Travel writers always talk about what to do when you travel. It’s all must-see attractions and things to do. Go here, do this, see that, act this way.
But what about all the things you shouldn’t do on the road?
There are plenty of travel mistakes travelers make that lead to wasted money, lost time, and missed opportunities. It’s easy to say what to do, but we sometimes to forget to mention the don’ts.
A lot of the old conventional travel wisdom (using traveler’s checks or booking early) is out of date in an increasingly digital and connected world. I believe that by not telling travelers “Hey, don’t do this anymore” we keep a lot of myths going strong. We insiders know the tricks, but unless we tell the general public, they won’t!
So today, I want to share some of the common travel mistakes you should avoid. I’ve made many of these mistakes in the past, but doing things wrong shows you how to do them right.
If you avoid these common mistakes, you’ll be traveling cheaper, smarter, and longer.
1. DON’T eat near a major tourist site
The food near any major attraction is going to be double the price and half the flavor of what you’ll find elsewhere. When restaurants know people aren’t coming back, they don’t have to worry about consistent quality. And anyways, what do tourists know about quality local food, right? They just arrived. It’s all amazing to them, and many are happy to return home talking about how they ate “amazing” pizza in front of the Colosseum. Restaurants lack the incentive to be top-notch.
However, local, nontouristy restaurants must be high quality or else locals will stop going there. These places can’t get by serving slop. Instead of eating in a tourist trap, walk at least five blocks away from one. The further away you are, the more local, cheaper, and tastier the food will be. Avoid restaurants with glossy menus in multiple languages. That’s a sure sign of a tourist trap.
If you aren’t comfortable walking into a random restaurant, you can also use these websites to find out what the locals are rating highly:
- Yelp – People offer reviews and ratings here, so you can figure out what’s good on the menu or if the restaurant is worth visiting at all.
- Foursquare – Foursquare works the same as Yelp. The mobile app lets you search nearby restaurants or eateries.
- OpenRice – Like Yelp and Foursquare, but for Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, and the Philippines.
Another great way I find local eateries is to walk into hostels and ask them what is good. Even if you aren’t staying there, they are a wealth of information and usually will happily point you in the right direction!
2. DON’T exchange money at the airport
You’ll get the worst exchange rates if you do. You’re better off lighting your money on fire. To get the best rates, use an ATM or credit card. This is will be as close to the interbank rate as you can get and ensures that you are not getting ripped off.
Never exchange cash unless you absolutely have to (and there are times when you have to). I once had to exchange cash in an airport in Romania when my ATM card didn’t work, but that was an emergency. If you do need to exchange money, try to do so at a bank downtown where you’ll get better rates and fewer fees. But stick to plastic as much as possible.
3. DON’T bring traveler’s checks
Traveler’s checks are checks issued by banks for a predetermined value that allow the bearer to exchange the check for cash anywhere in the world. In the time before widespread ATM and credit card acceptance, it was the best way for travelers to have access to money without carrying a lot of cash. They are absolutely useless these days, with few banks willing to accept them and offering little protection if they are lost or stolen. There’s no need to use them anymore.
4. DON’T use a bank card with fees
I don’t like giving banks my money. I’d rather use it for travel, and it’s been years since I paid a bank fee of any kind. Get a bank and credit card that has no foreign transaction fees so you can avoid ATM fees and other surcharges.
In the United States, my favorites are Charles Schwab for a no-fee ATM card and Barclays Arrival Plus World Mastercard for the simplest no-foreign-transaction-fee credit card because you can earn points with it. There are a lot of non-fee options out there so be sure to look around.
5. DON’T look at only US-based search engines
All search engines have blind spots, no matter where they are in the world, but by limiting your searching to only the large search engines, you are reducing the chance you’ll find a deal. Many sites don’t feature smaller budget airlines or seasonal carriers. While no flight search website is the best 100% of the time, avoid sticking to just Kayak or Expedia — expand your horizons. I always start with these three when I look for cheap flights:
- Momondo – This is my all time favorite search engine. They always seem to find airlines that offer the best deals and their calendar view lets you see which days are cheapest to fly. I like them because they search the small booking sites no one else does.
- Google Flights – One of the best flight search engines out there, Google Flights lets you enter your departure airport and see flights all over the world in a map so you can see where the cheapest destination in.
- Skyscanner – This great website searches a lot of different airlines, including many of the budget carriers that larger sites miss.
6. DON’T skip travel insurance
It may seem like a ridiculous added expense, but travel is about the unknown, and you never know what can happen on the road. You can break a leg, lose a camera, pop an eardrum scuba diving, or have to leave a country because of a natural disaster. Travel insurance protects you when you are overseas and shouldn’t be avoided — it’s the smart thing to get. It is there to protect you from both medical and non-medical emergencies.
If something does happen to you and you don’t have insurance, it can cost thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket expenses. I had a friend let her insurance lapse because she wasn’t using it; she later broke an arm in South America. It cost her thousands in doctor’s fees.