I am by no means a wizard when it comes to travel. I have actual and figurative bumps and bruises from doing things the hard way, the long way, and the just plain wrong way in my travels. I also know that just because something has worked for me does not mean it will work for others, but I seem to keep sharing the same pieces of travel advice to friends and family. I thought it was about time to write it down and put it into the ether, so here I present to you: McLean Meets World’s 14+ tips for making the most of your travels:
1. Climb something tall in every city. You get a better understanding of the geography of a city if you can see it from above. You see the movement of traffic, people, and the urban planning (or lack thereof) that helps you make sense of the place. Plus, if you actually climb the stairs instead of taking the elevator (if there is one), then you’ve always got a justification for that dessert you’ll end up having anyway (also, bonus justification if actually climbing saves you the cost of said dessert–you are officially doubly free of guilt).
At the top of the Untersburg, but…
You don’t have to climb a literal mountain to get a great view, and great perspective.
2. Take a walking tour of the city, if one exists (especially a free one!). Many companies have started tip-based walking tours of major cities around the globe (in Europe in particular) and they’re a great introduction to a city you’ve never been to. I try to find one on my first or second day in a place. Traditionally, they’ll take you to all of the major sites, and then you can decide for yourself later if you’d like to return and invest time and money in the place. For 10-15 Euros, you’ve got a great introduction to a city, potentially some new friends to visit the city with, and a nice 2-ish hour walk through what is likely a beautiful, history-filled place.
Because of my walking tour, I understand why this church exists behind the facade of another building…
and I found out about this restaurant (and the beer the monks make there) that was a totally wonderful way to end my time in Prague.
3. See as many monuments at night as you can. Certainly go during the day and enjoy them while they’re full of tourists, even (especially?) if you’re already hot, sweaty, and cranky. But go again at night–some of my favorite moments have come with a cool evening breeze, fewer people, and a more personal experience with some of the world’s most famous sites.
If not for a night walking tour, I wouldn’t have seen the memorial to book burning at its most powerful and pure.
The Brandenburg Gate has an entirely different feel when not surrounded by hundreds of tourists.
4. Always know some of the language, even if it’s just please and thank you; certainly more is always better. If you have particular dietary needs, make sure to have a phrase or two written down if you’re not comfortable saying them. More often than not, sincere effort and a smile will get you about as far as you’ll absolutely need to get–but sometimes it won’t. In those moments, keep in mind #5.
5. Remember that you’re an ambassador for your language, and more importantly, for your country. Americans are notorious complainers–so far, this has held true on all five continents I’ve visited. Sometimes it’s warranted, and sometimes it’s people getting angry for others not doing things we’d expect them to do at home. Remember, all things are relative. Try to be kind and respectful, wherever you are. And of something is frustrating you, take a deep breath and think about why. Don’t be the person who becomes the stereotype for a whole country. And certainly don’t be the person who gets angry at a non-English speaker, in a non-English speaking country for not being able to understand your English!
6. Basic cultural competency will make your trip easier. Take a few minutes before you go to look for some information about tipping, restaurants, currency, escalators, voice volume, common scams, etc. When I travel, I operate using the assumption that most people are good and mean well. Keep that in mind, and definitely try to let that be your guide, but also be ready to protect yourself from being an easy mark. (This is where practical advice like: don’t carry/flash large sums of money, always have multiple copies of your passport, and don’t get in cabs with strange men at the airport, come into play. Those are important too–I’m just going a bit heavier on the philosophical here today. Also, I assume if you’ve seen the movies Hostel or Taken, you’ve got most of the bigs ones covered! And if you haven’t seen them…don’t.)
7. Group travel is great…until it isn’t. If you’re traveling with a larger number of people, especially with varying degrees of travel experience, make sure your group knows basic information about how to interact in big groups abroad. Also remember there will likely always be people with you at sites who aren’t in your group–don’t ruin it for them by monopolizing anything; a person, a place, physical space, or things.
8. Do as the locals do. Don’t go to places that (literally or figuratively) scream for tourists. Though they can be, often, they won’t be authentic or quality meals or purchases. If you find a place that’s full AND full of people speaking the native language, stop and check it out.
9. Homesickness is real regardless of how long you’ve been away, and sometimes all it takes to lessen it is a little dose of American commercialism. Stopping at an American chain for some comforts of home is okay, and can sometimes get you through a rough stretch of travel. BUT, indulge with serious moderation and with some stipulations. Don’t get Starbucks coffee in Vienna; get Viennese coffee. Don’t even think about McDonald’s fries in Belgium, get pommes frites at EVERY OPPORTUNITY. Don’t compare your Roman meal to Olive Garden, and don’t ask for alfredo sauce in Italy. It doesn’t exist.
Homesickness can also be improved by getting to know other travelers. I’m surprised every time I travel when I catch myself eavesdropping on conversations I hear in English. Sometimes I insert myself, and sometimes I don’t, but talking about shared experiences gives you a great starting point for new friendships with other travelers, whether or not they speak your language.
10. Always use the restroom when it’s available to you, especially if it’s clean and free. The American chains mentioned in #8 are often great places to use the restroom, though you should always buy something if you’re planning to use a restroom there. Museums and restaurants are also great places to use them. Carrying tissue or a small amount of toilet paper is probably also a good idea, just in case you find yourself in a jam.
