Travel tips for going overseas: 10 things you need to know

As Dorothy said after the tornado whisked her away to a very strange place in The Wizard of Oz, "Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore." And that's how it can feel the first time you head overseas on your lonesome. Wicked witches, maybe not so many, but along with the highs there are also lows, and plenty of ways the world can challenge, baffle and let you down.

It's a whole new landscape with different rules, as many Aussies have found out to their dismay, including a couple of unfortunate bloggers who put up a drone and who are now incarcerated in Iran.

As you go so you learn and travel gets easier, but maybe you forget how it was the first time. With the benefit of experience, if I could wind back the years these are 10 things I would tell my younger self.

You don't need to see everything

First-time travellers tend to want to see the lot. Especially in Europe. France, Spain and Italy in three weeks? No problem. An ad for a trip currently running on a backpacker bus tours website takes in 13 European countries in 27 days. Sure, you can do it, but you'll be rushing around like a caffeinated kelpie, everything will be a blur and it becomes a box-ticking exercise. You'll probably get to see the Colosseum and the Eiffel Tower – but they're not that surprising. You know what this stuff looks like. What really animates your travels is surprise and discovery, and for that you need to slow down. So what if you went to Paris and didn't see the Mona Lisa? She'll still be around next time. You'll have more fun and happier memories from wandering around the city's Latin Quarter than jostling with the hordes in the Louvre.

Keep it light

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Most first-time travellers take things that should never leave home. Party shoes, designer handbags, expensive jewellery, ostrich travel pillows, real pillows because, well, some folks just can't manage without their favourite. Most of the time you need to be comfortable, not look sensational, so the bling can stay behind. Three each of pairs of shoes, pants and tops, maximum. Apart from any prescribed medications, your medical kit needs to cover just the basics, you can buy whatever else you need. If there are beaches on the itinerary, a mini towel – and take a sarong you can lie on. If your bag is bulging at the start of the trip you've got too much.

Travel insurance

Easy to overlook this item because it's an unnecessary expense – and nothing is going to happen to you, right? You won't get sick, lose stuff or fall over on a wet and slippery floor and break your arm because that only happens to old and grungy people. But there are about a million ways you can come undone when you take to the road and that's why you need travel insurance. You don't need to read the whole product disclosure statement that comes with your policy but read the things you're not covered for – there are some surprises and better to know before you go.

See a doctor

If you're heading for anywhere between Bali and the Bosphorus, see your doctor. They'll know whether you need protection against hepatitis, they can tell you whether rabies is a risk and what mosquito-borne viruses might be present at your destination. Take any prescription medications you might need and that applies also to feminine hygiene products, which are unobtainable in some parts of the world. If it's a couple of months or more a visit to the dentist won't hurt. Well, no more than usual anyway.

Scam artists

There are people who make their living from preying on tourists with scams of one sort or another and they're clever and well practiced. Travel long enough and you're likely to fall into their web. It might be a dud deal on a currency exchange, the guy who sells you "rubies" that turn out to be coloured glass or the taxi driver who convinces you that the hotel you had in mind just burned down, but he knows a better one. Or just a pickpocket on a crowded tram. Be alert but not alarmed. Put your cash and cards in a few different places, take out only the cash you need for the day and beware of strangers who come on too hot too fast.

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Your passport information page, airline tickets, travel insurance policy, driver's licence, itinerary if you have one and any travel bookings you might have. Your blood group. Email them to yourself or store them in the cloud, then email them to friends and relations who can be trusted to respond if you need to call in the cavalry. If you need consular assistance from Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, call +61 2 6261 3305, it's staffed 24/7, or SMS: +61 421 269 080. Keep those numbers on speed dial, tattoo them on your heart.

Be flexible

Have a hotel booked for the first few days after you arrive at your destination, but you don't need to book everything in advance. Planning too rigidly can become a straitjacket. You might find you don't need to spend five nights in Florence, or another traveller tells you what a great time they just had in Naples and that's a city you'd never even considered. Leave room in your itinerary for improvisation and be prepared to cut and run when you find somewhere that looks more appealing.

Sleep rough but eat well

If you're on a tight budget, what goes into your mouth is more important than where you lay your head at night. It's tempting to fall back on fast food when you're travelling on the cheap and while the occasional foray into Maccas, KFC or the local equivalent won't do much harm, that's not a healthy option for every meal. Eating well keeps you in good shape, you'll have more energy, sleep better and you won't get bloated with high-carb foods. You can usually find a supermarket where you can buy fresh fruit and picnic provisions and even in expensive cities like Tokyo and Zurich you can eat well and cheaply if you look for where local workers are eating. Food courts and railway stations are a good fallback position.

Have the occasional splurge

If you're travelling on the cheap, every now and again you need to lash out. A meal somewhere special, maybe a couple of nights somewhere nice. If your cash reserves are running low you might wind it back – a massage or a manicure, or even something as simple as a bar of fancy chocolate. The amount of money you spend on your travels is not proportionate to the pleasure you get from it. Imagination is a better travelling companion than a fat wallet, but you need these feelgood experiences from time to time because they pep you up when the going gets tough, and it isn't all roses.

When things go wrong

Stuff happens. Plans go awry, weather can foul things up, airlines can go bust, people can let you down. You might get injured, lose your passport or a stack of cash. You need to work your way quickly through the seven stages of grief and get to "reconstruction" as soon as possible. Sit down somewhere, take a few deep breaths and as calmly and rationally as you can figure a way out of whatever situation you're in. A second opinion often helps put things into perspective and that's what friends and relations are for. You might need to call on the Australian government, in which case that DFAT consular assistance phone number is going to come in handy.

See also: Heading to a less developed country? Here are the 10 things you need to pack

See also: Ten great things about travel that have disappeared forever

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