1. Never eat at McDonalds
You’re not Christmas shopping at the mall needing to quickly fuel up at the food court – you’re traveling. One of the primary joys of traveling is trying the local food, so why would you have food that you (hopefully) wouldn’t even subject yourself to back home? And if you’re one of those people who justifies eating shitty American fast food abroad on the grounds that “it’s a better option than possibly contracting food poisoning eating street food,” it’s pretty amazing you managed to get out of the house in the first place.
This is something a lot of luxury travelers miss out on – just take it from a peasant like me. If you haven’t traveled on a shoe-string budget before, unable to justify even a bus ticket in one of Europe’s more expensive capitals, then you likely don’t know that the best way to see a new city is on your own two feet. Just think about all the things you miss out on if you’re left simply staring out a window. There have been so amazing discoveries I’ve made, from tiny second-hand bookstores to blink-and-you’ll-miss-them attic cafes, just from walking down the street in Berlin, Budapest, and Bruges, and that’s without even leaving the Bs (and that’s no BS)! And in case that isn’t reason enough, walking is a great way to burn off all those calories you’ll put on from eating the local food.
3. Sit outside and people watch
This is, admittedly, a bit season-dependent. You won’t get anything (except possibly frostbite) from sitting on a park bench in St. Petersburg in February, and while that may be a fun story to tell down the road, your fingers and toes might not make it that far. But seriously, sitting outside in the heart of a thriving metropolis or a tiny provincial town is time you’ll never forget. My presence in a picturesque town in Puglia was never confirmed until I’d had a cappuccino on a terrace somewhere within. And the things you’ll see… For one, I’ll never fail to conjure up the sight of Superman literally strutting down Rome’s Via Del Corso one August afternoon.
4. Sleep where the locals do…
There are so many options for travelers today that never existed before! Why stay at a hotel when you could rent a private flat on AirBnB or stay in a traditional little bed and breakfast for half the price?
What about Couchsurfing? Meet locals, stay with locals, see the city with locals! What could be better? Obvious word of advice: DO NOT take advantage of your host’s generosity by putting the moves on him/her and definitely DO NOT think you can use your host’s flat as you would a hotel. If your host so desires, be prepared to spend some time exploring the city together. That’s kind of the point. Some of the absolute best people I know (and many of my closest friends) I’ve met via Couchsurfing, so open your mind and try it (but don’t ruin it for the rest of us)!
5. …or justify doing otherwise
While springing to stay at the Four Seasons or Intercontinental might get you bragging points with your friends back home (*cough* get new friends), the point of staying in a hotel that, once inside, looks as it would in any other city, makes about as much sense as eating at McDonalds in Paris. You’re in Venice? Stay on a Catamaran! In Holland? There’s a windmill for that! If you ever happen to find yourself in Sheki, Azerbaijan, you’d better stay at the Caravansarai (above). Built in the 18th Century by the Sheki Khans, the Caravansarai housed caravans passing down the Silk Road on their way to China. Sounds a bit more exciting than the JW Marriott, no?
What about hostels? There are so many cool, clean, unforgettably unique hostels that offer so much more than your average hotel (not to mention they’re cheaper and offer the opportunity to meet really cool people). Really, why stay at the W Hotel even if you have the money to?
6. Get around like the locals do
Are you visiting Copenhagen? Renting a bicycle sounds like a great idea! London? Double decker it up! The cities above are just two examples of unique transport opportunities you simply won’t have in most other destinations. Europe is especially great for getting around by foot or bicycle because its cities are oftentimes far more compact and pedestrian/cyclist friendly than those in America, Africa, Asia, and Australia (presumably Antarctica as well). Getting a taxi or renting a car really should be used only if the distance getting to where you need to go is too great, the public transportation is lacking, or you’re severely time-constrained (or if the taxi is also unique to the destination, e.g. water taxis or London’s black cabs).
7. Learn basic words and phrases in the local language
You’ve likely heard of the “obnoxious American” before. Well, I’ve met him. He was at an Italian supermarket loudly enunciating the (apparently) three syllables of BA-TH-ROOM. Needless to say, he was ignored. But it does put a nice ! on this point which, while totally obvious, apparently still needs to be made as there are always special people like the one above who think clarity means saying the word “bathroom” to a confused waiter or shopkeeper, then repeating it more slowly and obnoxiously. First things first, the word “toilet” is practically international. Don’t complicate things. Second, learning the local word for “toilet”, “please”, “thank you”, “hello”, “goodbye”, etc, only requires the teensiest bit of research. You are presumably spending a good deal of time on a plane, train, or ship in order to arrive to your destination in the first place, so for god’s sake put down the young adult fiction and pick up a damn language book!
8. Know when When in Rome applies, and when it doesn’t
This has a lot in common with the point made above, with some differences. While assuming that everyone you meet automatically speaks English is an idiotic and ignorant thing to do, taking steps to learn even a few basic words in the language of your host country is an appropriate, even thoughtful, thing to do. Rule number 8 then applies more to the things you know you shouldn’t do but sometimes do just because you see the locals doing it. Simply because you see that Roman guy littering or cutting in line, does not mean it is ok for you to do it. Not only do two wrongs not make a right, but the locals who see you, a foreigner, do something like litter will be that much more irate and willing to stereotype ALL your countrymen as litter bugs. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to live down American stereotypes just because some moron who came before decided it’d be alright to carve his name on some piece of antiquity.
Tip at restaurants, buy transport tickets, and generally treat people how you would back home (assuming you’re in the habit of at least treating your neighbors well). Just because you’re not likely to see Claudio, the waiter at that pizzeria, again, does not mean he won’t remember an American stiffed him on the tip the next time he waits on an American.
9. Take something back (other than photos and memories)
You’ll hopefully remember your trip for the rest of your life, but taking something back as a souvenir will certainly provide an excellent trigger for doing so! This could be just about anything (though NOT pieces of 2,000 year old structures like the Coliseum or Parthenon). Personally, I like to take back a painting of some sort, usually of a landscape. But you might be into collecting coffee cups, beer steins, refrigerator magnets, or restaurant menus. The point is, it’s nice to have something physical to take back as a reminder.
10. Budget before you go
I never used to do this, and as a result I would spend the first 3 or 4 days of a ten-day trip ordering the menu at restaurants, buying things I wasn’t planning, and then spending the last 6 or 7 days eating only shawarma and not having enough money to buy a train ticket to that little town I wanted to go to for a day trip. If you don’t have a clear idea of what your trip is costing you – and how fast – odds are you’re almost certainly going to spend more than you expected. Figure out beforehand the things you most want to do – museums, day trips, festivals – how much they’ll cost you and then set that money aside. Better to cut back on ordering that big menu item and still be able to afford your ticket to the Prado the next day.
11. Relax (and eat ice cream)!
This obvious rule is often neglected and forgotten. I worked at Disney World for five years and during that time I met thousands of people who were downright miserable simply because they just couldn’t relax. If you’re constantly stressing about how much a trip is costing you (which you won’t if you obey the rule above), worrying about the weather, or pissed because you overslept this morning- don’t! You can’t control the weather and as for oversleeping, relax! You’re meant to take things a little easier for your vacation. And if that’s a problem remember, even your phone can serve as an alarm clock.
Remember: your best side is supposed to be the one you’re traveling with.
Got any additional advice or rules? Feel free to share in the comments below!