Inspired by a post I saw today in which food, travel, and bad-assery legend Anthony Bourdain shares his top five travel tips, I am posting my own travel tips–except I’m one-upping him and posting six travel tips! Ha! Actually, the post made me realize that in all of my traveling, I’ve gained a fair bit of travel wisdom as well. So instead of keeping it to myself, I thought I’d impart a little bit of it to you, and I just happened to think of six things I wanted to share.
Although six tips doesn’t even begin to touch upon all the more practical travel tips I have (like: always, always bring a jacket or extra layer for the plane and/or bus–even when it’s hot out!), these are travel tips for what I’d like to call “the spirit of travel.” Follow these six tips and they’ll help you have a greater, fuller, richer travel experience.
1) Eat street food. Oh MAN, just thinking about the street food stalls in Asia is making me hungry. I can’t promise that it won’t lead to absolutely dire toilet situations later on, but in most countries some of the best and cheapest food comes from the little ole mom and pops who’ve been slanging the same dishes for the past three decades from their rickety street carts. Those are the people who make authentic, time-tested local cuisine, with recipes that have been in their families for generations. And since it’s cheap, you can most likely afford to try various different dishes–especially because you might have to take a risk and try something when you have absolutely no idea what it is. (Those little ole mom and pops know good food, but often only in their native tongue. Haven’t gotten around to boning up on the English Rosetta Stone, I guess.)
2) Converse, befriend, and spend time with locals. You’d be surprised what some friendly gestures, basic English, and simple phrases from a phrase/guidebook can do. Most of my favorite memories from all of my travels (at least the ones that don’t involve trysts with other travelers… :)) involve time spent with locals. And often these experiences happen when you’re not even looking for them. Once, in the outer reaches of Gansu province in western China, in a tiny Tibetan town called Langmusi, I befriended two adorable little Chinese girls while I was wandering by a creek alone. The two sisters invited me into their home (a very simple wooden two-room shack) and I will never forget the hospitality and warmth of this family whose way of life was so starkly different from my own.
3) Travel alone. If you’ve never traveled alone, and you’ve now been roped into a serious relationship in which you have to travel with that partner forevermore ’til death do you part, um… that’s too bad. (But I kid, congrats! Traveling with a loved one can be just as–if not more–awesome, just a totally different experience.) Otherwise, travel alone at some point in your life. You will learn so much about yourself, about your limits, your fears, and your capabilities. You will surprise yourself with the crazy things you pull off and are willing to do. You will also have the freedom to do or not do whatever the hell you want, which is obviously less possible when you travel with someone. It’s also really just a wonderfully introspective experience. You have long train/plane/boat/gondola rides to contemplate. Traveling alone also allows more time for interacting with locals. You can sit and chat with the food stall owners while you eat, rather than chatting with your travel companion (who you’ll likely be able to talk to back home). It also allows you to meet other fellow travelers more easily–you never know what great friends and/or romantic flings you may encounter while on the road!
4) Don’t overplan and be flexible. Life on the road doesn’t always go the way you thought it would while researching and planning on your laptop at home. Bad weather happens, broken down ferries happen, flight cancelations happen, hookups happen (after which you want to laze around and bask in each other’s company while you can). ATM machines don’t accept your card and you run out of money. You meet cool people at the hostel and you decide to travel with them, instead of your original itinerary. You get to the train station and the next available seat they have leaves tomorrow instead of today. God forbid–you get in a moped accident and you end up having to stay in a Mexican hospital and then get emergency air-lifted to a hospital in Texas (true story–I am a walking ad for travel insurance). All of this is why I am always afraid to book those around-the-world tickets. Most people I know who have used them end up having to cancel and rebook flights because, well, travel happens. And one of the best parts of travel is the discovery of new places you hadn’t counted on, and the freedom to follow your whims to do what you want and go where you want.
5) Be open and receptive. Don’t be afraid of strangers. Most people in this world are kind, good-natured, and can teach you something. Try not to judge customs or practices different than the ones you’re used to, and try not to travel with preconceived notions about a place and its people. Do things outside of your comfort zone. Most likely you’ll be really proud and so happy you did afterwards. (But don’t beat yourself up if you earnestly give something a try, and decide not to do it–i.e. me and scuba diving. Sorry, no dice.) Eat things you’ve never heard of before. Stay up really late, and watch sunrises; sleep can wait. Wear less than you’re apt to at home. Dance the salsa/tango/samba/rumba/merengue, even when you don’t know the first thing about it; likely an eager Latino/a will be happy to show you. Accept an invitation to a party from that cute Argentine bartender (but do the responsible thing and bring friends with you). Take modes of transportation that make you slightly uncomfortable. Be a risk-taker and choose the less-traveled route and the less-popular destination. Of course, always be a smart, safe, cautious, and alert traveler, especially if you are a female traveling alone. But also, you’re on freaking vacation. Live a little!
6) Observe, capture, and record. The single greatest thing about traveling for me is the opportunity to see and experience a different culture from a first-person perspective. Laying on a gorgeous beach and eating incredible food are just major side perks. So be a sponge. Soak things up while you’re traveling: the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of the surroundings. Observe the vibes, attitudes, opinions, lifestyles, and fashion choices of the people. Take note of how you feel in this new place. It will end at some point, usually much sooner than you want it to, and you’ll be back to your daily grind at home before you know it.
Take pictures, take videos, and keep a journal. Make sure to turn the camera outward to the world more often than not, rather than having a million pictures of yourself and/or Instagramed photos of your food. Since I am more the type to forget to take pictures of myself, make sure to do that from time to time as well. It’ll be nice to be able to look back and remember what you looked and felt like during that trip. Also, remember those locals you’ll hopefully be hanging out with? Often they’ll love taking pictures with you. So grab a picture with them, and offer to send them a copy once you’re home. Your journal entries don’t have to be poetic or deep. But have a notebook where you can jot down notes or keep random memorabilia like ticket stubs or restaurant cards; it’s great for keeping the memory of those places alive long after you’ve returned home. As soon as you get home and still have the memories fresh in your mind, label your photos, or organize them in folders on your computer. That way, when you go back to look through them later on, you won’t find yourself absolutely clueless as to what you were doing, where and when.