Nicolas Bouliane

Assorted travel advice Posted on

This is an assortment of travel tips I have picked up over the years. Most of it is geared toward long-distance solo travel.

Planning

Most travel advice is written by travel bloggers or content marketers. The former spent two weeks in the country and the latter never left their office. They rehash the same recommendations as countless other blogs.

ChatGPT gives you rehashed advice with half the fuss.

Use Weatherspark to look up historical weather where you’re going, and Ventusky to check weather once you get there. If you’re going to bike across a country in 30ºC, 70% humidity weather, don’t pack a leather jacket and an oversized hoodie.

A good book about your destination infuses your experience with nuance and understanding. Look for evocative books like Maximum City or Stasiland. In a pinch, try the Very Short Introductions series, or at least the Wikipedia page about the region.

Calm down, pace yourself. The world seems small when you can pan across continents with the flick of a finger, but it’s unfathomably big under your feet. Triple the time you think you’ll need to cover great distances. Better linger than rush.

A friend and I dashed across 8 countries in 9 days. It was a blur of highways, truck stops and motels. We spent a few hours in cities that deserved all 9 days for themselves. I regret going so fast.

On other occasions, fate had me spend long time in unexpected places: a rabies scare in Georgia, a motorcycle crash in Tajikistan. Despite the circumstances, those are the places I remember the most fondly. The friendships I made there – just by being stopped for too long – altered the trip beyond recognition.

Money

Your riches are of little use if you can’t access them. Accounts get locked, wallets get lost, money gets stolen, cards get declined. You have to prepare for this.

Carry two different bank cards from two different banks, and ideally two different payment networks. I lost two credit cards abroad. My MasterCard was declined more often than I can count. Now I keep my eggs in different baskets.

Always have cash on you. In a pinch, US dollars will save your ass. My friend’s spent the last cents of a $100 bill on the cup of petrol that got us out of Uzbekistan. Visa and MasterCard – ATMs, even – are not as universal as you might think.

The tax office froze my bank account once. It was clerical mistake on their end, and it took a week to fix. I could not withdraw money or even pay the rent. In situations like these, you want to have enough cash to keep going.

But flashing a wad of cash is a foolish thing to do, especially where bribery is commonplace. Keep a few notes in your wallet, and hide the rest at the bottom of your luggage.

A few years ago, I spent half an hour in a police car explaining to a cop with whom I shared no common language that if I gave him my last few tenge, I’d run out of fuel in the middle of the desert. I showed him my nearly empty wallet. The bribe whittled from 200 US dollars to a single 500 tenge note – about a dollar. I had a few times that in my panniers.

Safety

Be aware of the common tourist scams in the areas you visit.

Hold onto your passport, and don’t give it unless absolutely necessary. People can and will use it to hold you hostage. I give my driving licence, my residence permit or a photocopy whenever I can. Those are easier to replace.

Flights

Book directly from the airline. Never use OTAs like Kiwi, Opodo, Expedia and the rest. Everybody learns this lesson one way or another.

Online travel agents make dealing with the airline or hotel harder, they have abysmal customer service, and they take forever to issue tickets or process refunds.

Tech

Prepare to lose your phone. If it means losing access to your bank and a bunch of critical websites, prepare workarounds.

Keep your two-factor authentication keys in a second place. Aegis lets you backup your 2FA keys to the cloud. Keepass too. You can also keep a printed copy somewhere.

Avoid SMS-based two-factor authentication. I lose access to my business bank when I travel because I don’t receive the login codes. I once dropped my phone in a lake and lost access to both my bank accounts. At least I was at home!

A local SIM card is almost always worth it. Solving small problems is much easier with an internet connection. Save your energy for bigger problems. I made my way from Europe to Central Asia and back without a SIM card, but now it’s the first thing I get when I land. It costs about the same as a hot meal, and brings at least as much comfort.

Nowadays, you can buy an eSIM in advance, and use it as soon as you land. It’s more convenient than the telecom kiosks at the airport.

Finding your way

Google Maps is not great for hiking, cycling or more elaborate routing. OsmAnd is a far more detailed map with a lot of powerful features. It lets create very specific routes and shows you bike paths, elevation, surface type, and a lot more. I cannot overstate how useful it is.

Learn to navigate with the sun. It rises in the east, slowly arcs across the sky, and sets in the west. At noon, it’s south if you’re in the Northern Hemisphere and north if you’re in the Southern Hemisphere. With a little practice, you can passively keep track of your bearing.

Resilience

Reset frequently. By that I mean: eat, rest, charge your devices, dry your clothes, do your laundry and plan for the days ahead. A stitch in time saves nine.

Long-distance travel is a matter of maintenance. If you neglect it for too long, minor snag can snowball into catastrophes. The flat tire is not a problem, unless your phone is dead, you’re short on cash and your clothes are wet.

Mental health

Maintenance isn’t just for your gear. Take care of yourself too. The right mindset will take you further than the best gear.

Travel fatigue can make you an idle, apathetic mess. It comes to me as an acute case of decision fatigue. I long for the comfort of familiarity and routine. I usually take this as my cue to wrap up the trip and head home, but sometimes warm curry grounds me all the same.

Remember that a trip is a vacation. Allow yourself to sleep in and to linger in nice places with a good book. Indulge in idleness and small rituals; no one is judging you.

Speaking of judgement, go easy on social media. Be there, have a good time, and don’t worry about proving it.

When things go south and a rift grows between reality and the carefully curated narrative you put out, you might feel as if you’re failing to live up to your own standards. It’s not a good place to be in, and it can be hard to seek help.

It’s hard enough to be a sad, homesick mess with fluids coming out both ends. You shouldn’t have to keep up with the expectations of your audience on top of it.

On the other hand, a travel journal is a fantastic idea. You can capture how a trip feels in the moment with unmatched fidelity. It feels good to unwind, and later you can laugh at your misadventures. My travel diaries were the inspiration behind the timeline thing.