I love traveling. Traveling has helped me open my eyes and my perspective to the world. Traveling has helped me make tons of new friends all around the globe, better understand other cultures, and to also give me a chance to reflect on my personal values. If I started traveling all over again, these are the tips I would give myself.
First of all, there is no “right” or “wrong” way to travel. Everyone will need to discover what works for themselves.
All advice is auto biographical. Many of these travel tips are counter-intuitive— that took me years of traveling (around a decade) before I could figure it out.
Further more, I am constantly learning and evolving in terms of how I approach my travel philosophy.
So just take these list of tips as a source of inspiration, and to spark your own thinking.
Table of contents
- When in doubt, leave it at home
- Don’t bring more than one camera and one lens
- Why are you traveling?
- Always optimize for lightness
- Don’t complain
- Don’t expect any epiphanies
- Don’t expect to make any good photos
- Photograph like a local
- Don’t always be shooting
- Meet with local photographers
- Learn a few basic phrases
- Spend less time on technology
- Either have really cheap meals, or very expensive meals
- You will only remember the high-points and the end of a trip
- Try to make yourself uncomfortable
- How to overcome jetlag
- Don’t be a tourist
- Don’t plan further than a day ahead
- Shop at a local grocery store
- Travel locally before internationally
- Stick to one backpack
- Who you travel with is more important than where you travel to
- Where are good places to shoot?
- “Will I look at this photo again?”
- Know when not to make a photograph
1. When in doubt, leave it at home
My biggest problem in traveling is carrying too much stuff. All of this stems from the question, “What if?” It is a sense of fear that makes us over-pack.
One thing I didn’t realize before I started to travel was this: Almost everything you can buy at home, you can buy abroad.
If you are looking at something you’re not sure whether to bring or not, leave it at home.
2. Don’t bring more than one camera and one lens
One of my dreams when I was in college was to backpack through Europe. Through the help of Cindy, I was able to make that trip happen. I took out a $5,000 loan from my school, and planned my itinerary for Europe:
- Fly into Paris
- 5 days in Paris
- 2 days in Rome
- 2 days in Florence
- 2 days in Venice
- 4 days in Prague
- 5 days in London
- Fly out of London
I made a few photos I was happy with in my trip, but my biggest regret was bringing such a big, heavy, bulky camera, and more than 1 lens.
99% of my photos were shot on the 35mm f/2 lens, and I barely touched my 24mm f/2.8 lens (shot a few wide-angle shots inside cathedrals, but that is pretty much it — and I ended up never looking at the photos again).
The advice I would give myself is to pack the smallest, lightest, most compact camera possible — and to only stick with one lens.
The beauty of traveling with one camera, one lens (preferably with a camera that is small, compact, and lightweight) is that you will enjoy your travels more. Traveling can be exhausting, and the more gear you have with you, the more weight you have, the more miserable you will be.
As a traveling photographer, you want to be as light as possible. The lighter your gear, your backpack, and your equipment— the further you can walk, with less fatigue, which will help you have more to actually make photos in the first place.
3. Why are you traveling?
One of the other questions you should ask yourself before traveling is this: “Why do I want to travel?”
For me, I wanted to make beautiful photographs. I was going to school at UCLA at the time, and I was bored with LA. I thought that backpacking through Europe would help me finally make the beautiful photographs I wanted.
However after my trip, I was massively disappointed. I took a few photos I was happy with, but honestly — I didn’t make the Geographic photos I wanted. I realized that most of the photos I shot in LA were actually more interesting than the photos I shot in Europe. Most of the photos I shot while traveling were touristy photos.
As a photographer, I feel like your reason for traveling shouldn’t be to make nice photos. Rather, think of traveling a way to see and explore new cultures, meet new people, and step outside of your comfort zone.
Photography should be a second priority.
4. Always optimize for lightness
When I first started traveling, I brought far too many things. I brought extra shoes, extra pants, extra shirts, extra socks, underwear, extra hard drives, extra lenses, extra equipment, extra batteries, and all these extra things which were unnecessary.
