Are you planning your first major trip on your own? Or would you like to help out someone who is?

We've all been there before... travel virgins... road rookies... first-timers...

I remember heading to Morocco for a couple of weeks on what seemed like such a huge odyssey, lugging along three bulging suitcases (I didn't know about backpacking yet), several sets of clothes for each day, every conceivable guidebook, and a money belt filled with travelers' checks that made me look several months pregnant. I was starry-eyed and knew it all, and didn't hesitate to tell the world.

When I look back I sometimes wonder how I actually made it to Morocco, not to mention dozens of countries more since then. In an effort to spare you some of my own mistakes, I'd like to share some of my tips on surviving first-time travel.

Women on the Road NEWS: Contents for Issue #27

How to Survive First-Time Travel

Be a planner
Many seasoned travelers believe you should buy a one-way plane ticket - and figure the rest out when you land. That's fine if this is your tenth trip, but a beginner should plan a bit more carefully. Determine your first few destinations. Book a room your first night overseas. Get names and addresses of friends of friends. Meet up with other travelers along the way. Do anything and everything that makes you feel comfortable, serene and protected. Once you've been on the road for a while, you'll be winging it just like everyone else. But we all have to start somewhere.

Don't inflate your itinerary
Having looked forward to your trip for months, or even years, you'll want to fit in as much as you can. Nothing wrong with that, but 'ticking the boxes' could devalue your travel experience. If you've swept through Brussels in a day and spent the requisite night in Bangkok's Khao San Road, you won't be any the wiser about either city. Try to curb your enthusiasm and plan your travel destinations carefully. If you've bought round-the-world tickets, don't think you have to land in every single country. Pick a few magnificent destinations, and get to know them intimately instead.

Choose an 'easy' country first
Some countries are considered among the safest destinations, others are downright dangerous places. If you're a first-timer, start easy. Easy doesn't mean boring... it could mean skiing in the Alps, watching the Northern Lights in Norway, diving in Australia's Great Barrier Reef, snooping through the markets of Hong Kong, or lazing on a Panamanian beach. Not bad for an easy start!

Budget enough money
The best travel forums are all full of the same questions: How much should I budget? Do I have enough? Can I work along the way if I run out of money? The answer is always a personal one: it depends. It depends where you stay, what you eat, how many sights you want to see, what you buy... First-timers usually budget too much, or not enough, and need a bit of travel advice on money. So spend a lot of time on the forums talking to people who have just come from where you're going - and take a few travel tips on money saving from the more seasoned travelers out there. If you need more money than you have, you could try writing to pay your way. My free online ecourse, The Travel Writing Magician, will teach you the basics of travel writing and show you how to make money at it.

Plan your visas properly
Don't think it's cool to just head for a country and assume everything will fall into place when you get there. Without the right paperwork, you might not make it in the first place. If you're traveling through a number of countries, say in Africa or Asia, you'll probably need a visa for almost every country. Yet an international travel visa is only valid for a few months so getting the right ones for the right countries can be tricky. It takes careful planning and you may have to adapt your itinerary to match the availability of visas.

Prepare for smooth customs crossings
Crossing land borders in remote parts of the world can often be an exercise in patience and diplomacy. Do yourself a favor and make this painless. Don't pack unusual-looking powders. Don't even THINK of taking drugs across a border - some countries have a death penalty for drug trafficking, even a joint or a few pills. Pack neatly, using transparent plastic bags if you can. No matter what you've read, never try to bribe a customs official. Border crossings often close at lunchtime and in the evenings. Don't show up a minute before closing time and expect to get through: you may be spending the night alone on a bridge, or under one. Be courteous, stay serious, and remember that at this moment, the armed guard in the uniform has the power to let you in or keep you out.

Beware the gadgets!
Perhaps your style is closer to flashpacking than backpacking... Lets take a little test: Do you have an iPod or MP3 player? A cell phone? A laptop? Still camera? Flip? Noise reduction headphones? There's nothing wrong with taking along the gear you need but the more you have, the more you have to carry, watch and worry about.

And don't take too much of everything else
You've seen this before, haven't you? A huge, bulging backpack that threatens to topple whoever's carrying it, plus a smaller but equally stuffed front pack, all of it so heavy she'll keel over if it gets windy. Stuffed inside are a multitude of absolute essentials: a heavy leather strap to carry a pack on your shoulder (as though one could!), a hair dryer (yes, really), large-size tubs of skin creams for day, night, neck, eyes, hands, body (one for each), and giant size shampoo AND conditioner bottles. I rest my case. If your full backpack weighs more than 15 Kg (about 33 lb), you'd better start shedding. My ideal pack weight is arounnd 12 Kg.

