PLANNING IN ADVANCE AND RESEARCHING LOCAL CUSTOMS: My travel checklist

The other day I wrote about how I find that having a standard travel routine helps make travel planning easier.

So I decided to write my list of the things I do for my trips – but of course depending on the trip you may not need to spend much time on these things.

1. Travel-related activities to do before you even know where you’re going:

These are best-practice things that you will want to have in place at all times.

  • Ensure your passport is valid and renew it 6 months before the expiry date
  • Save a photo of your passport to your email so that you can always retrieve it
  • Always have valid multi-trip travel insurance
  • Get a credit card that doesn’t charge extra for using abroad

2. Planning a trip:

When you decide where you’re going and start planning a trip, these are the key things you will want to do:

  • Book flights (inform of special meal requirements)
  • Book time off from work
  • Research and plan itinerary
  • Book accommodation
  • Book any activities/excursions (inform of special meal requirements)
  • Book any local transportation (buses, trains) or research what the options are

3. Get the paperwork sorted:

These things are boring but crucial to do.

  • Check visa requirements (and apply for visa if needed)
  • Check if any vaccinations/anti-malarials/other health-related preparation is advised
  • Buy local currency if you can (or research how to buy it in country) and check if credit cards are widely accepted

3. Do your local research

  • Use Google maps and download offline maps of the places you are visiting
  • Add local spots you want to visit to Google Maps
  • Check Happy Cow for vegetarian and vegan options
  • Make reservations and check opening times to any restaurant, show or attraction you won’t want to miss
  • Check if tap water is safe to drink
  • Research the local tipping etiquette
  • Check the local weather forecast
  • Check the local dress code (not required for most trips!)
  • Read about local security measures (not required for most trips!)
  • Check if your mobile will work and what the charges may be

4. Pack

I use my ultimate packing list.

5. Final preparations

  • Check in as early as possible and print or download the boarding pass
  • Print any essential paperwork (vouchers you may need, instructions to give to a driver at the airport)
  • Research transportation from the airport
  • Sometimes hotels/tour operators/Airbnb hosts ask you to confirm your arrival in advance, so keep them informed

6. Unpack

I always unpack as soon as I’m back home, this is how I know I’ve fully arrived!

What are your tips on preparing for a trip?

10 tips on visiting every European country when you work full-time

I have recently completed my long-term goal of visiting every single European country. Many people ask me how I’ve done it while working full-time. Here are my tips:

1. Good planning is important

I do all my travel planning on a spreadsheet – I realise this is not necessarily the most fun way to do it, but it makes life easy when you’re planning multiple trips at the same time. I keep a list of where I want to go, how many days I plan to stay there and how many holiday days I will need to use.

2. Save your holiday allowance as much as possible

In the UK we have pretty good holiday allowance, but if you’re travelling pretty much every month (that is what I did for a while), you will need to keep track of your holidays. This means making good use of bank holidays and planning ahead to get good prices even at busy times.

3. Get an early flight

One way to use as little holiday days as possible in your travels is to book flights late in the evening or early in the morning. You can leave work on a Friday straight to the airport and come back to work on Monday morning from Poland, France, and many other places. The downside is that these trips can be quite tiring, as waking up at 4am in Latvia then going to work in London is not the most relaxing commute!

4. Visit the capital cities

Different places have different things to offer, but in general capital cities are the gateway to a country, particularly where you don’t have a large tourism industry. I’m an urban soul, so that worked well for me.

5. Always book ahead

Most of my European trips were weekends or long weekends, which meant that it was usually best to book flights as soon as I decided on a date for a trip. For hotels you don’t need to book as early, but particularly in big cities it might be worth doing that to ensure that you can choose the perfect location.

6. Follow a system

Besides my travel spreadsheet, I also have a standard packing list and a general routine that I follow when I’m travelling. This means that I don’t have to spend a lot of time thinking about logistics every time that I’m travelling.

7. Enjoy the challenge

Travelling is amazing, but not everyone likes planning trips, packing, and other holiday preparation. When you’re going to 50-odd countries though, it’s much better to enjoy the whole process! This also helps when you get towards the end and start planning trips to more inaccessible places.

