A couple of days ago I listed 10 of the tools I find essential whenever I travel, along with a bunch of related tips. Today, I have more tips, this time disconnected from any particular tool or gadget.
Because most of the traveling I’ve done as an adult has consisted of longish trips overseas, these tips are going to tend to be more useful for Americans traveling abroad over two weeks or more. (Though there are a couple that really only apply to short trips.) I can’t really change that; it’s who I am and what I know. But I’d love to see some of your best tips in the comments for people who have to take shorter, more business-oriented trips (I’ve taken only one business trip in my entire life).
It might also be useful to know where my head is when I travel. In The Tao of Travel I expressed horror at the way most tourists travel. The target of my scorn isn’t the sight-seeing, what bothers me is the creation of little “bubbles” of people similar to one’s self that insulate us from the culture of the places we travel to. Of course you should visit the historical sites, the museums, the famous music halls, and the best restaurants (f you can afford them), but you should also spend time in a tiny street corner park, drink beer in a local pub, buy food from a street vendor, and wander the residential streets.
And most of all, you should meet people, regardless of the language barriers. I’ve always found that the cultural wall between us is only about a foot-and-a-half high: easy to step over with just a little effort. Use as good an approximation of their language as you can, and listen intently to their broken English — share freely of yourself and take freely what they’re willing to share with you. Otherwise, it’s all just pretty pictures.
OK, sermon time is over! It’s time to get on with the tips:
1. Use Your Debit Card
Time was when traveler’s cheques were the safest way to carry money aborad, but those days are long gone. In fact, I’m really not sure how the traveler’s cheques companies keep on going — debit cards make traveler’s cheques completely useless. They always were a hassle, anyway; unless you stayed in a hotel that offered traveler’s cheque cashing as a service to guests, they were almost impossible to spend or cash. In any case, nowadays, there are very few places where you can’t find an ATM to withdraw cash, and of course you can use debit cards just like credit cards for most purchases. Yes, you’ll pay a fee, but it’s pretty much comparable to the fee you pay for traveler’s cheques.
2. Get Used to Local Currencies
If you’re actually working in a country and earning local currencies, the faster you can get over the habit of converting prices to your native currency, the better. Every country has its own standard, and getting used to it is a big step towards understanding the local mindset.
On the other hand, if you’re just visiting, you’ll need to be careful about how you spend money. It can be easy to lose track of your spending when the local currency is some odd number to the dollar. My advice is, come up with an easy formula for conversion, and round up so that your estimate is always fewer dollars than you think.
For example, in Budapest in the mid-’90s, the local currency was around 110 Forint to the dollar (if I’m remembering properly). By assuming a Forint was equal to a US penny, I could easily decide what was worth spending my money on — and know I was actually saving a little in the bargain. If, say, the local currency was 1643 units to a dollar, I’d call it 3000 to 2 — that is, something that was 5870 whatevers would be 4 dollars. The actual price would be around $3.50, so I’d be off, but I’d be off in a way that would save me money — which is much better than running short because you got confused by the local currency.
3. Dress Well
Everyone can recognize an American tourist on the street, before she or he even opens their mouth. Our standard travel uniform is jeans or shorts, a t-shirt, sneakers, and a baseball cap on men; on women, it’s a short skirt, jeans, or shorts and a sleeveless top, along with a pair of sandals.
The problem is, in a world where many people already think poorly of Americans, our vacation dress sends the message that we don’t respect them or their culture. What’s more, you’ll find many places — churches and cathedrals, some restaurants, and many clubs — won’t let you in the door!
You don’t need a suit and tie, but you’d be surprised what a pair of khakis or a knee-length dress will do for the reaction you get from locals.
4. Rip Up Your Guides
There are some great guide books out there; I’m partial to the Lonely Planet books, myself. A good guide book gives you not only an idea of what to see and where it is, but background information about the culture, history, and language of the places you visit.
The problem is, they’re huge. You don’t want to carry that big heavy thing all over the world with you, nor do you want to give it any more of your valuable luggage space than absolutely necessary.
