Last Updated: 7/4/23 | July 4th, 2023
Every industry has its own “best practices” — proven rules and standards that guide the industry and the people in it. Travel is no different. There are many “rules to live by” that can help us navigate the unknown world with fewer mistakes.
I have my own golden travel rules.
And that’s not a bad thing. If you don’t make mistakes, you aren’t trying new things and pushing yourself out of your comfort zone.
Mistakes are going to happen.
But, over the years, I’ve developed a list of 27 golden rules for travel. These guidelines help me save money, make friends, stay safe, and fit into the local culture.
If you follow them, you’ll become a master traveler, able to travel the world with swashbuckling zeal and expert ninja-like knowledge… all without breaking the bank so you can keep cutting a path forward through the world for longer:
1. Be adventurous
You only live once. You’re going to get chances to do wild things you’ve never dreamed of doing when you travel. Don’t hold back. Count to three, say “screw it,” and take the leap. You didn’t come this far for nothing. Say yes when someone asks you to go rock climbing, salsa dancing, spelunking, or try the world’s hottest pepper despite not liking spicy food.
There’s no one around to judge you. No one cares what you do. No rumors will be spread. Push yourself to do something new and daring at least once.
2. Get a no-fee ATM card
Why give your money to the banks? Get an ATM card that doesn’t charge any fees and use that extra money for more traveling. Over the long term those $3-6 charges really add up. I use Charles Schwab as my bank, but you can also find many others that offer no-fee accounts — or use one that is part of the Global ATM Alliance, and pay no fees within that network.
This article can show you how to avoid bank fees when you travel (and includes a list of suggested cards too).
3. Get a travel credit card
Why pay for travel when you can get it for free? Get a travel rewards credit card to earn points and miles that can be redeemed for free travel.
You’re already spending the money anyway so why not get rewarded for it?
Travel credit cards come with tons of perks and huge welcome bonuses that can be redeemed for free flights right away. Plus, you’ll avoid foreign transaction fees too.
Having one is an absolute must.
Here are some articles to help you get started with travel hacking:
- Travel Hacking 101: A Beginner’s Guide
- How I Earn 1 Million Frequent Flier Miles Every Year
- The Best Travel Credit Cards
- The Ultimate Guide to Picking the Best Travel Credit Card
4. Always carry backups
Always carry a backup bank and credit card in case one is lost, stolen, or hacked. That way while you are fixing the issue, you still have access to your money. Instead of the problem crippling your trip, it’s merely an annoyance. This has happened to me before and, I can assure you, you’ll be thankful you followed this advice!
5. Only carry what you need
When you leave to go out for the day, only carry the cash you need and one credit card. You don’t want to get robbed and lose everything. Leave the backups and extra locked back at your hostel!
6. Buy travel insurance
You never know what could happen on the road — but something always does. I’ve had to deal with lost baggage, broken gear, delayed flights, and even some pretty serious injuries. Without travel insurance, not only would I have had to pay out of pocket for these expenses, but I would have been left to navigate them alone.
Buy travel insurance so that if you’re injured or you break your camera, you’re covered. Plus, your friends and family will be able to relax knowing that, should something happen, you’re covered. It’s only a few dollars a day. It’s worth the peace of mind.
Here’s the link to our resource page with all our articles on the subject!
7. Travel alone at least once
Few things are as liberating as solo travel. As a solo traveler, you’re free to do whatever you want. When you travel solo, the world is your oyster. To me, it’s the purest sense of freedom there is.
But beyond that sense of freedom, solo travel actually teaches you a lot about yourself. Travel is an amazing personal development tool, and solo travel is one of the best ways to learn and grow and challenge yourself.
Without anyone around you, you have to solve the problems you face on the road. You have to figure out how to get from point A to B, deal with people who speak a different language, get comfortable eating alone, find things to do, and work out problems that arise. It’s you and your wits. That forces you to grow in ways you won’t in the comfort of your home or with a group.
