10 Travel Tips for Exploring Foreign Cities from a Software Dev

Hong Kong central at night

Last month I was fortunate enough to spend two weeks travelling around southern China including Hainan, Guangzhou, Macau and Hong Kong. It was an awesome trip; I would particularly recommend stopping by Hong Kong for a few days to check it out if you get the chance. It’s an amazing, vibrant city.

At some point during the trip I started noting down the things I was learning (about travel in general, and travel around cities in particular) into Evernote. Over time the list kept growing. What follows is an edited version of the original list, compiled into a top 10 (in typical web article fashion…)

1. Get the phone number of contacts in foreign country

If you’re meeting friends at the destination airport, make sure you have their mobile number. Just having them on Google Hangouts, WeChat, Facebook messenger or <insert online service here> won’t cut it as you can’t rely on WiFi access at airports. In Shanghai for example, you’ll still need a local mobile number to access the “Free” airport wifi.

Old fashioned and low-tech is sometimes best.

2. Double check that airports of connecting flights match

Cities can have more than one airport, and they may not be close together at all. As a New Zealander, this was surprising to learn…

3. Bring plenty of cash in the local currency

Unlike credit card and bank cards, cash is guaranteed to be accepted everywhere and is a lifesaver in emergencies.

Even if you’re going to a first-world country, don’t assume your card will be widely accepted, even at popular tourist attractions. For instance, you’ll need cash to buy a ticket for the Victoria Peak Tram in Hong Kong.

Another tip: divide your cash up and distribute it amongst your bags. That way if one goes missing, you still have backups. I had three stashes: one in my checked-in luggage, one in my backpack and a small amount in my wallet.

Again, low-tech = good.

4. Pack the night before

It’s easy to be unrealistic about how easy and fast it will be to “throw everything into your bag in the morning”. If checking out of your hotel room in the morning, do all possible packing the night before.

Ruins of St. Pauls, Macau

5. Invest in good walking shoes

When you’re out exploring all day every day, decent shoes will really pay dividends. Conversely, bad shoes and feet that are killing you each day can put a damper on your travel experience!

6. Sort out mobile data for your smartphone

Having internet access on your smartphone is absolutely essential when travelling, if only for Maps/GPS, Google Translate and being able to research other places to see while you’re already out.

With that in mind, set up global roaming with your mobile provider before you leave, or check if SIM cards are freely available at destination country. Some countries require you to be a local resident and/or have identification to get a SIM card (Hong Kong isn’t like this; China is).

Remember to pack the SIM card removal tool for your phone, if applicable.

If going to a country with restricted internet access, you may want to sort out VPN access beforehand so you can still access the online services you’re used to (Facebook, YouTube, etc). Record multiple fallback IP addresses for your VPN provider as it’s hard to know which will be blocked.

7. Always have snacks and water with you

Bring water and lots of snack foods such as energy bars and nuts in your day pack to keep up your energy levels throughout the day. You never know where you might end up while exploring; it might be a long time between proper meals.

8. Find out the off-peak hours of the tourist attractions you want to visit…

…and go then to avoid crowds. Crowds are pretty much guaranteed no matter the time of day at remotely popular attractions but you can avoid the worst of it with careful planning. Again, this was a bit of surprise to someone from a country as small as N.Z. where things are pretty much guaranteed to be quiet on weekdays and mornings.

9. Get a Metro map

This is a must if you’re checking out any city with a decent metro (e.g. Guangzhou, Shanghai and Hong Kong) due to the sheer amount of time you’ll spend using it. A paper map is better (no worries about dead batteries) or download a PDF online onto your phone or tablet.

10. Invest in or borrow a decent camera

As good as phone cameras are these days, there’s still no substitute for a standalone camera.

And finally (bonus tip 11), if I’ve learned one thing about travel so far it’s this: the big-name tourist attractions at any given destination can be pretty overrated. They’re often geared towards foreigners so much so that they shield you from the actual local culture. Some of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had travelling have been while wandering around exploring, taking it all in and spontaneously discovering things. So don’t just tick all the boxes, get out there and experience the authentic whatever-place-it-is.

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