Do This, Not That – Travel Edition

Whatever our background and wherever we travel, we are all constantly confronted with decisions that can have a significant impact on our trip, both in our enjoyment as well as how much we spend. Here are some typical travel crossroads and how you should proceed in order to make your trip more fun and affordable.

DO use public transportation, DO NOT take cabs
Even if I had a limitless travel budget I would still take public transportation for the unique cultural experiences it provides. Public transportation is also a great way to save a lot of money when on vacation. Obviously, this is easier to accomplish in an urban setting where there are a variety of options including subway and bus. Not only is it infinitely cheaper than renting a car or taking taxis everywhere, but it can be faster depending where you are. I know that in my hometown of Washington, DC, it takes me less time to metro into town than it does to drive. Also, for the green traveler, public transportation is key in minimizing your travel carbon footprint.

Churros con chocolate, Madrid
Yummy churros con chocolate

DO ask locals for restaurants, DO NOT eat near tourist areas
One of the most important aspects of the travel experience is food. There is no better way to learn about a culture than by participating in meal-time rituals and sampling the same culinary staples as the people who live there. If you are gone for a week, your opportunities to participate in this experience are limited, so don’t waste your time. While it’s fine to eat at McDonald’s or something similar once or twice, don’t make this a habit. Instead, seek out the street stalls, cafes and restaurants that will provide you with rich, meaningful food memories. In Paris try a crepe; in Madrid snack on churros and in Singapore don’t miss the hawker stands. These experiences don’t have to be expensive and the most meaningful ones will be some of the cheapest. While touring the city or area, take note of small bistros or food stands that aren’t too pricey, but which can provide an authentic food experience. Better yet, check out the street food offerings. Some of the best meals I’ve consumed anywhere in the world have been eaten while standing up.

DO shop at supermarkets, DO NOT buy anything from your hotel

Hotels have mastered the art of convincing their guests to spend more money than they intend. That’s fine, I like capitalism, but I don’t like wasting money. Before you even leave home, ask your hotel to either remove or empty the mini bar; that way you won’t be tempted by $7 Mars bars late at night. After you check in to your hotel, walk around the neighborhood and find the local convenience and grocery stores. These neighborhood institutions will be your best resources for saving money on food. I always stock up on water, Diet Coke and some snacks to pack for day-long sightseeing adventures. It’s better to buy these items at a neighborhood store instead of a tourist souvenir stand where the prices will be double or triple normal.

Grocery stores are also a fantastic way to gaze into the stomach of a new country. I first started visiting supermarkets as a way to save money on sodas, water and snacks. It became quickly apparent though that the visit was about much more than just saving money. While perusing a store on the outskirts of Madrid last year, I noticed something odd. There wasn’t just a nice selection of olive oil, there was an entire olive oil section. Hundreds of different kinds lining at least two rows in the huge store. Obviously the Spanish mean business when it comes to good oil. Many groceries are pretty generic, but there are always regional oddities that pop out and reveal a lot about the area.

Creative Commons License photo credit: French Disko

DO use debit and credit cards, DO NOT use traveler’s cheques
When traveling overseas, the best exchange rate is found through the nearest ATM. It is a financial and safety mistake to withdraw your entire travel budget before leaving home, with the intention of exchanging it overseas. You also won’t have the best rate using traveler’s cheques. Instead, you should plan on withdrawing money a couple of times while on your trip. The problem with this however are the fees associated with this practical travel behavior. Some countries, such as Thailand, attach a charge on all foreign debit cards regardless of bank or location. Not only will you sometimes incur charges from the ATM bank, but you may also be charged by your own bank. The best way to avoid all of these fees is to first find a bank with minimal or no fees for ATM withdrawals. One of the best products available to beat these fees is the Charles Schwab Credit Card. In addition to not charging their customers for international withdrawals, they also reimburse for fees incurred at other banks. That means you can access your money for free; novel concept, right? If you’re worried about being charged at a higher interest rate for cash withdrawals, then prepay your travel budget on the card so that you are essentially using it as a debit card. Even better, if you want to use the card as a traditional credit card, there are no extra exchange fees for international purchases, unlike most other banks.