The solution: rip it up. Pull out only the parts relating to the countries or cities you’ll be visiting, staple them together, and drop them in a ziplock bag. As you leave a country, toss it or, better yet, pass it on to a less-prepared traveler without a guidebook to call their own.
5. Hand Out Calling Cards
Hopefully you’ll meet a lot of people along the way. Carry a small stack of business-card-sized calling cards with your name, address, and email address (and whatever other information you feel like sharing) to hand out to people you want to stay in touch with. You can have them made up just like regular business cards, print them on business card stock at home, or get creative and use a service like Moo to make cards with pictures of you, your family, and your hometown on them.
6. Learn 10 Phrases
One thing that contributes strongly to the poor image Americans (and to a great extent, Britons and Aussies too) have abroad is our relative ignorance of every language but English (and let’s face it, we’re no great shakes with English, either). While you can’t be expected to learn the native language of every single country you ever visit, you can at least make an effort to pick up a few pleasantries. Learn to say at least each of the following in the language of whatever country you’re visiting:
- Thank you
- My name is…
- Do you speak English?
- Where is the bathroom?
- Where is the train station?
- How much?
- The numbers 1 – 20.
I remember a phrasebook I once had included “Will you marry me?”, which I’ve always thought funny. Just in case it comes up, maybe you should learn that one too.
Most people will know immediately that you don’t speak their language, but that’s not the point. The point is to show that yo’re trying, and to give them a chance to laugh a little (with you, hopefully, but sometimes at you). Then they can feel comfortable about their own English (which is probably at least as good as yours, anyway).
7. The Amazing Disposable Underwear Trick
One way to lighten your load as you travel is to take all your worst underwear with you — the ones with holes, sagging waistbands, etc. Don’t ever throw away old underwear if it’s at all still wearable and you plan to travel ever! Instead, take it on your trip and, as it wears out completely, trash it. You were going to throw it away at home, anyway. Of course, if you get down to your last pair or two, you might want to buy more…
The Canadian Flag Trick Walk Like a Canadian
I admit, I’ve never done this, but I’ve known people who have and it works. You’ll have to sort the ethics out on your own — I’m just the messenger here.
The trick is, attach a Canadian flag patch to your backpack. You’d be surprised at how much better people will treat you — I’ve seen hostel managers turn Americans away saying there were no more rooms and then give a bed to a Canadian-patch bearing traveler a few minutes later. People are remarkably aware of the different cultures and politics of Canada and the US, and act accordingly.
Note: Remember, when you fly the Canadian flag, you’re a de facto representative of the Canadian people. Always be on your best behavior. if confronted by a Canadian, you’re on your own. Nothing so enrages them as US travelers besmirching their good name through trickery and deceit.
The Canadians I have met and traveled with overseas have been polite, courteous, and respectful of their host country’s culture and rules. Take a page from their book: speak clearly and softly, say “please” and “thank you” a lot, and forget about the patch trick.
9. Take the bus!
Take the bus or other public transportation whenever you can. It’s a great way to get your bearings in a strange city and to see the sights, including a lot of points of interest that might not have made it into your guidebook. To be honest, this is a pretty good idea in th US, too — I remember taking a group of friends, all New York and New Jersey natives, on a bus down the Museum Mile in New York City; none of them had ever taken a city bus in NYC, and all of them were impressed by what a lovely ride it was.
10. [Insert Your Tip Here]
Travel is all about creativity, so always keep your eyes open for neat ways to deal with whatever a new culture throws at you.
For those of you who think #10 is a cop-out, here’s a bonus tip: Follow tour groups. Whenever you happen across a tour group in museums and even on the street, adjust your path so that it just happens to coincide with the path the tour group is taking. You’ll get a little piece of history from someone who knows pretty well that they’re talking about. You don’t have to follow the entire tour, just take advantage of someone in a public space talking about whatever it is they’re showing off.
Like I said, I’d love to hear your tips, especially for shorter trips. Leave us a note in the comments!