11. Know your travel triggers and work to avoid or minimize them.
- If you get irritable and angry when you do too much or sleep too little (and who doesn’t?!), build in time to be exhausted and recuperate. If you’re going 24/7 for as long as you’re in a place, the value of your experiences starts decreasing rapidly. I’m certainly guilty of trying to fit in too much, and not really caring about what I’m seeing or doing. This is when I get frustrated at myself, after the fact.
- If you shut down quickly after getting hungry, know that, and make sure the people you’re traveling with know too. And then find something to eat, or always carry something with you. Almonds are my go-to; easy and portable–pack some!
- If you get uncomfortable in loud, cramped spaces, try to avoid them, or at least know how you best deal with them.
Ultimately, whatever it is that’s bothering you, think about why you’re there, and whether you think you’ll be back. Plan accordingly.
12. Write things down. There’s certainly no need to carry a large journal with you, but I’ve found that a small moleskine that has a piece of elastic to keep it closed is handy. I’ve started writing things I’m grateful for at down time during travel days or at meals. Traveling alone affords more opportunity to do this, but I’ve found that I’m more centered and grateful if I take time every day to realize how lucky I am to be doing what I’m doing. Also, if you make some great finds in a city, and know that you’ll want to share them, it’s better to write them down or take pictures of things than rely on your overstimulated, likely overtired brain to file away long-term.
13. Think about what you want to acquire on your trip. Some people come away with lots of souvenirs and gifts for themselves or friends and family at home. Others place experiences ahead of things. Some can meaningfully combine both. You have to know what’s more important to you, and how you plan to budget for both experiences and things. I learned the hard way as a broke college student that sometimes prioritizing finances means you can’t have both, and may miss out on experiences. However, the years that followed my study-abroad experience where I didn’t wear the t-shirts I bought, could finally acknowledge I didn’t REALLY need that extra scoop of gelato every time, or couldn’t remember the significance of a little statue I *needed* to have at the time have convinced me that bungee-jumping over the Corinth Canal would have probably been a better way to spend my time and money. This is truly a live-and-learn situation. Sometimes you have to miss a few great experiences or purchases to figure out what is important to you, but once you know, you’ll save yourself time, money, and space in your suitcase in the future.
14. Get Lost. Make an effort to find the “road not taken” and walk as far as you’re inspired to walk. If you have the time and inclination, go somewhere without a destination. Play metro “golf” and get off at random stops to see whatever you can see. Or, have one destination in mind, and take the long route to get there. I know this sounds scary in a city you don’t know, and perhaps with a language you don’t speak. If you’re worried about this–know how to get to ONE big attraction or site from where you’re staying. The train station, a tourist site, a store or restaurant; these can all work, and if worse comes to worse, you can find a method to get back to that place, and your destination won’t be too far. Also, I always carry a physical map with me, with the place I’m staying marked, or the cross-streets memorized. Map-reading is a seriously underrated skill, and will serve you well (and impress your friends) in times of crisis, or just during periods where you want to navigate the old-fashioned way. Technology can also help immensely. If you don’t have a great sense of direction, download the google map for the cities you’re going to, and have an electronic backup.
Some of my favorite travel experiences have come this way. We rode a bus line to the end, wandered around, and heard a booming voice speaking in German, and had just come upon the Pope’s All Saints’ Day address at St. Peter’s Square. We wandered from our apartment in one direction, and heard the sounds of splashing water, only to come upon the Trevi Fountain. I also found the best cake shop in all of Vienna this way, and made it a priority to retrace my steps several times over the next few days. 🙂 However, you should also know the cities you’re wandering–if there are dangerous parts that should be avoided, know that beforehand. I’ve walked into more than one protest-turning-into-a-riot in politically/socially-motivated/active areas. (Keep in mind: All of this should be taken with a grain of salt, and safety should be a priority, BUT get out of your comfort zone!)
[edit: I can’t believe I forgot this tip the first time around–thanks Ben!]
15. For the best experience, work hard to be a traveler, not a tourist. For me, a tourist gets a picture in front of a famous landmark, but doesn’t care about the history. A traveler interacts with a place. A tourist visits cities superficially, checking places and sites off a predetermined list. A traveler gets lost in the streets, and wants to feel the kinetic energy of a city and its people. A tourist chooses to minimize discomfort and often takes the path of least resistance; a cab instead of public transport, a restaurant with English-only menus, an American chain hotel. All of these are acceptable options, and even preferable in some situations, but think about why you choose them. Before you even board a plane, think about why you’re going and what you want to learn. Be prepared for discomfort, but expect enlightenment. Be ready for frustration, but embrace serendipity. Make smart and safe decisions, but expose yourself to the unfamiliar.
Growth happens when we are capable enough to deal with the unexpected. Travel is about that growth; of humanity and awareness, intelligence and capability, and relationships between ourselves and the rest of the world, both physical and human. Be ready for it to change you, and if you think it doesn’t, try again. And again. And again. Change the places, the travel partners, the modes of transport, the season, the attitude, and sometimes before you even realize it, those things will all have changed you.
So…what did I miss? What other useful tips would help the seasoned and not-so-seasoned traveler? Comment below and let me know!
Safe travels, friends. MC Lean