I accidentally just brought five tonnes of plums and other travel practicalities.

Well colour me exotic this here may well be my first ‘practical’ post, because let’s face it travel isn’t all spectacular views and meeting those one night only alcoholic soul chums.  It’s quite a lot of remembering you left your pants drying on the radiator at home, or wondering why you brought that 50litre bag along when carrying your granny holding all your possessions would have been lighter.  So, in a wholly unscientific manner here are five things to remember, because after some memorable experiences they are certainly things I can’t forget:

1)    Take a small bag! I understand that you may be going for several months and you want to be prepared, but you won’t necessarily be any more so even with that behemoth and no matter how tight you pull the straps it’s going to make you ache like a motherflipper.  After a while it’ll hurt to just look at it and you’ll burn your travel insurance and hope some-one steals it, knowing that young and infirm thieves are unlikely to be able to shoulder the burden.

After taking a 30litre bag (I’m 5”2) on a 4month trip to Kenya and finding it a misery though a beautifully suitable environment for the small and scuttley, I have sworn off bags larger than a school rucksack.  I understand this may be excessively small for some, and fair play, I also don’t pretend there’s much chance of me squeezing in souvenirs for the return journey but as a base line it might be wise to take a smaller bag than you first plum for.  You will not regret it.

2)    Limit your clothing!  In order to help with the previous point its worth engaging the thought bladder and getting clever about your clobber.  I can’t lie I’m no fashionista, but even the sassily stylish would do well to slim down the kit.

As a rule – and when not going in to a severe environment that requires specialist clothing- I suggest taking: a multi-purpose trouser for general walking and potential sports; a skirt or pair of decent shorts for an additional practical garment which also functions as an item that can be dressed up; and if feeling luxurious a pretty dress or smart trousers in instances when only visual decadence will do.  To the shock of no-one I tend to ditch the latter unless super sure it’ll be required, a cheap local garment can always be purchased and may be more appropriate if the occasion desires.

On a recent trip to Croatia, finding myself hideously poor before setting out and not being able to invest in the usual good quality stock pieces, I brought a cotton pashmina and used it as a scarf and a skirt as occasion necessitated.  I wasn’t sliding on the slippery surface of oh so much saliva dripping from the lips of lustful gents, but I was decently covered, even in more conservative environments and able to layer up for warmth when required.

I also tend to take one pair of practical shoes, for me trainers or women’s knee boots that have ideally been sprayed with waterproofing solution, which I mostly wear and one pair of small, smart little slip on shoes.  These hang out at the bottom of my rucksack, taking up little room and reassuring me that I can raise myself out of the trampy gutter if I need.

A whistle-stop tour of the rest includes: A couple of pairs of pants; likewise socks (including a thick pair if poss.); tights if needed; A rain Poncho -for ease of storage and because the generous size means it can cover your rucksack as well in a downpour situation-; a jumper –I tie this on to my bag if it’s hot, or at airports-; some t-shirts – I take neutral colours mostly, but often bring one t-shirt I find a hoot for travel fun-; if enough space miraculously remains, which it surprisingly often does, I pop in Pjs, or when space distressed I just use an old t-shirt; and lastly a little hat, for I am prone to being a chilly mortal.

I hope this segment has excited in its modest potential and not sweatily alarmed; bear in mind that wherever you go it is unlikely that you won’t be able to buy clothes that can be got rid of later.  And remember, we are inventive beings!  Finding myself in Africa in wet season without a rain jacket, I used a black bag sized, thick plastic sack to keep my torso dry.  It makes me chuckle to remember it, and I’m sure everyone else I encountered too, but by God it rained.

3)    Eat and drink fool!  Try not to be lulled by the dazzling yet false lights of over economising.  I have often travelled on a budget that would make shoe-string look high end, and have been tempted to reduce my outgoings beyond sense.  For instance: when taking multiple flights I have failed to invest in a bottle of water and been forced to sit withering away internally with only the popping of my eardrums to distract me.

So make sure you do buy water when you travel, filling up the same bottle if you can or replacing it if advised that the faucet supplies are potentially ropey.  Though a cringingly basic point it’s the kind of thing that you may need to remind yourself when scrabbling for the pennies.

Likewise do eat, I have chowed down on cream cheese and bread for more days than I care to recall on trips but been able to extract the energy I require from this meagre feast.  You may feel this point is overstated but I know many individuals who have allowed themselves to famish and dehydrate, and ended up feeling like a squirrel’s rear end after curry night at Wetherspoons.  I admit I understand this first hand for I am of course one of those suckers.

