9 Ways I Break Conventional Travel Wisdom

I often read advice from a lot of “travel experts” on how people should travel. After 5 years of non-stop travel I’ve realized that I break most of the conventional wisdom that people believe in when it comes to traveling. Here are 9 ways I don’t follow conventional travel wisdom. Some are things I probably shouldn’t do and some are thing I think everyone should do.


1) I always check a bag

Whenever I hear “travel experts” give tips, near the top of the list is the recommendation not to check a bag and to only bring a carry-on. I have checked a bag on every flight I’ve been on in the last five years, save for a visa run I did to Singapore once. During that time I have never lost a bag and I’ve only had a bag delayed once, and that was due to my original flight being delayed because of the volcano in Iceland.

The truth is, it adds very little time to the act of getting out of the airport. Perhaps 10 minutes at most, and probably less if you are going through passport control because your bag will probably be waiting for you by the time you get to baggage claim. It adds nothing to your check in time.

Because I usually am on international flights and have elite status on all 3 major alliances, I seldom have to pay extra baggage fees.

2) I don’t pack light

My camera bag is heavy. It is deceptively very heavy. One of my small pleasures is letting people I meet try to pick it up. Technically, I’m probably in violation of carry on rules for almost every flight I take, but I’m seldom called on it becasue it doesn’t look heavy and I’m so used to carrying it, I make it look easy.

The fact is camera gear and electronics are heavy. Metal and glass are some of the heaviest things you can carry while traveling. I do it because I have to if I want to run a website on the road. You could possibly get by with an iPad and a small camera for a short period, but if you want to take your blogging seriously (and I do) you can’t skimp on your tools.

My checked bag is also almost always at the weight limit (20kg or 50lbs). Considering that bag consists of all my worldly possessions, I give myself a pass.

3) I often do not use travel insurance

This might be the one I’m least proud of. I know I probably should get insurance and I’m not recommending people travel without it, but the truth is I often go without an active policy. In 5 years of traveling around the world I’ve never had anything stolen, never damaged anything so much I couldn’t use it, and I’ve never gotten seriously injured.

I did carry insurance for the first few years I was traveling, but I eventually just let it lapse and I’ve only gotten policies infrequently when I have to (usually for a group trip).

As I carry more expensive gear and do more adventurous things, I probably will just go back to getting insurance, but as of right now I am currently going without.

4) I never use travelers checks

Travels checks might be going out of style, but I still occasionally meet people who insist on having them “just in case”. The reality is that in the 21st Century, most people probably wouldn’t know what to do with a travelers check if you gave them one. You are far better off just carrying an extra ATM card to get cash when you need it, rather than paying the fee for travelers checks.

5) I don’t own a frequent flyer credit card

This is something I not only should do, but I want to do. I’ve traveled the last 5-years without a credit card. I’ve used a debit card the entire time. I have a very primal revulsion to debt. Other than a home mortgage, I’ve never had any debt. I haven’t had a credit card in almost 15 years.

Having a frequent flyer credit card would probably help me accrue more miles, but the problem I always have is deciding which airline and card to choose. I have elite status on American, Delta and United and I usually don’t have a choice in what airline I fly.

Also, because I never have any debt and haven’t use a credit card in over a decade, I’m afraid I’d get rejected because I haven’t built up any credit history. I’ve basically been a black hole of consumer data for the last 5 years.

6) I never use hand sanitizer

Not only do I not use hand sanitizer, but I also bite my fingernails (gross, I know). Nonetheless, I hardly ever get sick while traveling. Your immune system is like anything else in your body, you use it or you lose it. There are some legitimate things you should be worried about as far as health while traveling. Constantly slathering your hands in sanitizer is not one of them.

7) I never use a money belt

When I did my first around the world trip back in 1999 I purchased one of these things. After using it for a day I felt absolutely ridiculous and have never worn one since.

There are easier ways to foil pickpockets than wearing a special undergarment just for your currency. Just buy pants with deep front pockets and that will pretty much solve the problem. Likewise, I don’t use a passport holder that goes around my neck. I keep my passport in a pocket of my Scottevest jacket.

