Looking Back: Travel Tips for My 20-Year-Old Self

Solo Travel, Traveling Solo & Together — By on June 4, 2012 at 9:50 pm

By Kirsten Hubbard

Special to The Lost Girls 

I backpacked for the first time at age 20—six weeks through Central America, with not nearly enough Spanish under my belt. Now, as a young adult author, that first trip was where I drew my inspiration when writing my novel, “Wanderlove.” But unlike Bria, my book’s 18-year-old protagonist, I didn’t have a pair of experienced backpackers showing me the ropes.

While most of my travel wisdom has been gleaned from travelers before me through internet research, guidebooks, and the like, a substantial portion was learned on the road—and occasionally that meant the hard way. I’ve gotten into plenty of sketchy situations, though I’m fortunate to have avoided anything major. But I’ve been swindled, pickpocketed, and lost in unpleasant places. A number of those incidents could have been avoided had I known then what I know now. So, to my 20-year-old self, here’s the advice I’d give her if I could.

Trust your instincts

This is number one. If something about a situation or person (fellow traveler or local) feels unsettling, shady, or just not-quite-right—even in a way you can’t explain—trust yourself. Don’t rationalize. Don’t just go with it, because it’s travel and travel is serendipity, right? Not if your Spidey sense is pushing you in the opposite direction. Often, we’re subconsciously picking up signals that don’t register as danger until later, when looking back. So trust your gut. And pick up a copy of Gavin de Becker’s “The Gift of Fear,” a book every woman should read.

Don’t be afraid to be rude

This goes for everybody but particularly young women. For much of our lives, we’re taught to be nice and polite and avoid confrontation—even when confrontation is needed. When you’re traveling, sometimes you’re faced with aggressive salesmen, tour operators, or cab drivers. They descend upon you when you’ve just arrived in a new destination and not yet oriented to your new surroundings. Many receive kickbacks for your business, which is why they’re so in-your-face. Worse, they often lie: I’ve been told that hotels are no good, or in unsafe areas of town, when neither is true.

Here’s the thing: You don’t have to engage them. You can ignore them. Just walk away. I hereby give you permission. If you’ve done your research—and I hope you have!—you can trust it more than some fast-talking guy off the street.

Keep an eye on your stuff

Obvious, right? But when you’re traveling, so often you’re exhausted or distracted, especially in crowded places—which happen to be hotbeds for pickpockets. Wear your daypack in front or your bag with the strap across your chest instead of over your shoulder. If it’s not deathly hot, wear the strap under your sweater or jacket. If you keep a wallet in your pocket, never store anything valuable in it, and keep on you no more cash than you can afford to lose. In shared dorms, use your locker, and check if you can store valuables like laptops at the front desk.

Make the first move

Backpacker culture is celebrated for its camaraderie. But backpackers can also be kind of standoffish, at least at first. It’s kind of a defense mechanism that goes with the lifestyle: meeting new people daily and staying safe. When you’re the new kid at the hostel, and everyone else seems to know each other, don’t hang back. Make the first move! It’s like starting college—the getting-to-know-you questions are easy. “Where you from?’ is always a good start. Ask how long they’ve been traveling, where they’ve been, where they’re heading next. On the travel circuit, everyone has great stories—including you.

Write stuff down

I don’t mean lengthy, lyrical descriptions of the scenery, although those are nice too. I mean all that fleeting information you pick up along the way. For example, sometimes I’ll choose my next accommodations at an internet café, and feel totally certain I’ll remember the details. Well, following a couple bus rides, I almost always forget. Write it down. Not just business or place names, but all the information you find—name, address, directions, phone number. Showing that info to a cab driver has gotten me out of a couple sticky situations.

Take food risks!

…Within reason. Some of my best meals have been from street vendors. Like those tiny Thai pancakes made with coconut cream…yum. Or quesillos in Granada, Nicaragua, (easy on the onions). Street food is simply the best way to experience local cuisine—at local prices. But as always, use your best judgment. Is it a popular food cart? Does the food look fresh? Great. Has the meat been sitting out? Are those…flies? Definitely not so great!

Be extra careful when you go out

I’m fortunate that I didn’t learn this one the hard way, but I know people who have. Watch your drink—that means never set it down—and don’t accept drinks from strangers. Also, don’t drink too much. I know it’s easier said than done when you’re at that epic full moon party, but you need to be able to maintain good judgment, and get out of a bad situation in a pinch. Also, hangovers in tropical climates are the worst.

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A travel writer and young adult author, Kirsten Hubbard has danced in a Serbian nightclub (self-consciously), been slapped in the face by a Thai monkey, discovered all manner of alarming insects in hostel beds (including tarantulas), and greeted the sunrise from atop the highest temple at Guatemala’s Tikal ruins. She prefers backpacks over suitcases, takes sketchbooks on every trip, and has served as the Guide to Central America Travel for About.com since 2006. She is also the author of LIKE MANDARIN and WANDERLOVE, both available from Delacorte Press. When she’s not off wandering, she lives in San Diego.