Beginners guides

A word to the unwise



I spoke to someone the other day who is going for a big adventure overseas. Traveling they said. They’d not been far from home before and were having an epic adventure out in the world. Going to visit a few far-flung unfamiliar cities and see some things they’d never seen before. Experience foreign cultures and climates. It occurred to me quite quickly that they weren’t going traveling at all. They were going on holiday.

There is a difference. I’ve discussed it before in general terms but now because I am a helpful soul who has been lot’s of places I’m going to offer some advice and information to the uninitiated overseas venturer, which is different to an adventurer.  I’m not even sure venturer is actually a word at all but I like it and it works for this purpose.

People who are going to places further away than a shopping excursion might normally take them who are unfamiliar with how things work overseas tend to make the same mistakes. I’m reluctant to call them mistakes as people will do things for different reasons, but to me they are mistakes. Let me walk you through what I mean.

Let’s say you are going for a trip to a few European cities from here in the Antipodes for example. We aren’t unique in this but I’m here now so that’s where my focus is. Back to your trip. You will buy things you would not normally buy if you weren’t going overseas won’t you? Things like money belts, Cargo pants, bum packs, robust unattractive items of distance walking footwear that resemble corrective shoes. A safari type hat with a strap that goes under your chin. You plan to wear these items to make your wandering around a European city more…what exactly? Let me tell you what, you are making it more risky, that’s what.

You see, you are wearing items of clothing you would not wear if you were visiting your nearest town or city at home, why? Do you think you might suddenly find yourself morphing from city street to mountain pass without the chance to change your attire? Do you plan on carrying so much money you need something other than your wallet or purse to transport it about? Why are you going to carry it in something you wear outside your clothing or inside your shirt? To make it safer? Seriously?

What you are actually doing is effectively shouting the following.

“I am a naive foreigner who has never been abroad before. I am carrying a lot of money and travel documentation about my person and I have no idea what to do if you try to rob me”

It’s not a good message to convey to the small army of pickpockets and charlatans who look for people dressed exactly as you are while you linger curiously about the major landmarks, too busy looking up to notice the deft fingers rummaging in your personal effects.

What you do instead is by some nice, comfortable but attractive shoes. Wear normal clothes that do not signal you are one of the millions of the unaware and gullible and carry the items you would normally carry your money and personal effects in, you know, a wallet and a handbag, like you would at home. Chaps should carry their wallet in the front pocket of their trousers rather than the more accessible rear as a nod to the greater risk of pickpockets. Ladies should carry a shoulder bag you can zip shut, the shoulder bag is carried with your arm clamped firmly over it against your side. Simple stuff. You do not need to walk about with your passports and tickets unless you are crossing borders or leaving town.



When you are in far flung cities, many of the guidebooks will be full of information about museums and art galleries. I have no idea why. Are you an art buff or a historian? Most likely not. I’ll let you in on a little secret. All museums and art galleries all over the world have the same stuff in them. Old things and art. Inside looking at old things and art is not the best way to spend your limited time in a city you will most likely never visit again. Of course I’m not suggesting don’t do any of them, I’m not a Philistine, you just don’t need to do all of them. Because each and every one is full of old things and art, much the same as the last one, and the one before that.

Spend your time outside, looking at the unique beautiful architecture, the cool and different people from another culture. Eat, drink, the local stuff. Sit and watch, observe the lifestyles. Watch the tourists scurrying from one attraction to the next to see local variation of the same thing they saw in the previous city. Poke about in the shops. Walk along the river, they all have rivers. Go to the markets and buy some silly thing you don’t need as a souvenir.

Get up high and look across the city; listen to the noise that the city makes. Stop and listen. It’s amazing.

While you are seeing and hearing all the amazing things, you’ll want to take some photos of course. You’ll most likely do that with your phone as everyone seems to now. When you take your phone out to take photos, the same phone you will want to use in an emergency, remember that it s worth about $500. You wouldn’t wave $500 or Euros around in the air with one hand would you? No, so hold your phone close to you, with two hands. Always look around you before you start snapping away. If you are messaging friends back home to make them jealous of your new sights and sounds, hold the phone close with two hands, not at arms length texting with your thumb. You would be amazed how far away your phone can get in a few seconds in the hands of a thief you hadn’t spotted. Treat your phone like the expensive valuable item it is.

So, by all means go traveling and call it that, take a limited number of items you have to carry vast distances. Go and see the world on a shoestring. It’s a very cool thing to do. You’ll become very international savvy and street smart very quickly. You’ll remember the things you do and see for the rest of your life.

If you are overseas on holiday though, dress for the location. Don’t walk the streets of Paris looking like you’ve teleported in from a Namibian game reserve and vice versa. Big international cities work the same way as your local town.

People go to work, they go shopping, they dress in normal clothes; you won’t see any of them wearing a bum pack or what look like corrective shoes unless they need corrective shoes. You shouldn’t either. Look the part, blend in, and be safe. Relax and enjoy yourself.

