7 Skills You Should Master Before You Travel

travel skills

After traveling around the globe, I can tell you that travel skills you need to get by are more than just packing light and drinking bottled water! While those travel skills are not to be underestimated, I have learned the hard way that there are a few other travel skills to add to one’s repertoire before skipping around the globe.

Must-Have Travel Skills Worth Learning

Repacking without hating your life

If you’re traveling for more than a few days, you’re probably staying at more than one hotel/hostel/Airbnb. Which means re-packing your suitcase many, many times.

A few tips to make daily re-packing a lot easier:

  • Use packing cubes
    If you learn nothing else from this blog post, let it be this: OMG BUY PACKING CUBES. Fill each cube with a different type of clothing; one cube for underthings, one cube for tops, one for bottoms, one for dirty clothes, etc. Then just pull out the cube you need and re-packing will be a breeze.
  • Pack less 
    Most of us hate repacking because we have to smash everything down and in and eventually sit on our bags while we tug the zipper closed. And then we’re late for the flight and everything falls apart. Just pack less and give yourself and your belongings some breathing room. If you can’t carry your bag around one city block without getting a blister or breaking a sweat, it’s too big.Here’s how to assemble a stylish travel wardrobe!
  • Pack a few items you’ve been meaning to get rid of
    Pack that pair of jeans you don’t love any more. Wear them once and then leave them at the hotel. Voila! More space in your suitcase and you don’t hate repacking so much!

Choosing the right souvenirs

How many times have you spent too much money on a souvenir, meticulously and carefully transported it home … only to send it to Goodwill a few years later?

Yeah, me too.

Here are a few tips that have helped me choose better, more loved souvenirs:

  • Check if the item is actually made locally
    Because who wants a snowglobe from Aspen that’s actually made in China?
  • Ask yourself if it would look at home in your home
    You’re a lot more likely to use that embroidered pillow sham if it would fit right into the boho vibe of your house. But if you’ve got a spare, minimalist vibe maybe you should find a different souvenir.
  • Buy an unexpected souvenir
    You don’t have to buy knickknacks, scarves, masks, or tiny spoons (though if you really love those things, you should buy them!) I like buying perfume, jewelry, and cds by local musicians. They’re all small, cheap, portable and easy to use in my daily life back at home.
  • Remember, you are not required to buy anything
    There are so many other ways to remember your trip! Remember the dishes you ate and learn to cook them at home, take videos and photos, or make a list of 100 memories of your trip on the flight back home.

Communicating in a broken second language/body language

If you’re in a country where you don’t speak the language (or you speak it poorly) it’s very, very tempting to throw up your hands and just go to hotels, restaurants, and tours that feature English.

Let’s not.

I know it’s embarrassing and awkward to bumble our way though another language and culture. Believe me, I know. I once swore in Chinese when I was trying to order noodles! But attempting a second language is good for our brains. It shows our host country that we respect them enough to make an effort. It reminds us of what millions of non-native English speakers experience every day.

You can practice speaking your second language awkwardly at home by taking a language class, finding a language exchange partner, or just going to the [insert country here] neighborhood in your city and attempting to order at a restaurant.

It’s also worth remembering that 99% of the time, locals will be able to look at you and realize you’re not a native speaker before you even open your mouth. They’re not expecting you to be fluent in Spanish/French/Russian! But they’ll be glad you tried and you’ll be amazed how far you can get with a few nouns, some present tense verbs, and a smile.

Squat peeing

What?! Yes, dudes. I know. But squat peeing isn’t just for camping. Millions of people around the world exclusively use squat toilets and if you´re heading to Asia, India or the Middle East (or even parts of Europe) I´m afraid you´ll have to learn how.

When I was living in Taiwan, using the squat toilet correctly (without taking your pants off or getting anything wet) was a much-lauded right of passage. It seriously took me a good month to master. But I´m sure you´re much smarter than I am! Here´s a tutorial if you are, in fact, as inept as I.

Haggling

Most Westerners, myself very much included, turn inside out with embarrassment at the thought of haggling over prices. But it’s an unavoidable part of travel in most countries, and you’ll get stuck with crazy inflated prices if you don´t hone your bargaining skills.

To get the best prices shop around a bit (you’ll find heaps of shops selling the same things) and if you see a local buying something you like, eavesdrop to see how much they’re paying. Don’t be afraid to walk away if you feel you’re being taken, and bring a calculator with you to the shop if you don’t know your numbers in the other language. There’s a good tutorial here.

Sleeping on transportation

Confession: I’m not that great at sleeping on planes or buses, but if you can do it, you’ll exponentially improve your travel experience. Ear plugs will help and I love this eye mask and this dorky-looking but amazing neckpillow.

