May 10

6 Travel Tips

We love to travel. I’m no expert but over the years I’ve learned a few tricks for getting the most out of my vacations and how not to end up in tourist traps. I know not everyone has the same priorities, but here are some lessons I’ve learned:

1. Always involve bikes, boats, or even scooters.
You see things in a different way when you use different modes of transportation, especially renting bikes for the day. I’ve never regretted it. Also boats! Once we were on a trip to Mexico and it was going so-so until we rented a catamaran and skipper for the day. They took us everywhere and showed us the best snorkeling spots–it was fantastic.

2. Look for “awesome” touristy and avoid “bad” touristy.
For example riding the Cable Car in San Francisco is touristy but its awesome touristy, it feels authentic. An example of “bad touristy” is Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. There are three “authentic” things to do there and everything else is contrived and a tourist trap. I always recommend that people get their crab/clam chowder from a street vendor, see the sea lions, play the penny arcade then get out.

3. Be strategic when planning your visit to popular sites.
I really enjoy doing some touristy things but I try to do them when crowds are low. Getting sucked into waiting in line all day can really ruin your trip (or at least that day.) One solution is to limit your time. For example I always tell people to go to the Louvre first thing in the morning (buy tickets in advance). See the biggies: Mona Lisa, Winged Victory etc. spend a little time strolling so you see just how big it is then get out–2 hours tops.

4. At museums ALWAYS get the headphones.
It’s easy to start feeling like a thrifty person if you just paid the entrance fee and now they are trying to gouge you with a headphone fee. Just pay it. The commentary gives you context for the art and for me, changes my museum experience 100%.

5. Err on the side of small
Travel is an industry. People are trying to make money off you, which isn’t a bad thing. But they are going to want to offer things to you on a large scale in order to make a profit. Most of the time the quality of things go down significantly when you get included with the masses. My friend Michelle recently compared a Royal Caribbean cruise she went on where she felt like “cattle” to a small cruise with 200 people around Tahiti. She felt connected to the people and the food was great. When traveling smaller usually means better quality.

6. Consider your Hobbies
If you aren’t a “museum person” don’t spend all day at museums just because thats what you feel you should do. A trip to a good ribbon store or party supply store leaves me so inspired. I always try to seek out stores that feed my interests. Its a great way to discover neighborhoods you wouldn’t normally go to and sometimes becomes my favorite part of the trip.

I’d love to hear if you have any tips on traveling. Any secret tips when you travel? Do you plan out every detail or do you like to be more flexible with your travel plans?

A Holga picture from our 2008 trip to Brazil.

46 Comments

  • Anonymous says:

    I agree with the recommendation on getting the audio guide, and to that I'll add another tip: if you're in company, bring a headphone jack splitter and a spare set of headphones so you can listen to the commentary together.

  • bmayer says:

    I also agree on the audio tours….you get so much more information than just wandering around not knowing what you are really looking at. My other tip is to stay at B&B's, if you can. They are not necessarily the bargains they used to be, but the "innkeepers" know a lot about the local areas and do their best to make sure you have a good time. You arent in a "stock" hotel room you see everywhere, and you usually meet other interesting travelers.

  • catherine says:

    The tip to avoid 'bad touristy' things is great (and we happened to make a trip to SF and did the Cable Car ride and Museum, but decided to avoid Fisherman's Wharf).

    I have a few tips to add, specifically for families traveling with a toddler who has food allergies (my son is allergic to eggs and so sensitive to the protein that even cross contamination is serious issue).

    All my tips are on posted here:
    http://sweetspectacle.blogspot.com/2011/03/ready-set-go.html

  • The New Diplomat's Wife says:

    When going to the Louvre, always make sure you take the entrance direct from the metro, as opposed to the main door. Hardly ever a line that way. You can circle back to the main door for the view and pictures (and to giggle at the line) when you're done with the visit.

  • Giulia Doyle says:

    Great post! I love to hear tips from other people. On point 4, if you have an iPad or iTouch there are some great apps for museums that can help you on your tour. Some are also specific to kids which can make your experience great.
    Ah, you make me want to rent your place for the summer, I lived on Rue St.Dominique and I went to school on Rue Grenelle and Ave. Bosquet.

  • Noodles and Waffles says:

    I travel with calling cards that include our contact information (names, email, state, country) to hand out to people we meet during our adventures. It's nicer than having people scribble it on a scrap of paper.

  • Steph says:

    I've been loving your blog lately! I am going to Italy and Paris late June/early July and have been struggling with the "planning" – typically I research things to death in fear of missing something but I also want to work on going with the flow. I think this trip with be a mix of both. Great tip about the Lourve. I've read that it is open until 10pm on Fridays – do you recommend that or stick with early morning? Thanks!