DO be a tourist, DO NOT miss out on important experiences
Popular tourist attractions are popular for a reason. They are usually unique experiences that everyone should enjoy. Some people may want to shy away from the crowds and avoid looking like a tourist, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Unless you have permanently relocated to a new city, everyone is a tourist and there is nothing wrong with enjoying some of the cheesy activities that make certain areas of the world fun and unique. In Paris you should see the Eiffel Tower and in London a trip to the Tower Bridge is a must-do activity.

But don’t stop there. In Paris, rent a bike one day and see the city on two wheels, take the train out to the Fontainebleau Forest for some hiking or take a cooking lesson in the heart of the city. Do some research, think creatively and seek out experiences that will create a more robust, and fun, vacation. Don’t limit yourself to the top ten landmarks in your guidebook, instead look around you and find ways to step back and REALLY experience the area.


What are your favorite Do This, Not That travel tips?

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By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer. Also follow Matt on Twitter, Facebook and

17 Responses

  1. Bryan Snider

    Matt,

    I completely agree with you on everything above. In cities like London or Paris the public transportation systems are amazing that it would be pointless to rent a car, or hire a taxi.

    One of my favorite things to do in a foreign place is to be on the public transportation systems. I think its so special to watch families interact, or see school children getting on the trains to go home or to go to school.

    In cities like Paris, or London the buses are a great way to see the city. I know in London I enjoy getting on a double decker and go to the top and get a great view of the city. £1.00 is much cheaper than the £25.00 they charge for a bus tour. Yes you may get a pre recorded audio guide, but most of the time I find these really cheesy.

    The only exception to public transportation in my opinion would be in London. I think every visitor should at least take one cab ride a short distance to experience the beauty of wonderful cabbies in London. They are very knowledgable, and could serve as a very special city guide if you were able to negotiate a fair price.

    As far as the food is concerned I purposely avoid eating anywhere near a tourist spot. I remember one time in rome I saw Gelato for €6.00 right next to the Roman Forum. They were happy to sell you the overpriced Gelato, but didn’t do much more than that.

    However just down the streets away from the forum I found a mom and pop gelato bar and man it was special. They owners were so happy to serve my wife and I, and gave us so many free samples. I think we spent €1.00 each.

    Finally I like how you pointed out about debit/credit cards. Personally I make ATM withdrawls from ATMs all over the world. I haven’t had one problem, and I get the actual Forex Market exchange rate. Plus I love how my Bank Wells fargo only charges me $3.00 to make a foreign ATM withdrawl, but not one ATM in Europe or Africa has charged me to use the ATM.

    Anyways thanks for the great blog. I really enjoy reading it.

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      Thanks, I appreciate that. And I agree, eating anywhere near a tourist spot is a huge mistake. Bad food at high prices.

      Reply
  2. Debbie Beardsley

    These were great points and I can’t take exception to any of them!

    Has anyone experienced issues with using ATM/Credit Cards in Europe because our cards still use the magnetic strip and not chip?

    I like to enjoy walking tours in cities. They narrowly focus on a much smaller area, are usually not too expensive (some are free) and are a great way to experience the history of an individual neighborhood!

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      I’ve never had that problem with cards in Europe, although I do read a lot about it LOL

      Reply
    • Kelsey

      I’ve never had a problem with it.

      Reply
  3. Chris R

    Great tips! I agree with all of them, and to add to your list I’d say:

    DO wander aimlessly, DO NOT have your head in a map.
    Some of my best travel experiences have been when I’ve left the guidebook and map at home and just let the day unfold as I wandered around. Of course, this is best if you’re sure that you’re in a safe area, but otherwise- go forth and wander!

