I recently compiled this list of travel tips for my younger sister, traveling on her own for the first time. Influenced just as much by the mistakes I’ve made traveling as by the successful experiences I’ve had, here is a manifesto for getting outside the guidebook, off the beaten path and getting the most of the journey.
1. The People You Travel With Define Your Travel Experience
I’ve always gotten more out of places when I know someone there. They don’t have to be from there, but if they live there, or have spent some time there, they will know where to go and introduce you to other people, and take you to places that aren’t just the normal tourist traps. You don’t even have to know them well. In Perú, I met up with two grade school friends– acquaintances, really– who I hardly knew before we shared an unbelievable few days in South America. In Cairo, I had the time of my life staying with the brother of a friend. In Istanbul, I met up with a dude I had met once in New York through a former professor. In Barcelona, I met up with a fellow bassist who had found me on Myspace. In all of those places, they showed me a fantastic time, introduced me to some amazing places and people that I wouldn’t have found otherwise. And it helped me form lasting bonds with them through shared experience.
2. Meet People Wherever You Go
Meeting people when you’re traveling is much easier than when you’re at home in your own social circles. So even when you don’t know someone where you’re going, strike up a conversation with a stranger. Get lost. Be friendly. Obviously, OBVIOUSLY, be safe. But there are lots of amazing people out there and I’ve made some lasting friendships and unforgettable experiences through the people I’ve met randomly. In South Africa, I struck up a conversation with a Muslim woman at a university cafeteria, who the following day took me out to a shantytown where I got to hear Zulu children singing songs. So don’t be shy.
3. Keep In Touch With People
You never know when you might be able to meet up with someone on the other side of the world. Facebook is MAGIC for this sort of thing because you can do it passively. A Colombian friend I met at a gig in New York years ago was awesome enough to take my whole band out in Bogotá this past March. I met musicians in Barcelona who then visited New York, and tons of people on board a cruise ship who then allowed me to visit South Africa and Argentina. Travelers tend to pay forward hospitality and generosity, sort of like hospitality codes among Bedouin nomads. (If you’ve ever read the 1001 Arabian Nights, one of my favorite compendiums of crazy travel stories).
4. Not All Good Friends are Good Travel Companions
Obviously, you want to be safe, and traveling with friends can be lots of fun. I would be wary of traveling with too many of them at a time, lest you wind up as a bunch of tourists everywhere in a way that blocks you from really experiencing the places you go. If traveling alone isn’t your thing, try and find a friend who is open to new experiences and challenges you… not one who wants to go hang at an Irish pub when you’re halfway across the world in Thailand!
5. Stay Connected… But Not Too Connected
Document stuff, and share it on Facebook, all that crap. It’s really worth it to keep in touch with people back home. Just don’t let it cut you off from everything you’re experiencing. Take breaks, disconnect… and then reconnect. Lack of 3G/cell data service is wonderful for this, because then you’re limited to where you have wifi.
5b. Travel With A Local Cell Phone
I’ve traveled with and without a cell phone, and you get to do much more when you have a local sim card to get in touch with people wherever you are. There are a couple ways of doing this.
1). You could jailbreak your smartphone to take local simcards. I don’t recommend this for various reasons, not the least of which is that it’s easier/less worry to travel with a cheap cell phone.
2) Get a cheap travel phone and a local SimCard in each country you go. The phone will be maybe $60, simcards can be around $20 depending on where you are. That way, you have a local number where you can be reached by friends and people you meet– and you can reach them.
3) Get a Global Simcard – like this one. You pay a cheap subscription fee and it finds local networks wherever you are.
Note that the point of these is to keep in touch with people wherever you are, not people back home (which you can do with Skype, Viber, WhatsApp, etc). I actually like to keep those lines of communication separate– part of my axiom of staying connected, but not too connected.
6. Don’t Be Afraid To Spend Money
I can be very spendthrift, and I have all sorts of ways for gaming the system for cheap flights and housing. But don’t let the price tag of things keep you from experiencing where you are. This was a mistake I made big-time on my first trips. Would you be happier with $100 in your bank account, or a night that you will never, ever forget? I’ve recently discovered a term for quantifying the value of these experiences– identity capital. According to Meg Jay, in her book The Defining Decade:
“Identity capital is our collection of personal assets. It is the repertoire of individual resources that we assemble over time. These are the investments we make in ourselves, the things we do well enough, or long enough, that they become a part of who we are. Some identity capital goes on a resume, such as degrees, jobs, test scores, and clubs. Other identity capital is more personal, such as how we speak, where we are from, how we solve problems, how we look. Identity capital is how we build ourselves – bit by bit, over time. Most important, identity capital is what we bring to the adult marketplace. It is the currency we use to metaphorically purchase jobs and relationships and other things we want.”
6b.…but the Most Expensive Experience Isn’t Always the Best!
Taking a 12€ train ride might afford you much cooler experiences for meeting people than renting a car for 200€. The touristy 30€ meal might not be anywhere near as good (or as genuine!) as the 3€ dive in a back alley.
7. Earn Frequent Flyer Miles
It sounds like a pain in the ass, but it’s VERY easy to sign up for different frequent flyer programs and you’ll be able to use those miles somewhere down the line. You never know when. And nowadays, with the proliferation of airline alliances, you can consolidate your miles on just a few different airlines, track them via AwardWallet, and use that value to generate more experiences for yourself down the road. There’s a whole subculture to travel hacking, but even if you don’t want to dive in that deep, JUST SAVE YOUR MILES.
8. Be Prepared…
I like to read the Wikipedia article on a place before I show up there, giving me more context to know and feel what I’m looking at. Also, it is invaluable to reach out to any friends you might have in a place, or any friends who might have friends in a place! You never know where it will lead, and at the VERY least, they’ll be able to give you good recommendations, if not a place to stay and a great meal. If you’re halfway around the world, aren’t you wasting your time if you’re not meeting as many people as possible?
8b.…but Play It By Ear
Don’t be too regimented with your plans. The best experiences are the random, unplanned ones. Get lost. Get into crazy situations and trust your ability to get out of them.
9. Stay With Friends
AirBNB is awesome– you should definitely try it out. But also, if you have contacts who are generous enough to put you up (and don’t be afraid to ask), it will help you get more out of a place.
10. Always Bring A Bathing Suit
…because, you never know.
Travel is a skill that takes time to develop just like any other skill. The more you do it, the more you’ll have experience to fall back on. When I see people go on vacations that keep them isolated in a resort or a tourist trap, I cannot understand why they would place themselves in the middle of a place that’s different, exciting, exhilarating– and then close themselves off to it. Be open to everything around you.