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23 Travel Hacks You Need to Know

By David Jenison on June 12, 2019

Whether you are a backpacker, flashpacker or first-class jetsetter, any road-tested wanderer should be suspicious of anyone claiming to know "pro" travel hacks. Let's face it, many travel journalists write pieces based on rehashed online research or carefully crafted press junkets. In contrast, the following tips stem from a four-year backpacking journey that included jails, scams, fights, theft and attempted muggings, and they go beyond basic recommendations like applying for Global Entry or downloading the Mobile Passport app, which we assume you have already. This is a list for people who already travel like pros. So if you're committed to all-inclusive resorts and checking out American fast-food joints overseas, you can stop reading now. 

1. Stash your bills like buds

On the backpacker trail, the stickiest fingers belong to housekeepers, law enforcement, baggage handlers and dorm mates, but even the most indiscriminate thief will draw the line at a used pit-stick. You've got a better chance of losing your Nickelback cassette. Head shops sell deodorant sticks, shaving cream cans and even lint brushes that contain secret compartments for stashing your organic green. Why not store your cash there instead (or as well). 

2. Channel your inner-hipster and buy local

Morocco is one of the largest producers of cannabis and hashish, and Barcelona is arguably the new Amsterdam for cannabis culture, but don't risk taking North African kif into Spain. What might be tolerated in the big cities is often hit hard if caught going through customs. Don't take the risk. Buy local.

3. Orega-nooooo!!

Now about the local buy… make sure you are getting the real thing. Many locals will sell you the worst dirt weed or even oregano, so don't rush the deal. Maybe even ask to sample the product. If the setup is too sketchy or rushed to do it right, wait until your next opportunity. 

4. If ya gotta…

In terms of cannabis use, don't take the risk in countries like Indonesia, Singapore and (for the love of god) the Philippines. If you absolutely must cross borders, go with an edible that you can hide in a container with other candies. For example, consider chopping up Kushy Punch squares and adding them to regular store-bought jellies. Just make sure it's an edible that doesn't easily melt or that someone might be overly motivated to steal. 

5. Business in the front, party out back

Billy Ray Cyrus made the world's worst haircut even worse, but keeping the business upfront makes sense when it comes to cards and cash. Getting your pockets picked is a lot easier and more common than you might think, so always keep valuables in your front pockets when going out at night. Likewise, don't bring all your cards and cash, just what you will need for that night. If taking a wallet, still keep it in one of your front pockets, but take some/most of your cash out and put it in the other. Privately transfer money back to the wallet as needed, keeping in mind that the wallet is a primary target for pickpockets. If you don't already have one, consider opening a second account with another bank and deposit at least $1,000 in emergency money, and always keep the backup card in a secure spot wherever you're staying.

6. Pack your pockets

Ibiza, Carnival, concerts and other packed places attract pickpockets, and tourists squeezing through crowds often feel a barrage of hands reaching into every pocket. Skilled thieves can even pilfer front pockets and undercover money belts. To minimize risk, put your valuables in your front pocket(s), and then top the pocket off with a strand of cloth. Ideally cut a piece of cloth from an old T-shirt or rag, but in a pinch, a wadded up paper towel can work. When the pickpocket starts to pull on the cloth, you are more likely to sense what's happening. 

7. Be a copycat!

Stolen passports can go for a grand on the black market. Before the trip, make multiple color copies of your passport photo page and the visa page (if the country requires one). Explore the town with the copy, and keep the original secured wherever you are staying. This is a common practice so most places accept the copy, but if worried about age checks, bring another government-issued ID (like a driver's license) as well.

8. Runaway bribe

In countries with weak governance, bribes are often an unfortunate way of life, and police officers in particular can be fond of a shakedown. Assuming you keep your passport copy and/or ID in your wallet, this is another reason to keep most of your cash in another pocket or hidden somewhere else on your body, especially if walking in public at night. In some cases, a bribe might be the lesser of two evils, and the code phrase is typically something like, "Maybe there is a way we can settle this." If you get fleeced and wish to retaliate, look for a name tag or other way to identify the individual(s), and report it to your embassy in that country. To assess potential risk before a trip, check out the online Corruption Perception Index (not looking good, Somalia). Along these lines, avoid wearing fancy clothes, jewelry, watches, etc. in countries with high corruption rates. 

9. WTF ATM

All travelers have been there: The first ATM rejects your card, so you must keep searching until you find an ATM that does. Well, the smart traveler will keep a journal of all cash withdrawals, including failed attempts. Even though you didn't get the cash, your bank might have still deducted the amount from your balance. Seriously. Argentina is a place where this can be a problem. Each week or month, check your online balance against the journal, and inform your bank about any issues. This writer got back around a thousand dollars doing this, but it took losing more than that to realize the need for a journal.

