Travel is education.
I’m a firm believer in travel as education. By visiting unfamiliar locales, we expand our worldview, we gain different perspectives, and we expose ourselves to different cuisines and cultures.
Beyond that, travel often forces you outside of your comfort zone. The actual act of travel can teach you how to function through discomfort and better deal with frustrations.
Sometimes the lessons we learn while traveling are not the ones we expected, though. Sometimes, a situation blindsides us because it’s something that we wouldn’t normally encounter in our day-to-day lives. Sometimes we may be left a little shaken by an experience. But instead of allowing those situations to negatively color a trip, we choose to view them as learning opportunities.
After all, humans learn best through experiential learning. So let me share with you a few hard-earned travel tips from our experiences that can help improve yours.
Important, unexpected travel tips and lessons learned along the way
Here are ten important travel tips that we learned during our travels. May they inspire and help you to have less stressful adventures!
Take photos of where you parked.
Turn on the location settings in your phone’s camera app and take photos of everything. I don’t just mean the pretty scenery and cool architecture or the newest mural by a local artist. I mean take a photo of where you parked. Take a photo of your hotel room number. Take a photo of the cross streets of your AirBNB.
By turning on location settings in your camera app, each photo will save with the exact location it was taken. When you need to retrace your steps, pull up the photo to find it on the map. Depending on your phone’s settings, you may even be able to open the location in your map app to get directions.
Have you ever forgotten if your car is in the Prince Eric or the Aladdin section of the parking lot? Ever forgotten which floor your hotel room is on? Worried you’ll forget which metro stop is yours or the cross street of your Airbnb?
Take a photo so you don’t have to remember. Free up your brain to store memories of your husband laughing or that incredible sandwich you had for lunch. Give your poor overworked brain a vacation and offload some of its responsibilities!
Pack more snacks than you think you need.
When I was about twelve-weeks pregnant, I took a trip to London with my dad. It was fantastic but, on the way home from London, I made a huge mistake. I did not pack the usual pantry of food items in my backpack. I hadn’t needed it on the flights over, since the airline had provided both a heated meal and plenty of snacks. I ate a big meal at the airport and figured what I had would tide me over until mealtime on the flight.
What I had not prepared for was the drunk lady who consumed an entire bottle of gin sometime between the duty free shop and boarding the plane. An hour into the flight, she began stirring up trouble, got into an altercation with someone in her row, and ended up physically striking a flight attendant. They had to restrain her in a back row. And then, the plane was forced to turn around to take her back to London, where she was arrested. The process of questioning witnesses took so long upon our return that we could not take off again for New York without the crew going over their legally-allowed shift. So we were grounded for the night.
During this entire ordeal, for whatever reasons, the crew was not allowed to serve food. The only snacks they could provide were some biscotti. I had already gone through all of my snacks while in the air. So I was getting nervous about the food situation as we landed. After more than ninety minutes of sitting on the tarmac waiting for the investigation to conclude so we could deboard the plane, I began to feel incredibly ill. Thankfully, I was seated between a lovely elderly couple who generously shared some snacks that they had brought.
I have never made the mistake of forgetting snacks again. And now that I’m a parent, it has become even more important to always carry some sort of snack or protein bar with me. Kids seem to survive on snacks, and no one wants to deal with a hangry 4 year old. Always pack the snacks.
Brush off your mental math skills to avoid getting ripped off.
Look, I get it. We all have pocket calculators that can figure out our portion of a dining bill or basically do our taxes for us. But maintaining those mental math abilities will help you when you don’t have time or don’t want to pull out your phone to do calculations. Being able to quickly guesstimate the prices of things while in a foreign country will help you make sure you don’t get ripped off.
We learned this the hard way when visiting Budapest a few years ago. With today’s exchange rates, $1 = 358 Hungarian Forints, so it’s not an intuitive exchange rate. The colorful bills we received from the ATM ranged in size from 500 to 20,000 Forints. It quickly became the biggest stressor of the trip. Many places did not accept cards so we had to use cash. And dividing a number by 350 is not the easiest math to solve in your head. But if we had practiced a bit or put more stock into the importance of estimating exchange rates, we could have avoided both the shady taxi driver who ripped us off for $50 and getting into an argument with a bartender who may or may not have shorted us 10000 Forints. We will never know.
So before visiting a foreign locale, make sure that you understand the basics of their currency. Practice fast calculations in your head before you get there. Your 7th grade algebra teacher will be proud.
Thank goodness for the trend of always carrying a water bottle. I wish this had been common practice ten or fifteen years ago when I made an annual pilgrimage to Las Vegas for a hacker convention. Vegas is one of those wild places where literally anything can happen, and you should be prepared for it. And you should always have water with you in the desert! I only fainted once from heat exhaustion. Thankfully, it happened just as I made my way into the restroom, but it was an experience I never want to repeat.
You probably already have your own water bottle. In addition, I recommend keeping some sort of water in your car as well. This is important especially when road tripping or driving in unfamiliar places. You never know when you might break down or get stuck in traffic.
Know which stop is yours.
This is probably the most basic travel advice you’ll ever hear. But indulge me. Sometimes it’s the simplest things that lead to our downfalls. Here are two lessons I learned at the same time.
First: Keep the most important stuff with you at all times.
Second: You should know the name or names of your destination.
