I’ve been reminiscing about travel a lot lately. It’s been such a huge part of my life in recent years and the absence of it now, in the times of Coronavirus, is certainly felt. I keep thinking of starting to plan a new trip, for when this is all over. Or to make some nostalgic blog post, sorting through adventures of the past for my Top Ten Trips. But rather than simply highlighting some awesome times, I figured better to provide something more useful. The lessons learned through these trips and adventures. Some tips and tricks for when we can get back out there. We may be sheltering in place now, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and we will be traveling again in the future.
Here are my top 6 travel tips ever. Keep them in mind when planning your post-Corona adventure.
Not every good friend is a good travel buddy
This is a lesson you learn pretty quickly after traveling with the wrong person. Travel styles can vary just as much as our unique personalities. In fact, I think travel can act as a magnifying glass to those quirks of personality that may not have been so glaring otherwise. That friend that’s always late? You’re going to see it even more as you’re speed-walking to a dinner reservation ten minutes after you should have left. The type A planner? Might not have the bandwidth to understand how they could ever have a good time following type B’s “Let’s just go and see where we end up.” Got a friend that’s (in your opinion) excessively cheap? How about an extravagant spender? A princess? Closed-minded? A party-til-the-break-of-dawn-then-sleep-all-day-er? Not many things can make a trip “bad,” but the company you keep is a huge part of your overall experience.
Just like you wouldn’t live with all of your friends, you shouldn’t assume all of them are great to travel with.
I’m not suggesting you interview all your prospective friends beforehand for the opportunity to travel with you. What I’m saying is have a little patience, and don’t take the whole thing personally. The clashes you have on a trip don’t necessarily reflect your viability as friends, but they’re worth looking at before you book your next trip. It’s totally normal and okay to not want to travel with anyone and everyone.
Choose your travel companions wisely.
Don’t judge an entire country by its leadership.
Every dollar you spend is a vote cast for the way you want the world to be. I heard this long ago and I believe it wholeheartedly. If you don’t want to bring your dollars to countries run by dictators, I support that. But I will highlight the fact that not every citizen is a reflection of their leadership. Just look at America. At least half of us didn’t want Trump to be elected in the first place and are appalled by his behavior. This was my one concern when heading to Mexico to study and live. That when I told people I was from the US they would instantly think I had malice in my heart towards them, that I voted to construct a taller fence to keep them away from me, that I assumed they and their families are all drug dealers and rapists and criminals.
But in the multitude of times I was asked “¿De donde eres?” (where are you from) I was never judged harshly for my answer. The Mexicans I interacted with seemed capable and willing to see me as an individual. To take me at face value. That’s stuck with me, it’s my model now. Their kindness toward me is something I want to replicate elsewhere. If you think of the power structure in America, it is easy to believe you’re just a tiny speck in a bloated, money-hungry, stratified system. That you don’t mean much and can’t make a difference. Now imagine you’re in another country. A developing nation. One in which the system is not only corrupt out of loopholes and good-old-boys not breaking a code, but like realllly corrupt. In the light of day. Killings over dissent. No constitution guaranteeing certain rights. A state-controlled media unable to report on what is happening around the country.
The people at the bottom—the vast majority of the citizenry, feel just like you do. Powerless. We’re more alike than we are different. Which brings me to my next point.
We may be sheltering in place now, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
We will all be traveling again.
Don’t be scared of the world
Please don’t. This is the saddest thing and one of the biggest reasons more people don’t venture out into this big, beautiful world. It’s also the reason people’s perspectives don’t shift and grow, why they remain locked in place: in opinions, assumptions, and old-world views that were passed along to them by someone else’s experience (or worse—someone else’s assumptions.)
When I was gearing up to go to Mexico City for three months you would not believe the number of times people insisted I should be afraid. Numerous people made jokes about my being kidnapped. A pilot (at work) told me I was the perfect candidate, a prototype for who the Cartel would like to hold for ransom. Before I left for Colombia I experienced a similar thing, along with added jokes about cocaine.
(On a sidenote: the American stereotype is to think of Colombia as a cocaine-fueled, mecca of the drug cartel once run by Pablo Escobar. But while Colombians were producing the cocaine, it was being shipped North—to America. So they have their own stereotypes about American cocaine use. Some food for thought.)
