Travel Blogger and YouTuber Derek Freal Shares How He Packs for Stress-Free Travel

Greetings, I am Derek Freal, a former cubicle confinee and corporate escapee from Austin, Texas, USA. Luckily, life is not about where you are from, but where you are going. No one gets to choose where they are born, however, we can choose where we are going in life and what we make of it. In this modern age of digital distractions and instant gratification, it’s too easy to do nothing instead of something. I just want to remind people that experiences are more valuable than possessions — and that there is an entire planet out there waiting to be explored.

The Holidaze Derek Freal
Derek Freal can be found ranting and rambling about life as a perpetual traveler on his blog, The HoliDaze.

As I type this, I am currently in Thailand but things have been a bit hectic recently. This is my fourth country in six weeks and in another week I will flying over to Malaysia.

I get my thrills by convincing locals in foreign countries to trust me with the keys to whatever strange vehicular devices they are driving — tractors, trikes, jeepneys, rickshaws and anything else with at least two wheels. I also love eating new, questionable and/or taboo foods. The more unhygienic the better!

“Don’t be afraid of what I eat — be afraid of what I *won’t* eat!”

Both of these were intended to be regular travel video series cleverly named, Derek Drives That! and Derek Eats That! As fun as it is driving strange new vehicles, I never get into any accidents, which means the videos are quite boring. They were never released. Derek Eats That! ended up being much entertaining. I’ve probably filmed 40-50 episodes already and whenever I have a bit of free time I do try and post a new one to my YouTube channel, The HoliDaze. Don’t worry, not all the foods are strange or disgusting — in fact my most popular DET! episode ever is the newest one where I eat the most delicious food in the world….[drumroll please]….Babi Hutan! Check out the video!

DET-babi-hutan-sm
“Babi Hutan is much more delicious than the episode prior to it, cockroach — which is definitely one of the most disgusting things I have ever eaten,” Derek.

How and why did you get into traveling?

I became a global citizen by accident. After years of living the corporate cubicle lifestyle chasing the “American Dream” by the start of 2008, I had accrued so much PTO (Paid Time Off) that it was a “use it or lose it” situation. So I rented an apartment in Tokyo and hopped a one-way flight to Japan… right as the global economy collapsed. Exchange rates for yen dropped nearly 50% during the last half of 2008 and with my bank account in free-fall, I fled to the Philippines. From then on there was no stopping me. The travel bug had bitten. And the lyrics to that song from The Lion King kept echoing in my head:

♪♪ There is more to see than can ever be seen, more to do than can ever be done…. ♪♪

Indosat
“Thankfully I’ve had a lifetime of adventures in the last decade, checked dozens of things off my bucket list, and even did some things that I never in my wildest dreams would have imagined, like being on a nationally televised game show in Indonesia,” Derek.

The first few years I survived off my savings from all those years of tireless work and the money made selling all of my possessions. Eventually in 2011, upon realizing that I could never go back to a “normal” job, I turned my hobby travel blog — which was purely for letting friends back home know I hadn’t died yet — into a proper travel blog, theHoliDaze.com, and moved all my “Rants and ramblings from a perpetual nomad” to blog.theHoliDaze.com (which eventually became the more popular of the two).

“Countries and politics be damned, I want to visit everywhere.”

How do you prepare for your adventures and travels?

Honestly, I don’t prepare or plan when traveling. I just go. Zero research might sound scary but there is a reason. Too much reading/research on new countries prior to your arrival can result in preconceived notions, even subconsciously, and those will alter your perspectives and experiences in that country. With zero plans anything is possible. I don’t even book hotels or departure tickets. (Of course, this does require some smooth talking to get past airline check-in and immigration officers, who in recent years have become much more fond of asking you about your hotel, travel plans, visa status and departure dates.)

The HoliDdaze Derek Freal
“Now I travel to meet locals and learn more about their culture, lifestyle and language,” Derek.

Upon arrival in a new country the first thing I do is purchase a SIM, hop on Twitter to see if I have any fans there. Step two is to either take a train, taxi or bus into the center of town — during that ride I’ll book a hotel from my phone, drop my bags off there, and then start wandering. As a nomad you have the luxury of time and don’t need to rush to hit all the popular sights in a country in one short trip.

It was my fifth time to Cambodia before I even visited Angkor Wat!

Of course, most people do not have the luxury of time and in that situation I strongly advocate a little bit of travel planning. Travel blogs are the best for this because they contain up-to-date information, unlike the 2011 Chile Lonely Planet travel guide that Johnny Backpacker is clutching like a bible. How-to visa guides, budget tips, travel do and don’ts, advice on language and local customs, even delicious hidden restaurants and off the beaten path destinations, everything you want to know can be found on travel blogs. Vegan? LGBT? Muslim? There are bloggers out there just like you who are traveling, writing about it, and — best of all — willing answer questions or offer some personal tips if you drop them an email or message on social media.

