It’s only human to ask for travel advice and to listen to the opinions of those we look up to and admire before setting off to some place new. It’s only human to then form an opinion of a place, a person or even an idea based on what we have been told, regardless of whether these snippets of information are positive or negative or at all rooted in fact.
All my life I have been given contrasting travel advice and if I had listened to everyone who had lectured me, I would probably have never stepped foot on foreign soil. In fact, if I had listened to every piece of travel advice given to me over the past 12 years, I would never have stepped foot outside my own home, too afraid of ‘stranger danger’, poisonous food, infected animals, spiked drinks and supposed rapists stalking me on the internet!
“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien,
As a travel blogger, and someone who now travels for a living, I get asked for travel advice on a daily basis and often times struggle to give a concrete answer. The problem with dishing out personal travel advice on specific travel destinations is that it is based on opinion and personal experiences, two things that can change drastically depending on sometimes feeble variables such as; who I have met, where I have been before and my own mood at the time.
This got me thinking about all the travel advice that has been thrown at me over the years and how it affected my travels. From long articles about what not to do as a solo traveler to how to survive your first backpacking trip to sound advice given to me by worried parents, friends and classmates, there seemed to be a whole lot of scare mongering
Looking back on 12 years of solo travel around the world, crazy backpacking stints through Africa and packing up my life to go live and work on 5 different continents, I have now come to the conclusion that perhaps the best travel advice of all might just be to take no travel advice.
Below is a detailed, although not extensive, list of the travel advice I have been given (repeatedly) over the years along with an explanation as to how not listening to any of it ensured I learned valuable life lessons on my travels and had incredible and often life changing travel experiences I will treasure forever.
Be it the best travel advice or the worst travel advice, its advice you should really consider not taking.
Never talk to strangers
‘Stranger danger’, a phrase many people have grown up with, warned from a young age about staying away from creepy men handing out streets in unmarked white vans. Yet, as we get older, many people seem to retain this valuable childhood survival skill, vowing to never interact with strangers on their travels.
From my own personal experiences, I can’t begin to tell you the incredible things that have happened to me when I opened up to strangers. Be it waiting for a bus, sitting beside someone on a plane or sharing a dorm in a remote hostel, I have bonded with strangers in the most unlikely of places and my interactions have more times than not been a highlight of my entire trip. I have had strangers buy me dinner in Heathrow airport, pay for my train ticket in a time of need and feed my friends and I the only food they had while I have had an old Polish woman in Warsaw go miles out of her way to help me find my hostel. I once accepted an offer to go stay with strangers in a remote corners of Kenya, and ended up with two lifelong friends who continue to inspire me every day. I hope that I too, have impacted the lives of strangers who opened up to me in a positive way, such as the time I decided to ‘pay it forward’ and gave away my return flights to Iceland to a stranger on Reddit. Giving always feels better than receiving, as they say.
Stay away from hostels
I always have to wonder if people who repeatedly say that staying in hostels is dangerous have ever actually stayed in a hostel? Sometimes I even wonder if they really know what a hostel is or of they are just basing their travel advice on a horror movie they once saw or on what they imagine $10 a night accommodation to look like.
Hostels are not dangerous. Well, they are at the very least not as dangerous as hotels, or guest houses or rental apartments or wherever else you would opt to stay instead. As with all holiday accommodation, the safety of a place can will depend on the city you are in and the area of the city the accommodation is located. I have stayed in 100’s of hostels in countries around the world and have never had an inherently bad experience. While some may not have been very clean, others not very quiet and a rare few run by rude staff, I have never felt unsafe and I have most definitely felt safer there than I have in many cheap hotels or apartments around the world, home to dodgy door locks, peeping toms and creepy security staff. Not only do I always feel safe it hostels, but I also feel ‘at home’. Hostels are sort of like my happy place, where friends I always wish I had all stay under one roof. Where people swap travel tales, dish out advice (you shouldn’t take!) and turn strangers into friends though mental drinking games with insane rules.
Couchsurfing is asking to be raped
When Couchsurfing first started, many moons ago, I can (sort of) understand why such serious comments were thrown around the place. As humans, we find it difficult to understand and accept practices that are unfamiliar to us and thus the idea of sleeping on a strangers couch (a stranger you had only interacted with online) would send big red sirens off in our head.
I wish people who still hand out such advice about Couchsurfing would talk to some people who do it on a regular basis to see what it’s really all about. Perhaps then they will realize that active Couchsurfing hosts are some of the kindest, most interesting souls on this planet. They might also understand that surfing someones couch will ensure an authentic travel experience where you will get to see a city from the eyes of a local and will leave with incredible memories and a new friend rather than a hefty hotel bill and tacky souvenirs. Having hosted over 300 people and couchsurfed on 5 continents without a single negative experience, I can honestly say that Couchsurfing changed my life for the better.