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      Getting lost is a great way to experience a new place and see what it’s really like, thanks for adding that!

      Reply
    • Ellen

      I always wander aimlessly. Mostly because I suck at reading maps. It seems to work out for the best most of the time, as it increases the chance for seeing something you didn’t already know about.

      Reply
      • Matt Long

        Ha! I’m horrible at reading maps too, I mean awful. Decided to turn it into an advantage, like you! 🙂

  4. John

    Matt, I’m another one that agrees with the general advice in this post. Of course there are exceptions to everything, personally I prefer to walk when it is a viable option to public transport, but like your Paris advice, hiring a bike for a day can be great, whenever it is available.
    Although you posted a heading related to supermarkets, your content seems to be about grocery stores and the like. The local farmers’ market is also a superb place to shop as you often get fresh, organic, locally sourced produce and by buying there your money goes to local producers.
    The last point is a no brainer. We are tourists by default, but everyone one of us is different. I agree with the sentiment of don’t miss out on something because it is too touristic. However, I would say that if you don’t enjoy crowds or you want some peace and quiet without long queues, then you don’t have to partake of the Eiffel Tower. If you visit Paris and don’t get a glimpse of it then I can recommend my optician. Also following on with the money saving advice, I would not recommend paying to go to the top of it for the view unless you want to. I would instead suggest your favourite touron spot and climb up the Butte de Montmartre and take in a view of the city from there or failing that Tour Montparnasse. Just as restaurants near the sights are expensive, so are the attractions. Often there are cheaper alternatives elsewhere. That said, if you have always wanted to see sunset from the top of the Eiffel Tower or to take a gondola in Venice then don’t let the price put you off.

    @Chris R, I love wandering but it depends where you are and how much time you have. Lots of folks on vacation don’t have the luxury of being able to discover a city by wandering. The advice I would give is to travel slower and try not to get too many destinations ticked off or whatever you goals are. That way you will have just as much fun, but won’t be able to come home and say that you added X number of cities, countries or UNESCO sites to your tally, but you will have reduced your carbon footprint but not your enjoyment.
    If you are in Paris for a day and wander around aimlessly, you will certainly have an enjoyable day. However if you have researched a place beforehand and decide that you really want to see a particular location, then a map is pretty useful. I am gifted with a great sense of direction so I take a look at the map at the start of the day then head in that direction and usually find it straight away. If I don’t I usually discover other interesting places on my quest and if I fail miserably I can ask a local or refer to the map again. Maps and guide books can make your travel efficient. An army that goes to war without a map invariably loses the war.

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      Thanks for the thoughtful comments, I really appreciate them. Just as a note, I was using supermarkets and grocery stores interchangeably; sorry for any confusion.

      Reply
  5. Lee

    I agree with DO shop at local supermarkets – when I travel I love checking out the local groceries and markets – you find all kinds of interesting things, meet interesting people and save money!

    I also agree with Chris above – wandering around a city and getting ‘lost’ is always fun – you never know who or what you will find.

    Reply
    • Kelsey

      I love this too. It’s really a great window into a culture!

      Reply
  6. jade

    Okay, first of all- chocolate churros… are you kidding me?!
    Great sound advice- I love walking (hate taking cabs since you just never know what you’re going to pay) and really love shopping at markets. Another tip I might add is Eat a big lunch, small Dinner. Most fancier places have great lunch deals and it’s the same food as at night for dinner. We have tried some really great places this way!

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      I refuse to say just how many times we had chocolate churros while in Madrid. 🙂 Let’s just say they know me by name.

      Reply
  7. Heather in Lapland

    you never get such good people watching opportunities as you do on public transport. One of the highlights of any trip is to go to the local food shops and markets and have a good nosey around at all the different stuff. Great article.

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      Thank you and I totally agree. I’d like to think of myself as an Olympic level people watcher. 🙂

      Reply

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