There are many in the world whose feet will never pass beyond the borders of the country in which they were born, who won’t get the chance to travel in their lifetimes. We who do have this chance are lucky, and should seek to make each trip we take a great and memorable experience.
I love traveling. I’ve been doing it since before I could walk and will continue until the day I can walk no more. I hope that, with a life of travel behind me, I have learned some lessons that could help others just starting out, or those who don’t yet feel they are getting the most from their travel experiences. The following are my 5 tips for planning unforgettable trips.
1) Make a plan… but leave some room.
The answers to the question of how much to plan fall somewhere along a continuum between 2 extremes. The first of these is not to plan at all but to simply show up and “fly by the seat of your pants”. The other? To plan each day in such great detail that barely a minute is unaccounted for.In my opinion, a mixture of some planned activities and some “free time” is ideal. When nothing is planned, a traveler runs the risk of missing events they would really have liked to do. They may arrive to find that the event is all booked up, or that they have missed it because they did not plan to be in the right place at the right time. Having said that, some of the best travel stories begin with such phrases as “remember that time we got lost and stumbled across that…”. Leave yourself some free time to explore and find adventure because undoubtedly when you get to a new country you will see things that you will want to add to your “to do” list. Ideally – research ahead of time, pick a few “must see’s” and book them if needed, but leave room to improvise.
2) Get into the culture.
You have not experienced a country if you have only experienced your hotel. Many people, especially first-time travelers, fall into the trap of being afraid to get out and explore. This fear of the unknown is understandable, but I guarantee that you will miss out if you allow it to prevail. With some planning and research, you can safely get out among the country’s people and see their culture and how they live, and these are valuable lessons that you will carry with you for the rest of your life. Some topics to research: security precautions necessary, social norms that you need to be aware of, and what cultural events will be going on while you are there. It is even great to learn a few words and phrases in the local language.
When you arrive, speak to staff and other guests at the hotel (and of course to locals as well). Find out what they recommend and what they have seen already. If safety is one of your top concerns, consider a guided tour – usually hotel staff can help you book these.
This is a matter of preference, but I prefer to avoid “all-inclusive” hotels where possible (I realize that this is not always possible…). The reason is that when staying at one of these I often feel tempted to return to the hotel for meals in order to save money, and as a result miss out on opportunities to explore as well as to savor more local meals. Experiencing the food of a different country is a wonderful (and often interesting) experience and can present many opportunities for my next suggestion which is…
3) Challenge yourself.
Once you venture out of your hotel you will learn about a different country, its people and how they live their lives. However, another type of learning that is less talked-about, but equally valuable and life-changing, is what you will learn about yourself. You will be presented with chances to challenge your values, your stereotypes, and the things that you find important in life. If you embrace these chances, travel will truly enrich your life.
An open mind is key to this, but another key is to challenge yourself by pushing slightly beyond your boundaries and “comfort zone”. Each person is different and you will know where these boundaries lie for you. For some, a challenge may involve sky-diving or eating bugs, but for others it may be as simple as trying a dance class, speaking a few words in a different language to a stranger, swimming in the ocean instead of the pool, or ordering from a menu using the “close-your-eyes-and-point” technique (one of my personal favorites!). Remember that your trip does not have to turn into an episode of “Fear Factor” for you to challenge yourself successfully. Find your boundaries and push a little past them – you will feel proud and empowered and be left with great lifelong memories.
4) Keep a sense of humor.
Your attitude and response to events can absolutely make or break a trip, and often one of the best things a traveler can pack is a good sense of humor. Because – let’s face it – weird stuff is bound to happen when you travel (this is part of the fun!) Even 5-star resorts are not immuned to things like bugs, bathing-suit debacles, and awkward language-barrier misunderstandings. For example, I recently found myself in battle with a 2 inch cockroach in a fancy 5-star hotel in the Caribbean (a battle which I am proud to say I eventually won!) A great traveler is able to laugh at such episodes, knowing that they will make for great stories later on and are not worth ruining a trip over.
Try your best to stay open-minded and do not expect things to be just like at home. The whole reason for travel is to experience something new, and things are done differently in different parts of the world, sometimes surprisingly differently. Try to remain respectful even when frustrated. You are an advertisement for your own country when you are overseas, and one of the first questions locals will ask is where you are from. It is also best to try to view things as an optimist does and put a positive spin on the situation. Someone I know who used to rent out a condo on a Caribbean island was amazed by some things that tenants would complain about while staying in what can only be described as a tropical paradise. One even complained that he didn’t like the sound of the ocean at night while he slept. It is difficult to enjoy a trip and make memories coming in with this attitude. Open-mindedness, respect, adventurousness, curiosity and humor are all keys to successful travel.
5) Come prepared.
Proper preparation is key while traveling to maintain your health and safety. I recommend researching health concerns, required security precautions, weather, and any possible civil unrest in the country. I like to check out the “CIA World Factbook” which can be found online and contains a wide range of information on each country.
It is a good idea to ensure that before you go you have all potential dental and medical concerns dealt with and all prescriptions up-to-date, and that you know what to do in the case of an emergency. A travel consultation with a doctor can enlighten you about vaccinations needed for that country, as well as the health risks there. They can recommend the appropriate precautions and prescribe any necessary medication such as antimalarials or antibiotics.
Know what is safe regarding food and water in your country of choice since these can lead to traveler’s diarrhea which can ruin a trip for an afflicted traveler. While you want your trip to be memorable, you do not want this to be because of gastrointestinal acrobatics or record-breaking numbers of trips to the bathroom/head/loo/john/toilette or even doctor. Likewise when it comes to sun exposure – ensure that you use sunscreen since a bad sunburn can ruin a trip as well. By preparing adequately you can ensure that you avoid these traveling annoyances.
In conclusion, I hope that you find these tips useful and that you enjoy many years of happy traveling!