When I decided to move abroad to teach English as a second language, I knew immediately that I wanted to be based somewhere in Asia. Before I ever even thought about getting TEFL certified, I would read about so many different places that I hoped to visit one day, and it just so happens that these places are all mostly in East Asian or Southeast Asian countries.
Living in Taipei makes visiting all the places on my bucket list easy and cheap to get to, because they’re all located so close to Taiwan! For anyone who wants to live somewhere where they can easily plan vacations to an array of destinations, I highly recommend making a home base somewhere in Asia.
However, it’s still best to know a few things before your trips to ensure your vacations are as affordable, safe, and hassle-free as possible.
1. Do your research
Post pandemic travel rules make it all the more important to do research before you buy tickets to go anywhere. Many airlines and countries already have different requirements of what documents you need and what you can bring before you can set foot on the plane, not to mention what you need to present to prove your vaccination status. So make sure you do your research about where you’re going.
It’s easy to overlook things like local traditions that might put a damper on your trip because everything is closed. Or there might be national festivals going on that look fun, but suddenly everywhere you want to go means being stuck in hours of traffic, and the peak tourist season means prices have inflated so much that you are spending way more than you budgeted for.
In fact, before traveling to a new country I always google “Things I wish I had known before going to __________.” I almost always find that someone else has written about their experience in that country, and have laid out valuable information that will help my trip go smoother.
2. Plan your itinerary
Even the simplest, shortest vacations should require a little forethought. You can certainly decide on a whim to travel to Thailand for the long weekend, book your ticket to Phuket Island, and go. It can be fun to be so spontaneous, but even a little planning goes a long way to ensure a smoother overall trip.
First of all, know where you’re going. For example, if Phuket is where you want to go, that’s great, but where exactly do you want to stay? Phuket is a huge island. Do you want to stay in the city or somewhere near the beach? Do you need to plan time to take the ferry to outlying islands, and will your other plans fit into the ferry schedule?
Questions similar to these are relevant pretty much for any place you want to go to.
Thailand isn’t all just white, sandy beaches. There are cities there too!
3. Make sure you have money
This should go without saying, but you’d be surprised at the number of people I have met who didn’t realize they didn’t have enough money for their trip until they had already arrived at their destination. Sometimes there will be costs incurred even before you get to your hotel, such as the cost of getting a visa, fees for currency exchange, payment for usage of trolleys, or other service charges.
One woman who I met on a return flight to Taiwan from the Philippines told me about how she had planned a solo weekend trip to Manila. She didn’t bother making sure she had the local currency before boarding her flight, as she figured she had her credit cards and ATM card and she could always withdraw cash when she landed. Much to her horror, none of her cards worked when she arrived because she had failed to request for the banks to activate them for international use (yes, in Taiwan you need to inform certain banks that you plan to use your cards internationally).
With no way to pay for her hostel or food, she thought she would need to sleep on the streets of Manila until her return flight. Thankfully, she met a very kind couple who let her sleep on their couch that entire weekend, fed her three meals a day, and sent her back to the airport when her weekend was over. She was lucky, but needless to say, her vacation didn’t go quite as she had hoped.
Don’t be cavalier about how you’re going to expense things like food and board. Make sure you have multiple ways of paying your way.
4. Understand the local transportation
Many different countries offer pretty standard modes of local transportation — trains, buses, taxis, or ride-sharing apps. However, they might not all work in the same way that you’re accustomed to, so make sure you learn how the locals do it to avoid a lot of confusion. For example, different train and bus systems have different ticketing methods, with some requiring you to pay your fare every time you alight, and others requiring you to pay for a swipe card with a set balance on it. Public transport may also not be as available as what you’re normally used to, or may not have stops that are close enough to the places you want to go.
Also keep in mind that there are certain kinds of etiquette even when it comes to transportation in different countries. For example, taxi fares are calculated according to the meter in Taiwan, but in certain parts of Thailand you’re expected to negotiate the price with the driver before you begin the ride. Meanwhile, in Japan, never open or close the cab door yourself, as they are all automated. Trying to force the door in one way or another is considered taboo and will probably result in you being yelled at by the driver.
Don’t underestimate the value of renting a bicycle or scooter if they’re available. Those can be much cheaper overall and more convenient than trying to find someone to take you where you need to go.
Don’t you dare touch the door!
5. Be adventurous when eating out
I personally like to try all the local food when I’m traveling. I’m always surprised by something new and delicious, and in general it’s always cheaper! If you end up in a touristy region, you might be tempted to try restaurants that look very fancy, but the best way to explore a country is to go where the locals go. Actual residents of the places you’re visiting will always know where the best, affordable eats are, and are generally more than happy to share a little part of their culture with you.
Airbnb also has an “experiences” section that allows you to book various tours led by locals. I recommend using this platform to arrange a food tour in any new city to experience the local cuisine.
But, always, always bring stomach pills, just in case something you eat doesn’t sit well with you.
6. Don’t spend your entire trip drunk
It’s tempting to load up on alcoholic drinks when you’re traveling, especially when you’re in full-blown vacation mode, but try to be cautious. I have learned time and time again that paying for booze might be the easiest way to blow through your budget from the sheer number of drinks you’re buying to keep the party going. It can also end up being a huge waste of vacation time when you spend most of the next day trying to nurse your head instead of exploring your surroundings.
7. Be picky about what you buy
You may want to buy a lot of trinkets and gifts when you’re traveling, but I’ve found that this generally results in accumulating a lot of junk that you never use and takes up a lot of valuable space in my suitcase. Try not to be moved by every little thing you see, and don’t be afraid to be choosy about what you want to buy as a souvenir, even if what you want is a little more expensive. Just make sure whatever you purchase is of good quality, will last, and is something that you think will be worth it down the road.
If you’re in a known touristy area, be wary of being overcharged for things and if you know that haggling is accepted in that region, feel free to politely negotiate with shopkeepers. Most storekeepers in these cases expect visitors to try to get a bargain, but use your best judgment as to what would be a fair price, and don’t go overboard with haggling.
8. Make sure people know where you are
Whenever you’re going on a trip, make sure you let someone outside of your travel group know where you are, and update them if there’s been a change in itinerary. Keeping people informed and checking in with them at certain intervals helps keep you safe, and also keep you connected in case there’s an emergency.
When you’re in an unfamiliar place, and you’re not sure how reliable your phone and internet connection is, it’s always best if someone else knows what your plans are so they can find you. Years ago, knowing a colleague’s travel itinerary was immensely helpful to me when her phone wasn’t working, as I was able to track her down through her hotel to give her important information about a family emergency.
The ease of travel is probably one of my favorite things about teaching English abroad, particularly because I’m based in my favorite region of the world. Whether you prefer to teach in Asia, Latin America, or elsewhere, don’t forget to take the opportunity to travel often! There is no better time to do that than when you have the flexible schedule of an ESL teacher. Just always remember to plan ahead, and you’ll be sure to get the most out of your travels.
Teacher in Taipei
Kaleigh is from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the United States. She has traveled extensively throughout Asia and is currently teaching in Taipei, Taiwan. Her passions are mountain hikes and great food!