How do you finance your travels?

The first few years on the road I lived off savings from years of hard work and liquidating all my possessions but since 2013 my adventures around the globe have been 100% funded by the money I make online. Selling photos or video footage, writing paid travel guides for different publications/sites, YouTube advertising income, and of course Amazon affiliate links for the travel and photography gear I use (all of which I personally approve of) are some examples.

The HoliDdaze Derek Freal
“My new office changes every week but always beats those old cubicle walls.” Derek.

Over the years, I have had various sponsors for individual projects, like the race across India in 2015, but those are all quite obvious. If you see me using or wearing something in my photos/videos, it is because I like it. For example my watch, which over the last four years has appeared in thousands of photos solely so that people know it is really me holding that item in my hand.

I also produce travel videos for clients in the travel/tourism industry. Of course, when I say this, first thing people do is check my YouTube channel. Sure, I upload stuff there occasionally — but those are what I call “free” videos. All my best work, the professional videos, are for clients and don’t want my YT channel cluttered with their commercials.

Unfortunately, I no longer track my travel expenses because they are scattered between accounts in different countries, different currencies, and it all requires more time and effort than I have to spare. Without a doubt I spend more on travel gear than plane tickets — I own multiple drones, switched from Nikon to Sony when the now famous Sony A7Rii was first released, and everything I have even my phone shoots brilliant 4K video. But if you add in hotels to the cost of plane tickets, then I definitely spend more on the act of traveling than the gear I travel with. After all, hotels are a daily expense but equipment can last for years. (Unless you are like me, then you’re lucky to get more than six months out of a laptop or phone.)

Why is traveling important for you?

Traveling is so important that it’s something everyone must try at least once.

International travel teaches you that regardless of race, religion, politics or social class, we are all humans. We are all the same. And we all face the same problems, whether it be public education, transportation, sanitation, healthcare, reliable electricity, access to clean water and fresh food, or getting those corrupt bastards out of government. Some countries have found innovative solutions to these problems that we all face. Unfortunately, you will never realize this if you do not travel.

How do you bring your things with you?

Over the years, I’ve gone through more bags, backpacks and suitcases than I can count. As a backpacker, long-time traveler or digital nomad, you need a reliable backpack. Way back in the day I was a Kelty fan, but after trying countless brands over the years, I finally settled on one backpack brand and one suitcase brand.

For carry-on bags, photography backpacks and simple day-trip bags, PacSafe is the only way to go. My primary camera bag is a CamSafe V25 and it is with me everywhere, just like the nuclear football. Besides being durable it also has multiple anti-theft features, which is reassuring considering there is usually around $10,000 worth of gear in it. When something bigger is necessary, it’s the Pacsafe Venturesafe X40. A photographer’s’ life and livelihood is in their camera bag, which means security comes before all other features.

When it comes to suitcases, both the small carry-on kind and the big boy wheeled variety, it is Delsey for me. They are the first suitcases that can withstand the punishment frequent fliers puts on their luggage. From the Arctic to the desert to tropical islands, I’ve been everywhere with Delsey suitcases over the last year — even took one of them hiking through the jungles of Sabah, East Malaysia!

The HoliDdaze Derek Freal
“Thankfully the porter offered to carry my suitcase…..25kg but he made it look so easy and so lightweight,” Derek.

How do you organize things in your bags?

Everything has its own place. That is the only way frequent travelers can easily keep track of all their important possessions and avoid losing things every week. One trick is to develop your own placement system based on the frequency of use of that item. If you have multiple bags, keep a small hotel toiletry kit, power bank, phone cable and other simple necessities in each one — that way no matter which bag you chose for that day/trip, you are already prepared.

It is a shame that more bags are not waterproof — or at least have an easily accessible wind cover that is not likely to be blown open by strong winds — for the travelers who can’t stop driving their motorcycle just because of a little storm. Conveniently placed zippers, pockets and holes for power bank wires, audio cables, or other cords are also a must.

How do your bags and gear hold up?

Ha! My bags are always too heavy. But that is what happens when you travel with more gadgets than clothing. Most bags and brands tried cannot handle the wear and tear I put them through, which is how I finally came around to PacSafe.

The HoliDdaze Derek Freal
“On the road again….going places I have never been, seeing things I might never seen again….,” Derek.

Speaking of repairs/changes while on the road, I have needed to do a few. Even sent suggestions for improvements to both Delsey and PacSafe. (Only Delsey responded and who knows if that suggestion even went anywhere.)

Any gear you wish you had brought with you from the beginning?

