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12 skills every traveler should know

If you’re traveling abroad for the first time, you might be wondering if there’s any special knowledge you should equip yourself with in order to become better travelers. Here, I have compiled for you a list of essential skills that every traveler should have. Although not all of them are compulsory, I think they would greatly enhance your travel experience.

#1 Swimming

If you go to a beach destination without knowing how to swim, your options become very limited. You can either sunbathe or soak in the water where it is only knee deep. Anything deeper than that, and you’d fear for your life. You can’t go snorkeling or scuba-diving, or stand-up paddling, or kayaking, or a host of other water activities, because you’re constantly scared of drowning.

I’m speaking from experience because I only learned to swim when I was 26. Sure, you can wear a life vest. But when you don’t know how to swim, you can never be able to relax enough to actually enjoy the experience. Imagine going to places like the Maldives and not being able to swim. What a shame it would be not to see the marine life it’s so famous for. 

Girl with snorkeling gear
Me, finally being able to snorkel without a life vest

#2 Riding A Scooter / Motorbike

Many Asian countries actually favor motorbikes/scooters over cars. If you travel to countries like Indonesia, Vietnam, and Cambodia, you’ll soon realize how inconvenient it is to not know how to ride one. Not all of the tourist attractions are easily accessible by walking or public transportation. Your only other option would be to rent a car or hire a driver, both of which are going to cost you a lot more than necessary, especially if you travel alone and can’t split the cost with others.

In my recent trip to Wae Rebo, for example, I had to pay Rp400,000 to hire an ojek driver, when I could have paid only a quarter of that amount if I knew how to drive it myself. So, yeah, I’m one of the few Asians who can’t ride a motorbike. I’m a hopeless Asian.

A bunch of scooter riders in Bagan, Myanmar
Bagan, Myanmar: I was the only one in this group who had to opt for an electric bike because I simply couldn’t handle a proper scooter.

#3 Dealing with Conversions

When you travel abroad, you’ll be dealing with a lot of numbers and conversions. Firstly, there will be the foreign currencies that you have to familiarize yourself with. It’s not that complicated with euros and dollars, but when you go to Indonesia, you’ll be dealing with five to six digits. That’s a lot of numbers to count. You need to be able to do these calculations in your head, so as not to get cheated when you change money or buy something,

Secondly, don’t forget the time difference. The departure and arrival times of your flight may follow different time zones. You don’t want to miss your flight because of a silly mistake like that (again, speaking from experience). Thirdly, for Americans, you will have to get used to the metric system.

Rupiah notes
Dealing with hundreds of thousands in Indonesia.

#4 Basic Survival Skills

If you’re going hiking, be it on a day trip or on a multi-day hike, this is a no-brainer. Obviously, you need to know how to pitch a tent and how to find your way around (using a compass, GPS, a map, etc). But apart from that, you should also be prepared for the worst-case scenarios.

Even if you go in a group, no one is free from the risk of getting lost, being caught in bad weather, or being separated from the group. So, you should definitely learn some basic survival skills, such as how to start a fire, how to look for water and food, and how to increase your chances of being found if you’re lost.

If you’ve spent most of your childhood outdoors, then you probably already know these skills. Otherwise, check out local hiking groups in your area, and see if they organize any workshops where you can learn them.

A group of people learning how to start a fire
Learning how to start a fire in a basic survival workshop

#5 First-Aid

First-aid skills are not only for paramedics. Accidents can happen anytime, anywhere, and to anyone — if not to you, then to someone near you, and you’d want to always be ready to act. If you’re traveling alone, this is especially important, even if you don’t think you’re going to do any high-risk activity. What if you accidentally choke on your food when you’re eating alone in your hotel room? Do you know how to do the Heimlich maneuver on yourself?

Companies usually provide free first-aid classes for their employees. But if you haven’t attended one already, don’t wait for your boss to organize it for you. There are organizations out there that provide these classes for the public, sometimes for free.

First-aid certificate
Certificate and reading materials from a free first-aid training I attended

#6 Self-Defense

I hope you will never have to use this skill, but if you do find yourself in a tricky situation, it could save your life. You don’t have to be a black-belt grandmaster in any martial art. It would suffice for you to know what to do if attacked and the sensitive points you should aim at to maximize damage on your attacker. In any case, self-defense skills will naturally train you to think faster on your feet and be more alert and aware of your surroundings. So, in the long run, it will benefit you in other aspects of your life as well.

Girl practicing Taekwondo
Me as a 3rd-grader, practicing my Taekwon-Do skills

#7 Haggling

In many places in the world, haggling is considered the norm. The first price that anyone quotes you is never the price you should be paying. This applies not only to goods sold in the markets, but also accommodation, tour packages, and taxi rides. So, if you want to be a savvy traveler that doesn’t get ripped off all the time, this is a must-have skill. Don’t worry if you’re not good at it the first time — it’s an art that you will hone with practice.

