Brutally Honest Travel Tips From A Totally Capable Nomad

Allow me to introduce one of the best mates a man could ever have: Mr. Stephen T. Smith.

He's a talented photographer, LMU graduate and professional BMX racer. He's also a modern day explorer in every sense of the phrase and whether you're sitting back to read of his tales or ramping up follow in his footsteps one thing is for sure; Stephen's nearly perfected the imperfect art of world travel and his journeys to new lands have brought him home with a better understanding of the map on his own heart.

Without further ado, we proudly present "Brutally Honest Travel Tips from A Totally Capable Nomad (and 10 things you didn't know about air mattresses)". 

Now listen up, kids. You might learn a thing or two.

Day in the life in California?

Well it's 10:30am and I've already gone to the beach today.  I try to do something active every day. Either go for a run, bike ride along the beach, meet up with some friends at the skatepark or go to a bmx track. My day to day routine is pretty boring these days.  Most of my friends in the area have moved away or we've just grown apart.  As far as work  goes, I try to send some emails to existing or potential clients every couple days.  Maybe shoot a text to some friend or friend of a friend who i might be able to shoot for.  Netflix is a constant distraction.  I'm constantly checking my bank account and rebudgeting my minimal income.  Living here is probably the most boring my life has been in the last few years.  I hate it.  I can't wait to get out. Packing up and running off to another adventure is always in the back of my mind.

i wasn’t worried about not knowing the language or where i was going, i was along for the ride.

Where do you think you first got the travel bug?

my family has always traveled.  not so much internationally, but i had been abroad.  i think the world got a whole lot smaller for me in college.  i did a summer study abroad program in Australia, which later lead to my living in melbourne, but if i were to pinpoint it, i would say it was immediately after i graduated from LMU.  I was working as a student photographer for the school, and i was given the opportunity to spend a couple weeks in Germany and Austria with the school's choir photographing their tour.  

As we were posted up at LAX waiting to leave, i discovered that i had left my camera batteries and chargers at home.  All i had was the battery in the camera.  Trying to play it cool i kept to myself and decided to steal away the first opportunity i could to find a camera shop.  Turns out i got my first opportunity a day or two later between a rehearsal and a performance.  I talked to our local guide and he told me that everything in town was closed except for a few shops in the main train station downtown.  he gave me the name of the station and i ran out the door.  i had no idea where i was going, barely knew where i was.  so i fumbled my way around the subway station until i found a ticket machine, showed someone my piece of paper and they bought me the right ticket and pointed me in the right direction.  

its a bit long winded, but that necessity of diving into the situation was absolutely thrilling to me.  i wasn't worried about not knowing the language or where i was going, i was along for the ride.  and i think that is when i really caught on roaming around with little guidance.

they don’t realize that the epic weekend i just had in [insert awesome place] is bookended by 3 weeks of pb&j or top ramen

How do you budget a trip without a steady job?

it can be pretty tricky.  i've always been good about saving money and not spending on things that i can live without.  i mentioned earlier that my life in LA is pretty boring.  I feel like there are people who follow my travels and hear my stories that don't understand that this is only a part of my life.  they hear and see the highlights.  they don't realize that the epic weekend i just had in [insert awesome place] is bookended by 3 weeks of pb&j or top ramen.  the majority of my money is set aside for me to be able to do these awesome things.  the first things that get cut from the budget are day to day expenses like starbucks or eating out.  I went to the grocery store this morning.  I spent $25 and that will probably feed me for the next two weeks. none of it is healthy, but i've never been one to reach for the organic peanut butter or the free range chicken.  i do what i need to to get by so that i can do what i love to.  People often ask me how i do it or say things like "must be nice" or "i wish i could travel like that"  it makes me sad, because these people are making way more money than i am.  they just don't know how to prioritize or they simply don't want it enough.  if you want something bad enough, you will find a way.  A lot of times i find myself saying that i don't have any money, but i do. I have plenty. i just set aside that money to see the world, not to waste it away on overpriced coffee.

that and i make my money work for me.  my personal credit card has a cash back rewards program, and my business card has an airline miles rewards program. and trust me, i spent waaaaay too much time deciding which cards would be most beneficial to me. I buy everything with those.  i work out which purchases get me the highest reward returns and use the corresponding card for each. But i also manage what i spend.  spend only what i've got and pay the card off in full.  paying interest is a waste of money.

i just set aside that money to see the world, not to waste it away on overpriced coffee.