Really wish that I had started with a wheeled suitcase instead of two backpacks — or at least switched sooner! 😉 And yes, I was definitely overpacked at first, as all new nomads are when first abandoning their “normal” life. Did not take long to learn how to travel smarter, lighter and cheaper, but I never became one of those “my bag with everything even laptop only weighs 12kg” kind of people. Having additional things like photo/video gear, a medical kit, spare cables, and other extras may add a little bit of weight but when they come in handy they suddenly become priceless!

Well, I certainly DO NOT miss traveling with a 25-foot ethernet cable. As prepared as I thought I was back then, I still overlooked some basic items, like for example a basic travelers’ first aid kit. Thankfully, over the years and the accidents, I collected enough medicine and supplies to create my own first aid kit using items from a dozen or more countries. Very useful but the hard part is remembering what each item is for because most of it is not in English!

My bags are always too full. And anyone who owns a GoPro probably realizes that the 100+ attachments offered could fill an entire backpack just by themselves. A good rule of thumb for long-term travelers is that anything in your luggage which you have not used in the last month probably has no business being in your bag. Medical supplies and condoms excluded, obviously. 😉

Don’t forget to travel with a pen in your carry-on bag (for filling in immigration cards on the plane so you can clear immigration faster) plus a notebook or pad of paper, both of which can be found in your hotel room.

The HoliDdaze Derek Freal
Sunset at Shangri-La Rasa Ria Resort in Sabah, East Malaysia.

DO travel with a power bank but DO NOT rely on your phone for every single thing otherwise when it gets lost/stolen/broken the pain will be twice as great. And don’t forget to auto sync your photos to the cloud. Not only will this ensure nothing gets lost, it has also helped quite a few people recover their phone after it was stolen.

What has been your best travel-related purchase below $100?

Oh wow, where to start. A good set of headphones is a must, or at least some decent earbuds that are not prone to falling out if you move around too much. From airplanes to immigration queues to noisy hotels/hostels when you just want to sleep, they will get more use than any other piece of travel tech except your phone. I’ve gone through countless headphones over the years but now have Bose SoundTrue — which is available under $100 on Amazon if you get it used.

Another priceless piece of travel tech is the Western Digital MyPassport. As the name implies, this external hard drive was designed for travelers. Not only is it small and lightweight but it can take a mean beating. I have four WD MyPassports (the oldest probably for 6-7 years) and the only one that has ever failed was the one that got run over by a truck in India. The other three still work perfectly. The 3TB MyPassport is less than $100 but becomes priceless as you begin filling it up with photos/videos from your travels.

What other favorite gear do you have?

Besides my drones and video gear? And under $100? Nothing at all. However, traveling involves a lot of time spent outdoors and even if wearing two-day old clothes, there is an easy way to look more sophisticated: Ray-Ban Aviators, quite possibly the most iconic sunglasses of all time. Although the colors and models have changed a couple times over the years as I’ve lost a few pairs. Real ones are not cheap but are worth it. However, if you tend to lose things or are a budget traveler visiting anywhere from India to Indonesia, you can find fake Ray-Bans basically everywhere for around $2 a pair — or less if you are a good haggler.

The HoliDdaze Derek Freal
“Hello…..is it me you’ve been looking for?”

What is your best advice for other travelers?

DO NOT turn travel into a competition. Do not rush your travels either. The best adventures happen when you least expect it. Sometimes the best plan is having no plan at all. Besides, it takes a few weeks to begin to get the feel of a country. After that is when the *real* learning and excitement begins!

“Do not measure your travels in distance, countries or passport stamps but instead by the experiences and wisdom gained from each new destination.”

DO NOT buy a GoPro unless you plan on having adventures. It is an “action cam” not a normal camera. It is intended for fast-paced, adrenaline-pumping activities where a large field of view is necessary to capture the excitement. Every time I see someone in the audience of a cultural performance holding up a GoPro in their hand I have to resist the urge to politely tell them: “That is NOT how GoPros are meant to be used, that footage will look terrible and you will never watch it again….all you are doing is ruining the view of the people behind you.”

The HoliDdaze Derek Freal
“Better get used to seeing these signs — they are everywhere nowadays.” Derek.

DO NOT buy a drone “because they are cool” or “so I can take aerial selfies” I cannot tell you how many travelers I’ve met who bought a drone just days before their big RTW trip yet don’t even know how to fly it, let alone how to work the camera. Or anything about drone safety. Or even the local drone laws. It is because of these careless people that more and more places have made/strengthened their drone laws. All those popular tourist attractions where you think a drone would be awesome? Think again! Most either do not allow drones, or only allow drone pilots with proper paperwork and insurance.

