Put down your Guidebook
I know this one seems hard. I am not saying to not have a guidebook with you, but don’t rely solely on it. It is a good resource for brushing up on a destination, they give a general overview, but you are going to miss out on all the best off the beaten path places.
People are your best resource for travel information. Do you know someone who has been where you are going? Ask them for recommendations, ask local travelers what they have found, ask people at your hotel or hostel what their favorite thing was. Don’t be afraid to ask for personal recommendations for anything – bars, restaurants, attractions and experiences. You will not regret it.
Find an unlocked phone and get a SIM card in the country you are visiting
I say this to everyone who asks my suggestions on traveling.
I know that the guy at the Verizon Kiosk in the mall promised you that your blackberry would totally work in Europe, and he hooked you up with an amazing and exclusive international plan.
One of two things always happens after that.
1- The guy at the kiosk totally lied to you and you have no way to contact your loved ones while you are abroad.
2- Your phone works a quarter of the time and when you get home you have a $600 phone bill.
I recently went to Israel with a huge group of people, Sam and I were some of the only ones who had unlocked phones with us, we rented SIM cards at the airport, and people were CONSTANTLY asking to use our phones or hook up to our hotspot. It cost me $3 / day to have unlimited data and calling on an Israeli SIM card and we were always connected.
Learn some basics of the language
Many touristy places (Rome, Barcelona, Paris etc.) speak English. But even at these places, you will receive better service, recommendations, and overall friendliness if you can say some key words in their language. You are in their country after all. Things like “Hello” “Goodbye” “Good Morning” “Good Evening” “Bathroom” “Water” “Please” “Thank you”… you know, the basics.
Get your cash at a bank at home or at an ATM in the country (NEVER THE CURRENCY EXCHANGE KIOSKS)
If you listen to nothing else I ever say again, PLEASE LISTEN TO THIS!!!
The Kiosks you find in the airport, the train station, and conveniently located in touristy destinations are ROBBING YOU BLIND! They give the worst exchange rate and charge a fee to do it. Sam and I watched a man turn in Euro for Dollars at the Rome airport last year and they ROBBED him of over $100. They bank on the fact that you don’t know the exchange rate, you aren’t doing the math, and that you are made of money. PLEASE PLEASE DON’T ALLOW THIS TO HAPPEN TO YOU! Order the currency you need from your local bank at home before you leave and take it with you. Once you are there, an ATM will charge a nominal fee of about $3 if it isn’t your bank’s ATM, but then they will give you a fair exchange rate and you get to keep your money! (YAY)
Get out of your comfort bubble
I don’t care where you are going, it’s not going to be anything like home. Everything will be different. But you didn’t take a 14 hour plane ride to see something just like you left, right? Embrace the differences and step out of your bubble.
The best memories are made when you are out of your comfort zone. Challenge yourself, Take risks, Try new things. You might not love some of it, but it’ll always be worth it.
Don’t let fear stop you
This one sort of ties into the last one, but it is equally important. Fear is an incredibly powerful deterrent, and it can take over you sometimes. Don’t let the fear of traveling, or being uncomfortable, of heights, of new foods or anything else stop you from living your life.
I’m decently afraid of heights, you’re not going to catch me base jumping, or skydiving, but on a Greek Island, there was a rock that everyone was jumping off of, everyone loved it, everyone landed safely in the water and went back for more. I was so scared, I almost didn’t do it. My little brother actually was the one that pushed me to get over it and go. I climbed up there and looked down at the water for so long, it looked scarier from up there than it did from the boat, but once I finally did… I screamed like a baby, and landed safely in the water. I am happy I didn’t let my fear of heights define me and take that moment away from me. It is one of the best experiences I remember from that vacation. Thanks little bro!
Take your time
It is tempting to see as much as possible in a small amount of time, but a big part of traveling is the experience. Slow down, lay in a park, sit in a café, lay by the water, watch the locals and let the culture sink in. Sometimes when you are trying to pack a vacation in with too many sights, you end up not remembering many of them, all you have is the pictures you took, but in your head it’s a whirlwind of ruins and pizza.
In this picture, I am obviously sun bathing (one of my favorite activities), but I am also memorizing the sound of the water washing up to shore, the feeling of the cool water on my toes, the smell of the ocean, the way the sand feels on my back, the warm sun on my skin. I concentrated on it so hard, that I memorized that moment, and now, I can visit it whenever I want, and I do, all the time!
Find a local hang out and people watch. Watch the local kids play, watch the women grocery shopping, watch the workers on their break. I promise, you will remember that moment, more than anything else.
Learn about the culture and history of the place you are going
Like I said, it’s not like home. Some things that are normal at home are rude, or unheard of in other countries. Read up on the culture, read up on the history, when you are in that place, observe it, practice it, soak it in. It will make you a more well rounded, compassionate and understanding person. This is one of the best parts of travel in my opinion. Don’t just buy the local cashmere, see if you can learn how it’s made, see if you can meet the goats, brush them, feed them, get to know them, it may sound silly, but it is incredibly enriching.
PS- We visit these Cashmere goats on our Chianti Vacation– we get to learn how the cashmere is made, and if it is the right time of year, we even get to brush the cashmere off of them.
Eat local food
I know Rome has Burger King and McDonalds, I know Paris has Starbucks and Chipotle, and I know Barcelona has KFC (weird, right?). Don’t you dare skip a traditional French coffee for an Iced Venti Americano with Soy milk and 1 pump Caramel. Don’t get that McDouble instead of that Italian Pizza. I love Starbucks as much as the next girl, but save it for when you get back home, right now, soak up the culture. Order the pasta. Order the Cappuccino. Order the Gelato! Order whatever is local and traditional where you are. Nothing urks me more than seeing Americans chowing down on a McRib while walking by a local pizza shop
GO WITH THE FLOW
It is easy to over plan your vacation and in turn become stressed by it. Not every single moment needs to be planned out, like I said before, take your time. If you start feeling overwhelmed or stressed, take a step back. Allow for flexibility in your travels, most of the time, the best experiences are the ones that happen by accident. Sometimes cultures approach scheduling differently. Let things unfold naturally and your experience will be much more pleasant.