General Travel Tips

Wherever you’re planning to go, some essential principles work well anywhere. Here are some things that have helped me find some great places and have some great times.

  1. Pick peripatetic. Get hotels in the center of things so that you can walk everywhere. Lots of people think they’ll save $100 by getting a hotel room that’s not in the center of town. That may be true in terms of hotel room savings, but since time is money, you’ll sacrifice more than that in terms of lost fun-time (having to get to and fro with public transit, which can also be stressful if you don’t speak the lingo). In a lot of big cities, you can easily spend $100 on a few cab rides as well.
  2. Adopt a local. Bars and pubs are what make the world go round. If you’re staying somewhere for more than a day, find a local bar or pub that appeals to you, and become a short-term regular there. Restaurant recommendations, local gossip… all is there for you! If you’re traveling alone, this is actually rule #1, as a local barman who has gotten used to seeing you will sound the alarm if you disappear into the jungle and are abducted by orangutans. As a woman who travels alone, I have always found this a very useful tip for travel safety. (Note: I said bar/pub, meaning cozy family drinking places where food is most likely served. Not “club.”)
  3. So that’s the chamber of commerce! When you were growing up, there was probably some plaque somewhere talking about the local chamber of commerce. If you’re like me, you never knew what these people did or who they were. In visiting smaller towns in places like France, the local chambers of commerce and the regional tourist boards have a variety of listings of local hotels and resturants that are often not available in the standard guidebooks.  And now, thanks to the nifty Internet gadget thingie, you can see all the listings for local chambers of commerce online. This is true for a lot more places than France, so try Googling “[place name] chamber of commerce” to see what you find. 
  4. Foreplanned, is forearmed. When you don’t know the language where you’re going, try to pre-arrange as much event stuff as possible with someone who does know the local lingo. You’ll find that this bit of advance prep work (I know, it takes a bit of spontaneity out of it) saves you a lot of hassle on the ground. When you’re in country, hotel concierges are your best friend for making complex train reservations, etc.
  5. Cultivate cabs. Taxis may seem expensive…until you don’t take one and get really lost and then pay triple your fare to get back to where you really wanted to go. Or, when you realize that you spent the entire time in London underground, rather than seeing the city above. Almost anywhere in the world, cab drivers will tell you cool stories, refer you to their favorite places, and get you where you need to go. Even if you get lost with one, you’ll usually end up hearing a great story or getting a good restaurant recommendation, making it all worthwhile. NB: There has been only one exception to this rule so far, and that is Prague. In Prague, if you are approached by any person offering taxi services, even if they have a legitimate taxi sign, beat them senseless instantly or just offer them all the cash in your wallet. Either approach will save you time and hassle.  
  6. Please return me to… My mom and I had a great trip to Italy once. Starting in Rome. As we meandered around the Eternal City, we got horrifically lost. (You know, the kind when you’re in Rome and you wonder whether you’re actually now in some other part of Italy.) We tried to get a taxi (see rule #5) but when the cab driver asked where we needed to go, neither of us could remember the name of our hotel nor the address. Whenever you leave your hotel or lodging, always take a matchbook, postcard, stationery, or other item emblazoned with your hotel’s address and phone number. This is also really useful when you don’t know the language and need to tell a cab driver where you’re going.   
  7. Don’t disdain the chain.  I’m not a big fan of packaged tours, guides, and/or chain hotels, as I think they’re manufactured experiences, generally. That being said, some of the best vacations of my life have consisted of one or all of those 3 elements. Independence is good, but sometimes, the best exposure to local culture comes through professional tour operators, guides, and an enlightened hospitality corporation. Also, they’re occasionally the best deals around.
  8. Beware the backpack. Though easy to lug a lot of stuff around, get a wheelie instead. If it’s a full-up situation in many towns around the world, the person who arrives at a lodging place looking like a world traveler rather than a dirty backpacker gets the last room. I know, it’s not fair that we’re judged on appearances, but that’s life.
  9. Don’t be shy. Many people get embarrassed when they aren’t fluent in the local language. What’s really embarrassing is not trying to communicate with local people. Trying to communicate using hand gestures and garbled words from a phrase book is all part of the fun of travel. Getting a French farmer to laugh and offer you a Gitane as you try to ask directions to the nearest restaurant is one of the reasons why you go anywhere, really.
  10. Comfort is key.  I love high heels. Just not for traveling. You can’t walk anywhere in them, particularly on some of the world’s more interesting pavements, and they take up tons of space in your suitcase. Get a smart pair of flat heeled boots or shoes you can walk in and go clubbing in. And this goes for you too, fellas.