  • Meghan says:

    While attending the Picasso exhibit in Richmond, VA this spring, I had about 20 minutes to kill before our timed entrance. I ended up on my smartphone, and went to the museum's website, where I stumbled on to a transcript of the ENTIRE audio tour. You're right, I definitely got WAY more out of my visit, but I also managed to cheap out of the rental fee. (Score!) The tour on the web page was slightly out of order from the actual layout, but it wasn't too bad to scroll around. One tip: I loaded the tour transcript upstairs, but the actual exhibit was in the basement where there wasn't any cell reception. So this might be something to have pre-loaded on your phone.

  • Deidra says:

    I make a list of the non-negotiable things I want to see, places I want to eat and shops I want to visit. Then I make sure I hit them on the right day (especially important in Europe). Then I leave lots of time for serendipity to happen. Often, those are my moments of the whole trip.

  • jo says:

    I agree with the headphone jack splitter too. We brought our ipod, an arm carrier thing, a jack splitter, and then downloaded free audio guides by Rick Steves. We saved money and got fabulous tours. So worth it!

  • Katie says:

    For me, it is SO SO SO important to research and find good places to eat…at least in the US.

    I hate being on a trip and having to eat somewhere crappy because the group is hungry and applebees (my personal hell) is the first place we see.

    Smart phones have REALLY helped on this.

  • chelse says:

    My husband and I are either planning a backpacking trip across Europe or a trip through Thailand and Cambodia. We would be really interested in renting out your place, but would probably only stay a week. Let me know if this is something you would be interested in.

  • Lisette says:

    I just got back from French Polynesia and I would recommend visiting the local grocery stores not only for healthy on the go food, but for people watching.

    http://lisetteandcameron.blogspot.com/2011/05/getting-away-from-it-all-one-shade-of.html

  • -Maria- says:

    ooh i love travel guides like this- i agree on all your tips. love the bike advice, going to add that into my travels in the future!

  • Becca says:

    You can access many audio tours on smart phones and avoid the extra fees! Most art museums (even smaller ones) are now getting savvy to this and offer some type of app or podcast to accompany your museum stroll. Visiting museum websites beforehand is a good idea regardless–there's so much good info and ideas for involving the kiddos (and help them love it, too!)

  • michelle says:

    Don't be afraid to interact with strangers – make friends with locals and other tourists. Share a table at a coffee shop or bar, offer to buy someone a drink, etc. Instead of asking what someone does, ask them about their family. I have such great memories from unique conversations with people on trips.

    Also, use use use Google Maps. Transportation advice, they let you make and save customizable maps so you can save your lodging, things to do/see, places to eat/shop, etc. Love.

    And use Flickr or Google Images to see a place you are considering to visit. You can also search to see what it looks like in the month you are traveling: so helpful!

  • Heather says:

    I always love going off the beaten path. I usually find that the first day or two of a vacation, we overpay, and over-extend until we get the lay of the land (so to speak!)

  • CAMILLE STYLES says:

    Great point on "bikes, boats, scooters" – I'll never forget renting atv's on the last day of our trip to Santorini, and cruising the whole island. It was the highlight – and we finally got to see a great view of the famous sunsets that the island is know for.

  • Lisa Michelle Cifuentes says:

    Great tips! I also love doing alternative transportation in other cities. We rented bikes in Copenhagen and it added so much more to the experience.

  • Todayisasunnyday says:

    Loved post.Especially headphone in museum thing.I totally perfectly agree with you!

  • Sarah Bradley says:

    Great, great tips! I'm going to print this out and take it on our next vacation!

  • Margaret says:

    Completely agree with the point about renting bikes/boats/scooters! Everytime we have done that, it's been the best day of our entire trip!

  • Anonymous says:

    I completely agree with not spending too much time at museums. If you do go to them, however, make sure to show your student ID if you have one. Most places offer huge discounts for students, I got into the Louvre for free when I showed it there.

  • Gaby [The Vault Files] says:

    Excellent tips! I also like to get around by foot or bikes or boats, you get to experience the city better. Always good to have your camera (fully charged), comfortable shoes (don't want to miss out due to sore feet) and I always have some sort of snacks in my bag (almonds, cereal bars) just in case (I'm vegetarian).
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  • Naomi says:

    Ah, love hearing different perspectives on travel. Though it's simple, I suggest always having a water bottle on hand. Being dehydrated seriously dampens a day, and most touristy spots will charge egregious amounts for a drink. My Nalgene has become my BFF while living in and exploring DC.

  • Sof says:

    Great post! Thanks =)

    A couple to add:

    1) Bring a small container of hand soap, and TP. I've been in too many travel situations where the public washroom didn't have any. Part of learning how to enjoy travelling for me, has been learning to embrace the public washroom.

    2) Don't forget to take time to just sit down and absorb your surroundings. In a day full of plans and a go-go-go schedule, its really nice to just relax.

    3) Watch Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations episode about the destination you are travelling to. There are so many great tips and insights in a 1h episode (mostly related to food, of course).