Had I listened to these people I might have decided to go to a different, “safer”, destination, wherever that may be. A resort on Aruba? A nice trip to the Keys? Maybe I would have stayed home altogether. But I’m not afraid of the world. I don’t judge cities before I see them, people before I meet them. What I found in these two places were some of the most friendly, warm, kind and open people I have ever met. I found food that makes me long to return. I found landscapes straight out of a book of fantasy. I found other travelers—other solo travelers—doing the same thing I was doing. I found myself feeling at home.
There are people in every hemisphere, country, city worth meeting. There are landscapes that are the stuff of dreams. There is food you have never tried that will delight your senses. There is a growing feeling of confidence within yourself when you go and explore and stake your claim, your birthright, as part of this global community.
We all have our own lenses through which we see the world. But I believe that each time you travel, you build onto those lenses. The tint becomes clearer, you begin to see out of your peripheral. Please don’t be afraid of the world. Please go and see for yourself.
Here I am with some locals, not getting kidnapped, in the mountains outside Medellin, Colombia.
But Don’t be foolish either
Don’t leave your belongings unattended. Don’t drink too much, especially when you’re alone, especially when you’re a woman. (I hate saying this, but I’m saying it because in the reality in which we live, this is good advice.) Trust your gut before everyone else. If something doesn’t feel right, get on your way. In the above paragraphs I made the case for visiting places even if they seemed scary and even if the leadership and system of governance is in opposition to what Americans feel is right. I stand by the need to judge based on personal experience, but that does not mean jumping into a situation all willy-nilly and getting into trouble or hurt or worse.
Do your research. While looking up how much to tip at restaurants in that foreign country, go ahead and look up some other things like, I don’t know, how to stay safe and well there. When my ex-girlfriend and I traveled together we had a different set of travel concerns, which I haven’t had since we broke up. And before we booked a trip, we would do some research on where the country in question stood on gay rights. (I’m not dissing the LGBTQ+ community by being uninclusive here, but this umbrella term is far more common in America than a lot of other countries in the world.) Is the country gay-friendly and open? Is there a gayborhood? Are there laws on the books making homosexuality illegal? And is this an enforced law or some archaic relic that gets left in there but is seldom, if ever, prosecuted?
Would we make travel decisions based solely on this factor—i.e. only visiting the most gay-friendly places? No. The point of travel is not to filter out the world for your own pleasure but to go and see something different. Was this one factor in choosing destinations? Absolutely.
I believe that in most places in the world travelers are welcome, your dollars are welcome, and people overall will see you as another person (like the Mexicans did me.) But when the law is not on your side that is an important thing to be aware of and should be part of your decision-making process.
Set yourself up for success. Whenever I am traveling to a place I’ve never been, before I begin searching for accommodation I first research safe areas in which to stay. I read travel threads and try to feel out what neighborhood will suit me best—in terms of safety and the kind of vibe I’m looking for. Do I want more scenic views, or to be in walking distance to everything, for example. Through this process I’ll compile a list of 2-3 ‘hoods and narrow my accommodation search accordingly. Set your price and date parameters and then search on a map view. I use Airbnb most often because I like feeling at home in a new place, but any hotel site, plus the third-parties (Kayak, Priceline, Tripadvisor) will have map views. One bit simpler, one bit safer. Note: traveler reviews must be taken with a grain of salt. Not everyone is comfortable in the same set of circumstances, so try to go into this info-gathering endeavor knowing how you feel best.
Social media can also be a great resource. I wanted to go hiking in Colombia but thought it unwise to go alone. So I searched for “hiking groups” in Medellin on Facebook. Sure enough, there were a few different ones to choose from and I ended up having a lovely day hike (and paraglide!) with a group of four other people. I never recommend going anywhere remote with one new person, but you can often find group activities like hiking and biking that will make you feel safer out there in nature. And you might even make some new friends.
A very tired, very satisfied tour group, after a 14,500 ft elevation volcano hike.
Guided tours and packaged deals are not the worst
A lot of people are like “Duh, I always take guided tours!” and in that case, this part is not for you. This is geared toward the travelers who think anything guided or pre-organized is a waste of time or money or a big, fat tourist trap.
Here’s the deal: guided tours can totally be that. But they’re not always. I like to consider myself a “real traveler”. I like getting off the beaten path, exploring nature, I love renting cars and being on my own timeline. But sometimes there is a lot of stuff to see and limited time. Sometimes when all is said and done that tour you thought was a rip-off is far cheaper than the added costs of entry fees and transportation.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to be on a big bus every day, holding up my ipad to take photos over a group of 100 other people. BUT sometimes tours can be kind of awesome. Taking a tour the first or second day in a new city can give you an overview of the layout. Gives you historical background of the place you’re in. Sure, you could walk around alone all day reading plaques or research the history by yourself, but will you?
