12 Things Every First-Time Traveller Should Know
It’s circa January 2017.
I’m standing nervously at the airport, somehow not toppling over from the weight of my overstuffed pack. I’ve got an A4 folder filled with printouts of everything I could ever need, from hotel confirmations to multiple scans of my passport. (Despite the fact that it was all on my phone.) I’ve had vaccinations for rabies, Hepatitis and Japanese Encephalitis, and have started popping malaria tablets like I’m expecting a horde of angry mosquitoes to swarm me the second I step off the plane.
I’m off on my first big trip abroad, for a whirlwind 99 days in Southeast Asia.
Cut to three years later and I’ve now been to over 20 countries. While I’m still a self-professed over-planner, I’m now a much more confident – and sometimes even spontaneous – traveller.
Travel is pretty easy for me now, but I still remember how anxious I was at the start of my first big trip. I was stepping off into the unknown, and it was a magical, but terrifying, experience. Off on your first adventure overseas? I’ve got your back. Read on for the beginner’s guide to travelling on a budget.
Read More: Top 8 Southeast Asia Bucket List Experiences
A Beginner’s Guide to Travelling on a Budget
1. Apply for a Passport
Ok, this one may sound a little obvious. But if you’ve never been overseas before it’s important to leave enough time before your trip to apply for a passport.
In New Zealand a standard adult passport costs $191 NZD and can take 10 days to process. You can apply online, and you’ll need a passport photo that meets the application requirements. It’s recommended that you get your passport photo taken at a pharmacy or PostShop, but you can also take the photo yourself (just make sure it fits the specifications).
If you already have a passport it pays to check the expiry date, as some countries require you to have six months validity on your passport. (Meaning you can’t enter the country unless your passport is due to expire at least six months after the final day of travel).
2. Decide Where You’re Going
Ooh, this is the fun part! You’re off on your first overseas adventure, and the world is literally your oyster. For the first time backpacker, there are two important things to consider when choosing where to travel.
First, some countries are easier for backpackers to travel than others. Thailand is a great choice for first time travellers. It’s on the well-trodden Banana Pancake Trail and has been a backpacker mecca for decades. It’s (for the most part) well set up for tourists, easy to get around and safe. Australia and New Zealand are also great choices (though a lot more expensive).
While I won’t recommend against any particular country for your first trip, it does pay to do a little research before you go. A trip around Bolivia, for example, is likely to be more challenging than a trip to Cambodia, and you might want to wait until you’re more comfortable with travelling.
Another thing to consider when picking where to travel is what your budget is. My 99-day trip around Southeast Asia was a fantastic choice for me because the region is famously cheap. A trip to Western Europe, on the other hand, is likely to blow your budget a lot faster.
3. Book Your Flights
Now you know where you’re heading, it’s time to start booking stuff! Prepare to get excited, friend!
First up, start with booking your flights. I always use Skyscanner to search for cheap flights, and usually filter by things like price, duration and airlines. If you’re flexible on your dates Skyscanner lets you search for the cheapest flights across the month, allowing you to select the flight that’s best for you.
Still unsure where you’re going? Skyscanner has a feature that allows you to search ‘Everywhere’ to find the cheapest flights from where you are.
4. Plan Your Itinerary (But Don’t Plan the Entire Trip)
Ok, I can’t talk here. I notoriously plan the entire trip before I go, and often will have all my accommodation booked too. But while you should plan your itinerary before you go (especially for your first trip), if you can, try and leave a little wiggle room. Plans change, and it’s easier to be more flexible if you don’t have everything locked in.
When I’m planning my itinerary I’ll start by doing a TONNE of research. I’ll read guidebooks and peruse blog posts to find the coolest cities, bucket list experiences and off the beaten path destinations. I’ll add starred places to my Google Maps to track where I want to go, and then I’ll figure out the best route. Rome2Rio is one of the go-to sites I use to figure out how to get between places.
Me being me, I like to create a colour-coded spreadsheet showing where I’m going and what I’m doing. But hey, I’m a travel nerd.
5. Book Your Accommodation
Now you’ve got a rough idea of where you’re going (or, if you’re like me, a detailed itinerary), it’s time to start booking your accommodation.
I use Booking.com to book accommodation for my trips. Booking.com has a huge range of accommodation in locations around the globe, and you’re able to filter your search by things like price, rating and location. (Tip: I usually look for hotels or hostels with a rating of at least 8.5, and it has to be close to public transport or with good transport links).
I also use Hostelworld, especially in destinations that are a little pricier, like London or Paris.
For the traveller on a budget, hostels are your best friend. While there are always horror stories of bed bugs and being crammed into a room with 30 other people, I’ve always found hostels to be a great option. They often have more character than your standard chain hotel, a lot of hostels will organise activities, and it’s a great chance to meet other travellers. Plus, they’re cheap.
6. Sort Out Your Visa
You’ve got a rough plan, you’ve booked your flight and accommodation and your passport is on its way. What’s next? Now is the time to sort out what (if any) visas you’ll need for your trip.