8. Visit multiple countries in a single trip

We visited Finland and Estonia in one trip and the Balkans in two trips covering multiple countries. Smaller countries are easy to visit as a longer trip, and you get to see many different places at once. Just make sure to research the border crossings in advance (for example, you can’t travel from Kosovo into Serbia).

9. Bring a buddy

I love travelling by myself, but going through this amazing adventure with my husband was even better! On a more practical level, travelling with someone else is always cheaper.

10. It’s all about having fun!

Even though I have visited every European country, I also travelled to many countries I’d visited before in the same period. I wasn’t trying to complete a challenge as quickly as possible. I did it because it was fun: I like going to new places, so every new trip was an opportunity to discover somewhere different!

EXPLORING NEW FAVOURITES AND SELF CARE: What I learnt by visiting every European country

A few years ago, my husband and I decided to visit every European country. We work full-time, so years of weekend trips, 6am flights returning straight to work and many adventures followed! We have now completed our big European tour – it was so much fun! 

Here are my reflections on this experience: 

1. If you stick with your goal for long enough you can achieve it

Looking at a list of 50-ish countries years ago and deciding to visit all of them, it seemed like a huge thing to do. But once we started going to places, little by little the list got smaller and we realised that our idea was very much possible.

2. The old favourites are still favourites

We visited lots of new countries, but we also went back again and again to some of our favourite places. When people ask me about my top places, some obvious choices appear: Berlin, Paris and Barcelona are always fun!

3. But we discovered new favourites too

Vilnius in Lithuania is a cool town with a good craft beer scene. Taking the train across Transylvania was a memorable journey around scenic towns. Visiting Donetsk for the 2012 Euros (before the war) stayed with us: a unique experience of spending a lot of time in a place that doesn’t have many tourists.

4. Historical events come to life

We loved the Balkans. The Old Town of Mostar was beautiful, Croatia has amazing views, Tirana is great for bars and cafes. But travelling across the region, its history comes to life. Bosnia and Kosovo are still recovering from war. Visiting these places makes them more real.

5. Your world gets a little bigger

We often buy Romanian snacks from our corner shop, and we see familiar places in Scandi crime shows. All the places we visited are now part of our lives, and this experience means that we see the world in a different way.

6. You learn something about yourself when you travel

Travelling is probably my favourite thing to do, and I always learn something when I travel. This quote from recent Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk sums it up beautifully:

“When you’re travelling you need to take care of yourself to get by, you have to keep an eye on yourself and your place in the world. It means concentrating on yourself, thinking about yourself and looking after yourself. So when you travel all you really encounter is yourself, as if that were the whole point of it. When you’re at home you simply are, you don’t have to struggle with anything or achieve anything.”

Olga Tokarczuk

7. There is always more to explore

When I tell people I’ve now visited every European country, they often ask me what my next goal is. But of course you are never really done with travelling – there are always more places to see. Within Europe, the waterfalls of Plitvice and the national parks of Iceland have been on my list for a long time. And of course there’s a whole world out there to explore too!

A HOME FROM HOME: Rummaging through Airbnb cupboards

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2015 was the year that I really decided to focus on Airbnb for my trips. I had previously considered the site as a second option for when hotels were too expensive, but now that’s the first place I look.

So far I haven’t had any bad experiences – and you can have truly unique experiences: a view over a canal in Venice and the most amazing riad in Marrakech are among the best places I’ve ever stayed.

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Everyone will tell you that the key to booking a place through Airbnb is to check the reviews. But I realised that my experience is also determined by another factor which can only be assessed on arrival: the kitchen cupboards.

The main appeal of staying in an apartment is that you feel like you almost live in the city you’re visiting; you can stay where locals live and relax without any of the formalities of a hotel. And part of that is, of course, cooking your own food.

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We stayed in a nice flat in Toronto for five days. In the kitchen I found everything I needed and more: lots of pasta, an incredible variety of tea and spices, and many unopened jam jars. I made sure to reorganise everything – a bit much, I know, but that’s exactly what I’d to at home.

