1. Get totally immersed in the destination before you get on the plane. YouTube videos, movies, old magazine clippings, and books can enhance your experience. Before a girls’ trip to Greece last year, I rented everything filmed in Greece I could get my hands on, including high-brow titles like “Summer Lovers”, which featured a very young and scantily clad Daryl Hannah. I learned that you don’t need to pack much for Greek island hopping!
Even though English is spoken in a lot of places, learn the language and local customs. Don’t be shy about trying out a new language. The sooner you learn, the deeper you’ll go in the culture. More times than not, locals appreciate the effort and find it charming. In some cities, there are organized meet ups in bars or landmarks where one can practice their new tongue on local speakers and local speakers can practice their English. This provides an environment where you don’t feel too terribly self conscious when you accidently say “do sh*t” instead of “douchette”!
2. Let everyone know where you are going. This may give you contacts to a friend of a friend, someone they went to school with, or tour guides that can feel like a friend in-the-know. I recently befriended a bartender in Miami that is from a small town in Vicenza. He said if I ever make it there, I should call his sister who will take me to see their famous wooden bridge. Don’t you just love that? Having a local show you around will be a lasting memory.
3. Travel on your own. There is no reason you should feel lonely. Find a group in the city you are going to that brings together other travelers. Lonelyplanet.com is a good source. Go on a photography tour or a culinary excursion. Not having someone to travel with is never an excuse not to live out your travel dreams. If you are traveling with friends or a lover, take an afternoon out to be by yourself and explore at your own pace. Coming together for dinner and sharing your experiences will add a new dimension to dinner conversations.
4. Take a guided tour. I used to be hesitant about taking tours, thinking I would be stuck following a bright flag with 30 other people, but there are small personalized tours popping up everywhere. They can be tailored to your interests and done in small groups. I once had a guide in Zanzibar take me to every curious shop in Stone Town until I found the perfect mdele, a brass pitcher for serving coffee, which he helped me bargain for as well! While in Mexico City, I met up with Ruth Alegria, mexicosoulandessence.com, who really gave me a true insight into the city. She has a love for Mexico City that’s infectious. I wouldn’t have the access to places and the same experiences on my own.
5. Do nothing. Take a vacation from your vacation. The Italians called it Il Dolce Far Niente, “the sweetness of doing nothing”. When I first started traveling, I wanted to see everything all at once. Every museum, every statue, every major city in a country needed to be explored all in the expanse of a week. I was afraid I wouldn’t have the chance to go back again. On my first trip to Italy, I couldn’t remember a thing I learned from a morning visit to a small museum, but I do remember spending an afternoon sitting in a piazza having an apertivio (or two) while casually flirting with a cute waiter. And the rumors are true, those Italians can flirt - it’s in their genetic code! Sometimes you can forget that traveling is about breathing in where you are, not ticking a box. It’s one of the best things I can spend money on, so if there’s a reason to go back, I will eat back-to-back peanut butter sandwiches (Jif crunchy) to save up. I’ve been back to Italy six times…and counting.
6. Leave your guidebooks at home. I used to cart around guidebooks, which took up a third of my suitcase. If you are convinced that each of your 10 guidebooks offer unique and vital info, make photocopies of only the sections you’ll need. Lonely Planet can be downloaded a la carte on its website. Better yet, if there’s internet access, you can find everything on the web.
7. Save clippings of hotels, restaurants, excursions, or whatever that interests you. You may not have a trip planned now, but when you do, you will save yourself the headache and time involved when researching. I email things to myself and save them in folders labeled with that particular city or country. I may not go to Morocco for another two or three years, but this way that beautifully designed riad in Marrakech is right at my fingertips whether I’m at home or on the road.
8. Consider shipping valuable items ahead of time so that it doesn’t get lost in the black hole of airport check-ins. After my sister’s suitcase was lost twice, once with her entire bridal trousseau (never to be found and with Air France, I might add), I’ve become a big advocate of paying extra for piece of mind. It’s a little pricey and takes a bit of advance planning to make sure your bags arrive before you do, but at least they will. You can track it and have the option of purchasing insurance, which you can’t do with airlines. UPS, USPS, and Fedex offer a pick-up service, so you don’t have to lug your suitcase to the shipping office. There are also boutique shipping companies like Luggage Free which offer more personalized service.
9. Pre-pack. If I know I’m going on a holiday, a week or two before, I slowly start putting things in a pile that I think may come with me. A dress here and a belt there makes packing less overwhelming. When you’re ready to do your final packing, all you have to do is edit.
10. Keep a travel journal. There have been so many times when I wished I could remember the address of that particular cafe or the name of a person I met. I’ve always been on and off with keeping an everyday journal, but a travel journal has been more manageable. Aspinal of London makes beautiful leather bound journals that’s easy to fold into a handbag or stuff inside hand luggage. It’s also great for sketching, jotting down something funny that someone said, or for notable wines and recipes that I’ve come across. A lot of pages also become a source of entertainment on long train rides for games of M.A.S.H. and hangman. My husband first told me he loved me during a game of hangman on a train. You’d definitely want to write that down!
11. A girlfriend once told me that she lies about when she’s leaving and returning. I haven’t tried it yet, but it sounds intriguing. The trick is to tell yourself and everyone else that you’ll be away the day before and the day after whatever is on your plane ticket. Apparently, it’s really not lying if you’re mentally soaking up the sun in Biarritz. This gives you a quiet extra day to pack and spares those around you from your pre-trip frenzy. The day after you return, you’ll be on a high, unpacking, and not in the mood for checking voicemails and inboxes. Her masseuse is the only one that knows the real return date.