Besides those logical reasons there is also a financial reason why a drone is not a travel necessity. Instead why not use that money to add an additional 1-2 months onto your trip — you’ll be glad you did….

The HoliDdaze Derek Freal
” …especially when something like this happens. Battery failure sent my Phantom crashing into the ocean while doing a video for a resort. Thankfully the only good thing about having multiple drones is that when one crashes, you can use another drone to find it,” Derek. 😉

Register for frequent flyer programs for every airline that you will be flying NOW. DO NOT wait three years like I did to start saving your miles. Additionally, it is much easier to have the airline check-in staff add your FF# then, rather than attempting to claim the points after the flight.

The HoliDdaze Derek Freal
“DO NOT bring a bag of peanuts in your carry-on as an in-flight snack. Some airlines still serve them,” Derek.

When planning your next trip, begin reading travel blogs for “research” purposes. Find some bloggers who write about where you want to go, or have the same style of travel as you, then follow along on their adventures and learn up-to-date, honest information about the destinations you are interested in. And feel free to contact us with questions — travel bloggers are always willing to help other travelers.

If you want to start a travel blog to document your adventure, think ahead. Do not start it a week before your big trip — no one will be reading. Start it six months or more before traveling the world. Find your niche. Build an audience. Develop some connections. Don’t do it because you think it will pay for all your travels. Sorry to burst that bubble but it will not, those days have passed.

10 years ago when I began my first travel blog, it was ludicrously easy to make money — the hard part was explaining to people what a “blogger” was. Nowadays, everybody and their mother has a travel blog. In restaurants and hotels around the world, people try to play the “but I’m a blogger and I’ll…..” card and demand free stuff or special treatment. Do not be one of them!

The HoliDdaze Derek Freal
“Found this airplane hidden in the woods last month. Guarantee that you won’t find this in any guide book or even any travel blog — at least not until next week when I publish my article,” Derek.

If you want to be a travel blogger, do it because you love to travel. With a few rare exceptions, travel blogging alone is not profitable enough to fund a global lifestyle. However, if you do it well then blogging is the perfect stepping stone to a more lucrative career. This is why so many of the “older” bloggers, myself included, end up as professional photographers or start our own media production company or digital magazine or organize private tours or become consultants for brands in the travel/tourism industry or write books/ebooks or any one of a hundred other travel-related careers — all of which are better paying and less time-consuming than blogging. Sure, I still have several travel blogs and still post occasionally, however what began as a hobby then became a career has once again reverted to a hobby.

What will the future bring?

I have absolutely no idea what the future holds….and this is exactly the way I like it! Everyday is a surprise. Thanks to good luck and a tendency to go with the flow, I’ve ended up partying with Yakuza in Tokyo, met celebrities in countries around the world, appeared on television, magazines and newspaper more times than I can count, even did a film in Indonesia. There have been so many adventures that I am started to forget some.

The HoliDdaze Derek Freal
“I also had the awkward experience last year of having surgery done in a small village using a desk lamp as the doctor’s light. Fancy,” Derek.

In 2016, I ended my nomadic life after almost eight full years living out of backpacks and referring to hostels/hotels as “home.” There were many reasons for this change but the biggest was my increased focus on video, which requires a lot of gear that is both heavy and expensive — two things which do not mix with the nomadic lifestyle.

The HoliDdaze Derek Freal
“Videos are so much more fun than writing! But they are also a lot more work,” Derek.

As I mentioned, most of the veteran travel bloggers now make the majority of their income doing something else. For me it is video production. Rather than wandering aimlessly and randomly from country to country as I proudly did for so many years, now I travel where needed, when needed. Just last month, I was sitting at home on a Tuesday night when I received a message asking two simple questions: “Are you available to do a video this week? And do you have a valid China visa?”

That was at 8pm. We quickly worked out the details and by midnight my driver was dropping me off at Bangkok airport. By sunrise, I was in the mountains of western China near the Tibet border, less than 12 hours after receiving the offer. Not a bad way to start the day. 😉

The HoliDdaze Derek Freal
“Since this project just wrapped, it will be at least a few weeks before the final video is done. It will be visually stunning…..and completely in Mandarin as it is intended for a Chinese audience,” Derek.

Sadly, there is not much gear that I want or need, except perhaps a 3D camera. Sure, it would be nice to upgrade my Sony A7Rii to the new A7Riii, but the camera still works flawlessly — and no matter how many times I drop it the damn thing just won’t break. What I really want instead of more gear is an assistant — real life, not VA — to help with shoots. There is only so much that VAs can do from a distance.

Visit Derek Freak on his website and follow his adventures on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Pinterest.


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2 Comments

  1. Your questions took me on a trip down memory lane, thanks! 🙂

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