Would you like the good news or the bad news first? Well, in between all the Instagramming, I’ve somehow caught a pretty nasty virus this week and have spent 20 of 24 hours sick in (a hotel) bed today. The good news is that a post I’ve been working on (more at the back of mind than anywhere else) is now finally complete. At least Part 1 of it is, anyway.
I’ve been incredibly lucky to have seen some of the most interesting and beyond breathtaking places around the world with my own eyes. With not much more extensive travels on the horizon for perhaps the next decade (at least that’s what friends with babies tell me…) I thought I’d share some of the valuable lessons I’ve learnt from the travelling I have already done. I’ve split this into three parts as Part 1 is so much more epic than anticipated. For the seasoned travellers out there, you might find this post kind of redundant (or better yet, encouraged to share your own tips and tricks in the comments section below!) so this post primarily goes out to many of you who have emailed me for travel advice at some point or another.
Either way, whether you’re a frequent traveller or about to embark on your first adventure overseas, I hope you’ll learn something new for your upcoming travels and to fuel the wanderlust that’s burning fervently inside all of us.
First things first, researching.
I Google everything, I talk to friends, family, and randoms on the internet (a special thanks to those of you who kindly and selflessly randomly email me with your tips!), and I also take to Pinterest for some really great visuals (seen my Bucket List board?).
Specifically speaking, some of my favourite travel websites to trawl include Trotter Mag (they have the best Paris sweets guide – you have been warned), Guided by Cereal (it’s an inexpensive, one-off cost for a years’ subscription), Kinfolk (though it profiles specific spaces, not necessarily places, it’s still pretty good), and the Benah Blog for something a little left of centre. I’ve also heard wonderful things about Superfuture Guides, which can be purchased in digital/PDF format.
For something tangible, I like to use (and collect!) Wallpaper City Guides as they offer a comprehensive but concise (and often off-the-beaten-track) glimpse into the cities I’m visiting. If you’re in Perth, Planet Books, Oxford Books & Crow Books stock WCG, otherwise Book Depository is the best place to buy online – they usually have a wider range than eBay (with free shipping!).
Much to the delight of my time-poor (read: lazy) husband, I’m an organisational control freak when it comes to travelling so this deserves a sub-heading of its own.
For my travel itineraries, I use Google Drive as I can easily share it with whomever I’m travelling with (I use the Excel spreadsheet function).
To see all my flights & hotel booking at a glance (and to make doubly sure none of them conflict) I use the Tripit app on my iPhone.
To store any important travel docs (like a photocopy of my passport) I use Dropbox so I can access it from any device in the world with an internet connection.
When it comes to packing lists (more on this below) I first use Pinterest to create a secret board so that I can see all the items at a glance (trust me, it makes it so much easier!) and then once I’m happy with the board, I email myself the list so that it’s within easy reach when it comes to actually putting clothes into a suitcase. Me? Type A? Never…
Booking planes & trains
If you actually care about saving a bit of money and not landing yourself a 20 hour stopover in the middle of nowhere, this is the most time-consuming and often frustrating part of organising an overseas holiday. This is also assuming you’re not using a travel agent. Or flying first class, for that matter.
Personally, to book international flights on full-service carriers, I prefer using the airline’s website directly – you can still make multi-city & open-jaw bookings. I have never really used sites like Expedia so can’t comment on that.
For those of you who haven’t heard of an ‘open-jaw’ ticket, it’s basically a return airfare that lets you arrive in one city and depart for home from another. I highly recommend this option as you can save at least a couple of days in doing so.
When it comes to Europe, I prefer flying Emirates (not that I ever need it, but they allow 30kg checked baggage per passenger). I am flying with Qatar at the moment and it’s been a huge disappointment (in terms of service, inflight entertainment, amenities, seat selection – or lack thereof, and food). I haven’t flown Singapore Airlines in about a decade but they come highly recommended.
Edited two weeks later to add: Qatar on our journey home was an absolute dream. The food, the service, and the little luxuries that are associated with a premium carrier (e.g. we didn’t get offered any alcohol options on our first leg) were all there on the last leg. So bizarre.
When flying domestically within Europe, I book via Skyscanner (it harnesses all the available flights from all the available airlines and ranks the search results from cheapest to most expensive). There are no booking fees with Skyscanner and I have cross-checked prices with the airline websites themselves and the prices are pretty accurate.
For Asia, I usually fly budget as Perth is such a close neighbour, unless flying from Perth to Hong Kong, China or Japan. I flew Air Asia to and from Tokyo earlier this year and flying 13 hours (with a stopover in between) without the creature comforts was something I wouldn’t recommend. Nonetheless, I book Air Asia 99.999% of the time – they have some really amazing deals from time to time (my Japan airfares were around $600 return in March/April this year but I did book a year in advance).
To and from the USA, I have only flown with Air New Zealand. Didn’t have the most memorable experience with them but airfares were on special (around $1200 return) so no real complaints. I’d love to fly Virgin Australia to the States next time.