Stumbling across local markets in foreign lands is often a delightful coup; you can purchase items in good quantities for the kind of coinage that usually gets sidelined in our reverence of notes while having a nosy at the exciting titbits people like to buy in such places.  The title of this blog comes from an instance in which I handed over a small coin to a lovely market stall holder in Zadar and pointed at some tiny green balls, curious to see what they were.  I was quite shocked and mildly aghast at the thought of having to heave round the ridiculously bulging blue bag she then gave me full of what turned out to be plums, all for the equivalent of 50 English pence, but good on her she had been shovelling plums into that carrier like it was going out of fashion.

4)    Have a plan about how you approach the accommodation issue but don’t necessarily have accommodation planned!  The age old question when approaching a trip is: do I book accommodation in advance?  If going for a week long holiday in the same location, this is obviously sensible but if travelling around think again, you may find this practice too restrictive.

On a particularly exciting but admittedly ill planned trip that I launched myself into just as I reached the tender cusp of my early twenties I decided to entirely leave myself to the mercy of my own ambling.  When I arrived in Paris and simply walked straight forward from the Gare de Nord station for two hours before miraculously stumbling across The Louvre this approach worked out beautifully, I was so stunned that I was seeing this breath taking area with my own eyes that I began to cry.  For me this moment was especially evocative given its unplanned and surprising nature.

The flipside is that I then spent over three hours trying to find a place to stay, realising after much time had passed that most of the hostels were located in North East Paris, and I was on the more expensive hotel obsessed South West.  I took it well, but it is fair to say I was shattered and grateful I didn’t have a tetchy companion in tow.

This then would be the advice I would offer after different approaches to the slumber issue, chats with others and the wisdom that is rammed home after the hard graft of situations like the above illustrated.  Book the first night of your stay and then free flow from there.  Most people have an idea of what stops they want to make on their trip and in roughly what order, if this is you then you can also research and take photocopies of where hostels/hotels/campsites/huts can be found in these locales.  In this way you are not entirely going blind, and won’t end up wasting mammoth amounts of time.  Do not rely on guidebooks to get you out of a fix, they are great in an auxiliary capacity but often phone numbers for hostels and the like are out of date due to the transient nature of this business.

For some individuals booking the last night of their stay is also a great relief, though this is evidently more appropriate when travel home has been pre-booked from a certain spot.  For others a tent in a back-pack means that anywhere is a potential scene for snoozing.

Though I swear by the first night rule, it truly is for you as an individual to determine what you are comfortable with.  If you do like to plan trips to the finest detail, admit this if any other way would cause untold turmoil.  However do not be afraid to challenge yourself and turn up somewhere about which you know diddly squat, it’s pleasing to find that sometimes fortune does indeed favour the bold in these instances.

5)    Losing everything but your mind is ok!  A lot of the fear people experience before embarking on travel is the worry that important items could get lost or stolen.  The passport is a high flyer in the one to argh scale, as are money/bank cards and boarding passes/eurorail documents etc.  We don’t like the idea of being left stranded in other realms without the means to transport ourselves back to familiar terra firma.

This is not irrational, however limiting this anxiety will leave you feeling a lot freer and lighter, able to relish the spontaneity of travel without succumbing to a paralysing, quivering paranoia.

Reducing your chance of becoming such an individual is a practical way to keep the trepidation in check.  Keep your precious items in a secure place in your bag and spread your money around your person.  When  travelling on my own I use one of those little, netted bags in which washing tablets are placed then lobbed in the machine to put my money in.  I then tie this either to a label inside my skirt/trouser or to a belt, leaving it to hang inside the garment against my leg.  I credit a friend with having shown me this.  These bags are far more discreet then the travel wallets sold in shops and easier to access when actually wishing to retrieve your money.

As identified earlier, using a small bag is also ideal, it allows you to blend in with the crowd without seeming like the wide eyed traveller you may well be.  If you do take a big bag to transport your bulging goods then don’t forget to take a day sack with you so that you can weave as unobtrusively as possible through the crowd in small cities.