At the moment, here is my current list of things to travel with:
- 2 pairs of clothes (all quick-dry, made out of polyester, includes my shirt, boxers, socks)
- 1 pair of pants
- 1 pair of shoes
I’ve almost made a game out of it — I wonder to myself, “How little can I travel with?”
The lighter I travel, the more fun I have while traveling. I have also found that whatever I have thought is “essential” — really isn’t.
Actually one of the points of traveling should to be a little uncomfortable. Don’t optimize for comfort.
Traveling should help rattle our bones a little. To realize that all these materialistic things we have back home isn’t necessary.
Traveling has also helped me realize that having more stuff is a burden. And this is a philosophy we can all apply to every aspect of our lives.
When we travel we can’t take our car with us, our house, our thousands of possessions, etc. Traveling helps humble us, and realize how little we actually need to be happy.
5. Don’t complain
When you travel, things will always be different. They will never be the same as they are back home.
It is easy to travel for the first time and just complain how everything is so different, and how other people are so “backwards.”
However reality is all about your perspective. If you find something negative that you don’t like to complain about — you will make yourself more miserable.
Rather, my suggestion is this: don’t complain. At all. Not even a little bit.
What I have discovered while traveling is that every culture is different. No culture is “better” or “worse.”
In Vietnam, they run on “rubber-band time” (most people are around 10-30 minutes late for appointments). In Japan, you can set your watch based on the time-table of the train schedule. Who is right? Who is wrong? Nobody. It is just different.
So don’t expect things to be as you like them back home. If anything, embrace how different things are. This gives you an opportunity to step outside of your comfort zone, and realize that other people operate differently in the world.
It has also helped me realize that cultural differences are all socially-constructed. The “rules” that we have back home are often arbitrary, and only specific to us.
Throw away all the rules, start from a blank slate, and be grateful for all the differences you encounter while you travel.
6. Don’t expect any epiphanies
Before I travelled, I was quite unhappy with my life. I didn’t really like where I lived, I felt like my photography was being limited by my geographical location, and I felt that happiness and beauty was located somewhere else— somewhere possibly in Europe.
But after traveling through Europe for around a month, I realized— things in Europe were much more similar to back home than I expected. While the place and people were a bit different, they were much more similar than dissimilar.
I came back home without any big “aha” moments or epiphanies. Rather, I realized how simple the world was. None of my dissatisfaction from back home was cured through traveling. Only through studying tons of Zen/Stoic/Taoist philosophy — I was able to find more happiness and tranquility in my life.
If you travel and expect to find some sort of “enlightenment” — you will be massively disappointed. Because when you travel, you are just changing your environment. You can never escape yourself and your own mindset.
Happiness comes from within— from our perspective of the world. We can easily find happiness by finding gratitude in the small things in life.
And I feel that is what photography is all about — finding gratitude in the small beauties of life. The beauty of an old couple holding hands. The simple joy of having a cup of coffee. The simple chatter of people on the streets, a nice sunset, or meeting interesting people.
So when you’re traveling — do it as a way to explore the world, see how the rest of the world works, and runs. Use your time traveling to introspect. But don’t expect any epiphanies or miracles.
7. Don’t expect to make any good photos
Before I started to travel, I day-dreamed how I would be able to make all these incredible photographs. I imagined taking these epic photos in Paris, in the quaint alley-ways, and these gorgeous photos of the architecture there.
Honestly, I probably only made 2 good photos through my entire month of traveling.
The problem of traveling internationally (especially in foreign countries) is that we have pre-conceived notions of what “beauty” is. We have these images of Steve McCurry and National Geographic in our heads. We imagine “exotic” countries as still be “untouched” by civilization — where people live in harmony, in simple lives. But honestly, the rest of the world has movie theaters, iPhones, Starbucks, and other modern conveniences. Don’t expect to make good photographs, that will blow your mind.
8. Photograph like a local
My suggestion instead is to try to approach photographing while you’re traveling like a local.
