Q&A new travellers

Q: What is your best advice for potential/new travellers not knowing where to start?

A: First of all, it’s important to separate tourist from travellers. Tourists are people who go to a destination, stay for a number of days and return home. Travellers on the other hand don’t stay long in the same place but travel around. The recommendations in this section is meant for travellers.

Wherever you decide to go there is only one way of finding out if you like it – try it out in practice. You can read a guidebook or use internet resources (e.g. wikitravel) for inspiration and advice on practicalities, but you'll experience that reality is always different. The more you read the higher the expectations and bigger the risk of being disappointed. Make a rough plan and improvise – the best and most memorable experiences are often based on spontaneity. Ask the locals for recommendations once you get close to or have arrived at your destination. Also it's common to experience prepaid transportation, accommodation, etc. as a constraint e.g. if you want to change your schedule, travel route or you meet friendly people offering you a ride or staying at their place. If you feel uncomfortable arriving in a foreign country without a place to stay book a couple of nights and leave the rest open. I do some research before travelling but I never make reservations in advance and until now it always worked out. By paying in advance, you pay much more and you risk being disappointed because you can't inspect the room and negotiate for something better.  

If you feel insecure the first time you travel visit an easier (and safer) region first e.g. North America, Europe, Oceania or Asia. Experience comes over time and partly from meeting other travellers. Especially when biking the first time, it might be beneficial to ride a region where bicycling is common partly to get help from bike shop and partly because the local drivers will be more considerate being used to cyclists.  

Quality equipment is expensive so borrow the first time you travel until you know if you like it. When you decided to buy, go for the high quality equipment – it might be more expensive but it lasts longer and there's nothing more annoying than damaged equipment while travelling. See much more in the separate section on Equipment.

When travelling to places with other cultures be open-minded and respectful (follow local traditions and habits). We tend to judge others based on our own values and beliefs but nobody is right or wrong – we're just different. Curiosity and openness is an opportunity to be inspired and learn something new - especially about yourself.

Try to learn a bit of the local language e.g. pleasantries, asking about practicalities and numbers. People in most countries appreciate the effort so disregard that you’re far from perfect – it’s always a good experience (lots of smiles and laughter) to have a simple conversation or negotiate at a market in the local language.

Q: How do you finance your trip/life?

A: As in life in general, it not about how much you make but how much you spend. I live of my savings but my way of travelling is cheap as I live like the locals wherever I go – not because I have to but because I like the simple lifestyle. I mention this because I’ve seen many people travelling on the cheap and for various reasons not enjoying it e.g. they simply don’t like the lifestyle or they told people at home they would travel for a year and want to keep the “promise” despite being short on money. On longer trip, many - especially young - people work along the way, which can be a good local experience if you find a nice place to work. However, many people report working under slave-like circumstances with very long hours, little pay and poor accommodation/food and when finishing they left with the same money as they arrived with. Often they are cheated on the pay or hours, so based on that I recommend working/saving in your own country where you’re often receive higher wages and have more rights. And often people tell me, they didn’t save any money during the stay, because the poor conditions made them go out to eat/drink to sooth their misery. Work along the way as an experience and not for the money; that way you have the freedom to walk away if you don’t like it and you don’t have to bother with work visas and other bureaucracy.

Especially time is of essence when travelling cheap – transportation in particular you can get great deals if you are flexible. In cities, I usually stay with locals through couchsurfing (free) and when biking in the countryside, I wildcamp or just knock on a door and ask if I can pitch my tent. I encounter much kindness, helpfulness, hospitality and generosity where I go and when I’m rejected I just ask next door. See much more in the separate section on How is this trip possible?

Q: What are your recommendations regarding safe travelling?

A: I live by the motto “que sera sera” - what happens, happens and therefore I’ve never felt afraid in my life. Concerns I address immediately as they drain my energy and remove my focus from enjoying life and travelling. It is of course easy to say when I never had a bad experience, but possibly my positive approach also prevented bad things to happen. I think of people as bears and dogs – if you are fearful in their presence, they might attack you but if you are confident, calm and smiling, they will leave you alone and maybe even be curious and friendly. Until now, it has worked for me as I have never had a bad experience anywhere in world.

