Over the years, some of my travels have been better than others. I’ve learned a lot (mostly the hard way!) about how to increase my chances of success, and as summer approaches and many of us plan for family vacations, long holiday weekends, and special outings, I want to share some tips for making the most of our journeys. I hope you find these helpful in navigating your travels this summer as well as your travels through this long, crazy trip we call life!
- Have patience. It’s my top travel tip. Don’t sweat the stuff you can’t control. Life is too short to be angry and annoyed all the time while traveling. Did you miss your bus? No worries. There will be another one. ATM out of money? Great! Take an unplanned road trip over to the next town and explore. Once on our way to Madrid, we miscalculated getting out of Valencia, Spain, during a festival and ended up having to take the only available train up to Zaragoza where we killed four fabulous hours touring an underground Roman marketplace ruin before we finally caught a train bound south for Madrid. It turned out to be one of our favorite experiences and taught me the art of relaxing into “what is.” I know it can be hard sometimes, but take a deep breath and remind yourself that while you can’t control your circumstances, you can always control your experience of them.
- Don’t overschedule. Slow down and observe. The immersive experience of taking a few moments to sit on a park bench and watch the world go by in a new landscape, carefully noting the sounds, smells, and colors can create some of our richest and longest-lasting memories. On a longer trip, I like to alternate my days between sightseeing and scheduled activities one day and just following wherever my nose, taste buds, and soul might lead the next day. And every now and again, I sleep in, order room service, wander down to the shore, read a good book, and order as many frozen drinks as I want!
- Suspend your judgments and open up your mind. It’s arrogant to assume our views are correct and other peoples are wrong. Practice empathy and put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Embrace different possibilities, opinions, religions, customs, and interests. Ask questions. You don’t have to agree with everyone, but you may be surprised what you’ll learn from the people you meet during your travels.
- I cherish my travel journals. And when I re-read them years later. I’m always struck by what I would have most certainly forgotten if I had not written about what I was experiencing, learning, and feeling. Traveling is all about stories and storytelling. That is why so much of travel throughout history has been conveyed through writing and photography.
- Choose your travel companions carefully. Mark Twain once said: “I have found out that there ain’t no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them.” Traveling can be greatly enhanced or devolve into sheer misery depending on the attitudes, stamina, and compatibility of your travel companions. Some of my best friends in life are not my best travel buddies. Make sure you go with those who move at the same pace, require similar amounts of sleep, enjoy taking the same risks, share your interests, and respond to the unexpected with humor, patience, optimism, and kindness… or you’ll want to send them, or you, packing!
- Be brave and confident. Take the backroads and get out of the tourist traps occasionally. It’s where some of the best things are experienced. And remember, you will obviously look like a tourist if you’re tightly clutching your purse and acting freaked out, nervous, and scared. I have found when I use my common sense and act like a local, walking with confidence (not arrogance) with a smile and courageous spirit, I do just fine. I could count on one hand in 60 + years of travel the number of times I’ve been truly worried about my safety. The nightly news can often make you think that certain countries (or even domestic cities) are much worse than they really are. Remember that “if it bleeds, it leads.” Most people I meet in my travels are friendly, trustworthy, generous, and willing to help you out. We wander off the beaten path a lot, and I no longer worry too much about stumbling into dangerous neighborhoods as locals will generally warn you before you get that far. “The more I traveled the more I realized that fear makes strangers of people who should be friends.” – Shirley MacLaine
- Learn a few foreign words. There’s no need to be fluent in order to visit a foreign country. However, one tip I’ve learned is mastering a few phrases in the local language can improve your travel experience. I try to at least learn the correct words for “hello,” “please,” “thank you,” “nice to meet you,” “excuse me,” “sorry,” and “Can I take your portrait?” Not being able to communicate while traveling can be frustrating, but remember that this is your problem, not theirs. Raising your voice doesn’t magically help Mexicans understand English. Try hand signals, images on your phone, or Google Translate!
- Read a book about the country. Before you travel to a new country, I recommend reading a good book about it to learn more about its history and culture before you arrive. This could be as simple as a Lonely Planet guidebook, or maybe a popular novel by a local author.
- Keep your sense of humor. And laugh—mostly at yourself!
- Consider it an investment. If you can truly find a way to renew, relax, and refresh on your travels, then every penny you spend will be a great investment in you, your work, and your relationships when you return.
Bonus: A few of my favorite things to pack:
- Eye mask and earplugs
- Sarong or large scarf—I’ve used it for a warm blanket, a makeshift towel, sun protection, to carry extra things, and then I jazzed up my travel outfit in the evening. Talk about invaluable!
- Water bottle.
- Small combination lock with a thin steel cable. I’ve locked my bag to bus seats, a tree while swimming in Hawaii, or even to the back of a chair at a crowded restaurant.
- Emergency stash. While traveling, I’ve had an ATM machine eat my debit card, lost my wallet, or had it nearly stolen. I now carry a $100 bill and several $20’s, an extra credit card, and a photocopy of my driver’s license, health insurance card, and passport in an envelope in a separate location from my purse or backpack just to be on the safe side.
- Paper itinerary with hotel addresses. After a long flight, watching movies on your smartphone or falling asleep and forgetting to plug it in, your battery could die. Having written hotel addresses and flight itineraries has come in handy more than once for me.
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”
~ Marcel Proust