As some of you may have surmised by now, I love to travel. My wanderings often inspire my stories. For example, my latest novella, The Pillar, was born after I spent a few days in Bosnia & Herzegovina. I’ve been around a good chunk of the United States and Europe. I’ve even been lucky enough to live in Croatia twice for brief periods.
As the semester begins, I’m dreaming of travel. So I thought it would be fun to share some of my tips. Please add your own in the comments! I’d love to hear from you.
1. Learn a few words of the local language. Nobody in Budapest expects a tourist to be fluent in Hungarian. I’m fluent only in English and I’ve gotten by fine everywhere I’ve been. But it’s important to greet someone and be able to say please and thank you in their language. My atrocious attempts at French have brought friendly responses from Parisians, and Zagreb merchants have been delighted when they realize I can manage a few words of Croatian.
2. If you get stuck language-wise, look for a young person to translate. I don’t know how well this tip works elsewhere, but it’s served me well in central and eastern Europe. Older people there often learned Russian or German as their second language, but folks born after 1990 or so are generally pretty proficient in English. I’ve employed strangers as impromptu translators in grocery stores and post offices, and none of them minded. In fact, some of them were happy to practice their English with a native speaker. Once in Zagreb, a university student intentionally rode the tram well past her own stop just so she could chat in English with me.
3. Hire local tour guides. I like a good guidebook (I’m a Rick Steves fan), and I also like to explore on my own. But I’ve become convinced that local guides are worth their weight in gold. Even if you’re with them only a couple of hours, you’ll learn so much more. I spent a day in Sarajevo with an amazing guide. Not only did he show me a good chunk of the city, but I got to hear firsthand what it was like to live in the city during the siege. Guides can give you tips about restaurants and sights, and also help you find stuff that guidebooks don’t mention, like the names of good Bosnian punk bands. And guides can give you all sorts of unique perspectives, like in Barcelona, where my daughter and I did a tour on an antique motorcycle with a sidecar.
4. Don’t try to see everything. The other day I saw an ad for a package vacation: London, Paris, and Rome in nine days. Yikes. Personally, I’d rather take my time. I may see fewer sights, but I’ll have the time to truly see them. Plus I’ll have the chance for one of my favorite activities: sitting at cafes and people-watching. And when I get home, I’ll have vivid memories instead of just blurs.
5. Walk. I think this is the best way to see places. Some cities are big enough that I have to rely on public transportation to some extent, but I try to spend as much time as possible on foot. I truly see the details of a place that way. My daughter and I spent a day in Edinburgh with a friend, and we walked over eight miles that day. It’s remained one of our favorite memories of our trip.
6. Don’t ignore the smaller sights. Yes, if you’re in Paris go see the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre. But also stroll around LeMarais (and go to this boulangerie) or visit Pere Lachaise cemetery. I love quirky museums like Vancouver’s Police Museum and Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships. And I also like visiting smaller, less-touristy towns. Venice was amazing but I also really enjoyed Trieste. Vienna was wonderful, but so was Graz.
7. Live like a local. Most of us probably can’t pick up and move to Berlin for a few months. But even if we’re there only a few days, we can often rent an apartment instead of staying at a hotel. The advantages are many. Usually you get more space, and often for less money. You often get to stay in a less-touristy area. You get a kitchen, which means you can save money by cooking for yourself. Plus you get to shop at local greenmarkets and grocery stores, which is one of my favorite things to do. Your temporary landlords are often excellent sources of local information. And you can stay in some amazing places. I’ve been able to sleep in a medieval apartment adjacent to a Roman palace, in another medieval apartment halfway up a steep stairway in Dubrovnik, in a comfy walk-up in London, and in the second oldest building in Vienna.
8. Plan, but don’t overplan. I make my travel and lodging arrangements ahead of time, and I read a guidebook or two. But I also leave room for surprises and extemporaneous fun. Some of my favorite memories come from these surprises, like the time I was the only passenger on a commercial airline flight. And some surprises are just… well, surprising. Like discovering your first squat toilet.
9. Don’t freak out. The unexpected happens during travel. I make arrangements for the true disasters–lost passports, illness, theft. But I go with the flow for more minor stuff. Those minor things make the best stories later anyway! Like the time my husband and 8-year-old were supposed to meet us in Venice but got lost (everybody does, at first)–until I happened to glance out the window and see them walking by. Or the extra day I got to spend in Iowa City with a good friend, thanks to Delta Airlines. Or the trip to Budapest and Prague when I realized that it wasn’t the heat or overindulgence in fruit (I miscalculated kilos and pounds in my head and ended up with way too many raspberries) that was making me feel icky, but rather morning sickness.
10. Don’t overpack. I struggle with this one myself, actually. But I did do nine days in London and Edinburgh with only a carryon-sized suitcase and a computer bag, so even I can do it. I just give myself the Mars lecture while I’m packing: “You’re not going to Mars. If you need something really badly you can buy it there.” And hey, those purchases then become souvenirs too, like the pajamas I bought in Barcelona while Air France tried to find my luggage.
11. Wear comfy shoes. Even if you have a limited budget, this is not the place to skimp.
12. Do some touristy stuff. Like many people, I hate to think of myself as a tourist–even when I totally am. And so I tend to avoid sights I think are too touristy (I’m talking about you, Madame Toussaint’s and Pier 39). But some touristy things are totally worth it, like a gondola ride in Venice or the Edinburgh vaults tour. Just choose wisely.
13. Of course it’s not like home. Some things are better in the US than elsewhere. Air conditioning. Free drink refills. Toilet paper. But don’t whine when the cafes are full of cigarette smoke in Sarajevo or the cobblestone streets are uneven in Edinburgh or building ineriors are overheated during the winter in Warsaw. If you want to make sure everything is exactly like home, stay home. 🙂 Personally, I think travel makes me better appreciate certain things about home, while also experiencing all sorts of new and wonderful things.
What rules of travel do you follow? Do you have tips for all the many parts of the world I haven’t visited? What would you want people visiting your hometown to know?