I have traveled my entire life. It was a part of my growing up. As I have aged and traveled even more extensively, I have begun to develop a philosophy and internalize several “rules.” I am now ready to immortalize them as my 250th post for Life Kinetic!
1. Embrace the Myth. Everyone who has traveled with me has heard me say this countless times. But I think it is invaluable to enjoying the trip, to immersing yourself in the culture and heritage of the place, and a great way to learn something. What does this mean? It means suspend your disbelief. It means enjoy the legend. If you are told it is the first of something – then it is the first. If you are told something is the actual thingamabob from 3000 thousand years ago – ooh and ahhh. Don’t argue. Enjoy it. And if next year you go somewhere that makes the exact same claim – then go with it there too!
2. Things are famous for a reason. Everyone talks about getting off the beaten path. And I agree, that is worth it. But sights and places are a famous for a reason and your education as a citizen of the world is not complete without them. It doesn’t have to be the entire trip but really it just seems silly and stubborn to be in Paris and NOT see the Eiffel Tower. What are you proving?
3. That said, also find a couple of things off the beaten path. Ask a local their favorite place to eat or visit. Turn down a side street. Pick a place at random on a map. Pick up a local paper to see what is new.
4. Learn something about the history and culture before, during and after your trip. You will enjoy things so much more if you have a deeper understanding and context.
5. Specifically, learn something about a local hero. Narrowing down your research on a local hero will do a couple of things. It will allow you recognize one of the most pivotal eras of the countries’ past. It will endear to locals to show you have done some research and are interested in learning more. It will provide you insight into the psyche, values, and traditions of a culture.
6. Know yourself enough to know what is usually not worth it to you. As an example, despite what I just said about embracing the culture and learning as much as you can, I am not a fan of the evening tourist cultural shows / dances. I am not naturally a night person or a music person. I can’t think of a single time it has been worth the time or money to me. I always wish I had gone to bed. In fact, on my recent trip to Nepal I tried to convince myself this wasn’t true. I stayed awake, I went, I got my seat and then decided I had to be me, and I went to bed early. Let me be clear, I am not suggesting everyone should skip the evening show because I said so. I know lots of people who love them. I am just suggesting you should know yourself and not try to force something just because other people say so.
7. On the flip side, know what you rarely regret and don’t talk yourself out of it because it is inconvenient. I don’t think I have ever been disappointed when I have gotten up early (even by myself) and gone for a walk. I love seeing a city in the early morning.
8. Have a plan – and then be flexible. I think it is a waste of time to not have a plan before going somewhere. To spend time figuring out where something is, if it is open, or what you want to do drives me crazy. I always have a very detailed plan (and backup plan) for each location. That said, as I’ve gotten older, I realize that some of my best memories are spontaneous. Have a plan, and then don’t be afraid to ditch it!
9. Along the same lines – “say yes.” If presented an opportunity and it is not dangerous – say yes!
10. You don’t have to know the language, but you should learn enough to be polite. Hello and thank you are a great start.
11. If in doubt about what to order — order the special, look around at what others are eating, ask for a recommendation, or go with the top left corner of the menu!
12. Top 3 rules for staying healthy – 1) Hot foods should be hot / cold foods should be cold. 2) Don’t eat any raw fruit or veggies that you don’t peel yourself. And if it can’t be pealed, or isn’t cooked, then don’t eat it. 3) Don’t drink the water. Bring a refillable bottle and either boil water in your room or use a filter.
13. Visit the Capital city. Rarely is this a mistake. Stay tuned for a future blog post all about why I love Capital Cities!
14. Schedule transportation either first thing in the morning or at night. You lose a lot of time in packing, getting to the airport/train station/bus station, in the trip itself, getting settled in a new city etc… If a trip is in the middle of the day, no matter how short it is, it will most likely eat up the entire day making anything else not feasible. If you schedule the transportation for as early or late as possible you can still have a good portion of the day to do or see something.
15. Do the thing(s) you are supposed to do there. Do it even if it is cheesy. Do it even if it is expensive (within reason). Do it even if there is a line. Some examples that come to mind – tango in Argentina, have a Singapore sling in Singapore, a beer in Germany, sake in Japan and caipirinha in Brazil, take a hot air balloon ride in Cappadocia Turkey, eat Churros in Spain, a museum in Paris, and go flightseeing in Alaska.
