[This story was originally published in Go World Travel Magazine. Go World works with freelance travel journalists worldwide to cover stories from 90 countries.]
I woke up feeling shaky and terrified. I couldn’t remember much from the dream, but the bits I did remember were of me walking alone at night in Thailand and having the suspicion that someone was trailing me. This was two weeks before I went on a solo trip to Indonesia, Thailand, and Cambodia.
My top three priorities on the trip were to be safe, be frugal, and of course meet people. If you’re planning your first trip abroad, I’m sure you would have similar priorities. While learning to meet people and make friends requires a book in itself, I thought I would address the other two categories from my experience. So below are some of the things that I did either before the trip that helped or learnt during the trip which I hope will help you.
1. Be aware of local epidemics
International SOS is a mobile app that sends you travel alerts on your locations of interest. It was very useful to keep track of the dengue epidemic that happened in Thailand right around the time I went there (luckily, I was spared). I took two bug spray bottles with me and used it almost everyday. Make sure to check that it has one of the following ingredients: Picaridin and DEET.
2. Load local numbers on speed-dial
Needless to say, make sure you get a SIM card that lets you make international calls. Specifically, make sure you load the emergency numbers for the ambulance and police wherever you go. I also found it incredibly useful to get acquainted with a native who can help me navigate the atrocious taxi rates.
3. Carry a pepper spray
I purchased one a few months ago when I read an article about a girl getting abducted, and have not looked back since. You should look up the local laws in the city you are visiting once to see if it is legal to use it there (or even carry it). However, I feel if you are placed in a situation where you are forced to use it for self-defense, worrying about the legality seems secondary to personal safety.
4. Make use of mobile apps
Whenever I went to a location which seemed deserted, I shared my location with a friend on WhatsApp for an hour (or more as needed). I also have an app that sends my location along with a picture taken during that instant to a configured contact when I press the power button four times. There are also apps that do the same when you vigorously shake the phone. Explore a few different options to figure out your natural instinct.
5. Check for and read references/reviews
I strongly recommend doing this for anything you find over the internet: an Airbnb experience, Hostel, Couchsurfing host, etc. It really helps to spend a few minutes looking at previous travelers — who were in similar shoes — recount their experience, both good and bad. When I was searching for Hostels, although many had a 9.0+ rating on Hostelworld with 300+ reviews, reading those helped me eliminate Hostels that were insanely party oriented, which wasn’t my type.
1. Use credit card points to book flights
I cannot stress this enough. If you don’t own a credit card at the moment, but plan to travel quite often in the future, it’s high time you got one (or two). My round-trip to Southeast Asia (costing ~$850) was essentially free after I used the bonus miles from the card. There are many to choose from, and the ones I have are Chase Sapphire Reserve, United Explorer, and Citi Premier.
2. Stay at Hostels or Couchsurf
There are three reasons to love a good Hostel: you meet diverse people who are mostly travelers, you have common spaces to host lunches and watch TV, and really good food is served for a reasonably cheap price. Most Hostels also provide free breakfast. While I didn’t Couchsurf in Southeast Asia, I’ve done it in the U.S. and had the best times.
3. Use local transportation
When I reached Phnom Penh in Cambodia, the taxi from the airport charged me $15 to drop me off at the destination. By spending a few more minutes asking around, I found a bus that went in that direction which costed 70 cents. This wasn’t specific to Phnom Penh. In Bangkok I only used the MRT and in other places I rented bikes or used Grab (more on that below).
4. Rent or ride on bikes
Grab was a lifesaver for me in all these countries: no haggling with the driver, automatic payment via credit card (without getting charged a foreign transaction fee), and cheaper in all of the cases except for Airport pickups. I chose a Grab bike wherever I could; sitting on a scooter gave the added experience of adventure. If you’re comfortable riding one yourself, I highly recommend renting it out for a day (costs $7-$10).
5. Check Airbnb experiences and Meetups
Apart from checking local tourism companies on things to do, also use Airbnb experiences to find events near you. I took up a traditional Thai cooking class, rode bikes in narrow alleys at night, and crawled nightclubs all through Airbnb. Here’s a reference code that will give you $15 if you’re signing up for the first time. While Meetup is not a popular app in Southeast Asia, it’s worth checking out the groups once.
I know trying to go out of your way to be safe and frugal can be a buzzkill at times, but it’s a lot less effort and a lot more fun than you would think. Through these ventures I met people who were backpacking across the world, teaching English to kids in China, and helping refugees in Spain. At the end of the day, what really matters is for you to step a little outside your comfort bubble and expand your perspective.