While it won’t be for everyone, I still encourage everyone to try solo travel at least once. Even if you don’t love it, you’ll learn a ton about yourself in the process.
8. Learn basic phrases
Locals don’t expect you to be an expert in the local language, but learning a few basic phrases will bring a smile to their face, just by the sheer fact that you tried! “Hello,” “how are you?” and “thank you” go a long, long way no matter where you go. And if you need help, such as getting directions, people will be much more likely to go out of their way to help you if you show that you’ve gone out of your way too!
9. Stay in hostels
Get to know other travelers and experience the communal spirit of traveling by staying in hostels a few times. They aren’t all the dirty party places you see in movies. Most hostels are very clean, offer breakfast, have comfy beds and Wi-Fi, organize events, and know the local area very well. They also aren’t just for young backpackers; you’ll find people of all ages (and even some families) staying there. Try them out. You may like it.
Here is a list of the best hostels in the world to get you started!
If you’re planning on backpacking Europe, it’s worth getting HostelPass, a card that gives you up to 20% off hostels throughout Europe (use code NOMADICMATT for 25% off when you sign up). I’ve always wanted something like this, so I’m glad it finally exists!
10. Visit the tourism office
Local tourist offices are a wealth of knowledge. When you get to a new destination, visit the tourist office and ask the staff an insane number of questions about the place. They exist solely to help you get the most of your visit and it’s their job to know everything and everything about a place. Plus, they often have tons of discounts not found anywhere else.
Visiting one is often one of the first things I do in a new city.
11. Try new foods
Culture is often best experienced through food. Don’t be afraid to try new things. Get out of your comfort zone and experiment. You might actually like it (those fried caterpillars in Zambia were delicious!). And contrary to popular belief, dining out while traveling can absolutely be done on a budget!
12. Be flexible with your plans
Travel is a series of happy accidents with way leading to way. Don’t skip going to that random city with the friends you just met because your itinerary says something different. You’ll regret it.
This will make your travels a lot more stress-free.
13. Pack light
Take it from a former over-packer: you never need half the stuff you take. Put everything you think you need in a pile and then remove half of it. Even better, get a small backpack or suitcase so that you won’t be tempted to overpack in the first place. The lighter you travel, the easier you travel.
I love Unbound Merino as their travel clothing (made from Merino wool which has natural anti-bacterial properties) can be worn daily for weeks without getting smelly. They are super light and look stylish too.
Here are some suggested packing lists:
14. Take extra money
Something always happens that you never planned for that will cost you extra money. I never thought I would fly last-minute to Fiji, need to replace my camera in Italy, or buy an extra iPhone cable in Australia. Always take extra money just in case. You may not need it, but you don’t want to be without a little extra when something bad happens. When you start planning for your trip, set aside an emergency slush fund for anything that might go wrong (and still get travel insurance).
15. Get lost
Meander through a new city without a map. Get lost — because in the end, you aren’t really getting lost, you’re just discovering new experiences. So put down the map and wander. Eventually, you’ll find your way.
16. Call home
Your family and friends miss you. Don’t forget to call and say hello.
17. Take walking tours
I love taking walking tours when I travel. They give you a great orientation and background of the city you are visiting, which is why I normally take them in the first few days I visit a place. On a walking tour, you get to pepper the local guide with questions, meet other travelers, and learn a lot about the city.
Most major cities have free walking tour options, just be sure to tip your guide at the end (it’s how they get paid). And while free walking tours are great, sometimes it’s worth it to take a paid walking tour if you’d like to dig deeper into a particular aspect of the destination. Here are my favorite walking tour companies and resources:
- Walks – One of my favorite paid walking tour companies, they offer in-depth history and cultural tours in cities around the world (especially Europe).
- Devour Food Tours – This company has all kinds of amazing food tours around Europe and the United States.
- GetYourGuide – An online marketplace for tours, activities, and excursions (with everything from skip-the-line museum tickets and walking tours to winery tours and adventure activities).
