When we started this blog over six years ago, we didn’t know what we were doing. Back then, we were full-time employees who couldn’t even afford to travel on our own. The first few posts on this blog were actually chronicles of company outings and business trips. But I knew travel was what I wanted to do for a long time.
My first personal do-it-yourself trip was in Iloilo and Guimaras. I was so dumb and unprepared, I ended up seeing almost nothing. Good thing the Ilonggos are such friendly and helpful people, it was still a memorable trip. But because of this, I had my next trips arranged by budget travel agencies. I joined group tours, which was nice but I was disappointed that I had no control of my time. I switched back to arranging my personal trips myself, and slowly but surely, I was able to find my beat.
Two years later, even when my friends told me they didn’t think I was cut out for travel, I still quit my job and went for it anyway.
Back then, I was a completely different person. I was so shy and timid and clueless. I grew up introverted, so being out there was such a risky move for me. Everything I know now, I learned through experience. And today, six years later, I still have a lot to learn, but I’d like to think that I’m wiser than the dude who started this blog. If I could go back in time and give advice to the newbie-traveler-me, these ten tips would be it.
WHAT'S COVERED IN THIS GUIDE?
1. Use comparison apps, and catch flight and hotel promos.
Years ago, I booked flights only with low-cost carriers. I wouldn’t even consider booking with fancy airlines. I thought, “Low-cost carriers offer the lowest fares, OBVIOUSLY. DUH?”
NOT. ALWAYS. TRUE.
My sister is based in Tokyo. Every December, I have to accompany my nephew to Japan so he could visit his mom. I am also tasked to book the flights. I initially thought that the fares would be astronomical because it’s Christmas season, but over the past 3 years, I realized that if you book in advance, you can snag a seat on a flight with Japan Airlines and China Airlines at a lower rate than low-cost carriers.
Also, when we traveled to Europe this year, the lowest fares we found were offered by — wait for it — QATAR AIRWAYS. We were surprised because prior to booking, we had resigned ourselves to enduring small legrooms, multiple stops, and long layovers. But we ended up making just one flight transfer and having only 19 hours of travel time.
All these make us appreciate fare comparison websites and apps, which I did not use when I was starting out. Sites like Traveloka would rummage through multiple airlines to offer you the lowest prices. What I love about Traveloka in particular is that it’s especially useful for local travel. Other flight scanner websites do not have Cebu Pacific Air in their inventory, which is odd because CEB is the largest airline in the Philippines! Traveloka has CEB along with Philippine Airlines, and Philippines AirAsia.
I’ve always loved seat sales by airlines, but for some reason, it wasn’t until just a couple of years ago when I started paying attention to hotel promos. There are a lot of companies offering them, even third party aggregator websites. Some companies reduce rates as a loyalty offer (discount on your 10th booking), a premium offer (paying a one-time fee for a FREE cancellation option for a year), or as part of a bundle (free hotels if you book flights with a sister airline). Many bloggers and online publications also have exclusive PROMO CODES for their readers. If you’re traveling for more than a month and you’re booking hotels in multiple cities, these little discounts will add up and save you a great deal.
Other companies have promo stunts. For example, Traveloka currently has a Mystery Deal Madness promo where you can book hotels in Manila for 50% less! The catch is that you don’t know what hotel this is. You might think it’s crazy but blind booking has been a big thing for bargain-hunters in other countries. It’s not totally blind: you’re told the area where it is located, the type of room, and the amenities. And many of these hotels are rated 4 and 5 stars so you can’t go wrong. .
2. Don’t always go with the cheapest. Go with what gives the best value for money.
Yet, it shouldn’t always be about the price.
When I was starting out, I had one philosophy when it comes to accommodations, “Kahit saan, tutulugan lang naman.” (Anywhere will do. I’ll just sleep in it anyway.)
But that’s not the case for me anymore. If I could find another place that is comfortable even when it is slightly pricier, I would go for it. Maybe it’s because I’m not getting any younger. Comfort just sits much higher in my list of priorities now. My room is no longer just a place to sleep, it’s a place to get comfortable. When I book accommodations — be it a hostel, hotel, or apartment — I have learned to check out their amenities and browse through reviews. One thing I love doing is taking a good at the photos of the bed and the toilet (especially if it’s a shared toilet).
The same applies to flights. I’d just grab the cheapest fares within the first minutes of the seat sale, without considering alternatives. But over the years, I’ve grown to look at the other aspects of the flight and how pleasant the journey will be.