Now, travelling on a New Zealand passport I recognise how privileged I am. My little black passport gives me access to a whole lot of the world visa free. If I do need a visa, often it’s a visa on arrival (which tends to be easier and less expensive). For visas on arrival I recommend printing out several copies of your passport photo, as it’s often required as part of the application.
To find out if you’ll need a visa you could do a quick google search or use a visa website like Travisa (though it’s geared more towards American citizens). Make sure to allow enough time for your visa to be approved, especially if you have to send your physical passport off.
7. Travel Insurance
Once you’ve started to plan your trip and spent some of your hard-earned backpacker’s dollars on flights and accommodation, you need to invest in a good travel insurance policy. Seriously; if you can’t afford travel insurance, you can’t afford to travel.
When selecting your travel insurance make sure to choose a policy that covers everything you’re planning on doing. Abseiling? Get it covered. Riding a motorbike? What happens if you fall off and need medical care, huh? Get it covered.
I’ve used World Nomads for my last few trips and though I haven’t needed to make a claim, I’ve found it easy to use and suitable for my needs. World Nomads offers two policies, a Standard Plan and Explorer Plan, each with varying levels of coverage. You can also choose to add extra coverage for specific personal items, such as laptops or cameras.
Now we’re getting a little closer to take off, it’s time to see about getting any vaccinations you may need.
I use Fit for Travel to get a rough idea of any vaccinations I’ll need, and then always double check with my GP before I go. If you’re travelling through developing countries, like in Southeast Asia, chances are (depending on where you’re going and what you’re doing) you may need vaccinations for rabies, Hepatitis, Typhoid and Cholera. But like I said, always check with your GP or a specialised travel doctor.
Vaccinations can be expensive but it’s worth factoring it into your trip budget. While it may seem like a hassle at the time, if you happen to get bitten by a wild dog in the middle of nowhere in Laos it may not seem so silly then. Some vaccinations (like the rabies vaccine) require 3 shots spread over several weeks, so make sure you allow enough time before your trip.
9. Buying the Right Luggage
Are you a pack or a suitcase kinda gal? Now’s the time to decide!
I like travelling with a pack. Being able to carry everything I need on my back without having to lug around a heavy suitcase always feels more convenient. Still, if you have a lot of luggage or you prefer travelling with a suitcase, that’s cool too.
When shopping for a pack I recommend (if possible) going to a physical shop to get fitted for the right pack for you.
I use the Macpac Womens Orient Express 65 Travel Pack which comes with a 50 litre main pack and 15 litre day pack. I like that this pack has two compartments and plenty of pockets, and so far has shown very little wear and tear. Still, if I have one complaint, it’s that the pack is quite bulky, where other packs I’ve seen are a lot more compact.
10. Security – What You Actually Need
I set off my trip around Southeast Asia with all the security gadgets you can think off. Slash-proof backpack, passport pouch, RFID card sleeves… honestly, it probably screamed naive tourist all the more.
When I realised that not everyone in Thailand was out to snatch my bag, I became a lot more relaxed. I’m still sensible, and still follow basic security precautions. Make sure to not go walking alone in dodgy areas at night, always tell someone where you’re going, and keep an eye (or a limb) on your belongings while travelling on public transport.
One thing I’d definitely recommend purchasing before you travel is a combination padlock. While travelling I use my padlocks to keep my bags secure, and I also use it to lock my locker if I’m staying in a hostel dorm. I’ll only ever use my passport pouch if I’m somewhere really crowded and want the extra reassurance, though it could be worth investing in a money belt if you’re headed somewhere with higher rates of petty theft.
11. Exchange Your Currency & Apply for a Travel Credit Card
No matter where I’m headed I always like to carry a small amount of local currency on me. Some countries may not have as many ATMs as you’re used to and may not accept credit cards. In those circumstances, cash is always handy to have. Plus, if you’re headed to local markets or temples you often have to pay in cash.
Before I go I normally exchange my NZD at the bank and get maybe a few hundred dollars worth to take with me. Then on the road I’ll either withdraw more cash, or depending on where I am, just use my card. At the moment (while I’m living in Scotland) my Monzo card allows me to travel anywhere in the world without added exchange rate fees, which makes it an easy option for my trips around Europe.
You could also consider signing up for a travel rewards credit card. Hey, gotta get those bonuses when you can.
12. Buy a Local Sim Card
One of the first things I’ll do when I arrive in a new country (as soon as I’ve stumbled off the plane, bleary-eyed with jetlag) is to purchase a local sim card.
Using roaming on the road can be ridiculously expensive, and it’s usually way cheaper (and more convenient) to purchase a local sim card. I normally buy mine at the airport and will look for a cheap plan with lots of data. I don’t really need minutes while travelling, but if you do then look for a plan with both.
To buy a local sim card you’ll need to have an unlocked smartphone. Some countries will require you to show your passport when you purchase a sim card, so make sure to take ID with you.
Travel can be scary. And expensive. And it may feel like you have no idea what you’re doing. But if you follow the guide above, if you get your travel insurance, plan your itinerary and do all the other little bits, you’re on the right track. Because travel is also exciting. And magical. And you’re off on your first big adventure, so go enjoy the heck out of it!