Travel Blogger Jessica Festa shared some helpful travel tips to follow for your next destination.
I’ve been semi-nomadic now for about seven and-and half years, and looking back on my time on the road, I’ve learned a lot about how to make the most of any trip.
In fact, if you don’t learn something out of all that time spent bumping up against new cultures, seeing completely new sights, tackling logistical challenges, and bouncing back from inevitable snafus, you’re doing it wrong.
Because when you spend all that time spent surrounded by different cultures, seeing completely new sights, tasting completely new food, and bouncing back from inevitable snafus, you’re bound to learn how to do it better the next time. Fortunately for you, I’ve already gone through a lot of the trial and error. Here are my ten tips for making any trip a success.
1. Be flexible.
Don’t assume that because something is acceptable in your home country that it is okay in the destination you’re visiting. For example, when I visited an onsen (hot spring baths) in Japan there were 1,001 rules attached to the experience — or at least it felt like it as a Westerner. Why did it matter if my towel touched the water? Did I really have to go in naked? My shoes had to be taken off before I walked into the changing room? To the locals, I’m sure this all seemed like second nature, but to me I was afraid I would sneeze and offend someone (among other things, which you can read more about here).
It works the other way, too. When I was in Ghana people were constantly shouting oberoni (foreigner) at me and touching my skin without permission, which I found intrusive but I was told by my homestay mom meant they were just curious about me and trying to start a conversation.
Bottom line? It’s important to be open-minded when traveling and realize not all cultural interactions mean the same thing or are taken the same way.
2. It never hurts to ask.
People are always afraid to ask for things they need, but unless it’s something offensive it probably won’t hurt — and you may just be pleasantly surprised. Recently on a trip to Japan my flight was delayed by five hours. Politely, I asked the Air China representative at the ticket counter if I could have lounge access for free in return for my troubles.
“No, sorry,” he shook his head apologetically…but we can bump you up to First Class. There’s an empty seat.“
Just think. If I hadn’t asked I would have had to sleep sitting up for my 18-hour flight. Instead, I enjoyed a bed, entertainment, and great food for no extra charge.
3. Just because an experience is offered doesn’t mean you should do it.
When I was 22 and not yet working in the world of tourism and responsible travel, I booked an elephant ride in Thailand. In my mind, if a tour operator was offering something it had to be safe and responsible. This was anything but. Seeing these enormous creatures chained to fences and being beaten with bullhooks made me sick to my stomach, and I was actually in tears afterward thinking, “What have I just done?”
Do your research before booking an experience, especially a wildlife or volunteer experience. Ask questions about the care of the animals, and how the tours affect their well-being. If volunteering, are you taking the job of a local? Are you truly qualified for the job? How are funds allocated? Every time you travel you make an impact. Be sure it’s a positive one.
4. There’s nothing wrong with craving the comforts of home.
I’m all about going local. Local accommodations, local food, local souvenirs. Sometimes, however, you just crave the comforts of home. When I was in Ghana, Africa, the food and I did not agree with each other. I was living with a family and eating all home-cooked meals, which was an experience I wouldn’t trade for the world, but I was really starting to crave familiar food. It got to the point where I took a two-hour bus ride to the capital just to get some mall pizza.
It was the best thing I ever tasted in my life.
There’s nothing wrong with craving what you’re used to once in a while. Just make sure you’re not eating McDonald’s 24/7 or only eating at international establishments.
5. Nothing beats a homestay.
Whether you use a website like CouchSurfing or Homestay.com or book a tour where a homestay is the accommodation choice, nothing beats staying with a local family on the road. Homestays allow you to truly experience the destination through the eyes of a local, from their morning rituals to how they prepare the food (which you’ll get to eat!) to where they would spend a lazy afternoon. These are the types of personal and authentic experiences you’ll remember way longer than the touristy sites you snapped photos of.
6. Technology is both a curse and a blessing.
I’ve written many times about my feelings on technology and travel. While it’s typically about the negative side of technology, I do also see the benefit (trust me, I do plenty of Instagramming on the road). Technology can be extremely useful for staying in touch, planning outings along the way, meeting locals for homestays through Couchsurfing, scoring last-minute hotel deals via HotelTonight, and capturing dramatic photos with Pro HDR. That said, being engrossed in technology can also be a curse.
When your eyes are glued to your phone screen, you miss out on noticing small interactions and glimpses into the local culture — and sometimes even bucket-list-worthy sightings. I remember a trip to the Galapagos Islands where I had befriended my dive boat guide, who took me to a secluded beach, a local favorite. We were sitting on a rock, immersed in beautiful scenery when I heard him scream, “Holy sh*t! Did you see that?!”
“See what?!” I jumped out, squinting frantically to see what he did, spying nothing but crystal blue water.
His hands were still over his mouth, his eyes wide. “A shark just jumped out of the water! It was insane! I’m a dive instructor and I’ve maybe seen that once before.”
I wanted to cry. I’d missed it because I’d been on Instagram.
7. It always pays to befriend locals.
Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love meeting other backpackers and exchanging tales from the road; however, meeting locals is how you’ll really get to know a place — not to mention that they’ll often clue you in to unique beyond-the-guidebook experiences and deals.
For example, that dive operator I mentioned above was also a ticket seller on the local ferry, which meant that I got to join him and island hop around the Galapagos for free.
8. You don’t need to see everything.
I get major anxiety traveling with people who feel the need to cram 100 activities into every single day. I’m the type of person who likes to enjoy a morning activity and maybe an afternoon activity — as well as a nap — before heading out for dinner and dancing. I want to enjoy my day and immerse myself in what I’m exploring without feeling rushed. Sometimes I’ll give my trip, or certain days, a theme. For example, farms. In that case I’d focus on the agriculture of the destination, really getting to know its natural food landscape and small purveyors and skipping the rest. I’d rather leave the destination feeling transformed and educated in some way than be able to say I saw 100 sites for two seconds each.
9. Look at food as more than just nourishment.
I absolutely love food and the way it introduces me to local cultures. Even if it’s something I normally wouldn’t eat at home (like cuy in Ecuador), I appreciate it because I see food as a gateway into culture. Next time you’re eating abroad, ask yourself why they’re using particular ingredients. Is there a reason for the spices? What does it have to do with the landscape? The people? You’ll start to gain insight into why people do the things they do.
10. Take public transport.
Taxis might be more convenient, but in most cities the locals aren’t using what’s convenient. They’re using what’s cheap. Not only will you guarantee yourself an adventure taking local transport, you’ll understand the residents better.