18. Travel slow
This isn’t a race or a competition. I know you want to get a lot in with your limited time, but you see a lot more when you see a lot less. Travel slowly and experience each place. Don’t race from train station to station; that will set you up for a stressful, unenjoyable time. With travel, less is more.
19. Live somewhere once
Stop at least once. Get to know a place. Learn the language. Make local friends. Explore. Become the local. Living in a foreign place gives you a different perspective on life and a real sense of what it’s like to be an outsider.
Plus, living a foreign place and surviving will help you gain a lot of confidence.
20. Avoid taxis
They cost a lot. Don’t use them unless you don’t have any other option.
21. Bring a reusable water bottle
Not only are all those disposable plastic water bottles bad for the environment, but the cost adds up over time. A water bottle here, a water bottle there, and you’ve spent $50 on water alone. Get a reusable bottle and drink the tap water in conjunction with a SteriPen or LifeStraw water purifier.
22. Sign up for flight deals
Flights are one of travel’s biggest expenses, so save money by signing up for flight deal websites. You’ll get epic flight deals straight to your inbox, saving you time and money. The best websites for finding travel deals are:
- Going (formerly Scott’s Cheap Flights) – The BEST for upcoming US flight deals.
- The Flight Deal – Great for global flight deals.
- Holiday Pirates – The best for European flight deals.
- Secret Flying – A great site for flight deals from around the world.
23. Bring basic first-aid
Cuts and scrapes happen, and you can get what you need most anywhere in the world, but it’s still good to carry bandages, antibacterial cream, and some hydrocortisone cream in your first aid kit just in case. Also, carry duct tape — you’ll never know when it’ll come in handy.
24. Get off the beaten path
London, Paris, and the temples of Kyoto are all amazing for a reason, but get off the beaten path, go away from the crowds, and explore on your own. Find something new, stick out, meet the locals, and discover. The road less traveled is usually a good one.
25. Take photos of your friends
Years from now, you’ll want to look back at your younger self and see all the people who changed your life. Nostalgia can be a wonderful thing. Make sure you take photos of your friends. You’ll want them later.
26. Use the sharing economy
The rise of the sharing economy has made backpacking so much easier and cheaper. From ridesharing, house sharing, and meetup websites, there are so many ways you can get off the tourist trail and experience day-to-day life with locals! Here are some suggested websites:
- Couchsurfing (free shared accommodation with locals)
- TrustedHousesitters (house/pet sitting opportunities)
- BlaBlaCar (rideshare app)
- EatWith (share a meal with local cooks)
And finally, the most important tip of them all….
27. Ignore all my tips and do whatever you want
It’s your trip. Go where you want, when you want, and for how long you want. Don’t worry about this or that. Make mistakes. Learn. Make more mistakes. Have fun and become a better traveler. At the end of the day, you won’t look back and think “if only I had more miles” but instead “damn, that was a lot of fun.”
So get out there and have some fun!
You deserve it.
Book Your Trip: Logistical Tips and Tricks
Book Your Flight
Find a cheap flight by using Skyscanner. It’s my favorite search engine because it searches websites and airlines around the globe so you always know no stone is being left unturned.
Book Your Accommodation
You can book your hostel with Hostelworld. If you want to stay somewhere other than a hostel, use Booking.com as it consistently returns the cheapest rates for guesthouses and hotels.
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. My favorite companies that offer the best service and value are:
- SafetyWing (best for everyone)
- Insure My Trip (for those 70 and over)
- Medjet (for additional evacuation coverage)
Want to Travel for Free?
Travel credit cards allow you to earn points that can be redeemed for free flights and accommodation — all without any extra spending. Check out my guide to picking the right card and my current favorites to get started and see the latest best deals.
Ready to Book Your Trip?
Check out my resource page for the best companies to use when you travel. I list all the ones I use when I travel. They are the best in class and you can’t go wrong using them on your trip.