Traveling of the first time seems to be on many people’s horizon lately! My cousin is off to spend a few months in Europe and another old friend asked me about traveling advice as she embarks on what sounds like the most fabulous honeymoon ever in Western Europe!
Although I’ve not yet spent as much time traveling in Europe as I would like, these two got me thinking about what advice I might have for first time travellers. Here it goes 🙂
1. Get off the beaten track: Cliche I know, but it really is true! Some of the most frustrating experiences I’ve ever had were firmly on the tourist track, while most of the rewarding ones were miles away.
2. Slow down: Don’t try to see everything in globe-trotting record-setting time. Sip your coffee slowly, taste your food, have a conversation. if you miss the Eiffel Tower, or the Great Wall you have a reason to return. . It’s better to see less and enjoy more than see more and enjoy less.
3. Stay flexible, but have a plan: Have an idea about where you want to go and what you want to do and see, but if you fall in love with one place, and another doesn’t do it for you, change your plans! I ended up spending a week in Damascus when I’d only planned to spend a day or two.
4. Be trusting but not stupid: Be wary of touts and scams, and do some reading to learn how other travelers have gotten got (No – your hotel did not burn down this week, and the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities probably isn’t closed the one day you want to see it, and no, the guy with the cousin in Toronto’s carpet shop is not where you should now spend your day). That being said, don’t shy away from legitimate offers and genuine kindness – finding this perfect balance (which isn’t always easy) will help you have the best travel experience imaginable. Don’t be afraid to trust your instinct on this one!
5. Be open to new experiences and welcome surprises: Sometimes the place or the site you think you are going to love is the most disappointing, while something you’d never heard of, and decided to visit on a whim turns out to be remarkable. Go with the flow! Try new foods, see new sites, and push yourself to do things and try things that you would never do or try at home. Other travellers are great sources of information. Don’t be afraid to engage in conversations and find out about their experiences.
7. Be conscious of the money you’re spending, but don’t let sticking to a budget destroy your trip: I’ve seen travellers sticking to a budget so obsessively that they miss out on some pretty remarkable experiences. I know that there aren’t many in this world that can travel on an unlimited budget, and it’s great to have an idea of how much you would like to spend, but don’t feel guilty about splurging on a few once in a life time experiences. Tell yourself that it’s worth it, and don’t feel guilty! It might just mean you’ll have to sacrifice that new outfit when you get back home – but hey, when else would you get to sleep under the stars in the middle of the desert, or take a crazy safari! Also, you can always look at saving some money a little later on whether it means grabbing some groceries at the local market rather than eating out, or opting for a less expensive room.
8. Eat where the locals eat and don’t be afraid to ask for recommendations: One of my traveling pet peeves is being in a place known for delicious food, and not finding anything but mediocre, over-priced restaurants. Ask the locals where they go. Ask for a recommendation at your hotel/hostel, or from other travellers you’ve met on the road. Another hint is to always head for a place that is bustling. If a restaurant is empty and it’s dinner time, stay clear. There is probably a reason why people aren’t eating there, and you don’t want to find out why the hard way.
9. Make it your trip: While you should push yourself to experience new things, don’t forget it is your trip and plan accordingly. If you’ve never walked to the corner store, don’t plan a three-week trek in Nepal. If you’re burnt out and in need of rest and relaxation, don’t rough it in dangerous/stressful/challenging destinations. If you hate museums, maybe just hit up one or two in Europe, and see if this inspires you, before forcing yourself to see every single one in every capital.
10. Explore: This seems self-explanatory, but sometimes, it’s not. We are often so focused on our destination, whether it be a restaurant or site, or our hotel, we forget to meander down intriguing alley-ways, and stop at sites that catch our eye. If you have the option, walk from place to place rather than take a taxi. You never know what kind of remarkable gem you might find.
11. Rely on your instinct not your guidebook – but a good guidebook is essential: I love my Lonely Planets and rely on them extensively. That being said, things change, and if a place has a stellar write-up in a guide-book, but it just doesn’t feel right, trust your gut. Also, just because an author raves about something, doesn’t mean you’ll like it.
12. Take time to relax and reflect: One of the things I love about traveling is that it provides the opportunity to step away from our day to day realities. Take the time to think and to relax with out the pressures and chaos of your day to day life. If something crosses your mind, don’t be afraid to write it down and act on it when your mind is muddled when you return to reality.
13. Pack light, but bring your favourite jeans: I try to pack light and it’s not easy. There is a tremendous amount of freedom with limiting the amount of stuff you are carrying. I met a British traveler in Uzbekistan once, who had nothing with him but a plastic bag with a few items. It was all that he needed and as I struggled with my big pack, I was more than a little envious. That being said, the one item I have often failed to pack, and regret is a favourite pair of jeans. There have been more than a few trips I’ve missed them so much I’ve gone out and bought a mediocre pair. Yes, they are heavy, and take up space, but they are comfy, and can be dressed up or down. Also you can pretty much get anything anywhere these days, so if you don’t pack something, and really miss it, it’s an excuse to hit-up the local markets and bring home a practical souvenir.
14. Be forgiving – shit happens: As much as you prepare for your trip or think you are being cautious, sometimes, things happen. If they do, don’t beat yourself up. Learn whatever lesson was meant to be learned, and don’t let one bad experience paint your entire trip or travel experience in negative shades. If you’re lucky, it will make a great story that will be great to share with your new-found travel friends over a few beers!
Bon Voyage and thanks to Morgan and Alex for the inspiration for this post!
By the way, what are your travel tips, for first time travellers?