Walking with purpose and eyeballing your well thumbed map in private are also sensible ways of not appearing vulnerable and pray to criminality.  I was advised that if in desperate need of directions when abroad it is wise to approach an individual who is unlikely to have an ulterior motive to ask.  E.g. a busy barman, in the presumption that it is likely they will want to see you on your way speedily and accurately and propel you to the door.  Looking for things in a bag with your back against a wall so no-one can approach from behind is also helpful.*

No-where is the adage ‘go with your gut’ more useful than when travelling.  It has been whispered in the annals of time, written in a fair few narrative guides and repeated from parent to child since the dawn of holidaying time.  It is true.  If a situation feels more than a little dodgy, then remove yourself from it.  It’s ok to annoy the receptionist at a hotel that seems slovenly on security by apologising but cancelling your room.  It is fair enough to add significant time to your journey by skirting round a badly lit area you do not feel at ease walking in.

I got in a Taxi in Miami after a lengthy journey on the Greyhound, and asked to be driven to the airport.  From the bus garage the airport can be seen, but due to an intense road system it’s only possible to get there through vehicular transportation.  Though the Taxi I hailed was outside a rank, it was clear that the driver was going the wrong way and better yet had asked me for payment immediately as I got in the car.  I’ll be honest, this may well be standard practice but I felt uncomfortable about it all and told the gentleman that I preferred to pay at the end.  He immediately turned around half way down a road and drove me to the airport, taking my money on arrival.  It may well be that nothing dodgy had occurred, but I went with my gut and felt a lot more at ease having spoken up, bringing the matter to attention.

It is unlikely that you will be a victim of crime, so keep this in perspective.  However if you are, do not panic, it is always worth handing your stuff over when faced with a violent, aggressive situation.

Whether your stuff gets stolen or you lose it you will likely be disorientated, in doubt of next steps and potentially without a dime.  Head to the nearest Consulate or Embassy of the country of your passport.  Explain the situation to the hostel/hotel/campsite where you are staying to get the directions to the nearest one.  If unfortunately you have not yet chosen some-where to lay your head when your misfortune occurs ask at tourist information or any accommodation you see even though you are not staying there – both these places are used to enquiries from travellers and will no doubt help out.  The Embassy (found in the Countries capital city) or Consulate (scattered around the Country in smaller cities) are likely to tell you to get a police report if your items are stolen, this is often tedious and laborious but necessary.  Try and keep your head and ask for as much advice about this procedure as possible from the employee who speaks to you at the Embassy/Consulate.  Different Countries have different implicit rules when approaching the Police on various issues.

Keep a laminated photocopy of your passport, and several passport sized photos in a different place from your passport in your bag.  This will simply speed up the process when being issued a temporary passport by the Embassy/Consulate if you need to travel urgently.  The Embassy or Consulate would expect you to have some ID to prove who you are, for this reason the laminated passport could be beneficial and another form of ID kept in a secret location that you can produce would be extremely advantageous.  If you cannot reach the Embassy or a Consulate then call them, it is a good idea to take out with you the numbers of Embassies or Consulates in the Country(ies) you are going to correspondingly.^

Lastly, get Travel Insurance!  It’s one of those annoying things you rarely use, but it is of utmost importance in the unlikely instance that you get ill, or lose things.  I think the aspect that covers medical expense is the most essential, since medical treatment can be outrageously expensive as a visitor in many locales.  Note: try and find a travel company that pays medical costs upfront, otherwise you’ll have to cover expenses at the time of treatment and claim the money back when you have returned to your home Country, this may be financially crippling.  When I was admitted to hospital in Kenya before I was allowed on to the ward though after being looked over by a Doctor I had to pay a set cost, I was a lot luckier than some as this was £400, but it put me in my overdraft with two weeks left in the Country.  I only got the money back after several months back in England.

So to summarise give yourself the best chance to have a super cracking time!  It may help as suggested to: limit your clothing and thus your baggage; keep in mind that it’s good to eat and drink in a sensible fashion – though toasting another successful day of travelling with new friends is  an admirable past time; get your head round how you’re approaching accommodation and don’t sweat it about losing stuff!  Even if everything you have on you disappears and you have to sleep in a stairwell –I’ve done it, it is bollocking cold- you’ll still be ok.  My friend once you realise this, then you will be truly free to travel.

*Indebted to Charlie McGrath MBE for the information in this paragraph.  Learnt after attending a one day ‘Gap Safety Course’ back in 2005. I would highly recommend this course, more information can be found at: http://www.objectivegapyear.com/course

^ Compiled with information from Charlie McGrath MBE, myself and also with reference to: http://www.fco.gov.uk/en/ (As an English National I provide only the UK Foreign Office Website, apologies to others from different Countries who will have to locate similar websites themselves, although a lot of general information may still have relevance.)