Single Best travel purchase (product)?

friendship is a easy as grabbing a pint and heading for an open chair

this is a tough one for me. I would say the ticket, because without making that first leap there would be no stories or friends or memories. but if you're asking for a single product then i might have to go with alcohol.  it is a universal language.  no one gadget or guide book will solve all your problems. ....and neither will alcohol. but it will bring you closer together with people.  its how i met the girl i went to malaysia with.  its how i met my friends in melbourne.  its how i met that old guy in Queenstown who ended up my wingman for the night.  it can be easy to feel alone when traveling, but friendship is a easy as grabbing a pint and heading for an open chair at a table.  i may have poured myself a glass of whiskey as i wrote this response.

What goes in a global pack?

I feel like i should preface this with the explanation that i'm not one of those backpackers that has all the fancy quick drying socks and high tech, pack light kind of stuff.  Most of my single bag adventures have been with my Chrome bike messenger backpack.  if i absolutely need something along the way, i'll buy it and probably ditch something else to get it back home.  That being said, my pack looks something like this...

  • Hybrid board shorts.  (light, comfy, pockets, and you can swimming)
  • travel towel  
  • toothbrush
  • deodorant
  • a couple tee shirts or tanks depending on weather
  • couple pairs of socks
  • rain jacket - it folds into itself and doubles as a travel pillow
  • underwear - if theres room. its an easy thing to go without if necessary
  • Camera - Nikon DSLR and a point and shoot
  • extra memory cards
  • iphone - you're gonna find wifi somewhere
  • various chargers
  • international power adapter.
  • combination lock - for hostel lockers
  • a good book.
  • journal and a few pens
  • ipod and headphones

thats pretty much it in my bag.  I'll wear a pair of jeans, t shirt a light hoodie and a beanie for flight/train/bus   my passport is always on me, almost never in the bag. beanie comes in handy to pull over your eyes for a quick nap.

10 things you like about air mattresses

  1. they are cheap,
  2. they are portable
  3. if you get a good one, it can last a long time.
  4. if you deflate it just right, its kinda like sleeping in a hammock
  5. you can use it anywhere
  6. can be used as a pool floaty thing
  7. can be used as a raft in a pinch
  8. deflated air mattresses can be used as a pillow/blanket in a pinch
  9. if its kinda deflated, you can jump on one end and launch things.
  10. the memories of living in tempe.
Mcdonalds is also a life saver when living in a car in another country. its like an american embassy. theres wifi, the familiar taste of the fries, and a relatively clean bathroom.

What’s it like living in a car?

i loved it, but i generally don't do it for extended periods of time.  My first night in the car in New Zealand was rough.  i had a tiny car, my bike and my bags.  It was cold and rainy that night.  I got sick.  When i got to my next destination i immediately found a sporting goods shop, reluctantly bought an overpriced sleeping bag and made it work.  i worked out my system for living in the car as i went.  I would find a street that wasn't too dodgy or too busy and sleep there.  one night i slept in a hotel parking lot. another i slept across from a mcdonalds.  one night i even slept in the parking lot of a police station.  I got real creative with my budget too.  about halfway through my two weeks i stayed at a hostel in Queenstown.  i had planned on getting to sleep early and heading out at a decent hour the next day.  nope.  met some english guys in my room and ended up blowing my next three days budget at the bar with them.  I stayed in Queenstown for three more days because i enjoyed it so much.  also because i discovered i could sleep in my car and walk into the hostel and use their bathrooms without anyone noticing.  

Mcdonalds is also a life saver when living in a car in another country.  its like an american embassy.  theres wifi, the familiar taste of the fries, and a relatively clean bathroom.

How do you feel about hostels?

i love hostels.  don't plan on getting much rest though.  it is difficult to describe it to someone who hasn't traveled. there is a sense of camaraderie that binds you to your roommates immediately.  people are known by the country they are from, not judged by their job or what car they drove back home.  everyone is living in the moment. people are their truest selves.  

i stayed in a hostel my first night in Melbourne, two days later i was living in an apartment down the street with a brazilian guy i met that first night.  at one point we had 6 people living in our two bedroom apartment and all of us had met at that hostel.

everyone is living in the moment. people are their truest selves

Perks of exploring a city via bicycle?

