1. Not everything goes as planned. Regardless of how much research you do pre-trip, how much planning you sculpt, things go wrong. Flights are delayed. Train schedules are wrong. You get on the wrong bus and end up in the middle of nowhere. A tour is canceled for the day. Don’t let those things ruin your experience. Embrace the roadblock and turn it into a positive. So what if the train you planned on taking from Croatia to Italy doesn’t exist? There are other options, like a bus, hitch-hiking or simply changing the course of your travels. The more you can roll with the unexpected, the better time you will have.
2. This isn’t your home. Be aware of cultural differences where you visit. As an expat in Thailand, I am constantly shocked at foreigners behavior here. From being rude to attempting to bargain for things that you can’t really bargain for, to wearing barely-there clothing in a country where politeness is key, there are plenty of examples of travelers not being aware of their environment. Never forget you are a guest in someone else’s land. Act accordingly and always be respectful. In a land where you don’t speak the language, you never know what your actions can cause. Take your cues from the locals and smile when they smile, and always be aware that you are representing your country on the road.
3. A little of the local language can go a long way. When I was in Paris, I almost got arrested for not understanding how to ride the metro system. I tried to explain the misunderstanding to the police officer and he told me that he was sorry I didn’t speak French, and perhaps if I had, I wouldn’t be getting a fine. I’m not saying be fluent in another language, but people appreciate it when you take the time to learn basic greetings and how to tell people you don’t speak their language before you go off speaking too-fast English to them.
4. Go to the places you want to go, and then ask around for the hidden gems. I know many people rely solely on their guidebooks for what to see and do in a foreign country. Guidebooks are fantastic for pointing out the must-see spots, but what about finding those little nooks and crannies they guidebook doesn’t include? Depending on your travel style, sometimes getting off the beaten path can make for some of the most memorable experiences of a trip. During my time in Europe, I often skipped the museums and churches and opted for chatting up locals to find the places they love and experiencing them. For example, when I was in Mostar, Bosnia – Herzegovina, instead of simply wandering through the old city, I learned about a now-abandoned bank which had been where Serbian snipers fired during the war. I explored that area, and felt it added so much to my understanding of the history of the city and was one of the highlights of my time there for the sheer, eye-opening perspective it gave me on a tragic time in the country’s history.
5. Don’t cram too much in. If you have time in a place, don’t feel the need to pack up your itinerary with a million things a day. Sip that cup of coffee at a sidewalk cafe a little longer. Take an unplanned stroll through winding streets. Give yourself some time to reflect on your experiences instead of go-go-going all of the time. If you pack too much into a day, a week, a month, you risk finding yourself going through the motions without processing your time.
6. Enjoy the local cuisine; skip McDonalds, KFC and Pizza Hut. Comfort food is great, and sometimes it is necessary. I know the times I was sick during my solo travels through Europe, I would opt to skip the local cuisine and hit up Pizza Hut for some cheesy, carb-y goodness. But, the rest of the time? I indulged. In Croatia, I enjoyed fresh fish from the Adriatic accompanied by homemade wine and homemade olive oil. I even tried foods I never would have tried (like grasshopper in Thailand) because I wanted to gain a more authentic experience. You can be a picky eater, but step outside of your comfort zone just a little and try something, anything, that is different from what you are used to.
7. Get out of town. Often times, some of the most enchanting places aren’t in the main locales you visit. Yes, there is Lisbon and all of its amazingness, but an hour-long train ride can treat you to the magic of Sintra and sweeping views of the Atlantic Ocean. Staying in town lets you explore, but getting out of town can really open your eyes to local life and culture.
8. Buy local. Sustainable and responsible tourism options exist, and supporting locals by purchasing their goods is a great way to give back to the places you go. Sure, you can buy that purse at the department store you ducked into for some air-conditioning, but how cool would it be to buy that handmade purse instead?