For example, I’m currently here in Hanoi, Vietnam. Before I came here, I imagined people just in rice-patty hats, bicycles, and all the other touristy concepts. I knew I didn’t want to make those types of photographs — so I started to explore and see what other Hanoi-based photographers were shooting.
I came across the work of Chu Viet Ha — who made non-cliche street photographs of Hanoi. He photographed it like it were just any other place in the world, not focused on visual cliches like rice-patty hats or bicycles.
So whenever I travel now — I ask myself, “How would a local photograph this place?” I try to avoid what I conceive might be a visual cliche in a place. I try to see the place I am traveling to from the perspective of someone who has lived there for a long time.
This is a good strategy to help you make more interesting images.
9. Don’t always be shooting
Another common mistake I made when I first started traveling was to take as many photos as humanly possible. I walked around for 12 hours a day, only trying to make good photographs.
This made me miserable. Rather than enjoying a leisurely pace for my travels, I was frantic. Knowing that I only had 2 days in a place, I wanted to make photos that I hoped would get tons of “likes” on social media.
Know how to enjoy your travels by not always shooting. Rather, take breaks. Step inside a coffee shop, read a book, and converse with the locals.
Think of yourself as a non-hurried “flaneur” — someone who walks at a slow pace, without a pre-determined destination. Wander, slowly, and enjoy the sights along the way.
The irony is that the less pressure I put on myself to make interesting photos while I travel, the better photos I make.
Whenever I put pressure on myself to make good photos while traveling, I never make them.
Enjoy the process of traveling, not just the photo-taking part of it.
10. Meet with local photographers
Through my years of traveling, I never remember the local sights, the landmarks, or even taking photos. I remember the local people I meet. And many of these people I have made through traveling, I still keep in touch with.
My practical suggestion when you’re traveling somewhere: contact a local photographer, and see if they want to meet up for a cup of coffee and shoot.
Most photographers in their own cities are quite lonely. And most photographers love to show off their own city. So contact another photographer by finding them on Google, or on social media. Send them a message, and compliment them on their work.
The great thing about spending time with local photographers is that they will show you places “off the beaten path” — instead of just going to the local touristy landmarks.
Furthermore, my favorite part of meeting local photographers (or people) is to “eat where the locals eat.” While there is no such thing as an “authentic” experience while you’re traveling— there are certainly less-touristy places you can enjoy. The food is often cheaper, more delicious, and it feels more comfortable. Avoid Tripadvisor for food recommendations— always try to ask the locals for theirrecommendations.
11. Learn a few basic phrases
Sometimes when we’re traveling, we want to pick up some new phrases in French, Mandarin, or Arabic— but we’re nervous of making a fool out of ourselves.
However when you’re traveling, try to learn a few basic phrases. Trust me, locals will love the fact that you’re trying to learn their local language, rather than insult you.
Always some phrases which are handy to learn:
- How are you doing?
- Where is the bathroom?
- This tastes so delicious!
- Can I have a cup of (coffee, tea, water) please?
- Can I have a (beer, wine, shot of vodka) please?
- What do you like to do here for fun?
- Thank you!
- You look so beautiful/handsome!
Try to master the basic small-talk topics. Honestly with 10-15 phrases, you can probably cover 90% of conversations you will have with strangers.
Another important phrase to learn in a local language: “How do I say [x] in [local language]”? This will help you quickly pick up words. Or you can also learn by pointing and asking, “What is that?” And learn the local language how a child would learn it.
12. Spend less time on technology
I would recommend while you’re traveling, try to spend as little time on the internet, on social media, and with technology as possible.
Don’t buy a local-SIM card with internet for your phone. Don’t enable international data.
Live in airplane mode.
Learn to enjoy the peace and silence that comes while traveling. The fact that people cannot contact you will give you a peace of mind. It will help you clear your mind, reflect, and meditate more while you’re traveling.
Don’t be afraid — most places have wifi (almost anywhere in the world). So if you really need the internet for something, you’ll be able to access it.
