Friends, family and interested persons routinely ask me a lot of travel questions. I love travel, so answering them is easy, up until we get to the ‘secret’ part of the game. Invariably someone will ask me for my best-hidden bit of travel knowledge, which I obviously had been waiting until that very moment to impart. While there are some tricks and not-so-commonly-known aspects of the travel experience, they can all be discovered with five minutes and a Google search. No, what these people are looking for is some secret that will instantly make every part of the travel experience easier, less expensive and more fun. There is one answer to that, but they don’t usually like it. The best travel secret I know is that there aren’t any travel secrets, just common sense.
Some people have made entire careers advising people about how to book cheap flights and using their frequent flyer miles, and that’s fine. But as I said, all of this is somewhat easily discoverable by hunting the web with some well thought out keywords. The easiest way to start the travel planning process and to enjoy your trip more fully is to simply trust your own instincts.
By far the most questions I get about travel secrecy revolve around how to save money when booking a flight, hotel room or a car. The truth is, the best tips are already out there and there’s very little I can do except regurgitate them. Check out Peter Greenberg’s site for great information on what time of day is best to book flights and how to save money on a hotel room. That only gets you so far though. My best advice is to trust your instincts. Buy from reputable sites that you trust or, better yet, use a travel agent you know and trust. These sites may not be the ones I would use, but if you know and trust them that is what’s important. Don’t be lured into suspect and spammy sites at the prospect of saving a few bucks. It’s just not worth it.
If a deal looks too good to be true, it usually is. There’s nothing I hate more than those travel emails promising amazing prices, but that are almost always followed by that dreaded asterisk (*). That one, seemingly innocent punctuation mark announces to the world that everything appearing immediately before it is an unabashed, bald-faced lie. I’ve completely stopped even reading these emails, trying to discern if amongst the lies a deal is to be had. There usually isn’t and instead I’ve only wasted my time.
Always, always read the fine print, whether it’s at the bottom of fare rules with a legacy airline, or as part of a LivingSocial Escape package. Don’t just trust the purveyor of travely goodness that everything will be fine, there can sometimes be really valuable information in the fine print. This is especially true with Groupon and LivingSocial Deals. I’ve written about them specifically in the past and whether or not they’re really good deals, but the annotated version is to thoroughly research every line of fine print and legalese before committing to the purchase. Depending on how the deals are set up, they could be great bargains or travel disasters in the making. Don’t be the person that falls victim to their flashy sales pitches.
This is another popular topic about which people seek advice and sadly, I am neither a security expert nor trained in ancient martial arts. I am, however, marginally self-aware and make an effort to protect myself when traveling. Being cautious doesn’t mean you have to be a scared traveler; far from it. However, a healthy level of paranoia is absolutely a traveler’s best friend. Once again, this is where your common sense will save the day.
When touring about town, try not to look so conspicuous. Believe me, I’m a 6’2” white guy from the US, I don’t exactly blend in amongst the Hmong people of Northern Laos. However, I carry myself in such a way that I hopefully show I know a little bit about what I’m doing. Dress appropriately to the region. Look around you and take note of what people are wearing. If shorts are nowhere to be seen, there’s probably a reason for that. In many parts of the world they’re considered to be too revealing. Tourists will almost always be forgiven this sin, but why give people something to forgive? If it’s a hot destination, buy a lightweight pair of hiking pants or similar from an outdoors outfitter. I have a pair that have been absolutely invaluable throughout my travels and are actually lighter and more comfortable to wear than shorts.
Once again, trust your instincts. Humans aren’t that far removed from our more primal ways and generally we know when something just doesn’t feel right. Trust this instinct; it’s almost always right. I, like many other tourists, have been guilty of ignoring that nagging feeling in the back of my head and usually to my own detriment. If you don’t put yourself in dicey situations, then you’re more likely to stay out of danger.
Trusting your instincts is also valuable when trying to find something to eat while traveling. I’m always confuzzled when asked for a restaurant recommendation in places like Paris or Rome. That’s probably because I’m not a high-end, five star kind of consumer. If you are, then this section doesn’t apply to you and you should continue reading your copy of Zagat’s.
When I travel, I pick an area of town that looks promising and scope out restaurants. I’ve had hundreds of wonderful meals in Paris but with only a few exceptions, I can’t tell you the name of one restaurant where I’ve eaten. The same holds true in almost every other place I visit. Maybe it’s me, maybe other travelers are more aware of their culinary surroundings, but I don’t think it’s something important to worry about when you travel. And here’s why.
Let’s say you’re visiting Bangkok and a friend gives you the name of a restaurant they think you’d like. That may sound good from the comforts of home, but once you’re on the ground, touring about town things change. Your surroundings, energy levels and ability to find street names all dictate whether or not you’ll actually eat at that restaurant. I’ve tried before and it’s never worked out. Sometimes I get lost but usually I pass by another establishment that looks just as good or better. And that’s the fun of it really; discovering these restaurants for yourself is a big part of the exploration and fun of the travel experience. Overly scripting it takes away the fun and only adds unnecessary complications.
These are just a few ways in which the last piece of travel advice you will ever need can be used, but it can also extrapolated across the travel spectrum. You’ll be surprised how effective you can be as a traveler by just relying on your instincts and common sense. Travel can be intimidating at times, but you are your best resource if you learn to trust your intuition and remember to always have a fun time.