For the first time in awhile I went on a long vacation to a developing country – Thailand. I was so looking forward to two weeks somewhere very unlike America.
Loads of new things were just waiting to be discovered. I could break out my rusty bargaining skills and pore over maps of unfamiliar landscapes -get lost in a completely new culture. So ready!
It was an amazing break and I loved every minute – even the not so great ones. But, here are the things I need to remember every time I travel to a new country.
- Guidebooks just ain’t what they used to be
I don’t know if I’ve become more jaded over time or if my previous bible for travel, Lonely Planet, has really gone downhill. Every year, the guidebooks for each country just get bigger and bigger – they may be getting paid by the word now. To me, most if what’s in guidebooks is essentially useless. Every place, no matter how random or “off-the-beaten-path” is now worthy of a chapter. Unless you’re living somewhere for years and need to know the minutia of every city, guesthouse and site, guidebooks are only useful for plotting a general course and maybe a place to stay – and even that is usually a crapshoot. On this trip, a friend got advice from a local of where to stay. The guidebook listed it as barely worth noting – it turned out to be a piece of paradise – that leads me to my point number 2.
What to do? I’ll take a friend of a friend of a friend’s advice over a guidebook, anytime. Another idea is to read some guidebooks from other countries – perhaps they tell Swedish people or Canadians something different – it will certainly give you a different perspective.
- Tripadvisor, hardly worth the effort – with caveats
Ok, I’ll admit it, I’m one of their so-called top contributors and I can’t help myself, I always check out the reviews of somewhere I’m interested in traveling on this site – can’t help myself…BUT – boy there are a lot of deluded or just plain out of it reviewers. Since when was a bad internet connection in your room on an island in the middle of nowhere a bad thing? I’m truly astounded at the number of bad reviews for places I’ve stayed that were dead wrong. I do not know what planet most Tripadvisor reviewers are on, but apparently, it’s not the same as the one I live on. You can spend hours on this site and only become more paranoid and frantic trying to plan that once and only visit for your precious time off.
What to do? Use Tripadvisor or any other review site with an eye toward general information only – search the internet for other reviews and don’t forget to actually visit the internet site for the hotel, destination or attraction. It’s amazing what you can read between the lines from the original website.
- Booking Engines are not equal
This links to #2 – While I don’t book things on Tripadvisor, I had become a bit of a Booking.com junkie. No more. I’m not saying Booking.com is a bad site, not at all, in fact, it’s one of my favorite sites for hotels and you’ll even find a link to it on this site. However, let me give you one example. I did my due diligence, spent hours on TripAdvisor and Booking.com to find a hotel on the island of Koh Lanta in Thailand. It was a great hotel but once we arrived, not for us for various reasons. It was high season. About 80% of all hotels on the island and neighboring Ko Phi Phi were booked – and what was left on Booking.com did not look so great. I then panicked and spent a good 2 hours walking around the island to nearby hotels – all booked. In desperation, I decided to click on one of those pesky advertisements on booking.com’s sidebar for Agoda.com – guess what, there was a room on that site for my island (the last one) not available on Booking.com.
What to do? Don’t get into a booking rut. Make sure you try out several booking engines to compare prices and availability.
- a) Directions in a new city will be many and varied
I am so used to using my trusty I-phone gps to get me everywhere at home that I don’t even think about good, old-fashioned maps anymore. Well, guess what, they’re still useful. When you find yourself navigating the winding alleyways and streets of an ancient city like Bangkok, the gps simply can’t keep up. I spent a good hour attempting to depend on my phone’s gps before giving up and asking for directions in the maze of old Bangkok.
What to do? As soon as you land pick up a good tourist map of the city. They’ll be available at the tourist kiosk in the airport. This is typically better than the guidebook map as it will have all the major attractions that you’re likely to want to see – bring the small guidebook maps (page by page) for further detail.
- b) Directions from cabbies and strangers will vary widely
Ok, I’m not trying to say that everyone you meet is either stupid or malicious but – you say tomato, I say tomato, if you know what I mean. I have even found this in my home country. What to one person is 3 lefts and a right, to another is a right and 3 lefts. Often when someone has given me the wrong directions, I wish there was some way to go back and tell them, you’re not helping me if you don’t know the way! Of course, you could never find this random stranger who gave you the wrong directions again because you’re lost!
What to do? My theory, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, is to ask the person a few different ways for the directions. Make them really have to think about it instead of just sending you off down the road with some half-assed or briefly considered answer. Another idea is to keep asking a few people on the way to your destination.
