Updated: Jun 20, 2018
I just got back from a trip to Guatemala to visit my friend Kaitlyn. She's been teaching elementary English there for a couple months, and it was a joy to spend time with her. We've been apart a lot over the years as I traveled to Canada, Nepal, and Chile during high school, and now I'm in Vermont for college. Over that time, we've sent countless long emails back and forth and have visited each other occasionally. Over that time, I've also learned a thing or two about traveling. The following rules have worked well for me; your mileage may vary.
Never travel in jeans. After making a flippant decision to wear jeans on a 10 hour ferry ride, and realizing that all my comfy clothes were buried in the cargo hold for the overnight journey, I vowed to never again wear jeans on a long plane, car, or boat ride. You just never know when your day clothes will become pajamas, and jeans make terrible sleeping clothes.
Always have water, snacks, tissues, money, copies of important information, ibuprophen, bandaids, pads or tampons (if you have the parts) and a little extra clothing to serve as a pillow, a blanket, or to save you from accidental spills or sickness.
Bring an empty water bottle through airport security and just fill it up at a water fountain when you're through the checkpoint.
Learn how to say please and thank you in the native language of wherever you're going. Even if you're clueless, at least you'll be polite.
On that subject, say yes to food. Generally, try what you're offered. In a lot of places, it's not cool to turn down food. Customs vary depending on where you go, but it's been a good general rule. And a bonus tip: Don't ask what's in it. You might not like the answer, and if you don't bias yourself against it by finding out, you might actually find you like the taste of something you otherwise wouldn't have tried.
Hot showers, good meals, and sleep can fix so many things.
Trust the locals, generally. If they say the bus is safe, it probably is. If they say the tourist area is sketchy, don't go there. If they say to try Doritos covered in lime juice and tomato and onion, go for it.
Relish differences instead of fearing them. A big part of travel, especially to places with unfamiliar cultural conventions and landscapes, is becoming un-scared. I've always been taught to be on my guard when traveling, and I am, but it's also great to relish the moments when you realize that "this is just a place, filled with humans with hopes and dreams and crazy lives just like mine, and I'll probably be just fine."
Take good photos, and write those unforgettable memories down (you will forget them if you don't). If you take the time to compose your memories of your trip, rather than just thinking "that'll do," or "I'll come again, so I don't need to worry," you'll thank yourself years later. There's something to be said for living in the moment, but personally I love reflecting on the moments as they go by.
Shoes take up a lot of space. You need two pairs. Bring walking shoes, some kind of sandal that can get wet, and, if you really need a third pair, something a little dressy if you wouldn't feel comfortable wearing your sandals/walking shoes to a decent restaurant.
Go to weird places and mundane places, not just the tourist hot spots. You'll get away from the brochure version of the place you're in, and you'll see a more human, more honest, and more interesting version. To remember the random taco stand you found, or the neat book store, or the gorgeous view from an abandoned building, take pictures, find business cards. You may come back and wonder how to get there.
You probably don't need all those clothes. It'll be less hassle to travel with a carry-on and a backpack, unless you're on a sports trip that requires a ton of gear. Bring plenty of underwear, and expect to do laundry if it's a trip that lasts over a week. You'll also potentially meet some cool people and learn something about the culture if you find a place to do it or have it done on your trip.
If you think I've forgotten something, or have a tip I should add, please comment below! I love reading other people's travel tricks.