Chartes dude

Chartes dude

Bon Voyage.

13 replies »

  1. Great advice, Sandy. I would like to add a pearl of my own if that’s okay. I found the best thing to do in foreign places is talk to the locals where you can. They often give you wonderful pearls of information / ideas to explore or sometimes invite you into their lives – sometimes just for now and sometime for longer. To me, the people are the most important part of any country. I have lots of wonderful memories and some lifelong friends out of my encounters and have learnt so much.

  2. Hi Sandy, thanks for those wise words, my friend and I are going to Europe next year and I will definitely leave the bum bag at home, I have loved reading about your early life in NZ. Regards Raewyn

  3. Who needs a travel agent or tour guide when we can have you, Sandy … and Michele too?!

    Actually, as one who fits perfectly into this category of the ‘uninitiated overseas venturer’ that Sandy has described, having received from many sources some amazing and wonderful suggestions on how and where we can spend our time and our (no)money, 🙂 (all for which I am truly grateful – don’t get me wrong), may I just say that these commonsense, practical, down-2-earth, basic tips that Sandy has outlined, and advice that I have read from his other stories on his blog and some privately furnished, are what my husband and I have decided, are all we need to ensure that we have a ‘trip’ as incident-free as we can possibly have, and that we will have many ‘O for Oarsum’ – Kiwi joke 🙂 – memories I am sure we will be proud to share with family and friends for years to come.

    I have taken advantage of the great tips Sandy has also posted about airlines, airfares, seat selection on long-haul flights, eating & entertainment establishments, and even down to street awareness in foreign lands, etc. (Go check them out for yourself from the list on the right of this page) I am proud to say, that I have adopted many of those suggestions and am already looking forward to enjoying our flight within the next couple of weeks, from New Zealand-London-Paris on seats that I would never have thought to even consider in the economy section. Didn’t realise there were so many things to consider for a better seat!! Now I do, and my husband and I have scored some pretty cool seats for our, is it 26+ hrs flying time? Owe you too much, Sandy!!

    Thank you for kindness, patience & time. I hope many will find their way to your blog and take advantage of the ‘oarsome’ helps, interesting stories and other gems you have posted here. I am eternally grateful.

    Finally, I feel to post (does that even make sense?) this advice you gave which I have also shared on my FB page. I think it is worth repeating here:

    ‘With regard to the short time span, the thing with Paris is that the whole place is beautiful. Unless you want to go inside museums and stuff, everything to see is from the outside. Just look at the landmarks you’d like to see on a map and go for a walk. Bear in mind that the really famous stuff will be covered in more tourists than you’ve ever seen in your life. Just go for a walk, admire the architecture, sit in a few nice cafes and brasseries, watch the world go by. Take it easy and don’t let anyone rush you.’ — Sandy

    (Sorry for being so long-winded. I think it’s what people from the bush for whom English is their second language, do!)


  4. I do know what you mean about museums. It’s usually the outside I like too. Take the Getty. I don’t think it’s much worth going inside. But the buildings/ the views/ the stone work/ the aspect w0w 0h wow.
    ps I have never owned a bum bag.
    pps – do be careful in Barcelona (one of my fav cities in the whole wide world) pickpocketing has reached new nadirs there and it is not reserved for tourists.

  5. Hm, this post is a bit insulting to those who actually like going to museums and who call themselves travellers even if they are just travelling ‘that one time.’ Let me tell you as a tourism professional, there is no distinction between a traveller and a tourist, so long as they both are travelling for leisure. Don’t be so judgemental… 😉

  6. I wish I could pin your post to the tickets of those arriving in Costa Rica from the U.S…..the sight of people clad like Crocodile Dundee in the centre of San Jose must make the day of the local ne’er do wells…more so when they turn up in Gringo Gulch after dark…

    I enjoy museums – if they are museums of things that interest me…but I like mooching around a place best.

    • I think it is pretty universal Helen. Certainly the brits abroad like to stand out from the crowd as well. I like museums. I like Art galleries but they do seem much of a muchness everywhere you go. 🙂

  7. “Hi Ho, Hi Ho” Sandy. I give you the charge exchanged by me and my sweetheart as we depart on any journey.
    And one more item, before carrying on to the point…I’m so glad to we had the opportunity to “meet” vis-a-vis the America’s Cup. Our hearts still bleed for our favored sailors from the opposite side of the planet.
    So…the last time we traveled to watch Kiwi’s sail for the America’s Cup, we were in Valencia Spain. The PRIMARY thing we picked up on was FOOTWEAR. When in Europe, if you want to be readily identified as a tourist, then wear Nike or Adidas type sport shoes. Europeans wear leather. Honestly this is an identifier that rarely fails. We met some folks on a bus in Valencia because we were purposely looking down and noticed they we wearing Nikes. (Nike world HQ is in Beaverton, OR btw). Looking up, we engaged them in conversation and what do you know…we found we are practically neighbors.
    I’m not recommending buying a new pair of loafers while traveling, but you could make a worse shopping choice.

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