Top tips for first-time travellers
With a daughter at the end of her own gap year and a shared credit card nearing meltdown, Michael "Tripologist" Gebicki passes on to graduates a few lessons from foreign roads.
Your last year of high school now fading in the rear-vision mirror, the nightmare wait for results finished, soggy school lunches, uniforms - never again. Maybe you're thinking of spreading your wings and heading offshore, and what's not to like about a few months or even a whole year on the road?
But travelling well is a skill and it doesn't necessarily come packaged in your DNA. Lesson one is do your homework. Know before you go and you'll magnify your chances of coming back enriched, inspired and safe. Here's a primer to set your wheels in motion.
The ATM is your best friend. ATM machines are found all over the world and are by far the most convenient way to access funds. The standard ATM card you use at home might not be the best choice for offshore because it comes loaded with overseas transaction fees and charges that nibble at your funds.
One card that many professional travellers swear by is the 28 Degrees MasterCard, which has no annual fees, no reload fees and no international transaction fees.
Yet another option is the prepaid foreign currency card. You purchase however many euros or US dollars you need, which you can then withdraw via ATMs. A foreign money card is convenient, secure and replaceable if you lose it, but some charge high fees and they are only denominated in major world currencies. If you want to withdraw your funds in the form of Indian rupees or Argentine pesos, you could lose as much as 8.45 per cent for that privilege alone. A recent report published by Choice put the Commonwealth Bank's Travel Money Card at the top of the heap.
Whichever ATM card you use, you need to contact your bank to make sure your card is valid for use offshore. While you're at it, advise them you're heading overseas to make sure they don't restrict your access due to unusual card activity.
If you don't have travel insurance, you shouldn't be heading overseas. Just about any travel insurance policy will cover your medical expenses, baggage loss, legal costs, personal liability and cancellation or disruption of your holiday plans.
If you make a claim for lost items, your insurer will probably want to see proof of purchase. If your claim is honoured, it will usually be minus depreciation, not the full replacement value. Note that your travel insurance policy will usually not cover the mobile phone you left on a seat in the bus station.
If you're prone to parting company with one another, consider a separate insurance policy. Compare Travel Insurance (comparetravelinsurance.com.au) is a handy site for one-stop shopping, and Choice (choice.com.au) has useful articles on the topic.
Passports and documents
Your passport needs to have at least six months' validity to enter most countries. Losing your passport is a major drama, but getting it replaced is easier if you have a copy. Scan or photocopy your passport and other vital documents, such as your travel insurance policy, driver's licence and air tickets, and leave them with someone who you can contact quickly in an emergency. Better still, store them in the cloud so you can retrieve them in a hurry - there are several cloud storage hosts such as Google Cloud, iCloud and Dropbox that you can use for free.
Chances are you'll get plenty of exercise when you're away, but also try to eat healthily. It's not just for now. This is probably the first time you've been away from home for an extended period and you're laying down the habits that will stick with you the rest of your life.
If you're planning to spend time in remote parts of the third world, you need expert medical advice from a specialist travel health clinic such as the Travel Doctor (traveldoctor.com.au) or Travel Vaccination Health Care (travelvaccinationhealthcare.com.au). Also consult the relevant country information on the "Travelers' Health" page on the CDC website (cdc.gov).
The biggest danger is probably you. You might think you're bulletproof but you're also young, inexperienced and probably out in the world alone for the first time, and that puts you in a high risk category. Drinking cobra whiskey on the Mekong River, running with the bulls in Pamplona and riding a rented motorbike without a helmet in Goa might seem like a good idea at the time, but if things go wrong, it might be more than just the end of your holiday. Consider the downside and let someone else dive off the rocks before you rush in.
You don't have to travel far or wide to realise that the notion of equality between the sexes is not universal. There are some places where women need to take special care. Take your dress cues from the locals.
If you've had too much to drink and you're in unfamiliar territory you're in a danger zone, yet personal safety is not likely to be on your mind.
If you're planning a big night out, go with people you know, stick together and beware of too-friendly strangers. It's a great idea to register your travel plans with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Smart Traveller website. If there is a civil disturbance or natural disaster in the region where you are, they'll be able to find you and tell you what to do.
Stay in touch
Unless you want to end up with a bill approaching the Greek national debt, forget using your normal SIM card when you leave our golden shores. Take it out of your phone and keep it somewhere safe, there are much better options available.
All over the world you'll find cafes and hostels that offer free wi-fi, which means you can make calls via Skype (skype.com) or Viber (viber.com), check your emails, log on to Facebook and book your next hostel bed.
If you need to make calls and use data roaming when you're out of reach of free wi-fi, a SIM card from TravelSIM, OneSIM or WorldSIM will allow you to make cheap phone calls and use data roaming at a modest cost. If you plan to stay in one country for a couple of weeks or more, buy a local prepaid SIM card. Before you leave, make sure your phone is unlocked.
Australian consular officials are there to represent the interests of Australia and, in an emergency, to assist Australian citizens. They are not there to find you a hotel, provide a bed for the night or lend you money, except in exceptional circumstances. If you are arrested, they cannot get you out of jail, offer legal advice or intercede in the country's judicial system. The most they can do is provide a list of local lawyers and advise your family in Australia. The emergency number for consular assistance is +612 6261 3305.
Websites you need
- Hostelbookers (hostelbookers.com) Cheap beds in more than 3500 locations around the globe.
- Lonely Planet (lonelyplanet.com) Information, inspiration and heaps of advice from other travellers.
- The Man in Seat 61 (seat61.com) Everything you ever wanted to know about train travel, including how to score the cheapest seats.
- Nomadic Matt (nomadicmatt.com) A goldmine of sane advice for every traveller.
- Smart Traveller (smartraveller.gov.au) Get clued up about the places on your wish list.
- Time Out (timeout.com) Hip, street-savvy travel guides to every city worth visiting.
- Travelfish (travelfish.org) Backpacker-friendly advice on getting around south-east Asia, places to stay, best beaches and how to stay sane and safe at full moon parties.
- Wallpaper (wallpaper.com) Style guide for the design conscious.