After ten years of being a travel blogger, I've learned some important travel lessons - and I bet you can relate to all of them. From toilets to temperature control, these are the ten things I know for sure about travel.
I like to pretend that this photo represents me at my best as a travel blogger. I'm crumpled, dusty, and sunburned, clearly exhausted as I slump in the back of a Land Rover, a water purification bottle within easy reach. It's the kind of photo that suggests I could be fatigued from any number of glamorous, travel blogger-y tasks. Maybe I was up at dawn to interview a farmer or worked through the night to "research" local liqueurs. It definitely doesn't suggest that my stomach is churning from the bumpy, twisting road or that I'd sell my soul for a working toilet. And most travel images are like that. There can be a lot of irksome truths behind soothing composition.
After ten years of travel blogging, I've learned a thing or two about what a photo really says and a whole lot about what travel is truly like. I've picked up a lot of hard earned wisdom in this job and I'm here to share my biggest lessons. After a decade of jaunting and jetting, this is what I know for sure about travel.
When in doubt, pay for the air conditioning
I can hear your protests already. "You want us to abandon homey little inns in favour of huge corporate hotels!" "Uh, hello! Half the world is cold enough as is. Have you ever been to Scotland in February?" and the ever-classic "You North Americans think everything should be as cold as a Florida mall".
I'm not suggesting you abandon your travel dreams or common sense just because there's a dearth of air conditioned properties, nor should you turn down opportunities to step outside your comfort zone. But when faced with the choice between spending an extra ten dollars or going without AC, take the splurge. Anyone who has done otherwise while spending the summer in Athens will back me up all the way on this.
Incidentally, some travel advice I read more than twenty years ago still holds true for me. If you're feeling miserable or sick, upgrading your accommodations makes all the difference. Sometimes the best medicine in the world is a place with climate control, cable television, and 24 hour room service (oh, and a toilet that just won't quit).
All things being equal, choose an airport hotel over a town hotel & early taxi
Ah, the humble layover. Those awkward 18 or 23 hour gaps that so many travellers find off-putting are our bread and butter, the reason we've seen so many wonderful cities around the world. But they do come with some awkward flight times. I've come to realize that if you have an early morning flight after a layover, you are better off heading to the airport late at night and staying at an airport-adjacent property instead of sleeping in town and catching a super-early taxi.
It can be very tempting to stay, say, in the heart of Istanbul like we did, having the entire night open to eat, drink, and be merry without watching the clock. But then you have to contend with waking up extra early (always nerve-wracking when a flight is on the line), finding a taxi (because are you really going to rely on the sporadic schedule of pre-dawn public transit?), and being "on" when you're just starting your day. But if you head to your airport hotel after a full night, you may very well be able to take a frugal form of public transit (or not be too worried if you need to wait for another bus), find a taxi with ease, and have a much more relaxing start to your day.
Note that when I say "airport hotel", I don't mean properties that are necessarily attached to an airport or are designed for you to sleep in the airport without having ever cleared customs. I'm talking about nondescript business hotels that are located within a few miles of the airport and specialize in serving departing passengers. Don't make my mistake and pay extra for a property that boasts a free shuttle - but said shuttle doesn't start until long after your flight.
Along the same lines, we've learned after a lot of trial and error that, if we have a layover of less than 24 hours, we need to decide on the main activity we want to do and THEN book our accommodations nearby. Not that it wasn't interesting to try to make our way across Johannesburg and Bangkok at rush hour but in each case, we spent several precious hours of our limited time on the ground on getting between our "deal" of a hotel and our dream travel activity. Time is money!
Bring - and wear - your sunscreen
You know what's expensive to buy in Ottawa each February? Sunscreen. You know what feels worse than paying for out-of-season products? A raging sunburn in Hawaii or Sydney.
