Preparing to travel abroad can be a major undertaking. People often reach out asking for tips on how to get ready or what to expect. for After 8 months of non-stop travel moving my tally up to 37 countries, I’ve noticed that my advice falls into 5 musts.
Ditch the lists of “musts.”
Except this one, of course. This particular list is super important and special. But I’m against going into a trip with lists of have-tos. Someone else’s list of what you must do/see/taste/experience/feel/hear/spell. When you have a list of boxes to check, you limit yourself from being open to what else there may be. And how will you feel if you walk away with only 6 of your 10 boxes ticked? Will you revel in the 6 you experienced, or bum about the 4 you missed?
Doing a little bit of research is important before you go. But I would advocate that you do just enough to keep yourself out of trouble.
What are the visa requirements, do they have malaria or other major health concerns, what’s the conversion rate, is it going to be extremely hot or cold, should I be prepared to have my shoulders and knees covered or can I pack tanks and shorts, are there any experiences that I have to plan significantly in advance for?
These are questions that answer what you need to do before you leave to be prepared. And then when you get there, talk to the locals. See what is important/fun to them. Talk to other travelers. See what they have and have not liked.
Following travel guides may make you feel more prepared, but it limits you to following in someone else’s footsteps. Use your research as a guide, not a step-by-step itinerary. Pick out what’s important to you and steer towards that. I like to use Instagram and Google to explore pictures of a destination. When I find pictures that pique my interest, I dig a little deeper. If cuisine is your thing, find out the signature dishes ahead of time, but ask the locals the best spots to get it. I’ve found with about 99% success rate that cab drivers love to talk about food.
Get your head out of your apps and maps.
When you’re exploring a new place, keep your head up and open to your surroundings. Not just to avoid walking into walls and stuff, but because you never know what experience you’ll find yourself in. Maps are generally helpful. And you may have something on TripAdvisor that you’re trying to find. But at some point, you have to put it away and take in your surroundings. If you leave yourself open to exploring, you can turn left down a street because it looks cool, not just because Siri said so. Let your senses guide you and you’ll be surprised what you get yourself in to. (if you are someone with zero sense of direction who will be immediately lost with this technique, be sure to have a backup plan – a map, the address of your hostel, etc.)
The same goes for the cocoon of your travel buddy(ies). If you are traveling with friends, enjoy your experiences with them, but remember to pop out of that bubble.
If I had been too caught up in a conversation with someone else or in trying to find my way on a specific street to a specific destination, I never would have happened into playing rugby with Tongans. I was walking the streets of Tonga and I noticed some people playing rugby in a big yard. I stopped to watch because I don’t know much about rugby and I am quite curious about the game. After a few minutes, the guys playing noticed me and one trotted over, asking if I wanted to play. I ended up playing with them that day, and every day that week (and in their tournament at the end of the week).
Learn [at least some of] the language.
Listen, it’s unrealistic to learn, at even a conversational level, the language of every place you visit. But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn a little bit. The top of my list are: hello, goodbye, please and thank you. If I can do nothing else, I can be polite. Once you get comfortable with those, start adding in the other important words: where, how much, toilet, beer. Everything else, you can take care of through miming, unless you’re in Timor Leste. If I can get through a conversation with a Vietnamese woman about purchasing and mixing hair color without understanding each other, you can find the crepe shop you’re looking for.
This can be tough because looking it up online doesn’t always mean you know how to pronounce it. Google Translate has a listen feature, but my tactic is to just ask someone when I arrive. Sometimes it’s the bus driver, sometimes it’s the customs officer. I have rarely [never] found anyone put off by me wanting to learn some of their language. Even if I’m bad at it, they know that I’m trying, and I get points for that.
Put your camera away.
Yes, you are going to see some amazing things. And maybe you love photography. And maybe you need to send pictures back to dear old gran. And maybe you want to make a scrapbook. And maybe you want to Snapchat/Instagram/Facebook back to all of your friends. In no way am I saying don’t do that. I do that. A lot.
But don’t forget to experience the places you visit outside of your camera lens.
Also, while you may want to capture every moment of your trip, bear in mind that there are some places that cameras just don’t belong. And some places where jump shots and smiling peace sign selfies are inappropriate. When I visit places of solemnity and remembrance, I like to ask myself if the pictures I’m taking will honor the purpose of the site. If the answer is no, the shot is scrapped.
I visited the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur. They are, in a word, stunning. But what surprised me more than their beauty, was the behavior of the tourists who visited. I sat in front of the towers, admiring their architecture. Their design. Their contrast with the rest of the skyline. Yes, taking some pictures. But I sat there for about an hour. And I watched group after group blaze through. Getting themselves centered to take a great picture (or 15), and then move on. They are going to go home with great pictures, but I question how many of them actually even looked at the towers.
Cool your jets.
I personally think that a lot of people could take this advice even when they aren’t traveling, but for many reasons, travel can be stressful for a lot of people. That’s ok. It’s ok if travel stresses you out. It is not ok to take that out on everyone around you.
I’d like to tell you one thing that I know about your trip (regardless of who you are, where you’re going or how much you’ve planned): SOMETHING IS GOING TO GO WRONG. Or, something is going to go different. Accept that. Embrace it. Roll with it.
The amount of people losing their cool with gate agents when a flight is delayed because of weather really worries me. Yes, we all want to get there on time. But I’m cool with waiting an hour for the lightning blizzard storm to pass first. Storm did not transfer her powers of controlling the weather to airline employees. So leave them the hell alone, go get a Cinnabon and wait.