If you do get mugged by someone with a weapon, your money belt isn’t going to fool anyone. It isn’t as if money belts are a secret muggers in other countries don’t know about.

8) I don’t use a guidebook

When I started traveling back in 2007 I purchased my first and only guidebook. It was the Moon’s Guide to the South Pacific. It was expensive, it was heavy and much of the important information (especially regarding flight schedules) was hopelessly out of date.

I set down my thoughts on guidebooks several years go and my opinion hasn’t changed since. The more I have learned about how guidebooks are written makes me even more skeptical of them. The information you can get online is cheaper, lighter and usually better.

9) I’m not loyal to any one airline or hotel chain

I’d really like to be loyal to someone, but no one has really given me any incentive to. I took a flight from Los Angeles to London last year on Air New Zealand, which is a member of Star Alliance with United. I took this flight specifically to earn miles with United. They didn’t honor the trips which meant I didn’t get elite status for 2012 which meant I had every incentive to use anyone BUT United. I ended up flying enough on Star Alliance in 2012 already to get my elite status back, but it was done via uncomfortable coach seats.

I can tell similar stories for the other airlines and hotel programs just aren’t that big of a deal for me because I seldom stay in chain hotels. Most loyalty programs seem to do just do enough to stay competitive with their competitors, not enough to make a compelling case for doing business with them.

What bits of conventional wisdom do you violate when you travel?

  • 61 Comments... What's your take?

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Comments

  1. Dustin says:

    I don’t insure my gear either. With the money I’ve saved from not insuring it over the past 3 years, I probably could go and buy a new camera and kit right now. I haven’t lost anything along the way either.

    I do carry emergency travel health insurance though, that’s just one thing I’m not willing to gamble on (I’m Canadian after all).

  2. Although I’m not a permanent traveler, I have much of the same philosophy as your list of 9. I do have a credit card (Amex, paid off every month) so get some points that way, and I still buy the occasional guide book. The latter is strange since everything else I read is for the Kindle.

  3. Aus Globetrotter - Jaryd Krause says:

    What, you don’t use travel insurance! well each to their own. I am a sure believer in travel insurance and would hate to get stuck without it in a medical situation (I have seen some ugly situations). It has done me well for stolen goods in the past too. You are quite lucky, I hope you can keep it up. Other than the travel insurance, I agree with all your points, especially about hand sanitizer, you need to train you immune system to cope ;)

  4. annie andre says:

    Agree with you on carry on but another reason we choose to check bags is s cause of the kids. It’s easier to manage our crew of five sans bags and have bags waiting for us at the carousel. I have never had a bag lost yet

  5. Thank you so much for writing this! I’ve been traveling for the last 5 months, and have heard so many comments about exactly the things in your post: my lack of travel insurance, guidebooks, travelers checks or a FF credit card, my heavy camera gear, the wheelie case I check in on flights (backpacks are a bad idea for me due to an operation a few years ago) etc. All those comments have been along the lines of, “long term travel: ur doing in rong”, which is rather annoying from people who’ve never traveled for more than a few weeks!

    Admittedly I’ve never traveled for more than a few weeks before myself, so I have wondered if they were right. So hearing a far more experienced traveler ignore the guidebook wisdom too is great. I’ve noticed that a lot of travel writing is aimed at people sitting at home dreaming of traveling, so I wonder if that’s who the tips are really for?

  6. Alfonso says:

    I agree with most points. I also never carry a credit card, and only some cash and debit cards.
    One precaution I do take (whenever possible) is to use ATM machines ONLY during banking hours. If something goes wrong, and your card is eaten, you can get it back right away. Exception to this rule is usually at the airport’s arrival hall when entering a new country.

  7. Rebecca says:

    Fellow long term traveler here, and… my list is the same with one exception…I would not be without my capital one Venture card. No foreign transaction fees, 2 points for every dollar spent, and the best part….you can redeem it for ANY travel related purchase. I have used it to reimburse flights, hotels and rental cars with the click of a mouse, money spent is back in my account! I use it for all my purchases, carry much less cash, and pay it off every month…so no debt!!!