10. The taxi tax

Taxi drivers typically suck overseas. That's one reason most airports have a set taxi rate going into the city. When inside the city already, try to use a service like Uber, and if you don't have phone service, use the hotel or hostel WiFi to order the car and then head outside when it arrives. If taxis are the only option, try to get an idea of the fare, or follow the route on the map to make the driver doesn't take you a longer route. Finally, when you arrive at your destination with luggage in the trunk, do not exit the taxi until after the driver gets out. If you jump right out the taxi, you run the risk (and this really does happen) of the driver taking off with all your goods. 

11. Big Wiki style

When traveling overseas, online sites like Expedia often exclude the cheaper national airlines. Certainly try out aggregators like Justfly and Skyscanner (but never ever use ExploreTrip), but visit the airport entry on Wikipedia to see what airlines it services. The Wiki entry typically includes all carriers, and you can often find domestic companies with cheaper fares that you won't find on the big travel sites. On longer flights that involve a connection, you can also take advantage of lower fares by booking separate legs, though you would be responsible for missing connections if a flight leg is delayed. 

12. The border discount

If you are on a serious budget, consider taking national flights to the border, crossing via taxi, and then catch a second national flight at the destination country's border town. This requires several additional steps, but the cost can be a fraction of the price for tax-heavy international travel. This hack is especially helpful in South America. 

13. Wait 'til Wednesday

As a general rule, the best time to buy plane tickets is between Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday night. There will be outliers, so set up fare alerts and check daily, but airlines tend to run promotions midweek. What day should you fly? Some people say Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays, but many argue the flight days don't really matter. Exceptions exist, e.g., flying to Las Vegas on a Friday will be more expensive, but the travel days don't matter for most destinations. 

14. X Marks the Benjamin

ATMs love to dispense big bills, and dishonest cashiers might short tourists on their change or claim the tourist paid with a smaller note. To reduce the risk of potential shortchanging (even if accidental), break larger notes at the hotel, a bank or in a nicer restaurant, and then pay with smaller notes and always stay alert during transactions. Likewise, write your initials in small letters on larger bills so that you have a potential way to reclaim them and/or prove that you paid with a larger denomination. 

15. Travelers go crazy for a sharp-dressed scam 

In La Paz, Bolivia, a young boy runs/rides past you and splatters/throws something on your shirt, and a well-dressed man in a suit appears to apologize and help clean the mess. In Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, the well-dressed man—known as Liar, Liar to the locals—says without accent that he just got robbed and needs $40 to get his family to the airport and back home. In Brazil, it might be a request to buy powdered milk for the person's baby. In each case, you got scammed. The Bolivian stole your wallet, the Puerto Rican lied to get a handout, and the Brazilian got crack in exchange for the powdered milk, which dealers use to transport drugs. The point: Always expect a scam, even when the person dresses well.  

16. From Russia with loot

Watching Putin smile warmly when he met Trump at the G20 seemed surreal knowing that Russians rarely smile with people they don't know. Russians can be extremely friendly in private, but they see smiling at unfamiliar people in public as a sign of craziness, not friendliness. In other words, don't trust the smile. This is an important lesson for men visiting Russia, Ukraine and other Eastern European countries. If an Eastern European women smiles at you in a bar or club, she's probably trying to extract cash from you, and many clubs have a system for doing so. You will likely offer to buy her a drink, which she'll order herself, and the cost of that drink will be astronomical. As you might have guessed, you won't get any love, but she'll get a kickback. What should you do? For starters, don't come to Eastern Europe with a bachelor's party mindset, and if you meet a girl that you like, invite her to lunch/dinner the next day and go from there. 

17. Pack smart

For backpackers hitting the road on international travel and staying primarily at hostels, certain non-traditional travel items can be a godsend. For starters, bring a bottle opener that you always carry with you. In countries where you can consume alcohol on the street, you might want to grab a few six packs and hit the beach or a park, and an opener saves you the trouble of pulling a drunk MacGyver on the bottles. Most people know to bring a wall socket converter, but also take a thin power strip with surge protection. This way you can charge all your electronics at once with less risk of a damaging power surge. At the risk of making people cringe, bring Imodium or some other anti-diarrheal medicine. The runs are a reality in developing countries, and there's nothing worse than being on a bus or tour when nature makes a collect call. Always bring wipes, especially if you plan to use the community computer at a hostel. You'll want to wipe that keyboard down before using it. And speaking of community computers, ALWAYS double check that you logout of all email, social media, etc. before leaving a community computer. Finally, for all trips lasting less than a few weeks, try to avoid checking bags. It's likely cheaper to pay to have your clothes washed than to pay $100 or so to check a bag both ways. Utilizing a carry on also saves time at baggage claim, you can arrive at the airport later and there's less risk of theft. 