At the other extreme was the very well-located flat in Berlin. We arrived quite late, and after a mix-up with the keys, we got to the flat past midnight. I opened the cupboards in the kitchen to find them completely empty. I’m not saying that hosts should provide fully stocked cupboards, but all that white space made me wonder: what do they do with all the leftover salt?

Surely at least once a week someone buys some salt alongside with some other supplies, and most of that goes unused. Why not leave it for the next guests, along with sugar, cooking oil and maybe some other basics?

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As with everything else, it’s the little things that make a huge difference. Sometimes, all you need for good hospitality is being able to make yourself a cup of tea on arrival.

ONLY WHEN I’M ON HOLIDAY: Are we different when we travel?

In my first night in Bangladesh last year I ordered a Sprite at the restaurant. Nothing unusual with that, except that I don’t think I’d had Sprite in absolutely ages. Somehow that’s all I drank in every restaurant we went to on this trip.

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Thai massages are THE best. I never thought of booking one in London. But when I stay in a very posh (and ridiculously cheap) Movenpick resort in Turkey later this year, I will definitely need to book a massage.

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Why is it that we are different when we travel? Why do we create habits which are switched on as soon as we clear airport security?

Travelling is all about doing new things and exploring new places, but I guess we need to create a sense of stability no matter where we are. And travelling allows us to be a bit different from who we normally are – so no one will question your sudden love of crime novels (Jo Nesbo is the best company for long airport waits) if you’re just about to go on a holiday.

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What are your little travel habits?

ON TRAVEL: I’m going away to Pasargadae

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I never read Road Dahl in school. Every so often someone tells me ‘you don’t know what you’re missing out’. But then again I didn’t grow up in an English-speaking country.

Well, I grew up with Monteiro Lobato and many other great writers that many people have never even heard of. So who is missing out after all?

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The first time I moved to a new city was when I went to uni. It was unusual where I grew up to move to another city because we had a very good university there. But by then I was already way over it, so when the opportunity came, I hopped on a plane (or an overnight coach) and never looked back.

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There is a poem by Brazilian modernist Manuel Bandeira, loosely translated as ‘I will go away to Pasargadae’, about the need to escape to a new and exciting place, the place where you belong, a place which is not only better than here, but a place where you are a better person too. There aren’t many good English translations, but it starts:

I will go away to Pasargadae
There I am a friend of the king
There I will have the woman I want
In the bed I will choose

Full version in Portuguese here.

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This poem has followed me ever since I left my hometown for uni (12 years ago – ouch!).

It’s about finding yourself in a new place, where you live your life in your own terms. Sounds good to me!

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In the poem, Pasargadae is a representation of an idyllic place. In real life, it’s an ancient Greek city in Iran.

What’s the place where you’re at your best?

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(all photos from my trip to Lisbon, shot with this great Lomo redscale film).

FINDING TIME WHEN THERE’S NO TIME: Travelling when you have a 9 to 5 job

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There are lots of people out there who have left it all behind to travel full time. Sometimes I wish I were one of them. But I’m not. I work in an office, and fit my little adventures around my job.

I definitely wish I had more time to travel aside from the 25 days I get as a holiday allowance. But I still make the most of it. I travel on a Friday after work and commute back on Monday morning (thank you, Eurostar!); I make the most of bank holidays (even if it means paying extra to travel); and I always make sure I have my next holiday to look forward to (Venice, I can’t wait to see you again!).

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After a couple of years of a lot of travelling and a lot of working, I think I managed to find a good balance. I’m not (yet) quitting my day job to go travelling full time, but I am making sure I visit amazing places as often as I can. And when things get a bit stressful in the office, I remind myself that another short break is not too far.

Travelling gives me a broader worldview, and helps me regain energy when I’m tired. Working in an office makes me a very organised traveller, and a practical one too. Weirdly, these two activities end up complementing each other.

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I’m sure there are lots of others travellers fitting their adventures around a 9 to 5 schedule (I know a few of them).

Just make sure you fit some travelling in your busy schedule!