Don't assume anything
A common rookie mistake is to make assumptions. Avoid them if you can. Don't assume water is potable, the plugs fit, buses and trains run on time, you're innocent until proven guilty, you can treat people equally and be equally back, the customer is always right or even that people are happy to see you, let alone smile for your unforgettable photograph. Every society is different and what is normal back home may be considered outlandish or downright disrespectful in Benin or Burma. There is no 'better' way. There are only different ways.

Remember you don't know it all. No one does!
You've done your research, talked to dozens of newfound friends on the travel forums, read every magazine and newspaper article you can find about your destination... so now you're an expert. Beware! You won't even begin to understand a culture until you start seeing it through its own eyes. You may have an idea of how people live, but reading about scarcity is nothing like having to cart heavy pails of water uphill for two hours just to cook your evening rice. Stay open, leave your preconceptions behind. Let travel be your teacher and experience the road. You'll come home a different person.

Do you have any travel questions?

Are you wondering...
- how safe it is to travel solo?
- where to go?
- how much it might cost?
- what to pack?
- how to meet people and stave off loneliness?
- about the most unusual destinations?

If you're a woman on the road - or about to hit the road - and have a question, please write to me and I'll try to answer.

Have you taken my free travel writing ecourse yet?

If you´ve ever thought of writing to pay for your travel, you're like thousands of others who love the road, need the money, and would be thrilled to see their name in print.

Let me give you a bit of a head start. I've paid for my own travel as a writer so I've learned a trick or two about what kind of writing sells and how to make a living at it. To share some of these travel writing tips with you I've developed a free online course called the The Travel Writing Magician.

Just sign up and get it in your mailbox in seven easy daily installments. Work the assignments on your own and see how your writing improves after just one week. You'll never know if there's a travel writer lurking inside you until you try!

What's New This Month on Women on the Road, the Website

Read an excerpt of Canadian author Wanda St. Hilaire's book, Cuban Chronicles, a true tale of rascals, rogues and romance.

What Were Last Month's Top 10 Pages?

1. Travel Packing List
2. International Travel Nursing
3. Cheap Ways to Travel
4. Overseas Jobs
5. Solo Travel
6. Travel Destinations
7. Women's Travel Clothing
8. Become a Travel Writer
9. Travel Money Belt
10.Backpacking Europe

Travel News From Across the Web

Top 10 Natural Wonders of the World
Traveler or Tourist?

For food lovers...

25 Food and Travel Destinations
South Korea Seoul Food
The Best of Istanbul Eats
Eating Well on a Shoestring

...and lovers of other arts

Artful Prague
A Travel Painting Blog

Destination Travel

Minas Gerais: The Heart of Brazil
Anatomy of the Medina
Markets of Israel
7 Gigantic Rock Figures in the Urals
Touring the Real Panama
Silly America: The Great American Road Trip

And finally...

10 Places That Don't Exist - but Should

Cause of the Month

Haiti, after the earthquake

It was Tuesday, 12 January, when the earth shook in Haiti, just west of the capital Port-au-Prince. Then the aftershocks came. In all, some 170,000 died in one of the world's worst humanitarian catastrophes.

Hospitals and clinics have been levelled. Transport and communications are damaged so emergency response is difficult. Roads are blocked, homes have collapsed, and many specialists who could have helped are now dead.

If you've been anywhere there's electricity, you've been watching the gut-wrenching stories on the news. Haiti, already the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, is now devastated beyond belief.

Of particular concern in the quake's immediate aftermath are the fate of Haiti´s most vulnerable.

  • Many children have been orphaned, and there are fears Haiti could become fertile ground for trafficking, kidnapping and even slavery as social nets fall apart. A number of UN organizations like Unicef and non-governmental groups are working to make sure children are protected from either excess zeal or criminal activity.

  • More than 63,000 women are pregnant in Haiti and 7,000 of them may give birth in the next month despite difficulties in finding food, clean water and health services. To make things worse, violence against women - already at a high in Haiti before the earthquake - tends to escalate during emergencies.

  • The elderly and physically disabled are particularly at risk as they can't even get around well enough to look for help. Many of them are poor, or live in destroyed shantytowns or nursing homes, far from sight and minds.

How to help Haiti
The best way to help is to donate money. Many people understandably want to rush in and help, but even organizations with proven track records in disaster relief are using their own roster members and pools of volunteers first. Make sure you donate to reputable organizations, and beware of scams.

To help Haiti, start with this good overview by Google Crisis Response. MSNBC has a good list of US-based charities now active in Haiti. CNN and the Huffington Post also have comprehensive lists.

If you have disaster relief experience, sign up with the Center for International Disaster Information (CIDI).

Don´t forget to check out development news from Haiti, and experience A Day in the Life of a Volunteer Worker: Hands On Disaster Response.

If you're interested in humanitarian work, in Haiti or elsewhere, read the article I just wrote for Transitions Abroad.

Next Month in Women on the Road NEWS?

Overland travel: back in fashion!

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Happy travels! Leyla