I’ve travelled some of the (allegedly) most dangerous countries in the world and never had a bad experience. Reality is never as bad as the country’s (region, district, neighbourhood, etc.) reputation, because the media prefer bringing the bad stories about rape, murder, violence, robberies, etc. and never the good stories about kind and friendly people helping each other out. Listen to (independent) local advice for which areas, public transport, etc. to avoid or at least to be aware if going anyway. My rule is quite simple – I take it less seriously when locals I approach start talking about safety but very seriously, when locals approach me unsolicited. The reason being that many locals are overprotective, expecting all foreigners to be naïve tourists who stay in designated areas as well as being proud people and therefore not wanting foreigners to experience the run-down and bad neighbourhoods. When assessing the person in front of me, I look at people’s eyes and if they are friendly, I trust them (though never in a naïve way).

There is a fine line between being paranoid and being naïve. Being completely paranoid makes you keep you things but worrying will likely reduce your joy of travelling and prevent some good local experiences, as you don’t trust anybody. Being naïve, you trust everybody and risk losing all your possessions and maybe something worse. Finding the balance is the key and – sorry to say – it comes with experience, so if you want to be on the safe side lean towards paranoid on your first trips. My precautions widely differ from the place I travel, but I’m always extra careful with my possessions:

  • In areas with lots of people e.g. markets, shops and buses where pickpocketing is common. Put your daypack on your chest and avoid any valuables in your pockets. If you expect to pay for something have a little money ready in your pocket, so you don’t have to take out your money belt (which should always be inside your clothes). It’s by the way always a good idea to carry a wallet with a little cash – in case you get robbed they might settle for that and run.
  • With public transportation both in stations and on the bus/train, never leave a bag unattended for just a second and always hold on to your daypack. Waiting on a bench or if you need two hands for something, put your foot in one of the straps when shortly leaving the daypack on the ground. Be aware that many travellers have their daypacks sliced under their chair/seat, so make sure nobody can reach it under your seat or better yet keep it in your arms. It might be inconvenient on a 15-20 hour bus ride, but nothing compared to losing it. In certain regions in Africa, Asia, South and Central America, I use my packsafe backpack protector (metal mesh) to lock the bag to the roof luggage rack or a metal divider in the trunk – in an incredible peace of mind not having to worry at every stop if somebody steels my pack. If locals sit on the roof and I’m not allowed to have the bag inside the bus, I also sit on the roof. On bus rides, so many people had their bags searched for valuables or thrown off the roof to be collected later.
  • In hostel dormitories where countless people come and go during the day, I always put my backpack in a flight bag and use the packsafe to lock it to a radiator or another sturdy object. Sometimes it seems excessive but the peace of mind is invaluable. I never leave valuables in the room or the reception safe. This goes against all normal travel recommendations, but I prefer being robbed than having my things stolen by staff with extra safe/locker keys. Be very aware that surprisingly many travellers finance their trips steeling from other traveller – everything from food in the common kitchen to credit cards and valuables in the room (even breaking into lockers).

I often venture into poor areas, because it’s where I find some of the most kind, helpful, generous and happy people. I have little of value and - to discourage opportunists - look to have even less. Wherever you go, make it a rule never to wear anything visible (jewellery, camera, money belt, etc.) as the general assumption is that foreigners are rich and therefore your jewellery is expensive even though you made it yourself.

Q: What are your recommendations regarding scams, trickery, etc.?

A: Scams are everywhere and in all forms – many of the scam artists are professionals and work together in teams. Some people distract you while another steel your valuables or one steel your bag and before you know it, it has passed hands countless times, so even if you catch the person who did it, there is no proof. In the other end of the spectrum are simple scams like overcharging you because you are a foreigner. Depending on the country it could be:

  • Sights - though sometimes foreigners officially pay more but then signs/ticket will state the higher price
  • Taking a bus or a shared taxi. To avoid being overcharged ask several locals about the price before you enter – more often the ticket seller will give up when you know the right price.
  • Currency exchange - rates, counterfeit and the right amount. Check official rates beforehand and never hand over your money before you have counted and checked their money.
  • Unexpectedly fees e.g. at border crossings – denying, asking to talk to a superior, asking to see the rulebook claiming the fee and/or asking for a receipt usually makes them give up if fake.
  • Markets and shops - ask around to get an idea about the price as many sell exactly the same product. Seem uninterested (walking away is always helpful) and the price will drop quickly. When you think it’s low, offer very little e.g. 15-20% of the last requested. If the seller is interested he’ll start to negotiate, if not you went too low. You can always come back (pass by seemingly random) or go to another seller. Usually don’t pay more than 20-25% of the requested price from the time you start negotiating – not the initially requested price.