  • Amanda says:

    • When in Europe I recommend an overnight train trip on a sleeper car.
    • Carry a purse instead of a backpack to look less like a tourist.
    • Go back to your hotel in the afternoons for a quick nap so you can sightsee long into the evenings.
    • Take time to sit and people watch.
    • An open air bus ride is a great way to get your bearings and discover places that you want to investigate later on.

    That's all I can think of! All my international travels were pre-iphone so I don't have any technical suggestions. Although I did carry around a little tape recorder and have some AMAZING audio – including an accordion performance in the paris metro.

  • Anonymous says:

    Thanks for the travel tips! I will keep these in mind. Check out my tips also for solo traveling!

    http://81chapters.com/2011/04/02/a-guide-to-solo-trippin-on-a-tropical-island/

    -kelly
    81chapters.com

  • Kristina L says:

    Great ideas! My favorite travel tip is to avoid peak tourist seasons. My husband and I took a Nova Scotia honeymoon last May. The tourist season hadn't quite started, but most places had already opened. We had everything to ourselves, from restaurants to hiking trails to art galleries. The temperature was still a little cool (mid 60s), which is probably why travelers weren't coming yet. But we didn't mind…it was perfect weather for hiking.

    I also really like tripadvisor.com for honest "real life" destination tips and ratings.

  • lindsay marie says:

    Who doesn't love to travel right?! :) My first traveling experience was living in Italy with a widow in a little town on the riviera and I am grateful to have just soaked everything in. I would just enjoy sitting at the train station looking at the flowers + people and eating an ice cream in the hot sun. I would avoid running around trying to do too much. SLOW DOWN and enjoy it.

  • AmberLee says:

    pure genius. love your lists.
    am thinking of printing out your grad/college advice i saw long ago for my little sis.

  • cassidy says:

    I agree with these tips wholeheartedly! San Francisco is one of our favorite cities to visit. We usually drive, but we arrived via ferry the last time we visited and it made the trip magical. I only wish we could have biked around the city.

  • Alecia @ Hoobing Family Adventures says:

    Great tips! I so wish we could rent your flat. That would be amazing!

  • hello. says:

    if our family is traveling somewhere we usually like to search out someone local who can give us suggestions (and inside tips) about visiting the local, 'non-toursity' sights. we travel with our kids, and for us it's alloting time so that everyone gets to do at least on thing they want to do. and not overscheduling~ leaving time open to do things on a whim.

  • findingmagnolia says:

    These are such great tips, and I've loved reading all the additional info in the comments. I'd also encourage people to go where they want depending on what they want out of the trip. My husband is a little less adventurous than I am, so if I want to do something new and thrilling, I plan to go with a friend or on my own. For trips we take together, we have been going to the same place every year. We rent an apartment in the Old Town of Nice and visit one new spot on the Riviera each time. I know that people think it's strange for us to go to the same place every year, but we feel that we can really relax that way, and there's plenty in the region to keep us seeing new things every single year until we retire. As we grow our family, it gets more exciting; we can't wait to show our daughter all our favorite spots.

  • Janete Pimenta says:

    Hello, my name is Janet Pepper, I am also an architect and I work as a decorator of events, especially weddings.
    Always follow your blog, but do not leave messages, but seeing this beautiful post talking about my city (though now I live in São Paulo) and I was so happy I got the courage to write.
    It's great to see our country being said, remember, despite all the bad things that only come out about it in the world.
    And as we love … see this marriage marriage that ran in January 2009.
    The bride and groom's Brazilian Canadian.
    The image of the beautiful ceremony overlooking the Sugar Loaf.
    http://pepperwedding.blogspot.com/2009_02_01_archive.html

    I hope you enjoy seeing a little of how marriages are performed here

    kisses
    Janet

  • Miss B says:

    I always always scour the internet for cafe/bakery/restaurant/market recommendations in out-of-the-way neighborhoods or whatever, wherever I'm going, and then have a whole list of them that I mark on the map when I get there, so it's easy to find somewhere pleasant to sit and have a coffee or a snack for awhile without ending up in some touristy hole because it's been all afternoon and I have to eat something now! (I never get the headphones in museums — I like my museum experience to be solitary and not involve anyone yammering in my ear. But that's just me.) I also hate having a set agenda. I come up with lists of places I might be interested in, and then get to them, or not. The most important part, for me, is having plenty of time to just do nothing at all. Just wander aimlessly for hours and have coffee and cake three times in a single day if I feel like it, or take a nap on a park bench, or browse market stalls and little shops, or whatever. Big reason why I only travel alone — I don't like having other people's agendas getting in my way.

  • Paris bound says:

    Question – I'm planning a trip to Paris & haven't been to europe since the early 2000s when smartphones/ipads, etc. didn't exist. Do those work abroad? Do you need to do anything ahead of time?

  • hemborgwife says:

    When I did my backpacking through Europe I really enjoyed my time because I did not have every minute planned. I met so many travelers with mile long list and then they were filled with regret when they did not get to x,y,z. Since I was not worried so much about it I was able to appreciate what I saw without knowing what I was missing.

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