I have recently posted a teaser on stepping out of the comfort of the place you come from and setting a foot to wander the world. Here is my learning on what happens when you actually do.
Credit card, passport, phone. You will probably forget something somewhere. And most likely, more than once. As practice has it, any travel gap can be covered by a credit card, passport and a phone or a combination of the three. So make sure you hold on to these fundamentals. Everything else is replaceable. It is still useful to pack as few valuable as possible (and in some case, like when travelling to Brazil, to avoid taking any at all), to lock the few you take with you in a safe and to check the room before leaving the hotel for good. Knowing what is enough though will save you a lot of time (and peace of mind) when packing.
Follow your (photo) hunch. Places make first impressions, too. And these first impressions matter. So take pictures of whatever catches your eye. The palm trees will become a usual part of the scenery after a few days on an island, the magic of the Mediterranean sunsets will fade away after a few nights, so keep the memories of the things as you first see them. And remember: imperfect photo is better than no photo at all. In a few months, you might find things that you hated in this picture less dramatic. In a few years, they might become a source of a great story.
Some of the best travel memories happen at 6 am. I learnt it the hard way: waking up that early is the last thing I want to do on vacation. And it can be oh so worth it. My trip to Iguazu falls would never be even nearly as amazing without a 6 am plunge into the smooth surface of the swimming pool followed by the breakfast in the sunrise rays (and a walk to the falls in the only company of coati). One of my best pictures from Rio is its sunrise, which Louveteau and I captured on our last day in Latam when we could finally catch the sun after several days of clouds at the dawn.
Go off piste. Choose destinations outside of the mass tourism. Some of my most precious travel memories come from the lake Bled in Slovenia, Plitvicka Jezera in Croatia, Iguazu Falls at the border of Brazil and Argentina and, of course, from South Korea. Unlike most travel places, I don’t know what to think about these before I get there (sometime I don’t even know they exist), and it is a refreshing experience. I have many friends, and my many friends like to travel, so when it happens that I get somewhere for the first time, I already have a mental check list of things to do and the impressions to have. It is great to explore on your own (and to explode Instagram by amazing shots with exotic tags). So go on, wander. Even when you go to a popular place, check what’s worth seeing around. Same goes for how you travel: grow your travel experience by staying in places outside of booking.com (or favorite hotel chains). For example, gite de france in France and homeaway anywhere can offer a great alternative. Rent a car instead of a train, explore the territory of a chateau on a bike: even usual destinations can shine and sparkle if you put some imagination at play.
Don’t pass on the most famous things. When you do go to the popular destinations (after all, they are popular for a reason), do the right thing. You don’t want to come back from Rio without seeing Christ the Redeemer and to get to Morocco without checking out the desert. Chances are, you won’t get back to these places for a long time (there are so many blind spots on the map to color). One thing you don’t want to have after your travel is regrets.
Start a collection. Moments (and pictures) make the absolute best collectibles. Second, for me, are Starbucks mugs. I was changing cities of residences all too often to collect something meaningful, so these mugs were pretty much the only thing I could afford to take with me (or so I thought). I started, quiet predictably, from Paris and France and then was getting a mug from every new city and country. I would throw brunches, invite friends, and we would all sit (many on the floor), drink coffee from these mugs and tell our travel stories. The mugs collection took off, and soon my friends were bringing me their contributions from the most exotic places. Some of them, like Curaçao and Sabah, I have never even heard of before I got a mug.
Be smart about being loyal. I am talking airlines and hotel chains here. In my view, the best loyalty programs are Air France KLM for airlines and SPG for hotels. A case in point. I have been travelling for the sake of travel (and also for soul-searching, fun and some family arrangements) for the last ten years. Since March 2013, I have added an almost weekly work travel component to that. Until 2015, I had no particular status with any airlines or hotel chains, even though I was diligently flying Lufthansa and booking Marriott (it was the first hotel I stayed for business and apparently this fact had some sentimental value to me). In 2015, I moved to Paris and now I am Gold with Air France and with SPG (I am finally Silver with Marriott but the ship of emotional connection has sailed after they did not return the diamond pendant I left there. Yes, I know what you think, but Westin Warsaw did return it!). What it gives me is free flights, free nights and all kinds of intermediary solutions to partly pay for my trip with award points. A year after actively starting flying with AF, I bought my return ticket to Rio with miles. Louveteau and I save plenty this way. (Best kept SPG secret: people with the same address in their SPG account can transfer award miles between them.)
“Now more than ever do I realize that I will never be content with a sedentary life, that I will always be haunted by thoughts of a sun-drenched elsewhere.”
― Isabelle Eberhardt,
Find like-minded people and follow their advice. Of course, there is Google (Yandex, Bing and whatever search engine the Chinese are using). There are branded travel guides, blogs, travel TV channels, forums, magazines and ads at the airport. There is a hotel concierge, a taxi driver and lots of other valuable sources of information. I have learnt about Iguazu from one of my best friends (who learnt, in turn, from the Embassy of Brazil). A super cool colleague (yes, that happens in tech) has recommended me a hostel in Rio for a breath taking city view (and also so that I could see a hostel with my own eyes). Experiences like that make your trip really personal and add a touch of people from your inner circle to the places you visit. It is like finding a present left for you on arrival.
