Travel Tips & Tricks

Traveling is always really exciting but it takes a lot of planning! If you’re traveling by yourself, it can be even more difficult because you don’t have anyone else’s plans to fall back on; you’re on your own! If you haven’t gone through it yet, check out my Basic Guide to Solo Traveling here. Then check out some of these tips and tricks listed below that I’ve learned over the years from traveling by myself. Click on a category or just read through everything!

Getting around

There are 4 ways I like getting around the city: walking, public transportation, biking, and taxi/ride share. Often times, I use a combination of the four, depending on these factors:

  • How much do I want to spend?
  • How far am I going?
  • How long will it take?
  • What are my goals? (Getting there ASAP? Seeing sights?)
  • Is it safe at this moment in time?

Buses and other forms of public transportation can be a super useful way of getting around a city. However, some cities don’t have great bus systems so they’ll come infrequently and/or are unreliable. You can’t check for the reliability of a transportation system before getting there, of course, but you certainly can check the schedules to see if the bus frequency is adequate for what you want to do.

When considering using public transportation during your trip, check to see if there are any deals or discounts for traveling frequently. Does your city give discounts if you get a travel card? Is there a travel card specifically for tourists? Does the city offer weekly passes or monthly passes? Will you be using the pass enough times to justify the cost of purchasing it? In London, they have an Oyster card specifically for tourists, and Oyster card users pay a little less for rides than travelers that purchase paper passes. In New York City, a 7-day pass allows for unlimited travel on the subway system, which may be cost effective to get, even if you’re only there for a few days, if you’re traveling a lot on the subway. Most public transportation systems have websites, so you can check for rates and discounts there.

Biking is one of my newly discovered forms of transportation, and I honestly love biking when I can. I went to a university where the biking culture is HUGE, so I have a soft spot for peddling around town. Many major cities around the world are implementing bike share programs, so it might be worth checking out if you’re willing to give biking a shot. Why biking? I find it allows you to see the city at a slower pace, is sometimes cheaper than other forms of transportation (aside from walking), and it personally gives me my much needed exercise during vacations. I started biking around everywhere in Pittsburgh, where the bike share program was much more inexpensive than getting a bus pass. I got to bike on trails that I wouldn’t have otherwise seen in a vehicle, and I burned off a lot of extra calories. If you choose to bike, make sure you check your route before heading to your destination. If you need further directions, pull over and check; don’t try to read your phone while biking because you are likely to get into an accident. I don’t need to tell you that getting into an accident while on a bike is likely going to result in a really painful, and possibly very serious injury.

Walking is an obvious option for traveling and seeing the sights, so I don’t really need to say much about it. I will say though that be careful about where you’re walking and at what time you’re walking. Where ever you’re staying, ask the local working there or sharing their home about areas of town you should avoid and if walking around at night is safe. For instance, my host in Madrid told me walking around at all times of days is perfectly safe, as long as you mind the pickpockets that may steal your wallet.

Taxis and rideshares are another obvious option and definitely the priciest out of the four option. I personally like Lyft or Uber when they’re available because I can track on the map where I’m being driven and automatically dispute rides where I’ve been driven around in circles. If you find yourself in a regular local taxi, feel free to pull out your favorite maps app to keep track of where you’re going. I wouldn’t suggest telling the taxi driver that they should’ve turned on the first street instead of the next one, but if something seems off (like you’ve been heading in the complete opposite direction for the last 5 minutes), the maps app will give you some grounds to complain with. I had a friend take an Uber in Thailand a few months ago where the driver didn’t know where he was going (whether intentional or unintentional, unclear). Because the route was recorded on the Uber app, he was able to submit a complaint to Uber to get some money back for the 30-minute ride that really should’ve taken 10-minutes in any other taxi.

While you might not want to use a taxi during your trip, keep a credit card or money with you that allows for an emergency taxi ride if necessary.

Using Your Phone

I don’t know about you, but I get lost a lot. I’m completely directionally challenged, so I love having my phone to help guide me to my destinations throughout the day. When traveling abroad, you have a few choices: use roaming, purchase a local SIM card, or turn off data and rely solely on free Wi-Fi and written directions. I wander off the path too much for the last option, so I tend to use data. But what to do?