It all cases, never lose your temper or raise your voice – in many cultures this is a sign of weakness, not strength, and it might prevent any further discussions even though you are right. Be confident and persistent but friendly – most places a smile goes a long way to get your way.

Hitchhiking is a wonderful way to travel but be aware of the risks especially if you’re a single woman. If possible, I keep all all luggage inside the car, so it’s easy to get out should there be a dispute. If you leave a bag in the trunk, you risk the driver taking off before I get it. In certain countries, I practice the same strategy in the rare occasion I take a taxi – rare because it is more expensive than taking the local bus and one of the most common places to be scammed whether an official or unofficial taxi e.g. driving around for hours. Insist on using the meter and if none agree a price beforehand preferable in writing to avoid misunderstands.

The scam list is endless so consult guidebooks and internet resources, often providing good background information about common scams in a country and even specific areas, shops and situations. Most importantly keep your wits and trust your 6th sense – if something doesn’t feel right aboard, and if something is too good to be true, it usually is.

I must be one of the only travellers never being scammed, mainly because I was very sceptical trusting no-one in my first years of travelling. Again, search for the balance between trust and naivety and if you do take a risk, consider how big it is, and the maximum you can lose.

Q: Do you meet families that travel the way you do or do you only meet singles/couples?

A: I have backpacked extensively around the world for decades, so of course I’ve met people in all kinds of relationships and of all ages e.g. an 85-year old couple who had begun backpacking only 5 years previously – life confirming and living proof that it’s never too late to change and try something new. Considering how much I have travelled, I’ve met fairly few families (almost always with young children) likely because most families prefer comfort/facilities where I prefer simple/primitive. Many parents feel uncomfortable by the thought of travelling with young children, but when talking to people who do it, they experience the kids to be a great way to meet locals and more often, they encounter more hospitality than other travellers do. Most kids are much better at adapting than adults, so changing circumstances are rarely a problem unless the parents believe it is. If you do decide to travel with your kids, I recommend starting at a very early age and as primitive as you like it – if they get used to “convenient” travelling, it will be a challenge convincing them to go hiking or camping at a later stage.  

Most long-distance bicyclists I’ve met were solo cyclists or two friends travelling together - only a few couples and only once a family (again, I see no reason not to take your kids biking but start at a fairly early age). Occasionally, I’ve met two women bicycling together and couple of times a single woman but the vast majority are men.

Q: How would you want your eulogy to read? And do you feel that you are living your life in a way that fits that?

Firstly, I want to be burned and my ashes scattered somewhere in nature, so there won’t be a tombstone to write on. Secondly, I honestly don't care about my eulogy, as I'll be dead – what good is a legacy when you're dead. What is important to me is becoming the best version of myself, when I’m alive. To live in the moment; not in the past or in the future. Considering adversity is a learning opportunity, focusing on staying positive and on possibilities - and on finding the good things in everyday experiences. If every day for the rest of my life is a good day it's a good life.

The easiest way to happiness and success (in my own eyes – not society’s) is doing what I'm passionate about (at any given time). Success implies more success and happiness implies more happiness – a positive spiral emerges. Success and happiness are decisive for my self-esteem and well-being and these are decisive for my self-image (my identity), and how I treat other people.

I never stop reflecting upon the purpose of my life, and what I want to achieve in life before I die – not in respect of (outer) material wealth but regarding (inner) personal growth (my destiny). I have limited and unknown time on earth, so life is all about making decisions and prioritising. If I'm unhappy with something, I take action instead of complaining – blaming others for my problems and unhappiness solves nothing. Besides doing nothing (which is not a solution), there are only 3 (universal) possible solutions to any challenge:

  • Either I accept what I'm unhappy about and let it go (in my heart, mind and stomach)
  • I change it or
  • I walk away from it.

In separate sections, you can read much more about my Philosophy of life and Motivation.

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