I used to be a guidebook addict. I carried them on every trip, checking off every “Top 10 Sights” list I could. I obeyed all of the tips and suggestions, terrified of making a wrong move and missing a critical bit of scenery. Eventually, I learned that my methods were all wrong. I was a tourist, not a traveler. Over time I have managed to overcome my dependence on guidebooks and tourist traps, but not without making a few mistakes along the way. To spare you the same trouble, here are a few lessons I learned the hard way.
1. Try to speak the language.
Just try. You might feel uncomfortable and dorky, but your effort will not go unnoticed! Don’t be afraid that people will try to engage you in a complex conversation well beyond your grasp. They’ll know right away that you are foreign and will either keep it simple or switch to English.
2. Eat what the locals eat.
Whatever they’re eating, it’s for a reason, and usually a good one. More often than not, you’ll have a good experience if you follow suit. And if you hate it, you’ll have a funny experience to tell your friends about when you get home.
3. Eat when the locals eat.
Nothing screams “I’m a tourist!” more than eating dinner alone in an Italian restaurant at 6:00. Plus, it’s boring! Have a snack and a drink (or 3) and then enjoy dinner in a restaurant full of locals. The atmosphere will be worth the hunger pains.
4. Walk everywhere.
You’ll see more and have a richer experience. You can learn a lot more about a city and its people by walking its streets, rather than looking through a taxi window or crammed on a subway 200 feet underground (OK, maybe you can learn something about a culture from its subway, too). And you’ll burn enough calories to ease your guilt about eating that extra croissant. The worst thing that’ll happen is you’ll get lost and see more of the city. And what’s wrong with that?
5. Listen more than you speak, and when you do speak, speak quietly.
You’ll be surprised at how much more you notice if you take a minute to listen to what’s happening around you, and you will probably pick up a few fun phrases in a foreign language. In many cultures around the world it is considered bad etiquette to speak loudly in restaurants, so you’ll also avoid inadvertently offending the other patrons or staff.
6. Step out of your comfort zone.
What’s the point of traveling if you are doing or eating the same things you would at home? If you’re a little uncertain about something you’re about to eat or do and you don’t feel the imminent hand of death, just go for it.
7. Throw out the checklist.
Pick one or two must-see things per day, and spend the rest of the day wandering, sitting in a cafe or park, browsing in a bookstore…doing anything that brings you closer to the local culture. Your trip will be more relaxing, and you will have a much richer experience. You’re never going to see it all anyway, so just throw in the towel before you make yourself crazy (and exhausted).
8. When you want to scream or cry, laugh instead.
The only way to have a perfect vacation is to stay at an all-inclusive resort and let someone else do the work. There is certainly something to be said for that kind of ease, but taking on the challenge of planning your own vacation will reap countless rewards, even if everything isn’t perfect. You will make mistakes and things will go wrong, but those mishaps will show you something you may not have known about your destination and its culture. You’ll also acquire a new go-with-the-flow attitude that will benefit you long after your vacation has ended.
These travel rules have helped me to step outside of my American mindset and become a better traveler. They’ve also helped me to relax and enjoy my vacations much more than I did in the past, and isn’t that what it’s all about?
Authors Note: This article was submitted as an assignment for a writing program I’m in. This style of travel writing is called an “Evergreen” article as it is supposed to offer advice that will hold up over time. Thought I’d publish here for fun… let me know what you think!