you go mostly unnoticed.  bicyclists tend to fall into a grey area between pedestrian and vehicle.  we can ride in traffic lanes but many times can get away with riding along the sidewalk.  you get to sort of fly under the radar and do what you want.  you can dive down a small alley and check it out if something seems interesting.  you're route isn't limited. bike paths, sidewalks, traffic lanes, you can go just about anywhere.  and while you're riding you get to take in the sights and see the storefronts that you pass.  you get a much more personal viewing of a city than you would in a car.

a whole lot of frank turner

Give me a playlist for a road trip:

a whole lot of frank turner.  dudes got some solid lyrics and a real sense of adventure but is based in reality.  i dont get real adventurous with my music.  rarely do i find some new band that i get really into.  Maybe thats because ive been traveling.   maybe its because my laptop has been on the fritz and i'm just lazy and don't feel like rebuilding my itunes library again.  but nowadays my road trips, consist of frank turner, lucero, blink 182 and a bunch of really up beat, pop kinda stuff. Ke$Ha and taylor swift are always good to keep you singing at the top of your lungs on those long solo drives.  Pandora summer hits of the 90' or 2000's stations are always good too.

Most remote place you’ve gone?

either the highlands of central malaysia or various places of southern New Zealand. just because its remote doesn't mean it isn't beautiful or appealing.  i've never really trekked days into the wilderness.   i suppose distance from "civilization" would make some of my time in South Africa the most remote.... but i was about 14. I was young and naive about the world.  Didn't take as much from it, so i don't really count it in my travels.

When you realize you’re lost somewhere new what do you do?

one of the first things i do when i get to a new city is find a map. most airports/hotels/travel centers will have a stack of maps that highlights tourist attractions. one of these is usually sufficient.  with that in my back pocket, i don't get too lost.  trains, subways and buses are a bit more tricky.  sometimes you can find a map of their routes too, but if possible i prefer to travel a new city on foot.  it allows for deviation from the main streets and a lot of times you can find some great hidden treasures.

learn to listen and learn. You’ll get your turn

Common denominator between people of all the places you’ve been?

people like to be noticed.  everyone has a story to tell and they love to tell it.  learn to listen and learn.  You'll get your turn.   it doesnt take much, just show a little interest

Guest Etiquette 101

don't be an asshole.  its pretty simple, but some people dont get it.  also, if you dont know, dont be afraid to ask.  most of the time people are willing to help out a traveler, but use your better judgement on who you ask.

for now, the horizon is my home

Places you might consider home?

that is a difficult question to answer.  my parents are in the process of selling my childhood home and i haven't lived anywhere for more than 4 months in the past 3 years. recently a friend told me that i'm going to hate everywhere i try to live, so i should find a place where the people don't suck and try that out for a while.  the plan is to move in with some bmx friends in Huntington Beach at the end of summer. we'll see how that goes.  I'll be looking for more consistent work out there.  phoenix is always nice too, though.

for now, the horizon is my home

knowing where you’ll be or what you’ll be doing 3 wednesdays from now is the worst

Explain the transition of the first few days back into “normalcy” after a trip

it sucks, i've been back for about 6 months now and i still struggle with it a bit.  the monotony of a day to day routine in the worst.  maybe thats because the uncertainty of being a backpacker is part of what i loved, but thats what makes it so fun and free.  knowing where you'll be or what you'll be doing 3 wednesdays from now is the worst.

i love sharing experiences with others. i’m more adventurous with a partner in crime.

Heartaches of travel?

it can get pretty lonely. doesnt matter how many new friends you've got, it's nice to talk with someone from home once in a while. that also helps to keep things in perspective. i suppose that for me the biggest heartache is traveling by myself.  i love sharing experiences with others.  i'm more adventurous with a partner in crime.

Best ways to stay in touch when you’re out and about?

anything internet based. whatsapp or imessage are preferred. email works too.  facebook even though i hate it.  and when i can i post to instagram and twitter.  occasionally i'll get a cheap mobile phone where ever i am.  i'm not real big on international calls.

Safest place in the world you’ve stayed? AKA Boring, USA?

Sad to say, but its probably where i am right now.  In a top floor luxury apartment with an ocean view in Marina Del Rey (just south of Venice Beach). I'm not saying its a bad place to be, but it doesn't leave a whole lot to the imagination and the predictability of the people around here sparks my wanderlust on a daily basis.  I need to get out. Luckily i can walk to LAX from here...

its gonna be fun. make it happen

Wise words to live/travel by?