For example, on my flight back to Manila from the Maldives, I was presented with two options. A low cost carrier offers the lowest published rates, somewhere around P10,000, with a long layover in Singapore. Cathay Pacific, on the other hand, sells P16,000-tickets, which entails a considerably shorter layover in Hong Kong. The old me would go with the P10,000 right away. P6000 is P6000. That’s a big difference.
However, when I digested the details, I ended up booking Cathay Pacific. Why? Cathay’s published rate of P16,000 was inclusive of everything: meals, seat selection, check-in baggage allowance. The low-cost carrier’s offer was devoid of all those. When I tried adding meals (it was a long flight!) and baggage (because I was carrying a big one), the total cost was at P14,000. P2000 isn’t that big a difference anymore, and with all the other things considered (travel time, legroom, in-flight entertainment, time of arrival, etc.), I flew with Cathay Pacific.
3. Don’t try to do it all.
One of the pitfalls that newbie travelers usually find themselves in is trying to squeeze everything into their itinerary. Places are best enjoyed when it doesn’t feel like you’re in the season finale of the Amazing Race. Rushing takes away the fun, especially in destinations that demand more of your time and full attention.
For example, Paris has a lot — and I mean, A LOT — to offer. It has something for everyone and never lets up. Galleries and museums, churches and monuments, chateaus and gardens, restaurants and shops, whatever you’re into, there is no shortage of places to visit and things to do. The Louvre alone is too vast and rich that it can’t possibly be explored thoroughly in a day. If you want to see all the timeless pieces and historic artifacts it houses, you’re in for a long vacation. But that’s exactly the point: no one is twisting your arm to go through that.
Slow down. Breathe. Take your time.
4. It’s okay to be afraid, but don’t let fear control you. Relax!
Looking back, I can’t help but laugh at how nervous, scared, and silly I was in the beginning. On my first few trips abroad, I was so to afraid to enter restaurants because I thought they might be too expensive for me. I was always too shy to make friends or even ask for directions.
It all changed in Malaysia when I met an Australian backpacker named Selina.
One night, she found me reading a book alone at the porch of our hostel. When she asked me why I wasn’t joining everyone else at the bar, I told her I didn’t know anyone. She said to me, “Don’t be scared. No one’s gonna judge you, and if they do, you’ll never gonna see them again anyway.” She basically dragged me into the bar and introduced me to the rest of the guys. And guess what, the friends I made that night are still my friends to this day.
Another friend whom I met on the road, Josephine from Paris, advised me to stop thinking about what other people think. “Just do what you want. If you sit down at a restaurant and when you don’t find anything appealing or affordable in their menu, feel free to walk away. It’s all right!”
5. If you’re a freelancer, register as a sole proprietor.
I’m a registered sole proprietor now, but it wasn’t always the case. In my early years of travel blogging, I was a freelancer with no proof of employment. It was tough. When applying for a visa, they ask for a certificate of employment or business registration documents, and income tax returns (ITR) certs. When passing through Immigration, they ask for company ID. At the time, I had none of those!
Immediately, I registered my service as a business. It may be quite the hassle for some, but it’s worth it. It’s just easier to travel when you have the papers to prove that you have a job.
If you’re a freelancer and you travel a lot, do it. Saves you from a lot of trouble and headache.
6. Set up a Travel fund.
Another thing that made my life easier: setting up a travel account. I have at least two bank accounts: one where I put my savings, which we shall call “Savings Account” and the other is where I put money that I will spend when traveling, which we shall call “Travel Account.”
There are many benefits of having these two accounts. The Savings Account is what I use when applying for a visa. This tells the embassy, “Hey look, I got money to pay for this trip!” I normally don’t touch this account except during emergency.
The Travel Account doesn’t have as much funds. I just usually transfer money from the Savings Account to the Travel Account before a trip. Here’s why:
- The best way to acquire foreign currency is still by withdrawing from ATMs abroad. Make sure you choose a bank that doesn’t charge for overseas transactions. (I’m currently with a bank that does and I’m switching as soon as I’m back in the Philippines. I just got tired of getting charged 3 euros every time I withdraw.)
- If the account gets compromised (say, your ATM card gets stolen), you’re not putting your savings in danger. If your Savings Account has an ATM card too, leave it at home or keep it somewhere safe.