- Dealing with foreign currency is the easiest way to lose money
My rule of thumb is that for the first 3 days in any country you are vulnerable to being ripped off. It takes about that long for you to get familiar with all those pesky colors and sizes and weird looking coins. Sometimes, people will take advantage of that and sometimes you will stupidly give them the wrong amount or not count your change properly and it will be either their fault or yours.
What to do? Slow down. Don’t let anyone intimidate you into rushing through your count either when handing them money or taking your change. This is not an insult to either one of you; it’s simply you spending one more minute to be accurate. If they don’t have the time to wait, that just might be a red flag.
- Bargaining is expected in many countries
I love bargaining and even pride myself on it a little bit. However, I’m so used to going to stores in America and not bargaining (although I know people do it here – but it can seem a little gauche at times) that it takes me a bit to realize when I travel, oh yeah, I can ask to buy that for less and it’s perfectly acceptable. In fact, often it’s a good-natured game and it’s actually gauche not to do it. Plus, if you don’t bargain, you’re ruining it for the next tourist who comes along since you caused the prices to go up due to your inability to negotiate (this seems to particularly apply to Americans).
What to do? Remember that bargaining is a give and take negotiation. It’s often expected and you’re improving the reputation of Americans if you can do it well and respectfully abroad.
- Scams can happen to all of us
This one’s tough to write, I’ll admit. I have traveled far and wide in “easy” countries and “hard” countries and every time I think, I’ll never get scammed again; I’ve seen it all. Well, the first day on my last trip, I managed to allow 3 of the top 6 scams noted in Lonely Planet’s guide to the country. I was more than mad – I was deeply embarrassed. How could it happen to me – globe trotting, bargain-hunting, savvy traveler that I am? I’ll tell you why. I’m human. We all make mistakes. Sometimes these are big ones that put you in a dangerous situation and sometimes they just lose you a bit of time and money and you have a funny story to tell. Mine was the latter, thankfully.
What to do? I was so surprised by my lapse in judgement I really had to think about how to prevent it next time around even when you’re jet-lagged, delirious and you’ve let your guard down. Literally, bring a piece of paper with you listing the top tourist scams for that country (I hate to say it but Lonely Planet always lists them) and read it before you land and before you head out on your first outing. It needs to be top of mind until you get your bearings and enough sleep.
- Don’t be afraid to speak up if something doesn’t feel right
I think some of us are taught to be humble or too trusting or whatever and think it’s rude to challenge someone or ask too many questions. Wrong. You’re in a foreign country, you’re a little vulnerable and even if the other guy speaks your language, things often get lost in translation. Sometimes, you even have to be “rude” and exercise your perfect right to disagree. You may not always be right but in the end you’ll get what you need whether it be the correct answer or to have them drop you off at the right guesthouse – not just the one they think they heard you say. In fact, scammers often count on you not speaking up to either rip you off or bully you into something.
What to do? Never be afraid to ask a question or insist on an answer. It is your right.
- Some places are “off the beaten track” for a good reason
Ok, I get it; all of us hardcore travelers are looking for that hidden gem, somewhere wonderful that’s yet to be discovered. Forget it. I really hate to say this but there is no Shangri-La. Sometimes, you may avoid places that the guidebooks say are overrun and too popular and just maybe there’s a good reason for it – it’s spectacular and gorgeous and it’s overrun because it’s like nowhere else on earth. You may or may not want to go but if you go to the place that’s up and coming or not that popular, there’s probably a really good reason.
What to do? This is a tough one. Brave the crowds and try and enjoy what once or currently makes it so special or avoid it and go somewhere that may be just so-so. You can have a good time in either place. This time it’s about attitude. Choose your perception.
- No tourist excursion is as good as an ordinary day with a local
I’ve relied on tourist excursions and I have no regrets, mostly. However, if there is any way you can find a local who will take you in for the day or for a dinner at his house, anything that allows you to get a glimpse of a day in the life, forgo that tourist tour to “the amazing place you have to go.” My best moments traveling have always been time shared with a local in country. Making a connection with another culture and having time to talk about ordinary stuff is the best.
What to do? Ask anyone you know if they have any personal contacts in the country they might introduce you to. If you don’t have a personal contact, think about doing one of the homestays or farmstays offered through an agency. Google homestays abroad or try out WWOOF.
Comments, questions? – now it’s your turn – what are your travel tips?