I know, I know. You're going to save yourself five or eight dollars and buy it when you arrive. Heck, they'll even have a better selection of product and sizes. It's a sensible decision. Except the drug store by your hotel never seems to be open when you're around and Hawaiian ABC convenience stores are priced to take advantage of tourists in precisely this situation. There's a reason their nickname is "Anything But Cheap!"
There's no way to make this sound less boring and adult-y. Bring your sunscreen. Wear your sunscreen.
Don't assume you have the stomach for (fill in the blank)
I've come to the conclusion that there are two kinds of travellers (and travel bloggers). There are those who don't hesitate to ingest hallucinogenic frog essence and those who go "Ohh, look! A bookstore!"
I'll let you guess which category I fit into.
I jest, mostly. It's not like the travel community is divided into only daredevils and anti-adventurists (a title I say we should wear with pride). But sometimes the voice of the daredevils worm their way into your head and you suddenly assume you can get away with the same crazy things they do with an easy grace. For instance, despite a lifetime of evidence that proves I CANNOT survive a booze cruise and that I am USELESS without serious meds on any water craft, there are times when I think that I can handle some waves and even a cocktail because I'M A TRAVEL BLOGGER, DAMN IT. (Spoiler: I cannot. I cannot handle it at all.)
I know people who think they can manage drinking untreated water because they once heard a daredevil say that you 'just get used to it'. (Tell that to your raging diarrhea). Another popular one is that you don't need malaria prevention because your body will simply adjust to mosquitoes that carry the essence of a miserable death within them. Nope, nope, nope-ity nope.
I'm not suggesting you listen to worry-wort advice or seek out environments that mimic your home and thus suggest a false sense of safety. A popular street-side food cart is gonna have far less bacteria than a staid business hotel buffet! Nor should you avoid taking risks or giving something a second or third chance. I'm saying you should know yourself, be yourself, and trust your stomach's resume. The mark of a bold, adventurous, fearless traveller is in living your best life, not in double-guessing your choice to avoid the ice cubes in a country which lacks municipal water treatment facilities all so you feel as rakish as your devil-may-care compatriots.
Beware day three
Ryan and I have had some wildly varied trips over the years but what they all have in common is that things always fall apart on day three. There's no horrible meltdowns (usually) or dramatic misery (most of the time) but somewhere around the middle of day three at least one of us is starting to show some serious cracks in our facade. We're so tired that we're literally dragging our feet. The activity we long wanted to do is now something we'd gladly bail on just so we can go rest. And we inevitably blame ourselves. There must be something wrong with us.
With a little luck, the other person clues in after an hour or two and gleefully proclaims "It's day three!" or - sometimes - "It's day four! No wonder it's so bad. This has been simmering overnight!" Just recognizing what's going on seems to help. By day three, the initial adrenaline of the trip has faded. We have spent the first two days enthusiastically exploring every inch of our destination and exhausted legs have tripled our usual step count. We're over the first blush of jet lag and have somehow convinced ourselves that we licked it in a day or two. And then day three hits and we basically want to die. We are zombies. We are miserable. We hate everyone and everything. Especially everyone.
There is no cure for the day threes. There is nothing you can do but recognize what's going on, embrace the passage of time, and be gentle with yourself. Yet, somehow, after all these years, we're still utterly astonished and befuddled when we're hit with the day threes.
I don't know if there's a lesson in here for everyone else or just us. But I think in general it points to the importance of knowing yourself and finding that balancing between pushing your boundaries and taking care of yourself.
Incidentally, you can ignore every "hack" you've ever read about jet lag. Trust me, if there was an easy cure, Ryan and I would have found it by now. There is nothing you can do but adhere to the local schedule. Drag yourself out of bed when the locals wake up. Keep yourself going all day. Force yourself to bed come nightfall. Healthy living, including light exercise, fresh air, and balanced meals, helps. And sometimes unhealthy living - a double espresso here, a double Scotch there - does too. But you really just gotta give it time.