This mostly applies to train travel within Europe… I highly recommend going for this option whenever you can (as opposed to planes). It’s the easiest, breeziest thing in the world and often cheaper than flying. You’ll also avoid having to get up at 3am to catch a 6am flight (been there, done that…too many times) and you’ll also save yourself from all that stupid hostility airports have become known for.
Train tickets can be easily booked online and well in advance (like airfares, the earlier you book in advance, the cheaper train tickets will be). To save time make sure you book the high-speed trains (e.g. TGV, SCNF, Thalys, Deutsche Bahn). Prices aren’t too bad, especially if you compare it to a flight. As usual, Google is your friend, so research and read forums to find the best option for your travel plans.
On a side note, if you’re doing the Paris-London or London-Paris jaunt, always always always book the TGV (between Gare du Nord/Paris & St Pancreas/London). The trip itself is around two hours and you’ll avoid hefty airfares (because Heathrow has some of the highest airport taxes in the world). It’s also super easy to get to and from each respective train station.
Hotels vs. Airbnb
The only thing I find as much of a pain as synchronising fifty billion flights is booking accommodation. There’s the hopelessness when you’re trying to find something under $300/night in NYC or London, and the sheer depression that sets in when you discover you can’t.
I’ve done the hotel and Airbnb thing and generally speaking, I prefer hotels for their convenience and general cleanliness. I also have this thing about staying in an apartment with someone else’s baby/buck’s party pictures stuck all over their fridge – I feel like I’m invading someone’s space. My husband finds it a major inconvenience to line up key drop-offs and pick-ups, and he also is a neat freak who can sniff out mouldy bathrooms kilometres away. That said, we’ve had generally positive experiences with our Airbnbs (Rome, Copenhagen, Paris, and Reykjavik) and they’re great if you’re travelling with friends. It’s SO cheap as well. So cheap. If you’re thinking of booking an Airbnb, search by neighbourhood first (I love their neighbourhood write-ups!) and then filter, filter, filter.
The wonderful thing about airbnb, though, is the fact that you have so many more amenities than what a 3 or 4 star hotel would offer (basic but handy things like a kitchen & cutlery, washing machine, clothes line, an iron, a kettle – few and far between in European hotels! and so on).
Booking hotels is pretty self-explanatory but I will say that I exclusively use booking.com unless the hotel website itself is offering a cheaper rate for the same date period (most of the time, they don’t, but it always pays to check). The reasons I only use booking.com are: 1. no fees and 2. you can cancel your hotel booking up to 2 days in advance. Which is handy if you’re booking way, way, way in advance – and let’s face it, things can and will change.
Also, when it comes to deciding between hotels, I treat Tripadvisor reviews as gospel (whilst taking some comments with a grain of salt…) and then make the reservation through booking.com. As an aside, booking.com email confirmations synchronise perfectly with Tripit!
I’ve written multiple essays (with diagrams!) on this in the past so I’ll summarise some general points that haven’t been yet mentioned:
I only begin putting clothes into a suitcase 1-2 days beforehand. Clothes will get wrinkly no matter what but I find they’re even more wrinkly if I pack too much in advance.
Because I’m an obsessive control freak with so much time on my hands, I start my packing lists around 3 months before I leave. Pinterest board first – and then let the items ‘marinate’ for a while before I compile the final list days before I have to pack.
If possible, organise your suitcase by ‘categories’ (I know, it sounds stupid but you’ll thank me later). Just as some of you hang your jackets in one corner of your closet, and dresses in the other; do this in your suitcase. Having your clothes grouped together will make it easier for you to find stuff when you’re trying to find something to wear on day 1 of your holiday without having to dump the contents of your suitcase all over the hotel floor just to find your undies.
I also roll in favour of folding. Not to stop clothes from creasing (trust me, they will do this no matter what) but because I personally find it’s the most space-conscious method.
Snap-lock clear bags (A4-sized) for your shoes are the best things ever invented. My husband sources them from the depths of his pharmacy’s cupboards (I’m assuming) but I suppose you can find them on eBay too?
Speaking of shoes, I’m guilty of always packing too much but I try to stop at 3 (ballet flats/loafers, sneakers, sandals OR ankle boots, depending on the weather). Can I just say, though, unless you plan on being Uber-ed everywhere, do not pack your heels if you’re trying to pack light (and don’t have a specific occasion to wear them to, like a wedding). Even my ballet flats get ruined by the cobblestoned paths in Europe.
For a 3-4 week trip, I always try to have my suitcase weigh in at around 13kg at the point of departure (14kg if I’m packing for winter). By the end of my holiday, my suitcase usually weighs in at around 20kg. This stuff matters if you’re flying domestically within Europe too – a lot of the budget airlines charge extra for baggage so you don’t want to be lugging around a 30kg suitcase.
Suitcase brands: I’ve used Samsonite and Antler hardcases but my HG is Rimowa, which I want to upgrade to for future travels (you can purchase Rimowa in Australia but they’re cheapest in Germany i.e. Frankfurt/Berlin/Munich).
