They say experience is the ability to recognize a mistake the second time you make it. But I like think that if you do something often enough — like travelling, in my case — you learn a few things that help you avoid the most common mistakes. Travel tips, you might call them.
I’ve travelled to 50 countries over the past 25 years, and along the way I’ve made a lot of the mistakes most travellers make. So in order to save others from the same missteps and help them have more enjoyable trips, I figured it’s time to share a few of the things I’ve learned.
Here are 10 travel tips I’ve acquired as I’ve made my way around the globe. Hopefully, they’ll help you travel a bit smarter the next time you take a trip.
Pack something warm
One of the great lessons I’ve learned from travelling in the tropics is that even in hot places, it gets cold. If you’re at the beach, chilly winds can sweep in off the ocean, and if you take the day trip to the mountains, it can go from t-shirt weather to freezing cold in 15 minutes. I once decided to visit the cloud forest near steamy Granada, Nicaragua, and spent a whole morning shivering in the mist. So bring some warm clothes along on your trip, no matter what the forecast says.
Strike when the iron’s hot
When you see a great travel deal, first check it out for things like 12-hour layovers — then grab it quick. If a deal really is exceptional, it probably won’t be there if you come back the next day. A while back, I found a great deal on a flight to Ireland, one of my bucket list destinations. I took an hour to contemplate before booking it — big mistake. The deal was long gone. (More tips on booking great deals in this post.)
Know what to see
Do your homework on the place you’re visiting before you go. I still recommend getting a guidebook, for several reasons you can read here. But there are also travel blogs out there filled with great information, and cities and attractions have their own websites. If all that’s too much trouble, take a city tour when you get to town so you know what there is to see. Being spontaneous is great, but if you don’t know anything about your destination, you can do what I did long ago and leave Barcelona without ever seeing the Sagrada Familia, Antoni Gaudi’s famously wonky cathedral.
Don’t dine in a crowd
Avoid restaurants that have a large group dining in them. Big groups tend to get LOUD once they’ve had a couple of drinks — and they tend to suck up all the service, so you may end up waiting an hour before you get any food. I once ate a whole basket of nachos while trying to catch the waiter’s eye, and regretted it all night long.
Beware the friendly stranger
While most travellers have stories of great encounters with local people, the sad truth is that in most heavily touristed places, the locals really don’t want to know you unless they’re trying to sell you something. So if a local is uncommonly friendly, or wants to be around you for no good reason, it’s best to have your guard up. He may just be a nice guy, but he may also be a con man or a pickpocket. Sometimes he can get you even if you’re wary, as I found out on a bus in Ecuador.
Don’t always travel first class
Notwithstanding what I just said about friendly strangers, you do want to meet the local people, and if you travel first class all the time, you won’t. Instead, you’ll meet other first-class passengers in the hotels and bus tours where you spend most of your time. Travelling a little cheaper makes you venture out on your own, and that’s where you meet people and have experiences. If you’re really nervous, hire a local guide — he can show you the sights the first-class tours miss, and give you a real insight into the local culture.
Watch your money — but not too closely
Travelling is expensive, so it pays to watch your money while you’re on a big trip. But don’t watch it too closely: if you bypass a great experience because it costs a couple of dollars more than you want to spend, you can regret it for years to come. I’ve done it myself, and wondered later what was so important about that $10 I saved. You’ve spent a lot of money to get to your destination, and you may never return — you may as well experience it while you’re there.
Learn the local currency
Speaking of money, it can literally pay dividends to spend a few minutes learning the currency of a new country as soon as you get there: how many kroner or pesos or zlotys are there in a dollar or a pound? Figure out a little formula for converting it quickly, or find an app to use on your cellphone. If you do that early on, there’s less chance you’ll give someone $10 when you meant to give them $1, as happened to me in Indonesia. Figuring out the bills and coins is important, too: some look alike, and you can easily mistake one for the other if you’re in a hurry.
Don’t trust the bus
Always check out the bus before committing to a day-long ride. While some buses in Third World countries are comfy like the one pictured here, some aren’t built for First World bodies. You could end up with your knees tucked under your chin, as I did once upon a time in India. When the bus made its first stop, I got off, grabbed my bag and went back to town to wait for the tourist bus.
Relax and have fun
Finally, remember that travel is all about enjoying yourself, so don’t spend the whole time worrying about flight schedules and hotel reservations and where to have dinner. Things go wrong on the best of trips, so if you end up going somewhere other than where you planned that day, relax and enjoy the experience. And if a great opportunity pops up, take it — these are the things that make great stories. Above all, remember that a bad day travelling is still better than a good day at work.
So, those are my 10 travel tips. You may disagree with one or the other, but I’ll wager at least one of them will save you from a bad experience, or help you have a great one. And if you have your own tips that aren’t mentioned here, leave a comment and share them so we can all travel a little smarter.