Ditch (most) specialty gear and clothing
I love travel gear. I mean, I LOVE it. I used to get giddy every time the Magellan's catalogue hit my mail box. Travel is just one of those things in life where there are oddball nuisances you don't encounter anywhere else. As such, people sell very specific solutions. And I LOVE specific solutions. Did you know that you can buy a collapsible foot rest for added comfort if your feet don't reach the floor while seated on an airplane? GENIUS.
There's just one problem with travel-specific gear and clothing. Most of it is hogwash. That's not to say that there aren't products I know and love and use again and again and I bet you do too. And there are plenty of scenarios in which your regular clothing just isn't going to cut it. I was mighty pleased to be wearing my whisper-thin travel pants while camping in Botswana instead of my usual jeans from home. But I would have given my kingdom to have a boring ol' loose t-shirt of dubious mixed fibres with me instead of what I had brought - a travel specific, moisture wicking shirt made from organic marino wool, recycled ocean trash, and powdered moon rocks. It clung to my body and I have never sweated more. It's like it was passive aggressively making a point that it COULD wick moisture - but only if it wanted to and, when it came down to it, it could just as easily generate moisture too.
Despite my absolute adoration of travel supplies and my passion for packing (I honestly practice packing my suitcase for fun), the truth is that we never use our multi-purpose gear as intended. Zip off pants that transform into shorts? We literally forget that we can convert them - and they never fit as well as classic pants. Those fabric loops that promise to be a shawl, a tube top, and a ballgown if only you know how to twist them just so? Forget it. The cooling neck bandanas we deliberately purchased for our trip to Death Valley National Park in July and even went through the trouble of testing out at home? Didn't think of them once when we were in the Park.
Now I'm not say that there isn't an exquisite joy when you find the perfect pair of travel shoes and they're a little bit sparkly so you can use them for both casual and dressy outfits. Nor am I saying that all specialist gear is a scam. You will be miserable (at best) and in very real danger (at worst) if you don't properly prepare for a trip. I'm just pointing out that ten years of travel blogging has taught me that instead of investing in things that will make your trip "easier", know that the easiest thing of all is a lightweight pack that isn't laden down with riff-raff you don't truly need.
Incidentally, this is very much a "do as I say, not as I do" kind of lesson. I will continue my lifelong love affair with travel supply shops unhindered by this sensible, evidence-based knowledge.
Never assume there'll be food (and always carry peanut M&Ms)
As these photos prove, Ryan and I have enjoyed some incredible foodie experiences all around the world. But we've learned some tough lessons along the way. For instance, between you and me, I think it's pretty reasonable to assume that you'll eat food on a food tour. This, my friends, is categorically false. I have been on MULTIPLE food tours where there has been no food served. I've been on many more where the provided samples have equaled no more than, say, 100 calories.
My list of "why of course I'm the idiot for assuming there'd be food here" scenarios extends to include major cities (shout out to the concierge of an international hotel in Sydney who was utterly befuddled when we asked where we could get something to eat just before 10:00PM. How crazy of us to assume there were late night food options in a global metropolis!) There's also the always-delightful business meetings that take place at a restaurant, over lunchtime, but serve no food. Airports, bus stations, and train stations? Forget about it. We were also apparently foolish to anticipate that there would be food on our 14 hour flight from Sydney to San Francisco. Well, technically there WAS food, but they ran out before they got to the back of the plane where we were seated. For both meals.
Ryan gets a special mention for heroics in the no-food hall of fame. He's frequently gone without food on airlines because both meal options contain his allergen, shellfish. He's also suffered in locations that most people assume would have ample food options but the cross contamination risks were too high. (We have never, not once, had anything approaching a decent meal in that traveller's darling, Singapore's Changi Airport, because they are a cross-contamination nightmare.)
After more foodless food events than I'd like to count, I've determined that the perfect emergency travel food is peanut M&Ms. The nuts provide protein and fibre. The chocolate provides energy and comfort. The jaunty candy coating means they are never enveloped in lint. You can find them just about anywhere in the world. They are your friend.
