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5 Things Every Backpacker Should Do Before Leaving Home

2010 May 13

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Despite my recommendation to roll with it and plan as little as possible (on long trips), there are still some things that I do before every trip to make sure things go as smoothly as possible. The last thing you want to be doing while backpacking is to waste a day dealing with frozen bank accounts, canceling lost credit cards or dealing with some other BS.

You really want to waste time dealing with crap when you could be enjoying this?

Here are 5 things I do that have made my life a lot easier while traveling:

1. Photocopying my passport, driver’s license, credit/debit cards and whatever else I’m bringing and sending them to my email – keeping an electronic copy of all of these items will make you not want to kill yourself if you lose them. You’ll be able to call the number on the back of your cards to cancel, show the embassy a copy of your passport so they know you aren’t Osama Bin Laden, etc. By sending them to my email, I’ll have access to them anywhere there’s internet (and trust me, a place that needs cash but has no access to the internet has become a rarity in today’s world) and there’s no risk of losing those copies.

Despite his super powers, Batman may still lose his passport. Courtesy of Oddee.

2. Calling my banks and credit card companies – you’ll want to call the holders of your $$$ so they don’t become the barrier to your $$$. Nothing throws off red flags like a credit card charge halfway around the world so not surprisingly they’ll freeze the card. And once it’s frozen, verifying that you are really the person who owns the card can be a MAJOR pain in the ass. Don’t expect to sort it out through the internet and have fun calculating timezones  and international calling fees to unfreeze your card. So make sure you notify your banks unless you enjoy doing the aforementioned activities on your vacation.

3. Storing away some emergency cash – “America sucks, Americans are stupid, fat and ignorant, etc. etc” is the popular foreign view. Guess what happens when you throw a crisp $100 United States dollar bill in their face? You see a little twinkle in their eyes and they stop speaking because their jaw goes slightly slack. Cash. Is. King.

These gentlemen have the right idea.

Although $100 isn’t that much to us, it’s still a massive sum to be held in one bill.  So, yes, despite America starting a near apocalyptic financial crisis, the US Dollar is still king (ever heard of Greece and the Euro?). So always pack a few Benjamins and put them away in some deep pocket in your sack. This is your emergency money so only spend it when you are out of other options, not because you want some suits.

4. Bringing stacks of passport sized photos – you never know when they’ll need your mug for some official business. And the price to take a photo (if you don’t already have one) is pretty much extortion. So carry enough so you’ll skip the lines and save the cash.

Here is a great site that I use for creating free passport photos. Gives you 5 photos per 5×7.

5. Finding out what my bank fees are – Getting robbed is never fun. Getting robbed by your own bank is even worse. Banks make their money in two ways: 1) The difference in interest between the rate that they lend at and the rate that they borrow at and 2) fees. Assuming you aren’t taking out a bank loan to go travel, banks will be raking the dough off of you via fees.

Don't let that nice kitty fool you, it'll charge the F*** out of you.

Fees are typically 3% for credit cards, 1% for debit cards and $3-5 per withdrawal on all ATMs; the caveat being often both banks charge ATM fees and add on a FX fee so you could be paying $10+ per withdrawal. This makes a difference when you’re spending a lot of cash so it makes sense to weigh paying 3% vs. paying a flat-rate charge at a ATM (but then having to carry a lot of cash). Many countries outside of Europe/developed world don’t accept plastic so your choice is already made for you.

Fear not, there are a couple ways around this. You could get an awesome checking account like the one from Schwab which charges zero ATM fees worldwide or look for global bank partners that don’t charge fees. In both cases, it will save you heartache from spending money to spend money.

If you follow these 5 tips, you’ll be well on your way to an amazing adventure.

45 Responses leave one →
  1. mkinthemotherfcukingmix permalink
    May 13, 2010

    dearest paul duan. you are a genius. and your words of wisdom make my life 1000% better. as usual. maaaaaake it raaaaaaaaaaaain. xoxo

  2. May 13, 2010

    What a great blog, thanks for sharing! 😉

  3. May 13, 2010

    Thanks so much for these tips (I was planning for backpacking too). It certainly help me alot.

  4. May 13, 2010

    I want that Hello Kitty card.
    Oh yeah, and great tip. I wish I was still 19 so I could use them 😉

  5. scanman permalink
    May 13, 2010

    $100 Jesus! How scary this peace of paper is:))

    • May 13, 2010

      Unfortunately, us Americans don’t have the biggest and baddest in everything 😉

  6. May 13, 2010

    I agree on these tips, good job. I would go one step further to say bring some traveler’s cheques as well. I have never used credit cards while traveling. I do contact my bank and let them know (in case of emergency). The largest fee I recall paying it $2.00 which isn’t much when I think about the fact that I can have that replaces and not a crisp $100 bill.

    • May 13, 2010

      I can’t personally comment on traveler’s checks because I have not used them but the general sense I get is that they are slowly becoming a thing of the past.

      • Penny permalink
        May 13, 2010

        I use traveler’s checks (cheques) as kind of insurance. Banks anywhere will normally cash them. Retailers in many countries however Do Not Use Them – at all.

      • Penny permalink
        May 13, 2010

        PS-cool blog

      • May 18, 2010

        They are not as common, but they are the safest bet and the only country I recall that I could not cash them in recently was Burma (Myanmar) which you cannot use anything except cash. I felt safer carrying a mix of cash, traveler’s cheques and an emergency card. Of the three the only thing easily replaceable were the traveler’s cheques had I lost anything. In the end to each his own.

