14 Rules For Having A Great Traveling Experience

Between parkour, facilitating for Startup Weekend, and a general desire to explore, I’ve had a lot of opportunities to travel the world. I’ve traveled solo and with friends, for business and for fun. I’ve traveled with people far more experienced than me, and people who have never left the country.

During my most March-April 2014 trip (Texas, Palestine, Israel, China), I started reflecting on my best travel experiences, my worst travel experiences, and why they turned out that way. The biggest realization I had is that I enjoy traveling with people a lot more than traveling alone. That led me to decided to start organizing a lot more trips with my friends.

One trick to traveling with friends, especially friends you haven’t traveled with before, is to establish expectations. That got me thinking about how what I would want to tell someone before we traveled together.

So, here it is. Zachary Cohn’s Top 14 Rules for Traveling Adventures.

  1. Pack light. Everything should fit into one backpack per person. If you only have a medium sized backpack, you can travel much more flexibly. Switch to an earlier flight at the gate? Easy. Have to take a crowded train? Not a problem. Need to walk two miles to your hostel? No big deal. Taxi driver is trying to screw you over? You don’t need to keep stuff in the trunk, so just grab your bag and run.
  2. Wool clothes. I just switched over, and they are amazing. Keeps you warm when it’s cool, cool when it’s warm, whisks away sweat and dries quickly, and naturally eliminates odor. You can get away with two shirts, two pairs of underwear, and two pairs socks for much longer than you could with cotton or synthetics. It greatly reduces how many clothes you need to bring, which will make packing lighter that much easier. Look for Merino wool - it’s soft, not scratchy, and can be machine washed (with some restrictions). This definitely isn’t your grandmother’s wool sweater. I’ve bought from both Icebreaker and Wool and Prince and been very satisfied.
  3. Build a posse. Invite others to join whenever possible. Whether you’re staying at a hostel or run into travelers at a restaurant, invite them to join you (or you join them) for a bit. Whether it’s just for the next meal, the next attraction you’re going to see, or even to the next city or country you’re going to - the best part of traveling is meeting new people, and it’s easy to make fast friends when you’re share an experience. Stay in touch after, or let them be single serving friends forever. Either way, you’ll meet people with amazing stories, and you’ll create new amazing stories together.
  4. One person covers each bill. Except for major expenses, pay each other back by getting the next one. Don’t fumble around trying to split every check for every meal or cab. It works out close in the end, and getting perfectly even isn’t worth the stress.
  5. Maximize the other person’s experience. Sacrifice your ideal experience to ensure your travel partner’s ideal experience. If you’re proactively looking out for ways you can help your travel partner have the best time possible, and they do the same for you, your highs will be higher. And when you have lows, it will be because you chose them. And that will make them not so bad.
  6. Make plans, then abandon them if necessary. If something else comes up, but conflicts with the plan… go for it. If something falls through, it just means you get to do something else. Plans shift all the time. Sometimes a flight gets canceled, or a tour fills up, or someone refuses to sell you a ticket because they don’t like that you’re a foreigner. It can be frustrating, but try to see it as a gift. You unexpectedly get to spend more time somewhere, explore the backroads of a city, or spend a night in a new hostel.
  7. Go your separate ways sometimes. If you’re on a long trip with the same partner, spend a day or two apart every so often. Separation gives you different experiences to talk about, it reminds you how much you appreciate their company, and it can also reduce tensions that naturally build when you spend 24/7 with someone for long enough.
  8. Have offline backups of all important information. Because the internet will fail the one time you need it most. Try taking pictures of important information (names, addresses, phone numbers, flight numbers and times, etc) with your phone. That way you always have everything in one place and you know you won’t misplace any papers.
  9. Spend money on experiences and stories. Pay to go on that island hopping tour through the Philippines. Spend the extra money for the private guide who will take you to that rural, less known area of the Great Wall. Take the overnight train so you can see the countryside, even if it’s more expensive and four times longer than flying. Souvenirs only last a little while, but the stories of what you see and do will be with you forever.
  10. Write every day. Bring a journal and write every day about what you did, how you felt, and what it made you think about. It always surprises me when I tell someone about a trip how much the days mix together. And it’s very easy to forget those tiny details that surprised you, or made you think. The arabic graffiti on a wall in Palestine, or the theatre kids we stopped and talked to in Brazil, or how the TV in the hotel had a personalized greeting for me. These are tiny details that will be lost as time goes on unless you write them down. Even if you never publish your journal entries, or even read them again - just writing it down once moves the memory to a different part of the brain and it becomes easier to remember.
  11. Learn twelve phrases in the local language, in this order: I’m sorry, I am very sorry, thank you, bathroom, yes, no, hello, goodbye, water, how much is this, bill please, I like it/very tasty. I’ve found you can communicate a lot with body language, but there are definitely some phrases that are good to know. The first two are the most important. No matter where you end up going, always at least be able to apologize for whatever you just did that made that guy so angry.
  12. If the exchange rate is in your favor, take advantage of it! Order two or three dishes, eat what you like, and don’t eat what you don’t (this is very useful when you can’t read what’s on the menu). The base rate for a taxi in Xi’an, China is 6 quay. That’s about $1. It cost no more than $5 to get almost anywhere in the city. Buy things that are expensive at home, but cheap where you’re visiting.
  13. Know how local banking works. I had an 8 digit ATM pin the first time I went to China. ATM’s there only accept 4 digit pins. I couldn’t withdraw any cash. It sucked.
  14. Have, and use, sleep aides. An eye mask, ear plugs, and melatonin are requirements when traveling. You never know when your room might get direct sunlight at 6 am after listening to your roommate snore for the last five hours, all while your body is fighting to adapt to a new time zone.

What rules would you add to this list? Reply in the comments and let me know.

The picture was taken by my friend Adam from IRDEEP. This is a backflip in Seattle taken with an infrared camera. Super cool.

Written on January 4, 2013