Buying a local SIM card is a great option if your cell phone plan has ridiculous rates for roaming. Back in 2013 when I first traveled to England, I used Verizon’s roaming plan, which was AWFUL. It was expensive and slow at $29.99 per 500MB and 3G speeds. When I came back a second time, I ended up buying a local SIM card for an O2 store, and it was looooads better. I think I paid about the equivalent of $20 USD for a SIM and paid $10 for something like 1GB of LTE data and phone calls. If you choose to buy a local SIM card, I recommend buying it from a store near where you’re staying; don’t buy it at the airport because it’s much more expensive. Ask your host and I’m sure they’ll be able to tell you where to acquire one.

Another option is T-Mobile. I promise, I’m not a paid shill! I’ve found that T-Mobile’s data plan has allowed me to use data abroad without needing to purchase a new SIM. Recently, I used my phone while on their plan on my trip to Spain. While the speeds won’t necessarily always be the fastest (but sometimes I did get LTE) and have coverage of all areas, it was included with my current phone plan at no extra cost and worked when I was in Spain, France, and the UK. The coverage was a little spotty when I was in Valencia, Spain, but honestly, not having to pay extra was a HUGE thing for me.

Free WiFi is often available in coffee shops and various large attractions (like museums) so if you don’t want to try the other two options, this is your third. If you do this, make sure to completely turn off your data and only allow your phone to access WiFi. If you choose to do this, make sure you have maps as backup and that you know which train/bus you need to get home, just in case you’re completely lost and there’s absolutely no WiFi and no one to ask for directions.

Currency–Cash or Credit?

Ideally, using cash the whole time would be the most cost effective. If you choose to use cash, I would recommend exchanging currency a few weeks ahead of time at your local bank. I wouldn’t recommend exchanging at the airport since the rates are not so great. If you happen to run out of cash while while you’re abroad, you can always withdraw from an ATM or a local bank with your debit card. In Europe, there are lots of cash machines everywhere, and while you will get charged a fee, the exchange rate won’t be as bad as the airport exchange kiosks.

If you choose to use a credit card, I highly recommend getting a travel credit card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees. Depending on your card issuer, foreign transaction fees are usually around 1-3% and they apply to each transaction you make. That might not seem like a lot, but it slowly adds up! A great travel card that doesn’t charge you an annual fee or foreign transaction fees is Capital One’s Venture One card so check that out if you need a travel credit card.

Something else to note about credit card usage overseas! If the card machine asks if you want to pay in your currency or the local currency, ALWAYS select to pay in local currency. When you select your currency, the card processing company for the merchant charges you extra for converting the local currency for your own, usually at their own rate. Additionally, the exchange rate you’d be getting is probably not going to be advantageous for you. When you select the local currency, your own bank handles the conversion and exchange rate, which is less expensive since you won’t have to deal with that extra conversion fee. To read more about why choosing to pay in local currency is better, check out this article by Forbes.

Making Friends

The easiest way to make friends is to participate in an activity you enjoy. For me, that’s judo and hiking, so I’ll make an effort to find local groups that participate in those activities. But how to find those groups?

For sports, I would look for a local club. Before I travel, I usually ask my instructors if they know anyone or a good club in the area. I also do my own research by looking up the name of the city I’m visiting and the activity. For instance, when I visited Barcelona, I looked up “judo Barcelona”. Something as simple as that brings up results about local judo clubs, and I usually reach out by email to ask if it’s okay for me to come join in on a weekday practice.

For activities like hiking and running, I would recommend checking out Meetup.com. A lot of Meetup groups are very active and they’re very friendly to new members. You can always email the organizers to ask any questions you might have, like how to get to the meetup point or what they recommend that you bring. Depending on the activity, there may be a fee, but they’re usually minimal and cover travel fees.

For more social activities, Meetup is still a great resource, but I also recommend taking a look at events offered on Couchsurfing and events on Airbnb. The platform you want to use depends on what you want out of the experience. Couchsurfing and Airbnb tends to attract fellow travelers, where as Meetup tends to have more locals. Neither is necessarily better than the other, so both could equally be as fun. I personally like mixing it up and using all the platforms (I lean more on Meetup and Airbnb though) so I get a bit of everything.

You can also make friends on tour groups! I’m usually a pretty chatty person, so I tend to make friends easily on the free walking tours. Mind you, you probably won’t become besties or anything, but you can grab lunch with your fellow tour participants after the tour or maybe head over together to the cool museum the tour guide mentioned.