Friday, February 08, 2008

Tulip's Traveling Tips

I thought that someone planning a vacation in the near future might enjoy these tips from Miss Tulip. If you want to get really in depth, check out the comments that people posted, there are so many good tips in there. I don't have anything planned for a REALLY long time (although anyone who knows me know that I am dreaming about finding a way to get to Europe sometime this Summer, but it isn't looking like that is going to happen).

If you are planning a trip in the near future, tell me all about it!

(Hyde Park, London)

1. Before you go, prepare for the worst. And then relax.

There is no question that things can go wrong when you travel, whether at the hands of others or due to plain bad luck. Your trip will go much more smoothly if you take simple steps ahead of time to avoid or handle any setback: learn your airline’s regulations for baggage (how heavy? what size limits if you carry it on?) and any relevant security measures (there are still strict restrictions on carried-on liquids), lock your suitcase with a TSA-approved lock, photocopy the main page of your passport (or scan it and email it to yourself), stock your carry-on with necessary medication and anything you can’t live without for a day or two if luggage is lost, write down credit card numbers and keep them somewhere other than your wallet. You know the drill. Take measures against pickpockets – whether by buying a travel wallet to hang around your neck, or just keeping your purse close at hand and your wallet in a zippered compartment. If you’re a female traveling alone, walk strong, be aware of your surroundings at all times, and avoid any situation that strikes your intuition as sketchy.

But once you’ve taken basic precautions, relax and enjoy your trip! Hopefully nothing will go wrong. But if it does, reassure yourself that you can and will handle any situation when it arises. Travel is too precious and exhilarating an experience to let your fears hold you back from taking full advantage of every last wonderful moment.

2. Do not plan every minute of your trip. Leave space for serendipity, for whims, for discovering something new.

I learned this the hard way during a previous weekend in Paris with my parents. It was my first time planning a trip, I wanted my parents to enjoy themselves, and I was so concerned with “not missing anything important” that I scheduled every moment like a military campaign.

But when we got to Paris, my parents didn’t want to follow The Plan. My stepdad was sick, my mother was tired, they had other ideas than mine. Hour by hour, we fell further behind schedule. It all finally came to a head with my tearful breakdown in an American Express office on the Champs Elysees. (“We’re … not … following … the PLAN!”) And then we threw away The Plan. And had a great time in Paris.

(Florence street corner)

3. But DO research your destination, and make some plans.

Even with a “plan as you go” philosophy, you’ll want to research your destination ahead of time and make some plans. Without research, you might miss an out-of-the-way sight that you’d otherwise love. And, while there’s a value in trying new things as you stumble across them, as often as not it can lead to a mediocre experience (or worse, a mediocre AND overpriced tourist trap).

My own way of balancing the need to plan with the desire not to get too tied down is to print out addresses and notes on what I’d love to see, then take each day as it comes. But we discovered on this trip that it also helps to have a plan of things that can and cannot be done on certain days. For example, many shops close on Sundays, or museums on Mondays. We saved our visit to the Musee d’Orsay for our last day, only to learn it was closed!

Guidebooks can tell you all about famous sights, but they aren’t the best source for information on places like restaurants, where information changes rapidly and the guidebook-recommended places are often full of other tourists. Major newspapers generally have a wealth of searchable info online – just go to the travel section and search the name of your destination. There are many useful travel websites – I enjoy Gridskipper and IgoUgo, and TripAdvisor is invaluable for hotel reviews. And local blogs are ideal for an insider’s view of the city. Before Paris, I relied heavily on a blog by American foodie David Lebovitz.

4. Avoid the tourist traps. Except when you don’t.

There’s nothing worse than trekking to somewhere new and exotic, only to find yourself completely surrounded by other tourists. If you’re in a non-English country and find you’re hearing English spoken around you at least half the time, consider getting away! This could be as simple as popping down a side street to find a restaurant that’s not on the main tourist drag. Or it could mean planning a side-trip to somewhere most tourists don’t go. (One of my most memorable trips was to a town in China that, according to the high school boys who adopted us and led us around, never saw Western tourists.) Sure, the major sights will always draw tourists. But if you can get away from the tourist horde for at least a while, sometimes you experience much more just observing local daily life than you would visiting yet another museum.

On the other hand, many “tourist traps” exist for a reason. Bus or boat tours can show you a lot of sights with a minimum of effort. (Good for getting an initial overview of a city, or for when you just. can’t. walk. another. block.) Certain iconic experiences, like going to the top of the Eiffel Tower, just have to be done. And it’s perfectly valid to want to eat in a famous restaurant or shop a famous shop. Sometimes you just have to say, “That’s a painfully tourist-y thing to do… But, hey, we’re tourists! And we’re doing it!

(Baha’i historical spot near Akka. Israel)
5. Talk to the locals.This is a tough one for me because I’m quite shy. But it has led to some of the travel experiences I treasure most. Guarantee it will do the same for you.6. Learn and use at least two phrases in the local language.

I’m convinced that much of Americans’ “rude” image abroad comes from the travelers who just dive into English conversation without making any attempt at the local language, or even inquiring whether a person knows English. Of course, a traveler won’t always know the local language. But no matter how difficult the language, anyone can learn at least “hello” and “thank you.” Please, at least say “hello” in the local language before you attempt English. And a “thank you” goes a long way when the transaction is done.

(On similar lines, if you do speak a bit of the language, use it! At first, Mr. T and I were both afraid to use our rusty school French for fear of sounding ridiculous. But everyone responded so well to our awful French. They clearly appreciated the fact that we at least made the effort.)

7. Give your travel partner some space.

Even if you and your travel partner live together in normal life, it’s unusual to go days on end without separating for work, hobbies, errands, etc. Don’t worry – wanting a bit of personal space on the trip isn’t a sign that you don’t love one another! Often you’ll appreciate each other more if you spend just a bit of time apart. It’s also a perfect chance for each person to pursue an activity that doesn’t interest the other, or for the less-active person to rest while the more-active person sees an extra sight or two.

(Santa Margherita, Italian Riviera)

8. Be prepared to walk.

Even if you rent a car or your destination has excellent public transportation, on most trips you will WALK. The strolls down romantic waterfronts, the death-marches through huge museums, the hikes from sight to sight — they often add up to miles by the end of the day. Keep your bag light, build in rest stops when you need them, and most of all be sure your shoes are up to the task! You won’t enjoy yourself as much if your feet are killing you.

9. Be sure you have access to money.

Often ATMs and credit cards are the easiest way to get cash or pay for purchases abroad, and their exchange rates can beat those you’ll get at the cash desk. But sometimes card companies will deny foreign purchases on the theory that foreign purchases are more likely to be fraudulent. It doesn’t hurt to call and give them a heads-up beforehand to be sure your card will work. And rember the old commercial about all the foreign places that “don’t take American Express”? Often true. If you normally rely on AmEx, be sure to bring a backup card. (We learned both of these the hard way!)

10. ???

What’s YOUR favorite travel tip? What websites or other resources do you recommend to others who might be planning a trip?


krystind said...

I liked the credit card tip.. that totally makes sense.

Jenna said...

I am such a traveling idiot. All of this made sense to me. I hope to test some of these tips out someday. And someday soon.

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