Seven big mistakes of first-time travellers – and how to avoid them

You’re excited, perhaps a bit nervous. That shiny new passport is packed and the itinerary has been checked and rechecked.

Your first big overseas trip is looming – and that’s an exciting time.

But there’s also likely to be more than a bit of anxiety. How will it unfold? How will I cope with that long-haul flight? Do I have enough money?

Relax. Mistakes are all part of the journey, part of the life-changing experience that is overseas travel. Here are seven of the most common – and tips on how to avoid them.

1. Long-haul flights

Until you’ve emerged, bleary-eyed, at the end of that seemingly never-ending stretch that begins in Australia and ends on the far side of the globe, you’ll never really know how you’re going to cope.

But there are plenty of tips to make it easier, from getting at least a bit of sleep to ensuring your luggage arrives at your destination with you.

First, pack some home comforts in your carry-on – noise-cancelling headphones are a godsend. As is a water bottle – refill it wherever possible. Wear layers of clothing that are easy to remove or add. Think about other things that might help, including a mask for sleeping.

If you do have a few dollars to splash, consider your seat selection with care. On a recent flight to Britain, my husband and I found that our airline had some planes configured with some rows at the rear of economy with just pairs of seats. We snaffled up a pair for less than $200 extra – no sharing the aisle or window with a stranger, and extra elbow room for both of us. Bliss.

2. Overpacking

I’m a shocking packer. I like to take everything I think I might need. But on a big trip, that’s just not going to … ahem … fly.

Europe, in particular, is full of accommodation that can be reached only by winding, narrow staircases. My 20-kilogram-plus oversized suitcase was, frankly, a pain. And almost impossible to get up the 63 stairs to our Venice accommodation, or the three flights to our apartment in Rome. It was also a hassle on trains between Paris and Venice.

So this is my No.1 piece of advice: Pack carefully and with consideration. Choose outfits that will multitask, and that can wash and dry easily. You will likely not need all those 21 T-shirts anyway.

Perhaps even more important – choose a backpack or suitcase you can lift easily when it is full.

travel tips

Ah Venice, city of canals – and stairs and many, many bridges. Photo: Supplied

3. Do your own research

Which kind of brings me to this – don’t just read the ads, read the reviews too.

I researched and researched where we would stay, how we would get there, and where to visit (and breezily glossed over all those warnings about oversized luggage in Venice. Oh well).

But a thorough scan of the reviews of, particularly, accommodation helped uncover details that providers had often omitted. Like that apartment with the paper-thin walls, or the place that required a key picked up from a dodgy corner store half-an-hour’s walk away.

Or the Airbnb where one guest mentioned she’d had to go out and buy products to mop floors and wash and dry bedsheets before she checked out. What the?

Through reviews, I also learned that while air-conditioning and wi-fi might be listed, in some places they were more often on the blink than not. Scratch them, move on.

4. Book early and plan ahead

European summers are busy at the best of times, and this year has brought even more tourists. And most of us have lengthy lists of things we want to do and see.

Don’t leave it until the week before to think about tickets and when you might go. We found the really big tourist attractions had booked out months in advance.

Book early. And consider forking out a few dollars for so-called “skip the line” tickets. These are offered almost everywhere, and allow you to visit an attraction at a particular time (with some leeway). Worth every penny.

Planning your days might also allow you to take advantage of multi-attraction tickets offered by many big cities. For example, we bought a London Pass and packed our big drawcards into three hectic days – saving money and skipping queues, all in one.

5. All of which means plenty of walking

Be prepared to walk and walk and walk. And then walk some more.

We walked more than 20,000 steps a day, every day, on our European trip – which means you’ll need decent footwear. Make sure it’s broken in before you go because if there’s one thing that will really spoil a walking holiday, it’s sore feet.

Planning your itinerary is also important.

Organise to visit attractions close to each other, or with easy access by public transport. But also leave room for things that you might not have thought of back at home.

There’s a generous sweet spot between a perfectly planned holiday that covers all your must-dos while also allowing for spontaneity.

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Boarding our Frecciarossa train at Paris’s Gare de Lyon. Photo: Supplied

6. Getting around

Which brings me to transport. We had some of the best experiences of our holiday on the Paris Metro (and, no I don’t mean bed bugs!) and London’s Tube.

They were also cheap and convenient ways to get across busy, unfamiliar cities. In fact, we used taxis only once or twice on our entire holiday.

Trains are also worth considering in between cities, and across borders.

In Europe, fast trains are a genuine alternative to domestic flights – with some bonuses. All our trains departed and arrived at stations in city centres, had stress-free boarding and embarking, and meant we actually saw more of the countryside.

7. Consider the finances

Cash or card? We eventually plumped for some British pounds and euros to get us started, and then a travel card.

This is another DIY research field – ask your bank what it charges to use an ATM overseas, or your credit card. For us, the fees were steep and unpalatable.

  • For more info on managing money overseas, see this story

Next time, I’d likely not even bother with the initial cash, for Europe at least. Most places preferred card and our travel card gave us easy fee-free ATM access for other situations. Other destinations may differ.

While I’m on finance, I know I said careful packing was my top tip. I might have lied. Actually it’s this: Buy travel insurance.

It’s often said, if you can’t afford the insurance, you can’t afford to travel. It’s true.

It might seem steep when you shell out for it. But imagine the worst happening, and how you will cope. Buy the insurance – after checking the policy to make sure you are covered for things you might do – sky-diving? Rock-fishing? That pricey camera? Only you can work that out.

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