Only a lunatic would go hitchhiking
Hitchhiking is not for everyone, that much I understand, but considering it is still very much common place in many nations around the world, calling millions of people lunatics seems unjustified. While I will admit hitchhiking alone may not be the wisest idea, especially if you are female, I will also be the first to admit I have done it many times with no (real) issue. Hitchhiking with a friend and even a small group, on the other hand, is something I would consider totally safe as well as being extremely efficient and an excellent wat to experience a new country.
Some of my best travel memories of all time include days spent hitchhiking with friends, helping us to bring home the most interesting stories of our lives. You meet people you never would have met, exchange travel stories, opinions of politics, development issues or even just pop music. You overcome language barriers and somehow manage to bond with locals who do not speak a word of your language. Every day is an adventure and the thoughts of your next hitchhiking expedition will fill you with excitement.
Don’t eat the street food
Sure it might make you sick, but getting sick on the road is one of those inevitable occurrences likely to happen whether you like it or not. The street food in many Asian countries such as India, Malaysia, South Korea and Thailand, is the most delicious food the country has to offer, as well as being the cheapest! Not tasting local delicacies, freshly made smoothies or mouth-watering curries just because you have been warned they might make you ill is not the way to live your life.
Not only did I fall in love with foods that I previously did not know existed, tasting street food in South Korea became somewhat of a hobby for me. Be it ordering tasty little bread treats shaped like fish from the old man outside the subway station, pulling up a plastic stool to enjoy a cup full of sticky strong-smelling rice cakes at 2 in the morning or daring to taste the silk worm larvae cooked by the old ladies along every hiking outside Seoul, street food in Korea was always an adventure.
Don’t take public transport
While warning people to be careful when taking public transport in developing nations, I also find this sort of advice is kind of ridiculous. How exactly am I supposed to get around a city without using public transport?! Should I take a private overnight taxi from Peru to Bolivia, or should I just stick to flying everywhere?!
Not only is public transport the best way to get around a city, it is also the cheapest method of transport and will help give you an insight into the inner workings of a city or country. In many cities people warned be to avoid public transport due to it being too dangerous, I discovered it was cleaner, safer and more efficient than every method of transport we have back in Ireland. From the brand spanking new city buses in Cape Town, to the sparkling clean subways with heated seats in Seoul, to the ridiculously comfortable overnight buses in Cambodia complete with charging sockets and sleeping cabins, public transport around the world continues to shock and impress me wherever I go.
Always travel with a group
Why is it that parents friends and loved ones never seem to encourage us travel solo? Regardless of out age or gender, we are always told it’s safer to travel in a group and to avoid travelling alone at all costs. What if I cannot find a group of people to travel with or if nobody I know wants to travel with me? Should I resort to finding travel buddies on the internet, or is that also off-limits? While group travel can most certainly be fun, and there of course many benefits, telling people not to live their dream simply because they must do it alone is terrible travel advice.
There are so many incredible things that happen when you travel solo, that I can’t begin to write about them all in one short paragraph, but I’ll try my best! Traveling solo has been such a huge part of my life and so many unforgettable experiences and wonderful encounters have happened simply because I set off on an adventure alone. I never let loneliness, fear or embarrassment stop me from doing what mattered most. That’s the thing about solo travel… while it’s daunting and scary and sometimes dangerous, it’s also one of the most exciting and rewarding experiences you will ever have. You open yourself up to the world, and suddenly the world and so many of its amazing people, open themselves up to you.
Best to skip Africa / South America / India
We are all guilty, at one stage or another, of dishing out travel advice telling people where not to go. Be it based on what we’ve read it newspapers or magazines or our own personal travels, we tend to shout out our negative experiences from the rooftops to whoever will listen while our lips often stay firmly closed when asked to write positive reviews. The problem with listening, and taking on board, too much travel advice on where not to go is that you will end up going nowhere. Granted there are places in the world that are dangerous, some more so than others, but how dangerous are they really? Should fear stop us from traveling to places that have fascinated us all our lives?
Of all the places I have been backpacking over the years, some of my post positive and surprising experiences have been in countries I was always told to avoid. Take the entire African continent as a prime example! From wonderful animal encounters in Ethiopia to been blown away by how friendly the people were in Kenya and how strikingly beautiful the landscape was in Lesotho, Africa is pretty much my happy place. The thought of never having traveled there, simply because I decided to take some silly travel advice on board at the age of 18, sends shivers down my spine. Never let other people’s opinions stop you from seeking out your own adventure.