Don’t be like 21-year-old Ashley. She stupidly put her only bag in the luggage section of the airport shuttle bus. She also did not realize that the stop she needed to get off at was sometimes called something different by the locals.
I knew I needed to get off the bus at King’s Cross station, but never heard it called, so when the bus started going back towards the airport, I realized there had been a grave mistake. When I asked the bus driver to let me off so I could get my bag, he informed me that all of the bags had been left at the St Pancras station. I did not know what St. Pancras was. It turns out that the two stations are connected, and the locals often refer to King’s Cross and St. Pancras interchangeably.
So my bag was at King’s Cross. Since no one had picked it up, the police collected the bag thinking it contained a bomb. So I had to borrow cash from a very kind woman on the bus and then make my way to the police station in the rain at night to get my belongings back.
It’s easy to become complacent when traveling by familiar modes of transport. It can happen when going somewhere that you routinely visit. I’ve also experienced a false sense of familiarity when traveling anywhere English-speaking. So I have to remind myself to keep my guard up and most importantly stay aware: where do I need to be and where is my stuff?
Count your bags.
Let me double down on the above advice. Not only should you keep the most important items with you at all times, but you should also know how many pieces of luggage you and your traveling group have. Count your bags and recount them before you leave.
When we went on a three-week trip around South America with my parents, we packed a lot of stuff. Justin and I bought a three-piece set from Away, and filled it. My parents also filled three suitcases. And everyone had a bag or backpack to carry on.
When we arrived in Chile at the start of our trip, no one bothered to count the bags. I was dead tired and only focused on our matching set of bags and making sure we had the stroller. I was not paying attention to my parents’ items. So it wasn’t until we made it to our rental apartment that my dad realized he’d left one of his bags at the airport. (That day ended up being a little crazy, which you can read more about here.)
Pay attention to what your group is wearing.
When you’re traveling with friends or family and headed for a group outing, make note of what everyone is wearing. Heck, take a photo of the group before you head out so you don’t have to remember! This way, when you inevitably get separated, it’ll be easier to find one another. You can’t always rely on having a cell signal to call. You can even rely on your group members to have their cellphones on them (I’m thinking of my dad whose phone is usually turned off).
Go a step beyond just noting what everyone is wearing by wearing something bright or recognizable yourself so that they can easily find you. I always think about the first time my parents took me and my brother to Europe and we lost my 6-year-old brother in the crowds of Venice. He was recognizable due to his bright neon green hat. People remembered seeing him so they could point us in the right direction. And when we did find him, it was easy to spot him in the crowd. Phew.
Check the public transit schedule ahead of time.
When planning to rely on the public transit of any city or town, do yourself a huge favor: Look up the schedules ahead of time. Better yet, download the schedules to your phone so you can access them offline. That way, you won’t sit waiting for thirty minutes for a bus that’s never going to come, only to realize you have to walk the 4 km home at midnight in a city you don’t know very well with a dead phone battery.
In places where the transit workers regularly strike, such as France, you should also google for any known service disruptions and plan around them.
Verify the place you’re going is open.
Piggybacking off the previous tip, may I recommend that you always verify that the site or attraction you plan to visit is open on the day you go. Don’t assume that just because a store is open on a Sunday in your home town, that it’ll be open in a rural town in Europe. Many museums are closed on weekdays, sometimes restaurants have unusual schedules, Remember that strikes and federal holidays impact regular operating schedules. Major tourist sites that you might assume are open seven days a week will not be.
When we visited Puerto Rico several years ago, we rented a car to drive around the island one day, and planned to check out the Arecibo Observatory. We did not check their website ahead of time. When we arrived, we learned they were closed for renovation. Alas.
Keep your American friendliness in check.
Americans have a reputation for being exceedingly friendly, sometimes to a fault. International visitors often comment on how fake our friendliness can seem. For example, we use “how are you?” as a mere greeting and not a genuine question of concern.
While most of the time, a smile and friendly nature will serve you just fine, I am the first to admit that it has gotten me into trouble.
When I was twenty years old, I lived alone for the first time, in Paris of all places. One autumn afternoon while enjoying a novel in the Jardins de Luxembourg, a young man struck up a conversation with me. Being the young, naive 20 year old that I was, and eager to practice French, I happily obliged. We didn’t speak for long, but I smiled at him when I left and bid him a bonne journée, thinking nothing of it.
It wasn’t until I got back to my apartment, about a 10 minute walk from the park, that I realized his intentions may have been less pure than I thought. My living room windows looked out across the building’s small courtyard, and into the hallway on the other side…. And there was that young man, staring at me, from within the confines of my apartment building. For which you need a key to enter the gate.
I will never forget that feeling of total fear as I locked eyes with him and realized he’d followed me home. I ducked down beneath the window and bolted to the apartment door, throwing the deadbolt and putting a chair in front of it. After a few moments, he knocked. He knocked for a while but I remained silent, my heart pounding, until he left. I didn’t leave my apartment the rest of the day.
I try to be my natural, friendly self, but with more self and situational awareness. I also try to match the tone of those around me so I don’t come off as such an easy target.
Don’t stop from engaging with folks and talking to the locals, though. You’ll always learn so much by talking to people. And you may have some unexpected adventures! So find a balance between being friendly and staying safe.