But try to use your time traveling to fast from the internet. Use this time to read that book you’ve always wanted to read. Use this time to write some reflections. Write in your journal. Take photos without interruption.
Furthermore, I suggest not to upload photos while you’re traveling. Try to let your photos “marinate” on your camera or hard drive, until you go home. Then look at your photos after your travels, and you will be able to re-live your experiences. And the less you’re worried about constantly sharing everything that you’re doing on social media, the more present you can be while traveling.
13. Either have really cheap meals, or very expensive meals
The philosopher Nassim Taleb has a method called the “barbell method” — embracing two extremes of something, and avoiding the middle.
I recommend trying to “barbell” your meals. Only eat very cheap food (street food) or very expensive places (fancy restaurants). Avoid the “middle-tier” restaurants (usually most of the places you find on online tourist recommendations).
Why do I recommend embracing both extremes?
You’re not going to really remember a “so-so/average” meal. You will build better memories by eating with locals on the streets (very cheap meals) or in very high-end fancy restaurants.
This is what Cindy and I did when we were broke college students. For 90% of our meals, we just ate the cheapest things we could find on the street. But for 10% of our meals, we would eat the best places we could find — and still 10 years later, we remember eating ramen for 1 euro, and fancy duck with orange-glaze sauce (that was expensive).
14. You will only remember the high-points and the end of a trip
One of the lessons I’ve learned from psychologist Daniel Kenhamen (from his book ‘Thinking Fast, and Slow’) is that with the human mind, we only remember the high-points (most intense experiences) and the end of a trip.
Furthermore, there is also something called “duration neglect” — where the duration of a trip isn’t important in terms of building significant memories.
So if you really want to remember things from your trip, consider the following:
- You don’t necessarily need to have a longer trip to have a better trip
- Make sure to have the most memorable experiences at the end of a trip (book an expensive hotel for the last night in a place, or have your expensive meal at the end of your trip)
Also if you’re traveling, and currently not having a good time — just remind yourself to try to end the trip on a high note. This way you will better internalize positive memories from your trip.
15. Try to make yourself uncomfortable
I actually feel the best part of traveling is to live in uncomfortable situations. This might mean staying at a noisy hostel full of drunk foreign students, and not sleeping well. This might mean crashing on the couch of a friend (not sleeping in the comfort of your own bed). This might mean not having all of the clothes you normally have back home.
This is the beauty of traveling — try to travel in “simulated poverty.” Even for a few days, try to subsist on the cheapest meals you can. Then you will discover how little you really need in life to be happy (and to survive).
So whenever you’re traveling and things get uncomfortable, relish in it. Being in uncomfortable situations is what makes hiking, backpacking, and camping so enjoyable.
Treat traveling the same way. Discomfort is what makes us enjoy our trip, and suffering will later make better stories and memories. And when you finally go back home, you will appreciate home even more.
16. How to overcome jetlag
Jet lag is horrible. Here are some tips I have learned through my travels to minimize the effects of jetlag:
- Fast for 24 hours before arriving at your target destination: Our body’s internal clock or “circadian rhythm” runs on two things: eating patterns and light. If you want to be less jet lagged, don’t eat anything (fast) for 24 hours before you arrive at your target destination. Then eat breakfast at the time you normally do. Not eating for 24 hours can be a little painful, but trust me — the pain of jetlag is 10x worse than a little stomach-discomfort.
- Drink caffeine during the day: Drink your caffeinated beverage of choice when you arrive at your target destination during the day. For me that is a lot of coffee. Others, that is tea.
- Take melatonin at night if you can’t sleep: Before traveling internationally, I recommend picking up a bottle of melatonin — a natural hormone that helps promote sleep. No, it isn’t like some intense prescription drug that can become addictive. I recommend taking anywhere between 1-5mg if you can’t fall asleep at night. I don’t find it habit-forming, as long as you don’t take it for longer than 2 weeks in a row.
- Limit your naps: It is easy to take a nap, fall asleep for 5 hours, and totally screw up your schedule. Limit your naps to 20 minutes, and once you wake up, have some caffeine to power you through the day.
