Here are some tips and tricks we’ve discovered as we travel or learned from fellow travelers. Feel free to send us an email with any questions!
Always carry cash.
Many countries outside of the U.S. are cash societies, especially in Southeast Asia. Taxis, tuk-tuks, subways and even Grab all accept cash only. While some higher-end restaurants will take credit card, almost every establishment (street vendors, food stalls, market vendors, etc) are cash only. We recommend carrying currency of the country you are in as well as U.S. currency.
In addition, many visas and stamping fees are cash only and usually in U.S. currency. For instance, even though we received a VOA (Visa on Arrival) for Vietnam before we left, we still had to pay a $50 USD stamping fee upon arrival.
ATMs are prominent everywhere so cash is easily accessible, but I still recommend carrying cash with you before you reach your destination. ATMs here will also dispense a variety of bills, not just high denominations, which is good to carry around because you’ll need smaller bills for cheaper items.
Consider getting an e-visa or visa on arrival (VOA)
Research and get visas well ahead of time. Every country is different, entry points differ, visa requirements change all the time, and you shouldn’t assume that you’ll get a visa once you are in the country. Depending on your time frame, it is possible sometimes to get a visa in person at the embassy (my parents got their Thai visas in person), or you can get one mailed. But we found that obtaining an e-visa or VOA was the quickest and most convenient way to get and use our visas.
The first thing to note is not every country offers e-visas or VOAs, hence why I started with “do your research”. For Vietnam, we used Vietnam Visa Choice, a VOA company I found through Lonely Planet. I applied for both of us, paid a fee, and received my VOA in a few days. I will admit, we did pay a little extra for VIP service. I’m happy we got our visas prior to landing in Vietnam because 1) it was a total breeze getting through immigration, partly because of our VIP status, and 2) we needed to show our proof of our visa at the Laos airport. A Canadian family in the line next to us did not have their paperwork and they became quite flustered.
For Cambodia, we purchased an e-visa from the eVisa Kingdom of Cambodia site and the process was similar to Vietnam. We applied, paid, and received our visa via email in a few days. Once we arrived in Cambodia, most of our plane headed to Visa on Arrival while we head to the e-visa section aka right out of immigration. No line, no hassle, no waiting.
I’ve heard that tourists sometimes pay way more money upon arrival if they chose to get a visa when they touch down. I’ve also heard that it takes a considerable about of time in line to get visas when you touchdown. Since we went the route mentioned above, I can’t say for sure how accurate these rumors are. We found that by getting our visas ahead of time, taking the time to do the research, and being prepared, allowed us to have stress-free entries and exits.
Pack cool weather clothing even if it’s hot
Cool weather clothing comes in handy because planes and some establishments are cold with A/C. Also, temples and other religious places require a modest dress (shoulders covered, no midriff, knees covered). Not every place will have cover-ups available for rent so if you aren’t dressed appropriately, you won’t be allowed in. We saw a lot of people turned away from Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum for inappropriate attire.
Also, wearing light pants like elephant pants (or skirts) are actually really comfortable in hot weather. They feel like air, don’t overheat and can be purchased for less than $5 at local markets.
Pack a small backpack.
My dad offered us a small foldable backpack that I refused at first. But he made a good point about keeping one. It packs flat so it won’t take up space (or you can use one that packs into itself or a small carrying bag). Some of our hotels don’t have safes so we sometimes prefer to leave our regular backpacks in the room and locked so we aren’t carrying around our valuables. A small backpack like the one we use is perfect for carrying water, maps, a towel if we are going to a waterfall, some snacks or souvenirs that we find. Also, it’s small and cheap enough that if we lose it or leave it behind, it’s no loss to us.
What’s in your purse?
Sometimes, when we are heading out for a long day of activities or heading far away from our hotel, we’ll pack the backpack we mention above. Otherwise, I just carry a small purse that I wear across my body. As I mentioned in our Gear page, it’s RFID protected, slash-proof and locks. In it I keep:
- small coin purse for money
- tush wipes or wet wipes
- small purell
- small pill case with anti-diarrhea pills, tums, and Pepto pills
- tissues (good for noses and as toilet paper if you find yourself without some)
- credit cards (optional if you don’t already keep them in the safe/locked in your bag)
- business card of my hotel/guesthouse/lodging
Book what you can ahead of time, especially lodging.
As cool as it seems to “wing it” when you get there, sometimes the “we’ll figure it out” attitude backfires. We booked most of our SE Asia lodging ahead of time and it made our lives much less stressful. Traveling is tiring, you’re in an unfamiliar area, you’re jetlagged, you’re probably hot…and it’s such a relief to know that you have a roof over your head.
Hotels won’t always be vacant when you arrive, hostels are hit or miss, and you don’t want to end up lugging around your baggage as you search for a room. In addition, many sites have deals throughout the year and paired with credit card deals, many times it’s cheaper to book ahead of time. When possible, we tried to book transportation to and from the airport as well. Prices vary so we always compared our hotel’s price to that of public transportation and Grab.
We met a couple on our cruise in Ha Long Bay who opted to plan as they traveled and they found it exhausting. They were about a month into their trip and they were tired of constantly working and booking, they just wanted to relax and enjoy themselves.
Many popular tours and destinations fill up quickly, depending on where you are going and what you are doing. You don’t want to show up to Cool Place and have Cool Place be booked so you miss it (sad face). Also, many tours booked on site are more expensive than if you booked earlier. For instance, we found that across the board it was recommended to book the Ha Long Bay cruise prior to arriving in Vietnam. The cruises are very popular and the travel companies in Hanoi are notorious for ripping off tourists.
Buy a local SIM card.
This is the cheapest way to maintain the use of your phone and the internet while you travel. We researched many phone plans in the U.S. before we left and almost all of them either have expensive and/or limited international plans. In addition, many, if not all, will void your plan once they see you are pinging in a foreign country (and you need to be in the U.S. to reactivate).
A local SIM card is cheap and reliable. The most we’ve paid so far is $9 for unlimited data for one month. You can find a SIM retailer in the airports or around town, just make sure they are a reputable company. I’ve heard of SIM scams, but we haven’t been ripped off yet. The retailer will install the SIM card for you and you are provided with an international number (good for using Grab and Line).
Wi-fi access is available everywhere, though it’s not always free. Cafes, restaurants, airports, hotels, and coffee shops all have wi-fi. On the off chance you don’t have wi-fi, the local SIM allows you access to the internet 24/7 so you aren’t left out in the cold.
Learn the language.
This tip is a direct steal from my mom, she told us this while we were in Thailand. Greet people with a smile and attempt to speak their native language, even if it’s just a few words: hello, goodbye, and thank you. Although many people speak English in these parts, it’s best to assume they don’t. When inquiring, ask “May I speak English” as opposed to “Do you speak English”. If you are polite and friendly, more than likely you’ll be met with politeness.