Lastly, I try to always keep in mind that there’s always a possibility that my suitcase will get lost in transit – sometimes temporarily, sometimes forever. Any valuables & sentimentals go in my carry-on and nothing in my suitcase contains anything I can’t replace.
Keep calm and carry-on
For long-haul flights, this requires a certain precision.
To get from Perth to Berlin a few weeks ago, I flew to Singapore; Singapore to Doha; Doha to Paris; then finally Paris to Berlin. That equated to around 50 hours of travelling (because I stupidly booked a 14 hour stopover in Singapore) and a lot of pantyliners (because let’s be real, here).
What was in my carry-on luggage? Headphones, Kindle, iPhone (with tunes), iPad (for Newstand), toiletries (toothbrush & toothpaste, beauty wipes, said pantyliners, La Roche Posay moisturiser, dry shampoo), two pairs of undies, my Muji travel kit (inflatable pillow and eye mask) and a change of clothes.
I always use my Longchamp Planetes tote and expandable weekender as my carry-on bags. They’ve been through the war and back and still look as good as new.
Thought I’d include this as I always get asked. In short – I travel with my iPhone 5 (I shoot with this a lot & plan to soon upgrade to a 6), and my Olympus OM-D E-M5 (a lot of my Instagram photos are taken with this camera). Sometimes I’ll also pack my Fuji Instant Camera (with roughly 100 film) but as it’s quite heavy and cumbersome to travel with, I often leave it at home. My husband takes his Nikon D600 + a couple of lenses. The only time we’ve bothered with tripods is when we visited Iceland and wanted to try our luck at capturing the Northern Lights.
My husband’s usually in charge of this, with our essentials being:
Laptop (even though it’s still quite heavy we take the MacBook Air as I always need to work remotely)
External hard drive
Battery pack & cables for iPhones
Universal adapter with USB ports
Staying connected whilst travelling
Usually this stuff needs to be taken care of before you leave.
Organise international roaming if necessary. I usually don’t bother with buying an overseas SIM as I would rarely use it (thanks, Whatsapp!) so between my husband and I, only one of us signs up for roaming in the case of emergencies.
I therefore rely on wifi in my hotels. More and more countries are getting on board with aspirations of being a Digital City (Tallinn has been the most impressive so far!) so you’ll find free wifi in a lot of places in Europe including airports. If all else fails, buy a terrible coffee at Starbucks.
Japan is the worst with wifi though. You won’t find it anywhere – not even in a lot of hotels. We swore by hiring Japanese pocket wifi here. It’s reliable, secure and reasonably affordable. Going by how difficult and frustrating it was for us to navigate the chaos of Tokyo, you will need it and use it, trust me. The easiest thing to do is to have it delivered to your hotel the day before you arrive. To return it, just get to the airport half an hour earlier and drop it off at the post office there. Easy-peasy.
Everyone’s different but my husband and I travel with mostly plastic (i.e. credit/Visa debit card) and very little cash for security purposes.
We used to use 28 degrees as a travel credit card but have since found a better one (zero fees) – the Citibank Plus Visa Debit (you can sign up for free online). Before we depart, we’ll load up the card with enough funds to see us through 2-3 weeks and treat the card like a debit/ATM card. If we need cash, we’ll use the Citibank Plus to withdraw from a local ATM where Visa is accepted. Again, no transaction fees, so it’s pretty sweet. Usually by the 3 week mark, we’ve gone way over budget and log onto our internet banking to top up the card. My husband is a stickler for paying for our holiday with our savings and never on credit.
If you’re planning to apply for a new travel card, make sure you apply at least 1-2 months in advance of your trip. It can take this long for them to process and verify your application (and to send out your card).
Remember to organise travel insurance (even better if your credit card company offers this as a free perk – just be sure to purchase your airfares with this card). Ours don’t so I think we go with Allianz – it’s around $200-ish per couple and you can easily sign up online up until the day of departure. My friend also made a very excellent point about booking travel insurance as soon as you purchase airfares – if for whatever reason you can’t go on holiday, some travel insurance policies will cover any out of pocket expenses as a result of airfare cancellations.
Print out everything or at least screenshot them onto your phone/iPad etc before you leave. I’m talking hotel confirmations, flight itineraries, train tickets, restaurant bookings, etc etc. Some hotels and check-in counters are still pretty old-school and/or they don’t speak English. Either that or just plain lazy.
Leave copies of passports and flight itineraries with family/close friends. I’m sure they’ll appreciate it, too.
And call up your bank before you depart if you’re planning to access your bank accounts overseas so that they don’t inadvertently bar your account, leaving you high and dry on holiday. It’s no fun trying to call up your bank when you’re in a foreign country in a completely opposite time zone (and yes, we’ve been there, done that, too).
Stay tuned for Part 2 of my Travel Tips & Tricks as I explore how to best make the most of stopovers, layovers, and connecting flights; how I try to stay fresh during a heinous 36-40 hours of transit, and more!
In the meantime, you can read more about my past travels here or by navigating through the Travel category at the top of this blog.