- Eat a big meal at night: Nothing worse than going to sleep hungry. After a long day while on the road, reward yourself with a satisfying meal. Eat enough to be satisfied, but not too much that you feel horrible.
- Limit alcohol: Alcohol impairs our sleep. For some of us, alcohol helps us fall asleep — but it ruins our sleep cycles. So limit alcohol if you don’t want to suffer as much jet lag.
17. Don’t be a tourist
If you really want to have a memorable trip, avoid tours above all else.
Tours take you along a pre-determined route, with no chance of discovery, exploration, and serendipity.
My fondest moments while traveling was to wander aimlessly, following my nose. To settle into coffee shops that looked interesting, and going to restaurants which had a lot of locals inside. That meant avoiding recommendation websites (like Trip Advisor) and instead asking locals, “What is a good place to eat around here?”
Another tip that will help you be more like a local: don’t ask others “What is a popular place to eat?” (this is a horrible question, because they will tell you where the tourists go). Instead, say “Where do you like to eat around here?” By focusing on the question: “You” — they will give you their personal recommendation. This is often a lot more useful.
And when you’re in the restaurant, don’t ask “What is popular here”? Ask, “What is your favorite dish on the menu?” They’ve probably sampled everything in the menu, and will probably recommend a meal which is slightly cheaper (but probably more delicious).
18. Don’t plan further than a day ahead
Another practical tip: when you’re traveling, don’t plan more than a day ahead.
You never know what you might discover when you’re traveling. You might bump into another traveler who can recommend you plans. You might meet a local who wants to take you around. You might end up in a certain location, and hate it.
Don’t plan for more than a day ahead. Have “optionality” — the freedom to choose different options, the freedom to be flexible, and the freedom to embrace spontaneity.
Don’t stick to a plan. By sticking to a plan, you become blind to options which might be better for you.
19. Shop at a local grocery store
Strangely enough, one of my favorite activities while traveling abroad is to go to a local grocery store or supermarket.
First of all, you can pick up some cheap food or ready-to-eat meals there. Secondly, you see how locals shop. Thirdly, I feel that grocery stores or supermarkets are a good reflection of a local culture.
For example, I’ve found it far more fun and interesting to shop at a grocery store in Paris, rather than to see the Eiffel tower. And nothing more fun than going to the grocery store and picking up some yogurt, cheese, and wine— and enjoying a small little picnic in a park, rather than eat at a fancy Parisian restaurant.
20. Travel locally before internationally
Another thing I wish I knew before traveling: try to travel as much locally before you travel internationally.
Before I started to travel extensively, I always dreamed of going abroad to Europe and Asia. I forgot how many interesting places there were to travel in America.
Some American cities which I found far more interesting and enjoyable than abroad:
- New Orleans
So as a recommendation, try to travel as much as you can locally before you buy an expensive plane ticket abroad. You can just go for day trips in your car, in the metro, or via the train. Try to explore a little out of your own city, or take a short domestic flight.
The benefit of traveling locally is that it is cheaper, you spend less time in-transit, and you get to know your own country better.
Why is it that we always try to travel internationally before locally? We imagine international places as more interesting as local places. But once again, I have found through my experiences that some local places are more interesting than international places.
So before you travel internationally, see how you can maximize your traveling experiences close to home. You will still see new sights, eat new foods, and experience slightly different cultures.
21. Stick to one backpack
Another practical traveling tip: stick to one backpack for a trip.
And no, you don’t need one of those huge “backpacker” backpacks that can fit a tent and a sleeping bag.
A simple school backpack works.
Regardless if you’re a man or a woman, you don’t need more than 2 changes of clothes. My suggestion: buy quick-dry clothes that are notmade out of cotton (polyester or other quick-dry materials are preferable), and wash your clothes every night in the sink or shower with shampoo or soap, wrap your clothes in towels, stomp them, and hang them to dry. Usually they’re dry by the morning. Even if they’re a bit damp, you can still wear them (you won’t die).