  8. Wandergirl says:

    Great to hear of a traveller breaking the rules! I always feel so guilty about the no money belt thing! :)

    I still do prefer to not check baggage if I can, mostly because it forces me to pack light. I also do use travel guides – more as a point to start off at though, and then do online research from there.

  9. I don’t like money belts (or passport holders) either. I find them a bit tacky! But neither my money nor passport has ever been stolen or gone missing, so I guess I’m doing well! :D

  10. M Freckleton says:

    The frequent flyer card is definitely necessary, but it comes with a certain amount of airline loyalty in exchange for the savings. Great blog, and a really good blog entry. +1′d

  11. Lars says:

    With you on most of them. I usually don’t have enough baggage to check, but it’s more that I don’t want to lug as much stuff around (and that AA lost my bags in ORD about 7 times over 5 years). D7000, two lenses, 2 shirts, 2 pairs of pants, some underwear, iPhone and a small drop kit don’t take up that much room. I also still read guidebooks before I leave, but don’t take them with me. Going online at the destination and finding places online works much better–as does just wandering around once I’m done with the 1-2 main attractions.

    One reason to get a credit card is that some give you an insane number of miles for signing up. For example 50,000 on the United card. That’s 2 free flights in the US and Canada. But remember to cancel it after the 1st year.

  12. Alija G. says:

    Your tips are great. I think that we all might learn something useful from the experienced traveler like you. I definitely agree with everything except with #3.

    I personally think that insurance is quite important – especially if you constantly travel. But, of course, that is my own opinion.

  13. Marc says:

    Amen on throwing the travel guides in the garbage… everytime we’ve tried to follow a lonely planet guide for restaurant recommendations etc – we’ve found them to be outdated and incorrect.

  14. I like that you feel free enough to live without all those rules – I find it hard to keep up with all the frequent fliers, and fidelity points, and all that jazz. I try to do it so I can get more for my money but it’s really hard to do sometimes!

  15. Jamie says:

    I love to travel! and I love finding travel blogs and sites that offer information about traveling tips! I just recently planned a trip to Vegas and the cite I booked some of my adventures through (Galavantier.com) had a list of do’s and don’ts too. thanks for making traveling easier for us rookies! :) Now off to ditch my hand sanitizer and money belt LOL.

  16. Greetings from China … As a true global nomad – who has carried his home/backpack on my back for 20+ years (about 15 kg in total) – I recently decided to ditch my bulky DSLR kit in favour of a smaller camera (and it’s been exceptional) but I still find guidebooks – to avoid the added weight strictly e-versions on my smartphone – useful for maps and general info.

    the candy trail … a nomad across the planet, since 1988

  17. Andrea Pes says:

    Point 6 made me laugh. Very interesting!!

  18. Wine Harlots says:

    A list for people to think about. It’s all about preferences. And a lot of the lists about there seemed to be designed for people who haven’t ever traveled.

    I agree about the hand sanitizers, but I love a packet of Wet Wipes when I covered in road grime.

    I pack lighter than most Americans, and it’s still too heavy. I had my wake-up call lugging my laptop/camera/video and my luggage up and down the Metro in Paris. Never again!

  19. Kris says:

    Re checked bags: Where else would I keep my knife, scissors and corkscrew? As for carry-on, as in on my back, I took my MacBook Air on the 800 KM Camino de Santiago, and liters of wine on the ‘W’ trek through Patagonia. No regrets.

  20. Interesting.

    Most of your points are personal choices, though so what works for one may not be the best for another.

    Although I’d agree that the “experts” in most fields don’t know what they’re talking about, I’d agree with them on point number one. We travel as light as possible,and I couldn’t tell you the last time we checked a bag.

    Not sure why you need so much camera gear for blogging. We do just fine with a smallish 8 year old 3.1 megapixel camera with a 10x optical zoom lens. It’s not the camera, it’s the photographer.

    Agree with you on the travel insurance. Most people are overinsured, and that’t what the insurance companies count on.

