to run your stupid ass down to the edge of a cliff to catch the perfect sunrise off the coast, or spending all day setting up for some crazy timelapse video… Those are important too, but I mean the little things. Take photos of the places you sleep. Take photos of the streets you walk on. Take pics of the little dogs you meet along the way, the leaves, your travel partner passed out in the back seat of the car with his mouth half open. Your Medusa-like state after you broke the mirror in the airport. Shit like that is where the memories come from. They don’t need to go online for the world to see, they’re for you and the small group of people you let into that part of your little world. Those are the things that you save for if you’re lucky enough to hit old age and you can look back on your life and say “Yeah, I did some cool shit once”.
You might never meet your travel partners again, the places you visit might drastically change if you even ever go back. Those moments in time happen once. Cherish them, and take 1/8th of a second out of your life to take a quick cell phone pick while you scamper along looking for the next place to stuff your face.
Yay! Almost done! High fives to all for making it this far…
In closing, to quote my dad, you don’t need a big suitcase to carry around memories. Don’t let your life get bogged down with the material things. Life begins off the couch and out of the house. Become a tourist in your own city if you really can’t make longer travel happen. It’s a big shiny world out there and we often travel without learning to appreciate where we came from. This is your life. Fucking own that shit.