For me it’s a no and that is why I like having a local guide tell me about all this historical stuff that is pretty darn cool but would make me fall asleep if told via website. It also grants the opportunity to see streets or whole neighborhoods you might not end up in otherwise. I like to make note of any cool restaurants or markets I might want to come back to. And the best part is that in MOST major cities you can take a walking tour for FREE! Free tours by foot is a major player in North America and Europe, and Freetours.com is a great searchable database with free tours around the world that includes times and reviews. *Free isn’t really free and you’re expected to tip. (just like in America-hi!) But after one of these I’ve always felt it was well worth the money spent. Brussels, Berlin, Medellin, Mexico City are just some of the cities where I’ve taken free walking tours.
If you’re looking to get out of the city, and to see more than one attraction or landmark, organized day tours are often a great way to do it. I’ve done this in Ireland, Oaxaca and Mexico City, Sedona Arizona, and had a blast on a full day tour with my mom in St. Lucia. Are the attractions slightly abridged? Sure. Are you visiting with other people? Yes. But renting a car, paying for gas, or conversely taking the available public transportation, and paying for individual admission fees (to parks, landmarks, museums, etc.) can all add up to a lot of time and money. Why not let someone else take the wheel, while you sit back and relax? As a bonus, your tour guide will be giving you tidbits of information along the entire way that you may not even think to look up or learn about. These tours are especially good for solo travelers, since the cost of doing it all on your own would be expensive, and because you have the opportunity to meet new people.
There are also some cool themed tours. I did a ghost tour/pub crawl in Savannah, GA that was so much freaking fun I still talk about it to this day. I’ve gone on guided hikes, like to Iztaccíhuatl, a dormant volcano and third highest peak in all of Mexico, after which I suffered some rough altitude sickness. A street art tour in Berlin. A whale watch in Victoria, BC to learn about Orchas, which made me cry more than once, and snorkeling tours all over the place.
I’m not saying you should exclusively travel on tours. This might be where we get into khaki-pants, hawaiian shirt, white-sneaker, map-holding, camera-round-the-neck territory. But I’m saying you should be open to it. And if you’re short on time or if you want to get a bit of history (And you should if you are spending time in a place) then a tour can be a fun, easy way to do it.
Ditch those fees and see the travel funds add up.
Don’t pay to use your own money
After spending years paying fees on fees from using my Bank of America debit card abroad, I finally wised-up to the game. There are plenty of ways to not pay fees to use your own money while you’re traveling. A lot of people use credit cards with no foreign transaction fees and also rack up points to use for future travel or to just pay down their balance. This is a great method if you are disciplined enough to pay off your balance in full each month.
I have been on a getting-out-of-debt track for a while (2k left of student loans and I am hooooooome free!) and therefore refused to use my credit cards for travel this year. What I did do was open up a checking account that has zero foreign transaction fees and reimburses all ATM fees. It’s also a high-yield checking account, so I’m earning (rather than spending) by keeping my money there. I decided that since travel is such a big priority in my life, I should be budgeting that money as part of my spending, in advance. I have 20% of my pay deposited into this travel checking account each pay period, and when I go on a trip, I magically have a travel fund. No scrounging or scrimping and no tough choices along the way leading up to it. I use Charles Schwab for my investor checking account and I’ve been very happy with them. (FYI: The investor checking must be attached to a brokerage account, but that brokerage account needn’t carry a balance or be used.) I don’t know what other banks or products to recommend, but I would suggest checking out Nerdwallet.com for resources on the best no-fee checking accounts and credit cards for travel.
If you travel more than once a year this is something you really have to do. Unless of course, you enjoy throwing money out the window.
And there you have it. Six of the best travel tips I’ve come to believe in along the way. I won’t tell you where to go or what to do. That is totally up to you. But I’ll strongly suggest you have a bit of humility, a sense of adventure, an open-mind, a healthy dose of caution, and that you take advantage of things that will allow you to be more efficient with time and money.
Please help us all out and write your best travel tips in the comments section below. Tell us about your post-Corona travel plans. Or about the best trip you’ve ever taken. We’re all dying for a bit of travel inspiration right now, amirite?.
Thanks in advance, and here’s to our next adventures!