  •  "Buy the ticket, take the ride"  -Hunter S. Thompson
  • "when nothings for sure, anything can happen" -casey neistat
  • "do what makes for a better story in life" - josh sneed

seriously, the best thing that you can do is just to go.  you'll figure it out on the way and learn a lot about yourself in the process.  its gonna be fun. make it happen.

Best travel reads and people who inspire you?

I read "The Longest Way Home" by Andrew McCarthy as i was traveling Australia and Malaysia.  strangely enough i found a sticker of his in a hostel bathroom in a remote part of malaysia about 3 days after i finished the book.  loved the book.  really hit home in  a lot of different ways.  I'm in the market for another good travel inspired book.

What is “goon” and what other world brews do you enjoy?

ah goon!  well, goon is a nickname that australians have given to boxed wine.  well, i guess its wine.  I dont think its made from grapes.  actually, i read the side of the box once and i dont want to go down that path... but anyway, its the cheapest alcohol you can get in australia.  its a right of passage for backpackers. 4 liters for $10? not too bad.  the downside is that unless you've been drinking it for weeks on end, you probably can't handle it straight.  yea, it tastes so bad that you gotta mix it.  but rarely was there a night in melbourne where one of the roommates didn't come home from work with a box or two and well, it gets fuzzy from there.  I've heard rumors that people have tied the used goonbags together and made rafts.... not sure how true that is.  we'll have to talk to Van about that one.

other worldly beverages that i've tried and would recommend (for better or worse) include buckfast.  its a caffeinated wine available in australia and i think europe.  probably most commonwealth influence areas.  its like their version of 4 loco, but way gnarlier.  Any german beer while in Germany, obviously.   I do wish cider was more prevalent in the states.  Its all over the place in australia and certain parts of europe. i like to try new things everywhere that i go, but other than that, i stick to irish whiskeys and various european beers.

You knew it was gonna get interesting when…

i feel like these questions are set up to make me say "fuck it, wheres my passport? i'm outta here."

I have a bad habit of going out the night before i have an international flight.  whether its you waking me up on the couch of the co-op, my German friend Sebastian jumping on the bed with "Stephen you have to go to the airport."   or sitting in the back of a cop car because my friend just fell through the roof of a warehouse, things tend to get wild.

i have a few vivid memories of "welp, here we go"  the first, was at Australian immigration.  the lady took my passport and asked how long i would be in Australia. "6 months" "And where will you be staying?" "um... we've got a hostel for tonight. i don't know the name of it or where it is."  she laughs and says, "alright, welcome to australia"

and probably my favorite was walking out of Kuala Lumpur airport.  I was with a girl i had met in a hostel two weeks prior and neither of us had ever planned on visiting Malaysia.  but there we were, at the "LCCT" .....low cost commuter terminal.  i guess thats what you get when you book a round trip international flight for $320US.  it was dirty, the signs didn't make sense even though they were in english.  we had no idea where we were (its about an hour and a half from downtown Kuala Lumpur) and we had no idea where our hostel was. we looked at each other with a common expression of "oh shit, what have we done?"     

there is a moment immediately after that, after you have had your panic and you get yourself together, the moment that you realize you are completely on your own in a new and strange place. you are completely free to do anything, see anything and meet anyone.  this moment is why i travel.

the other "this is going to get interesting" moment is when i picked up my rental car in new zealand.  I hadn't driven in a few months and had only driven on the left side of the road once.  i got in on the wrong side of the car, and when i sorted that out i had a moment of terror when i realized i had booked a manual, and had to shift with my left hand.

oh and there was that time we discovered the amusement park in Vienna allowed open containers...   Austrian dude got drunk me on a crazy chair swing with bunch of unidentifiable gibberish and then a shoulder shrug and "Yolo?"

What’s still on the list of places to go?

"I haven't been everywhere, but its on the list."  at this point i don't have any one trip on the horizon. i've got open ended invitations for Beijing and Southeast Asia, and friends all over the world.  Iceland has been on my radar for a few years and it's slowly creeping up the list.  who knows? i don't really plan too far in advance. keeps things interesting.

I've got some smaller trips planned around the states though.  I'll be spending some time in Dallas with an old friend. and this summer i'll be roadtripping from socal to washington, montana and denver with a friend. Applied for a position as a student travel trip leader also. so we'll see how that goes.

“I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on the list.”

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