18. Beware of the Lonely Planet surcharge

Many backpackers live and die by the Lonely Planet, and while it can be helpful in connecting with a particular type of traveler, it is not always reliable. The information is often years old, and in some cases, the property changes hands (possibly sold at a premium thanks to the listing), or the owners simply stop trying now that the guide provides them with a steady flow of traffic. Hostelworld can be even worse since its online system allows for fake reviews, and the company seems to care more about the advertising hostels than it users. Combat these problems by always checking multiple sources, avoiding high-rated spots with only a few reviews and always asking other travelers for recommendations. 

19. Don't be afraid of the big, bad bus

The bus system is better in some countries than others, and it's surprisingly epic in much of Spanish-speaking South America (but definitely not in Bolivia). Some companies offer first-class service (think wine, giant seats, hot meals) at reasonable prices (which typically sell out several days in advance), and the big city stations tend to be central (unlike the airports). Obviously this does not apply to the U.S., but when overseas, look into the bus systems, especially if headed to cities that are less than five hours away by car. 

20. Fit for a foodie

Those willing to invest in culinary adventures often start with the Michelin Guide and the 50 Best Restaurants list and then work their way down. Sure, it's worth visiting top spots like Osteria Francescana, but veteran gastronauts know to look at the list in a different way. While most people focus on the current placement, experienced foodies (lame word) look at how many spots the restaurants rose or fell year over year. A restaurant that jumped 20 spots or earned its second Michelin star is likely better than a higher-rated restaurant that dropped spots or just lost its third star. Other tips? Search out future stars like Lûmé (photo featured here) in Melbourne or Disfrutar in Barcelona before the lists and guides oversaturate them. Book hot spots way in advance—and this might mean a year in advance for a top fine-dining establishment—knowing that you can always cancel a week or so ahead. If a reservation is not available, ask about a waitlist since many people do cancel. Finally, always include local street food in most cities as it often provides a more authentic look at the regional gastronomy. 

21. The upgrade challenge

Pre-9/11, Huey Morgan of the Fun Lovin' Criminals recommended getting upgrades by telling check-in agents you have blood clots in your knee and need an aisle with the most legroom. That might've worked in the '90s, but in an era of overbooked flights and airline-branded credit cards, it might get you booted off a flight. Others suggest simply asking the agent if it's possible to get a complimentary upgrade, but most agents don't give a fuck about your discomfort. Here are two options, though, that might work. First, consider telling the agent that you work for an airline yourself and ask if he or she would consider giving you an upgrade as a professional courtesy. Just be prepared to answer casual questions about your job. Second, wait until you are in the plane, see if there are any empty seats in business or first class, and then ask a flight attendant. Better yet, buy a Starbucks gift card beforehand and sweetly ask, "Any chance I can bribe you with a gift card to take one of those empty seats?" Don't underestimate the power of freebies for an attendant who's surely underpaid and overworked. 

22. Go the extra mile

You probably need to fly in a private jet to join the 420 Mile High Club, but for membership to the original club, airplane-bathroom sex can be tricky and risky. The bathrooms tend to be cramped and disgusting, and the airline could cause problems if you're caught. If you want to try anyway, current members often suggest redeye flights, but also consider making a move during meal service. Think about it: The flight attendants are at their busiest, and many people stay in their seats since the aisles are typically blocked. At the risk of stating the obvious, it helps if you preplan and wear sweatpants since they'll be easier to pull down and back up. Likewise, consider bringing an airsickness bag from your seat and filling it with paper towels so it appears you were in the bathroom together because one of you got sick. And if a disapproving flight attendant is waiting outside, just hold up the bag and ask where you should toss it. 

23. Have a happy and magical time

Lastly, on the food tip, watch for code words like "happy" and "magic" if looking to get high. In Cambodia, a happy pizza is one in which the cook shreds cannabis buds in a coffee bean grinder and then spreads them across the pie before adding the cheese. Magic, meanwhile, is a near-universal code for psychedelics when paired with mushrooms, which typically come in a bowl (though I once visited a eatery that served magic mushroom pizza). Likewise, some places (e.g., the Smoking Pot restaurant in Battambang) have key words that suggest off-menu items available to those who politely ask. 

David Jenison (david@prohbtd.com) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD. Photo credits: Lume, tommyk_421/flickrSerbia Tourism Bureau, Shutterstock/Steven Bostock, Flickr/Ryan Kartzke and NYC & Company.





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