This will reduce 90% of your traveling weight and bulk. Furthermore, I recommend wearing all-black everything (black shirt, black pants, black undergarments, black socks, black shoes) — even if the area might be hot. Why? Black covers stains (in case you get dirty), and people don’t notice that you’re wearing the same outfit everyday (if you wear black).
In terms of brands, I recommend North Face Backpacks. And for clothing, I recommend ExOfficio undergarments, and the quick-dry and thin “Airism” line from UNIQLO.
The beauty of sticking with one backpack is that it is a “creative constraint” — if you can only bring one backpack, you are forced to travel lighter. And you really question yourself, “Do I really need this?” before traveling.
The benefit of just having one backpack is also that you don’t need to check in anything at the airport. Less time waiting in line. The airline won’t lose your stuff. You can move quickly and be nimble.
22. Who you travel with is more important than where you travel to
I like traveling with other people. It gives me an opportunity to have new experiences with someone else, and the chance for us to bond over these new experiences in the future.
Be careful who you travel with. Your traveling partner can either help you have the best time of your life, or the worst time in your life.
Travel with a friend who is not fussy, who doesn’t need to be pampered, and is adventurous. Also find another traveling partner who is quite independent, but also is similar to you in personality.
If you travel with a friend who loves museums (and you hate them), you will be miserable. If you have a friend who only likes to stay at 5-star hotels (and you prefer to save money at hostels), you will be miserable.
Choose your traveling partner wisely — it is more important than where you travel to.
23. Where are good places to shoot?
As a traveling photographer, who prefers shooting “street photography” — here are some good spots to usually shot:
- Downtown shopping areas
- By the water
- In coffee shops/cafes
- In malls
I generally recommend against going to touristy landmarks. For example when I’m in Paris, I avoid the Eiffel tower like the plague. Even when I travel to new places, I always ask my hosts or local friends: “Where do you recommend us not to go?” Or I ask them, “What are some tourist traps to avoid?”
Traveling is all about knowing what to avoid, and things not to see, or things not to do.
This is why I recommend against Googling “What to do in city [x]” — because the internet will always tell you to do touristy crap.
Also another practical tip is to ask locals, “Where do you like to go outside of the city for a day trip?” This will help you travel to places that locals travel to — which tend to be much more interesting to photograph, and less touristy.
For example, while here in Hanoi, my friend Chu Viet Ha took me and Cindy to a Vietnamese city 3-hours outside via bus for the mid-autumn festival. We didn’t see any foreign tourists— only local tourists. And it was one of the most memorable trips so far, and helped me make some interesting photos as well.
24. “Will I look at this photo again?”
So ask yourself when you’re traveling and making photos: “Will I honestly ever look at this photo again?”
If the answer is “no” — refrain from clicking the shutter.
That doesn’t mean to take a few photos. Rather, take more photos of fewer scenes.
For example, if I see an interesting street scene, I’ll take 50-100 photos of it. But I might only find 3 interesting street scenes in a day. I now usually make it a practice not to take photos of my food, or of landmarks that I visit. Because I know that I will never look at my food photos, or touristy photos again.
Take photos of things which have personal significance to you, spark joy in your heart, or really excites you. Don’t take photos for the sake of it.
25. Know when not to make a photograph
Which brings us to the last point — know when not to take a photograph, when to put away the camera, and enjoy the moment.
The point of being a photographer isn’t to make great photos. The point of being a photographer is to enjoy life. Photography should be a tool that enhances our life experiences, and helps us enjoy day-to-day living. The point isn’t to try to optimize your life to make the best photos, to get the most “likes” on social media or to gain more followers.
Let’s say you’re enjoying a romantic sunset with your partner. Do you really need to photograph it? Perhaps put away your camera, and breathe in the air, enjoy the sunset, and relish in the moment. Don’t be like the parent who tries to over-document his/her child’s sports games (and doesn’t actually enjoy the game). Or don’t be the person who takes thousands of photos of fireworks, without actually enjoying the fireworks.