    I didn’t think anybody used travelers checks. Why would they?

    Not having a credit card doesn’t let you take advantage of many points programs. Doesn’t seem to be hurting your lifestyle though, so it obviously works for you.

    No hand sanitizer for us either!

    No need to carry around guidebooks. Too much info on the internet.

    • Gary says:

      They why do professional photographers all use SRL’s instead of point and shoot cameras?

      Of course cameras make a difference. You can’t change lenses on a point and shoot. You can’t adjust your ISO, shutter speed or aperture.

      I don’t want to do just fine, I want to take photos of exceptional quality. You aren’t going to do that with an 8 year old point and shoot.

  21. I agree with most of yours.I don`t like travelling with travel cheques but i must because bank in Nepal don`t issue international credit/debit card..its shame..

  22. Nice list! You need to get a few rewards credit cards though. I can only imagine how many miles you would’ve earned between sign up bonuses & spending.
    I try to pack light when possible & use hand sanitizer when offered some by my wife.

  23. Cris says:

    I kind see your reasoning behind each of the things on your list. However, I would caution about not having travel insurance. Someone already posted one good reason why you ought to have it.

    I would add another way to break conventional wisdom travel (someone also noted this) is to don’t buy a guide book…in other words have some spontaneity and don’t plan your every move. It’s a bit more exciting that way ;-)

  24. Alex says:

    Totally agree.
    Though i use guidebooks to avoid touristy areas and hotels/hostels, as usually if they are on lonely planet they are full of toursits and prices are higher.
    Hand sanitizers – i bought one on my first trip to Asia, forgot about it on the 3d day, and despite recommendations not to drink fressh juices, i did that in Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Indonesia and was totally fine.
    I prefer to keep my luggage minimized so check in only occasionally as my backpack usually fits into cabin-luggage.

  25. Do you carry a steripen for water purification?

    I think it’s tough to pack for all environments in a carry on size bag, especially if your bring some camping type stuff, along with a laptop.

  26. Thomas says:

    I agree with most of your list except 5

  27. Megan says:

    Didn’t read your other comments, so if I’m repeating someone else’s thoughts, my apologies. Consider a basic American Express rewards card. You earn points that you can exchange for miles on many different airlines. Plus most of he time you must pay your balance in full, so no debt.

  28. Crissy says:

    I also always check a bag. Every now and then i will travel “light” and don’t find it’s THAT much easier. And I do usually carry a DSLR with an extra lens, a laptop and or my Ipad – that doesn’t leave much room for clothes and stuff.

    I do sometimes travel with Travelers Cheques, but I don’t pay a fee for them at my bank, I usually come home and just deposit them back into my bank account. But, if I had to pay a fee I wouldn’t bother with them. I do think they would be most useful in a place where ATM’s are not as reliable or widely available. When I arrived in Egypt it was a weekend and I got the last $60 worth Pounds from the ATM and then the next day my friend’s ATM card got eaten, the person on the cruise ship told us that the ATM machines get hungry at night. That was the one time I used my Travelers Cheques.

    Instead of guidebooks, I like apps, there are a lot of free ones out there – the nice thing is that they usually work Offline and they’ll have addresses and hours for different tourist attractions.

    For credit cards – you might you better off with an AMEX or Chase Sapphire card where you can transfer the miles to several different airlines/hotels. If you don’t like the CREDIT part of the card then AMEX would be better since it’s a charge card you have to pay off each month.

  29. William says:

    You’re quite right about traveler’s cheques. I used to work at a small non-retail business, and we were somewhat befuddled the first time someone paid with traveler’s cheques. Whose signature is needed on which line? Do we put them in the “cash” or “checks” column of our bank deposit form?

  30. I totally agree with you on checking bags. I think if you’re travelling anywhere in world except the US waiting for you bag isn’t usually a problem. Like you say, you have to queue for passport control and by the time you’re through your bag is usually starting to make it’s way around the carousel. I don’t have all the camera gear but I do have a 14kg toddler to carry along with my carry on baggage. I tried a domestic trip around Australia with just carry on and it was almost impossible to manage baby and luggage. Getting more stuff in a big checked bag is easier than carrying lots of small bags.