16. Plan as much of your trip as possible yourself. Don’t outsource your decisions. A tour is ok for some people, but choose it deliberately because of the access it provides you, the company or the information — but don’t do it to be lazy.
17. Push your comfort zone. It is usually worth it to be tired or dirty.
18. Splurge when it is worth it. Save your pennies when it is not!
19. Remember you don’t have to fit into any specific category. Not all trips need to be the same. Know the purpose of your trip – what do you want to do – what is important to you. In a single week I have slept in a hostel and days later I have stayed in a 5 star hotel. I’ve taken the public bus cross country and paid for a private transfer in the same trip. Some times splurging is definitely worth it. Often it is not, or you will see less / do less with an upgrade. Borneo is a fantastic example of what I mean. There was a beautiful eco lodge I was looking at. It was on the river and we would have still seen Orangutans. We would have had hot meals, private rooms and a private bathroom. But sleeping on the deck of a small wooden boat, waking up to see the stars, and watching the sun rise and set from my perch on the boat are memories I would never trade.
20. More about knowing the purpose of your trip – this is critical to planning your trip (and choosing your companions). Do you want to spend a lot of time in one particular place or to go broad and see as much as possible? Do you want to relax? Is food important? Is there a specific place or event that is a centerpiece that the trip revolves around? Is the trip specifically to spend time with family or friends? Every trip may be different but it is important to know the answers to these questions and make sure everyone is on the same page while in the planning stage. If the plan is to relax and rejuvenate then that may dictate where you stay and planning less activities and stops. If your goals are to see as much as possible, then you may care less about lodging but spend more on efficient transportation and plan your days from sunrise through closing time.
During the same trip mentioned above, we went to both Java and Borneo. The purpose of the trip was to see Orangutans. In order to ensure that happened, it meant an overnight each way in Jakarta. With two travel days, a day in Jakarta each way, and an overnight in Boreno after our trip to make sure we weren’t worried about time, it was really a week trip for just 3 days on the river. It also meant that we didn’t spend extra time exploring the island of Borneo. This trip was very specific and I didn’t cram in a lot of extra stuff that would make us rushed or in any way jeopardize that. I was able to fit in a few extra stops but they all revolved around orangutans. In contrast, the previous year I had two weeks to explore Indo-China. Besides Angkor Wat, the goal was to see as much as possible. That meant a very fast trip covering 10 locations in 3 countries in 14 days. For a while I was distracted by the possibility of a 3-day trip on the Mekong Delta but realized it would detract from my goal, and to devote so much time to just one area would mean seeing less overall. Two trips – two different goals – two different types of plans.
21. Every trip is special and unique. Find some way to remember it. Happiness research says memories are one of the keys to happiness. I take notes every trip and have this blog. Some people collect a souvenir from each location. Some people keep a journal. Some people send themselves a post card. I have a good friend who keeps a file for each trip that includes ticket stubs, receipts, maps, and other mementos.
22. Trust your gut. Now I include this with some reservations. I don’t want anyone to do anything dangerous. But at least once every trip, I find myself in a situation where I have to trust my gut and do something a little bit risky. It is never planned. And every time, I say to Walter who is the first one behind me, “this is probably how I am going to die one day.” To which we both laugh, and think, hopefully not today. And that little side adventure ends up being one of the most talked about events of the trip!
23. Pack light. At a minimum, never pack more than you can carry yourself. But the lighter the better. It gives you more options and flexibility.
24. In my job, we often say you can have it good, fast, or cheap but never all 3. For travel it is finding the balance of cost, time and experiences. You can often get 2 of the 3, but rarely all 3.
25. I know people love to bargain. In many places it is expected and some people find it fun. But NEVER bargain with someone on the margins of their livelihood. In many countries, the difference between a few pennies or dollars could mean the difference of a meal, shoes, or school for their family. If I am going to err, I will err on the side of generosity.
Hike your own Hike!! This is a common phrase on the Appalachian trail. There is a similar phrase for the Camino pilgrimage. I think it applies to travel as well. This is my list! And I am blessed enough to have family and friends that also mostly agree (or they put up with most of these rules because I do the planning). This list may not apply to everyone. And that is ok. But I think it is important to spend some time thinking about what is important to you!