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I’m in the middle of 18 months of travel. I live out of a suitcase and change beds every few days or few months. Here are some of my top travel tips that I use to enjoy my trips more. Test them out for yourself.

How to Always Stay Connected

Specifically I want data and text capability. Here’s how I always have data and text for a low price:

PLAN A: Travelers Should Be T-Mobile Customers

T-Mobile’s basic plans that have no contract include free data and free texting in 120+ countries. If you don’t have a compelling reason you have to use a different carrier, sign up for T-Mobile.

The data you get in other countries is throttled for speed to about “Edge” levels. It’s way too slow to watch a video, but it is plenty fast to load routes on your map, send emails, and send iMessages or WhatsApp messages. This is the basic level of data I need, and for more intensive uses, I wait for free wifi, which is only getting more and more common.

I had heard–I don’t remember where–that a T-Mobile plan cancels if you leave the United States for six consecutive weeks, but that isn’t the case. I’ve been out of the US for 57 days straight now with no interruption of my free data.

Occasionally the country I’m in will not be on the T-Mobile free list, like Serbia where I am going this week. In that case, Plan B.

PLAN B: Get a Local SIM Card

If you want faster data or to make a lot of phone calls, get a local SIM card. I’ve done this in several countries, and it is usually a 15 minute trip to the local cellular company’s store with your passport and costs only a few dollars for the SIM and much cheaper than you’re expecting for data and calls. For instance, in Argentina, a SIM from Claro is about $1 and unlimited data is about 25 cents per day.

You do need an unlocked phone to be able to just pop a new SIM card in and go.

PLAN C: Google Maps Download

Sometimes you can’t get free data, and your trip is so short that it’s impractical to get a local SIM. In that case, I just download the relevant Google Maps for where I’ll be, and then put my phone in airplane mode.

You can either download local Google Maps by opening up the city and zooming in and out on different areas while on wifi and then closing Google Maps or by following this process. In either case, the maps will be available offline, and your blue GPS dot is always available offline because GPS is a separate thing from data.

You cannot ask the Google Maps for directions offline, but you can see where you are, where you’re going, and eyeball the route yourself.

PLAN D: McDonald’s Wifi

Almost everywhere has wifi nowadays, but some of it is password protected and to get that password you need to buy something. Skip that wifi and walk to McDonald’s–there’s 10 near you in the touristy part of any European city–where the wifi has no password.

Text Like a Local

WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, iMessage

In the US, most people use text messages. In most of the world, people use messages that aren’t technically text messages, instead relying on their data allotment.

In South America, Spain, and many other places, people use WhatsApp, a program that is free for a year, then costs $1. In other countries, they use a different messaging app. Most places also use Facebook Messenger at least secondarily, and iMessage between iPhone users is the same principle.

Even if you get free texts, the person you are texting might not. They will prefer to use one of these services, which are free per message. Figure out the appropriate program for the country you’re visiting and download it before you go.

Meet Your Friends

Your long lost friend might live in a city you’re visiting. Meeting up with friends while I travel is always a highlight, but I can’t keep track of where everyone lives. Enter Facebook.

In the search bar, just type “my friends who live in [place]”.

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Facebook will find your friends who list that place as their current city.

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You can also search “my friends who visited [place].” Many of those people will not live where you’re going, but you can get travel tips.

Meeting Locals and Other Travelers

CouchSurfing Events and Messages

CouchSurfing lets travelers stay with locals for free. I covered that here. Not everyone wants to stay at someone else’s house. Even I prefer more privacy and quiet these days, so I can work, but I still use CouchSurfing in every city.

First, I check the local events to see if any interest me. Here are some upcoming events in Belgrade.

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In general, I find the playing sports events to be more fun than the bigger language exchanges/city meetings, which are more fun than the smaller ones. Through CouchSurfing events I found awesome groups that played Ultimate Frisbee weekly in Argentina and volleyball weekly in Madrid.

I also send messages to people on CouchSurfing who look fun. I tell them I already have an apartment lined up, but I am just looking for some local knowledge. If they want to show me their favorite place in the city, I’ll buy them a beer. That gets a great response and leads to some delicious restaurants, local bars, and other off-the-beaten-path opportunities.

InterNations Events and Message Boards

InterNations is similar to CouchSurfing except its members are expats not locals and are 10-20 years older on average. I’ve used the message board for a city to find a tennis partner, and I’ve gone to some of the more promising events, which are usually food and wine based.

[city] [day of week]

If you want to meet locals out, search “[city] [day of week]” and wade through the results to see what bars are the it places on a Tuesday or whatever night you’re looking.

Local Info

Local Transport App

Most bus and subway systems have apps with route maps and GPS tracking to tell you exactly what bus/train to take, when it arrives, and where to transfer. Google Maps usually has the route info and timetables, but not the actual GPS data, which is more important because the buses/trains are rarely right on time.

Yelp Restaurants Open Now

The curse of the traveler is being hungry at weird times either through jet lag or different cultures’ dinner times.

Yelp’s app lets you sort by restaurants that are open now. Search for restaurants in a city, set Open Now as a Filter, and then re-check the results.

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Voila, all the restaurants open at 3 AM in Houston.Screen Shot 2015-07-06 at 3.02.04 PM

Unfortunately Yelp is not available everywhere, and I can’t find a reliable way on Google, Google Maps, or Trip Advisor to search restaurants that are open now.

Cheap Private Rooms

Airbnb Rentals

I’ve covered Airbnb before. It is my main source of lodging because it is cheap, located exactly where you want to stay, and you can get as much space and as big of a kitchen as you want.

Full post: How Airbnb Works (Plus a $25 Credit You Can Use for Your First Stay)

Hostel Private Rooms

Even cheaper than Airbnb and just as private: book a private room at a hostel. I did this for $12 in Siem Reap, Cambodia while visiting Angkor Wat.

Save Big on Currency Conversion

In countries with a black market for dollars like Argentina or Venezuela, changing cash is definitely your best option.

But normally, ATMs are your best option as long as you can avoid ATM fees. I have an ATM card that charges no ATM fees, no foreign exchange fees, and even refunds the fee from any ATM I use.

Full post: How I Pay Zero ATM Fees Worldwide

What Can’t You Get or Will Be Inconvenient to Get?

I travel with chili powder, sriracha, a frisbee, and batteries everywhere I go.

Chili is so American that it’s rare to find chili powder anywhere outside the country. Even the constituent spice are hard to find in many places, so I travel with my own.

South America and Eastern Europe don’t eat much spicy food, so most grocery stores have terrible options for hot sauces. I carry my own sriracha. When I run out on the road, I google “[city] Chinatown” because you can almost always find it at Asian grocery stores.

Frisbees don’t take up much space and are the perfect thing to carry to the park. Buying one abroad is not usually easy.

Batteries are super easy to buy abroad and heavy, but batteries usually die when I am in my apartment and do not want to leave it, so I carry 2 AA and 2 AAA for my razor and remotes.

The Biggest Tip

When you’re in a city and have to go, find a casino. Casinos generally have very clean bathrooms, especially in cities where that is rare. This has saved me in Peru and Kenya.

 

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