- Having a separate bank account for travel gives you more control of your expenses when on a trip because you can watch your spending better. Let’s say that for a certain trip I have a budget of P30,000, then every time I withdraw cash, I am reminded that I only have this much budget for this trip and how much of it I have left. And it stops me from spending more. It’s more psychological, I think. It’s like playing mind games with myself, hahaha. But it works for me.
7. Get a credit card, but use it wisely.
When I was starting out, I didn’t own a credit card. I survived, yes, but there was always a little voice at the back of my mind that whispers, “what would you do if you lose your cash?” That was sort of what happened on my first solo backpacking trip across Southeast Asia. Back then, I didn’t have a credit card and the stupid me didn’t have US dollars either. My cash was all in Philippine Peso. That’s a problem. If you’ve been to Vietnam or Laos before, you’d know that it was almost impossible to find money changers that accept our humble peso at a good rate. I ended up using a lifeline — phone a friend — and asking him to send me money via Western Union, which was pretty embarrassing.
Owning a credit card has other advantages too. Many hotels around the world require a credit card as guarantee before checking in. (Some accept cash, too, but credit card is preferred. Those who accept cash demand a big amount of deposit, sometimes amounting to USD 50-100 per night. Imagine if you brought just enough cash!)
And then there are credit card countries. Our recent Europe trip showed us just how convenient it is to transact using credit cards. Countries like Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, Belgium, and The Netherlands are big on credit cards. Fast foods have automated machines were you can simply swipe, enter your order digitally, and they will prepare your meal.
Remember, however, that the key is to use your credit card only when necessary so you can easily track your expenses. It’s more like a backup for me.
8. Invest in a good pair of shoes.
This may sound like a no-brainer, but for the longest time, I was not a fan of rubber shoes. For my first two years of traveling I wore chucks most of the time. I just grew up loving chucks. I refused to buy legit walking shoes because I was never a hardcore trekker to begin with and was mostly traveling to cities at the time. You know, flat surface forever. I thought I didn’t have any need for it.
For the first two years of my travel life, my feet ached like hell, and I accepted it simply as part of travel. I thought feet hurt after hours of walking. “No big deal, fact of life.” As though it’s something I could not do anything about. One day, I had to go on a trip that involved a bit of mountain climbing so I decided to buy a pair of walking shoes. We hiked all day but my feet did not ache even for a second. Only then did I realize how footwear affects the overall travel experience. I had been enduring sore feet for every day of my travel life because I didn’t know that my shoes were causing it. Stupid, stupid, stupid me.
From then on, I have worn walking shoes when I travel. I bring just one pair regardless of the duration of the trip (unless there’s a strictly formal event that I need to attend, in which case I bring an additional pair of leather shoes). The walking shoes I have are thick but lightweight and well-designed but comfortable. It’s black so I still get to wear it for many occasions.
9. Pack light. Pack light. PACK LIGHT!
We hear this all the time, but it’s so hard to put in practice. I have to admit, it wasn’t until recently that I finally began following this tip. I always tend to bring a lot with me, fearing that I might need this item for this and this item for that.
But we should all listen to travel expert Rick Steves when he says, “Prepare for the best case scenario.” What he means is this, if the weather forecast says it’s gonna be mostly sunny, don’t bring a raincoat for that small chance that it would rain. If it rains, then buy a raincoat and give yourself an excuse to check out their supermarket or department store. If it doesn’t rain, you didn’t tire yourself carrying a bigass backpack.
Also, for trips that are longer than a week, do the laundry or have it done in your destination. Pack clothes good for 6 days if your trip lasts 12 days and just go to a laundromat on your 5th or 6th day.
Trust me, the trip is more enjoyable when you can move more freely because you’re not carrying the world. I know this because last February, I traveled for 26 days and brought clothes good for 13 days, which was too much. I ended up in the hospital because apparently I had umbilical hernia, a condition I didn’t know I had since I was a baby but was aggravated by carrying too much weight, according to my doctor. I could’ve brought much fewer clothes but I wanted to save money and didn’t want to spend much on laundry. I ended up spending a lot more in hospital bills. Hahaha.
10. Familiarize yourself with your medical records.
Speaking of hospital, make sure you know your body well: your blood type, allergies, and medical history. While it’s good to prepare for the best when packing, you shouldn’t take that risk when it comes to your health, safety, and the future of your family. You’ll never know when you would bump into something awful on the road, like a disease or an accident, and it’s best that you’re equipped with information that doctors need to know in case of an emergency. You’ll be surprised how many travelers I have met who have no idea what their blood type is or what vaccines they had taken.
Also, purchase travel insurance before your trip!