    As for the insurance thing, if you’re outside of expensive countries like the US then paying for a few health-related services usually falls under the insurance excess anyway so you’re better off just paying for it.

  31. Lucy says:

    Wow, you’re lucky not to have lost anything! I’ve got a real fear about travelling with no insurance, although whenever I have had something stolen I’ve actually been at home in England. I’d still be twitchy if I didn’t get it though.

  32. Can’t say the no travel insurance thing is a good idea.

    I used to think I was invincible while traveling and didn’t bother with it until I actually did get sick and forked out $13,000 in medical fees (which would have cost me nothing if I had the insurance).

  33. Tash says:

    Ohhh, I am onboard with the majority of these (except the insurance, don’t have the stones to go without!!! You have been very lucky!!).
    I think the loyalty programs make you spend more on occasions to collect miles, when you could get a better deal by booking from your own research and putting together a non-standard path.

  34. Sherry Ott says:

    Looks like all nomads are alike – I am the same on every one o these except insurance. I still like to get a regular physical/checkups and I want to be covered when I’m in the US.
    I recently had someone tell me that I carry too much stuff with me – and quite frankly it pissed me off. I know I’m not a great packer – but it’s not easy to carry equipment for blogging/photos and travel for 5 or 9 months at a time in different climates.
    Keep on breaking the rules …it’s more fun that way.

  35. I’m the one napping after my flight to Europe, rather than following conventional wisdom and staying up until the local bedtime. Everyone else is jet-lagged, but after 2-3 hours in bed, I’m up and ready to go hang out until midnight. No jet lag at all.

  36. Renee says:

    O M G. I couldn’t imagine not have a credit card that offered miles. I understand about not knowing which airline to be loyal too….that’s why I have the Chase Sapphire preferred visa. It will allow you to transfer your points to any airline (1:1) and you get 2 pts for travel related purchases and dining. It works with these programs for sure: United/Continental Airlines, Southwest Airlines, British Airways, Korean Airlines, Amtrak, Marriott, Hyatt & Priority Club.

  37. I dont think that its that unconventional Gary, I do many of the things that you say above here. I also carry a wad of cash to the country that I first get to which is something that I shouldn’t do either. I find not having a guide book more adventurous!

  38. Megan says:

    I check my bag if I have transfers, because I hate running with a heavy bag on my back! So I totally agree with you on that. Especially if you’re flying into an airport like LAX and you have to take a shuttle bus between terminals to catch your flight. I had a very close call there to catch my red eye flight once and I feel like I would have been better off without my bag.

    I hate buying insurance… it feels like a waste of money because I’ve had very few occasions where I’ve had to claim anything on insurance, except for medical in the US I guess. Anything I travel with, I’m prepared to lose.

  39. phil says:

    I’m with you on 4,8 and 9. I don’t bring hand sanitizer, but wipes come in handy, I’ve found, especially on long bus rides.

    I also go with the money belt + decoy wallet. If someone wants to rob me, they can take an old wallet with a small amount of cash and some expired credit cards. They may know money belts exist, but hopefully they won’t go digging around after taking the wallet.

  40. Tom Bartel says:

    I’m 8 for 9 with you Gary. I do use a credit card–the Chase Sapphire Preferred has no foreign exchange fees. That’s the reason right there. It also gives points for the usual purchases. I am getting tired of carrying all those cameras, though. But I sure like the quality you get from them instead of the pocket Canon S100, which I also carry when I want to be less obtrusive. Fine for people pics. Not so much for landscapes.

  41. Brian says:

    I wouldn’t feel bad about not having insurance. A good rule of thumb is to only insure things that you can’t reasonably aford to replace. Most travel items don’t fit that bill, so I’ve never gotten travel insurance and never will. A policy to cover your camera gear may make sense considering what you carry, but anything beyond that probably isn’t necessary.