Personally though, I totally suck at haggling. I’m an introvert who’s slightly social phobic. Haggling is just too much social interaction for me. Besides, it makes me feel guilty, as though I’m the one trying to extort the seller. So, as much as I can, I try to shop at places with fixed prices and instead of taking taxis/tuktuks, I stick to buses or e-hailing apps where haggling is not necessary.

shopping in kathmandu, nepal
Kathmandu, Nepal: Trying to decide whether I should haggle

#8 Using Different Types of Toilets

The first image that comes to your mind is probably that of the dreaded squat toilet, also known as the Asian toilet. True, it might take some time to get used to the squatting position. First, you need to learn how to balance yourself and how not to make a mess. Believe me, I still struggle with this (like I said, I’m a hopeless Asian). And next, you need to learn how to wash yourself because most of these toilets do not come with toilet paper. Instead, there will probably be a water hose or a bucket of water, with which you’re supposed to wash yourself and also flush the toilet.

For Asians traveling to the West, however, this problem is reversed. We have to get used to ‘dry cleaning’ ourselves. I remember when I first traveled to Europe, I had to use so much toilet paper before I felt clean enough. Sometimes, I even had to carry a water bottle with me just so I would have some water to clean myself with. Also, some Asians do not feel comfortable sitting on the toilet seat. Instead they prefer squatting on it. That’s why you might see this sign in some restrooms in Asia:

Image result for do not squat on toilet bowl sign

#9 Eating Like the Locals

Because I consider myself a foodie, most of my travels usually revolve around food. Trying different types of local food is usually the topmost item on my to-do list. And I prefer doing it the way the locals do. That means, if the locals like to eat their breakfast standing on the sidewalk, that’s what I will do too. This adds to the authenticity of the experience and, I think, makes it more fun.

In Malaysia and many other Asian countries, we prefer eating rice with our fingers. To us, it just doesn’t taste the same with fork and spoon. Try it for yourself. It’s a skill that, if mastered, will surely impress the locals. Similarly, I learned to use the chopsticks when I started traveling solo around Asia. It definitely allowed me to enjoy the food better.

Me eating with chopsticks
Me, learning to use chopsticks at a roadside stall in Bangkok.

#10 Learning the Local Language

Most people in the service industry can speak at least some English. This includes hostel staff, restaurant workers, taxi drivers, and tour agents. So, if you can only speak English, chances are you’d still be able to get by. However, at some point, and especially if you travel independently without a tour guide, you’re going to come across someone who doesn’t speak your language. Just learn a few basic words like ‘hello’, ‘thank you’, ‘yes’, ‘no’ and ‘what’s your name’. It can go a long way.

When I walked 240 kilometers from Portugal to Spain, I frequently crossed paths with the local villagers who mostly spoke zero English. Some kept their heads down, while some looked at me warily — perhaps because of my skin color (I didn’t see many other Asians around). But the moment I greeted them with a “Bom dia” (good morning), suddenly they were all smiles! It was amazing to see what a big difference a simple gesture could make.

Me and a hostel owner in Barcelinhos
Me and the hostel owner in Barcelinhos, Portugal

#11 Reading Maps

You might think that this is an obsolete skill to learn, considering that now we have the convenience of smart phones, Waze, and offline maps. However, you might find yourself in a situation where you wish you knew how to read a map, for example, when there is no GPS coverage, or when your battery is dead, or when you’re without a phone. When I lost my phone in Latvia, I realized that I had been relying so much on gadgets that I had forgotten how to do basic stuff like reading a map.

Paper maps
Photo credit: Gis Resources

#12 Making Friends with Strangers

If reading maps fails, you’re going to have to ask strangers for direction. I know that this can be daunting. As children, we were always told not to talk to strangers. And so, as adults, we continue to feel this general distrust towards people we don’t know. The most difficult part is probably trying to figure out which one of them you can trust.

But when you travel alone, it’s impossible not to talk to anyone. Everyone around you is a stranger, from the people you meet at your hostel to the people selling you bus tickets to the people sitting next to you on the plane. If you choose not to talk to any stranger, it’s going to be one very long and lonely trip.

So, despite my social inhibitions, I try as much as I can to connect with the locals and other travelers. Out of the many hundreds of strangers I met and talked to, perhaps only one or two of them gave me bad experiences. The rest of them simply blew me away with their generosity and kindness. Some of them remain friends with me to this day.

Image may contain: 4 people, including Raja Ummi Nadrah, people sitting, table, food and indoor
Colombo, Sri Lanka: Strangers who invited me into their home.

Do you have all of the skills listed above? It’s okay if you don’t. Just because you can’t ride a motorbike, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t book that flight ticket now. In fact, I’m still struggling with some of them, and I still manage to get by. Sometimes, you just learn them as you go. Happy travels!

Posted in Travel Tips

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