By nature I am mildly OCD and a planner at heart. There are actually few things I enjoy doing more than planning a trip, but over the years this has gotten out of hand. At one point I was a horrible overplanner, taking away all the spontaneity and fun from my trips. Thankfully, I’ve improved but that doesn’t mean some planning isn’t important. Showing up and winging it may be a romantic notion, but you’ll get so much more out of the travel experience with just a little planning.
The best travel writers out there will tell you that adequate research is crucial to making the most out of any trip, and the same goes for the average traveler as well. It’s a fine line, granted, between research and overplanning but take some time to learn about where you’re going and to uncover a few distinctive experiences you’d like to enjoy. Rather than try to suss out something unusual or quirky, do some online research beforehand to see what you can find. If restaurants are important to you, then try to find a few that you’d love to try out. Don’t come up with experiences for every day of the trip, but at least do some basic research on the place you’re visiting to make the trip you’ve invested so much in that much more enjoyable.
Don’t be obvious
I remember once I was on the metro going home when a family of tourists jumped on board. How did I know they were tourists you ask? They had matching t-shirts. And they literally jumped on board the train instead of walking like normal humans, as if it was a magical carpet ready to miraculously transport them to their next destination. Two stops later the Dad whistled, WHISTLED, and yelled, “Next stop!” They dutifully left to go on their next well-planned experience. What’s wrong with this? Well other than the frightening lack of style, they were walking billboards saying “Please rob me! I’m not local and no doubt I am easy to fool.” They were incredibly obvious and that is what you want to avoid when you travel.
Being an obvious tourist is bad from a safety point of view and in some parts of the world you really need to be careful about that. I also think that it mentally sets you apart, limiting some of the special local experiences you might be able to enjoy. In many parts of the world of course it’s impossible to hide the fact you’re not local, but your demeanor and how you carry yourself is everything. While in Cambodia I sat at a café and watched people walk by. The local touts harassed most people, until a longtime Western resident went by. They recognized her of course and didn’t bother her, but she also carried herself differently. She walked with purpose and even if she didn’t know where she was going, exuded confidence. That’s important when you travel and a smart practice to stay safe.
Where and what to eat
For many of us, food is an integral part of the travel experience and even motivates many to leave home in the first place. There’s nothing better than warm chocolate croissants in Paris, homemade pasta in Italy or even a schnitzel in Austria. These are important parts of the travel experience and shouldn’t be skipped. But they can also be expensive, and the daily food costs for three meals a day plus snacks can be considerable, so it’s important to plan. Breakfast is commonly included with hotel room rates around the world, so make sure that’s the case for your visit. This is the best way to get a ‘free’ breakfast and eat enough to either have a light lunch or skip it altogether. Second, do not eat within 3 blocks of a major tourist attraction. I know those crepes next to the Eiffel Tower look amazing, but you’ll pay half as much for one a few blocks away. The same holds true for restaurants. The food near tourist sites is usually sub-par and overpriced, so skip it unless getting The View is important to you, but even then do it sparingly. Finally, always find the closest supermarket to your hotel. All urban centers have them and they can look unassuming, so ask the front desk staff for directions. Not only is walking through a foreign grocery store a fascinating cultural experience, you can pick up snacks and drinks at a fraction of the cost anywhere else.
Be smart with your money
If you exchange money before leaving home the rates are awful, there’s no arguing with that and there’s no need for it. If you want money in your pockets when you arrive, just go to the ATM at the airport. I have never been to an international airport anywhere in the world where they didn’t have plenty of ATMs. An ATM should always be your first choice for local currency; they provide the best rates possible. The same advice goes for traveler’s checks. You have to pay to get them and to use them, a senseless waste of money. Once again, ATMs are your best friend.
For safety though be sure to use ATMs associated with a bank, rather than a random one with no affiliation.
More than just how you access your money, what you do with it is important as well. Food is the one time when we as tourists tend to overspend. A few easy tips to avoid this include:
- Never eat at or near tourist sites
- Ask shop owners or waiters for their favorite places to eat. They’ll always want affordable quality.
- Pick up snacks and drinks at grocery stores.
- Book a hotel that includes breakfast.
- If you rented an apartment or house, plan on cooking at least a few meals at your rental.
Don’t be afraid
The world is dangerous – this is a misconception expressed especially by my fellow countrymen and is oh so wrong. I think some folks have a natural inclination to distrust anything foreign, and every news story about any issue, no matter how trivial, only feeds into that false mythology. With some notable exceptions – war torn areas, North Korea, Baltimore – the world is on the whole a fairly safe place. Does that mean you should travel carefree? No, you always need to take precautions to both protect your money and things, as well as yourself. Basic common sense should help though, and as long as you aren’t overly foolish you should be fine. Regardless, you should never let a false threat (real ones are ok) of danger to stop you from traveling. The fact is that in many cases where we live is more dangerous than the places we want to visit. I’ve traveled all around the world many times but the only time I’ve been pickpocketed was right here in the U.S. So no, the world on the whole is NOT a dangerous place and you should start seeing it as soon as possible.
Talk to everyone
I’m a people watcher. I could sit in the airport for hours just watching folks walk by and be perfectly happy. In watching people, including my fellow tourists, so carefully when I travel I have noticed one thing; very few of them actually talk to anyone else. Whether it’s a family or a couple traveling around, we all tend to stay fixated on our own packs, rarely engaging other travelers or locals. For me, travel is about personal enrichment and growth and to do that I need to talk to people. I’m highly extroverted, so it may be easier for me but even if you’re not, find ways to learn about the people you’re visiting. One of the best ways to do this is to join a tour, either a private one or a free public walk. I nearly always walk alongside the guide, peppering them with questions along the way. “What do you love about your city? Where are your favorite restaurants? Where are you from? What’s your background?” and so on. It’s a friendly interrogation, but a good way to understand how places tick. It’s not just locals I question though, I love chatting with fellow tourists as well. Once on an afternoon boat cruise in Queensland, I was joined by a group of 3 couples, all traveling around Australia. They had all recently retired and were kicking things off with a dream trip around the country. After a few minutes of chatting a gentleman told me that he had watched the movie “The Bucket List” and he said that it changed him. After watching that he decided to go ahead and retire and do the things he really wanted to do while he was still able. It was a wonderful conversation and really drove home the importance of travel in people’s lives and made a significant impression on me. It was a brief, simple moment but one that I know I’ll remember for a very long time.