    A note on credit cards. If you can’t choose an airline card, get a cash back card. Pay the bill in full every month and it works just like a debit card – although one that pays you to use it. My credit cards paid me $1,134 last year and I paid them absolutely nothing (no interest, no annual fee, nothing). It’s one of the only truly free lunches around. All I had to do was swipe the card and pay the bill. Easy, and debt free.

    • catena says:

      Like Brian above, t’s also my tactic to use money-back no-annual-fee credit cards that I pay in full each month.
      I try never to check a bag. Domestically, waiting for it can and has added 1/2 hr to a full hour getting out of the airport. Once, in Dulles, right after a security rule change had everyone checking bags, it took almost 2 hours. Also, it gives me the flexibility to change flights (especially connections) for a faster return. I also avoid checking a bag on international flights when it makes sense (no connection). We can easily do vacations out of our backpacks. Such a pleasure to walk out past all the people waiting at the baggage carousel. On the other hand, as I get older, I’m less thrilled about hauling the weight on my back! The backpacks have the advantage, though, of allowing you to bypass a lot of people who have to take escalators or the long way around.

  42. Ren says:

    I agree that it would be difficult to travel light when you’ve got a lot of tech/photography gear on you. I usually don’t, so that space (and weight) that I don’t use allows me to travel light and not check any luggage.

    What I do end up doing is not checking my bag on the way to my destination, but checking it on the way home. My bag is usually only partially full upon departure, and it allows me to have space to stuff it during my trip. ^^

    Travel insurance for me is a must, as it is a requirement for travel visas (Schengen, China, etc.). Damn this crappy passport I have!

    I don’t have travelers checks (never used them) or a money belt.

  43. While my travel patterns are certainly different from yours, I agree with your item 1. I usually fly domestically out of a relatively small airport (ONT) and have to change planes at a hub (Dallas, Atlanta, etc.). To make my life easier while changing planes, I check my bag and carry as little as possible with me as carry-on. The only time that my bag was delayed was when I had an extremely short connection at O’Hare – I made it, but my bag got to my destination two days later.

  44. Does anyone use travelers checks anymore??

  45. Jodi says:

    I’m on board with most of what you’ve written. Bag is always checked, and is heavier than I’d like right now as I’ve got nicer clothes with me for meetings; certainly not what I had in mind when I started backpacking. I do have medical insurance, however – and it’s come in handy. Hopefully not needed (it’s insurance after all) but for the very dire accidents if they do happen, i’d like to make sure there’s a way for me to get airlifted out or get adequate care elsewhere if needs be.

  46. Kate says:

    I’m right there with you on the hand sanitizer. And the nail-biting. I never got seriously ill while traveling in China for seven months and I considered it a credit to my nail-biting as a child. I did get the swine flu, but contrary to the death-throes it may bring on in others, I broke the fever with an aspirin every day and was pretty much alright with rest in three days. Then I got a bonus vacation when the school closed down for swine flu two days after I was cured.

  47. Furio says:

    Point 6 made me laugh as when I moved to China I was so worried about hygiene.

    Then I saw the kitchen of some restaurants I used to go… first time I wanted to puke.

    However I never got sick because of food. Yeah, either you use or lose your immune system ; )

  48. Noir says:

    I can agree with all your points but for 2). I just love travelling light. 7) is kinda funny but very true.

  49. Michael says:

    While I do agree with most of your points I definitely don’t think it is wise for people to travel (especially long periods of time) without insurance. Although you have been lucky thus far I have been witness to too many cases where people have been left high and dry. It sucks having to replace stolen items but more importantly if you need medical assistance you are screwed and I have seen families lose their life savings.

    Also I think it is a good practice to carry hand sanitizer. I got Giardia in India and still feel the effects years later. There is no need to be clinical with the way you use it but more a matter of common sense.

    • Jodi says:

      Hand sanitizer won’t do much for giardia, most usually! It’s usually from someone else not washing their hands and serving you food. I used hand sanitizer in my travels but managed to get giardia twice, and it really had nothing to do with my own cleanliness. In any case, I don’t travel with it anymore, but do of course wash my hands instead ;)

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About Gary Arndt

My name is Gary Arndt. In March 2007 I set out to travel around the world...
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