Published in: Credit Cards | Jan. 16, 2020

9 Travel Lessons I Learned After 1 Year of Living Abroad

By:  Lyle Daly

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Here are my best pieces of travel wisdom.

In the past year, I've gotten more firsthand travel experience than ever before. It was my first year living as a digital nomad, and with no lease agreement tying me to one place, I've had the opportunity to move around and take a lot more trips.

Being a frequent traveler is a kind of crash course in what to do and what not to do. After spending time in three countries and counting, taking a dozen flights, and suffering through the occasional delay, these are the travel lessons I've learned to live by.

Middle-aged man looking at an iPad while sitting on rocks overlooking a sunset over mountains.

Image source: Getty Images

1. The most direct route is worth the cost

It's tempting to save some cash by booking airfare with more stops, but it's also important to consider how that extra stop will affect your travels. Flying to your destination will take you longer, and you may be more tired when you get there. You probably have limited vacation time to begin with. Do you want to spend more of it sitting around in an airport?

That doesn't even touch on the potential problems that could arise, such as delays or flight cancellations. Each stop you add to a trip makes it more likely something could go wrong.

2. Travel points you can redeem as cash are extremely valuable

I know that everyone raves about transferring points in hopes of those high-value redemptions, but I've found that I actually redeem points as cash more often.

If you're unfamiliar with how this works, some travel rewards cards let you redeem your points at a fixed rate to purchase travel in cash. For example, a card issuer may let you redeem rewards at $0.015 per point. In that case, you could use 10,000 points to purchase a $150 airline ticket.

This option comes in handy when you won't get a lot of value out of award tickets, which is often the case for shorter domestic flights. It's also helpful when there aren't any convenient award tickets available for the route you want.

3. You won't need to pack as much as you think

This is popular travel advice, but it's popular for a reason. Many travelers overestimate what they need to take and come to regret it when they're lugging around multiple heavy, awkward pieces of luggage.

A good way to approach packing is to treat it like writing a paper for school. Your first attempt is just the first draft. After that, it's time to review your work and cut unnecessary items. Odds are you won't use every piece of clothing and gadget that you initially thought you needed.

4. Always have a form of entertainment at the airport

If you're the type of person who dreads going to the airport, that could be down to a lack of planning. It's no fun to sit around an airport. But it can be nice to relax and spend the wait watching shows you downloaded or catching up on the reading you've always wanted to do.

Of course, this is especially important if your flight gets delayed. As frustrating as that can be, it's much worse when you're waiting for hours with nothing to do.

5. Vacation rentals are better than hotels for the budget-minded traveler

Trying to take a vacation without breaking the bank? One of the best ways to spend less is by choosing a vacation rental instead of a hotel.

Hotels typically cost more per night, with prices that are often twice as much or more than comparable vacation rentals. The price disparity becomes even greater when you consider the extra charges you can incur at a hotel. There may be resort fees or additional taxes charged upon checkout. And since most hotel rooms don't have kitchens, you'll likely go out to eat more.

6. Bring at least one backup credit card

Hopefully, you won't ever lose your credit card while you're traveling. But you should bring along an extra one in case it does happen. If you'll be outside the United States, you should also make sure that the credit cards you take with you don't charge foreign transaction fees. 

7. Be prepared, not paranoid

When discussing the safety of an area, the loudest voices often split into two groups. There are those who assume 95% of the world is dangerous and you'd be crazy to go there. And then there are those who would tell you an active war zone "really isn't as bad as people say."

As it often goes, this is a situation where the most sensible option is the middle ground. Any time you're traveling somewhere new, you should read up on common crimes in that area and watch out for potential dangers when you're there. However, you shouldn't let paranoia keep you from enjoying yourself.

8. Use an ATM instead of exchanging currency

Although currency exchanges are the traditional way to get cash while abroad, the exchange rates are rarely a good deal. It's better to withdraw money from an ATM using your debit card. You should check what kind of fees your bank will charge before you go, and if it will be expensive, look into checking accounts with no foreign transaction fees.

9. Unlock your phone and buy local SIM cards

Wireless carriers may charge an arm and a leg if you want to use your cell phone internationally. Fortunately, there's a much more affordable solution -- unlock your phone and when you arrive at your destination, buy a SIM card with a prepaid plan. You can often buy a local SIM card at the airport upon arrival. In many countries, weeks of prepaid data costs just $10 or less.

Making the most of every travel experience

It's always exciting when you have the opportunity to travel. By following the right strategies, you can save money and ensure you have an amazing trip.

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