  7. May 13, 2010

    Wonderful tips and humorously written! Will be making sure to follow these next time I travel – already experienced the frozen account scenario – never fun when you’re halfway around the world and in a different time zone! Keep up the great work!

  8. FLPN permalink
    May 13, 2010

    What a great blog! love those photos, especially the first one 🙂

  9. May 13, 2010

    thank you for the useful information.

  10. May 13, 2010

    You are hilarious! Great tips, though. We are going leaving for a backpacking trip this weekend.

  11. May 13, 2010

    I love backpacker lists; they’re so much fun and so useful! I leave a photocopy of my passport, etc with my parents at home, so they can pass on the info if anything comes up – but the email idea is excellent! Thanks.

  12. May 13, 2010

    Thanks for the great post and information. Usefule with any kind of trip outside of the country. Thank you.

  13. Raul Alanis permalink
    May 13, 2010

    These are really good tips. I do have a question though…What if someone gets into your email account? Wouldn’t they have all your information right at their fingertips? Just a thought…

  14. ninagrandiose permalink
    May 13, 2010

    All useful and valid tips. I would add that if you’re traveling outside the country, a stack of $1.00 bills can come in very handy for all sorts of situations, though they are bulky.

  15. May 13, 2010

    Good tips especially the one about emailing to yourself copies of documents.
    I travelled with my pack once for 13 months. I carried mostly american currency and no credit cards. Often shop owners in countries don’t accept Credit cards due to there being so much fraud but like you said they recognize american money.
    One thing I also did was create secret inside pockets in my clothing for extra copies of documents and some emergency cash.
    If you wish to see some fun pictures from Nice, France check out
    That’s my blog. I welcome your feedback.

    • May 13, 2010

      Yes, secret inside pockets! When traveling for the first time on our own, my bff’s mom made us a little pocket which we could pin to the inside of our clothes. We carried our ID and extra cash in it, even when wearing a dress/skirt.

  16. May 14, 2010

    having a Singapore pink identity card myself…..the one you posted caught my eye and it’s hilarious!! 🙂

  17. May 14, 2010

    Having spent years managing seasonal staff working abroad, I can say that had these tips (and others equally as commonsensical) been distributed to every teenager in their final year at school, my life would have been a whole lot easier!

  18. May 14, 2010

    Nice post. Agree with you wholeheartedly on the getting robbed by banks from overseas ATM withdrawals. The convenience is there, but the price you pay can be substantial. If I am charged a flat fee for each withdrawal, I will withdraw a bigger amount each time. Max it out if needed.

    Can I post this on my travel blog as well?

    • May 14, 2010

      I almost always maxed out for that reason. But even then, sometimes you get screwed. For example, in Vietnam it was around 5 MILLION dong per withdrawal but that only amounted to ~$310 because of their ridiculous 16,000:1 exchange rate.

      On the other hand, in Siem Reap, it was a ridiculous maximum of USD$2,000 per withdrawal.

      Don’t mind at all if you link this from your blog.

  19. May 14, 2010

    This was very helpful information. Thanks for sharing it.

  20. May 14, 2010

    Hey! Great advice. I have travelled the world. Lived in five countries now and seven different states. Forgive me British folk. It is true they do think the worst of us. We are stupid, ignorant, blah-blah-in-your-face. I was really feeling “poor me” after applying for 80 jobs ranging from clerks in chain stores to PA’s before getting an interview whilst living in England. And my boss got slagged by her colleagues for hiring me…


    The world despises our politics but it does love our cash. We can’t have one without the other.

    Great site. Fresh ideas.

  21. May 14, 2010

    Great article. I would make sure to advise people to also carry a stash of $20 bills as well, as there are MANY counterfeit $100 bills out there (nationally produced in Iran & North Korea), so many people are truly leery of accepting $100 bills.

  22. May 15, 2010

    Thanks for the tips! My godson is off on a round the world backpacking trip with his friend- I have forwarded him your post- great tips and some I would’ve never thougt of!

  23. May 15, 2010

    I use travellers cheques wherever I go. It seems like a safe method.

  24. May 16, 2010

    This blog is very good. Thanks for this. I will bookmark this page.

  25. May 16, 2010

    I am the first time on this site and am really enthusiastic about and so many good articles.

    I think it’s just very good..


  26. domino diva permalink
    May 19, 2010

    If only i had known this before backpacking oz…..doh ( information taken on board) CHEERS…..

  27. May 19, 2010

    ya the photocopying of your passport is a good one. in some countries if you lose yours they wont let you return home

  28. Brad permalink
    May 20, 2010

    Intriguing input! These are some really good tips to keep in mind. 🙂

    I’m likely going to be studying abroad in Switzerland or the Netherlands and I’ll likely be using most, if not all, of the tips just for emergencies.

    Keep up the blogging!

  29. May 27, 2010

    thanks for sharing the site for the passport thing, really helpful! 🙂

  30. June 11, 2010

    Not sure I can do my year on the road with as little planning! I am planning just about everything I can. At the end of the day though I will be just walking out the door and seeing what happens. Just some stuff you can not plan for huh, especially what you will see and do on the road!

  31. June 11, 2010

    great idea about photocopying your id and emailing it to yourself.
    top post.

  32. April 28, 2013

    Way cool! Some extremely valid points! I appreciate you penning this article and also the rest of the site is also really good.

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