The “Don’t Mess With Me” walk

Okay, so all those other travel skills? They pale in importance compared to this one, friends. Acting like you know where you´re going, what you´re doing and generally behaving like a force to be reckoned with will save your cute little bum just about anywhere in the world. There will be no peering up unsurely at street signs, skittering away from people or mumbled requests for directions!
There will be only walking like you own this cobblestone street! In all of my travels, I have never been mugged, groped or seriously hassled and I credit my walking skills. When I´m not feeling up to strutting, I channel Charlize Theron’s ‘Murder Walk‘.
What travel skills have helped you to be a better traveler?
photo credit: kazuend // cc

25 Comments

smidge

Being able to walk into a bar on your own and enjoy a couple of beers. You wont meet anyone sitting in your hostel room (apart from the long term travellers who cant be bothered to meet anyone new anymore!)

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Brooke

Oh great tips! I don’t have any to offer as of yet, but I definitely have the walk down, from when I didn’t want to look like a tourist in SF or DC. I need to work on the map thing…

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ingrid

the only one i would add (and i love your tips) is that it is good to check out what the locals eat before you go. plus the best place to get it. it can really add a wonderful dimension to travel.

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Sal

So true! Love these completely. I’d add that a willingness to at least TRY the native language is key to winning respect … if you already look like a foreigner, you’re not giving anything away by mangling a “coffee, please” or “where’s the toilet?”

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Rachael

I got your postcard yesterday! It was fantastic though sadly I think it lost it’s llama smell in the mail… thanks for thinking of me! 🙂

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Thao

Great post, and all points are SO TRUE! Especially the part about squat toilets. I was in Vietnam last year and I tell you, you just don’t realize how uncoordinated you are until you try to balance on a squat toilet. I would add that one should approach each new place with curiosity and compassion. And, always pack toilet paper, aspirin, and hand sanitizer. 🙂

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Jasmine

i totally can’t sleep on transportation either. it sucks. i have stayed up for over 48 hours straight because of this little problem i have.

the biggest skill that has helped me on my travels is not being afraid to do things by myself. some of the best restaurant experiences i have ever had have been by myself during some of my solitary travels. if i had been too apprehensive to go out alone, i totally would have missed out.

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Bridey

I wish I had read the squat-peeing tutorial earlier… especially before taking an overnight train in Thailand!

Earplugs are the key to sleeping on public transport, and eyemasks definitely help. Also, not fearing for your life is an important factor!

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Eddie

Your squat-peeing tips and haggling tips are informative (although I don’t really need the former because I’m a dude).

I’ve seen you several times commenting on Molly’s blog and have wanted to drop by and visit for some time. Finally did.

Very intelligent blog.

Besitos

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Eddie

PS. I thought you had a pacifier in your mouth this whole time until I finally clicked and enlarged your profile pic.

LMAO

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Amber

Mhmm, I look forward to 3 weeks of squatting, starting tonight in Beijing.

Also, sometimes ripping the map outta your lonely planet is a good way to avoid the “bookish tourist” look, if you don’t mind destroying it.

Glad you’re having a mighty adventure Sarah xx

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kate

Hi, I’ve just found your blog and love it! Since I’m stuck in one place right now it helps quiet the travel jones a bit…I agree with your skills post, but wanted to add something helpful for those who can’t seem to master the squat-n-pee: http://www.kristascups.com/pstyle

Seriously, get a P-Style. It’s a clever, shoe-horn looking device you can use to pee standing up without taking your pants completely off, and has saved me on numerous busrides. I bought my mom one for her trip down the Nile and she ended up converting all the tourists in Eqypt!

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lisa

I probably have the “Don’t Mess With Me” walk mastered because I’ve never been hassled travelling alone. Maybe it also helps that I never use maps (other than subway maps).

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Delilah + Jack

Ohhhhh I got my postcard as well! I was ecstatic! Be sure to check your mailbox upon your return to the US for a postcard from moi (Snail mail is by far the best kind of mail)….I am counting down for my trip, so these tips will definitely come in handy.

Happy Travels!!!!!

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Jenny

The 'don't mess with me walk' is so, so important – please, people – always use this. I don't realize how ingrained it is in my travels until I am with another traveler who is clueless, wandering, loud and making me look bad (i.e. vulnerable). Drives me batty!
If you aren't familiar with it, and you're traveling with someone who walks fast and gets annoyed with you for asking too many questions ("are you sure this is the right street? …I don't think this is the right street… Why are we going into this shop? We don't know where we are?") Forgoodnesssake Just. Follow. Her. Into. The. Damn. Store. You know, since you're lost AND being followed by three drunk dudes (that you didn't notice) and she'll explain when they are gone and you've got a safe place to figure your s*** out.

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Mariella

Ha, you may have just explained to me why nothing bad has ever happened to me when travelling (knock on wood…). I think I do the walk too! Great post, thanks for this!

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Michelle

YAAAASSS….to walking with purpose and paying attention to your surroundings! Also, I learned that the smile that is always on my face, might get me into trouble in other countries, so I had to tone it down a bit.

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