Naturally, the inverse of this situation is also true. If you anticipate a no-food environment and eat an early lunch, you can be assured that a huge feast awaits you at noon. The universe likes to have fun like that. An equally important rule might just be to never turn down food. If people want to offer you hospitality, if they want to break bread with you, take that opportunity. Make that travel memory. Reasonable portions can await your life back home.
Always use the bathroom
If there is one 'proverb of the profession' that is true for travel writers, it's this: Always use the bathroom. Never pass by a pee break just because you don't *need* to go. Never assume you'll find something cleaner or more comfortable down the road. Never assume there'll be anything down the road.
That's it. That's the rule. Break at your peril.
Bring half the clothes and double the money
I have been at this a long time. I have been to most of the world's most expensive cities, including London, Zurich, Singapore, Paris, New York, Sydney, Dublin, and Copenhagen. I have also been to many of the most affordable travel destinations, like Malawi, Myanmar, Zambia, Turkey, and Bulgaria. I've practiced extreme frugality in some costly destinations (like the time I stayed in London's cheapest hotel room) and I've splashed out on some pricey splurges in otherwise thrifty locations (like taking hot air ballon rides in Myanmar - still the best money we've ever spent).
At the same time, I've been to destinations where extreme doesn't refer to the price so much as the conditions, destinations where you want to be as prepared and comfortable as possible. Death Valley National Park, the hottest destination in the world, in July. The top of Hawaii's Mauna Kea (which some people consider the world's tallest mountain). Australian summer one day, North American winter the next.
If there is one rule that has held true through every trip, that has applied consistently in every destination no matter how rich, poor, hot or cold, it's this, the oldest piece of travel advice in the books: Take half the clothes and twice the money.
My packing lists are things of beauty - and I still manage to return home from every single trip with something I didn't wear or use. I draft the most exquisite travel budget you'll ever see, diligently taking into account miscellaneous expenses, spontaneous spending, and fun splurges - and we never hit the mark. And you know what, pretty close is pretty darn good. If the worst thing that happens to me is that I dragged a sweater half way around the world for nothing or that there's just no such thing as an under-budget trip to Hawaii, that's okay. But I've never regretted making my pack a bit lighter or my budget a bit bigger. And neither will you.
Look for the cozy
The truth is that it doesn't matter how much I know about packing or how much wisdom I can impart about the value of sunscreen. There are no two travellers or trips that are alike and all I can do is be the most honest storyteller I can in hopes that you'll see some of yourself in me and therein glean inspiration that will make your own travel journey the best it can be. But what I can offer that applies to all people, in all situations, is to look for the cozy.
Writer and actor Isabel Gillies, author of Cozy, talks about coziness as a way of arranging yourself in the world, something that elevates the good and mellows the bad. She talks about the quiet joy that comes from a subway ride, seeing everyone in their own little worlds, the sheer number of daydreams that must exist at the same time in just one train car. She lauds the loveliness in simple objects like a quality pencil. And she identifies comfort in areas that otherwise might feel bleak, like a hospital.
Travel is the same way. If you can find something cozy in an otherwise difficult scenario - like seeing a stranger make funny faces at a toddler during an airport delay or a lovely sunset glimpsed from a dismal hotel room- your bad travel days will be very few. And if you can find the cozy, the thing that speaks to you, during travel's big, bold, beautiful moments, you'll have the makings of lifelong memories. Spotting a perfectly smooth pebble that fits snuggly in your hand as you wait to tumble into the hot air balloon basket. Complimenting a waitress on her scarf and learning it was a birthday gift. That unspoken understanding when two girls from two different cultures catch one another's eyes and instantly communicate, a slight tip of the chin or twist of the eyebrow conveying everything from "you okay?" to "look at that dude, thinking he's all that". These are the travel moments you'll remember long after the details of your tour, your ride, your exquisite meal all fade.
Look for the cozy. It's just waiting for you around the next bend.
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