In New York Times I trust. I absolutely love New York Times. I consider it the finest example of journalism the English speaking world has ever seen and eagerly read all their material I can get my hands on, including articles on understanding your dogs (I am a devoted cat person with no pets at the moment). Whenever I travel somewhere for the first time, I check NY Times “36 hours” in the city of my destination. Their book “36 hours in Europe” is my Travel Bible. It lists must sees together with hidden gems and state of the art restaurants (of all price categories). It was thanks to NY Times that I discovered La Azotea in Seville, one of my favorite restaurants in the world (we ate there 4 times during 3 days in the city, if it is a good indicator). In Buenos Aires, getting desperate to taste some normal food (read fish) on my second week in Brazil and Argentina, NY Times led me to discover (and fall in love with Peru) a ceviche paradise La Mar. There are, of course, flops. Restaurant Rosso in Zurich, for example, advertised as “the finest thin-crust pizza”, turned out to be a pretty dodgy (description that can be stretched to the service as well as the setup) and impossible to locate place. Impressive waiting list and an equally impressive price tags were the only distinguished things about it (Palavrion Grill & Bar in downtown Zurich serves a way better thin-crust pizza).
If you want to get to know it, walk it. There is no way of getting to know a city better than walking its streets. So take a hotel map, download one on your phone or go wild on roaming, make your own itinerary of the city sights – and go. I usually top it with a cup of coffee (or a bottle of water, for heated places), a camera and a pair of sunglasses. And, of course, an adventurous spirit.
The best way to explore some places is to get lost there. The previous tip is not applicable to some of the places. Think Venice. Its streets, alleys, courtyards and impasses were created before the maps. Now their swirling labyrinth is calling you to explore. So go on, wander. Not only you will learn the city’s best kept secrets but also one of the great things about travelling: navigating without GPS sometimes takes you to the best places.
Watch what the locals do and give it a try. You don’t know the place until you know its people (and its food, but this one you should have already figured out). One of the best ways to get to know the locals is to engage in some typical local activities. Find a non-touristic tango show in Buenos Aires. Do quad in a desert. Discover where the Parisians get their oysters, sprinkle the sleazy thing with the vinegar and swallow it. Make your own shabu-shabu and hike the mountains like a real Korean. Sing frivolous songs celebrating Midsummer in the Nordics. One of the most beautiful things about travelling is discovering new things about yourself. The more you try, the more you learn.
Fun is an attitude, not a circumstance. I am writing this post on my way back from Nice, where Louveteau and I escaped for a weekend from Parisian rain in a hope to find sun and to finally plunge into the sea. What we found instead was, of course, rain, freezing water that made me stock on Humex and, best of all, Iron Man cheering tunes from as early as 6 am (and it was not the case of best travel memories happening at this hour). Did we get what we wanted? No (sun and sea in Nice in June, too much to ask?). Did we have fun? Oh yeah. We discovered great food places, planned our next big trip and organized a seagull feeding photo session on our amazing terrace overlooking the city. And yes, Louveteau is the best travel company but I also had fun (heaps of it!) in Finland: it was there that I discovered my love for travel. (I resorted to studying French in Helsinki when all the options were exercised). I had fun in Munich, the least hospitable city of all I lived in: I remembered how to drive a car, drove it plenty across Europe and took up snowboarding. It’s the attitude that makes the day (not to say that we did not bitch about the Iron Man).
Fall for a tourist trap from time to time. And do it with gusto. Enjoy a crêpe with a view on the Eiffel Tower. Shop on the 5th avenue. Take a gondola in Venice. There is a reason those things are on everyone’s travel list. Are they overpriced? Most likely. Are they worth it? Oh yeah. Just make sure that tourist guilty pleasures make up for no more than 20% of your travel experience. You want to indulge, not to end up feeling taken advantage of.
One of the key elements of a great journey is a company. There is nothing like shared travel experience, with its joys, sadness and awkward moments to suffer through, remember and laugh about years after. Most of the 37 countries on my list I remember because of the common jokes, happy photos and stories we told each other swinging wine glasses in the air. However, sometimes the best company is your own. Every city of my residence I have come to discover alone: getting to know it, used to it, making it mine. This for me was the way to make it work, to feel myself at home.
Living and visiting is not the same. Life in the city of your dreams is not exactly a postcard (or a movie). Living in Paris won’t necessarily mean casually strolling through Champs Elysées after work, admiring the Eiffel Tower every other day and enjoying a glass or rosé at the terrace (though it could). Most likely it would be some kind of mix of fighting your way through the rush hour at the metro, lining up at Monoprix and taking a day off to visit some public institution open four hours a day (including lunch break).
Yes, there is no place like home. And once you traveled to all these places, lived in a few and flew many times around the world, it is up to you where to make it.